Traci Lords has had one of the strangest careers in Hollywood. How often do you hear about a person transitioning from porn to an actual acting career? Sure, Ron Jeremy may be a household name (in certain households, anyway), but he never became a legitimate actor, and his appearances in films and on television are usually in cameos or roles that reference his fame as one of the most prodigious and well-endowed performers in the realm of “blue” movies. Recently, porn actor James Deen attempted to make the transition to mainstream(ish) cinema in director Paul Schrader’s The Canyons, a terrible erotic thriller penned by shoulda-known-better novelist Bret Easton Ellis, a movie that is only differentiated from poorly plotted direct-to-video softcore erotic thrillers of yesteryear by the presence of a nude Lindsay Lohan (and whose sole redeeming feature was three minutes of Nolan Gerard Funk in a glistening Speedo). But Traci Lords is something altogether different; after being one of the most sought-after porn actresses of the eighties, it was discovered that a great deal of her work had been made while she was underage, resulting in an infamous scandal that saw the adult film industry spending millions of dollars on recalls and withdrawals. Lords then enrolled to study legitimate method acting at the Lee Strasberg Theater Institute, before establishing herself as a legitimate actress by appearing in John Waters’ Cry-Baby in 1990, although I will always remember her as a late addition to millennial sci-fi series First Wave, having been born in 1987 and having no real frame of reference for her career before that.
That’s a bit of a long-winded introduction, but it does help explain how Traci Lords came to be in the schlocky 1991 love(?) letter to metal that is Shock ‘Em Dead (aka Rock ‘Em Dead), a horror comedy featuring some of the best examples of the worst sartorial mistakes in music history. I’m not here to pass judgement on Metal as a genre—after all, as far as devotees to a particular musical style are concerned, metalheads are some of the most aggressive, fanatical, defensive, and insular, and I’m not looking to get my head bashed in by a guy (and let’s be clear, it would be a guy) who has willingly and purposefully refused to listen to anything that came out after the demise of Vinnie Vincent Invasion. Metal fandom is a mostly misogynistic miasma of guttural throats, thrashing, and toxic masculinity, devoted to a musical subculture that was most successful during a decade where everyone was coked out of their fucking minds, but it’s also the genre that features some of the most amazing and mindboggling musical feats ever performed on guitar, and that fact is not lost on me. Still, even the most devoted headbanger has to admit that the metal of the 1980s was performed by talented dudes who all dressed like they had wandered away from the saddest gay pride parade in the history of Marion, Iowa—all jeweltone lycra and neon jungle prints. It was a time of great musicianship, but at what cost?
Shock comes to us from 1991 as the directorial effort of Mark Freed, cofounder of StarLicks, a video production company that released instructional musical videos in which notable musicians detailed their personal stylings, which amateurs and interested parties could learn to imitate or build upon. According to the cover of the VHS tape (and the cast list on Wikipedia), the film stars Traci Lords and only Traci Lords, but this is not the case; the main character is villain protagonist “Angel” Martin, a “hideous,” mouth-breathing “young” nerd turned guitar god played by handsome, almost-40 Stephen Quadros, and the protagonist of the movie is actually uberbabe Greg Austin (Tim Moffett), boyfriends of Lords’s Lindsay. Aldo Ray and Troy Donahue, both in the twilight of their careers, make appearances as well, unfortunately, and Michael Angelo Batio makes a brief appearance as the Lord of Darkness playing a double-headed guitar as well as acting as hand double whenever the script calls for Angel to do something stunning.
