The devil has all the best tunes, so they say, and this connection between popular music and the dark side is nothing new. As far back as the 5th century Saint John Chrysostom, archbishop of Constantinople, was complaining that “where dance is, there is the devil.” He probably would have gotten along well with the morality crusaders of the 1980s, who were still making the same claim over a thousand years later, although their ire was not directed at peasants setting hymns to folk tunes, but to the long-haired devil-horn-throwing monsters of heavy metal.
Of all the music genres, metal has always been especially close to horror. Mario Bava’s classic 1963 anthology film Black Sabbath inspired the band of the same name, who then delivered heavy doom-laden riffs alongside lyrics about devils and demons and pixies wearing boots. Ronnie James Dio took this flamboyant gothic tendency with him when he split and launched his own self-titled band, while Iron Maiden’s iconic album covers featured undead mascot Eddie in a variety of grisly scenarios that could easily have been taken from issues of EC Comics’ Tales from the Crypt. And let’s not forget Alice Cooper, whose blood-soaked illusion-filled stage shows harked back to the infamous Grand Guignol theater.
By the 1980s heavy metal was firmly established as the outsider’s music of choice, as fans and performers alike went out of their way to shock and outrage the pearl-clutching conservative culture of the Reagan era. In a near-perfect parallel development, horror movies had followed a similar trajectory and also spent that neon-flecked decade raising the stakes (and other sharp implements) as slasher movies pushed the boundaries of gore again and again. Little wonder, then, that the 1980s saw a string of horror films that straddled both culture-shocking fanbases, taking the imagery of heavy metal and hard rock and melding it with the iconography of the lurid VHS fright flick.
To be clear, we’re not talking about films that simply featured a heavy metal fan as one of the characters – the leather jacket and long hair uniform of the local outcast, doomed to be a suspect in whatever killing spree is taking place, is far too prolific to ever be comprehensively catalogued in a single article. Nor are we looking at the films that turned to metal only for their end credits theme song – though they are certainly a fun off-shoot of this trend. Thank you for your service, Dokken.
No, what we’re interested in for the purposes of this feature are the movies that made rock music a central part of their story, or at least their marketing – the films that actively sold themselves as heavy metal horror, even if the result didn’t always live up to the billing.
This hybrid form showed its early roots in 1970s camp classics The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Phantom of the Paradise, both of which melded glam rock aesthetics to horror kitsch, and got a jolt of further crossover appeal when Gene Simmons and friends donned their trademarked facepaint and platform boots to star in KISS meets the Phantom of the Park, a family-friendly TV movie that was more Scooby Doo than Friday the 13th, but since it was produced by Hanna-Barbera that’s to be expected. The real heavy metal horror movie scene needed the brash MTV culture of the 1980s to truly take flight, allowing every suburban headbanger to pretend that the local strip mall was the Sunset Strip.
Many of the ‘80s metal horror wave were essentially normal horror films with a heavy metal gimmick taped on top. In other words, a group of people go to an isolated location and get killed off by a mysterious killer – traditional slasher formula but with recording studios, tour buses and video shoots instead of abandoned forest cabins and co-ed dorms.
The self-explanatory microbudget effort Terror on Tour (1980) sets the tone for this sub-genre at the dawn of the decade. A rock band on the verge of success have their plans upturned when their residency at a local nightclub is the site of a series of brutal slayings. Which of the band members is responsible? Or is the culprit one of the creepy hangers-on surrounding the band? The film gets bonus points for blatantly ripping off KISS for its fictional band, here renamed The Clowns and augmenting their facepaint with laughable wigs, but between the murky filming, poorly staged murders and amateur performances it wasn’t the most promising of starts for a trend.
Bands on tour and club venues continued to offer convenient locations for mayhem as the decade rocked on. More low budget slasher nonsense can be found in Heavy Metal Massacre (1989) with writer/star/former wrestler David DeFalco playing a serial killer who loiters around a rock club looking for victims in between gigs. In Hard Rock Zombies (1985) a rock group is invited to play in an eerie small town, only to be killed by Nazi cultists and resurrected as the vengeful undead. Despite the grindhouse premise, the film itself plays more like an extended comedy skit and the band’s poppy new wave sounds make a mockery of the title.
The recording studio was another handy location in which to strand characters for easy slaughter, as in the fantastically titled Rocktober Blood (1984). This micro-budget effort concerns Billy Eye, a heavy metal star who murdered his bandmates in the studio and was executed for his crimes. Inevitably, when the sole survivor of his rampage starts her own band – Rocktober Blood – and returns to the same recording studio, Billy Eye rises from the grave to finish the job.
The cheeseball pinnacle of recording studio horror came in the form of Rock ’n' Roll Nightmare (1987). Actual rockstar Jon Mikl Thor stars as a thinly veiled version of himself, decamping to a remote farmhouse with his band, The Tritons, to lay down the tracks for their new album. Somehow this results in a confrontation with the forces of hell and the gradual elimination of everyone who isn’t Jon Mikl Thor. The star, who also wrote and produced the film as well as supplying the soundtrack, puts his beefcake bodybuilding physique to good use in the final minutes when patient viewers who have sat through an hour of fairly limp horror cliches are rewarded with a memorably gonzo finale as Thor battles a small army of rubber demons to save the day. Or at least save his career.
