I was probably 4 or 5 the first time I saw KISS on TV. It was an episode of 3-2-1 Contact that showcased the special effects that went into any given live performance and it captivated me. My dad listened to WAAL, Binghamton, New York’s home of the rock, so I was familiar with the concept of rock and roll but not like this. They left out Gene Simmons spitting blood because this show, after all, was meant for children but there was plenty of bass players spitting fire, flying up to the top of the scaffolding for a bass solo, Ace Frehley launched rockets off his headstock, Peter Criss’ drum riser launched intself into the air and fireworks went off everywhere. Somewhere in the mix they remembered to play music and I was captured forever, a metalhead from birth. It wasn’t until I was about 12 that metal registered in my consciousness and the two of us meshed in a way that only true metalheads can understand. All the while, I was getting wise to horror movies and in the 80’s when metal was at its party-peak, I couldn’t help but notice that metal and horror shared a common bond that went beyond the abstract connections forged by Alice Cooper and Arthur Brown. The connection became obvious to me upon the release of A Nightmare on Elm Street 3 and then was solified by Craven’s follow-up to The Serpent and The Rainbow, Shocker. Down the rabbit hole I went. Can you blame me? Dokken was a band who managed to thwart the unstoppable Freddy Krueger with the sheer power of rock!
Metal and horror go all the way back. It’s a natural pairing. Black Sabbath, probably the first band to play the signature heavy metal sound, pioneered the notion of fear and violence in music. Their name, renamed after it turned out someone was already using the name Earth, was lifted from the Mario Bava picture when Tony Iomi remarked that he thought it strange that people would go to a movie with the expectation that they would be scared. They did a pretty good job bringing that vibe from the movies into their music. Alice Cooper, whose stage show and lyrics reflected a deeply morbid sense of humor, claims that his band was the first to be identified as a metal band in Rolling Stone magazine. The signature aggression of heavy metal, even in those formative years, was directly analogous to the cathartic release of a kill scene in any given horror movie. The same people listening to metal flocked to horror for the same rush that a sweet, head banging riff provided them. It was a match made in hell. It’s actually sort of amazing to me that it took so long for the two mediums to come together in a meaningful way that combined them both in one package. Metal spent years co-opting the brutality of the horror movie into the music but the music didn’t turn up in the movies until the late 80’s, as metal and horror were both on the decline. Iron Maiden spearheaded the New Wave of British Heavy Metal with songs about Dracula, The Phantom of the Opera and being stalked by a murderer and photos of WASP’s Blackie Lawless turned up as he poured blood into his mouth from a human skull. Ozzy spent most of the 80’s biting the heads off fake animals after his initial meeting with label executives established him as the guy who geeked a live dove for publicity (and later an actual very dead bat at a live show in Des Moines, Iowa). King Diamond sang to a stage skeleton named Melissa and then spent the rest of his career up to this very day producing horror-themed concept albums about haunted houses and dark family secrets. And I don’t even have enough room here to mention the many, many death metal bands that took hold in the Southern United States in the early 80’s, most notably, Death, who took horror movie imagery and made it their bread and butter, lyrically.
It wasn’t until 1984, though, when the marriage was made. Though, metal and horror may have come together even sooner, Rocktober Blood seems to me to be the flashpoint when exploitation movie producers looked at the music and finally found a connection to make some real money. Exploitation is produced in a hurry so in cases such as these, it should come as no surprise that Rocktober Blood’s producer sprang for the first band that came along, Sorcery, to turn out the music. Sorcery were no strangers to film, actually, and are the band featured in the Australian stunt spectacle, Stunt Rock. With their exceptionally mediocre metal and stage show, which involved Merlin the magician vs. The Devil, with a lot of sleight of hand and stage trickery, Sorcery provided the music for the Head Mistress band in Rocktober Blood, about a killer rock and roller “back from the grave”. The movie also features Nigel Benjamin of the LA band, London, who seemed to spawn most of the 80’s biggest rock stars, chief among them, Motley Crue bass player (and one of my favorites) Nikki Sixx, without ever breaking out, themselves. They’re featured in one of The Decline of Western Civilization 2’s best scenes where a Russian flag burning on stage doesn’t go quite as planned. Rocktober Blood, like most movies exploiting the popularity of heavy metal, got just about everything wrong and is a fucking dog from start to finish, but you have to start somewhere, I guess.
