Two days before Christmas in 1985, a pair of young Judas Priest fans from Reno, NV went to a Lutheran church playground and attempted suicide with a 12-gauge shotgun under the chin. One of them died instantly while the other survived with facial disfigurement but died from an overdose of painkillers three years later. Their parents brought a civil action suit against the members of Judas Priest, alleging that their sons had been compelled to kill themselves after hearing what they believed to be a subliminal message hidden in a cover of Spooky Tooth’s 1969 song “Better by You, Better than Me” that Priest recorded for their 1978 album Stained Class.
Since the origins of rock & roll, any music that wasn’t family-friendly sock-hop fodder sung by Bing Crosby or Peggy Lee was considered to be the work of agents of the dark lord Satan, and groups of self-righteous religious nuts and power-mad authority figures assembled protests and burned thousands upon thousands of copies of these records in effigy. Horror filmmakers in the latter half of that narcissism-fueled decade cashed in on the raging hysteria by producing several low or medium-budget features with hard rock and/or heavy metal tunes not just occupying space on the soundtrack albums, but actually figuring prominently in the plots.
Horror and metal have always enjoyed a cozy relationship that endures to this day. Since no celebration of Halloween is complete without a juicy fright flick marathon to enjoy with that bag of candy you pilfered from your nieces and nephews, here’s my list of the 5 best heavy metal horror classics to ever grace a theater screen or the shelves at your neighborhood mom & pop video store that closed down ages ago and was replaced with a Verizon Wireless retailer.
Blu-ray | DVD
The first entry on this list is oddly enough the only one that the MPAA would let your kids watch without adult supervision. Those freaks. Imagine if The Goonies was remade by Italian horror master Lucio Fulci. I first caught The Gate on HBO during a sleepy afternoon in the summer of 1988 and it always stuck with me. Young Stephen Dorff plays a suburban kid who discovers a portal to a nightmarish realm of supernatural evil and murderous imps and must figure out how to close it with a little help from his metal-loving best friend (Louis Tripp) before an army of stop-motion beasties of various sizes break out to overwhelm the world.
Wall zombies, melting parents, dead dogs, Tibor Takács‘ cult favorite fright flick has plenty of fiendish delights for the twisted tyke in everyone to enjoy. Lionsgate released an extras-packed Blu-ray edition earlier this year. I couldn’t recommend it more.
Trick or Treat
Before he perished in a mysterious fire, heavy metal icon Sammi Curr (Tony Fields) recorded one last album. Marc Price, best known as the geek Skippy from the 1980’s NBC sitcom Family Ties, plays Curr’s most devoted fan, a high school outcast who plays the album backwards and accidentally summons the vengeful spirit of his rock god to return from beyond the grave for a hardcore spree of music and mayhem. Trick or Treat, the first film directed by actor Charles Martin Smith (American Graffiti), is wicked fun that throws the teen horror flick into a blender with some fist-pumping tunes (provided by the British rock group Fastway, among others) and juicy prosthetic make-up effects to create a tasty genre smoothie worth indulging every Halloween.
Fun fact: Cinematographer Robert Elswit later went on to work with directors like Brad Bird, Paul Thomas Anderson, David Mamet, and George Clooney. Gene Simmons and Ozzy Osbourne make brief but welcome cameo appearances, the former as a DJ friend of Price’s character who gives him Curr’s album and the latter as a hilarious anti-rock pundit.
Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare
Before he spent most of the 90’s as one of Hollywood’s top action screenwriters and uncredited script doctors, John Fasano shot a pair of heavy metal horrors in Canada for chump change compared to the average studio feature budget. Neither flick saw much theatrical play, but they enjoyed some success as popular video store rentals for years until Synapse Films brought both to DVD a decade ago. The first, and best, is 1987’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare, an utterly preposterous movie where the metal band Triton travels to a farmhouse in the rural Great White North to record a new album and one by one fall prey to the demonic hordes of the dark lord Beezelbub. Since Fasano only had $53,000 to make Nightmare with, those demonic hordes in question are played by an assemblage of cheesy puppets that couldn’t scare a baby.
It’s goofy as hell and worth a watch for the finale alone, in which the band leader John Triton (played by real life rocker Jon Mikl Thor) strips to a studded thong and wrestles with the Devil himself in an absurd match-up that brought back happy memories of a slowly dying Bela Lugosi pretending to be crushed to death by an inanimate octopus for Ed Wood’s Bride of the Monster. Thor also performed several awesome songs for the soundtrack album, which received an expanded official release not long after the DVD premiered. Avoid the belated 2005 sequel Intercessor like the plague.
Black Roses, Fasano’s Nightmare follow-up, boasts a slightly bigger budget, better acting and effects, and some terrific metal anthems from bands like Lizzy Borden (including the super sweet opener “Me Against the World”) and King Kobra. Despite the protestations of the local parents, metal group Black Roses comes to a small town to perform a special concert at their high school. The kids really eat up their tunes, but once they all start to transform into vicious killer demons, they find themselves eating the adults as well.
Check it out if you want to see Vincent Pastore of The Sopranos play an a-hole dad who gets devoured by a giant possessed stereo speaker. The cast also includes Creature from the Black Lagoon starlet Julie Adams, famed rock drummer Carmine Appice, and Lou Ferrigno’s wife Carla.
Once the 1980s ended, so did the desire for heavy metal horror cinema. It became even more of a cult thing than before, and in 2015 a group of enterprising filmmakers from New Zealand stepped up to deliver the first real movie of its kind in decades with Deathgasm, a gory and energetic throwback to the blood-drenched horror comedies of the 80’s like Evil Dead 2 and Re-Animator.
There’s plenty of severed limbs, goofy humor, and great music in this offbeat flick about a group of Kiwi metalheads who unwittingly invoked the demon Aeloth by turning the medieval composition “The Black Hymn” into a righteous rocker and must send the monster back to the underworld. Writer-director Jason Lei Howden never skimps on the mayhem in his old school genre flick but finds plenty of heart in our unlikely heroes.