It wasn’t just low-budget American filmmakers that jumped aboard the metal horror bandwagon. 1983 slasher Blödaren (The Bleeder) hailed from Sweden and featured all-female rock band Revanche, here playing a band called Rock Cats, who end up stranded in the wilderness when their tour bus breaks down, leaving them at the mercy of the gnarly serial killer of the title. In fact Sweden produced two rock-themed horror flicks, with Blood Tracks (1985) taking a very similar approach. This time it was the hard-rockin’ dudes of Stockholm metal act Easy Action playing the lead roles, as they venture into the mountains of Scandinavia – supposedly Colorado, to win over US audiences – to shoot their next music video only to fall prey to a family of feral cannibals. Despite an obvious debt to The Hills Have Eyes, Blood Tracks neatly segues into another distinctive offshoot of the basic metal horror film: the “video shoot gone wrong” movie.
Notable other examples of this template include Monster Dog (1986) and Paganini Horror (1989), rock horror entries from Spain and Italy respectively. Alice Cooper headlined Monster Dog playing a fictionalized version of himself called Vince Raven. Returning to the dilapidated country house where he grew up to shoot a video, Vince and his entourage are instead menaced by surly locals, a pack of wild dogs and – as hinted in the title – an actual werewolf.
Directed by Claudio Fragasso, who would also bring us the unforgettable Troll 2, Cooper agreed to star in Monster Dog as he was just finishing rehab and was promised the movie would only end up as a video cassette obscurity. A lifelong horror fan and keen to see if he could still perform sober, Cooper took the role – but ended up being dubbed in the English version by character actor Ted Rusoff. Only Cooper’s song contributions feature his actual voice.
Paganini Horror, meanwhile, adds a classical twist to the formula. In this movie a female rock band acquires a previously unpublished composition by the Italian composer Niccolò Paganini. It’s just what they need to break their creative block and they head to Paganini’s ancestral mansion to shoot a video for the song that will incorporate his lost masterpiece and hopefully give them the hit they need. Except, as you’ve probably predicted, playing the music not only resurrects Paganini (portrayed here as a vengeful murderer rather than the actual respected composer he was) but opens a portal to hell that ensares them all. Donald Pleasence turns up, and that’s always a sure sign that things are going to go messily wrong in a Euro horror movie.
When bands weren’t the ones being stalked by murderers or devoured by hellspawn, they were sometimes the ones causing the bloody mayhem in the first place. This is a strain of metal horror that sympathizes with the status quo, leaning into those scare stories of devil-worshipping rockstars and insisting that, actually yes, rock and roll is a one-way ticket to damnation.
Canadian horror Black Roses (1988) is typical of this formula, as the titular band arrives in a small town to play three nights of shows to the eager local teens. Skeptical adults are reassured when the first performance is fairly sedate and wholesome but soon enough the kids are going kill-crazy, murdering their parents and each other. Other supernatural events start to happen – one poor bastard is swallowed by a loudspeaker – and, sure enough, at the final show the Black Roses lead singer reveals himself to be a demon, here to sow chaos.
Black Roses is a film so conservative that the lead character is not any of the town’s teens but their teacher, who sees through the band’s diabolical scheme from the start and succeeds in saving the day by burning down the venue on the night of the climactic show. This being an ‘80s horror movie, however, it’s revealed as a pre-credits kiss-off that the brimstone-spreading band survived and is embarking on a world tour that is sure to be apocalyptic.
A more modest scale of evil was on offer in Scream Dream (1989) as Michelle Shock, the controversial female lead singer of a successful rock band, is unceremoniously sacked by their manager, who decides on a whim that having a headline-grabbing lead singer is somehow bad for business. Unfortunately, Shock is a witch and she gets her revenge on her backstabbing bandmates via a bewildering array of rubber monster puppets, bitey blow jobs and dream-induced chainsaws. It makes very little sense throughout its 70-minute running time, but fans of grainy, sleazy shot-on-video no-budgeters will be entertained enough thanks to its splattery grindhouse tone.
The king of evil rockstar movies – and indeed the go-to example for most fans of heavy metal horror in general – is Trick or Treat (1986). Tony Fields, fresh from working with Michael Douglas and Richard Attenborough on studio musical A Chorus Line, dons facial scar make-up to star as Sammi Curr, a notorious rocker who dies in a mysterious fire at the height of his fame. This crushes young Eddie Weinbauer, a metal-loving loner who goes to Sammi Curr’s old high school and just wants to get with the hot cheerleader if only the jocks would stop bullying him. As Curr’s biggest fan, the local rock DJ (a cameo from Gene Simmons, sans KISS make-up) gives him a rare gift: the one-of-a-kind acetate of Sammi Curr’s final album, never released.
