Marketers dream of movies that come with built-in audiences. Feature films capitalize on childhood nostalgia (“I, too, played with those robots that turn back-and-forth into cars!”), fleeting zeitgeist (there were two lambada movies in 1990, only one of which featured Sid Haig as a witch doctor) and just plain rote name recognition (fairy tales exist in the public domain, prompting a significantly more recent single-year cinematic double-tap) to put asses in seats. There’s got to be a super-brief “elevator pitch” to catch the ticket-buyer’s attention and part that ticket-buyer from its corresponding cash. And since people are awful, that hook has to be familiar. “Lords of Salem,” for example, delivered on its promise to be “Rosemary’s Baby” meets “The Devils,” but it also met “tedious” and “pulled punches” somewhere along the road and never consummated its date, instead preferring to spend its time eating disco fries in a diner all night while spitting half-baked philosophy.
“Mortuary Academy” is “Police Academy” meets “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” that also met “misanthropy” and “grotesquerie” somewhere along the road and swapped out the Ramones with a band of Satanists who flirted with Nazi imagery. But by the time folks who’d bought their tickets for the kooky, off-color comedy promised in comparison one and two realized all that other stuff it was too late. The deed was done, the VHS rented, the seat effectively filled, hearts were broken and hopes destroyed.
This is a toxic horror of a movie, and I think I’m in love.
Brothers Max and Sam Grimm are due to inherit their recently-deceased uncle’s mortuary and its attached teaching facility, but only under the condition that they successfully complete the mortuary’s training program. Little do the brothers know that the corrupt Dr. Paul Truscott is embezzling from the business and has no intention of allowing the Grimms to graduate and take away his cash cow. In classic 80s comedy fashion, the academy is filled with wacky characters (Guy who does robotic stuff! Rapping guy! Mass murderer! Dumb lady-person! Foreigner!) and plentiful hijinks ensue.
So far, so predictable, right?
The nature of these hijinks is significantly different from what one might encounter elsewhere. In similar films, a bit of unexpected potty-time, a little “oops ‘er tits are out” and a dollop of stereotype-based humor (of the variety that causes internet circa now to collapse into itself in a social-justice-hashtag-fueled black hole) would suffice. “Mortuary Academy” kindly asks you to go fuck yourself and presents all of that plus a veritable cornucopia of gross-out gags at the expense of dead bodies. “Loved ones” are subjected to a variety of post-mortem indignities, ranging from cremains stuck in the hair to mauled bodies dumped out of their caskets mid-funeral to a central storyline based around the repeated sexual violation of a virginal teenager’s corpse.
Allow me to be frank: I wish I wrote this script. It’s filled with acerbic dialogue (count on the fact that I will be slandering an enemy as a “toxic vagina” at some point soon) and bizarre details (there is absolutely no rhyme or reason for the sex-toy themed car’s inclusion, but by god I’m glad it’s there).
This brings us to an important turning point in our discussion. The mind that penned “Mortuary Academy” is that of Paul Bartel, who plays the role of Dr. Truscott and who also starred in and wrote the 1982 black comedy “Eating Raoul.” Thumbnail plot for those of us who did not plumb the depths of the “Cult” section at their local video stores: sexually repressed couple murder swingers for their money, crimes gets discovered by a con man, uses various methods to try to dispose of con man. Kink, violence, drugs and cannibalism occur; a good time is had by all. Tonally, “Mortuary Academy” is a good companion piece to “Eating Raoul”—there’s a generalized dislike of human beings combined with deliberately provocative, frequently revolting comedy setpieces.
Joining Bartel in the role of academy instructor Mary Purcell is his “Eating Raoul” co-star Mary Woronov. A veteran of scores of exploitation and genre movies, Woronov turns in a solid performance as a sexually voracious teacher who fears she’s losing Dr. Truscott’s affections. With a leggy physique and harsh-bird sexiness, her simmering sexuality is a terrific foil to the chubby, hirsute and somewhat saturnine Bartel. The pair has an undeniable comic chemistry. I’ll also take a moment to note that both Bartel and Woronov appeared in “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” together, bolstering the “x meets y” theory I posited above.
But we’re not done with noteworthy cast members! In the role of hunky Grimm brother Max is Christopher Atkins, star of teen romance “The Blue Lagoon.” That one person who’s been writing “Blue Lagoon”/”Death Race 2000” slashfic can rejoice in knowing that the lead of the former hooks up with Calamity Jane from the latter about midway through “Mortuary Academy.” Reliably weird character actor Tracey Walter (who I shall forever equate with the “plate o’ shrimp” bit from “Repo Man”) and Anthony James (a quintessential “That Guy” villain of the 70s and 80s with stringy, dark hair and sallow, pockmarked complexion) play students in the academy, capitalizing on their respective “geek” and “creep” stock characters.
In much the same way that the Ramones are referenced throughout “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School,” so Radio Werewolf is referenced throughout “Mortuary Academy.” With a manager played by Wolfman Jack, the band is spoken about in reverential tones by numerous characters, all of whom are HUGE FANS. Repeated reference is made to the band playing a concert “at the arena,” a highly unlikely event as Radio Werewolf had yet to put out its debut record.
Let’s take a moment to chat about Radio Werewolf. Formed in the mid-1980s in LA, the band was part of that city’s burgeoning deathrock scene, dubbing their performances “Radio Werewolf Youth Rallies.” The band sported styles that combined Dracular realness with copious hairspray and Weimar Berlin, and its songs discussed macabre topics including serial killers, vampires, necrophilia and other gothic-flavored horrors. As you might surmise from the aforementioned “Youth Rallies,” the band also embraced Nazi iconography. The band took its name from a Nazi commando group and one of their most controversial tracks is “Triumph of the Will,” a “Producers”-worthy bit of camp about an aging SS officer. Shortly after the filming of “Mortuary Academy,” Anton LaVey’s daughter Zeena joined the group—she would go on to marry frontman Nikolas Schreck. The two participated under the Radio Werewolf name in the 8/8/88 Satanic rally alongside fellow provocateurs Boyd Rice and Adam Parfrey. Shortly thereafter, Schreck was the only remaining of the band seen in “Mortuary Academy,” other members having departed for various reasons that may or may not have had to do with growing embrace of the band’s work by neo-Nazis.
That’s a round-about explanation as to why the final scene, in which Radio Werewolf performs at a Bar Mitzvah, is profoundly uncomfortable and probably also a thing of genius.
By fulfilling its promise of being a zany 80s comedy (complete with “save the rec center” third act) while cramming as much mean-spirited ickiness into its ninety minute run time as possible, “Mortuary Academy” plays like a huge middle finger. It’s a beautifully-executed act of trolling, refreshing in all its wrongness. For the sort of person who will take that as a recommendation, take it upon yourself to seek out this dusty VHS gem.