Friday, November 27, 2009

Shock 'Em Dead (1991)

Directed by Mark Freed
Starring Traci Lords, Karen Russell, Aldo Ray, Stephen Quadros
Rated R

"I wanna order a fuckin' pizza!"

Shock 'Em Dead's official release date is 1991, although I suspect it was shot two years' prior, since all the posters on the rehearsal room walls are vintage 1989. But what needs to be acknowledged right off the bat is this: if it were not for Kurt Cobain, heavy metal would have gone on virtually forever. It certainly shows no signs of slowing here, as Shock 'Em Dead is awash in gratuitous guitar noodling, acid-wash denim, poofy hair, and a mindless obsession with partying and pizza. Although it was written and directed by the mysterious and long-gone Mark Freed, it could have just as easily been concocted by Beavis and Butthead during a Dr Pepper binge. Notable mostly for featuring a post-porn Traci Lords in a sizable but thankless role, Shock 'Em Dead is one the VHS era's more audacious obscurities, and makes for a perfect late 80's time capsule.

As our story opens, we meet the members of Spastique Colon, a goofy flash metal band led by one Johnny Crack (Markus Grupa), a fussy, flouncing, chronically pissed-off mess of a man in a headband and a belly shirt. 'The Colon', as I like to call them, are auditioning for a new guitar player. They've got a big showcase gig for high-powered metal promoter Jimmi Wolf coming up in two days, and an already-booked tour kicking off right after. So, the hustle is on, and the auditions are not going well.

Linsday (Traci Lords, in extremely high-waisted jeans), is their manager. She's also Greg-the-bass player's girlfriend. That's bound to cause friction later. Lindsay informs the fellas that they're out of candidates. In desperation, they call Martin (Stephen Quadros), a friend of the keyboard player's. Martin works at Tony's pizza, which has pizzas on the walls, with secret peepholes to watch the buxom waitresses get dressed for their shift.

Tony (50's actor Aldo Ray, in his last-ever role) doesn't want to let Martin leave early for his audition, so he quits. And then Tony smears tomato sauce all over his shirt. Take that, Martin!

Martin shows up for the audition, but it turns out, he can't actually play the guitar. So, quitting his day job may have been premature. Out of options, the fellas decide to go with the "Guy with the ring in his nose".

Martin goes back to work and tries to get his job back, but Tony tosses him out on his ass.
While he's lying there in the dirt, a mysterious voodoo woman (Tyger Sodpipe, who appears to be a stroke victim) shows up and tells Martin she can give him the power to destroy jerks like Tony. So, that's something to think about.

Martin drags himself home - he lives in a trailer - and practices his guitar. In stomps his landlord (the awesomely named Yankee Sulivan, dressed just like Schneider from One Day at a Time), who punches him in the stomach for making a racket, and then evicts him, for being six months late with the rent.

Since he's pretty much out of options, he goes to visit the voodoo lady, and agrees to sell his soul in exchange for becoming the "Greatest rock star in the world". So she stabs him in the chest, and he has a dream where he's a werewolf, and he meets Metal Satan, who plays a two-necked guitar and has hot blondes rub his leather-clad legs while he shreds. Metal Satan also has black fingernails. He's pretty bad-ass.

When Martin wakes up, he's in a swank pad, he has a poofy black wig on, and he's wearing guyliner. He's also got company - two lingerie-clad metal chicks, Monique (Laurel Wiley, Test Tube Teens from the Year 2000) and Michelle (Karen Russell, Vice Academy, Hell High, Tenement). They inform him that everything in the house is his. He tests the water by smashing a statue and groping Michelle. All systems are, indeed, go.

Martin's got a closet full of bitchin' metal threads, so he gets dressed, jumps into his convertible, and zooms right over to that rehearsal space to audition for Spastique Colon again. This time, he nails it.

He tells them his name is "Angel Martin", and everybody thinks that's pretty awesome. He joins the band and invites everybody over to his place for a party. Traci is somewhat suspect of this brash young man with the Elvira wig, but fuck it, he can play the guitar pretty good. The guitar parts, by the way, are all played in close-up by Chicago-based shredder Michael Angelo Batio, best known for his late 80's stint in Jim Gillette's notorious hair-explosion Nitro. Fun fact.

A triumphant Martin goes home and bangs Michelle on a waterbed. Halfway through, he sees her reflection in the mirror - she's actually a burnt-up mess. She explains to him that she and the other girls made deals with Metal Satan. She was a burn victim who wanted to be beautiful again. A third girl, Marilyn (Gina Parks), was born with some sort of facial deformity, and Monique had terminal cancer. Satan let her come back, but she has to kill people with a ceremonial dagger and absorb their life force to keep going.
"Well, what's my deal?" Martin naturally asks.
"Dunno," shrugs Michelle. "But I'm sure you'll find out soon enough."
And so he does. Turns out, he's in the same boat as Monique. He can't eat actually food, he needs to kill people for nourishment. As he was formerly a big snacker, this comes as quite a blow. No time to ponder this miserable fate, however, as folks have arrived for the big heavy metal house party.

In the middle of this revelry, voodoo lady shows back up. She gives him a bitchin' dagger kit to murder people with and shuffles off. Martin starts hassling her about how we wants to bang Traci Lords - join the club, right? - so she tells him he's got to mix her blood with water or somesuch nonsense.

