Dir. and written by Jason Lei Howden
Starring Milo Cawthorne, James Blake, Kimberley Crossman, Stephen Ure
As longtime readers have noted, I’ve spent the last year or so in a sporadic attempt to catalogue and explore the mysteries of the obscure horror subgenre of Metalsploitation, an art form which ingeniously marries the idiotic brutality of b-horror movies with the idiotic brutality of heavy metal music. These movies --cheif among them TERROR ON TOUR (1980), ROCKTOBER BLOOD (1984), HARD ROCK ZOMBIES (1985), TRICK OR TREAT (1986), ROCK AND ROLL NIGHTMARE (1987), SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE II (but not Part I), and BLACK ROSES (1988)-- are almost uniformly terrible, but then again, they mostly do provide what you paid for: a low-rent heavy metal soundtrack, some kind of monster puppet or something, probably some tits, maybe a disembowling or two, and possibly a cameo from Ozzy Osbourne, or at least W.A.S.P. Metalsploitation movies, like heavy metal fans, have neither the time nor the capacity for subterfuge; they are what they are, and unabashedly so.
Thing is, though, it was a style which thrived for a relatively brief period, mostly in the 1980s and very early 90’s, when heavy metal was still new enough that people were scared of it. It’s hard to believe now, but there was a time when actual adults spent real world time and resources publically wringing their hands about the dangers of Dungeons and Dragons and the music of Metallica and Stryper. Hell, maybe even Winger. They went on talk shows, they published books. They even dragged Judas Priest into court on the charge that their 1978 cover of Better By You, Better Than Me contained hidden messages urging listeners to kill themselves, and --get this-- the charges were dismissed not because they were patently asinine, but because it was immediately obvious that the “hidden message” was a recording glitch, not a subliminal command from Satan. As late as 1994, citizens and law enforcement of a small Arkansas town considered the heavy metal tastes of the West Memphis Three to be evidence of warped and satanic inclinations towards murder.
Now, all this fear and paranoia about youth culture was hardly unique to heavy metal, and mysteriously it basically evaporated the moment suburban parents found out their kids were into Tupac. But that period in the 80’s where otherwise apparently responsible adults truly believed their bored suburban spawn were being brainwashed by the Dark One through backwards-spinning records --itself a subset of a larger web of fears and anxieties colloquially known by the frankly terrific name The Satanic Panic, a once all-consuming, now-laughable episode of mass paranoia which would be quaint and endearing today were there not still obviously innocent people in jail from the fallout -- was a fertile ground for exploitation filmmakers who may not themselves have had much affection for Megadeath or Dokken, but who knew something that would piss off parents --and hence be catnip for their kids-- when they saw it.
What, then, to make of a metalspoitation movie from fucking 2015? I was skeptical about DEATHGASM immediately, simply because I had my doubts that this concept could really work anymore. Part of the appeal of these movies -- maybe most of their appeal-- was that their sordid reputation gave them a (retrospectively completely unearned) sense of deviance and danger. But by 2015 -- hell, by 1990-- we knew better. There’s nothing scary about heavy metal anymore; metalheads have basically been outed as the music world’s jocks, harmless meatheads without the necessary emotional complexity to express basic emotions without the use of brute force. Nobody’s scared of metal anymore. It’s these twee indie sociopaths you gotta watch out for, they’re the ones secretly planning to Leopold and Loeb you as a hilarious lark. While a decade of censorship attempts and hysterical Geraldo special reports failed to kill the metal, the invention of irony in the early 90’s kinda did.
Fortunately, DEATHGASM gets this. While it can’t quite pretend that metal is scary without indulging in a bit of nostalgia pastiche, it makes up for it by getting metalheads and what they’re about, and why they might enjoy a movie like, say, DEATHGASM. And it probably doesn’t hurt that it’s from New Zealand, where it’s still maybe 2005, if not actually 1985.
It centers on the friendship between sensitive nice guy metalhead Brodie (Milo Cawthorne, Power Rangers RPM, recognizable because he looks “like a male Keira Knightley” according to longtime friend of the site Dan P) and his dickish but even more metal friend Zakk (James Blake, uncredited body double for THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY but a real scene-stealer here), who start a band together and eventually end up playing an ancient Satanic hymn that summons a demonic apocalypse, much to the annoyance of some villainous cult who had the same idea but was hoping to get credit for it themselves. Pretty soon, all the adults around them (and seeming all humans everywhere?) are transformed into flesh-eating ghouls, and it’s up to our boys and their expendable rhythm section plus Brodie’s new girl (Kimberly Crossman, Kiwi soap opera Shortland Street) to murder them as messily as possible and hopefully do something about the whole “end of the world” issue, while not messing their corpse paint up too much.