This being the 80’s, no mention of heavy metal would be complete without allegations of satanism. After all, the metal/horror connection is most certainly trumped by the metal/satan connection. Whole congregations were swayed all over the US when teens playing Dungeons and Dragons returned no actual results in studies of witchcraft in connection with role playing games. Bible thumpers needed to unite around a new common enemy and even though metal bands hailing satan and throwing up horns to sell records were actually kind of rare in these days (warnings about evil and devil worship were, in fact, far more common thanks to Sabbath lyrics by Geezer Butler and a handful of songs by doom metalers, Saint Vitus, to name but a couple) but it didn’t fucking matter because Ozzy Osbourne had a blast antagonizing the moral sensibilities of Americans at the time, Slayer were on the rise in lower circles of metal and Venom, in an indirect way, spawned metal’s most confrontational, actually dangerous sub-genre, Black Metal, with their own brand of cartoon satanism. It took no time for exploitation producers to grab the ball and run with it. Speaking of Ozzy and satanism, here’s Trick Or Treat, another well-intentioned pile of dog shit from the low end of the horror shelf at the video store. Rag Man is the town metal head, actually played by Family Ties nerd-next-door, Skippy (Marc Price). He gets fucked with every day for being who he is but he keeps his cool by corresponding with Sammi Curr, heavy metal superstar from his hometown. Curr winds up dying in a fire, though, and this means the end of all things for Rag Man, who tears the living shit out of his room. When local DJ, Nuke (played by Gene Simmons) gives him a tape of Curr’s final recordings and the instructions to listen to it backwards to get some directions in life, Rag Man finds out how to get even with the jocks who make his life miserable and it turns out that Curr lives on after death in his music, compelling Rag Man to kill and maybe even find a way to bring him back to the earthly plane. Ozzy also shows up as an outraged preacher who hates metal. Irony! Trick Or Treat is stupid but it’s fun and the music is provided by Fastway, a combination of members of Motorhead and UFO. Their first album is pretty good but Trick Or Treat came on the downslide for Fastway and the results are pretty crappy. Though, metal was often used on soundtracks in later days to market a movie, Trick Or Treat comes out in that exploitation space where metal was an integral part of the movie. It’s just a shame that these flicks couldn’t find anyone better to provide the music. Moving forward, things didn’t really improve.
True story. I was once prowling used record stores in Cambridge with my brother when we came to this hole in the wall store with a lot of sweet post-punk. I bought vinyl copies of Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation and Jesus and Mary Chain’s Psycho Candy but on the way out, I’m stopped dead in my tracks when I realized that above and around the door, there’s a shrine to Canadian body builder/heavy metal god, Jon Mikl Thor of the band Thor. These days I suspect it was some kind of proto-hipster irony shrine since Thor wasn’t exactly this shop’s cup of tea but I couldn’t believe what I was looking at. This same muscle bound rocker portrayed a demon hunting angel in what is my second favorite heavy metal horror fiasco, Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare. Rock ‘n Roll Nightmare knows what it’s doing even though there are times when it seems to be taking itself deadly serious. The plot is nonsense. The band, Triton, headed up by Thor as John Triton, head out to the Canadian countryside where they’ll find the peace they need to lay down some new tracks for their new album. Their women folk seem to do nothing but wash dishes and Triton seems to think something evil is afoot until it’s revealed that the devil is up in the place and Triton fabricated the entire scenario to lure the devil out so they can do battle because he is The Intercessor! Some kind of mostly-naked angel with a cape, eye shadow and freaky frizzy hair. This flick was made for peanuts and it is one of the greatest examples of so-bad-it’s-good foolishness. The soundtrack is, obviously, provided by Thor, since he’s the star and who the fuck else are you going to contract to provide your musical context? Thor was not and while still playing today are not a very good heavy metal band. They’re quite mediocre even by standards of 1987 heavy metal. Everything about them was predicated on Jon Mikl Thor’s stage antics which involved bending iron bars with his teeth and smashing cinder blocks on his chest. He was the carny equivalent to KISS with no actual pyro budget. Rock ‘n Roll Nightmare is great fun, though, evident in the below clip, which everyone involved should be ashamed of.