Marty (Quadros) is a nobody, a terrible person going nowhere in life. He lives in a trailer park, where his shitty and never-improving guitar practicing is the bane of his landlord (Yankee Sulivan)’s life. His boss at a nondescript pizza eatery, Tony (Ray), is a verbally abusive micromanager, but Marty is also lousy at his job, licking his fingers before spreading cheese and spying on his nude female co-worker through a locker room peephole. Across town, metal band Spastique Kolon, fronted by Johnny (Markus Grupa), is having trouble finding a decent guitar player at an audition. Johnny’s getting impatient, because there’s a “big showcase” in just two days, and they have to have a guitar player by then! And, as we all know, most bands form and sign up for showcases before they have a guitar player. The band’s manager is Lindsay Roberts (Lords), girlfriend of Greg Austin (Moffett); she thinks it might be time for him to hang up his bass and take a job working construction for her dad in some backwater. Greg’s understandably not thrilled about that potential future, but he goes on a douchey ramble about how he knows he’s going to be somebody and he has the talent and “believe in me, baby,” etc. Johnny asks some random guy who happens to be there (I can’t figure out the character or actor, as less than a third of the people in this movie have photos on their sparse IMDb pages) if he knows any guitarists, and he mentions that his dad is always complaining about a guy living in the trailer park that he manages.
After getting the phone call from Random Guy, Marty ditches work and is fired by Tony. He auditions, performs terribly, and is laughed out of the studio. When Tony refuses to take Marty back and the trailer park manager evicts him from the property, effective at sundown, Marty is approached by the neighborhood “Voodoo Woman” (Tyger Sodipe), who offers him his heart’s desire in exchange for his soul. He agrees, and wishes to be the most technically proficient and famous guitar player in the world. She does some magic with an athame and potion and stabs him in the chest, leading to a dream sequence featuring zombies and the King of Hell himself, and when he wakes up, he’s got an over-sprayed mane of jet black hair, cowhide bedding, a boringly suburban McMansion, and a closet full of black leather vests, pants, and strategically ripped cotton shirts. He’s also got a “family” of hot ladies to tend to his every whim, and they are by far the best thing about this movie. Every single one of them has more character and understandable motivation than Marty, and they also have some of the best lines.
All three also sold their souls for something, with a price (other than being Marty’s reward, that is). Michelle (Karen Russell) was born disfigured and Marilyn (Gina Parks) was scarred in a horrible fire; they see their mangled visages in every mirror, and others can see them when reflected in silver. Monique (Laurel Wiley) had cancer, and she went to the Voodoo Woman for a cure, but the Voodoo Woman took her life immediately and turned her into a ghoul (as she has done to Marty), forcing her to kill and feed upon the green life forces of victims to stay alive, as normal food is toxic. Marty auditions for the band again and, naturally, gets a spot, ultimately pushing Johnny out of the band and getting Spastique Kolon a record deal, all while murdering his former tormentors and innocent groupies alike to feast on their souls. He becomes obsessed with the idea of possessing Lindsay and making her a part of his harem, which involves a Voodoo baptism ritual, but her love for Greg and Greg’s
possessiveness of love for her ultimately saves the day. So, yeah, metal music + misremembered elements of Dracula + wish fulfillment for proto-MRA dorks = Shock ‘Em Dead.
This is a fun little movie, although it could have been much funnier if there had been more focus on some of the likable (if evil) supporting characters and less on the rechristened Angel Martin, guitar superstar. Lords’s character, who exists almost entirely for no other reason than to be a living McGuffin for Martin and Greg to fight over, would seem like more of an afterthought than a character in a better movie, but she and the demon girlfriends are the most interesting characters here, with backstories and desires that make sense, especially when compared to Marty’s motivations. I can’t tell if that’s part of the joke or not, but I tend to lean towards “not,” if only because Marty is too much like a real metalhead, with delusions of sex and guitar godhood in spite of reality, and this seems to be more of a spoof than a satire of that mindset. The two major songs performed by Spastique Kolon in this movie are “I’m a Virgin Girl” and “I’m in Love with a Slut,” which is pretty much a textbook case of the Madonna/Whore Complex, and I just can’t force myself to conceptualize the creators of this movie as deserving credit for that level of self-awareness. At the end of the day, that subculture and that era were dominated by socially irresponsible sexism and misogyny, and that comes across more clearly and overtly in this movie than anything else, if for no other mitigating factor than the number of undulating breasts displayed throughout. Still, it got a decent number of laughs from me, and it’s definitely worth watching on a rainy afternoon.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond