Graduation Day (1981)
"There are 200 seniors at Midvale High. And seven days till graduation. The class of '81 is running out of time"
Several weeks after one of the runners from the school track team collapses and dies in front of her teammates, a masked killer begins murdering students in the run up to their graduation.
One of the first wave of slashers to emerge during the ‘golden period’ of the early 80s, Graduation Day is so dull and derivative you’d easily take it for being made at the sub-genre’s nadir later in the decade rather than 1981. Part of the high school revenge horrors fad inspired by Prom Night, and soon becoming a staple go-to storyline for such genre fare, Graduation Day ticks all of the required slasher boxes but it ticks with them zero passion and zero skill. Generally speaking, all of the early 80s slashers have one or two memorable moments in them, be they kill scenes or some stalking scene with the killer, but it is impossible to remember much about Graduation Day, if anything. It’s instantly forgettable and a clear sign that it was rushed out as soon as it could be to capitalise on the sub-genre’s fleeting popularity.
Graduation Day kicks off with one of the weirdest opening scenes to a slasher I can recall, in which copious amounts of footage of athletes competing in track and field events is supported by an out-of-place disco soundtrack which makes it look more like a sporting drama than a horror. Sadly, the energy expended in this opening sequence is never fully replicated once the rest of the film kicks in. Graduation Day is deathly dull, probably one of the slowest-paced slasher flicks I can recall from this era. Director Herb Freed has no passion for the material and the first half is such a drag, with the pacing all over the place as he struggles to channel the genre tropes into something entertaining. Things do pick up a bit more in the second half, but Freed has lost the audience by that point. It’s not very often that I want a film to end but this seems to go on forever, and it’s ninety-two minutes will feel like double that.
Graduation Day wants you to try and guess the killer early on. There are plenty of red herrings to try and mis-direct the audience but in reality there are only one or two real suspects and so the eventual reveal comes as something of a ‘meh’ moment. I guess there are too many characters floating around the film who aren’t developed very well and so you clearly know that they’re not going to be getting the Scooby Doo unmasking at the end. What doesn’t help is that the characters in the film are obnoxious, sleazy or a combination of the two. The coach pushes his students too hard (and would no doubt be struck off today), the principal is having an affair with his secretary, another teacher takes sexual favours from his students to pass the course, there’s an abusive stepfather and this is just talking about the adults, let alone the swathe of teenagers present. Even the Final Girl goes missing for the middle chunk of the film in a desperate attempt to make you think she might be the guilty party.
Already by 1981, the slasher sub-genre was reducing itself to its basic denominators – namely sex and death. But Graduation Day doesn’t even do this part well. Most of the kills happen off-screen so don’t think you’re going to get an 80s gore fest. The killer has plenty of creativity but opts to use a sword for the bulk of the kills. Pole vaulting onto a bed of spikes is unique but totally nonsensical in how it all plays out. The killer dresses up in a grey tracksuit and wears a fencing mask (with a random reference to this choice of mask being made in Urban Legends: Final Cut over nineteen years later) which doesn’t exactly send shivers down your spine and is a bit impractical but at least keeps their identity hidden. There is no suspense in any of the stalking sequences, no sense of peril or of danger. A ten-minute New Romantic rock musical number during the roller disco, intercut with scenes of a pair of young lovers being murdered, probably sums up the film’s disappointing approach to the genre material. No one knew how to craft any scares or tension.
Christopher George is the biggest name in the cast. He’s great as the coach with questionable training regimes and doesn’t take the film too seriously, knowing he’s out there to breathe some life into a one-dimensional character. George starred in a whole host of memorable horror flicks in the late 70s and early 80s including Grizzly and City of the Living Dead so his presence here is something of a decent coup. Linnea Quigley, who’d quickly become a staple 80s Scream Queen with turns in Return of the Living Dead, Night of the Demons and Silent Night, Deadly Night pops up in a role which allows her to disrobe as per the norm.
Ironically enough, Graduation Day does not feature any scenes of the actual graduation.
Graduation Day was one of the most famous of the early 80s slashers I’d never managed to get hold of and I had big expectations for this. Sadly, it’s a terribly lacklustre effort, nowhere near the quality of its contemporaries and something which would have found itself more at home with the washed-up wannabes at the end of the decade rather than the prime years.
Director(s): Herb Freed
Writer(s): Anne Marisse, Herb Freed, David Baughn (story)
Actor(s): Christopher George, Patch Mackenzie, E. Danny Murphy, E.J. Peaker, Michael Pataki, Richard Balin
Duration: 92 mins