[Hello, readers! To celebrate Valentine's Day, the Daily Dead team thought it would be fun to do things a little differently this year. We're putting the spotlight on our favorite horror-loving characters from genre cinema—people who have represented our own fandom on screen and, in many cases, helped bring our passion for horror into the mainstream. Be sure to check here for more of our tributes to some of the greatest horror fans to ever grace the big screen.]
Knowing the horror genre inside and out can help you determine if your next-door neighbor is really a vampire (or if your mom has a date with a bloodsucker), and it can also help you stay one step ahead of a slasher with a phone fetish. But for two teenagers who absolutely adore The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, love of the genre helps them get through something more terrifying than any undead creature with a crimson diet or weapon-wielding maniac in Woodsboro. The monster they face is all too real: summer school.
From the moment we meet Dave Frazier (Gary Riley) and Francis “Chainsaw” Gremp (Dean Cameron) in Carl Reiner's 1987 comedy, Summer School, we know they are the real deal when it comes to horror. The insides of their school lockers are plastered with photos of Freddy Krueger, Leatherface, and the “machete zombie” from Dawn of the Dead. Prosthetic eyeballs with bloody optic nerves line the shelves, and a black cat even pops his head out in a greeting (this was six years before the events of Hocus Pocus, but who knows, maybe Thackery Binx enjoyed a California vacation before taking on the Sanderson sisters). When they receive the order to report to summer school, Chainsaw is literally holding a fake brain on a stick. These guys don’t just love horror, they’re young Tom Savinis in training, young Rick Bakers on the rise.
Spending the summer learning about grammar instead of gore doesn’t appeal to Dave and Chainsaw, and their gym-teacher-turned-English-instructor, Freddy Shoop (a pre-NCIS Mark Harmon), isn’t too fond of the idea, either, as he’s forced to skip out on his Hawaii vacation to please his superiors into giving him tenure.
Shoop’s remedial English class includes a Breakfast Club-esque lineup of students who are struggling to find a foothold in their young lives, at least academically. In addition to Dave and Francis, there is a daydreamer, a jock kicked off the football team, a fatigued male stripper, a geek who can’t live up to his family’s smart scores, a foreign exchange student fresh out of Italy, and a pregnant woman without a support system.
Amidst this sea of eclectic characters, it could have been easy to lose Dave and Chainsaw in the shuffle, or to portray them as one-note comedic relief types who share a good one-liner every few scenes. But even with such a huge supporting cast, the potential of these gore gurus is never wasted thanks in large part to screenwriter Jeff “Full House” Franklin. On the cusp of creating one of sitcom’s most celebrated (and, as Netflix’s Fuller House proves, durable) families, Franklin spent some quality time in the classroom with his screenplay for Summer School. And while he embraces the zany humor and light tone of the almighty ’80s high school comedy, Franklin scores high marks for instilling his younger characters with real problems that ground their hijinks in a relatable reality.
In the case of Dave and Chainsaw, those hijinks are covered with blood, and, as it turns out, slathered with good intentions, too. While Dave and Chainsaw could have used their skills with macabre makeup effects to distance themselves from their fellow students, they instead use blood gags galore to bring the ragtag group closer together. When Shoop’s class gets field trip fever, the two fright-loving friends take advantage of a petting zoo setting to make it look like killer bunnies have eaten their faces off. Rather than labeling Dave and Chainsaw as outcasts in this scene, Franklin’s screenplay refreshingly has the other students embrace the duo’s impressive latex handiwork. Instead of running, the group admires the gruesome gag, particularly Italian exchange student Anna-Maria Mazarelli (Fabiana Udenio).
New to the country and ready to absorb everything she can about American culture, Anna-Maria quickly gains the full attention of Chainsaw and Dave. And while it initially seems like she is merely a sexual attraction for the horror-loving best buds, over time we see an underlying friendship grow between the trio, with their shared fondness standing tall on the sturdy foundation of the horror genre.
Chainsaw and Dave gush about their passion for horror (often in a Siskel & Ebert “thumbs up” style) to Anna-Maria, introducing her to American culture by way of their love for blood on the big screen. Just as he could have easily made Chainsaw and Dave outcasts in Shoop’s class, Franklin also could have gone the stereotypical route with Udenio’s character by making her nothing more than a sex symbol. But Franklin’s interest and respect for the character goes beyond just looks, and he creates an unexpected friendship between Chainsaw, Dave, and Anna-Maria that is based on sweetness more than sexuality, with the fright-obsessed teens even giving her a key role in their blood-drenched prank during the movie’s most memorable scene.
After Shoop quits his summer teaching gig after getting fed up with being overtaxed by his students in exchange for their cooperation, Chainsaw and Dave seek redemption by putting their makeup effects skills to good use on their fellow classmates. Their goal: freak out the new teacher and get Shoop back in the classroom. When she first steps through the door, the poor replacement sees intestines spilling from Larry’s stomach, a saw-blade protruding from Alan’s skull while Kevin’s dismembered hand pulls his tongue from his mouth. Another survey of the room shows a ruler shoved sideways into Rhonda’s mouth in a gruesome grin, Pam’s neck titled away from a deep cut in her throat, and Anna-Marie hanging from the ceiling.
To cap off the creepiness, a blood-spattered Dave and Chainsaw rush into the room, waving chainsaws through the air and screaming, “We’re back!” It’s enough to give Freddy Krueger nightmares and put a smile on Pinhead’s face, and it has to be one of the goriest scenes (if not the goriest) in an ’80s comedy. Although their extreme antics will likely haunt the (very briefly) new teacher for the rest of her days, Chainsaw and Dave’s gore-tastic prank helps get Shoop out of his ice cream eating daze on the beach and back on the fast track to tenure.
In another movie, Chainsaw and Dave could have been written off as weirdos who sit in the back of the class and only pipe up when the plot requires it, but Franklin’s writing, combined with spirited performances by Cameron and Riley, make Chainsaw and Dave integral to keeping this particular Breakfast Club together. Not only do Chainsaw and Dave bond through their shared love of the horror genre, they also pass that love and appreciation on to their classmates. That gutsy effort alone is worth giving these fright fiends two thumbs up, or, as Dave would suggest, “make it four for gore.”
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