A young girl dies of a blood clot during a track meet just days before she is to graduate from high school. Soon the other members of the track team begin turning up dead – murdered by a mysterious psychopath with a fencing mask and a stopwatch.
GRADUATION DAY is, quite simply, one of the worst slasher films ever produced. Made in the early days of the post-FRIDAY THE 13TH slice-and-dice craze, it embodies every cliché the genre has been (sometimes unfairly) labeled with since, and handles these conventions so ineptly that it comes across as a wholly humorless, tasteless parody of itself. From the arduous and interminable rock/disco songs on the soundtrack to the leaden pacing to the completely hollow, one-dimensional characters, this film is a fine example of how not to make a horror movie.
The set-up is simple enough. Someone is angry at the death of poor Laura Ramstead (Ruth Ann Llorens) and is taking their bloody revenge on her teammates. Unfortunately, director Herb Freed (BEYOND EVIL, TOMBOY) and writers David Baughn and Anne Marisse appear to have no idea how to execute this uncomplicated plot with any semblance of narrative structure or dramatic impact. Characters are introduced with absolutely no emotional depth or exploration into their personalities only to disappear for long stretches. Emotional sub-plots are established but never resolved or even addressed again. Though Laura’s sister Anne (Patch Mackenzie, IT’S ALIVE III: ISLAND OF THE ALIVE) eventually assumes the role of screaming damsel in distress for the finale, she is played as the primary suspect in the early going and is visibly absent through much of the second act, meaning there is no real protagonist in the film at all. The kids here are all the usual vapid, obnoxious jocks and geeks of 70s and 80s high school films, most quite literally present just so they can be killed off. The adults range from boorish, loudmouthed jerks (Coach Michaels, played by GRIZZLY’s Christopher George) to incompetent buffoons (veteran TV heel Michael Pataki as Principal Guglione) to lecherous, repugnant sleazeballs (Richard Balin, playing lounge singer turned music teacher, Mr. Roberts). All are transparent stereotypes, devoid of any credibility or humanity. There are more complex, well-rounded characters in your average thirty second television commercial than in this entire film.
Anne is only the first of the red herrings awkwardly thrown at the audience in hope of masking the painfully obvious true identity of the killer, but she gets the biggest build-up. She is introduced in an unpleasant sequence which plays like a sleazy reversal of the jeep scene from early in FRIDAY THE 13TH, with a porcine truck driver copping a feel and coming on to her while her face is hidden from view and she says nothing. Later, she approaches a girl from the track team who she’s never met and creepily intones that her sister had pretty eyes but is dead now. At home, Anne unpacks a bag that contains a grey sweat suit and black gloves, just like those the killer wears. If the filmmakers had painted “Killer” across her forehead, they couldn’t have been more obvious in their attempts to implicate her. Also under suspicion are the coach, the principal, Laura’s sensitive boyfriend, and an idiotic sheriff (introduced more than halfway through the film). Throughout the story we see that most of these characters never leave home without their trusty leather gloves, grey sweatshirts and stopwatches, just so we won’t forget they are possibly homicidal maniacs. Freed’s ham-fisted efforts to create a mystery ultimately lead to an utterly ridiculous climactic moment in which the wrong guy is blamed and eventually gunned down by another policeman (also not appearing until the final reel). Ironically, this scene is so poorly staged that it actually manages to illicit a bit of sympathy for a character who, up until that point, had been completely abhorrent – probably the only pathos generated for anyone at any time during the movie. When the killer is revealed, the moment is as awkward as everything preceding it, and the big revelation only leads to an even more ludicrous (and seemingly endless) finale.
