Color, 1976, 87 mins. 47 secs.
Directed by Renee Daalder
Starring Derrel Maury, Andrew Stevens, Kimberly Beck, Roy Underwood, Steve Bond, Robert Carradine, Lani O'Grady, Rainbeaux Smith
Synapse Films (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC)
/ WS (1.78:1) (16:9), Vipco (DVD (UK R2 PAL), '84 Entertainment (DVD) (Germany R2 PAL)
Marketed as an exploitation film but far weirder and headier than anyone expected, Massacre at Central High ranks up there with the same year's Carrie and the later Heathers as one of the great violent take downs of the social caste system with a high school standing in for society at large. Dreamlike at times and far more sexually frank than most drive-in fare of the time, it's a film that seems designed to fuel a lot of graduate thesis projects while still delivering the necessary thrills to keep genre fans happy-- to such an extreme that it was even yanked from TCM Underground several years ago after an announced airing due to its content. Of course, the epidemic of real school violence in the ensuing years is also impossible to ignore when watching this film, but the strange and heightened atmosphere keeps it from hitting too close to home for most viewers.
Upon arriving at Central High, new kid David (Maury) reunites with old friend Mark (The Fury's Stevens), the only student he knows. Unfortunately Mark is more or less affiliated with a group of sadistic bullies whose behavior repulses David, and despite Mark's advice, he refuses to go along with the status quo. When David gets a little too close to Mark's girlfriend, Theresa (Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter's Beck), the stage is set for the oppressors to teach David a lesson by crushing one of his legs during some auto repair. Soon the student body count is rising as David tries to establish a fair balance of power at school, but human nature doesn't quite go along with his plans once the violent liberation kicks in.
Though it features a fairly significant number of outrageous death scenes (with highlights including death by hang gliding and swimming pool), Massacre isn't overly gory and doesn't even really play like a horror film for the most part. Writer Danny Peary described it as a "political art film," which is closer to the mark given the eerie lack of adult supervision at any point apart from the insignificant alumni dance participants at the end. The cast is absolutely stacked with drive-in names of the era, some of whom hadn't really come into their own yet, with standouts including the late and beloved Cheryl "Rainbeaux" Smith (Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural), Robert Carradine (the same year as The Pom Pom Girls), Ray Underwood (Jennifer) as head bully Bruce, Steve Bond (H.O.T.S.), and even Lani O'Grady just before her stint on Eight Is Enough. Most of the cast members are very freewheeling with the numerous love scenes, though in Italy the film was infamously outfitted with more graphic sex footage (with new stand-in actors) and released as Sexy Jeans, believe it or not.
Following its fairly wide theatrical release, Massacre at Central High had a very hit and miss history on home video including a 1987 VHS release from Gorgon Video and very underwhelming European DVDs from Vipco and '84 in the U.K. and Germany respectively. Fans were frustrated through the DVD era waiting for a good edition, especially when an announced release from Subversive Cinema in the late '00s never materialized. Eventually Synapse Films acquired the rights to issue it on Blu-ray and DVD, and after a lengthy process, it finally came to fruition with a limited dual-format steelbook release in 2021 (featuring very spicy artwork not even remotely suitable for retail) and a general Blu-ray only retail edition, both with the same transfer and extras. Director Renee Daalder supervised the excellent transfer before he passed away in 2019, and it plays beautifully here with exceptional color and detail far beyond what we've had before (even on the big screen). The DTS-HD MA English 2.0 mono track (with optional English SDH subtitles) is immaculate as well, especially when it comes to that insane, ironic theme song. The film also comes with two audio options, starting with The Projection Booth Podcast's Mike White conducting separate phone interviews with actors Stevens, Carradine, Maury, and Rex Steven Sikes. All of them are fairly career-spanning chats, and though Stevens and Carradine remember virtually nothing about the production, there's a ton of great material here. The other track features Daalder conversing with Fangoria's Michael Gingold about his life and career, explaining his intentions with the film, the creative brief he got to work with ("Nine kids get killed in a high school"), the rationale for removing adults from the story, the sly "gravity-based" murder methods, and his memories from the set. The featurette "Hell in the Hallways" (42m47s) features Maury, Stevens, Carradine (who remembers more here), Sikes, Tom Logan, Jeffrey Winner, and first assistant director Eugene Mazzola, and director of photography Bertram Van Munster chatting about the audition process, the tough lines that required multiple takes, the odd nature of the dialogue, the director's creative process, and the advantage of the camera used by the cinematographer. Also included are the theatrical trailer, a TV spot, a radio spot, and a 3m14s gallery of production photos and promotional material.
Reviewed on October 29, 2022