Hard Rock Zombies/Slaughterhouse Rock [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray A - America - Vinegar Syndrome
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (23rd March 2022).
The Film

Hard Rock Zombies: Rock band Holy Moses has just landed a gig in the township of Grand Guignol. It matters not to manager Ron (Ted Wells) that they receive a very unfriendly welcome by the town council headed by the mayor (The Tomb's David O'Hara) and the very Southern sheriff (Scarecrows' Richard Vidan) because they can finally get an audience with talent agent Don Matson (Alien Nation's Michael David Simms) who is stopping through. Lead singer Jesse (E.J. Curse) is unnerved by a warning from willowy teenager Cassie to stay away from the town, but his bandmates (Dr. Alien's Geno Andrews,Roller Blade's Sam Mann, and Mick Manz) cannot resist the invitation of comely hitchhiker Elsa (former Miss Delaware Lisa Toothman) to take advantage of the hospitality of her creepy family: vociferously Aryan papa (Jack Bliesener), wheelchair bound mama Eva (Nadia) - whose lunar "primal scream therapy" is actually caused by lycanthropy and dwarf siblings Mickey (Troll's Phil Fondacaro) and deformed Buckey (partially Gary Friedkin, partially a sub-Ghoulies puppet creation from John Carl Buechler and crew).

The sheriff and the mayor rush through a decree banning all rock music from the town - because rock music contains hidden messages that provoke sex, self-abuse, and "non-curricular fantasies" but before the village mob can even get their torches and pitchforks on the rockers, they have all been brutally slaughtered by the family, and the sheriff is more than willing to pass off their deaths as a freak accident and has them hurriedly buried. Left without a band and a job, Ron does not even have the opportunity of refusing a job offer from papa who reveals himself to be still alive Adolf Hitler who is planning to unleash The Fourth Reich upon the world. Cassie's tears and a tape recording of Jessie's Latin ballad "Morte Ascendere" bring the bandmates back from the dead and they wreak their revenge upon the family. Unfortunately, while the zombies put on a concert, the family resurrect and terrorize the town who decide to try offering up a virgin sacrifice to appease the dead.

Originally intended as a twenty-odd minute segment for director Krishna Shah's American Drive-in, Hard Rock Zombies was always intended to be a cult movie oddity. While its everything-but-the-kitchen-sink concoction of elements might have worked in short form where one could overlook the discontinuities, in feature-length form, it is as plodding a "look at me" midnight movie-wannabe as the likes of Six-String Samurai. The "hard rock" is actually pretty mellow even by eighties New Wave standards, Wells and Coe are in an entirely different movie than the supporting players whose characterizations range from broadly burlesque to flat-out incompetent, and in spite of some gore and parallels between conservatism and Nazism it neither funny, scary, or clever. American-educated director Shah had worked in American television as a writer before helming his more disturbed than disturbing directorial debut Rivals in which poor Joan Hackett is trapped in a psychosexual triangle between her child and her manchild second husband and followed up his African American character drama The River Niger with the all-star Bollywood picture Shalimar released stateside as "Raiders of Shalimar" shorn of nearly an hour and its 70mm six-track stereo mix reduced to mono before the back to back Hard Rock Zombies and American Drive-in, the former distributed by Cannon and the latter self-distributed (with both winding up tangled in a lawsuit for some time).
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Slaughterhouse Rock: For the past week, college student Alex (Marked for Death's Nicholas Celozzi) has been having vivid nightmares in which he is tortured and eaten alive by a cannibalistic maniac in an abandoned prison while an undead band performs a rock concert. The details of the dream lead his roommates big brother Richard (CHiPs' Tom Reilly), Marty (Hotel's Ty Miller), and Jack (Steven Brian Smith) to believe there is some connection between the dreams and the band Bodybags whose brutal murders by lead singer Sammy Mitchell (choreographer/"Mickey" singer Toni Basil) at the abandoned prison on Alcatraz has halted tours for the near future. Alex would rather believe he is going nuts, but his nightmares start intruding upon reality to the point where other people can see them.

