Color, 1984, 95 mins. 50 secs.
Directed by James Fargo
Starring Pia Zadora, Craig Sheffer, Tom Nolan, Ruth Gordon, Michael Berryman
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9),
CMV Laservision (Blu-ray & DVD) (Germany R0 HD/PAL), Quantum Leap (UK R2 PAL)
The queen of '80s camp, Pia Zadora became a household name of sorts when she won a Best Newcomer Golden Globe for the lurid Butterfly, followed by the ridiculous soap opera The Lonely Lady. Proving she could be a good sport, she went on to both a credible singing career and perhaps the decade's most ridiculous New Wave musical, Voyage of the Rock Aliens. A bizarre, virtually plotless collection of music video-style song and dance numbers wedged into a carbon copy of the kitschy 1970 Olivia Newton-John musical Toomorrow, it begins with some aliens on a ship watching the music video for Pia's European smash duet with Jermaine Jackson, "When the Rain Begins to Fall" (still the biggest hit for both of them, and a very catchy song).
After that the "narrative" kicks in as we hop to the town of Speelburgh (wink, wink) where Dee Dee (Pia, of course) and her feather-haired boyfriend, Frankie (a pre-Nightbreed Craig Sheffer), have attracted the aliens (played by members of the band Rhema) who, in their guitar-shaped ship, are looking for true rock and roll. Frankie wants his rockabilly band to be the number one act in town, and Dee Dee's tendency to burst into perky songs (even in the ladies' room) apparently might endanger his shot at the big dance coming up. Then you have Ruth Gordon as the lusty geriatric sheriff on the hunt for UFOs and even The Hills Have Eyes' Michael Berryman as an asylum escapee with a chainsaw. Oh yeah, and the high school gets attacked by a giant sea monster that wraps its tentacles around the building and has a showdown with Dee Dee and Frankie in the gym. Yes, it's that kind of movie.
Though dubious as cinema, Voyage of the Rock Aliens is a jaw-dropping and wildly entertaining time capsule on every pop culture level imaginable. Glowing checkerboard clothes, synth-heavy pop music, and a solo number with a lip-synching Sheffer slowly intercut with a glowering cougar ensure that this will live in the pantheon of beloved musical oddities for eternity for the steadfast excavators who keep stumbling across it. There is indeed a good reason why sites devoted to cinematic catastrophes always get around to this one sooner or later despite the fact that it only played American theaters in very limited regional test campaigns. Meanwhile lucky Europeans got it on a much larger scale, while the soundtrack has become a collector's item for those lucky enough to stumble on it. Most people caught the movie four years later when Prism unleashed this on VHS, while occasional cable airings ensured stunned reactions from unsuspecting HBO subscribers from coast to coast. And would you believe it was directed by James Fargo, who started off with the Dirty Harry films The Enforcer and Every Which Way But Loose as well as the Chuck Norris vehicle Forced Vengeance?
All of the VHS versions of this film have looked terrible, complete with that desaturated, fuzzy sheen familiar from most late '80s film scans. That same master was rehashed for the UK DVD, which is Region 2 encoded and worth picking up only if you have no other option. Far more preferable for standard def folks is the German DVD version from 2011, which is region free and features a far superior transfer. Still full frame, it's imperfect given the ramshackle nature of its construction but, for 90% of the running time, much more sharp and colorful than before. The opening music video still looks drab and murky by comparison, and for reasons made clear in the extras, the final scene (featuring Zadora and Sheffer reprising "When the Rain Begins to Fall," with the latter absurdly mouthing Jermaine's vocals) is obviously sourced from a vastly inferior tape source. The bonus features include the UK ending in pristine quality, which recuts the finale to omit the on-screen vocals and instead turns into a somewhat more respectable montage. Other bonuses include the original trailer (which is... indescribable), the alternate German credits (from a cruddy VHS source), and the original standalone music video for "When the Rain Begins to Fall," which begins and ends without the aliens. Audio is presented in English or German stereo with no subtitles.
Though the film is available in Germany as a single-disc DVD release, a double-disc DVD special edition is also available with a real treasure trove for fans waiting on the second disc. It's a 45-minute "Video Album" originally prepared to promote the film by MCA/Curb Records (yes, as in the prolific music producer Mike Curb, one of the film's producers), containing a slew of original music videos for songs on the soundtrack. (And nope, it's not just cut-up clips from the movie.) The Jackson/Zadora video is carried over here again, of course (and incredibly, it was later remade as a techno dance song), but you also get the great, semi-rare video for "Openhearted" by Real Life (of "Send Me an Angel" fame), "She Doesn't Mean a Thing to Me" by Mark Spiro, "Back on the Street" by 3 Speed (basically a three-minute ode to Michael Berryman), "Nature of the Beast" by Michael Bradley, "21st Century" by Rhema, "New Orleans" by Neil Sedaka and Gary U.S. Bond, "Justine" by Jimmy and the Mustangs (a surrealistic camcorder nightmare worth the price by itself), "Combine Man" by Rhema, "Let's Dance Tonight" (a streamlined version of the final dance number), and a "work in progress only" version of Pia Zadora's video for "Little Bit of Heaven."
Since German home video execs are apparently insane, that meant this one had to come out on Blu-ray, too. Issued two years later in 2014, it presents the film in both standard full frame and a matted 1.78:1 version; the latter is utterly skippable since it just blows the image up without any increase in detail and just looks a lot more claustrophobic. The 1.33:1 version appears to be a better-than-average upconversion from a PAL master running 91 mins. 38 secs., looking watchable in motion and at least nowhere near the depths some German Blu-rays can sink to (see Stick for a horrifying example). English and German audio options are presented in standard Dolby Digital stereo.
What's most surprising about the German Blu-ray (in a good way) is the extras, with everything from the double-disc set ported over (trailer, music videos, German credits, UK ending). Newly added are four very different TV spots, a 17-minute "promo reel" (one of those extended pitches they used to run on TV to fill up space between movies with an overly enthusiastic announcer trying to sum up the highlights), a "bilgergalerie" of promotional stills and artwork, and an extra four music videos(!): Jimmy and the Mustangs' "Trouble Maker," Zadora's "Real Love" and "You Bring Out the Lover in Me," and the movie version of "Little Bit of Heaven" slightly retooled into music video form.
After decades of unavailability, the Rock Aliens finally cruised back to the U.S. in 2022 on Blu-ray from Vinegar Syndrome. Here you get a new 2K scan from the 35mm interpositive, surprisingly bearing the onscreen title When the Rain Begins to Fall and looking quite a bit more detailed than the earlier releases. The framing is greatly improved as well, adding more on the sides and shifting the widescreen matting so things are as tight on top. The packaging notes a DTS-HD Stereo track but it's actually 5.1, though the channel separation here is very minimal with some ambient right and left separation during the songs but nothing particularly dramatic otherwise. Optional English SDH subtitles are provided as usual. Crucially, this version also runs at the correct film speed with the original running time of 95 minutes, so the songs and dialogue are all correctly pitched now. "Embarking on a Voyage: The Making of an Alien Dance Rock Opera" (40m50s) features Berryman, executive producer Max A. Keller, producer Micheline Keller, wardrobe assistant Donzaleigh Abernathy, co-writer and co-producer Charles Hairston, special effects artist Dwight Roberts, and miniatures artist Anton Tremblay chatting about the radical change of the film from its original non-musical incarnation, the engineering of the ship effects, the intimidation of dressing "teeny weeny" Ruth Gordon, and the importance of chainsaw safety on the set. A new reunion featurette, "Where They Are Now: Reuniting the Band Rhema in the 21st Century" (48m39s) with members of Rhema -- Crag Jensen, Marc Jackson, Jeffrey Casey, Patrick Byrnes, and Gregory Bond -- is a priceless record of the band's history from its origins as a Christian rock band in Arizona through their fortuitous meeting with the film's producers (which ended up with one member deemed unsuitable for the camera), the production in Atlanta, the memorable encounter they had with an acting coach, the lessons learned along the way, and their own musical adventures after the band's dissolution.
CMV Laservision (1.75:1)
CMV Laservision (1.33:1)
Updated review on June 13, 2022.