Afterward, Martin wants to blow off some steam, so he and a couple of his new band buddies head over to Tony's to steal pizzas and stick the waitress's face in a vat of sauce. What a dick.

Later on, he goes back to stab Tony to death. He's not very good at fighting though, and the scrappy old bastard kicks his ass. Luckily Monique shows up to help him, and together, they drain Tony of his life juices. Then he goes home and sleeps with all three of his devil girls in his waterbed.

After a good night's sleep, Martin heads over to the 'Showcase gig', where he meets scuzzball promoter Jimmi Wolf (Madison Monk, looking like he just wandered off the Sha Na Na set).

While the rest of the fellas are schmoozing with Wolf, bandleader Jonny Crack is in the bathroom, shooting up. Very unprofessional. He does make it to the stage on time, though, dressed in a red spandex body suit. The band launches into "I'm a Virgin Girl", and people seem to dig it, mostly because of Martin's Yngwie Malmsteen-esque guitar wanking.

Halfway through, Martin boots Jonny right off the stage and finishes the song himself. Then he busts out the double-necked guitar for an extended solo. And then, just to finish 'em all off, he plays a tune called "I'm in Love With a Slut" Dejected, Jonny finds himself in the parking lot, unable to even get back into the club to retrieve his car keys. And so he is forced to sit on the hood of his station wagon and quietly sob over this horrible and unfair turn of events.

After the triumphant gig, Martin is feeling peckish, so talks a groupie into going for a ride with him.
"Where are we going?" She asks him, innocently.
"You're going to Heaven," he tells her, "And I'm going to Hell."
And then he stabs her in the tits.

Just then, Jonny shows up to beat him with a stick for trying to steal his gig, but when he sees Martin's green-glowing eyes, he drops his weapon and prances away. Martin chases and, we're assuming, eats him. At the after-party, a couple of record execs - including a slumming Troy Donahue - try to sign Spastique Colon, but Martin brushes them aside.

Then he takes Lindsay home, and plays the acoustic guitar for her. At first, that seems to be going pretty good, but then his eyes start glowing and he pukes up green slime. And then, while she's spouting a bunch of bullshit about how she loves her boyfriend Greg, Martin lets a snake out of a basket. Nothing comes of any of this though, so I'm not sure what the point was.

Lindsay goes home and Greg shows up to tell her that Jonny Crack is dead. She admits she was over at Martin's, but when Greg complains about it, she snaps at him and then she pouts. And when she pouts, you quickly remember why she was, briefly, the biggest porn star in the world.

The next day, Martin signs a sweet deal with Casualty Records and then tries to talk Lindsay into fucking him. She bails and then Greg comes in looking for her, and sees one of the girls' monster faces, and freaks out. The drummer dude says he saw the same thing at the party, so Greg tells him to get a cop. And then Martin sits on the couch and reads "Cooking Light" magazine. And then some girl shows up and takes her top off. So that was good.

Greg sees Martin and Monique slaughtering the topless girl, so he fetches the cops, and they show up to get to the bottom of things.

Luckily for Martin, the girls thought on their feet, and they shoved the slaughtered groupie into the dishwasher. The cops shrug and split.
"New rule," says Martin. "From now on, we always eat out!"

Later on, Michelle stomps on over to Lindsay's house because she's tired of her putting the moves on Martin. They end up in an awesome knife/cat fight, and after Martin intervenes, Michelle gets stabbed and then turns into a pile of ash. The jig's pretty much up at this point, so Martin just wants to put the voodoo mojo on Lindsay and be done with it. He phones home to tell the girls to bring his dagger and his snake to the "Ampitheatre" so he can get this shit done.

Meanwhile, Greg goes to visit the tipsy voodoo lady to find out what he can do to stop Martin and save Lindsay. She tells him it's possible, but he will have to pay a very steep price. Is he willing to wager his soul to save the love of his life?

No. But he does have another plan. It involves a trip to the Survival Store - I suppose it would have to - and a tube of Coconut flavored "Food Concentrate". Mayhem, of a sort, ensues.

From all reports, director Freed had no prior knowledge or interest in the LA metal scene
before making Shock 'Em Dead, which might be the key to its goofy charm. Camp only works when it doesn't mean to, after all, and there are so many glaring missteps here that it could only be a happy accident. For example, who, in their right mind, would cast a hysterical queen like Markus Grupa as the lead singer of a sex-obsessed heavy metal band? That takes either towering genius or startling ineptitude, and I suspect it's the latter.

If Shock 'Em Dead is remembered at all these days, it's as a minor, too-late entry into the 80's heavy metal horror canon. While all those films are pretty woeful as well, Shock 'Em Dead is so much more than bad heavy metal married to questionable filmmaking techniques. This film is not merely bad, it's utterly wrong-headed, a confusing mish-mash of terrible ideas crammed together in an orgy of ear-gouging tunes, bad clothes, worse hair, lame dialogue, and jaw-dropping acting performances. While the film slows down after the unfortunate demise of Johnny Crack - clearly one of the 80's greatest anti-heroes - this grubby little also-ran is a consistently entertaining pile of junk that very nearly rivals Troll 2 in its ecstatic awfulness. Well worth checking out, although be forewarned: you will never get "She's a Virgin Girl" our of your head. Ever.

Get your copy of Shock 'Em Dead in an extras-loaded DVD reissue at the film's official website.

- Ken McIntyre

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