Monday, November 16, 2015

Hard Rock Zombies

Hard Rock Zombies (1985)
Dir Krishna Shah
Written by David Allan Ball, Krishna Shah
Starring E. J. Curse, Sam Mann, Jennifer Coe, Lisa Toothman, Phil Fondacaro

So, in this one, there’s an unnamed everyband of groupie-banging outlaw “Hard Rock” musicians, and they go to the tiny town of Grand Guignol, Canada, because it is the only place where a big studio mogul will come to hear them play and subsequently hand over wheelbarrows full of money, hot tubs full of groupies, and learjets full of lawyers to restore the correct balance of the universe. Problem is, they didn’t really think through this plan very well because despite having a state-of-the-art 5,000-seater rock venue, the townsfolks of Grand Guignol oppose rock and roll and have recently passed an ordinance banning it, resulting in a tense confrontation with the local rednecks and cops (unlike BLACK ROSES, this time there's no evidence that the townsfolk were right to do it, this "hard rock" band is about as benign as you can get). 

You’d think that would be the worst news, but wouldn’t you know it, a nubile hard rock blonde (Lisa Toothman, WITCHCRAFT III: KISS OF DEATH) has been luring men to skinnydip with her in a fetid pond outside Norman Bates’ house in a totally not at all suspicious manner, but I'll be damned if the minute they’re nude some maniac doesn't chop them up while two mutant dwarfs watch and a creep in a white suit takes photos from the bushes. So despite the pleas from a virginal groupie named Cassandra (Jennifer Coe, “teenage girl” in one episode of TV’s Falcon Crest, nothing else) when our intrepid heroes see a hot blonde hitchhiker, they can’t resist spending the night at her gothic palatial manor and meeting her parents (or roommates? it’s a little unclear) who turn out to be quite a colorful lot that give the TEXAS CHAINSAW family a run for its money in the eccentric relatives department. Blondie is the only one who’s not a monster, werewolf, mutant, peeping tom, or (widely known spoiler) elderly pervert Hitler,* so it’s actually kind of sweet that she’s not embarrassed by her wacky relatives and happily introduces everyone she meets to the whole fam-dambly. But as often happens in this sort of situation, cultures collide and the band ends up getting killed, only to be resurrected by a taped magical incantation the bass player had been messing around with. You’d think this would result in some revenge (and it briefly does), but actually the band returns with only one thing on its zombie mind, which is to play the hardest god damn rock show ever experienced by a single old man sitting alone in the audience.

Now I’ve seen plenty of heroically misguided movies, but come on, there’s no way that plot was written with the sincere belief that this would be good. This is nakedly a deliberate attempt to produce a wacky cult movie, and they pull out all the stops in terms of content and quality to produce something campy and ridiculous. This is a risky strategy generally; there’s no shortage of hilariously terrible movies which were earnestly trying to be good, so an equally low-rent movie which is actively trying to be dumb feels a little dishonest and its absurdity doesn’t carry as much goodwill. I think ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW is probably the only example of this impulse which mostly works, and even that is carried mostly on the shoulders of some pretty good songs, which HARD ROCK ZOMBIES definitively lacks. But you gotta at least respect the amount of overkill that went into making this one offbeat. Any one of the fifty or so ridiculous gimmicks here would be more than enough to hang an entire movie on, but HARD ROCK ZOMBIES just keeps tossing more on the pile. What it lacks in earnestness it makes up for in eagerness, which is not quite as rewarding but still enough to get by.
The movie has a pretty bizarre structure, wherein our lovable band of “hard rock” troubadours are introduced as the main characters, but get offed by the 1/ 3 point, get their revenge at the halfway mark (both in the form of musical montages) and then things get a little directionless as the movie casts about for any remaining characters to guide us to the finale. The resurrected zombies don’t have much personality other than their shuffling moaning and supposed hard rocking, so the movie somewhat halfheartedly tries to pretend anyone might care about their dorky manager and the ignorant townsfolk, which needless to say we do not. It tries to compensate with some goofy, tangential vignettes --constant cutaways to a rubber dwarf who eats himself, an unnecessarily protracted sequence where townsfolk try to avoid rampaging zombies by making giant cardboard heads for themselves-- but even so, there’s still some dead space to fill with random nothing (there’s a lot of unrelated footage of a blonde chick Whitesnake-dancing peppered in-between minor events).

Hard Rock Zombies 4/9

That might be because HARD ROCK ZOMBIES did not actually begin life as a real movie, even one with aspirations as low as we see here. It was supposed to be a movie-within-a-movie in director Krishna Shah’s other 1985 movie AMERICAN DRIVE-IN (which shares a good portion of this cast). Shah, an Indian-born entrepreneurial jack-of-all-trades (everything from producing Broadway shows to being CEO of Double Helix Films) apparently decided somewhere along the way to just invest the minimal amount of money necessary to expand the 20-minute joke film to a full-length extravaganza, thereby essentially producing two feature films for the price of one. This crafty business move resulted in a side project which is now certainly the more beloved of the two movies, if any film which doesn’t even have its own Wikipedia page can be realistically described as beloved. Of course, when you stretch out a in-movie joke to a full 98 minutes, the material can get a little thin (see: GRINDHOUSE and all its ancillary products except the brilliant HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN), resulting in the scattershot sketch-comedy approach which lards up the second half of this Frankenstein's movie just when it ought to be gaining momentum. But it hustles pretty hard all the way through; it may be somewhat haphazardly assembled, but at least it’s seldom uneventful.

Anyway, if you would be interested in seeing a campy zombie pastiche where they reverse-Auschwitz zombie Hitler as a hilarious joke, this one will probably provide the experience you've been craving. It’s maybe not quite as hilarious or subversive as it wants to be --it’s probably funnier to describe than it is to actually watch-- but it does have some legitimate chuckles in there, more than enough to nestle it comfortably in the company of BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS, RETURN OF CAPTAIN INVINCIBLE, NOT OF THIS EARTH (1988) or something. You know, movies which are not exactly good, or even successful on their own terms, but still have a certain scrappy personality which makes them at least intermittently watchable. If it falls short of the not-especially-lofty standards of ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, however, it does so wholly as a result of its songs. It’s a musical through and through (in fact, most of the major events in the film are communicated through the form of montage music videos) but Jesus, this barely even qualifies as rock, let alone hard rock. There’s a vaguely metal final number which at least hangs its aspirations on a crunchy rock riff, but mostly the keyboards have an iron grip on these tracks which place them definitively in the wuss-rock category. These guys may need to call themselves hard rock zombies to register as rebellious enough for naive teenagers in tiny midwestern towns to want to bang, but I know a song that could feasibly be covered by Air Supply when I hear it. They got a few energetic rockabilly numbers, but Hard Rock? You want to look into Slash’s sunglasses and tell him you’re in the same subgenre as him? Slash isn’t going to accept that shit, and you know it. Plus, consider the following:

hard rock zombies - dance montage
hard rock zombies - dance montage

That is not acceptable behavior even in a montage context. Your hard rock card has been revoked.

Anyway, aside from the disspiriting lack of hard rock, this one’s got everything. Zombies. Mullets. Whitesnake dancing. Cannibalistic muppets. A dwarf with an eyepatch.** Giant cardboard heads of famous celebrities. Sex-pervert Hitler. Zombie Hitler. Nudity. A goofy parody of PSYCHO. Werewolf Eva Braun. Decapitating. Zany Antics. A town hall meeting. And many, many musical montages. This would probably have been better if it had slightly more aspiration to be a real movie, but at least you can’t accuse it of lack of effort. It’s definitely aiming to please, it just might be trying a little too hard.

*By the way, actor Jack Bliesener has only two credited roles: Hitler, and “the President of the United States” (in the Greeksploitation crime thriller ZEUS THE CRIME KILLER). Talk about range!

**Give credit to by far the most distinguished member of the cast, dwarf actor Phil Fondacaro, who was an Ewok, a Garbage Pail Kid, a PHANTASM dwarf, a Willow, “Chihuahua” in LAND OF THE DEAD, dwarf Dracula in THE CREEPS, and the troll from TROLL. This guy’s a fuckin’ national treasure. His IMDB entry notes that he is the shortest Dracula ever on film, a full three feet short of Christopher Lee (who it claims is the tallest Dracula). Plus, he and I share a birthday. I’m now a fan for life.


Play it Again, Samhain

  • TAGLINE: They came back from the grave to rock and rave and misbehave! and Their Farewell Concert is to Die For! AND, Your Can't Keep a Good Band Down! They're not a good band so I don't know what that last one means, but still, all quality efforts.
  • LITERARY ADAPTATION: Nope, sorry to disappoint.
  • SEQUEL: None, amazingly
  • REMAKE: None, amazingly
  • BELOVED HORROR ICON: Phil Fondacaro
  • BOOBIES: Yes
  • MULLETS: Oh God, yes
  • SEXUAL ASSAULT: The drummer is murdered while having consensual shower kissing, probably doesn't count. Then, the townsfolk want to fix everything by forcing our virginal groupie hero to have sex with all the zombies. Fortunately that doesn't come to pass.
  • DISMEMBERMENT PLAN: Head ripped off (by zombie Hitler!) hand cut off, revived.
  • MONSTER: Yeah, some sort of weird muppet or something, also werewolf.
  • THE UNDEAD: Zombies! (both hard rock and generic varieties)
  • PSYCHO KILLERS (Non-slasher variety): Yeah, the murderous Hitler family.
  • EVIL CULT: No, although a chant from the middle ages revives the zombies.
  • TRANSMOGRIFICATION: Humans into Zombies, Eva Braun into Werewolf.
  • VOYEURISM: Yes, pervy camera guy photographs the murders from the bushes or through a window.
  • OBSCURITY LEVEL: So high it doesn't even have its own wikipedia page.
  • MORAL OF THE STORY: If you're going to bill yourself as "hard rock" you better be damn sure I'll consider your shit hard. Otherwise, no amount of zombie Hitlers and flesh-eating muppets is ever going to be enough to entirely forgive you.
  • TITLE ACCURACY: In the words of Dan P, "more like Wuss Rock Ghouls."

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