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Slashback! School’s Out Forever on GRADUATION DAY (1981)

Ever since I developed a serious slasher-movie addiction during the Mom & Pop video store days of the 1980s, I can’t go long without a fix… and nothing scratches that itch better than a flick from the genre’s Golden Age, which loosely spans the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, hitting its peak of popularity during 1981 — arguably the most beloved year among slasher fans.

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Theaters and drive-ins were so inundated with slasher fare by that year that many of the genre’s now-clichéd tropes were already out in force, with very little variation across the films’ simplistic plotlines.

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Masked villains with signature weapons, minimalist synth scores, flashes of nudity, red-herring characters, plucky “Final Girl” survivors… all these elements were in constant rotation by 1981, and while the constant riffing on the same theme drew heavy criticism, for me there was a certain comfort to be found in that formula.

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Herb Freed’s GRADUATION DAY follows one of the most common slasher film conventions in heavy rotation by that year: the “avenger” scenario, in which victims are picked off one-by-one by a vengeance-seeking figure with an (often literal) axe to grind for some real or perceived slight which happened in the recent or even distant past. Classic examples include FRIDAY THE 13TH, MY BLOODY VALENTINE, THE BURNING, THE PROWLER, PROM NIGHT…the list goes on and on and on.

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In the case of GRADUATION DAY, the unseen killer is targeting the classmates and teammates of Midvale High School long-distance runner Laura Ramstead (Ruth Ann Llorens), whom we see collapsing on the track and dying almost instantly from an apparent embolism mere seconds after snapping the finish-line tape.

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Someone who knew Laura apparently believes her death could have been avoided, and embarks on a mission of bloody vengeance to punish anyone they perceive as having contributed to her death — particularly her teammates.

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The flamboyant giallo-style murders are the prime selling point in this otherwise fairly run-of-the-mill slasher exercise. These bloody kills are perpetrated by a figure in a hooded track suit (although also clad in a fencing uniform, a look borrowed two decades later for Jamie Blanks’ URBAN LEGENDS: THE FINAL CUT), who modifies the school’s sports equipment into a deadly arsenal.

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The killer also times each victim’s demise with a stopwatch identical to that used by the coach during Laura’s fateful race, then crosses out the victim’s faces on a photo of the track team in blood-red lipstick.

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The graduation of the title is preceded by the arrival of Laura’s older sister Anne (Patch MacKenzie), who is ostensibly there to receive a posthumous award on Laura’s behalf, but is also doing a little amateur sleuthing as the bizarre murders continue.

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Anne is also on the short-list of prime suspects, along with Laura’s track coach (Christopher George, PIECES), her twitchy boyfriend Kevin (E. Danny Murphy), the school’s rage-filled principal Guglione (Michael Pataki, GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE), the incredibly smarmy music teacher (Richard Balin) and a crooked police officer (Virgil Frye, REVENGE OF THE NINJA).

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The whole bloody mess goes down during a blowout roller boogie dance party (yes, you read that right), during which the killer’s identity is revealed in the kind of goofy twist we’ve come to expect from this genre.

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Trust me, I’m not going to inflate GRADUATION DAY to anywhere near classic status, but this is still a flick I like to pop in the player every year or so.

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If for nothing else, it’s always fun to watch some entertaining early performances from horror icons like Christopher George, Linnea Quigley (RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD) and Linda Shayne (HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP), not to mention the novelty value of WHEEL OF FORTUNE’s Vanna White playing one of two bitchy rich teens.

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But it’s really two things that secure this film in my heart of hearts (and no, I don’t mean Linnea’s breasts, although they are quite lovely): first, those awesome kills, which include a ridiculously cool spiked football, a nasty decapitation and a high-jump landing pad fitted with sharpened metal spikes (a setup they actually use twice).

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Second, the rather cool post-punk band Felony — seen here sporting neo-goth makeup, cheesy mustaches and pinstripe zoot-suits for their live performance of “Gangster Rock” during the climactic roller-rink party. [’80s trivia junkies may recognize Felony’s hit track “The Fanatic” from the soundtrack to VALLEY GIRL.]

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Recently, I’ve got another reason to give GRADUATION DAY its annual screening: a new Blu-ray/DVD combo taken from the first-ever 4K conversion of the film by indie label Vinegar Syndrome is jam-packed with way more extras than I ever thought existed, much less warranted inclusion in an otherwise minor entry in the ‘80s slasher canon.

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The best feature by far is a hilarious running commentary by all four hosts of the slasher-themed podcast The Hysteria Continues (one of my all-time favorite genre ‘casts ever). If you’re a fan of Golden Age slasher cinema, this disc is a must-have.

Trivia Time: The killer’s M.O. in GRADUATION DAY includes using a stopwatch to time the death of each victim, and according to the Hysteria Continues crew, this idea came from the director’s wife during the development of the story. While Freed had helmed two horror films previously (HAUNTS and BEYOND EVIL), he was completely unfamiliar with the slasher tropes I mentioned earlier, the stopwatch was chosen as a way of giving the villain a signature “hook” while keeping the pace of the kill scenes as tight as possible.

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