Pomp and Circumstance

Graduation Day

Halloween caused a lot of other horror producers to try and enter the slasher arena with their own holiday-themed horror flicks. Your My Bloody Valentine films, or the occasional New Year’s Evil. Even just special days were given the slasher treatment, such as Prom Night. If you could make a film about kids getting killed during the day, you’d have yourself a genre flick to fit this suddenly booming sub-genre. That’s the only reason one could think as to why Graduation Day was made. Take a special day, add dying kids, and boom: Box Office gold.

And, in fairness to the production team on this 1981 film, it really did strike Box Office gold. Made on a budget of only $250,000, the film was released in May, right around the time kids would be graduating from high school, and went on to make $23.9 Mil during its theatrical run. It struck a chord with teens, either those who saw themselves in the victims or those who would have loved to see kids like the jocks in this film get taken down a peg. It had kills, it had blood, it had nudity. It was everything that was needed in 1981 to make a smash horror hit. If only the film held up as well today.

It’s not like the film was well received at the time by critics. Most reviewed it unfavorably, calling it "badly acted" and of “poor quality”. And they’re right. The film looks like it was made, and shot, with the scale and quality of a made-for-TV special. There are a couple of decent actors, but they’re the ones on the periphery of the action, the seasoned TV professionals playing teachers, parents, and guardians. The main cast of students are all uniformly bad, giving tragic performances that would have been rejected in a larger, better made movie. But that didn’t really matter. All audiences wanted to see at the time were kills and gore and breasts. Graduation Day had that, so whatever the critics had to say didn’t matter at the time. It just shot the film’s legacy in the long run.

The film opens with a montage of a track meet, with the various students competing in their events. The last event, a sprint, ends with first place finisher Laura Ramstead collapsing of a cardiac embolism, a blood clot, presumably due to the over-exertion she put herself through. In the aftermath of the event the coach, George Michaels (Christopher George), is told that his contract won’t be renewed despite his coaching having led the school to multiple wins across multiple years. He’s done, all because of, as he put it, “one mistake.”

Two months later, on the eve of graduation, Anne Ramstead (Patch Mackenzie), flies in from Guam to take care of the final affairs of her sister. She searches around the school, looking for answers as to why her beloved sister had to die. She meets with Laura’s boyfriend, Kevin Badger (E. Danny Murphy), who is understandably still distraught over the whole thing. And she meets with the Coach, who is still mad that he’s been let go (and will have to pack up all his stuff once the school year is over). But then some of the students, one by one, start to go missing. They’re all from the track team, the same one that Laura was on, and they slowly start to turn up dead. Someone is killing the track team out of revenge for Laura’s death, and it’s only a matter of time before they finish the job if no one stops them first.

The plot of Graduation Day is really a mess. The Coach has been let go, a detail we learn halfway in, but only after he’s continued training the kids, and meeting with newspapers, and getting articles written about the team. Why is he doing all this, why is he allowed to continue serving as the coach, if he’s been fired? We’re told that Anne is serving in the military, but none of her skills or training from her time in the Navy (we’re not told what branch she’s in, but her uniform looks like a Navy uniform) come into play during her entire investigation. Hell, the film completely forgets about her, from time to time, so it can focus on people actually involved in the series of murders.

By that token, the actual impetus for the kills is really under-developed. Someone wants revenge on the team, but because the movie starts with Laura’s death, without showing us any of the time before so we could understand why someone would blame the rest of the team (and not just the coach) we don’t really get a good understanding for it. We’re supposed to think maybe the Coach could do it, that he’s killing them all out of revenge for his own firing, but (spoilers for a forty-plus year old movie) when it’s revealed that it’s not the Coach doing it, the revenge angle makes less and less sense.

Hell, when the killer is revealed eventually we hardly care about it at all. He’s someone we meet once, and then see in a few scenes, but he’s not someone the rest of the characters really interact with. Hell, most of the characters are criminally under-developed as well, to the point that it was hard to remember who was on the track team, who was a random passerby, and who actually mattered at all. The film has a large cast and never utilizes any of them such that they all feel like cookie-cutter stock characters put there to show up and die. The killer is just one more of them, making his “heel turn” less a shocking revelation than just a “I suppose it had to be them since they're the only one left” moment.

It’s not fair to say that all the characters are under-developed as everyone that’s not a student is well constructed and written. The principal, Guglione (Michael Pataki), has a sort of on-and-off affair with his secretary, Blondie (E. J. Peaker). The coach has remorse for what happened, but genuinely seems to care about his students. The music teacher, Tony Fisk (Billy Hufsey), has a rotating set of students he’s sleeping with. Hell, even Laura and Anne’s mother, Elaine (Beverly Dixon), has backgrounding due to her bad marriage and drunken husband. These are real characters with development and lives going on just off screen. They aren’t the focus of the story, but they’re more interesting than any of the main characters.

What the film needs are characters involved in the actual plot of the movie that you can care about. Anne should be our protagonist but because she vanishes from the film for stretches we can’t latch onto her. If the Coach was given more time maybe he’d work as a villain or a hero, but he’s too much of a side character for that. A female student who was investigating the murders could work because she could be friends with everyone that’s getting killed, but that isn’t even a plot idea that’s raised. No matter how you view the film there just isn’t enough meat here to get attached to. The film needs more of something to make you care and I just couldn’t.

All it really has is decent gore, some okay kills, and regular shots of nudity. That doesn’t make it special in the slasher space as most slasher films of the era managed that same trick. It’s just good enough to get by. But it struck at the right time, in the right era, with the right audiences, and managed to make bank. Despite its success, though, there was no sequel (actual or spiritual). It was a one and done that disappeared once audiences got bored, and has been all but forgotten by everyone except the low-rent streaming services. And me, since I’ll watch anything. But you don’t have to. Graduation Day isn’t a good slasher, not in its era or any other time. There are better horror films to watch, so skip this and find one of those instead.