When his girlfriend Jan (Cloak & Dagger's Tammy Hyler) urges him to confide in his telekinesis professor Carolyn (Outlaw of Gor's Donna Denton) who believes that he is being tormented by the ghost of a commandant (make-up artist Al Fleming) who lived on Alcatraz when it was a cavalry outpost and fed on prostitutes and the local Indian tribe until he was burned alive and made a pact with the devil. Carolyn convinces Alex's friends, including Richard's girlfriend Krista (Hard Ticket to Hawaii's Hope Marie Carlton), that they must travel to the island and find the commandant's grave to destroy his power over Alex. Sneaking onto the island on a fishing boat, they discover too late that the urn containing the commandant's ashes has been broken and his spirit unleashed. The ghost possesses Richard who starts to undergo a monstrous transformation. As Richard stalks and kills the others, Sammy's ghost tries to help Alex destroy the commandant and free the souls of his victims.

A cross between a slasher and a Nightmare on Elm Street-style dream stalker film particularly in terms of the music video style that became more apparent with each sequel Slaughterhouse Rock is also the most tepid of that small subgenre of prison-set horror films like Prison and Destroyer. The Alcatraz setting is novel but the characters are flat, the backstory convoluted, the inane chatter even more inane than usual, the hero whiny and the villain unmemorable. What little atmosphere the film possesses comes from much second unit photography including stormy cloudscape opticals by Ernest D. Farino (The Terminator) and Bret Mixon (Cyborg) and the synthesizer score by Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh (Happy Gilmore) and Gerald V. Casale (Revenge of the Nerds II), while Basil gives the only engaging performance as the wise-cracking spirit. The first half of the film feels padded for the sake of showing off director Dimitri Logothetis' (Pretty Smart) stylistics, with the scene in which Basil's ghost projects images into Alex's head to show him what he is up against taking the form of an actual music video intercutting images from the film we have already seen with a backlit Basil dancing in front of a giant fan. While there are some proficient make-up and creature effects on view, much of the film's unpleasantness comes from an attempted rape scene.
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Video

Given scan theatrical release by Cannon, Hard Rock Zombies gathered dust on the rental shelves as a Vestron Video VHS which may have been the source of various unauthorized DVD releases throughout the world. Vinegar Syndrome had to make do with 35mm archival materials for their 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.85:1 widescreen Blu-ray. Since the print is American in origin, it is the R-rated cut of the film with some bits of not-particularly-graphic gore composited in from a standard definition video source. Since the film was badly-photographed and the otherwise clean print has some baked-in issues, it is not really easy to notice amid heavy grain and black crush (they may be more noticeable by slightly grayer blacks if you are tempted to try to inject some "life" into the film with your TV's equivalent "vivid" setting where some blues and reds pop but the skintones of living characters become sickly orange).
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Given scant theatrical release by Taurus Entertainment, Slaughterhouse Rock found much of its audience through the eye-catching artwork of its Sony VHS release. The film bypassed legitimate DVD and debuted on limited edition Blu-ray stateside from Code Red in 2016 and in the UK from 88 Films in 2018, both utilizing an HD master from a 2K scan of the R-rated version which lost a few seconds of gore (understandable in the context of the MPAA crackdown on horror in the mid-to-late eighties but probably would've been dropped in a modern film as just an awful effect). Vinegar Syndrome's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.85:1 widescreen Blu-ray comes from a new 4K scan of the original 35mm camera negative. It's still a dark film due to the deliberate choices for low-key lighting and backlighting, but the new transfer gives more textural detail through the music video haze to the Alcatraz locations and the effort that went into the soundstage sets, as well as some of the better make-up effects work. More evident than on the earlier editions is that the effects work went beyond cloud and lighting opticals to some model shots of the stormswept Alcatraz in which the clearer detail reveals gigantic rain drops and waves that would have the effect of a Tsunami on the "island" if they were indeed life size.
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Hard Rock Zombies is all-region while Slaughterhouse Rock is Region A-locked.

Audio

Hard Rock Zombies' DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track delivers clear dialogue subject to the location recording but the music is only intermittently dynamic. Slaughterhouse Rock's DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track of the Ultra Stereo, on the other hand, makes a good impression from the start with clear dialogue, directional effects, and the the surrounds utilized for thunder and the spread of the Devo's score (including an end title song performed by Basil). Optional English SDH subtitles are included for both films.
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Extras

