In contrast, most films referred to as Z movies are made for very little money on the fringes of the organized film industry or entirely outside it. As a result, scripts are often laughably bad, continuity errors tend to arise during shooting, and nonprofessional actors are frequently cast. Many Z movies are also poorly lit and edited. Latter-day Zs may not evidence the same degree of technical incompetence; in addition to bargain-basement scripts and acting, they are often characterized by violent, gory, and/or sexual content and a minimum of artistic interest, readily falling into the category of exploitation, or "grindhouse" films.
Director Ed Wood is often described as the quintessential maker of Z movies, yet his work reveals the ambiguity of the category. Certain very-low-budget pictures of his such as Glen or Glenda (1953) and Jail Bait (1954), though broadly and risibly incompetent, are also entertaining on their own terms and evidence an intriguing artistic vision. Wood's Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) is often labeled the worst film ever made. It features an incoherent plot, bizarre dialogue, inept acting, intrusive narration, the cheapest conceivable special effects, and cardboard sets that the actors occasionally bump into and knock over. Stock footage is used throughout, whole sequences are used multiple times, boom mics are visible, and actors frequently appear to be reading from cue cards. Outdoor sequences contain parts filmed during both day and night in the same scene. The movie stars Maila Nurmi, in her Vampira persona, and Béla Lugosi, who died before it was made. Test footage of Lugosi shot for a different project is intercut with shots of a double with a different physique, height, and hair color, who covers his face with a cape in every scene. The narrator refers to the film by its preproduction name, "Grave Robbers from Outer Space."
The Creeping Terror (1964), directed by Arthur J. Nelson (who also stars in the film under the pseudonym Vic Savage), uses some memorable bargain-basement effects: Stock footage of a rocket launch is played in reverse to depict the landing of an alien spacecraft. What appears to be shag carpet is draped over several actors shambling about at a snail's pace, thus bringing the monstrous "creeping terror" to the screen. The movie also employs a technique that has come to be synonymous with Z-movie horror: voiceover narration that paraphrases dialogue being silently enacted onscreen.
Harold P. Warren, a fertilizer salesman who never worked in film before or since, directed Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966). The film is famous for its incompetent production, which included the use of a camera that could not record sound, disjointed dialogue, and seemingly random editing. The entire soundtrack was recorded by just three people, who provide the voices for every character. The movie features a character named Torgo, who is intended to be a satyr. The actor wore his prosthetics incorrectly, making it look like he simply has very large knees. In one scene, the clapboard is clearly visible. Like Plan 9, it frequently tops lists of the worst movies ever made.
The latter-day Z movie is typified by such pictures as Attack of the 60 Foot Centerfold (1995) and Bikini Cavegirl (2004), both directed by Fred Olen Ray, that combine traditional genre themes with extensive nudity or softcore pornography. Such pictures, often after going straight to video, are fodder for late-night airing on subscription TV services.