Carpenter originally wrote the film in the mid-1970s as a reaction to the Watergate scandal, but no studio wanted to make it because Carpenter proved unable to articulate just how this film could relate to the Watergate scandal. After the success of Halloween, he had enough influence to get the film made and shot most of it in St. Louis, Missouri, where significant portions of the city were used in place of New York City.
The film's total budget was estimated to be USD $7 million. It was a commercial hit, grossing over $50 million worldwide. It has since developed its own cult following, particularly around the anti-hero Plissken. A sequel, Escape from L.A., was released in 1996. On March 13, 2007, a remake of the original film was announced tentatively with actor Gerard Butler set to play Plissken with Len Wiseman to direct. Both have since dropped out of the project.
United States Police Force Commissioner Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) offers a deal to a newly arrived prisoner, a famous special-forces-soldier-turned-armed-robber named "Snake" Plissken (Kurt Russell). If Snake rescues the President, and retrieves a cassette tape that contains important information on nuclear fusion, Hauk will give him a full pardon. However, Plissken must complete his mission before the international summit that the President was due to attend, which begins in 24 hours. After Plissken reluctantly agrees to attempt the rescue, Hauk secretly has him injected with microscopic explosives that will blow open his carotid arteries in 24 hours (Day). The explosives cannot be defused until within fifteen minutes before they go off, as a way of ensuring that Snake does not abandon his mission and escape, nor find another way to remove them. If he returns with the President and the tape in time for the summit, Hauk will save him. Snake promises to kill Hauk when he returns.
Snake covertly lands atop the World Trade Center in a glider and then locates the hijacked plane wreckage and the escape pod, but the President is gone. Snake tracks the President's life-monitor bracelet signal to the basement of an abandoned theater, only to find it on the wrist of an incoherent old coot (John Carpenter regular George "Buck" Flower). He meets a friendly inmate nicknamed "Cabbie" (Ernest Borgnine), who offers to help. Cabbie takes Snake to see Brain (Harry Dean Stanton), a savvy and well-educated inmate who has made the New York Public Library his personal fortress. Brain, who knows Snake from some heists they did in the past, tells Snake that a powerful gang leader, the self-proclaimed "Duke of New York" (Isaac Hayes), has the President and plans to lead a mass escape across the mined and heavily guarded 69th Street Bridge (the real Queensboro Bridge is the 59th Street Bridge), using the President as a human shield and hostage. When the Duke unexpectedly arrives to get a diagram of the bridge's land mines, Snake forces Brain and his girlfriend Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau) to lead him back to The Duke's compound. Snake finds the President, but his rescue fails and he is captured.
While Snake is forced to fight with a giant power-house brute (played by professional wrestler Ox Baker), Brain and Maggie trick the Duke's men into letting them have access to the President. After killing the guards, they free the President and flee to Snake's glider. Meanwhile, Snake defeats his huge opponent, impressing the crowd. When the Duke learns the President has escaped with Brain, he is furious, and he rounds up his gang to chase them down. In the confusion, Snake slips away and manages to catch up with Brain, Maggie and the President at the glider, but during their attempted getaway, a gang of inmates push it off the building. Snake and the others soon find Cabbie, and Snake takes the wheel of his cab, heading for the bridge. When Cabbie reveals that he has the nuclear fusion tape (traded to him from an inmate who guarded the President and stole it), the President demands it, but Snake takes it.
With the Duke chasing in another car, Snake and the others drive over the mine-strewn bridge. After the cab hits a land mine, the cab is destroyed and Cabbie is killed. As the others flee on foot, Brain is killed by a mine and Maggie refuses to leave him. She attempts to hold off the Duke's car by firing at him with a handgun, and she succeeds in forcing Duke's car (a distinctive vehicle with ornate chandeliers mounted on either side of the car's hood) to crash, but he crashes into her, killing her, and he continues his pursuit on foot. Snake and the President reach the containment wall, and the guards raise the President on a rope. The Duke then attacks Snake, but the President shoots the Duke with a submachine gun, killing him (this is indicated to be done in revenge for the torture The Duke put him through). Snake is then lifted to safety, and the mini-explosives implanted in his body are deactivated with seconds to spare.
As the President prepares for a televised speech, he distractedly thanks Snake for saving him. Snake asks him how he feels about the numerous men and women who died saving his life, but the President only offers half-hearted regret that visibly disgusts Snake. The President's speech commences and he offers the content of the cassette to the summit. To the President's embarrassment, the tape has been switched for a cassette of the swing song "Bandstand Boogie" (the theme from American Bandstand), Cabbie's favorite song. After Snake is pardoned, he decides he will not kill Hauk at this time and leaves the prison, tearing apart the all-important nuclear fusion tape and smiling as he leaves.
The film's setting proved to be a potential problem for Carpenter, who needed to create a decaying, semi-destroyed version of New York City on only a shoe-string budget. He and the film's production designer, Joe Alves rejected shooting on location in New York City because it would be too hard to make it look like a destroyed city. Carpenter suggested shooting on a movie back lot but Alves nixed that idea "because the texture of a real street is not like a back lot." They sent Barry Bernardi, their location manager (and also associate producer), "on a sort of all-expense-paid trip across the country looking for the worst city in America," producer Debra Hill remembers.
