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Dustin Putman

Dustin's Blu-ray Review
Graduation Day  (1981)
Reviewed by Dustin Putman

The Film
2.5 Stars
(Release Date: September 9, 2014) – "Graduation Day" gets lumped in with the junkier of the post-"Halloween" early-'80s slasher flicks. It follows the formula pretty much to the letter, from the prologue wherein a tragedy occurs, to the appearance of a masked, vengeance-seeking mystery killer, to the teenage body count, to the momentous holiday/milestone which the story revolves around. The film, directed by Herb Freed and co-penned by Freed and Anne Marisse, is wildly uneven—and all the more charming because of its disparateness. On the one hand, there is a level of ineptitude that trickles down in the delivery, from laughably overacting extras to stilted fight choreography to sporadically ridiculous dialogue (when one character who has just survived a bloodbath is told by the police to come down to the station for a statement, she searchingly responds, "What kind of statement?"). Every time the viewer considers writing the picture off, it averts and transcends expectations, impressing with Arthur Kempel's elegant, at times Bernard Herrmann-esque music score, eye-openingly polished editing by Martin Jay Sadoff, and a handful of terrifically realized set-pieces.

The plot is a straightforward sort, but with a couple choice twists near the end that raise it a notch above sheer obviousness. Several months after Midvale High School track star Laura Ramstead (Ruth Ann Llorens) died unexpectedly during a race, elder military sister Anne (Patch Mackenzie) arrives in town to accept a trophy on her late sibling's behalf during the senior graduation ceremony. As the big day approaches, the rest of the varsity track team are targeted by a bloodthirsty psychopath with designs to make them—and hard-ass coach George Michaels (Christopher George)—pay for Laura's untimely death.

1980s-ready fashions and soft-focused lensing notwithstanding, "Graduation Day" is cut together with a modern spin that proves brazenly ahead of its time. Opening with an attention-grabbing montage leading up to Laura's unfortunate demise, edited with lightning-quick precision to the disco-ready song "The Winner" by David Cole, Lance Ong and Gabriel Rohels, the movie pulls the viewer instantly into its stylistic orbit. She might not be able to run convincingly for someone in the U.S. Navy, but Patch Mackenzie is a spunky, refreshingly adult protagonist as Anne, her struggles over losing a sister and dealing with her unreliable mother and alcoholic stepfather resounding with authenticity. As Laura's grieving boyfriend, Kevin, E. Danny Murphy is supposed to be preparing for high school graduation despite not looking a day under thirty. E.J. Peaker is a delight as school secretary Blondie, even if her subplot involving Principal Guglione (Michael Pataki) is decidedly extraneous, while future B-movie "scream queen" Linnea Quigley displays a natural charisma as free-spirited student Dolores.

Adopting a pre-MTV knack for flash-cutting and a key chase sequence outstandingly interspersed with rock band Felony performing the catchy "Gangster Rock" at the quaintest roller boogie you've ever seen, "Graduation Day" separates itself from the glut of "Dead Teenager" movies of the era in its forward-thinking flourishes (and one particularly nasty pole vaulting murder). There are parts that are of the "so-bad-they're-funny" variety, but also plenty of "so-good-they're-truly-effective" moments, as well. Both of these halves join together for what is an ideal weekend movie, the sort of entertaining low-budget horror item that will work best for audiences looking to unwind and have fun after a long, busy work week. The finale is additionally off its rocker just enough to prove director Herb Freed was thinking outside the genre box. Watching "Graduation Day" in the twenty-first century is like simultaneously staring into two disarming portals: one with a direct route to the past, and another signaling the very prototype of a cinematic aesthetic that was moments away from altering the entire landscape of our contemporary media culture.

Blu-ray Picture/Sound

Vinegar Syndrome has pulled out all the stops with a new 4K restoration of "Graduation Day" that soars above and beyond what anyone could have possibly expected from this vintage '80s slasher entry. This impressively handled transfer brings vitality and dignity to a film that most critics no doubt wrote off upon its theatrical release, and certainly following its ugly VHS premiere. There are hints of print damage throughout, from speckles of dirt to the errant circular sprocket marks along the edges of the frame, but by and large this is a clean, bold presentation. Blacks are truly black, colors are solid and pleasingly unfaded, and a fine layer of grain gives the film an added natural texture. Boasting revelatory high-def clarity even in its softer shots, this new 1080p image is truly excellent. The 1.0 DTS-HD Master Audio is accurate to source, which is the best thing that could possibly be said about a low-budget, thirty-plus-year-old horror title. The most memorable thing about this audio track is its representation of a great soundtrack, from the chillingly layered music score to its period-hip collection of songs.

Blu-ray Features
  • Audio Commentary with producer/story writer David Baughn, moderated by Elijah Drenner
  • Audio Commentary with "The Hysteria Continues!" podcast hosts Justin Kerswell, Erik Threlfall, Joseph Henson and Nathan Johnson
  • Interviews
    • "Acting Out in School" with actor Patch Mackenzie (8:48, HD)
    • "Surviving the Class of '81" with director Herb Freed (12:22, HD)
    • "Graduation Day Blues" with producer David Baughn (11:34, HD)
    • "Cutting Class" with editor Martin Jay Sadoff (7:20, HD)
  • Theatrical Trailer (2:04, HD)
Bottom Line
Slasher enthusiasts and retro-movie fans, all hail Vinegar Syndrome! Their Blu-ray release of "Graduation Day" is nothing less than spectacular. Treating the movie with the reverence of a time-honored classic (even if the film isn't quite a "classic"), their work not only seems to improve the film in question, but also serves to display it in a superior light that calls attention to the talented people behind the camera who set out to do their own thing and make a worthwhile picture even as they adhered largely to genre formula. Thanks to the hard work of the people at Vinegar Syndrome, "Graduation Day" has finally received its moment in the spotlight. This Blu-ray is easily one of 2014's catalogue-title valedictorians. Highly recommended.

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© 2014 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman