The Golden Era of the Slasher Movie was shining bright in 1981 with nuggets such as Halloween II, Friday the 13th Part 2, My Bloody Valentine, and Happy Birthday to Me. But one film that is often thrown into the heap of pyrite deserves acclaim: Graduation Day. This little misfit movie doesn’t have the cachet of its bigger cousins, but it puts on a marvelous variety show, a genre-bending celluloid spectacle. It’s a mystery. It’s a slasher. It’s a comedy. And it’s a disaster.
Graduation Day was released in May of 1981—just in time for high school graduations across the nation. It’s the tale of Laura Ramstead, a track star at Midvale High School, who is pushed to her limits to win a race. She does win, but due to a blood clot, loses her life. The killer blames the entire track team for Laura’s death and eliminates them one by one. Borrowing from the giallo (complete with black leather gloves), we viewers become sofa sleuths, examining the clues, the suspicious glances, the coded dialogue to find the guilty among a sea of red herrings. Is it the overbearing Coach Michaels, whose voice of motivation is always at an 11? Is it Anne Ramstead, who is on leave from the military to avenge her little sister’s death? Is it Laura’s lovesick boyfriend, Kevin, who announces that he and Laura were planning to marry just after the graduation day ceremony? It’s a satisfying enough mystery with enough curlicues to keep us presuming and assuming throughout the film.
While the gore is rather tepid in Graduation Day, there are some inventive kills that lead to some oohs and aahs. A girl is given a tracheotomy with a fencing foil. A football with an attached metal spike impales a boy in his breadbasket. A boy who is using the head in the woods loses his head. And a pole vaulter lands on a bed of spikes. There’s even a defenestration and a climatic knife fight that nearly reaches the same intensity and verisimilitude as Captain Kirk battling the Gorn.
Director Herb Freed stated that he wanted his film to have some comedy and some levity because without them, the film would just be too dreary. Enter Principal Guglione, played by the terrific Michael Pataki. He’s wound up tighter than the polyester pants he’s wearing, and his performance is spicy camp as he insults the graduating seniors, insults the students’ parents behind their backs, and insults his secretary’s intelligence by trading romance for extra paperwork. He’s an over-the-top buffoon, and the mayhem unfolding at Midvale High is over his head.
There’s also Mr. Roberts, the music teacher whose toupee is not fooling anyone. Somehow, he has groupies. Several beautiful coeds (including future alphabet artiste Vanna White) encircle his classroom piano and inexplicitly find him exciting and attractive as he channels a low-rent Liberace, serenading them and spinning yarns of his past life in show business. But perhaps the funniest thing about Mr. Roberts is that he’s absolutely inconsequential to the plot. After his lounge show with his young fans and some afternoon delight with Dolores (Linnea Quigley), he vanishes from the film and never returns.
And let’s not forget the big musical number in the middle of the film when new wave band Felony plays the extended version—like super extended version—of their song “Gangster Rock” while the graduating seniors roller-skate around the band’s stage. Not the best choice of suspenseful music, the song is played anyway during a scene in the nearby woods where two more track stars are chased by the killer. While Felony sings the profound lyrics, “Well, I never find the answer to what I’m thinking of, so I just keep on thinking and doing the gangster rock,” one of the victims (Linnea Quigley again), hides in the bushes—but then JUMP SCARE! A random shaggy dog jumps into the frame. Then jumps right out.
Aside from the delicious Grade A American cheese, Graduation Day does convey a more serious message about the rite of passage from childhood into adulthood. Principal Guglione tells the seniors on the verge of graduation that their diplomas “are tickets to the adult world,” and he later explains that the graduates “are being kicked out of the nest… From now on, it’s fly or fall on their own.” The film, then, becomes an astute commentary on the cold reality that high school eventually ends and that means that childhood eventually ends.
For most of us, high school graduation is a time for happiness and celebration, but it’s also a time for terror. We’re no longer kids, and our carefree days of Friday night football games and rallies and proms and free room and board are ending—or dying like the victims at Midvale High. In fact, the death of the track team members are metaphors for the death of childhood, of adolescence, of high school, as we graduates are forced into the less sunny world of adulthood.
The killer, of course, is Time. This is why the killer carries a stopwatch when stalking the victims. This is why one of the taglines of the film is “the class of ’81 is running out of time.” And this is why in one scene, a teenager plays a ditty on his guitar called “Graduation Day Blues.” His classmates clap and groove as he sings that he’s “not ready for the shock” of adulthood. He laments that short teenage summer jobs will end (just like their adolescence will end) because “the next one will last your whole life.” The film, then, can be viewed as an allegory. In the climax, the killer reveals the corpse of Laura, dressed in her graduation robe. It sits stiffly in a chair, its eyes rotting black, and it becomes a frightening symbol of a dead childhood that we all eventually bury. Time stalks all of us, the film suggests, and it eventually chokes our childhood.
Graduation Day deserves more recognition in the horror community. It executes the slasher formula honorably and adds absurd comedy and philosophical footnotes on adulthood to make this a replete 96 minutes of entertainment. A cynical character in the film opines about graduation day, “They make a big deal out of it like it’s something special or something.” But it is a big deal, and Graduation Day prods us to remember our own graduation days with smiles and tears.
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