Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Dissecting Slashers: Graduation Day (1981)

Cody celebrates Graduation Day.


Directed by former rabbi Herb Freed, who also wrote the screenplay with his wife Anne Marisse (who, sadly, passed away just three years after the film’s release), the 1981 slasher Graduation Day is a movie I have watched multiple times over the decades – but it’s also a movie I knew nothing about until just recently, when the legendary Joe Bob Briggs hosted a screening on his Shudder series The Last Drive-in. It was through that episode of The Last Drive-in that I learned Freed’s previously two horror movies, the 1976 psychological horror film Haunts and the 1980 supernatural horror film Beyond Evil, hadn’t been financially successful, and he was looking to achieve the level of success John Carpenter and Sean S. Cunningham had with Halloween and Friday the 13th, respectively. So Freed and Marisse studied every slasher movie they could get their eyes on and came up with a recipe for success: they would write a slasher that would deliver a dead body every nine minutes, more or less.

Since they were chasing the success of Halloween and Friday the 13th, it’s odd that they didn’t have some kind of holiday or notable date in mind from the start, but it was apparently producer David Baughn who suggested they should make some kind of holiday slasher... And since so many of the notable dates had already been claimed by other movies, they ended up focusing on a Graduation Day horror story. It seems to have worked out, because online numbers show that Graduation Day had higher box office than Freed’s previous movies, and while Haunts and Beyond Evil have faded into obscurity, Graduation Day is still a movie that you’ll hear referenced every now and then.


Los Angeles, Pasadena, and La Cañada Flintridge were the locations used to bring the fictional city of Midvale, California to the screen. It seems like a nice enough little community, with some pleasant, woodsy parkland to do some walking or jogging in... if you can avoid the mad slasher that’s lurking around. A good amount of the film’s suspense and slashing sequences take place in and around this park, which is on the edge of the local high school’s property. 

If a scene doesn’t take place in the park, chances are high that it takes place in one of the many rooms that make up the high school – although some of the scenes also branch out into characters’ homes. The rooms, hallways, and stairways in this school do make good spots for some creepy suspense scenes.


The inciting incident in this film is a track meet where Coach George Michaels (Christopher George) encourages teen girl Laura Ramstead (Ruth Ann Llorens) to push herself as hard as possible to come out the winner in her thirty second race at a track meet... and Laura pushes herself so hard, she drops dead of a heart embolism right after she crosses the finishing line as the winner of the race. The loss of Laura is a tragedy that hits a lot of the characters very hard – and apparently Llorens’ own life had a tragic ending, which gives the overall film an even sadder vibe when you watch it with this knowledge in mind. She passed away in 2012, exactly one week before the day that would have been her 52nd birthday. In 2015, she was listed as one of L.A. County’s unclaimed dead in an article published by the Los Angeles Times. She had been cremated in 2012, her cremains put in a box and placed on a shelf – and no one came to claim her. So her remains were among those of more than 1300 others who were placed in a single grave at the Los Angeles County Cemetery.

But that’s real life, and something that wouldn’t happen until more than thirty years after Graduation Day was released. Within the reality of the film, Laura’s death inspires someone to don one of the most unimpressive slasher outfits of all time – a fencing mask paired with black gloves, grey sweats, and a grey sweatshirt – and start killing off Laura’s fellow track team members. Since Laura died as the result of a thirty second race, the killer likes to use a stopwatch to time the murders.

The killer isn’t much to look at, but they rack up a decent body count and pull off some interesting kills. Their identity is a mystery right up until the climactic sequence – and when the killer’s identity is confirmed, they have some entertaining, bonkers moments to play.


Laura’s older sister Anne, played by Patch Mackenzie, is an ensign in the Navy who makes a quick trip back to Midvale – where she has to stay at her mom’s place and deal with her very unpleasant stepfather – to attend the high school graduation ceremony where Laura will be honored. Anne’s introductory scene lets us know that she’s not someone to be messed, as she dissuades the guy she’s getting a ride from when he tries to get handsy with her – but the fact that she can handle herself also makes her a suspect, as there’s a chance she could have come to Midvale on a mission of revenge.

