A Near-Forgotten Crap Classic of Horror Featuring Vanna White, of All People: Graduation Day (1981)

The Eighties were a glorious time in many aspects, in particular for horror flicks. The upper echelon of 1980s horror would include The Shining, Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn, Re-Animator, Hellraiser, Fright Night, The Return of the Living Dead, An American Werewolf in London, Killer Klowns from Outer Space, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Near Dark, The Changeling and John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing.

However, for true horror geeks living the decade, it’s the dreck and the slime from the Grade B tiers which give afiaciandos their mutant verve. The Toxic Avenger certainly qualifies as a beloved crap classic of the era. Depending on your propensity for gratuitous gore or outright stupidity, there are hundreds of schlock films which seasoned horror pros are wont to devour like a canister of sour cream and onion Pringles. They may be new titles to you, but if you had a VCR or cable t.v. in its infancy years, tell me you don’t remember the likes of The Boogens, The Burning, Wolfen, Basket Case, Puppet Master, Prophecy, I Spit On Your Grave, Slumber Party Massacre, Sorority House Massacre, Hell Night, Visiting Hours, Silent Night, Deadly Night, Motel Hell, Happy Birthday to Me, Pieces, Maniac, Cannibal Holocaust, Make Them Die Slowly, The Prowler, The Spawning, Piranha and Sleepaway Camp. The latter came to play, dropping the most gonzo, discomfiting sucker punch ending of any genre. Not to mention a hilarious roast of Eighties horror in its sequel, Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers.

Back in the day, I devoured these films, many on local UHF and VHF channels from the days of dialed knob channel selection and rabbit ear antennae. Sometimes, one of the local network stations would run a horror or kung fu flick after the 11:00 p.m. news, but most often horror was king in the static-filled VHF tundra of our Ghost Host and Creature Feature Saturday night horrorthons. If you’re familiar with Svengoolie on MeTV, it’s a blissfully corny taste of what used to be lifestyle, though Sven’s had an enormous run through his two portrayers.

The Eighties were perpetually suffering a case of sequelitis in film, most guilty in horror. Much of it was terrible instead of terrifying, looking at you, The Hills Have Eyes Part II, The Howling II: Your Sister’s a Werewolf and Jaws: The Revenge. Much of it was about not so much building a better Halloween and Friday the 13th, but only to lure horny teenagers to the cinema for cash grab Friday night thrills. If you were lucky, you were grabbing something else during and after the movie.

Of all the countless slasher ripoffs to come down the pike, one putrid pile of crap stands out for me, and I’m a chump sucker for it like I am a Puffy Amiyumi song, hating myself in both cases: 1981’s Graduation Day.

I played my original copy on VHS tape back in the day nearly as much as Friday the 13th Part IV. Comparable in the sleaze and dead brain cell department, yet the latter far outshines in special effects as one of gore master Tom Savini’s masterworks. I played Graduation Day over and over until the tape split in my machine. Then I bought another one, despite its shoddy film grade, ridiculous plot, overuse of a primary film location for many of the kills, perverted teachers, a pathetic attempt to create a Whodunit with implausible suspects…and yet the damn thing still manages to pull off a dandy surprise ending.

For no good reason, I get lured in by that cheesy post-disco synth track by Lance Owg, Gabriel Rohels and David Cole, “The Winner,” in the opening montage setting up our story of carnage. It doesn’t take long to get into the film’s nasty business. That globby synthpop is so awful, it’s so Troma, as in the later reissuer of the film. Troma, a revered peddler of trash couture which put Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz on the subcultural map with the Toxic Avenger films, Class of Nuke ’em High, Mother’s Day, Rabid Grannies and Bloodsucking Freaks.

Then there’s that sloppy (but damned infectious), riff-o-matic, piano-hammering “Gangster Rock” song from who-the-hell-knows-what-happened-to-them band, Felony. I’m always laying in wait for their marathon skate jam stretched through a stalk ‘n slash sequence for nearly as long as a quad of Tales from Topographic Oceans. Like the film itself, “Gangster Rock” doesn’t know when to quit, and still that caterwauling chorus just won’t leave me be for days after I hit it.

Graduation Day is the saucy, nerdy, naive, amateurish, sleazo by-product of its time. Expect the customary boob pops (especially from a younger Linnea Quigley, one of the era’s most loved scream queens), expect cheesy decapitations and laughably staged stabbings. Graduation Day has the singlehanded, most ludicrous kill scene of the decade with dual jockster Ralph (Carl Rey) being impaled by his own football. I’ll let you watch to decipher the logistics of such nonsense.

Vanna White, game show icon, can you imagine the sight of her in a turd bucket horror film? It’s true! In Graduation Day, you’ll find Vanna as a hemming, hawing and screeching filler teen named Doris. Hey, Kevin Bacon began his path in the original Friday the 13th. We’ve all gotta start somewhere, right?

When Midtown High School elite sprinter, Laura Ramstead, dies of a cardiac embolism while winning a track event at the bombastic hollering of her coach, George Michaels (Christopher George), a series of murders then rains down upon her track teammates. Why is anyone’s guess, only that we’re led to believe her irritable coach is the head culprit, given our killer, donned in sweats, black gloves and a fencing helmet, takes down the victims in a forced time of thirty seconds. Many of the murders are shown with a ticking stopwatch hitting that same mark, the same footage used in the beginning of the film (c’mon, man!) depicting Coach Michaels’ brutal pushing of Laura to win so hard it ushers her unexpected death.

Flash forward, we pick up with Midvale’s graduation only days away. Laura’s sister, Anne (Patch Mackenzie), comes home from her naval station in Guam to accept Laura’s diploma on the family’s behalf. This after fending off the advances of a lecherous truck driver (looking suspiciously like porn star Ron Jeremy in an ascot – cough cough, laughter prevails) and then a skirmish with Anne’s despicable stepfather.

Laura’s boyfriend, Kevin Badger (E. Danny Murphy) hasn’t let the torch burn out for his lady love, which should be enough of a hint, but credit where it’s due. One of the film’s more clever maneuvers is to play up Kevin’s chivalry, then disappear from him with only a few random drops back into the story. Smoke and mirrors using the rest of the cast and the subplot of Anne seeking atonement from Coach Michaels leads to an unforgettable danse macabre at the film’s finale.

Graduation Day was made back then for a meager $250,000.00 and the production shows, especially through its dreadful lighting and choppy cutaway-flash scenes. Its only moment of grace comes in the beautifully shot and executed scene of gymnast-track star Sally’s (Denise Cheshire) elegant routine on the asymmetrical bars. For all of its faults and eyesores, Graduation Day took in $24 million at the box office in the spring of 1981, quantifying it as a smash for its time. While rightfully panned by crtitics, the Herb Freed-directed slasher has hedged a loyal cult audience over time which is rebuilding through fans finding value in the film’s CGI-less, old school effects motif to convey the rampage.

Graduation Day is a hot mess of an indie horror film making the most of its shamelessness, and it keeps coming back for evaluation every generation or so. I remember first watching a cut version on the 11:30 Late Movie on WBAL, Baltimore Channel 11. Even after two copies on videotape, I later snagged Graduation Day on DVD, never paying more than $7.00 for any unit.

There’s something I just love about this turkey aside from what I’ve already mentioned. The graduating class in this film marks a transition into my own. I was 11 when Graduation Day came out and the whole high school world seemed a different palette in comparison to this one when I myself graduated in 1988. Midvale High is stocked with the same jocks, preppies, dorks, perverts, potheads, music fiends, nouveau riche, dickswingers and ordinary wallflowers as my own group who went four years of public high school together. Longer hair was generally a more accepted norm in the Midvale-verse than my time in high school. A Beatles mural can be seen in the hallways of Midvale High ’81. Something very similar seven years later was found in my writing teacher, Paul Day’s classroom.

There’s something oddly comforting to the whole lunatic thing, all the way to the funky fadeout music of Graduation Day, which haunts my ears frequently like my eyes the sight of Laura’s capped and gowned cadaver.

–Ray Van Horn, Jr.

11 thoughts on “A Near-Forgotten Crap Classic of Horror Featuring Vanna White, of All People: Graduation Day (1981)

  1. I recall most of the titles you mentioned, although I leaned away from slashers and more into supernaturals, the 80s were a great time for horror, whether they took themselves too seriously, or not seriously at all (I always preferred the kind that realized they didn’t have the budget to do anything but campy).

    Man, I miss some of these…

    Liked by 2 people

    • Of all the titles Ray mentioned, I’ve only seen Wolfen, Puppet Master, I Spit On Your Grave, Slumber Party Massacre, Hell Night, Silent Night, Deadly Night, Motel Hell, Make Them Die Slowly, Piranha, Sleepaway Camp, The Hills Have Eyes Part II, The Howling II: Your Sister’s a Werewolf, Jaws: The Revenge, Halloween (all of them), Friday the 13th (ditto), and Toxic Avenger, but there are probably a few more I don’t remember having seen, and Graduation Day as well as Class of Nuke ’em High are strong suspects. My love of horror movies began when we first got Showtime in the early 80’s. I’d stay up late to see all the “forbidden” stuff. Then in the summers when my family spent weekends in the country we’d rent two, sometimes three movies a night, and my brother and I got to pick the second (and third if there was one). We almost always chose horror. I miss Blockbuster, but even more so our local video store which went out of business partly because of Blockbuster. The owner loved horror too, so she had an impressive collection that I barely scratched the surface of.

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  2. i love horror, period, transitioning from the Universals and 50s atomic B films and that era to 60s Hammer films to slasher films in my teens since they were abundant whenever we’d go to the movies… I’ll never forget a new Friday the 13th film being party night for our area…we’d take over the daggone cinema on opening night and it was full-on chaos. The few adults crazy enough to show up then were mortified. Such fun! I went through my gore phase in my teens and in my adult life, I favor more the supernatural, the cerebral, the classic style of horror. Gore only if it serves the story. The slashers are such trash and so predictable, but a film like this one was just so purposefully shameless in its cheapness while trying to deliver a decent fright by the end. It’s laughable, but “Graduation Day” is like bad-for-you comfort food, lol

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  3. Sounds like we walked the same path, Courtney. For me, it was HBO when it very first came out along with cable t.v. in general. My folks pre-approved what I could watch, even if some were hard “R” but they had their scruples. I would sneak down in the middle of the night during summer break with my ear next to the t.v. to get in the others. When VCRs came around, we had a local video shop and did the same as you. I filled my eyes with just about every daggone 80s horror movie there was. For the few movies still considered forbidden fruit back then, my buddy, Shawn and I had an “in” at the video store who would smuggle us the hardcore films to rent, lol

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    • My cousins had HBO and I remember being envious because whenever I stayed over their house it always seemed like there was something really good on that Showtime didn’t have! I’m not sure if HBO wasn’t available where I lived or if my mother just chose Showtime for whatever reason (in any case we certainly couldn’t have afforded both).

      Liked by 1 person

      • I get that totally and you were considered really well-off if you had HBO AND Showtime back then. Of course, many people played the grand switch game back and forth. Funny to think about that with all the streaming services and even what Xfinity, for example, gives in its non-premium channel plans.

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