THE WORDS are painted on the ceiling: 'Aarrgghhh] Kung Fu Zombies]' it says. The mural in its cafe foyer is a sardonic celebration of the great traditions of the Scala cinema, near King's Cross, north London. All genres are represented, from bleak S&M to Beach Party kitsch.

The Scala, London's best-loved repertory cinema, plays host to all types of film, the weirder the better. The best way to see them has always been five at a time, one after another, through Saturday night, with black coffee and Pro-plus caffeine tablets to keep you going.

Thus, in my student days, I endured John Waters's entire oeuvre one Saturday night, the programme ending on that glorious moment when Divine gags on dog shit. Another night I caught Cary Grant's best comic roles, including his mesmeric performance in His Girl Friday.

Times change. Tonight the computer-game company, Sega, is sponsoring a 'Movie Games' all-nighter, featuring sci-fi films with a technology-gone-bad theme. Patrons in wrap- around shades can try all the latest Sega games while they queue for coffee. At the end of the month, the 'cinema' is offering an all-night 'Queer Extravaganza' with go-go dancers, 'slammer girls', four DJs and an accompanying pot-pourri of ultra-camp movies including Carwash and Pink Narcissus.

The Scala has dropped its standard Saturday all-nighter 'mainly because of the huge choice of all-night events now available on Saturdays,' says Helen de Witt, programmer. 'The recession is another factor. People are being choosier about how they spend their money.'

The usual suspects can be lined up. There is home video: six or seven years ago VCRs were luxury items; now students own them. The local cable television service offers 20 channels, and even before the borough was hard-wired, satellite dishes had spread like a rash across King's Cross, neighbouring Somers Town and Islington.

Even terrestrial television is partly to blame. Kim Newman, a horror novelist and Scala veteran, recalls that 12 years ago the all-nighter was 'the only place where you could see any Godzilla movie, let alone five of them.'

Newman lost interest when the Japanese beast went mainstream. 'Godzilla had his own season on Channel 4 last year. He should have died young. He's in his Las Vegas phase now.'

The history of all-night programming at the Scala can, habitues claim, shed light on the nation's social development. Newman remembers that around 1979 the Scala was 'a late Punk or early New Romantic hangout, because there were very few other places you could stay up all night. And there was something classically Bohemian about it.'

Jane Giles, a former programmer, recalls that in the mid- Eighties, during the power struggles between left-wing unions and right-wing government, bionic biceps had audiences hypnotised on Saturday nights. 'Urban punk stuff, like Mad Max, Terminator, Commando - anything with Schwarzenegger - was really big.'

Then, as the Acid House phenomenon took root in 1988, 'the psychedelic stuff became popular, Head, Blue Sunshine, trippy stuff. But it didn't last long.'

Another glorious success of that era was the 'Shock around the Clock' festival - 24 hours of non-stop horror movies, many screened months ahead of their UK release. 'The all-nighter was made for horror fans,' says Mark Kermode, author of a book on The Exorcist. 'The five-movie marathon through the dead of night; it's a perfect match.'

With eerie predictability, Steve Martin and Monty Python all-nighters became 'really popular' at the onset of the recession. 'Around 1989 and 1990, the comedy stuff was enormous,' says Giles. 'You'd come in and the whole cinema would be laughing their heads off.'

But soon after the laughter stopped, so did the all-nighters. As the Scala uses only the circle area of its Twenties cinema building, there are just 478 seats. This means a great view for patrons, but leaves little room for error by the manager, Alex Fenner. She must identify and adapt quickly to cultural trends, so the all-night programming has had to become increasingly sophisticated.

De Witt describes it as 'a broadening-out into multi-media events'. Though she still programmes Saturday all-nighters, the movies complement an entertainment package that can include DJs, live acts, slide shows, one-off decor, late bars, food and - lest we forget - the crowd. Saturday night revellers dress up, drink and dance, and occasionally drift into the auditorium to absorb what is on the screen. Rather than being the focal point of the event, movies lend it atmosphere and ambience.

For some, the relegation of movies to wallpaper is a heinous act. But Scala regulars remain loyal, such as Mrs Reeve, 60, who travels up from Woolwich with her son, Melvin, for the five or seven o'clock show on horror Saturdays.

'She's seriously into horror,' says Alex Fenner. 'She was outraged that we screened an edited version of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. She said afterwards, 'They took out that bit of the woman with the hatchet through her head.' Fortunately she'd seen it uncut five times before, so it didn't really matter.'

Scala Cinema, 277 Pentonville Rd, London N1; 071-278 8052.

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