The success of Friday the 13th in 1980 and the subsequent slasher boom was responsible for every producer and studio in town attempting to create their own variation, some were successful (such as Prom Night, Happy Birthday to Me and Hell Night), others were mediocre at best. Few can argue that Herb Freed’s 1981 effort Graduation Day falls into the latter. Lacking the studio backing of My Bloody Valentine or the visionary direction of Halloween, Graduation Day was an ultra low budget whodunnit conceived by a group of fledging filmmakers who were desperate to finally produce a profit. Marking an early entry into the genre for the likes of ‘scream queen’ Linnea Quigley and editor Martin Jay Saddoff (who would later carve a successful career as a 3D artists on the likes of Friday the 13th Part 3 and Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone), the movie managed to find an audience when it was released in the spring of 1981.
Jewish director Freed had originally studied to become a rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York before dropping out to become a producer for BBDO (Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn), a NY-based advertising agency. After directing commercials for the likes of Pepsi, Freed moved out to Los Angeles with his wife, famed Broadway actress Anna Marisse (who sadly passed away on February 18 1984 at the age of forty-eight), where he would make his filmmaking debut with AWOL in 1972. Despite having no interest in horror, he would attempt to capitalise on the public’s newfound interest in the genre with Haunts five years later. It was during the making of this movie that he made the acquaintance of distributor Baughn. After directing another unsuccessful movie, 1980’s Beyond Evil, Freed and Marisse decided to analyse the horror formula and dissect it with the intention of following its template for their next project, which they would co-write with Baughn.
Graduation Day begins with a high school race in which one of the competitors, the ambitious Laura Ramstead (Ruth Ann Llorens), suffers a blood clot in her brain and collapses. Shortly before graduation day, her sister, Anne (Patch Mackenzie), returns from the Navy to visit her family and pay her final respects. On her way into town she hitchhikes a ride from a local creep who makes various inappropriate comments before attempting to touch her up. Meanwhile, another student, Paula Brentwood (Linda Shayne), is slaughtered whilst training, as the inpatient and aggressive coach, George Michaels (Christopher George), waits for her to attend a photo shoot. Anne confronts the coach and accuses of him being responsible for Laura’s accident, blaming his insistence on pushing his students as the cause for her stress, but he denies that he is to blame and claims that he has their best interests at heart.
But soon students begin to die on-by-one by some crazed psychopath with a love of impaling his victims (one such death involving a series of spikes being left inside a crash mat as the school’s star pole-vaulter practises, causing him to be pierced throughout his body). The film makes various attempts to point the suspicion at several different characters (such as the coach having the same class photo as the killer and the principal carrying a pocket knife to slice his fruit with, which he then wipes clean in a rather obvious manner). Is it Anne, Laura’s ex-boyfriend, Kevin Badger (E. Danny Murphy), the principal (Michael Pataki) or one of their many fellow students. To help narrow down the selection, the police send in Insp. Halliday (Carmen Argenziano) to help discover the true identity of the killer. Despite attempting to use the coach as a red herring, the maniac is eventually revealed to be Kevin, who is still understandably traumatised after the death of Laura and blames the entire town for pushing her too far. Anne, who had mysteriously disappeared for the majority of the movie (perhaps as an effort to make her a prime suspect), is finally forced to face off against the killer and become the final girl of the story.
Shot on a budget of $250,000 at La Cañada High School in Los Angeles during the Christmas holidays of 1980, Graduation Day may have been made with the best intentions – self-finance the project and shoot it as quick as possible – but the end result is disappointing. Freed fails to display the talent of most of his contemporaries (such as Prom Night‘s Paul Lynch, Terror Train‘s Roger Spottiswoode and The Prowler‘s Joseph Zito) and the cinematography, performed by first-timer Daniel Yarussi, is uninspired and tepid. The special effects were created by Jill Rockow, who would later work on far superior efforts like Frightmare, Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter and Chaplin, in which she would receive a ‘Best Make Up Artist’ BAFTA award alongside Wally Schneiderman (The Guns of Navarone) and John Caglione Jr. (Friday the 13th Part 2). Sadly, though, her work on Graduation Day would consist of little more than a few shots of spikes penetrating flesh and the occasional severed head.
One aspect which Freed had succeeded on was with the casting, although sadly most of the performances would be rather bland and uninspired. Quigley had slowly begun to make a name for herself after various early roles in the likes of Fairy Tales before landing a minor part in Lawrence D. Foldes’ Don’t Go Near the Park. She would later enjoy acclaim as one of the genre’s leading ladies (primarily due to her willingness to bare her breasts in almost every movie) in such classics as Silent Night Deadly Night, Savage Streets, Return of the Living Dead and Night of the Demons. Don’t Go Near the Park, coincidentally, would fall foul of the UK censorship board when, in 1984, it was included on the ‘video nasty’ list. For the role of the coach, Freed chose Christopher George, who had become a genre favourite after starring in Lucio Fulci’s excellent Italian zombie flick Paura nella città dei morti viventi (aka City of the Living Dead) and The Exterminator. He would pass away on November 28 1983, shortly after appearing in Mil gritos tiene la noche (Pieces) and Mortuary.
Patch Mackenzie, who was cast in the role of the heroine, Anne, had enjoyed brief roles in such cult television shows as M*A*S*H and Charlie’s Angels, though unfortunately Graduation Day would do little for her career. Despite having appeared in small roles in the likes of Easy Rider, Pataki also briefly ventured into a directing career of his own, helming the underrated 1976 thriller Mansion of the Doomed (released in the UK as Massacre Mansion), a low budget reworking of Georges Franju’s 1959 French classic Les yeux sans visage (Eyes Without a Face) produced by Charles Band, who would later find success with Empire and Full Moon Pictures. The film would boast several other talents, including actor Lance Henriksen, makeup artist Stan Winston and cinematographer Andrew Davis, who would later direct the 1993 blockbuster The Fugitive.
Graduation Day fails in almost every way as a successful slasher. It is devoid of tension, lacks any intentional humour, the characters are one-dimensional and the gore is almost nonexistent. In fact, few were surprised when the movie was later distributed by Troma, although it lacks much of the camp charm of their work. Despite its inferiority to most other slashers, Graduation Day was a minor hit when it was released in 1981 – perhaps due to the fact that the slasher boom was in full swing – reportedly earning $23,894,000 (if IMDb is to be believed). It is by no means the worst entry in the slasher genre. After all, there are countless efforts where the picture is too dark that it is almost impossible to make out what is happening on screen. But the fault lies with every aspect of the film, from its script right through to the score (composed by Arthur Kempel, who would later work on Wacko and Double Impact). Sadly, Graduation Day is not camp enough to be fun (like Don’t Go in the Woods…Alone!) and instead simply comes across as boring.