Naturally Eddie plays it backwards, because that’s what metal fans did to all their vinyl in the ‘80s, and summons Sammi back from the dead. At first that’s pretty sweet, with his ghostly hero helping to turn the tables on bullies and give Eddie the confidence needed to attract the girl of his dreams. But, inevitably, Curr has plans beyond helping one sadsack fan get laid and it becomes clear that he’s going to use the high school dance and a radio broadcast of his album to spread his mayhem worldwide.
Trick or Treat is one of the more accomplished movies of its kind, a veritable blockbuster compared to the likes of Terror on Tour, Rocktober Blood and Scream Dream. It’s in focus all the way through, for one thing. It also features another fun cameo from Ozzy Osbourne as a puritanical TV preacher, and riffs shamelessly on A Nightmare on Elm Street, with an iconic VHS cover featuring Sammi posing in a distinctly Freddy-esque fashion. If there were plans for a Sammi Curr franchise, they came to nothing and this enjoyable teen shocker is the extent of his legacy.
Sometimes, however, rockstars could play the hero. In oddball werewolf flick Hard Rock Nightmare (1988) the lead singer of a band seems like the obvious suspect when people start getting ripped to pieces on a trip to his childhood home, where he literally killed his own grandfather thinking he was a monster, but it’s not much of a spoiler to say that this is a red herring. Lone Wolf (1988) takes a similar approach, and also lifts a little from Stephen King’s Silver Bullet. Once again the rebellious rock singer, just moved to live with his aunt in a small town after being orphaned, is the cops’ first choice when unexplained dog attacks reduce the population, and once again the actual culprit is emphatically not the guy with the long hair and bad attitude.
One of the most unlikely uses of the “rock star as horror hero” motif can be found in Slaughterhouse Rock (1988). The title is pulling double duty here, as the movie takes place on Alcatraz where a troubled young man has dragged his friends to try and understand why he keeps having violent dreams about the prison, only to find himself being assisted by the ghost of a female rock star who was killed by the same demonic force now tormenting him. Bizarrely, this spectral rocker – who performed with a band called Body Bag and used actual human corpses on stage – is played by Toni Basil, the upbeat real life singing star best known for the 1981 clapalong pop classic “Hey Mickey.”
There’s only one other kind of ‘80s rock horror movie and that’s the Faustian tale in which some hapless wannabe sells their soul for stardom, only to find the deal has infernal consequences. There are elements of this in Phantom of the Paradise, of course, mashed up with Phantom of the Opera, but for such an obvious and famous concept it was used surprisingly rarely during this wave of hair metal schlock.
David DeCoteau’s Dreamaniac (1986) touches on the idea, with Adam, an aspiring rock guitarist, summoning a succubus called Lily who agrees to make him irresistible to women as long as she can feast on the leftovers. The music element of the story quickly takes a backseat, however, as Adam’s girlfriend throws a party and the guests are steadily picked off by the perpetually horny Lily. We see Adam pick up a guitar a few times, but apart from that its status as an actual heavy metal horror is in the concept rather than the execution.
There’s really only Shock ‘Em Dead (1991) that fits the bill as a true Faustian rock fable. Here we meet Angel Martin, a dweeby pizza boy who really wants to be a rock star. After being laughed out of an audition he makes the obligatory deal with the devil and, having signed away his soul, is gifted with the ability to shred like an absolute maestro, and soon finds himself hired by the very band that mocked him, and taking it over as he becomes the metal legend of his dreams. The only fly in the ointment is that he must drain the lifeforce of his many groupie lovers to survive, and too late he realizes that all he really wants is the love of Lindsay, the band’s manager.
The most famous thing about Shock ‘Em Dead is that Lindsay is played by former pornstar Traci Lords in one of her first serious acting roles after her underage adult movie scandal blew up (only the Corman remake Not of this Earth and John Waters’ Cry Baby predate Shock ‘Em Dead in the Lords acting canon).
It’s actually a fun romp, more fantasy comedy than out-and-out horror, but its supernatural silliness and hard rocking sounds make it an appropriate swansong for the ‘80s metal movie era. Shock ‘Em Dead, after all, is technically a ‘90s movie, but it feels more in tune with earlier efforts than where '90s horror was headed.
Every fad must die and, by 1991, the age of preening hair metal was coming to an end. Men in tight leather pants with permed mullets were becoming figures of fun rather than adoration, as a new generation of grungy garage bands from Seattle seized the zeitgeist. Out went squealing guitar solos and in came squalls of feedback, performed with heads down rather than with one foot on the speakers.
The wider culture had also moved on. Few parents were still scared of heavy metal corrupting their kids when the likes of N.W.A were making their views of police explicitly clear, and a new video game called Mortal Kombat let anyone rip the spine out of a realistic human for the price of a quarter. There have been rock-based horror movies since, of course, but nothing that could be called a trend and nothing that had the distinctive tone and aesthetic that lashed metal and horror cinema together so tightly in the 1980s. This was one bloody show that never got an encore.