Bernardi suggested East St. Louis, Illinois, because it was filled with old buildings "that exist in New York now, and [that] have that seedy run-down quality" that the team was looking for. East St. Louis, sitting across the Mississippi River from the more prosperous St. Louis, Missouri, had entire neighborhoods burned out in 1976 during a massive urban fire. Hill said in an interview, "block after block was burnt-out rubble. In some places there was absolutely nothing, so that you could see three and four blocks away." As well, Alves found an old bridge to double for the "69th St. Bridge". The filmmaker purchased the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge for one dollar from the government and then gave it back to them for a dollar, "so that they wouldn't have any liability," Hill remembers. Locations across the river in St. Louis, Missouri were also used, including Union Station and the Fox Theater, both of which have since been renovated.
The gladiatorial fight to the death scene between Snake and Slag (played by professional wrestler Ox Baker) was filmed in the Grand Hall at St. Louis Union Station. In addition to shooting on location in St. Louis, Carpenter also shot parts of the film in Los Angeles. Various interior scenes were shot on a soundstage; the final scenes were shot at the Sepulveda Dam, in Sherman Oaks. New York also served as a location, as did Atlanta, in order to utilize their then futuristic-looking rapid-transit system.
When it came to shooting in New York City Carpenter managed to persuade the city officials to grant access to Liberty Island. "We were the first film company in history allowed to shoot on Liberty Island at the Statue of Liberty at night. They let us have the whole island to ourselves. We were lucky. It wasn't easy to get that initial permission. They'd had a bombing three months earlier and were worried about trouble."
Carpenter was interested in creating two distinct looks for the movie. "One is the police state, high tech, lots of neon, a United States dominated by underground computers. That was easy to shoot compared to the Manhattan Island prison sequences which had few lights, mainly torch lights, like feudal England."
As Snake pilots the glider into the city there are three screens on his control panel displaying wireframe animations of the landing target on the World Trade Center and surrounding buildings. What appears on those screens was not computer generated. Carpenter wanted hi-tech computer graphics which were very expensive at the time, even for such a simple animation. To get the animation he wanted the effects crew filmed the miniature model set of New York City they used for other scenes under black light with reflective tape placed along every edge of the model buildings. Only the tape shows up and appears to be a 3D wireframe animation.
Cyberpunk pioneer William Gibson credits the film as an influence on his novel Neuromancer. "I was intrigued by the exchange in one of the opening scenes where the Warden says to Snake 'you flew the Gullfire over Leningrad didn't you?' It turns out to be just a throwaway line, but for a moment it worked like the best SF where a casual reference can imply a lot." Popular videogame director Hideo Kojima has referred to the movie frequently as an influence on his work, in particular the Metal Gear series. The character Solid Snake is strongly based on Snake Plissken. In Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty Snake actually uses the alias "Pliskin" to hide his real identity during the game. J.J. Abrams, producer of the 2008 film Cloverfield, mentioned that a scene in his film, which shows the head of the Statue of Liberty crashing into a New York street, was inspired by the poster for Escape from New York.
A soundtrack album, produced by Carpenter, was released in 1981 on Milan Records and was re-released in 1991 by Varese Sarabande. It featured 13 tracks and ran just over 37 minutes in length. In 2000, an expanded and remastered edition was released by Silva Records.
MGM's special edition of the 1981 film was not released until 2003 because the original negative had disappeared. The workprint containing deleted scenes finally turned up in a Midwestern storage facility, formerly used as a salt mine. The excised scenes feature Snake Plissken robbing a bank, introducing the character of Plissken and establishing a backstory. Director John Carpenter decided to add the original scenes into the special edition release as an extra only: "After we screened the rough cut, we realized that the movie didn't really start until Snake got to New York. It wasn't necessary to show what sent him there." The film has also been released on the UMD format for Sony's Playstation Portable.
In 1981, Bantam Books published a movie tie-in novelization written by Mike McQuay that adopts a lean, humorous style reminiscent of the film. The novel is significant because it includes scenes that were cut out of the film, such as the Federal Reserve Depository robbery that results in Snake's incarceration. The novel also provides motivation and backstory to Snake and Hauk — both disillusioned war veterans — deepening their relationship that was only hinted at it in the film. The novel explains how Snake lost his eye during the Battle for Leningrad in World War III, how Hauk became warden of New York, and Hauk's quest to find his crazy son who lives somewhere in the prison. The novel also fleshes out the world that these characters exist in, at times presenting a future even bleaker than the one depicted in the film. The book explains that the west coast is a no-man's land, and the country's population is gradually being driven crazy by nerve gas as a result of World War III.
New Line Cinema acquired the rights to the film from co-rights holder StudioCanal, who will control the European rights, and Carpenter, who will serve as an executive producer and said, "Snake is one of my fondest creations. Kurt Russell did an incredible job, and it would be fun to see someone else try. Russell has also commented on the remake and on the casting of Butler as Plissken, saying, "I will say that when I was told who was going to play Snake Plissken, my initial reaction was 'Oh, man!' [Russell winces]. I do think that character was quintessentially one thing. And that is, American. Len Wiseman was attached to direct but he dropped out of the project and rumors were that Brett Ratner would helm the film. Since Ratner has not formally committed to the new project, the identity of the director is as yet unclear. The studio has brought Jonathan Mostow in to rewrite, with an option to direct. In addition, Gerard Butler has bowed out of his role claiming "creative differences".