Graduation Day, released in the mid-spring of 1981, would be mostly forgotten if it wasn’t for two key factors. First off, it’s one of the earliest appearances by a young actress named Vanna White, who would go on to find success as the letter turning on Wheel of Forturne, which she has surprisinly been doing for about 40 years now. And secondly, it contains one of the worst character continuity errors since Edward D. Wood Jr. hired his wife’s chiropractor to be a body double for the late Bela Lugosi in Plan 9 From Outer Space.
Slasher movies were all the rage with the success of Halloween, Friday the 13th and Prom Night. So, the filmmakers were able to raised $250,000 and went to many theater owners to pre-sell the venues. This was back in an era where less conglomerates owned movie theaters. They were also able to cast a few familiar faces, such as Christopher George as track coach George Michaels and Michael Pataki as school principal Guglione. George and Pataki are mainly character actors. George appeared in The Rat Patrol and Pataki’s most memorable role would come in Rocky IV as Ivan Drago’s promoter/manager. The rest were a bunch of actors in the Los Angeles area looking for their next gig.
The plot revolves around a killer stalking members of the school track team of a southern California small-town. In the prologue, one of the members, Laura Ramstead (Ruth Ann Llorens) dies of a cardiac embolism during a track meet. It shown that Michaels was too commanding as a coach and suggested his coaching pushed Laura to die. Two months later, Laura’s older sister U.S. Navy Ensign Anne Ramstead (Patch Mackenzie) arrives in town to accept an award in memory of her sister at the graduation ceremony set for the following day.
As the seniors take pictures and rehearse for graduation and participate in many activities including a concert featuring the real-life band Felony, a killer stalks them. We don’t see much of the killer except that they carry a stop watch and there’s something about 30 seconds. When the killer finally appears, they are dressed in a fencing uniform. It’s not the best and not at all scary, but it does work considering the meager budget. Most kills are handled somewhat creatively by director Herb Freed (who also co-wrote and co-produced) with quick cuts and things happening just off-screen.
There’s also a big build-up to the true identity of the killer. Could it be the very controlling coach Michaels? Or could it be the principal? Or could it be Anne and Laura’s stepfather, Ronald Corliss (Hal Bokar)? He doesn’t like Anne being in town and feels he should be accepting the award. Or is it Laura’s grieving boyfriend, Kevin Badger (E. Danny Murphy)?
As for White, she appears in a handful of scenes as a student named Doris. In one scene, she discovers a dead body in a locker and screams and cowers as she thinks one of the other characters is responsible. But if you were expecting Doris to buy the farm, you lose a turn on this spin.
Since there was a small budget, the film production ran into an issue with track student athlete Delores (Linnea Quigley). A different actress appears in an earlier scene and they used a fake prop of her head for a scene later. However, the acress refused to do nudity, so Quigley was cast instead,. If you know anything about Quigley, she is no stranger to taking off her clothes in movies like The Return of the Living Dead, Night of the Demons and Silent Night, Deadly Night. But they couldn’t reshoot too many scenes so two actresses played the same character even though they could’ve just had someone say over the audio, “So-and so isn’t here.” That would have been my guess.
But many of these movies weren’t known for their Stanley Kubrick style of perfection. And it’s not like the intended audience would’ve even noticed. Many popular film critics were already refusing to review slashers by this time so they wouldn’t have care. The ones who did review it for the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times gave them negative reviews. Candice Russell with the Fort Lauderdale News said it was “fun to laugh at for its incongruities.”
In the end, the filmmakers had the last laugh themselves as Graduation Day received an impressive domestic box office gross of $23.9 million which is about 100 times more than what it cost to make. Also, some contemporary reviews have actually praised it. It currently has 57 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. Not exactly fresh, but it’s not too rotten.
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