Manager-on-the-rise Lindsay Roberts (Traci Lords) has a rock band in the spotlight with guitar god Angel Martin (Stephen Quadros) as its newest member. Lindsay and the band are on the road to success. But all is not as it seems. Angel, as it turns out, has made a pact with the dark forces to make him a rock star, having quite literally sold his soul for his talent. But there’s a catch: fame and fortune come at a price. In order to sustain his talent, Angel must feed on the souls of others. Lindsay’s growing attraction to Angel soon turns to fear as she finds herself pulled further and further into a terrifying world of unspeakable evil. (From Slasher // Video’s official synopsis)
Mark Freed’s Shock ‘Em Dead (aka: Rock ‘Em Dead, 1991) sits in the company of a short-lived (though not completely dead) horror subgenre known as rock ‘n roll horror. These films proliferated particularly during the latter part of the ‘80s. In just over a year, fans had half a dozen satanic, soul-selling, heavy metal movies to choose from, including Charles Martin Smith’s Trick or Treat (1985), John Fasano’s Rock n Roll Nightmare (1987), John Fasano’s Black Roses (1988), Dimitri Logothetis Slaughterhouse Rock (1988), and, at the very bottom of this already deep barrel, Freed’s zero budget variation. Assuming that Trick or Treat is the progenitor of the Faustian heavy metal outbreak (complete with endorsements by actual metal performers Ozzy Osbourne and Gene Simmons), Shock ‘Em Dead surely represents the genre’s sudden strait-to-video downfall.
There’s plenty of gratuitous nudity, naughty language, and even a bit of violence (though the lack of actual gore is disappointing), but Freed’s lopped-off camerawork, lax editing, and even choice in title font are straight out of the early ‘90s sitcom playbook. And not the good early ‘90s sitcom playbook – he borrows filmmaking techniques from Saturday morning, kid-friendly equivalent. Picture a “very special” episode Saved by the Bell, as produced by Troma, for broadcast on late nite Cinemax (or, as the naughty children liked to call it back in the day, Skinemax). The dull imagery is contrasted by bug-eyed, over-the-top performances and enough scatological, lowbrow jokes to give Lloyd Kaufman pause. This is a film where a young Traci Lords – who was coming off of her first non-pornographic film work in the form of a John Waters film at the time – is the film’s stoic and most professional centerpiece. That said, just because I don’t personally appreciate this particular brand of camp, doesn’t mean it is objectively unworthy of cult attention. As a director, Freed makes lazy choices, but Shock ‘Em Dead isn’t a free-floating narrative blob that is merely biding time between set-pieces. The (bad) jokes, bare breasts, and general goofiness grind out strong and fast without ever betraying the initial tone or promised intent. It achieves exactly what it sets out to do within the confines of the purposefully silly premise.
A further glance at Freed’s career reveals interesting ties to a series of instructional guitar videos known as Star Licks. Some readers may remember a notoriously cheesy entry in the series entitled Speed Kills, starring a speed metal virtuoso Michael Angelo Batio, who was famous for impossibly impractical feats, like playing two guitars at once or the “over/under” technique, where he flips his hand around either side of the neck during a finger-tapping run. It turns out that Freed, who only directed one other movie his entire career (Lovers and Liars, 1998), was a founding member of Star Licks. Besides contributing songs to Shock ‘Em Dead’s soundtrack (along with Star Licks co-founder Robert Decker), Freed exploited his relationship with Batio to use the virtuoso as star Stephen Quadros’ guitar solo double (along with Dave Celentano). This fact is abundantly and amusingly clear, because the filmmakers didn’t bother to match the footage.
According to an interview in the special features on this disc, Shock ‘Em Dead was shot on 35mm film, but, because they knew it would be going straight-to-video, they decided to scan the footage and edit on video. Freed claims that the 35mm prints were lost. So then, this Blu-ray was sourced, remastered, and upconverted from ‘1" Tape,’ which I assume means Type A, B, or C reel-to-reel analog tape. It’s another magnetic format, not film-based, but Type C has a high enough resolution that it was used for mastering early LaserDisc titles. I think that ‘LaserDisc quality’ is an apt descriptor of this 1.33:1, 1080p transfer, though the overall effect is basically the same as the two PAL Beta releases. There are still loads of analogue tape artifacts (I didn’t notice any tracking effects this time), detail is soft, edges dance with noise (some scenes are caked in white haloes). The lavender, red, and green lighting gels, coupled with fluorescent spandex, gives the transfer plenty to do in terms of color, though chroma noise/bleeding is still a huge problem.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo soundtrack is terribly mixed. There’s no aural continuity in the sound effects or performances. Location noise (wind, traffic, sometimes particularly noisy jewelry) overwhelms some dialogue and, even when the words are clear, the stereo spread pulls them into the right or left channel. The added effects are often tinny and occasionally echoey. The music fares better, thankfully, given that it is a central element in the film, but is also very inconsistent.
Commentary with director Mark Freed and associate producer Martin LePeur (he isn’t credited anywhere, so I have no idea how to spell his name?) – This info-packed commentary has no illusions as to the film’s quality, but the commentators don’t waste too much time with false modesty. It’s all very down-to-business, including verification that Shock ‘Em Dead is a heavy metal, T&A horror comedy, because they approached four different producers, each of whom told them to make a different kind of movie. There’s also a lot of casting info, tales of union woes, and even some Michael Angelo Batio stories (though Freed doesn’t talk about Star Licks very much). Unfortunately, energy levels begin running low around the one hour mark and never really pick back up again.
Interview with Freed (4:50, HD) – This newly recorded interview with the co-writer/director has slight overlap with the commentary, but also features new information (like the fact that they did shoot on film).
Cast reunion 2015 (23:00, HD) – A round table (round couch) with co-writer Dave Tedder, guitar doubler Dave Celentano, and actors Stephen Quadros, Laurel Wiley, Tyler Bowe, Mark Richardson, and Christopher Maleki.
Director's Cut (1:40, SD) – A supercut of the film's nude breasts.
Deleted/extended scenes (5:20, SD)
Actor audition tapes (6:20, SD)
Behind-the-scenes photo slideshow set to music from the film (8:30, HD)
Footage of the cast watching their audition tapes (6:20, HD)
Footage of the cast watching the deleted scenes (5:40, HD)
Poster/art gallery slideshow set to music from the film (13:40, HD)
Trailer (that really makes it look like a dirty episode of Saved by the Bell)