[BLU-RAY REVIEW] GRADUATION DAY (1981)

Herb Freed’s 1981 horror pic GRADUATION DAY has never achieved much of a reputation among slasher movie fans. One of a seemingly infinite number of date-themed stalker pics of the early ‘80s, GRADUATION DAY may be best remembered for being the second-best film featuring future letter-turner Vanna White (behind, of course, the TV-movie classic GODDESS OF LOVE), albeit in a small role in which she doesn’t even bother to get killed. GRADUATION DAY was perceived as being neither good nor bad enough to warrant much attention, and thanks to its omnipresence on video store shelves due to distribution from Columbia Home Video, not obscure enough to build a cult following based solely on notoriety. The murky transfer given to the film in Troma’s earlier DVD release did little to help its reputation.

No money-making slasher can be dead forever, and now GRADUATION DAY is back once more, this time in a fine Blu-ray/DVD combo back from the ever-reliable souls at Vinegar Syndrome. As one can expect, the presentation is great, the film has never looked better, finally visible in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and sourced from a new 4K restoration and featuring a cavalcade of interviews and a pair of commentary tracks that are sure to please fans of the film. But now that the film is finally able to stand on its own and show off exactly what audiences got to see in theaters in 1981, will it win any new fans to please?

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The high school athletics team of a small religious school (at least judging by the benediction mentioned and the number of students hanging around) is shattered when one of their members dies of a blood clot during a race two months before she was set to graduate. Right before the end of the school year, the rest of the track team starts to get murdered one by one, their faces in a school photo crossed off with big red Xs by their killer with a black-gloved hand. As the number of diplomas needed for the year continues to drop, the suspects increase – is it the dead girl’s sister, home to speak at the ceremony? Is it the drill sergeant-ish coach, played by Christopher George? Or the school principal, played by Michael Pataki in a variety of terrible pants? Or one of the other vaguely-defined characters that seem to have no motive whatsoever, but this is a slasher film, so just go with it?

In one of the interviews on the disc, director Freed (TOMBOY, BEYOND EVIL) claims to have not been too aware of the slasher film mechanics that were forming at the time, and while the folks at the Hysteria Continues that comprise the second commentary track are skeptical, it actually makes perfect sense that Freed would have never seen the likes of FRIDAY THE 13th or TERROR TRAIN. GRADUATION DAY is a strangely distracted film, significantly less interested in establishing the characters that are being killed than it is setting up red herrings and inventively odd death sequences. Sure, it subscribes to the idea of a death every 15 minutes or so, but the victims are almost all afterthoughts – the students themselves are rarely given more than a few lines of character-based dialogue before the wind up on the wrong side of a blade. Heck, even during a well-edited sequence around one future victim’s gymnastics routine, the film is more interested in focusing on making coach George look sinister than making us understand that the girl is a genuine talent.

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This isn’t to say that GRADUATION DAY isn’t an entertaining film – it’s just not one that falls into the slasher patterns that viewers might be expecting. Despite all of the death, the police don’t show up until over an hour into the film, and then only to theorize on why some of the kids are missing! Patch MacKenzie’s Anne, the sister of the blood clot victim at the beginning, is established early as the primary character (and potential killer), but she then vanishes for vast chunks of the movie, re-emerging in full just in time for the climax.

We also get time with the Principal and his secretary (whom he’s sleeping with), a lecherous music teacher (who sleeps with student and potential victim Linnea Quigley), a pair of girls (including Vanna White) that wander around and seem to show up just before each murder, and Anne’s inexplicably hostile stepfather who tells his Navy vet stepdaughter “Why don’t you go back to China, or wherever the hell you came from?” (Anne gets a lot of random scorn, including a truck driver who tries to cop a feel and defends himself with the line “give a guy a break, I’m a taxpayer!”) There are a lot of potential suspects, and GRADUATION DAY certainly pays plenty of attention to all of them – even if, in trade, we get to know little about the unfortunates who end up catching footballs with giant blades sticking out of them.

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You read that correctly, and one thing GRADUATION DAY does deliver to the average slasher fan is creative deaths. Sure, the first actual victim is a mere (and oddly-framed) stabbing, but our killer, outfitted in fencing garb, quickly ups his (or her) game and utilizes a variety of sports-themed weaponry. Beware the javelin, my students! The balls that bite, the blades to catch!

It all ends in a fairly ridiculous climax that relies on a lead character doing exactly the opposite of the sensible thing for several minutes, but the game played by GRADUATION DAY isn’t one won or lost in the final reel. By the halfway mark, you’ll have either embraced its unique charms despite its deviation from slasher norms or tuned out and popped on HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME instead. GRADUATION DAY does feature some solid performances (especially by George and Pataki), some creative editing by Martin Jay Sadoff (especially during the opening sequence) and a memorable dance sequence involving band Felony performing “The Gangster Rock” while students whirl around them in rollerblades (if Vinegar Syndrome wants to follow up their NIGHT TRAIN TO TERROR soundtrack release, I’d look to this to be a likely contender), so while it never becomes a great slasher film, it’s still an entertaining way to spend 96 minutes.

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Vinegar Syndrome has done the usual fine job with the transfer, though GRADUATION DAY isn’t all that colorful a film. The highlights of the part sequence and the opening look brilliant, however, and should at least increase the film’s reputation more than the murky earlier transfers ever could. The commentary tracks are informative, with producer David Baughn heading one and The Hysteria Continues offering an impressive amount of information on the other. Baughn, Freed, MacKenzie and Sadoff are all on hand for interview segments as well, along with an unrestored theatrical trailer that sells the film’s best moments.

@Paul Freitag-Fey

Jon Abrams

Editor-In-Chief at Daily Grindhouse
Jon Abrams is a New York-based writer, cartoonist, and committed cinemaniac whose complete work and credits can be found at his site, Demon’s Resume. You can contact him on Twitter as @JonZilla___.
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