Unlike the metalsploitation movies of old, this is more intentional comedy than horror film, but it follows in the footsteps of fellow Kiwi horror-comedies (most notably Peter Jackson’s BAD TASTE and DEAD-ALIVE) by answering its good-natured, irreverent spirit with as much imaginative over-the-top gore as it can. It’s not wall-to-wall carnage or anything, but there’s no shortage of beheading, eyeball-ripping, disembowling, ax-chopping, and chainsaw-dismembering, not to mention an extended sequence where Brodie and Zakk have to bludgeon many demonified opponents to death with a variety of sex toys. The effects are not always the most convincing (though they look mostly practical, which helps a lot) but there’s a pleasingly lowbrow enthusiasm which bolsters everything and ensures that each new bit of blood-splattered slapstick feels energetic and propulsive.
I’m always up for more genial splattercore, of course, but DEATHGASM really earns its right to sit among its metalsploitation peers not through its horror trappings, but through its obvious affection for metal. Besides a soundtrack liberally sprinkled with modern metal acts with names like Goatesque and Lair of the Minotaur (plus a bounty of metal posters, albums, shirts and related paraphernalia pretty much everywhere, although the most prominent one is a Trivium poster and everyone knows they suck) the movie has the sense to get some mileage out of its metal gimmick. While pure exploitation fare like HARD ROCK ZOMBIES or ROCKTOBER BLOOD just stick a band into a normal horror movie (well, “normal” might be a slightly strong a term for HARD ROCK ZOMBIES), DEATHGASM works overtime to tie everything into the theme. The movie begins with a voiceover reminding us how our parents hate our heavy metal and think it’s evil and demonic, and then assuring us that… it’s all true! The demonic summoning is the result of their band --Deathgasm-- playing ancient evil sheet music hidden in a heavy metal album, which they acquire by finding a reclusive ex-metal musician through their extensive knowledge of fanzines. The relationship between the three leads is all tied to their desire to prove to each other how metal they are. There is 80’s animated metal lighting, a do-it-yourself metal music video, and visions of epic Viking metal album covers. Backward spinning records with secret messages can and will become involved. And of course, if you thought this was a conflict which wouldn’t ultimately be resolved by a guitar solo, you are more naive than I would have guessed for someone who read this deep into this particular review. It misses very few opportunities to get the details right -- in fact, even its intertitles (“3 months later”) are written in inscrutable death metal font. So like TRICK OR TREAT, this one has a strong grasp of the melange of metal ephemera that you want in a metalsploitation movie.
But also like TRICK OR TREAT, its secret weapon is an unassuming but grounding sense of who these metal dorks are and what makes them tick. It knows that even if Brodie and Zakk are morons, their attraction to this sort of thing is borne out of real pain, partially driven by their shitty familial situations (Brodie’s dad is dead and his mom is in an asylum, forcing him to stay with his ultra-conservative relatives, while Zakk lives alone with his dysfunctional mechanic dad) and partially due to their feelings of rejection from the world more broadly. That’s something most metalsploitation movies --which tend to focus on groupie-banging headliners instead of their more humble hangers-on-- don’t quite understand. Of course cool kids don’t like heavy metal; it’s not for them. It’s for guys like Brodie, who can’t catch a break, who can’t get the girl, who don’t feel at home even when they’re at home because no one there understands them, and who have no outlet for all that hurt and rejection except to play music really, really loud. Brodie explains, “It’s like when life sucks and you feel alone and empty... stick on some metal and life is better because someone else knows the pain and the rage that you’re going through.” Of course, this is still fantasy here, so eventually he meets a pretty girl who is also really enthused about death metal. But I guess that’s only slightly less realistic than decapitating a demonic cannibal with a giant dildo.
Anyway, DEATHGASM keeps a pretty light touch, and maintains a good comic energy spiked with ridiculous violence throughout. That’s its main goal, and it's an honorable one, but it’s also nice that underneath it all, it has a certain amount of baseline affection and insight into the sort of metalheads that metalsploitation metalsploitates. “Isn’t [metal] just a bunch of guys screaming?” Brodie’s skeptical new flame asks. “No way,” He says. “Well... apart from grindcore. And death metal. Is kinda like that. And deathcore. Screamo, pornogrind, black metal, mathcore, thrash...” Which is true, but it’s nice that the movie both has a sense of humor about it and also no shame whatsoever about loving it. But wait a second, did he say deathcore? And fucking screamo? Everyone knows that those are totally not metal genres for babies and emo hot topic teenager poser wimps. Forget I said anything, this movie is not metal at all. Death to false metal!
CHAINSAWNUKAH 2016 CHECKLIST!
Good Kill Hunting
The Road To Hell is Paved With Metal. Frankly I have no idea what that means, but it’s pretty rad.
The in-movie band is called Deathgasm, and they’re mostly the main characters, so sure.
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN
BELOVED HORROR ICON?
Yes, the evil villain lady loses her top at the end
Everal zombies killed by dildos, if that counts
WHEN ANIMALS ATTACK!
GHOST/ ZOMBIE / HAUNTED BUILDING?
The deadites look like zombies but we’re told they’re demons
Yes, the demon guys have their own worshippers, several of whom do a ceremony and wear animal masks etc
Human into demon-possessed human, human into straight-up horned demon
MORAL OF THE STORY
Heavy Metal Music: The cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems