Opened on the same weekend as A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), and briefly out-grossed the latter by around $161,800-since "Silent Night" was playing in more than twice as many theaters as "Nightmare"-before the gross fell about 45% by the second weekend.
The release of this film was picketed by angry parents who were not happy to see Santa Claus depicted as an ax murderer, despite the fact that Tales from the Crypt (1972) had done the exact same thing twelve years earlier, and Christmas Evil (1980) had done the same thing in 1980. As a result, box office sales plummeted and the film was shelved for another year where it saw new light in an uncut video form (which has since gone out of print).
To protest the film, critic Gene Siskel read out loud the names of the companies that owned distributor Tri-Star Pictures on his and Roger Ebert 's television show, then said, "Shame on you." He also called out the writer, director and producer and said, "You people have nothing to be proud of."
In an interview from the documentary Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film (2006), Lilyan Chauvin (Mother Superior) admitted it was a mistake to center the film's publicity campaign on Santa Claus, and believed it would have generated far less controversy if the studio instead focused on Billy's psychological plight. Also, in a story by People Magazine from November, 1984, Robert Brian Wilson (Billy age 18) said he felt so ashamed by the controversy, he told his friends and family to avoid seeing the film. However, Wilson reversed his stance, years later, after attending a 30th anniversary screening and meeting with fans. Wilson has since made appearances at horror conventions and given interviews on his work the film.
Mickey Rooney, one of the vocal detractors of the film in 1984, surprised people when he starred in Silent Night, Deadly Night 5: The Toy Maker (1991), leading some to call him a hypocrite for appearing in that film. It has been theorized that the film was shot under the title The Toy Maker and the name Silent Night, Deadly Night was added to the title in post-production to create an in name only sequel, and that if Rooney knew that the film was a Silent Night, Deadly Night sequel before shooting began, he wouldn't have appeared in the film, considering his feelings towards the original film.
This film was known as "Slayride" throughout its production. Tri-Star decided to change the title to "Silent Night, Deadly Night" at the last minute.
All the film's TV ads were immediately pulled off the networks because of the trailer showing Santa Claus carrying an axe, which practically depicted him as a mass murderer. This motivated parents to protest the film and instantly had it yanked out of theaters after making a profit with its limited release.
Many of the kill scenes were directed by editor Michael Spence, due to director Charles E. Sellier Jr. being uncomfortable with handling the gore-heavy parts of the film.
This film was planned to be a limited release but open wider by Christmas, but the protest canned the idea, and was pulled after two weeks of release.
When the film was released widely, angered parents picketed theaters where it was being screened, and asked oncoming patrons to sign petitions to have the film removed from theaters. Two weeks later, the film had been withdrawn.
When the remake, titled Silent Night (2012), was released in 2012, the reaction was the polar opposite of what it was in 1984, with people accepting the concept of a killer wearing a Santa Claus suit. This may have also been the reason why Fangoria Films decided to re-release the original film in 2013, which led to the film finally appearing on pay cable channels in 2014.
Since the film's re-release in the spring of 1986, almost all advertising for the film (only excluding the Fangoria Films re-release in 2013 and cover art for all U.S. video releases) has focused on the controversy it created in 1984.
Phil Donahue dedicated an entire hour of his TV show to the controversy surrounding this film.
Graphic designer Burt Kleeger created the infamous poster art of Santa going down the chimney with an axe.
Composer Perry Botkin Jr. improvised most of the score while watching a work print copy of the film on Betamax. Afterwards, he'd replay the tape with his work and add more layers and melody to polish it off.
The group formed to protest the film and lobby for it to be removed from theaters was called "Citizens Against Movie Madness."
The toyshop where Billy gets his first job is called "IRA'S TOYS", Ira is the first name of one of the film's producers.
In a 1994 audio interview with Fangoria, director Charles Sellier, Jr. erroneously states that this film was based on a book called "Slayride" by Paul Caimi. In reality there was no such book. Paul Caimi, then a student at Harvard University, submitted a script to the producers of the film that had a line about a killer Santa. The producers of the film expanded upon that single idea to make this film and, wanting to give Caimi some credit, gave him a "story by" credit.
Producer Ira Barmak had to buy back the distribution rights to the film after Tri-Star pulled the film from theaters amidst the controversy. Tri-Star also rescinded deals with RCA/Columbia for home video and HBO for cable distribution. At a 2014 screening with Beyond Fest and Death Waltz Records, Executive Producer Dennis Whitehead stated the main reason for pulling the film may have actually been because Columbia/Tri-Star was owned by Coca Cola, and they wanted to avoid offending the company since Christmas was a major advertising holiday for their product.
Executive Producer Scott Schneid was invited to appear on Donahue (1967), along with members from Mothers Against Movie Madness (MAMM) to discuss the film's controversy, but he turned it down.
The founders of Citizens Against Movie Madness, the group formed to protest this film hoped to use the victory they secured in getting Silent Night, Deadly Night pulled to challenge the film industry on the amount of violence for other films as well. However, the group would fall apart shortly after this film was pulled and would never live up to its founder's dreams.
The title "Slay Ride" actually ended up as a subplot in another film, the Disney holiday movie Ernest Saves Christmas (1988). In the Ernest film, the prospective Santa that Ernest was looking for was appearing in a horror film entitled "Christmas Slay".
Due to the use of the killer Santa theme in earlier films, the producers were not expecting this aspect of the film to be controversial. They were however expecting for the film's portrayal of the Catholic Church to be controversial. Perhaps wanting to play up this angle, the film opened first in the heavily Catholic Midwest and Northeast, rather than the more Protestant West or South.
Oddly, despite the first two Silent Night Deadly Night films having little or no big names, the next three straight-to-video sequels had bigger names, those being Richard Beymer, Robert Culp, Maud Adams, and Mickey Rooney.