Graduation Day doesn’t do a great job of focusing on the people who should be primary characters, instead choosing to jump around and drop in on an ensemble of characters throughout, so Anne doesn’t have as many scenes as she should have had. The movie is too busy showing us things that don’t really matter, including a musical interlude where students are shown playing the “Graduation Day Blues.” That comes before the extended musical interlude where the band Felony plays at a school dance, but well after the opening musical sequence featuring a disco song that informs us, “Everybody wants to be the winner.” Scenes where we learn that Principal Guglione (Michael Pataki) has a sexual relationship with his secretary Blondie (E.J. Preaker, Pataki’s real-life ex-wife) and that the sleazy, cornball music teacher (played by Richard Balin) can be easily seduced by students add absolutely nothing to the story, but it fills up the running time.

Still, when Anne does have an occasional scene, it’s clear that she’s a strong character who deeply cared for her little sister. And when she’s in a dangerous situation, she can fight and run with the best of them... even if Mackenzie looks silly trying to do some of the self-defense moves. She doesn’t need the police officer played by Carmen Argenziano to save the day for her, but he does display a willingness to shoot first and ask questions later.


Coach George Michaels is both the prime suspect and a potential victim, and he spends most of his time either overseeing sports activities or defending his good name. We also know that anyone who was on the track team is in danger – but again, this movie doesn’t do a great job of presenting its characters, so it’s hard to really get a grasp on who most of these people are.

Some of the victims only show up long enough to die – like Paula, who is attacked while she’s out jogging in the park. The standouts among the potential victims are Laura’s boyfriend Kevin (E. Danny Murphy), who lost the girl he planned to marry as soon as they got through graduation; Denise Cheshire as Sally, who has a couple scenes of getting spooked on school property, provides some gratuitous nudity when she’s getting ready for a sequence where she practices on the gymnastics bars, and shaves her legs while standing up at a sink; and genre icon Linnea Quigley as the perpetually horny Dolores, who even seduces a teacher to make sure she’ll graduate with the rest of her class. Quigley wasn’t part of the cast when filming began and her character wasn’t on the track team – she was a last minute replacement for a cast member who is featured in the track team picture the killer keeps around so they can scratch out faces as people are murdered. That cast member refused to do nudity, which was never a problem for Quigley. So in came Quigley as Dolores.

It’s worth noting that Vanna White also makes some appearances as a high school student who gets close to the danger, but never actually becomes a victim.



There are some decent kills in Graduation Day. There’s a throat slashing, someone gets a fencing foil jammed through their throat, and we even get a low-rent attempting at replicating the decapitation from the end of Friday the 13th. The film does fail the horror-loving audience when it has the audacity to give our beloved Linnea Quigley and off-screen death... but it does have a couple unique kills to make up for it. The most baffling is when the killer someone manages to insert a fencing foil into a fully inflated football so they can toss the now-deadly ball at an athlete and impale them on the blade. The most popular kill in the movie is probably when a character decides to practice his pole vaulting – not realizing that a bed of spikes has been set up on his landing pad.

At the end of the film, the killer gets their comeuppance in an amusing way that involves the corpse of one of the victims.


As mentioned, the gratuitous nudity clichê is covered, thanks to both Sally and Dolores. Dolores also helps the film cover the clichê of young characters sneaking off into a wooded area to smoke some weed – and later, she’s also sneaking off into a wooded area to have sex. (With the killer showing up to interrupt things before they go too far.)

The set-up of someone going on a slashing spree to avenge the death of someone they cared about is definitely playing by the established formula, and when the killer’s identity is revealed there’s also a touch of Psycho to their situation.

There’s a climactic chase involving Anne Ramstead, and while she’s running around she also happens to stumble across the corpses of some of the victims, because slashers really like to stick bodies in random spots.


Graduation Day may not be a top tier ‘80s slasher, as the script Freed and Marisse held it back from reaching its full potential with its unfocused nature. They should have pulled back on the extraneous scenes with the likes of Guglione and the music teacher and given more scenes to the important characters at the center of this murder mystery. Still, if you’re a fan of slasher movies, chances are you’ve seen a lot worse than this one.

Tired of slasher movies by the time this one was released, Graduation Day was boycotted by critics, but that doesn’t seem to have had any impact on his box office or reputation. Herb Freed went on to make several more movies, but it looks like he decided to move on from horror now that he had finally made a horror movie that could be considered a success on some level. He made the Betsy Russell comedy Tomboy, a drama, a few action movies (including one that starred Chuck Norris’s son Mike Norris and another with the goofy title of Dead Punkz), and even a sci-fi mystery, but never anything else that has been given a horror label. As they say, everybody wants to be the winner. In the horror genre, Freed made a winner with Graduation Day, then walked away, going directly over to his biggest hit, Tomboy.

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