The acting here is dreadful. Pataki and George appear to be trying somewhat, but Sir Laurence Olivier on his best day couldn’t have made characters as thinly drawn as these come to life. Everyone else flounders and flails around in their roles like a bunch of college dropouts making a cable access version of an AfterSchool Special. Many scenes feel as though they were improvised on the spot, and very poorly so at that, with the “actors” frequently stumbling over their lines and chattering over everyone else’s. It’s possible that the producers minimized the pretty Mackenzie’s screen time simply because her Debra Winger looks are matched by her Kip Winger theatrical skills, but that might be giving them too much credit. Miss Mackenzie gasps and gawks and stares off into space as though she were posing for still photos rather than giving a motion picture performance and her attempts at martial arts moves (that’s right, martial arts!) in the closing chase scene are about as convincing as a Fred Sanford heart attack. Good acting can go a long way toward overcoming a bad script. Bad acting can make a bad script feel like a prolonged, invasive dental procedure, minus the anesthesia. That’s GRADUATION DAY, in a nutshell.
There is so much wrong with this film that it would be hard to adequately cover it all in a single review. One would be remiss, however, if one failed to detail the abysmal songs that pop up and subsequently seem to hang around forever throughout the course of the movie. The opening title sequence (a mostly slow-motion track and field montage) is set to a terrible disco-inspired sports anthem entitled THE WINNER that is apparently supposed to set up the intended theme of pressure to succeed in high school athletics. The song is awful in its own right, but is made far worse by the fact that the film never manages to do anything with that thematic subtext. One lengthy kill sequence (set during a roller disco/dance party!) consists of quick cuts between the carnage and the shrieking rock band Felony, performing their international smash hit GANGSTER ROCK. This little ditty makes no sense, has no contextual significance in the scene, and is tough for even the biggest fan of hard rock to stomach. These two numbers pale in comparison, though, to an old-fashioned, beach party-style rendition of GRADUATION DAY BLUES, played on an acoustic guitar by a character we have otherwise not been introduced to, for the benefit of a bunch of other characters that don’t show up anywhere else in the film. These tunes were likely included either to sell records or to momentarily lighten the unrelenting tension of the bloody killing spree. Either way, the filmmakers needn’t have – and shouldn’t have – bothered.
For slasher fans and bad movie aficionados, GRADUATION DAY does have a few perks. There is one rather cool decapitation scene, and a couple of innovative (though completely ludicrous and not particularly well-executed) kills involving athletic equipment. This was one of the first slasher flicks set in a high school, so the locker room scenes which are now obligatory in teen horror movies were new here. While Freed can’t direct a horror film to save his life, he does have a nice feel for slow-motion sports scenes, interrupting all of the bad histrionics for well-staged uneven parallel bars and pole vaulting sequences. He also includes a couple of neat, rapid-cut flashbacks to Laura’s death, probably the film’s most effective scenes. Scream queen Linnea Quigley got her start here, playing a pot-smoking bad girl who sleeps with the music teacher (and bares her breasts) to get a passing grade. Along with Quigley, George and Pataki, future game show hostess Vanna White appears as a babbling, screaming bimbo in a few scenes, and the tardy detective Halliday is played by Carmen Argenziano, veteran of films like the GONE IN 60 SECONDS remake, SUDDEN IMPACT, and HELLRAISER: INFERNO, as well as TV shows like THE A-TEAM, 24, STARGATE: SG-1 and CSI.
GRADUATION DAY is probably the most amateurish and unsatisfying of the early 80s slasher outings. It squanders a reasonably viable premise with complete incompetence at almost every level of the production, and it would be entirely forgettable were it not so painfully bad. It feels, ironically enough, like a bad high school play about a psycho killer, complete with lifeless performances, clumsy staging and threadbare production values. The folks at Troma “rescued” this mess from celluloid oblivion by releasing it to DVD, only to make it even worse by including a virtually humorless intro by Lloyd Kaufman which makes a “funny” comparison between the events of the film and the Columbine shootings years later. Anyone renting the film should consider that “side-splitting” remark fair warning regarding the quality of the film that follows it. During the production of GRADUATION DAY, one actress reportedly was fired and most of her scenes were cut because she refused to do a nude scene (she was replaced by Miss Quigley, who had no problem in that area!). One can’t help but think that, somewhere in the world, an older and wiser lady who once dreamed of being an actress occasionally passes by the horror section at Blockbuster and breathes a heavy sigh of relief.