Graduation Day 1981
Directed by: Herb Freed
Starring: Christopher George, Patch Mackenzie, E. Danny Murphy
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
Graduation Day came close to being the first horror movie that I ever watched. In the area where I grew up, there were two local video-shops just meters away from each other. One was as strict as a Nazi head teacher and wouldn’t let me rent out any 18 rated movies. (Well, I was nine-years-old)) Luckily, the other guy just wanted to see the colour of your money no matter your age and that’s where I spent most of my weekly allowance. Whilst looking at the ex-rental films for sale, I found this eye catching hand-drawn cover, which was graced with a warning sticker that threatened, ’85 minutes of sheer terror whodunit!‘ When you’re that young and inexperienced, those words sound extremely intriguing and even rebellious, because I knew that I was doing something that I wasn’t yet lawfully supposed to. I took it up to the counter and five minutes later the big sweaty guy returned and told me that the tape had been damaged and he no longer had it. My little world had been shattered, so I asked if I could keep the box for future reference and headed home in disappointment.
Around that time, Graduation Day had been deleted and it seemed more likely that I’d find the body of Jimmy Hoffa in my lunchbox than eventually get to view the damned thing. The more I looked at the box-art that promised ‘… Grisly, gruesome murders’ and terror beyond my wildest dreams, the more I yearned to find out if it could truly be as ‘terrifying’ and ‘grisly’ as the beguiling blurb had made out. My curiosities never died and some nine years later, when I learned of Video-search agencies, this was one of the first movies that popped into my head to track down. Finally I managed to get hold of a gleaming copy, and I knew that it would have to be an unsurpassed masterpiece to achieve the strong expectations that nine years had built up in my overactive imagination. The point that I’m trying to make is that I hold a lot of sentimentality for Graduation Day, so excuse me if you think that I’m mad after you’ve read this review…
It kicks off in funky enough fashion with the memorable theme tune, ‘everybody wants to be a winner’. We are shown a collage of shots as the students of Midville High track-team compete in events against other athletes. Suddenly the camera pans in on the 100 meter sprint and one eager youngster shoots off to an audacious lead, leaving the other competitors stuttering in her wake. The crowd cheer her on to victory, but as Laura Ramstead bursts across the finish line, she slumps to the floor – dead.
As Graduation Day looms, the seniors of Midville still have the memory of Laura’s death fresh in their minds. Her grieving boyfriend Danny is relieved when Laura’s sister arrives to pay her final respects to the tragic youngster. But as soon as she turns up, the members of the track team begin being brutally killed by a maniac dressed in a tracksuit and fencing mask. The assassin creatively murders the athletes and then crosses their faces off of a team photo with bright red lipstick. As the bodies pile up, we are left to wonder if there will be any one left alive to participate in Graduation day…….
The years have been kind to Graduation Day and we never get the feeling that it was made on the merest of budgets (which it was). For readers that are unaware of director Herb Freed (Beyond Evil/Haunts), he was a prolific horror moviemaker from 1977-81 and his features were all extensively cheesy and perhaps slightly better than their fate would allow. He was a former Rabbi, which meant that such films were not the most obvious in career choices for him. Alongside his wife however, they watched numerous entries and tried to find the right formula for box office success. She even went as far as to go through the runtimes with a stopwatch and time the gaps in-between killings, which is the real reason why the maniac utilises the timepiece here. Not only was it a neat gimmick, but it was also a tribute from the director to his partner who at the time of shooting was fighting cancer. Regrettably she died in 1984, which truly shook Freed. It must have made it extremely hard for Freed to remain focused, whist worried about his wife. He persisted with production though and the net result was well worth it, because Graduation Day is a key addition to the category.
In fairness, he does a good enough job of creating a smidgen of suspense in places and there are one or two skilfully planned set-pieces. Editor Martin Jay Saddof uses flash cuts to define the intensity of an engaging scene, which is an interesting technique that Saddof swears was his idea, but I was sure that Freed used a similar style in his previous film, Beyond Evil. I may well be wrong, because I haven’t seen that movie for over a decade, so if you can help me out, then please let me know.
I do agree with the masses that Graduation Day is probably the daftest of all the period slashers, however, I definitely don’t think that it’s all that bad. It managed to keep me interested pretty much all the way through and the cheesy thrills are packed tightly over a fairly slick runtime. Christopher George turns in a decent performance as the suspicious coach and the jesting banter between B-movie vet Michael Pataki and Broadway star E.J. Beaker works to build two memorable characters. Admittedly it looked as if screenwriter David Baughn was stuck in the Rock Hudson/Doris Day era, but as light comic refreshment, it all came together well. Even the youngsters managed to keep the plot moving fluidly and they all handled the script with the right kind of tongue-in-cheek-ness. Amongst them, you’ll spot Linnea Quigley doing her thing and an infamous early appearance from Vanna White, who spends most of her screen time screaming unconvincingly. E. Danny Murphy was hammy as the grieving boyfriend and his teeth-gnashing portrayal was exactly what this campy feast needed.
In an attempt to grab as many teenage cinema goers as possible, Freed tries to include everything that was in vogue in 1981. There’s a roller-disco, loads of ear-bashing heavy metal and the surviving girl even fends off the killer using some (somewhat lame) martial arts, which was pretty hot stuff at the time. I noticed a scene when the hooded-killer sneaks along a window behind an unsuspecting victim that was extremely well-crafted and the score is sufficient without ever being exceptional. One thing I will mention is that It looks as if Freed blew his entire budget on the actors and crew, leaving him with very little to spend on effects. The gore scenes are so hokey that they’re derisory, including perhaps the worst decapitation that I’ve ever seen. In one murder, the maniac throws an American football/sword contraption about 300 yards before it slices through a victim and there are no surprises to be found in any of the other killings.
There is of course, the now notorious Graduation party, which is well renowned amongst fans as a fine example of peak-period slasher hokum. A musical group by the name of ‘Felony’ take centre stage at the disco, which involves teens whizzing round in circles on roller skates. With their faces painted like seventies glamsters Kiss, they sing a painful song called ‘Gangster Rock’, which is no shorter than seven minutes and just repeats the same verse and chorus over and over again. They’re pretty rancid in my opinion, but they do have their fans and managed to last long enough to feature on the soundtrack of Friday the 13th Part 6. Here they contributed towards an eccentric, but memorable slasher sequence that includes Quigley being pursued by the psycho in a fencing mask. Joseph Zito said that all the slasher directors were competing to find the scariest guise after Michael Myers’ fearful Shatner impersonation in Halloween. To keep with the whole sporting theme, I guess a fencing visor was a pretty decent choice. Well, it must’ve impressed John Ottman enough, because he ‘borrowed’ it for this sequel to Urban Legend .
Ok so if you’ve done your research then you’ve probably already found out what most people think of Graduation Day. If you’re unsure, then trust them, because my opinion may be biased and it’s certainly a minority. For what it’s worth though, I found it to be an enjoyable little cheesy frolic, with the added bonus of Christopher George making the most of a ham-sandwich characterisation.
This was never going to rival the likes of Halloween in the slasher stakes, but it surprisingly delivered what I was looking for; – fun by the bucket-load – and I really value the movie and accept it for what it is. It benefited from an impressive box office return ($2.4 million from a budget of just over $250,000), which must’ve opened the possibility for a sequel that unfortunately never materialised. For me, Graduation Day is a perfect slice of the ‘best of the rest’ of the peak slashers. Fast moving, cheesy and dumb. I’d pick this over most of the newer films that are thrown at us with spoilt narcissistic characters and know it all brats.
Final Girl √√