The depraved ravings of a horror movie fiend, former projectionist and former video store clerk who was warped by exposure to Romero at a very young age. I'm joined by a few of my closest Fiends. All that's missing here is some creepy music and a fog machine.
1981’s Graduation Day, one of a countless number of
“event-day” slashers released during the early-80’s heyday of the genre, starts
amidst a splash of funky period fashions and tunes with a montage of various
track and field events which lead up to the death that sets off the next
90-some-odd minutes’ worth of nefarious doings. This initial sequence is spiced
up with plenty of cross-cutting between various events and shots of the crowd,
with a liberal usage of slow-motion thrown in for good measure. Laura, a star
sprinter, is cheered by her classmates and goaded by her bullying coach before
crossing the finish line and promptly expiring.
Shortly after this prologue, we are introduced to Anne,
Laura’s older sister, who has returned home after serving in Guam. She’s
hitching a ride into town with a contender for the least-appealing ladies’ man
of the 1980’s, a stereotypical sexist pig who reminded me of Fred from “Scooby
Doo” well past his prime and having let himself go. After a sexual
harassment-filled lift from this shining example of early-80’s masculinity,
Anne arrives at her familial home, where we’re next introduced toher drunken lout of a stepfather, himself a
likely contender for the decade’s worst parent. It becomes clear by this point
that the movie, likely intentionally, is paraded before us a line-up of
potential suspects, many of whom are likely red herrings, but most of whom
provide us with a reason to dislike or distrust them.
"You're not one of those lezbos, are ya?"
After a less-than-welcoming family reunion, Anne goes to
visit her late sister’s boyfriend, Kevin. Kevin lives with his grandmother in a
cluttered old house. The grandmother seems a bit off her rocker, talking constantly
to either herself or her television, but is paid little mind by either the
characters onscreen or the viewer. During this scene, as is present throughout
Graduation Day, both sound and image (working together as well as in
juxtaposition) are used to ratchet up the tension.
From there the story moves on to the local high school,
where preparations are underway for – you guessed it – graduation day. We are
introduced to a number of Laura’s classmates and members of the track team, as
well as some of the teachers and administrators of the school. There are a
couple of points of interest here. Eagle-eyed viewers should stay watchful for scream
queen Linnea Quigley in an early role as Dolores. The story goes that Quigley
replaced another actress originally chosen for the role who objected to the
nudity required for the film’s “topless chase” scene. That previous actress
still appears in pictures of the track team, and her decapitated head makes an
appearance in the film later – perhaps as a stand-in after Quigley’s character
has met her demise, belying the film’s extremely low budget origins. Viewers
may also be surprised to see veteran letter-turner Vanna White in one of her
earliest film appearances as the character Doris, who mainly exists to sport
some questionably high-waisted pink pants and discover a dead body. Add in a
lengthy sequence of roller-skating, very dated dance moves and an extremely
lengthy musical number from a band called Felony who looks like they’ve never
even neared a misdemeanor (doing a tune called “Gangster Rock” no less), and
you’ve got all the makings for a second-string slasher classic.
I'd like to buy an AAAAAAAAAA
Many of the school’s staff members seem to fall into a
number of tired tropes from the genre, but there is just enough of an
off-kilter take to prove entertaining – such as the toupeed crooning Lothario
serving as the music teacher, genre mainstay Christopher George as the
hard-driving coach who many blame for Laura’s death, and character actor
Michael Pataki, who definitely brings the lion’s share of quirk to his
portrayal of Principal Guglione.
While I don’t want to go too far into the events of the
movie from this point (as any slasher fan who hasn’t seen this flick should
seek it out and witness it firsthand), I would like to discuss some of the
film’s pedigree and DNA. The film’s director, Herb Freed, has said on multiple
occasions that he and his wife and writing partner, Anne Marisse, were not
inspired by similar slasher films of the era. While I have some doubts about
that statement, I’ll leave it up to the viewer to draw their own conclusions.
What I find more interesting is the likely unintended similarities that
Graduation Day shares with a number of Italian gialli: multiple POV shots from the killer’s perspective,
black-gloved hands wielding an assortment of often-outlandish weapons, and the
use of music and editing techniques to drive certain sequences. Despite falling
firmly in the 80’s slasher genre, Graduation Day certainly shares a number of
similarities with Italian gialli, and
benefits from the resemblance.
Coach, I don't think that's a regulation ball...
Stephen Thrower, in his highly-recommended book Nightmare
U.S.A. – The Untold Story of the Exploitation Independents, suggests a Marxist
subtext to the film, and though this is somewhat present, it in no way beats
the viewer over the head or distracts from the proceedings.
From a technical standpoint, Vinegar Syndrome again exceeds
expectations with their Blu-Ray of Graduation Day. Though the print is not
completely free of white specks or damage, the film likely looks better than it
has since the early 80’s, and displays a consistent grain and filmic
presentation that does not show any signs of being DNR’ed into oblivion.The disc features interviews with star Patch
Mackenzie, director Herb Freed, editor Martin Jay Sadoff (for those interested
in the technique and skill of film editing, I highly recommend checking this
out), and producer & story writer David Baughn. Two commentaries are also present; one
features producer Baughn, while the other is conducted by the presenters of slasher-themed
podcast “The Hysteria Continues”.
Bottom Line: While Graduation Day will likely never be
mistaken for a top-tier 1980’s slasher film, it has just enough going for it to
make it a worthy entry in the genre, and deserving of both the top-notch
treatment given it by Vinegar Syndrome as well as a place on your movie shelf.
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One of my Brothers in (tentacled) arms, DJ TJDK, has been added as an author to The Horror Aisle. He's got some madness and mayhem brewing which we are very excited to bring you soon.
We have another couple of contributors that we will be announcing and introducing in the coming weeks, as well as some exciting interviews and previews in the works.
In the next few days, I will be presenting not just one but two Retro Reviews of movies on Blu-Ray from the mighty Vinegar Syndrome! Get ready for The Horror Aisle's take on rediscovered slasher favorites Graduation Day (out now) and Don't Go in the Woods (coming 3/10/15).