The film brought director Michael Lehmann and producer Denise Di Novi the 1990 Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature. Daniel Waters also gained recognition for his screenplay, which won a 1990 Edgar Award. Despite high critical praise, the film was not a big hit in the box office but went on to become a cult film, with high rentals and sales business. In 2015, it was ranked number 5 on the Entertainment Weekly list of the "50 Best High School Movies". It was ranked number 412 on Empire's list of "The 500 Greatest Movies of All Time".
The film has been adapted into a musical and a 2018 television series is currently in production.
Veronica Sawyer is one of the most popular girls at Westerburg High School in Sherwood, Ohio. In addition to Veronica, the popular clique consists of three wealthy and beautiful girls with the same first name: Heather Chandler, Heather Duke, and Heather McNamara. Though they are the most popular students, the Heathers are feared and hated. Veronica has had enough of their behavior and longs to return to her old life and her "nerdy" friends.
When a new student, a rebellious outsider named Jason "J.D." Dean pulls a gun on jocks Kurt Kelly and Ram Sweeney, who were trying to bully him, and fires blanks at them, Veronica finds herself fascinated with him. When Veronica attends a frat party with Heather Chandler, but refuses to have sex with a frat brother and throws up, Heather vows to destroy her reputation. J.D. shows up at Veronica's house and they end up having sex outside, after which Veronica tells J.D. she wants to make Heather puke her guts out. The next morning, Veronica and J.D. break into Heather's house. J.D. serves Heather a liquid he claims is a hangover cure but is actually drain cleaner, killing her. J.D. urges Veronica to forge a dramatic suicide note in Heather's handwriting.
The school and community look on Heather's apparent suicide as a tragic decision made by a popular but ostensibly troubled teenager. Heather Duke soon steps into Heather Chandler's former role as clique leader and begins wearing a red scrunchie that had belonged to Chandler.
Several days later, Kurt and Ram spread a false rumor about Veronica giving them oral sex, ruining her reputation. J.D. proposes that Veronica lure them into the woods with the promise to "make the rumors true," then shoot them with nonfatal "Ich Luge" bullets (from German, it translates to "I'm lying"). J.D. shoots and kills Ram but Veronica misses Kurt, who runs away. Veronica realizes the bullets are real; J.D. chases Kurt back towards Veronica, who panics and fatally shoots him. J.D. plants "gay" materials beside the boys, and a suicide note stating the two were lovers participating in a suicide pact. At their funeral, the boys are made into martyrs against homophobia. Although she keeps dating J.D., Veronica is increasingly disturbed by his behavior.
Martha Dunnstock, an obese student known as "Martha Dumptruck", pins a suicide note to her chest and walks into traffic. She survives, but is badly injured and mocked for trying to "act like the popular kids." Heather McNamara calls a popular radio show one night while Veronica and Heather Duke are listening and talks of depression in her life; the next day, Heather Duke tells the entire school about Heather McNamara's radio call. McNamara attempts to take her life by overdosing on pills in the girls' bathroom but is saved by Veronica.
Veronica tells J.D. that she will not participate in any more killings. He climbs into her room with a revolver to kill her, but Veronica has used a harness to make it look like she has hanged herself. Assuming she is dead, he rambles about his plan to blow up the school during a pep rally. A petition he has been circulating to get the band Big Fun to perform on campus, which most of the students have signed, is actually a mass suicide note.
Veronica confronts J.D. in the boiler room, where he is rigging explosives. She shoots him when he refuses to stop the bomb. As J.D. collapses, he stabs the timer and it stops. Veronica walks out through the pep rally with everyone cheering. The severely injured J.D. follows her outside with a bomb strapped to his chest, offers a personal eulogy, and detonates the bomb.
Veronica confronts Heather Duke, takes the red scrunchie, says "Heather my love, there's a new sheriff in town," and invites Martha Dunnstock to hang out on prom night and watch movies with her. Martha and Veronica walk down the hallway while Heather Duke watches.
Daniel Waters wanted his screenplay to go to director Stanley Kubrick, not only out of profound admiration for Kubrick but also from a perception that "Kubrick was the only person that could get away with a three-hour film". (The cafeteria scene opening Heathers was written as an homage to the barracks scene opening Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket.) After a number of failed attempts to get the script to Kubrick made Waters realize the futility of the enterprise, he decided to give the script to Michael Lehmann, who then took it on with Denise Di Novi.
Many actors and actresses turned down the project because of its dark subject matter. Early choices for Veronica and J.D. were Jennifer Connelly, who turned down the role, Justine Bateman and Brad Pitt. Pitt auditioned for the role of J.D. but the filmmakers rejected him because they thought he came across as "too nice" and therefore would not be credible. Winona Ryder, who was sixteen at the time of filming and badly wanted the part, begged Waters to cast her. Eventually she was given the role with Christian Slater being signed shortly thereafter. Heather Graham, then seventeen, was offered the part of Heather Chandler but turned it down. Kim Walker, who was dating Slater at the time, was offered the role instead. Graham was then cast as Heather McNamara, but her mother wouldn't allow her to accept the role, so Lisanne Falk was given the role instead.
Principal photography took place over 32 days in July and August 1988.
The film uses two versions of the song "Que Sera, Sera", the first by singer Syd Straw and another over the end credits by Sly and the Family Stone. On the film's DVD commentary, Di Novi mentions that the filmmakers wanted to use the original Doris Day version of the song, but Day would not lend her name to any project using profanity.
The song "Teenage Suicide (Don't Do It)" by the fictional band Big Fun was written and produced for the film by musician Don Dixon, and performed by the ad hoc group "Big Fun", which consisted of Dixon, Mitch Easter, Angie Carlson and Marti Jones. The song is included on Dixon's 1992 greatest hits album (If) I'm A Ham, Well You're A Sausage.
The film's electronic score was composed and performed by David Newman and a soundtrack CD was subsequently released.
The film was a commercial failure before becoming a cult classic. It earned $177,247 in its opening weekend and, over five weeks, grossed $1,108,462 domestically.
The film was acclaimed by critics and audiences. The review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes reported that 95% of critics gave the film a positive review based on a sample of 43 reviews with a rating of 7.8 out of 10. The site's critical consensus reads: "Dark, cynical, and subversive, Heathers gently applies a chainsaw to the conventions of the high school movie -- changing the game for teen comedies to follow." At the website Metacritic, the film earned a favorable rating of 73/100 based on 19 reviews by mainstream critics.
Academics have likened Heathers to other films popular during the 1980s and early nineties which characterized domestic youth narratives as part and parcel of the "culture war." According to Clare Connors, Heathers reveals that conflict as arising within the heart of the American high school:
"On one hand, the high school serves as an icon of American democracy and longing for social justice and equality, one place in American life where every young citizen can access equal opportunity and upward mobility. On the other hand, the cultural life of high school operates as the central training ground in the ruthlessly competitive values and viciously hierarchical social structure of American capitalism. Through a series of homologies, Westerberg High School becomes a metaphor for American life and culture during the Reagan and George Herbert Bush administrations. The conflict between democratic values and the social brutalities of 1980s consumer culture resides not just at the heart of the high school experience, but at the heart of 1980s American life."
According to Christine Hubbard, this conflict often leads to minimal resolution, as "teens don’t really want to change the world, they just want to feel that they had some say in its construction ... Heathers ends with Veronica’s establishment, not of a school social structure devoid of hierarchy, but of a kinder, gentler monarchy with the protagonist in charge."
Desson Thomson of the Washington Post wrote, "Wickedly funny. In fact, Heathers may be the nastiest, cruelest fun you can have without actually having to study law or gird leather products. If movies were food, Heathers would be a cynic's chocolate binge." Roger Ebert gave the film 2.5 stars out of 4 and wrote that the film "...is a morbid comedy about peer pressure in high school, about teenage suicide and about the deadliness of cliques that not only exclude but also maim and kill."
Some reviewers have discussed similarities between Heathers and Massacre at Central High, a low-budget 1976 film. Heathers screenwriter Daniel Waters has stated that he had not seen Massacre at Central High at the time he wrote Heathers, but that he had read a review of it in Danny Peary's book Cult Movies, and that the earlier film may have been "rattling around somewhere in my subconscious".
Heathers was first released onto VHS in 1989, where it received strong sales and rentals, and is where it first became well known after being unsuccessful at the box office. It was released again on Laserdisc on September 16, 1996 with restored stereo sound. This widescreen edition was digitally transferred from Trans Atlantic Pictures interpositive print under the supervision of cinematographer Francis Kenny. The sound was mastered from the magnetic sound elements. The film was first released onto DVD on March 30, 1999, in a bare-bones edition.