Hard Rock Zombies: No one one may have asked for it, but Vinegar Syndrome provides us with a comprehensive retrospective documentary in "Never Say Die" (66:09) featuring Wells, Cursio, Vidan, Mann, Andrews, Manz, and O'Hara. They each discuss how they discovered the project or were offered it, with Curse (who changed his surname from "Curcio" at the advice of Gene Simmons), Mann, Andrews, and Manz all hustling for work as musicians in Los Angeles in the eighties, each feeling conflicted when Shah offered them individual roles rather than taking their bandmates some of whom were cast in smaller roles the day-to-day script changes, working in gang warzone Watts, their qualms about doing an early scene in their underwear while being set upon by groupies, and Mann's perk of getting to do a nude shower scene with Toothman (which he reveals was not only patterned after Psycho but that the filmmaker actually consulted a coffee table book of blow-up stills from the sequence during the long shooting day). Wells reveals his frustration that none of the musician actors were sticking to the script particularly Mann who would let F-bombs fly throughout even when Shah requested he tone it down for a possible lower rating and wider audience while they are more complimentary of him by suggesting he channeled his frustration with them into his role as their manager. Wells also reveals that Shah was so overwhelmed actually getting into a car accident a week into the shoot when he fell asleep at the wheel that he was asked to direct his monologue scene with the zombie agent (which he insisted be shot with traditional coverage rather than Shah's plan for just a master shot). Vidan recalls his distaste with the script and structuring his characterization around being unrecognizable onscreen, and also reveals that he wrote to Cannon requesting remuneration after the film's release only to receive a reply from Shah about the state of the film's grosses. Mann also reveals that he stole the only print of the film after its premiere screening and held it hostage until he was paid, eventually coming to the conclusion that he was not cut out for the "hurry up and wait" nature of filmmaking.

"Popcorn Farts and Low Budget Cheese" (21:21) is an interview with special effects artists Chris Biggs (The Unnamable) and Everett Burrell (Night of the Living Dead). Biggs discusses getting into make-up effects, landing a job at Roger Corman's New World where he met Buechler, and taking Burrrell under his wing when the eighteen year old arrived in Los Angeles trying to get into special effects. They briefly mention some of the Corman and Charles Band films they worked under Buechler before discussing the challenge of working on Hard Rock Zombies with the pair doing zombie make-ups they resorted to just doing white make-up for the band members who refused prosthetics out of vanity and mocking up effects gags with little lead time while Buechler worked as second unit director filming the effects shots as requested rather than planned out by Shah.
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"From Bit Player to Band Leader" (10:46) is an interview with actress Susette Boggs who was cast as one of the groupies in the early scene with the band but met composer/music producer Paul Sabu son of actor Sabu who appeared in Golden Age Hollywood exotic pics like Elephant Boy, The Thief of Baghdad, and Arabian Nights who was impressed with her achievements as a musician from childhood and convinced her to form an all-female rock band which became Precious Metal and was signed to Polygram Records. Finally, "The Bible of Holy Moses: Watching Hard Rock Zombies Through a Fanatic's Eye" (10:29) is an interview with author Lucy Hall who has signed a contract to turn her blog covering rock music in movies into a book and has interviewed composer Sabu a number of times. A "fanatic" about the film from childhood, she does her best to rehabilitate the film as a "dark humor masterpiece" misunderstood by the critics but mileage may vary depending on one's pre-existing impressions of the film.

Slaughterhouse Rock's extras start off with "Low-key Horror" (11:12), an interview with cinematographer Nicholas Josef von Sternberg (Tourist Trap) who recalls the film being a pleasant experience where director Logothetis allowed him to be creative and experiment with lighting and camerawork including some workarounds when the custodians of Alcatraz would not allow them to bring a dolly onto the island for their single night of location shooting as well as his memories of working with the actors and Basil. In "The Girl That Lives" (19:26), actress Hyler recalls getting into acting from the agency side, the film as one of her first larger roles, her co-stars, her awestruck reaction to meeting Basil, and her trepidation about working with the effects crew during the explosive climax. In "Wearing the Right Clothes" (15:55), actor Celozzi recalls the film has his first lead, an unconventional maneuver Logothetis took to get a reaction out of him, Denton accidentally knocking him unconscious with a flashlight, and his subsequent work with the production company. Finally, in "Lunch Break with Claws" (19:13), make-up artist/actor Fleming recalls being consulted for the film, his idea about the design of the character, his request to play the role himself and his regret when it came to trying to eat and drink during breaks in make-up, and ceding credit to his assistant who also handled the other effects gags involving other characters. The disc also includes the film's theatrical trailer (2:08).
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Packaging

The cover is reversible with each side emphasizing a different film and the first 5,000 units ordered directly from Vinegar Syndrome includes a limited edition slipcover designed by Earl Kessler Jr.
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Overall

Vinegar Syndrome's duo of Hard Rock Zombies and Slaughterhouse Rock is a very lopsided double feature thematically and aesthetically.

 


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