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Editorial - Sunday, 02 January, 2005
"Graduation Day"

I remember it with crystal clarity, as if it were yesterday; it was 1983, and my buddies and I were having a “sleepover” of sorts. We had gone to the little mom ‘n’ pop video shop down the street and picked up a handful of “scary movies” to watch that evening while munching away on the proverbial lomticks of toast. Of the four guys, I was the only one who had really had what I like to call a “horror education”; that is to say I had grown up watching horror flix on late-night television, basking in the rays of greatness exuded by such unqualified classics as “Night of the Living Dead”, “Psycho”, “Creature from the Black Lagoon”, “X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes”, “The Thing from Another World”, and Don Siegel’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”. My older brother and I had, nearly every Friday night for as many years as I could remember, sneaked down to the family room in the basement to watch these films away from the prying eyes of our parents, and our two nosy sisters. These films had such a huge effect on me that, in years to come, I would seek out every horror film I could find (most of them heavily edited and waaaaay before people really cared about such arcane matters as “print quality”, “black levels”, and “screen ratio”), thus continuing my informal education.

So, back to that fateful evening in ’83…my friends and I chose three movies, none of which they had seen before, but one of which I had seen; the aforementioned “NotLD”. The other two were “Dawn of the Dead” (aka “Zombie” for all you UK blokes), and “City of the Walking Dead” (aka “Nightmare City”). We ate tons of chips and sugary snacks, and seemingly gallons of Coke, and we hunkered down in our highly sugared state to watch our finds. I won’t go into “Night”…I had seen that one before, and it had left its own indelible mark on my fragile psyche years before. Nope. “Dawn of the Dead” was the real breakthrough for me that fine evening, whereupon I recognized the sheer, giddy power that horror films can have over people, either prepared or unprepared for the carnage and biting satire to come.

Of the four, there was one kid at the “party” whom I just knew wouldn’t be able to handle “Dawn”. His name was Rob, and he was a meek, delicate, and quiet kid who had led an even more harshly sheltered life thus far than the rest of us combined. I constantly read his reactions to situations, and formulated the opinion that he was, at that time, the perfect “horror patsy”. What I mean is that he was the utter apex of a person who was not-could not be-will never be-prepared horror viewer. I always wondered what it would be like to watch horrific events unfold on tape through his eyes. Watching Rob watch every situation, every new scene of graphic splatter was like watching those scenes in “A Clockwork Orange” where Alex is subjected to the horrors of “the treatment”, and all he can do is scream and cry in total revulsion; mouth agape and sweating bullets. So, I was looking forward to not only seeing this much-touted sequel to my beloved “Night”, but also the very possibly negative effects it would have on my meek little pal.

We popped in the tape of “Dawn”, and got underway with watching it. Now, I must bring up something here…do you remember that “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” sketch called “Crunchy Frog”? That’s the one where John Cleese and Graham Chapman play police health-squad officers questioning the proprietor of the “Whizzo Chocolate Company”, played with foppish glee by Terry Jones. Well, in that sketch, Graham Chapman’s character keeps running out of the room, puking into his hat whenever someone brings up such wholesome ingredients as the titular “Crunchy Frogs”, “Ram’s Bladder”, and “Lark’s Vomit”. Well, my friend Rob was just like that. In “Dawn”, when Wooley breaks down that door at the beginning and gives a zombie a blast to the head with his shotgun, and the head just comes apart, Rob went flying out of the room, cradling his belly with one arm while barely stifling free-flowing vomit with his other hand. Then, after a few moments, he came back into the room, only to be accosted by another bit o’ gore, namely when the black zombie bites chunks out of the neck and arm of a woman who is presumably his wife. Rob saw this and, predictably, he dashed out the room and puked again. It went on like this for about the first hour, during which time Rob must have puked at least four times. Of course, the rest of us were split between feeling a tiny bit bad for the poor fellow, but also having a jolly good laugh at his expense. Finally, we all just sat there in stunned silence while the film unfolded before our eyes. Since Rob’s vomiting jags had finally calmed, I took in every single frame of that movie; every nuance, every piece of characterization, every scene of gore, every smack of social commentary. Never before had a horror film grossed me out so much, while still delivering the story and character goods. I actually cared about these folks, more so than I had for any film characters before (and mostly since). I wanted Fran to survive so she could have her baby, knowing that somehow, it was indicative of the survival of the human race. I wanted Ken Foree to kick ass and take names (which he did). I wanted “flyboy” to die a horrible, gushing death (which he did). Most of all, I wanted to see the zombies…and lots of them. I was satisfied on all counts.

The night finally ended, and we went to sleep (though Rob slept decidedly less peacefully than the rest of us), and for days, weeks, months after the fact, I could not get those images out of my head. I knew, as much as I had known anything in my life, that I had witnessed something of almost divine proportions. I knew that I would never be the same again…

I had graduated.

How many dyed-in-the-wool horror aficionados have a story like that? Most of us, probably. How many of us have that one, life-changing moment of horror history after which we were somehow changed? Almost all of us. For the generations before me, those important moments came the first time they saw Bela Lugosi slink down those stairs in “Dracula”, or perhaps when they saw Kevin McCarthy run screaming into traffic “You’re next! You’re next!” Or, maybe that moment of clarity, that “Graduation Day” first arrived when they witnessed the freaks flopping and slithering through the mud toward the doomed Cleopatra at the horrific climax to Tod Browning’s “Freaks”, or when Rosemary Woodhouse shrieked, “What have you done to his eyes?!” For the generations that came after me, that supernova may have exploded when Freddy Kreuger intoned, “I’m gonna kill you…slow…”, or perhaps when those chains ripped poor Uncle Frank to pieces. No matter, most horror fans have at least one story like that. As for me, I’ve had several… “Re-Animator”, “Dead Alive”, “Dead Ringers”, are just a few, and more recently “May” provided me with yet another horrific epiphany for my list.

The point is that, as horror fans, we are constantly searching for that new high, that fresh approach, to make sifting through the endless piles of crap worthwhile. We criticize and critique, holding each new film up to the standard set by those landmark films that we individually hold so dear. That’s not a bad thing. We should hold horror films to a standard. It’s just that most of the time, we’re sorely disappointed. Never fear, though. That next “Graduation Day” is never too far around the corner. With the newfound interest in Asian horror films, and the resurgence of good ‘n’ bloody American horror starting to show its face once more, I predict that more and more horrorites will graduate once again, thus continuing the beautiful, disgusting cycle that makes our hearts race and makes us as hungry as the most offal-crazed zombie for ever-new, ever-bloody film experiences.

- Matthew Dean Hill

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