In 2001, a multi-region special edition DVD was released from Anchor Bay Entertainment in Dolby Digital 5.1. The DVD was released in the United States, Canada, Australia, and Europe to high sales. In 2004, a limited edition DVD set was released, and only 15,000 were produced. The set contained an audio commentary with director Michael Lehmann, producer Denise Di Novi and writer Daniel Waters, a 30-minute documentary titled Swatch Dogs and Diet Cokeheads, featuring interviews with Ryder, Slater, Doherty, Falk, Lehmann, Waters, Di Novi, Director of Photography Francis Kenny and Editor Norman Hollyn. It also includes a theatrical trailer, screenplay excerpt, original ending, biographies, 10-page full-color fold-out with photos and liner notes, an 8 cm "Heathers Rules!" ruler, and a 48-page full-color "yearbook style" booklet with rare photos.
On July 1, 2008, a new 20th anniversary special edition DVD set was released from Anchor Bay to coincide with the DVD of writer Waters' new film Sex and Death 101. The DVD features a new documentary, Return to Westerburg High. On November 18, 2008, Anchor Bay released a Blu-ray with all the special features from the 20th Anniversary DVD and a soundtrack in Dolby TrueHD 5.1.
On June 2, 2009, Entertainment Weekly reported that Ryder had claimed that there would be a sequel to Heathers with Slater coming back "as a kind of Obi-Wan character". However, Lehmann denied development of a sequel, saying "Winona's been talking about this for years — she brings it up every once in a while and Dan Waters and I will joke about it, but as far as I know there's no script and no plans to do the sequel."
In August 2009, Sony Pictures Television announced that Heathers was to be adapted for television to air on Fox. Mark Rizzo was hired to write the series, and Jenny Bicks was to co-produce with Lakeshore Entertainment. The program was described as a modernized version of the original story, and all characters from the film were expected to be scripted into the adaptation.
On September 12, 2012, it was announced that the television network Bravo would begin developing a Heathers reboot unrelated to the earlier announcement by Sony Pictures Television. The storyline was to pick up twenty years after the events of the film when Veronica returns home to Sherwood, Ohio with her teenage daughter, who had to contend with the next generation of mean girls, all named "Ashley". They were to all be the daughters of the two surviving Heathers. Neither Ryder nor Slater were attached to the project. However, in August 2013, Bravo declined to order the series.
In March 2016, TV Land ordered the series as an anthology dark comedy series set in the present day, with Veronica Sawyer who will be dealing with a very different but equally vicious group of Heathers. The series will be written by Jason Micallef and Tom Rosenberg, and Gary Lucchesi will executive produce for Lakeshore Entertainment. In January 2017 the Heathers Anthology was ordered to Series at TV Land. Original star Shannen Doherty guest stars in the pilot.
In March 2017, it was reported that the series was moved to Paramount Network. Selma Blair has a recurring role in the series. A trailer for the rebooted series was released in August 2017. The series will star Grace Victoria Cox as Veronica Sawyer, James Scully as J.D., Melanie Field as Heather Chandler, Brendan Scannell as Heather Duke, and Jasmine Mathews as Heather McNamara.
In 2010 Heathers was adapted into a stage musical directed by Andy Fickman. Fickman also worked on the musical Reefer Madness, a parody of the anti-cannabis film of the same name which was turned into a feature film on Showtime. The Heathers musical, which opens with a number depicting Veronica's acceptance into the Heathers' clique, received several readings in workshops in Los Angeles and a three-show concert presentation at Joe's Pub in New York City on September 13–14, 2010. The cast of the Joe's Pub concert included Annaleigh Ashford as Veronica, Jenna Leigh Green as Heather Chandler, and Jeremy Jordan as J.D.
The musical played at off-Broadway’s New World Stages with performances beginning March 15, 2014 and an opening night on March 31. The original cast of the Off-Broadway production included Barrett Wilbert Weed as Veronica Sawyer, Jessica Keenan Wynn as Heather Chandler, Ryan McCartan as JD, Alice Lee as Heather Duke, and Elle McLemore as Heather McNamara. It closed on August 4, 2014.