Directed By: Herb Freed
Starring: Christopher George, Patch Mackenzie, E. Danny Murphy
Tag line: "This is one school you won't want to graduate from!"
Trivia: The blonde girl in the number 46 track jersey was cut out of the film as much as possible since she was fired due to refusal to fulfill the nudity requirements
The opening sequence of Graduation Day makes this 1981 horror movie look like a sports film. Interspersed between scenes of teenage athletes competing in track and field events are shots of a boisterous crowd, cheering them on to victory, all as an inspirational rock ballad titled “The Winner” fills the soundtrack. Yet as exciting as some of these moments are, the real drama occurs later on in the scene, when coach George Michaels (Christopher George) shouts encouragement to his star runner, high school senior Laura (Ruth Ann Llorens), during a sprint race. As her teammates cheer wildly, Laura pulls away from the pack and crosses the finish line ahead of the competition. Her victory soon turns to tragedy, however, when, seconds later, she collapses, the victim of a fatal blood clot.
And just like that, the tone of Graduation Day changes drastically.
Several months pass, and Laura’s classmates are preparing to graduate. To accept Laura’s diploma on her behalf, her sister, Navy Ensign Anne Ramstead (Patch Mackenzie), returns home, and with the help of Laura’s boyfriend Kevin (E. Danny Murphy), sets out to find the person responsible for her beloved sister’s death. Like most people, Anne focuses her attention on Coach Michaels, who, due to the outcry that followed the tragedy, has been given his walking papers (though he insists Laura’s death was an unfortunate accident, and had nothing to do with his strict training regimen). At the same time this is going on, the other members of the school’s track team are being slaughtered by an unknown assailant. Who is it that’s killing them, and how does this recent string of murders relate to what happened to Laura?
Released in 1981, Graduation Day has quite a bit in common with the slasher films of that particular era; along with a homicidal maniac who hunts teenagers, the movie features several kills that occur in the middle of a woods (a la Friday the 13th). And like many slashers, the film's kill scenes are damned creative (the most imaginative of the bunch involves a bed of nails, strategically placed near the high jump pit). But there are elements of Graduation Day that also make it feel like an early ‘70s Giallo, from its killer wearing black gloves to the red herrings that make us believe any one of a number of people might be the killer.
Therein lies one of the main problems I had with Graduation Day: too many damn characters! Aside from those mentioned above (including the entire track team), we have a school principle (Michael Pataki) who’s sleeping with his secretary (E.J. Peaker); a music teacher (Richard Balin) who’s seduced by Dolores (Linnea Quigley), one of his students hoping to pass his class; a security guard (Virgil Frye) who doesn’t take his job as seriously as he should; Anne’s mom Elaine (Beverly Dixon) and her hard-drinking stepfather Ronald (Hal Bokar); and police Inspector Halliday (Carmen Argenziano), who’s been contacted by a number of concerned parents, worried because their sons or daughters didn’t return home the night before (many were victims of the killer) . The movie even has a crazy old woman (Kevin’s grandmother, played by Viola Kates Stimpson) and a pair of chatty teenage girls who turn up at the worst possible time (one of the two was played by future Wheel of Fortune co-star Vanna White, in one of her earliest screen roles). To his credit, director Herb Freed does a solid job fleshing most of these individuals out, but in the end, the movie would have been better had a few of them been left on the cutting room floor.
Still, thanks to its various kill scenes and an ending that’s bat-shit crazy, Graduation Day manages to overcome these problems, and while I wouldn’t call it a top-tier slasher (or, for that matter, a top-tier Giallo), it’s an entertaining film nonetheless.