As is the case with many horror fanatics, the ’80s holds a special place in my heart. I’m a happy guy if you give me some practical effects, stilted yet somehow effective acting, and perhaps a dash of nudity. If you were to distill these things into a single person, I’m pretty sure you’d get Linnea Quigley, the poster girl for Reagan-era horror. While she’s quite well-known for supplying the genre with ample amounts of nudity, it would do her a disservice to say that’s all she brings to the table. This is a woman that radiates everything I love about ’80s horror. In The Return of the Living Dead, for example, her portrayal of Trash playfully poked fun at Goth punks without ever being mean-spirited about it. In Night of the Demons, she took her status as a sex symbol and twisted it to create some truly freaky set pieces. Given her connection to the decade, it’s only fitting that her film debut came in 1981, in a movie produced by another quintessential ’80s mainstay, Troma Entertainment. This is the high school slasher flick, Graduation Day.

Set at the fictional Midvale High School, the movie opens at the school’s track meet, where coach George Michaels (Christopher George) is first seen in a montage of events in which he berates his athletes into giving good performances. This comes to a screeching halt, however, when his star runner Laura collapses and dies at the finish line. Cut to later that year when the graduation day festivities are being ruined by a black-gloved killer who begins picking off members of the track team one by one. Could the killer be Anne (Patch MacKenzie), Laura’s sister returning from the Navy with resentment in her heart and black gloves in her bag? Or could it be Coach Michaels, who after the incident has been told to clean out his desk, which also contains a pair of black gloves? Honestly, it could literally be anyone, because apparently everyone in town owns a pair of black gloves.

Many folks remember the early ’80s as a time when, following the success of Halloween and Friday the 13th, a wave of low-budget producers came along looking to cash in on the slasher craze. And if any company was going to take their turn trying to make a buck with a low-budget slasher, it was going to be Troma Entertainment. Troma’s raison d’être has always been to create low-budget schlock that manages to be entertaining in spite of (or in some cases because of) its utter disregard for quality. For example, although Graduation Day came out in 1981, the film's quality, set design, and fashion look as though Troma worked with hand-me-downs from productions of the ’70s. This seems to be a trend with all of Troma’s movies, as most look like they were made 5–10 years before their respective release dates. I can only imagine that the earliest movies released from Troma in 1974 were in black and white and featured stock footage of JFK.

One area where Troma doesn’t skimp, however, is the gore. I was initially a bit worried, as the first kill featured a slit throat that amounted to little more than some poorly placed splashes of blood. As the movie progressed, though, I got a neck impalement, a beheading, and my personal favorite, a well-placed collection of spikes at the bottom of a pole vault pit. Throw in some effective gunshot wounds and a Psycho-esque corpse shrine and there’s a lot to like in this movie. It may not be something you’d see coming out of Stan Winston’s shop, but damned if it’s not creative.

Now, given that this was Linnea Quigley’s feature film debut, it should come as little surprise that she doesn’t feature in a leading role. In fact, I was a little concerned that her work in the movie would be relegated to one of Troma’s less appealing tropes, which is a very attractive girl hooking up with a goofy, often older dude. In Quigley’s case, as Dolores she’s first seen taking off her top to seduce her middle-aged music teacher, whose toupee is ripped asunder in their throws of passion. Gross.

Thankfully, Quigley has more to work with in subsequent scenes, playing a very likeable, confident character who enjoys both pot and sex without falling into the tropes of the stoner or the promiscuous girl. In fact, (spoiler alert) I found myself hoping that just maybe Dolores would be the rare non-virginal Final Girl to survive an ’80s slasher. Alas, this was not to be, but her demise comes in what was my favorite scene in the film, with a frantic chase sequence juxtaposed with an extended musical number that really gets the heart pumping before Dolores meets her end (end spoiler). Even in this early role, you can tell Quigley is going to make a career out of stealing the show from the lead characters.

Another signature feature of Troma movies is the casting of actors and actresses who would later go on to make it big in the industry. In addition to Quigley, and in one of the more random pre-fame roles I’ve seen in recent memory, future Wheel of Fortune icon Vanna White makes an appearance where instead of pointing at letters she’s literally pointing out a dead body. And while he’s not exactly a huge celebrity, if you’re a fan of Rocky IV, you may recognize Principal Guglione (Michael Pataki) as Ivan Drago’s head trainer, which kinda blew my mind, because who knew the guy wasn’t really a Russian? It’s amazing what actors can do nowadays, isn’t it?

Although not everyone would go on to bigger and better things, everyone holds their own in this movie. Patch MacKenzie makes Anne sympathetic, but adds a touch of menace that made me question her intentions. Christopher George is quite good at playing an asshole, but he does throw just enough layers into the performance to make him at least somewhat sympathetic. And I have to give it to E. Danny Murphy, who as Kevin had the courage to play a high school senior even though the dude looks like he should have been playing one of their parents.

What surprised me most about Graduation Day is that it was more straightforward than most entries in the Troma catalog. Some of the more well-known Troma movies like Toxic Avenger and Terror Firmer take every opportunity to wink at the camera and go way over the top. Graduation Day, however, fits in nicely with its contemporary slasher brethren, which could have worked against it had it paid too much attention to the slasher formula at the expense of creating its own identity. Fortunately, we get just enough of the humor and off-the-wall moments to imprint Graduation Day with the Troma watermark. Throw in the introduction of one of the great all-time scream queens, and you get a fun little flick.

  • Bryan Christopher
    About the Author - Bryan Christopher

    Horror movies have been a part of Bryan’s life as far back as he can remember. While families were watching E.T. and going to Disneyland, Bryan and his mom were watching Nightmare on Elm Street and he was dragging his dad to go to the local haunted hayride.

    He loves everything about the horror community, particularly his fellow fans. He’s just as happy listening to someone talk about their favorite horror flick as he is watching his own, which include Hellraiser, Phantasm, Stir of Echoes, and just about every Friday the 13th movie ever made, which the exception of part VIII because that movie is terrible.