Despite the grim subject throughout the film, in an interview on the second disc of the Criterion Collection box set, actress Hélène Surgère claimed the mood was actually rather jovial on the set and that none of the teenage actors were actually harmed or traumatized. She said the abundance of teenagers who had never acted before led the mood to be happy and at times, even fun, with the cast often playing practical jokes on each other. She also said that the movie was literally "made" in the editing room and the filmmakers had no idea how grim a movie it was until they saw the finished product at the premiere.
Salo is a town in northern Italy which Benito Mussolini's Fascist government effectively made their capital from 1943 until they fell from power in 1945. The place had particular relevance for Pier Paolo Pasolini because his brother was killed there.
Pier Paolo Pasolini was murdered before the film's release. A 17 year-old hustler, Giuseppe "Pino" Pelosi, was arrested when he was found with Pasolini's car. He admitted running over Pasolini several times with the car after an argument, and end up convicted of the crime. Many years later, he denied participating in it, claiming that three mysterious men were involved. The case remains unsolved.
When the movie premiered in West Germany in February 1976 it was confiscated by the state attorney in order to ban it. The district court of Stuttgart classified it as pornographic and violence-praising. A few days later, though, that ruling was reversed and the film was allowed to be distributed nationwide.
The film had an extremely limited release worldwide, and was banned in many countries. It got a wide release in Sweden in 1976, and sold 125,000 tickets, meaning 1.5% of all Swedes saw the movie. It also grossed more than The Omen.
First part of Pier Paolo Pasolini's "Trilogy of Death". The subsequent two parts were never filmed because Pasolini was murdered a few months after he had finished this movie. The trilogy was intended to complement the previous "Trilogy of Life", including The Decameron (1971), The Canterbury Tales (1972) and Arabian Nights (1974).
The British Board of Film Classification rejected the film in 1975, making it technically illegal to show in the UK. When an arthouse cinema in London showed it, the film was confiscated in a police raid. In 2000, the BBFC revised its opinion and gave it an "18" certificate, for adults only.
The original August 1998 Criterion Collection DVD was removed from the market due to copyright problems, allegedly concerning a dispute with Pier Paolo Pasolini's estate. This version of the DVD with the "white ring" around the spindle hole was known to sell for $600 (US) or more in good or new condition during the early 2000s. This makes it one of, if not the most, valuable DVDs in the world. However, selling prices on eBay as of 2013 are greatly reduced, due to Criterion re-releasing the film in new DVD and Blu-Ray editions. Bootlegs are still common due to the original printing's value, and research should be done before purchasing.
The song sung at the meal is "Sul ponte di Perati" ("On the Bridge of Perati"). This is an Italian Second World War song, based on a First World War song ("Sul ponte di Bassano"). It commemorates a battle involving the 3rd Alpini Division Julia, of Italy's alpine mountain infantry corps. It commemorates the major battle at the Perati Bridge between Greece and Albania, involving Greek and Italian troops.
In 1994, an undercover police officer in Cincinnati, Ohio, rented the film from a local gay bookstore, then later arrested the owners for "pandering". A large group of scholars and artists, including Martin Scorsese and Alec Baldwin, signed a legal brief arguing the film's artistic merit. The court dismissed the case because the police violated the owners' Fourth Amendment rights, without addressing the question of whether the film was obscene.
The opening title include an "essential bibliography" compiled by director Pier Paolo Pasolini: -Roland Barthes. "Sade/Fourier/Loyola," 1971. Trans. Richard Miller. Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997; -Maurice Blanchot. "Lautréamont and Sade," 1949. Trans. Stuart Kendell and Michelle Kendell. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2004; -Simone de Beauvoir. "Must We Burn Sade?" 1955. Trans. Annette Michelson, in "The 120 Days of Sodom and Other Writings". New York, New York: Grove Press, 1966; -Pierre Klossowski. "Sade my Neighbor," 1950. Trans. Alphonso Lingis. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1991; -Philippe Sollers. "Writing and the Experience of Limits," 1971. Trans. and eds. Philip Bernard and David Hayman. New York, New York: Columbia University Press, 1983.
The Japanese Region 2 DVD, released in 2002, contains several production photos not seen in any version of the film, including a girl strapped into an electric chair (presumably during the final scene), and the victims' bodies arranged in two rows, some covered with sheets, in the courtyard.