While Heavy Metal may not exactly be the first movie that comes to mind when you think of Thanksgiving, it will always hold a special place in my heart around that time of year because of what happened the Thanksgiving of 2017.
You see, usually my family and I have Thanksgiving dinner with my aunt, uncle, and cousins. It’s a cherished tradition that goes back years, something we used to do when my grandma and grandpa on that side of the family were still with us and something we still do to honor their memory and be thankful for each other’s company.
Before COVID, we gathered every Thanksgiving for this tradition… until 2017 rolled around. On that year’s Thanksgiving, my mom unfortunately woke up with a feverish cold that only got worse as the day went on. To ensure that she could rest and feel better as soon as possible (and thankfully she did fully recover), we put a fork in that night’s Thanksgiving dinner and postponed the big meal. My mom went to sleep, my aunt and uncle stayed home, and my sister and brother-in-law went to his father’s house.
That left my dad and I with an unexpected open slate on that evening’s schedule. After watching the Vikings squeak out a win against the Lions, it was time to switch gears from the gridiron to a movie, and when I went to grab something off the shelf, a previous Christmas gift caught my eye. And since that gift was a Blu-ray with cover art of a warrior holding up a sword while riding a giant bird with bat-like wings (a stunning illustration by Chris Achilléos), it’s not surprising that it caught my eye. The movie was Heavy Metal. And though I was only vaguely familiar with the magazine and its comics on which the movie was based, I had listened to the film’s soundtrack on countless drives after renting it from the library years ago. So while I hadn’t seen the movie, I had heard the songs that helped shape its bold personality, but the time had finally come to see the animation paired with that amazing music.
And so that became the Thanksgiving when my dad and I watched Heavy Metal—me for the first time and him for the first time in a long time (as he had seen it when it was released in theaters). Suffice to say that even though I had listened to the soundtrack many times, I was not prepared for what I was about to watch. After hitting “play,” what followed were 90 minutes of rockin’ music, macabre mayhem, and magnificent animation that brought all the carnage to lurid life.
Other than the dizzying Sausage Party that came out in 2016, I’ve never seen an animated film that was so fearless in “going there” when it comes to its violence and R-rated adventures. Now that I’m more familiar with Heavy Metal magazine, it makes sense, but at the time, it was as surprising as watching the astronaut I thought would be the main character instaed be melted by the deadly orb known as Loc-Nar within the film’s opening minutes. As it turns out, the main character throughout Heavy Metal is actually the sinister orb of energy known as Loc-Nar, aka "the sum of all evils," interweaving throughout the anthology’s stories of fantasy, horror, erotica, and sci-fi. Not all aspects of these stories hold up through a modern lens, with the movie undeniably viewing its more erotic moments through a lingering male gaze, but much more about Heavy Metal works than doesn’t work, even 40 years down the line. There’s an endearing pulp fiction quality to the film and its animation style that reminded me of the paperbacks I would find wandering the aisles of Uncle Hugo’s Science Fiction bookstore in Minneapolis.
Like those books, the stories in Heavy Metal run the gamut of genres and often blends them together to great effect, from the sci-fi noire of “Harry Canyon” (featuring the titular cab driver and his backseat disintegrator) to the sword and sorcery story of “Den” (set in the fantasy land of Neverwhere, in which dreams—and nightmares—can come true) to the downright horrifying tale of “B-17” (which I firmly believe is one of the scariest zombie stories ever, with a truly unique setting for a living dead story: a World War II B-17 bomber). The film's most excellent ’80s animation (along with some rotoscoping) makes it easy to immerse yourself in all of the worlds of Heavy Metal, but it’s the eclectic characters and the hard-rockin’ soundtrack that really sets the film in a league of its own. Some of the characters are empathetic, some of the characters are strong (particularly Taarna, who undoubtedly kicks the most ass in the film), and some of the characters are despicable, but they’re all brought to life by a talented, legendary voice cast that includes Rodger Bumpass, Jackie Burroughs, John Candy, Joe Flaherty, Marilyn Lightstone, Eugene Levy, Alice Playten, Harold Ramis, and more.
And what would a movie called Heavy Metal be without a soundtrack epic enough to melt your face off? Thankfully, the movie's soundtrack more than lives up to its title, and while I was familiar with many of the songs prior to watching Heavy Metal for the first time, it was still an absolute joy to watch them utilized in such a delightfully bonkers film, like when Journey’s “Open Arms” plays in Harry Canyon’s apartment (before his fleeting romance quite literally disintegrates) or when Cheap Trick’s “Reach Out” (still one of my favorite songs by the band) blares while all hell breaks loose on a space station. That’s not to mention Stevie Nicks, Sammy Hagar, Devo, Blue Öyster Cult, Don Felder, and so many more musicians who inject Heavy Metal with their infectiously pulse-pounding tunes.
Don’t get me wrong, your enjoyment mileage may vary when it comes to each individual story and promiscuous situation within Heavy Metal, but while some segments hold up better than others, they all blend to form an anthology with a heart that pumps with a real love for stories and comics that are bizarre, brazen, and altogether interesting. Now that I’m more familiar with what Heavy Metal magazine is all about, I realize just how much care director Gerald Potterton and his entire team took in making the magazine and its comics come to life from the page to the screen in remarkable fashion. It truly is something you need to see to believe. I know I’ve never seen anything quite like it, and while I’m sure it would have been a memorable viewing experience no matter when I watched it, seeing Heavy Metal with my dad on Thanksgiving made it a movie I’ll always treasure… and a rockin' holiday I’ll never forget.
Visit our online hub to catch up on all of our Class of 1981 retrospectives!