Midvale High's Class of '81 is being fitted for caps and gowns… and coffins in Vinegar Syndrome's restored Blu-ray/DVD combo release of Herb Freed's slasher GRADUATION DAY.
Ensign Anne Ramstead (Patch Mackenzie, DARK TOWER) returns to her home town to accept the varsity track trophy and diploma at Midvale High's upcoming graduation on behalf of her younger sister Laura (Ruth Ann Llorens) who tragically died four months earlier on the track of a blood clot. She blames domineering Coach Michaels (Christopher George, PIECES) and the entire ultracompetitive track team – cross country star Paula (Linda Shayne, HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP), gymnast Sally (Denise Cheshire, JAWS), football star Ralph (Carl Rey), pole-vaulter Pete (Tom Hintnaus, who had lost his actual chance at the 1980 Summer Olympics due to the US boycott of the USSR), and class wiseguy Tony (Bill Hufsey, FAME) – for Laura's death; well, all except for Laura's sensitive boyfriend Kevin (E. Danny Murphy, TOMBOY) who has kept her notified of developments following her sister's death in lieu of her drunken stepfather (Hal Bokar, LADY IN WHITE) and subservient mother (Beverly Dixon, ENCOUNTER WITH THE UNKNOWN). Conveniently, Anne's return coincides with someone's decision to violently thin out the class of '81 – at least it seems those members of the track team – one by one.
With all of the celebrations (including a roller disco night with Felony performing the catchy "Gangster Rock") and preparations for the graduation day festivities, it isn't until concerned parents start calling the school that Principal Guglione (Michael Pataki, MANSION OF THE DOOMED) notices that some of the student body have vanished and is forced to take it seriously when Italian-looking Inspector Halliday (Carmen Argenziano, THE GODFATHER: PART II) is called in to investigate. There are plenty of suspects, not just Anne – who wonders around the campus suspiciously and says things like "You remind me of my sister. She's dead now." – lecherous Coach Michaels who won't be coming back next fall due to the publicity surrounding Laura's death, and even nice guy Kevin who has not moved on. The murders, of course, might have nothing to do with Laura. After all, Principal Guglione would like to cancel graduation altogether, flamboyant but definitely hetero music teacher Mr. Roberts (Richard Balin, REDZONE) who is being blackmailed by Tony's girlfriend Delores (Linnea Quigley, DON'T GO NEAR THE PARK), security guard MacGregor (Virgil Frye, DR. HECKYL AND MR. HYPE) who gets no respect and has dirt on everyone, and secretary Blondie (E.J. Peaker, HELLO DOLLY!) is seriously stressed out…
Released just after FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2 when the slasher formula more or less established, GRADUATION DAY hits all of the familiar notes: killer holding a tight knit group responsible for a past accidental death, murders making novel use of available hardware (in this case, various sports equipment), red herring characters who happen to have pairs of black gloves (not to mention stopwatches and switchblades which we also see carried by the killer), stalkings and false scares, corpse discoveries, Linnea Quigley's breasts, a final girl, a surprise ending, and an "it's only a dream… or is it?" final scare. The whole thing might have been completely forgettable – or at least easy to mix up with several other examples of the genre – if not for its balance of genre theatrics and humor (including the inspector's take on the principal's graduation metaphor describing the missing kids as "about to fly out of their nest and shit on the rest of us"). The killings are not effects showcases of the Tom Savini variety, but effects artist Jill Rockow – who would work on DEADLY EYES and FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE FINAL CHAPTER before moving onto more mainstream work with the STAR TREK remake and THOR as her most recent credits – gives us more than we've come to expect from the lower tier slashers.
Mackenzie is not given much to work with here. Since it is supposed to be ambiguous as to whether she is the killer or not, she is saddled with a lot of purposeless wandering; and even then, she really is not in a lot of the movie. Since she is written in the "strong female character" mold, one would have expected more from her going head-to-head with George's coach, and more badassery than running, stumbling, and tripping during the climax. Apart from that, the rest of the film's rough edges and absurdities are what make it entertaining. Director Herb Freed (TOMBOY) and editor Martin Jay Sandoff (PINK NARCISSUS) inject some exhilarating energy into some of the suspense and kill scenes, particularly the setpiece intercut with the roller disco sequence. The orchestral score of Arthur Kempel (FLESHBURN) follows the usual route of percussion and meandering strings that speed up to a sting for a killing or a false scare, but he does give us a catchier end title theme (the style of which might have been more effectively employed earlier). A pre-WHEEL OF FORTUNE Vanna White is on hand as one of a bubble-headed coed, and seventies softcore regular Patrick Wright (THE CHEERLEADERS) gives Anne a lift into town with a side of sexual harassment. Singer Grant Loud – whose dysfunctional family were profiled on the PBS documentary series AN AMERICAN FAMILY – appears as one of the students and performs "Graduation Day Blues".