Getting down to brass tacks, my first-favorite heavy metal horror fiasco is Black Roses, a movie I can watch endlessly, with most of the music provided by one of metal’s most easily forgotten bands with what is easily the strangest legacy of them all. King Kobra was one of those bands formed in a hurry from session players in LA by drummer Carmine Appice, fresh out of his stint in Ozzy’s band, and all they seemed to do, in spite of a couple of studio albums, was license songs for movies. Apart from this one they also provided a track to Iron Eagle. Though, Black Roses’ theme song of sorts, Me Against The World, is provided by Lizzy Borden, the rest of the soundtrack was practically all King Kobra. More on this later. Black Roses concerns the efforts of evil heavy metal band, Black Roses, who are about to embark on their first tour where they hope to harness the evil powers of rock and roll to bring young people all around the world under their thrall. They test out their evil rock in a small town where they perform several live shows for the high schoolers who progressively become corrupted and eventually start raising hell. The only guy who can stop the madness is a teacher with a fresh love of Shakespeare and a sweet ‘stache. Black Roses, from the same people who brought you Rock ‘n Roll Nightmare, is a massive step up in terms of production but the movie is still pretty silly and features a scene where Vincent ‘Big Pussy’ Pastore is dragged kicking and screaming into a speaker to his death by a demonic heavy metal monster. The band, Black Roses, also turns into monsters. It’s fantastic! Back to King Kobra. Of all the glammy LA metal bands, these guys were up there with the glammiest. Their singer, Mark Free, a very talented singer, was the glammiest of them all and often adopted a look that was mostly feminine where most metal expressions of glam were bizarro-world twists of ultra masculinity with touches of make up and frilly clothing. It’s tough to know where to draw the line here and I’m sure the only guy on Earth who can explain how this does not necessarily constitute cross dressing is Dee Snyder. But what you really need to know is that after the break up of King Kobra, Mark Free dropped off the earth and resurfaced in the 90’s as a woman going under the name Marcie Free. Seriously. Black Roses is great b-movie fun but it is aided by the bizarre legacy of the band that provided most of the movie’s soundtrack. It’s also home to one of horror cinema’s most peculiar plot devices, the hometown concert. Trick Or Treat does this, too, with Sammi Curr trying to play a show at the local high school and Black Roses does this repeatedly. Who the fuck does this for real? Am I thinking about this too much? Who has the logistics to support a supposedly major rock act in a freakin’ high school gymnasium?
By this point in the 80’s, Hollywood, who always seems to be a few steps behind the exploitation industry, manages to catch up but rather than build movies around a shaky heavy metal premise, they start to sell their movies with soundtrack singles and cameos. John Carpenter puts Alice Cooper in Prince of Darkness in a very minor and extremely creepy role and the theme song is provided by Cooper as well, who was enjoying a bit of a comeback at the time with his album Trash. Cooper then rears his head again in A Nightmare On Elm Street 6: Freddy’s Dead as Krueger’s abusive father. Speaking of Alice Cooper, Megadeth turns up on the Shocker soundtrack covering Alice Cooper’s No More Mr. Nice Guy and a couple of years prior, Dokken, mentioned above, turns in the theme for A Nightmare On Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors (the only other movie in the series anyone seems to give a fuck about). There were others as well, but the problem was that horror and metal had both gone critical mass at the same time. Metal was thriving on the underground but the shit that was making waves on the radio was pretty-boy slop and power ballad bullshit that sold a lot of albums to horny teenage girls. A lot of people point to 1991, the moment that Smells Like Teen Spirit blasted away all that remained of metal on the radio as the death of metal, but pop metal was coming apart at the seams years prior with members of Ratt contracting HIV and 3 out of 4 musicians collapsing under coke or heroin addictions. The entire scene was a mess. Likewise, Horror had been bled dry by this point, reduced to a genre of sequels as franchise killers who should have been left dead many sequels ago kept lazily slashing their way through film after film. Fresh attempts at establishing new franchises like The Horror Show flopped miserably (since that movie sucks a thousand dicks in hell) and with the approach of the Clinton 90’s, the entire genre seemed to gring to a quiet halt to cool its heels until Scream came along to pump some new juice into the genre and propel it into the new millennium. The problem was that by that time, the musical landscape had changed so much that clear lines could no longer be drawn from movie to music. The radio was dominated at the time by Jay-Z and Destiny’s Child. Eventually, Rob Zombie would come along and remedy this and Dee Snyder of Twister Sister would try his hand at filmmaking with Strangeland, but the lifeline between metal and horror had been cut forever, never to return again.