Review by David Carter
Posted on 25 October 2009
Source Vintage Home Entertainment DVD
Categories 31 Days of Horror VI
Truly ahead of its time, Hard Rock Zombies deftly bounces between genres and fosters comparisons to few of its contemporaries. Its title only describes a small portion of the plot, a bit of a misdirection play that belies the madness within. Though at times it fits within the hard rock horror cycle, to find an analogue for Hard Rock Zombies requires you to look one or more decades past its 1985 release, when its aesthetic pastiche and non-sequitur humor would fully come into vogue.
Hard Rock Zombies is only truly realized in its production, and a simple retelling of its scant plot is inadequate in fully encompassing the variety contained within. Nonetheless, here’s how the mayhem is set in motion: an unnamed rock band ignores the warning of a young girl, named Cassie, to avoid the town of Grand Guignol, and travels there to perform a showcase for a record executive. They accept an offer to stay with the beautiful Elsa and her eccentric family but the town council quickly bans rock and roll music and throws the rockers in jail. Once the band is freed from prison, Cassie again begs them to leave town but lead singer Jessie refuses, telling Cassie of his burgeoning love her and how important the showcase is for the band.
The band returns home with Elsa and is promptly killed by her deranged family. The next morning the family patriarch reveals himself to be Adolf Hitler, announces the beginning of the Fourth Reich on national television and readies a massive gas chamber in the California desert. A mournful Cassie uses a tape of the band’s music to reanimate them, allowing them to enact their revenge on the Hitler clan. Unfortunately killing the Nazis only reincarnates them into flesh-hungry ghouls, and the narrow-minded citizens of Grand Guignol must rely on the once hated rock band to save them from the undead Fourth Reich.
The dividing line between horror and comedy grew thinner as the 1980s progressed, and with its arrival mid-decade Hard Rock Zombies foreshadows much of what the genre would become by the 1990s. The _ Nightmare on Elm Street_ franchise and films like Return of the Living Dead rely on humor as much as they do on horror, anticipating the outright parody of the genre in Wes Craven’s Scream. Hard Rock Zombies is more akin to Scream than its contemporaries in this regard, through its use of meta-references and allusions to other films.
By Hard Rock Zombies’ mid-point, director Shah dispenses with typical horror plotting and begins skewering several horror film tropes as well as his own film. “This sounds like a cheap movie,” one townsperson muses to another, who responds, “This whole day sounds like a cheap movie.” The townspeople, trapped in a basement after the ghouls begin their rampage, use a variety of movie clichés in their attempts to escape, including looking for a “wurgin” à la Blood for Dracula. The intellectual of the bunch serves as a precursor to Randy from the Scream series, informing them that the ghouls have a definite set of rules that they must follow and can therefore be outwitted. His plan, involving creating oversized papier mâché heads of celebrities, fails, but does so in a spectacularly comic fashion.
2004’s Shaun of the Dead would usher in a wave of zombie films intended to be more funny than frightening, and we have one of the first such attempts at gentrifying the undead here in Hard Rock Zombies. The film’s depiction of zombies/ghouls as a dim-witted source of physical comedy has since become de rigueur in modern horror cinema, which prefers to use the creatures as punch lines rather than antagonists. Hard Rock Zombies has a few clever riffs on the zombie trope that haven’t been duplicated yet. First, the band’s manager evades being eaten by pretending to be a zombie himself, grunting and groaning as he stiff-leggedly walks past. The film also has a running gag where a zombie tries to eat himself culminating with his severed head gnawing on the remaining pieces of his body.
The bizarre plot has echoes in the trend of neo-grindhouse films that would begin to surface in the mid-2000s, particularly Robert Rodriquez’s Planet Terror. Hard Rock Zombies takes a similar approach by including as many fantastical and transgressive elements as possible, and presenting them rather matter-of-factly. Though presented as comedy, the concept of Hitler revealing himself in modern America and announcing the “extermination of undesirables” is decidedly transgressive even for the horror genre—this type of bizarre plot would not have seemed out of place as a fake trailer in Rodriquez and Tarantino’s Grindhouse. In reality, Hard Rock Zombies was conceived in a similar fashion as those trailers. The original intent was for Hard Rock Zombies to be shown only in brief vignettes as the film-within-a-film in director Shah’s teen comedy American Drive-In. Hard Rock Zombies also ventures into some transgressive territory with the love story between Jessie and Cassie, the latter of which is depicted as and portrayed by a girl no older than fourteen.
Our unnamed band is also a hodgepodge of influences, visually and sonically. Each member seems to be influenced by a different genre of music, with the Adam Ant-esque keyboardist seeming out of place next to mustachioed and impressively mulleted lead singer Jessie. Penned by Paul Sabu, the Hard Rock Zombies’ music ranges from two catchy up-tempo numbers (“Shake it Out” and “Street Angel”) to the impossibly sappy power ballad “Cassie’s Song,” which is unfortunately performed three times. The credits do not specify who is actually performing the songs but I would not be surprised if the actors themselves are, seeing as how they appear to be accurately playing their instruments rather than simply mimicking the motions.
Hard Rock Zombies is but an obscure footnote in the hard rock horror canon. One can’t help but feel that the film would be considerably more popular if released today, however. The modern audiences that turned tongue-in-cheek films like Snakes on a Plane and Zombieland into successes would likely do the same for the story of a reanimated metal band fighting Hitler. Like many of the films featured during the 31 Days of Horror, Hard Rock Zombies lies waiting to be rediscovered by curious cinephiles longing for something more exotic than the typical Halloween fare.
Killer Klowns from Outer Space1988
Shock ‘Em Dead1991
The Fall of the House of Usher1928
Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple2006
In the Mouth of Madness1994
The Seventh Victim1943
A Page of Madness1926
The Man and the Monster1958
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 21986
Trick or Treat1986
Single White Female1992
Trouble Every Day2001
The Hands of Orlac1924
The Devil’s Advocate1997
Hard Rock Zombies1985
The Slumber Party Massacre1982
Zombi 4: After Death1988