Graduation Day 1981 Review
Graduation Day 1981
Directed by: Herb Freed
Starring: Christopher George, Patch Mackenzie, E. Danny Murphy
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
Graduation Day almost 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 of them was as strict as a Nazi head teacher and wouldn’t let the nine year old me rent out any 18 rated movies. Luckily, the other guy just wanted to see the colour of your money no matter how old you were 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!’ Now 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 from the stock room 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 disappointedly headed home.
Around that time, the movie 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, knowing 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…….
Despite some hokey gore effects, Graduation Day presents itself efficiently, and we never get the feeling that this has been made on the merest of budgets (which it was). For readers who 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 horror films were not the most obvious next step in his career. 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 the 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 wife who at the time of shooting was fighting cancer and regrettably she died following the film’s national release. That must have made Freed’s job even harder and I think it would’ve been understandable if he called the whole thing off. He persisted with production and the net result was well worth it because Graduation Day is a key addition to the category even if it’s not one of the better entries.
To be fair, he does a good enough job of creating a smidgen of suspense in places and there’s 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 that Graduation Day is probably the daftest of all the period slashers. However, I must confess, that I really don’t think that it’s all that bad. I know, I know, you must think I’m crazy, but watching it last night whilst taking notes for this review, I actually rather enjoyed myself. It managed to keep me interested and the cheesy thrills make a worthy alternative to competent horror. Christopher George turns out a decent performance and the jesting banter between B-movie vet Michael Pataki and Broadway star E.J. Beaker actually works. Admittedly it looked as if screenwriter David Baughn was stuck in the Rock Hudson/Doris Day era, but as light comic refreshment, they made a good job of it. Even the youngsters weren’t all that bad. You’ll spot a young Linnea Quigley and an infamous early appearance from Vanna White, who spends most of her screen time screaming unconvincingly. E. Danny Murphy was really good as the grieving boyfriend and his teeth-gnashing turn much later was exactly what this campy feast needed.
Herb Freed has tried 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. (Rejoice the times when we used to run around our school at night dressed in black tracksuits with scarves around our faces – the days of the Ninja!). The direction was somewhat sluggish, but the scene where the hooded-killer sneaks along a window behind an unsuspecting victim was impressive and the score is decent enough without ever being exceptional.
There is of course, the now notorious Graduation party, which is known to be by far the most annoying ten minutes from the slasher category. A musical group by the name of ‘Felony’ take centre stage at the disco, where teens whiz 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 terrible, with a singer that has extreme vocal limitations and not even a decent song for him to attempt to sing. They seriously ruined an otherwise comical 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 mask after Michael Myers’ fearful Shatner impersonation in Halloween. Quite what made these guys dig out a Fencing visor was somewhat dubious, but it must’ve impressed John Ottman, because he ‘borrowed’ it for his Urban Legend follow up.
It looks as if Freed blew his entire budget on the actors and hiring the rock band, leaving him with nothing 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 with a sword through the middle for about 300 yards before it slices through a victim and only one of the slaughters is shown on screen, in the rest we only get a look at the aftermath.
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 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 delivered what I was looking for; – fun by the bucket-load. It actually 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 somewhat unfortunately never materialised. Financially the movie fights its corner well against its contemporaries and it deserves a place in the slasher hall of fame….
Final Girl √√
Posted on February 15, 2013, in Slasher and tagged 1981, cheesy wotsit, Christopher George, Fencing Mask, Graduation day, masked killer, Sorority Slasher, Whodunit?. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.