Your typical slasher flick from the 1980s was a morality play, of sorts. The guidelines were always apparent, even before Wes Craven laid them out in “Scream,” and they all boiled down to the fact that the kids doing drugs or having sex or otherwise engaging in typical teenage behavior were eventually going to end up with a pitchfork between the shoulder blades. If you were a goody two-shoes and kept it in your pants then maybe, just maybe, you would live to get killed in the second or third sequel.
“Graduation Day,” originally released in 1981, turns this generally accepted rule of thumb on its ear, to coin a phrase. Someone is killing off the members of the high school track team with little regard for the fact that not all of them are boning each other while hopped up on goofballs (some are, but that’s not the point). Is it the hard-a*s coach (Christopher George)? He already ran that poor Laura Ramstead to death, you know. Could it be the dead girl’s sister, Ensign Anne Ramstead (Patch Mackenzie)? She’s none too pleased about Laura’s untimely demise, and she learned some cool kung fu moves in the service. How about Laura’s ex-boyfriend Kevin (E. Danny Murphy), the second oldest movie high school student ever behind Stockard Channing? Maybe the sleazy yet ineffectual principal (Michael Pataki)? Perhaps it’s Officer MacGregor (Virgil Frye), the campus narc who just happens to enjoy toking up now and again?
Ah, who cares? The essential problem with “Graduation Day” is that it fails as both a straight-up-horror movie (almost no gore, long arid scenes in which nothing happens) and as a Troma movie (it’s played as straight as almost any horror movie I’ve ever seen). The only laughs are unintentional, which is swift death for any reasonably serious slasher pic. No one seems to notice or care that six fairly prominent students have been murdered one day before graduation, their bodies apparently hidden all around campus with no one the wiser. That right there should let you know you’re in the realm of inept fiction, because any stashed corpses in 99% of American high schools wouldn’t remain hidden for more than the time it takes for the shop kids to sneak under the bleachers for a smoke.
To top it off, “Graduation Day” subjects viewers to what was undoubtedly the most atrocious cinematic musical performance until Phil Collins started scoring Disney movies: the band “Felony.” During an eight-and-a-half minute (!) performance of their song “Gangster Rock” the killer, resplendent in fencing togs, takes out Tony (“Fame’s” Billy Hufsey) and Dolores (Linnea Quigley). It’s difficult to tell if their screams are the result of being pursued by a homicidal maniac or being subjected to a song played in a freaking roller disco by a bunch of dudes decked out like Dennis Christopher in “Fade to Black.”
“Graduation Day” is that worst of horror movies: a boring one. There’s little gore, excruciatingly slow pacing, and the only gratuitous T&A is courtesy of Linnea Quigley who, lets face it, isn’t the hardest person to get to disrobe. And in spite of the fact that the DVD is marketed with Vanna White’s name prominently displayed, she’s only in the film for a fully clothed four minutes. With all the decent low-budget options available to the horror movie fan, you can easily afford to skip “Graduation Day.”
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