It was the second part of what the director's fans later dubbed "The Blood Trilogy", a trio of films starting with 1963's Blood Feast and ending with 1965's Color Me Blood Red. The film has been noted by critics as an early example of Southern caricature in grindhouse films, as well as for its sensationalizing of national perceptions between the North and South. The film was remade in 2005 as 2001 Maniacs. The story of the film was inspired by the 1947 Lerner and Loewe musical Brigadoon.
Six Yankee tourists (married couples John and Bea Miller and David and Beverly Wells, plus the unmarried couple Tom White and Terry Adams) are lured via detour signs placed in the road into the fictional small Southern town of Pleasant Valley by "redneck" citizens, to be the "guests of honor" for the April 1965 centennial celebration of the two days where Union troops destroyed the town at the end of the Civil War. The three couples meet the town mayor, Joseph Buckman, and his right-hand men Rufus and Lester, as well as shop owner Harper and his girlfriend Betsy. The tourists are initially treated with hospitality and given rooms to stay in the local hotel. However that afternoon, after an argument with her husband, Bea goes off with Harper to a wooded area, where he shows off his pocket knife, but then slices off her right thumb. Harper takes Bea to Mayor Buckman's office where she is accosted by Rufus and Lester, who hold her down on a table and dismember her alive with an axe.
Meanwhile, Tom tries to explain to Terry that something strange is going on with the town. Tom attempts to contact outside help, but cannot get through. He tries using a local payphone, telling a friend where he is staying; unbeknownst to Tom, the person on the other line is Mayor Buckman.
That evening, Bea's dismembered limbs are roasted over a barbecue with the townspeople in attendance. Wandering away from the gathering, Tom and Terry discover a park plaque describing the "blood centennial" celebration in which they will be killed. While David and Beverly are taken back to the hotel, the drunken John is apprehended by the townspeople and made to participate in a "horse race," which entails his body being ripped apart limb by limb by four different horses who are roped to his extremities.
The next day, the remaining tourists are forced to participate in various cruel games which lead to their gory deaths. David is rolled downhill in a barrel embedded with nails. Beverly is lured to the town square where she is tied up and crushed by a boulder held aloft in a contraption resembling a carnival-style dunk tank. After discovering the nefarious plans of the townspeople, Tom and Terry manage to escape from their hotel room with Harper in pursuit. They run to a nearby swamp area, where Harper falls into a quicksand pit and drowns.
With help from a little boy named Billy, whom Tom and Terry take with them as a hostage/guide, they manage to locate Terry's car and drive out of town while being chased by Rufus, Lester and a horde of townsmen. After releasing Billy, Terry and Tom make it to the nearby main road and drive away. Later, the pair arrive at a local police station, where they tell the disbelieving sheriff about their ordeal. Back in Pleasant Valley, Mayor Buckman orders his people to take down the centennial banner and declares the celebration over.
Tom and Terry return with the local policeman to Pleasant Valley, only to discover that the town has disappeared. The policeman is initially skeptical of their story about the murderous townspeople, but eventually thinks there be some truth to it. He tells Tom and Terry a story that 100 years previous, as the Civil War was drawing to an end, a group of renegade Union troops attacked the small town of Pleasant Valley and, over two days, massacred the entire population of 2,000 people and burned the town to the ground. He also mentions a local legend that the town's ghosts haunt the clearing and wooded areas where the town once stood. After leaving the area, Tom and Terry finally realize that the all of the townspeople of Pleasant Valley that they interacted with were ghosts who rise from the dead once every 100 years to kill Northern people as a blood vengeance for their deaths. The film ends with Tom and Terry driving away, while the vengeful spirits of Rufus and Lester watch them depart, along with Harper, who emerges from the quicksand pit. Rufus and Lester talk about looking forward to the next centennial in 2065, when Pleasant Valley will rise again to resume its vendetta against the Yankees, and what technology they expect will be in store for them and the town when they emerge from their limbo state. Harper, Rufus and Lester walk into a nearby fog and disappear.
Two Thousand Maniacs! was filmed in 15 days, early in 1964, in the town of St. Cloud, Florida. According to a contemporary report, the entire town participated in the film.
The film was the feature film debut of a nonprofessional Illinois stage actor named Taalkeus Blank (nicknamed "Talky" his entire life) (b. 1910 - d. 1991) who played Pleasant Valley Mayor Buckman. He used the pseudonym "Jeffery Allen" in all of his film appearances because he was never a member of the Screen Actors Guild. Director Lewis was so impressed by Blank's ability to perfectly mimic any type of Southern accent that he hired Blank to appear in many of his later films, among them Moonshine Mountain (1964), This Stuff'll Kill Ya! (1971) and Year of the Yahoo! (1972), playing various Southern-accented characters under the Jeffrey Allen pseudonym.
The film's budget was considerably larger than what the filmmakers had previously had to work with, and afforded the film a more polished production.
Two Thousand Maniacs! was heavily cut by the MPAA before its release, which resulted in the film being scantily screened across the country. It was formally released on March 20, 1964, and mostly played at drive-in theaters, especially in the Southern United States, where it did considerably well.
It was first released on VHS by Continental Video in the 1980s. It has also received a VHS and DVD-Rom release by the Seattle-based company Something Weird Video in the late 1990s.
Allmovie wrote, "drive-in gore king Herschell Gordon Lewis reached a creative peak with this darkly comic slaughterfest". In a retrospective, Marjorie Baumgarten of the Austin Chronicle called the film "remarkably durable" and referred to it as "one of the sickest movies ever made."
On review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 31%, based on 13 reviews, signifying "rotten".
Two Thousand Maniacs! was one of the earliest films to introduce audiences to the formulaic plotline of Southern gore films: Northern outsiders who are stranded in the rural South are horrifically murdered by virulent, backwoods Southerners. This subgenre of grindhouse peaked with the release of Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), and Two Thousand Maniacs! has been credited as being influential on Hooper's film.
During the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, television and mainstream narrative films used the "rednecks" caricature rather than a realistic depiction of white Southerners like the televised news of the era. However, Lewis’ plotline in Two Thousand Maniacs! focused on the ghost of a violent, vengeful Confederacy, and acknowledged the region’s violent history and place in the anxiety of the rest of the United States. The film has been noted by scholars as sensationalizing historical anxieties that the rest of the nation held towards the South’s history (and that of its white inhabitants) of extra-legal violence, perceived primitivism, and unresolved regional conflict. The 2005 remake, 2001 Maniacs, recreates the grotesque "yokelism" of the original.
In his essay "Remapping Southern Hospitality", Anthony Szczesiul explained the film’s use of Southern hospitality and other Southern stereotypes: “The film’s ironic parody of southern hospitality highlights the performative nature of the discourse. When Mayor Buckman delivers his promise of southern hospitality in his thick, cartoonish accent, the reference is immediately recognizable to all–the characters in the film, its actors and director, its original audience, and by us today–but here the possibility of southern hospitality is transformed into a cruel joke: the visitor becomes victim.
1980s alternative rock band 10,000 Maniacs were named in homage to this film as a way of making them shockingly stand out from other alternative bands on the college club music scene.