Cult Movie Retrospective: Graduation Day

Between 1980 and 1989, the horror genre gave us well over 200 slasher flicks; most of them were cheap, a lot of them mostly sucked, and very few of them had much of a lasting impact on audiences (aside from rabid horror fans like us, that is). Flaws and all though, we loved most of these flicks.

1981 is widely considered the pinnacle of the Golden Age of the slasher flick, with such quality efforts as Friday The 13th Part 2, My Bloody Valentine, The Burning, The Prowler, Happy Birthday to Me, Bloody Moon, and a slew of others seeing release.

Then there’s this masterpiece.

Graduation Day is a Troma film, so to say that it’s bad is pretty unfair, and totally misses the point of what constitutes a Troma film. Conversely, calling it good isn’t exactly fair either, because it’s not. Graduation Day is cheap, exploitative and cheesy; you know, the kind of movies where you crack a beer (or twelve of them), sit back, and just enjoy the schlock.

During the time, it seemed like any sort of holiday or landmark day became hazardous to your health if you were a teenager or young adult. Everything from your Bloody Birthday to April Fool’s Day soon became populated with nubile, sometimes-naked girls (now that doesn’t sound bad) and knife-wielding psychopaths (there’s always a catch).

Given the debauchery surrounding graduation, it was only a matter of time until some maniac decided to confer hatchets to the head rather than degrees. Director Herb Freed is your master of ceremonies for this bloody Graduation Day, and the commencement exercises include rocking tunes, bouncing breasts, and plenty of slashing.

Graduation Day Death Scene

Graduation Day Photo

Several months after Laura (Ruth Ann Llorens) dies during a high school track race (apparently from natural causes), the dead girl’s sister, Anne (Patch Mackenzie), arrives in town to accept a posthumous award on her behalf. But just as sis shows up, Laura’s fellow track runners begin to disappear. Could it be the school coach (Christopher George) who is being fired? Or is the scheming Principal Guglione (the wonderful Michael Pataki) who seems more preoccupied with trying to get down his secretary’s skirt than finding a few missing students? Perhaps it’s Ann herself who seems a bit obsessed with her little sister’s death. This is for you to figure out.

Naturally, the identity of the killer is not revealed until the final act. The film does a good job of setting up several red herrings as to who the killer really is. With that said, the real charm of the film does not come from its ability to fashion an engaging whodunit, but rather Freed’s take on the subgenre.

There is a lot of creative innovation in this film. One of these elements comes with the killer’s use of a stopwatch. Each kill lasts exactly 30 seconds (timed by the killer), the same amount of time it took Laura to finish her race. Further, after each kill, the killer draws a red X over the deceased’s face on a picture of the track team. It wouldn’t seem that Freed was too concerned with the mystery aspects, but there is still a reasonable enough amount of doubt cast on each of the principle suspects to make the reveal pleasurable.

The film throws in a very young Vanna White, before she made a career of turning letters on Wheel Of Fortune, and a young Linnea Quigley (which one is Linnea? The one who gets topless of course) and you’ve got endless fun fodder for our anonymous killer.

Linnea Quigley Graduation Day

Graduation Day Football Death

The death scenes in question are particularly boss (which, let’s be honest, is why we love these films). We see a rather humorous throat slashing gag where the blood splashes onto the camera, a girl gets stabbed by a fencing foil (for some of the scenes the killer dons a fencing mask), a member is stabbed in the gut with a javelin shoved through a football, a guy is practicing his pole vault when he falls on a bed of spikes and the list goes on. It’s glorious.

Thanks to Herb Freed’s frenetic direction and a great soundtrack, Graduation Day is a wonderful throwback to a time long since past. It still receives some undeserved flack from fans of die-hard horror but why begrudge a movie whose opening song declares, “Everybody wants to be a winner”. A winner, indeed. Highly recommended for the nostalgically inclined.

What are your thoughts on Graduation Day? Let us know in the comment section below.

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