Released theatrically by the short-lived IFI/Scope III, Inc. – which also distributed Freed's BEYOND EVIL as well as GOOD LUCK MISS WYKOFF (available on another Blu-ray/DVD combo from Vinegar Syndrome) – GRADUATION DAY was distributed on VHS by RCA/Columbia the following year in what was presumably the American theatrical cut of the film. Subsequently the film was passed along to Troma Films (along with Freed's BEYOND EVIL which also distributed by IFI/Scope III), and the subsequent DVD – which highlighted the presences of Vanna White and Linnea Quigley – was touted as being the film's director's cut (at 97 minutes and 39 seconds). While the disc also included an interview with Quigley and Troma's usual bad taste extras, the source of the transfer was an old video master with a typically smeary digital encoding.
The film's original negative is believed to be lost, but Vinegar Syndrome's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.78:1 widescreen Blu-ray and 16:9 DVD – the Troma-tic origins of which are nowhere in evidence – are derived from a 4K scan of an original answer print belonging to the film's editor (which runs 96 minutes and 42 seconds). The new transfer definitely breathes new life into this $300,000 production with vibrant colors and enhanced clarity that allow the viewer to take in details of the real locations as well as the production design (note the cluttered eclectic furnishings in Kevin's grandmother's home and the VAMPIRELLA poster and other décor in his bedroom), and one can almost make out the face of the killer in the background as he is stalking Sally early on (although Freed himself reportedly doubled for the killer in a couple scenes). It also allows some new appraisal of the film's special effects. During the first murder, the prop knife can be seen jetting blood before it slashes down and continuing to do so as it is raised up. The shot of the sword sticking through the neck of the gymnast seen from behind through the reflection in the mirror appeared to be a mannequin in earlier presentations (partially due to the preceding insert of the sword piercing through the back of a false neck), but now we can see at the right edge of the frame the left side of the actress' face as she blinks. The decapitation effect in the dark woods is easier to make out in this presentation, and the discovered severed head now looks more convincing (like a decent likeness painted to look drained of blood rather than a quickly made-up but mismatched mannequin head). Some blooming whites during the daytime exteriors are inherent in the eighties cinematography, and the opening and closing credits as well as some opticals do of course sport some coarser-looking grain (as does the continuation of flashback following the opening credits suggesting it is at least partially a stylistic touch). The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 mono track (Dolby Digital 1.0 on the DVD) is also clean and has nice presence, particularly during the musical passages like the main title sequence and the "Gangster Rock" setpiece.
The film can also be viewed accompanied by two audio commentary tracks. The lively first track features producer David Baughn and is moderated by Elijah Drenner. Baughn sold HALLOWEEN regionally and decided to develop a slasher film with Freed and his wife (having tacked gothic horror previously with BEYOND EVIL) and raised the money by locking in playdates with theaters in advance (starting with Los Angeles playdates during graduation week). They discuss the regional release of the film, with Baughn personally transporting two hundred theatrical prints among territories and across the country (and making sure the trailers played in the theaters prior to the release). They discuss the locations and the film's casting – including working with Quigley and Pataki (who had then divorced co-star Peaker but recommended her for the film), and Vanna White who was being handled by the same agents as Christopher George (the agency actually contacted Baughn about using her). They also discuss the heavy visual influence of Sandoff's editing, and hiring composer Kempel and cinematographer Dan Yarussi based on their work on Bert I. Gordon's THE COMING (aka BURNED AT THE STAKE). On the question of remakes, Baughn describes how he and MICROWAVE MASSACRE producer Craig Muckler were approached to write a remake of MICROWAVE MASSACRE and sequels to BEYOND EVIL and GRADUATION DAY for a three picture deal (they collaborated on a new script for MICROWAVE MASSACRE but the deal never came to fruition).
The second track by The Hysteria Continues was actually recorded as one of their podcasts (Vinegar Syndrome's product page for the Blu-ray/DVD combo even has an iTunes link where that track and their podcasts for other horror/slasher films can be downloaded for free as .mp3 files). The track gets off to a rough start with the group's typical humor being a bit off-putting, but they start unleashing trivia, anecdotes, and theories soon after. They point out that cutaways of Quigley's character added to the opening sequence to establish her as part of the group while another actress on the track team (Erica Hope, BLOODY BIRTHDAY) who reportedly did not want to do the required nudity had been recast and had her coverage minimized as much as possible (although she does have lines during the photo shoot scene and her body turns up later on even though we don't see her killed). They express skepticism about Freed's claims to not have seen any slasher films or been aware of their popularity, but that of course may be true given Baughn's comments on the other track about his inspirations to do a slasher film as well as the story on this track that Freed's co-writer Marisse had studied the films to divine a formula (which is also the inspiration for the killer's stopwatch gimmick). They also mention that actress Ruth Ann Llorens was at the time the girlfriend of director Norman Thaddeus Vane – who would bring us FRIGHTMARE/THE HORROR STAR and THE BLACK ROOM later in the decade, as well as actress Linda Shayne's screenwriting career (including the SCREWBALLS sex comedies). It's an informative track, but probably one you're not going to get into easily if you restart the film with it on after watching it with the original audio or the other commentary track.
Vinegar Syndrome's Blu-ray also features four new interviews directed by Elijah Drenner. In "Acting Out in School" (8:46), actress Patch Mackenzie recalls taking the part because of the strong female character but clashing with Freed on how suspicious her character should behave. She recalls seeing the film in a theater and being surprised by the audience yelling at her character as she wanders into danger, that people recognized her from the film after it came out, and that she still receives fan mail for it. In "Surviving the Class of '81" (12:22), director Herb Freed recalls his working relationship with his wife Anne Marisse – who scripted HAUNTS and GRADUATION DAY with him before her early death in 1984 at age forty-eight) – and producer David Baughn who distributed HAUNTS. He knew there was no money in art films and preferred genres with built-in audiences, although he reveals that he was disturbed when audiences cheered the deaths in GRADUATION DAY (suggesting that was the reason he moved away from the genre, although his interest in the theme of transcendental love might have been the reason he took on the project rather than the body count aspect). He describes filmmaking as "the most fun you can have with your clothes on."
In "Graduation Day Blues" (11:34), producer David Baughn recalls his beginnings on the stage followed by working as a booker and then sales agent for MGM before leaving to work independently as the sales agent for Russ Meyer's films (he got drive-ins to play the X-rated SUEPRVIXENS by hole-punching genetalia out of every frame of the theatrical prints). He also handled the sales of THE FOLKS AT RED WOLF INN, as well as the regional sales of a number of other films in the seventies including HALLOWEEN and BILLY JACK. Around that time, he developed an interest in producing his own product (partially because there was more competition for fewer good titles). He got on well with Freed while handling his previous film HAUNTS (which he retitled from THE VEIL), so they developed BEYOND EVIL and GRADUATION DAY together. He recalls shopping the film to the majors, including MGM; and that the film was well-received, but it got its theatrical play extended by being double-billed with John Carpenter's THE THING in some territories. In "Cutting Class" (7:20), editor Sandoff recalls getting involved with the project while in Los Angeles while working on a documentary about the incidents at Kent State and University of Buffalo for New Line Cinema. He discusses the technical approaches he took to maintain a sense of momentum in GRADUATION DAY (concepts which he says would not carry over to digital editing), and that he was contacted to work on FRIDAY THE 13TH PART III while cutting GRADUATION DAY (he would supervise the 3D sequences of the film, but would actually edit the seventh film in the series). Both discs close out with the wonderful theatrical trailer (2:04) which makes use of a yearbook optical motif and highlights the song "Gangster Rock" (it is preceded by a Lorimar logo, but since this appears ahead of the MPAA rating card it may actually have been from the last seconds of another trailer on a compilation reel). (Eric Cotenas)
BACK TO REVIEWS