Color, 1981, 96m.
Directed by Herb Freed
Starring Christopher George, Patch Mackenzie, E. Danny Murphy, Michael Pataki, Richard Balin, Carmen Argenziano, Linnea Quigley
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9), Troma (DVD) (US R0 NTSC)
1981 was easily the most astonishing year for slasher film fans, with new entries opening almost every week and usually populating multiple screens at a time. Wedged in between titles like Halloween II, Friday the 13th Part 2, My Bloody Valentine, and Happy Birthday to Me was a little number called Graduation Day. The film was directed by Herb Freed, who had recently come off of two other non-slasher horror films, Beyond Evil and the twisted, oddly effective Haunts (which really needs a quality release one of these days). As with other directors with no slasher experience (a la J. Lee Thompson), the results turned out to be quirky and weirdly endearing with enough surreal touches to stand out from the rest of the pack.
Here the filmmaker parted ways with regular composer Pino Donaggio and instead delivered a disco-heavy slice of insanity complete with an unforgettable opening sequence in which a cheering, borderline psychotic crowd at a track race is shocked when star runner Laura drops dead from what appears to be a blood clot. The rest of the team is happily headed to graduation (of course), but one by one they're cut down by a killer in fencing gear who times their demises with a stopwatch. Meanwhile Laura's sister, Anne (Mackenzie), takes time off from naval service to attend a memorial and act in a generally suspicious manner. However, there are plenty of other suspects on hand including the team coach (a pre-Pieces Christopher George) and the lecherous school principal (Grave of the Vampire's Michael Pataki). Meanwhile the kids keep dropping like flies thanks to clever deadly contraptions involving school sports gear.
While no one has ever stacked this film anywhere near the top ranks of slasher classics, it's also an undeniably entertaining entry with loads of pop culture trash touches (such as a roller rink graduation party played by new wave/rock group Felony!). If that weren't enough, you also get a very young, pre-Wheel of Fortune Vanna White along with a very baby-faced Linnea Quigley, who has a really unflattering 'do and gets to pop her top a couple of times. It's also a riot of red herrings and gratuitous padding with simple actions like Pataki slicing an apple milked for all they're worth, which somehow just adds to the fun. Peripheral characters get to pop up and gab about nothing particularly relevant, but when the results are as surreal as the pompadoured, serenading music teacher, there's no way anyone could possibly complain. The finale is also surprisingly twisted and lively, featuring a macabre little turn of events later copied verbatim in the Italian thriller Nothing Underneath.
Graduation Day first bowed on home video in the '80s from RCA/Columbia on VHS alongside companion features like When a Stranger Calls and Alone in the Dark. That dated, open matte transfer was recycled for a 2002 DVD from Troma that proved to be oddly difficult to find; extras included the usual avalanche of Tromabilia and little else. Here's a sample to give you an idea of how it looked.
The 2014 dual-format edition from Vinegar Syndrome easily eclipses that one in every way thanks to a vastly superior 4K(!) transfer from the editor's 35mm answer print, the best surviving film element. The scenes involving opticals and heavy flash-frame editing (particularly the opening credits) have the expected built-in debris, but otherwise it looks great with very vibrant colors and a tremendous amount of detail completely invisible on past versions, such as a funny nod to Freed's past composer on a chalkboard and some surprisingly clear shots of the killer's face behind that fencing mask. The DTS-HD mono track also sounds fine, doing justice to that wacko music score including an end credits piece that deserves a single release of its own.
The film also comes with a pair of audio commentaries offering distinctly different takes on the film. The first one features producer David Baughn with moderator Elijah Drenner, and if you've heard any of the many past tracks with movie producers, you should have some idea of what to expect here as they go into detail about the film's financing, release history (paired up in some territories with John Carpenter's The Thing!), crew, and box office. The second one has the foursome from Vinegar Syndrome mainstays The Hysteria Continues, whose riotous podcast devoted to slasher films has become a crash course in the subgenre all unto itself. They're obviously on their home turf here and deliver their most comfortable, fact-filled one to date; the film was one of the first they ever tackled back in '11, and here they've obviously settled into their roles quite a bit as they tackle it again in more depth with a rapid-fire slew of observations and facts about virtually everyone involved in the production (including a couple of Olympic contenders stymied by Moscow). Also included here are four video interview featurettes with Patch Mackenzie (just under 9 minutes), Herb Freed (12 minutes), Baughn (11 minutes), and editor Martin Jay Sadoff (7 minutes). Topics range include Mackenzie's hiring (due to her role in Serial), Sadoff's transition to this after cutting Pink Narcissus and his work on the Friday the 13th Series, and Freed's collaboration with his wife, a fellow writer. 0Freed also explains why this was the last of his horror trilogy with the slasher formula forcing him to learn a whole new set of rules; amusingly, he followed this one up with the '80s sex comedy favorite Tomboy. The theatrical trailer rounds out the set, inexplicably bearing a Lorimar logo and featuring some really stylish visuals aping a high school yearbook. No self-respecting slasher fan would dare go without this one.