Let's get the obvious elements out of the way right up front. If you are a fan of The Howard Stern Show, Jackie "The Jokeman" Martling (who used to be the King of All Media's sidekick until contract negotiations got him canned), his wife Nancy Sirianni (the subject of many a call-in bitch fest) and that legend of late night New York television, the incomparable Joe Franklin (an entity that has to be experienced to be believed), then you will be mildly amused at their creative cameos as part of the otherwise odd Ghoul School. Obviously utilized to drum up publicity for the film (Martling was still a Stern regular back in 1990 and Franklin still helmed his surreal talk fest on NYC's WOR Channel 9), they are more like inserted elements than actual participants in the film (Sirianni does have a hefty role, but is such an acting lightweight that she leaves little impression). Other recognizable faces in this otherwise unknown fright film are Richard Bright (Al Neri from The Godfather) John P. Fedele (Sourass from Lord of the G-Strings) and Ivan Sergei (known to fans of TV fare like Hawaii, Crossing Jordan and Jack and Jill). The combination of amateur and proto-professional performances creates a cracked dichotomy within this movie. On the one hand, we have the unintentional humor provided by the student-grade cinematics. On the other flailing fist, there are the so-called hired guns mugging and mucking up the place with their out of whack weirdness. The result is a movie constantly battling itself. Part of Ghoul School wants to be a classic cult camp fest. But a bunch of slumming celebrities keep tossing the plot back into the realm of ridiculous reality.
The result is a film that should be more fun than it is. You can occasionally feel Ghoul School balking at its own ridiculous ideas and pulling back to try and salvage some seriousness. This is a movie that makes fun of all facets of high school, from the juvenile jockocracy of sports to the AV geekdom of rabid gore nerds. It even throws in a little over-the-top blood to keep everything nice and nasty. It circumvents several of the clichés in standard zombie moviedom to create it's own vision of a video vomitorium. But there is something hampering this horror film, a certain pseudo-solemn mentality that feels as if someone in the crew thought that they actually had a real life scary movie on their hands. Sadly, that is not the case here. Ghoul School is a dopey, deliberate goof, a homage to all the hack and stack body bonanzas that made the 80s so macabre. Indeed, writer/director Timothy O'Rawe has the fundamentals of the average flesh feast down to a sanguine science. He knows whenever his narrative sticks a little, some grue will grease the plot guns magnificently. But interspersed amongst all the torso ripping, gut garroting and face munching are far too many meaningless scenes of pointless exposition. It's almost as if O'Rawe figured he needed to be top heavy with plot to make sure his movie moved along quickly. Cinematic fundamentals like editing and mise-en-scene are far more effective at making storylines more efficient. But this first time director doesn't quite have those filmic chops.
No, O'Rawe just wants to make the kind of films he and his jaded generation grew up grousing over, half-baked brainstorms by the likes of Band, Olen Ray and Kaufman. He's not all that interested in keeping things consistent or clever. He tosses in the criminal idiots looking to rob the drunken janitor as a kind of a catalyst excuse, a Class of Nuke 'Em High nod that barely works as justification for all the skin jonesing. Our bumbling burglars, who look and act more like aggravated gay lovers than crackerjack break-in artists are really unnecessary to the story. They arbitrarily appear whenever O'Rawe needs them, hoping that their trigger happy terror rubs off on the rest of the evil entities. As for the zombies, the make-up effects are fairly good, capturing a nice combination of Romero/Savini era ghouls with the messier Fulci/Bava freaks. The fake blood is a bust, though. The claret resembles watery V-8 and never once splatters the scenes with potent pigment. Instead, wounds seep that kind of orange offal you get when you open an old can of Spaghetti-Os. Sometimes, the effects, the acting and the filmmaking all come together to create a comic bit of corporal chaos. But then some strange scene – like the pointless exchange between the principal and...well, frankly anyone – comes along and undermines the fan boyishness. Splatter Rampage, who picked up this fossil for DVD distribution, are experts at the mixture of anarchy and atrocity to create resplendent, revolting films. Too bad they can't go back in time and impose some of their skill on this flawed flick.
Still, there is a great deal of sly stupidity to celebrate in Ghoul School. The entire 'swim team on the reanimated rag' angle is hilarious, especially seeing the less than athletic members of said aquatic squad running around in Speedos and far-too-tight one piece bathing suits. Equally laugh inspiring is the horrible basketball team that can't make a lay up, but sure understands the basics of brave hairstyles. Then there's the heavy metal band that's hired to play the big school dance. From the obvious air guitar antics of the spastic group leader (he's doing every position in the axeman's guidebook except "Believable Chord Changes 101") to the be-wigged rest of the assemblage, this is one sour, not power trio that makes Rush look like dire death rock renegades. Our video loving heroes Steve and Jeff do have a nice kind of "never known the touch of a woman" way about their best friendliness, and their penchant for pop culture riffs (probably very ripe by 1990 standards) make them into unlikely, unusual leads. All the gunplay is faked (actors simulate the 'kick' of their weapon as the soundtrack cracks with a thunderous ammunition boom) and there are salient sequences where the scares are as palpable as the snickers. And you have to give the old clueless bastard some credit: Joe Franklin was NEVER an actor, and he proves it by failing to properly play himself in all of his scenes. His retarded line readings alone are worth the price of a rental. Same goes for Martling. Simply telling a series of his dirty jokes in an attempt to win Franklin over, you'll laugh more than groan at his well-worn gags. Had this movie been more mindless, and less mannered, it would have become a minor classic. As it stands, the filmmaking flounders too much to move into myth.
Focus and scope are the keys to why Ghoul School only half-succeeds. Had creator O'Rawe kept his goals simple and his monsters messy, he would have crafted a delightfully dopey diversion like Redneck Zombies or Flesh Eating Grannies. Instead, there is a serious scary movie fighting against a funny zombie farce for cinematic supremacy, with neither notion striking a knockout blow. On the one hand, the gore and goofiness play perfectly against the backdrop of a typical high school gone screwy. Entrails are eaten and heads explode. Add in the horrid rock and roll rejects and a little of Franklin's fumbling free association and you've got corpse grinding gold. But then the delinquents show up, all sneers and smirks, dragging their derivativeness directly into each and every scene they show up in, hampering the good humor Ghoul School has created. Like a balloon being inflated and deflated over and over again, this movie is bound to cause a little horror hyperventilation. Timothy O'Rawe and the rest of this cast have their spirit in the right splatter job places, and you can smell and taste their respect for the genre. But like so many living dead dioramas that have come before and after, Ghoul School scuttles a sure fire premise. High school is an otherworldly realm where it's not dog eat dog, but clique devour faction. Turning such a truism into a metaphor for the consumption of human variety meats would have helped this movie make it over the top. Still, flaws and all, this is a harmless, often hilarious slice of surreal horror. Sad thing is, it could have been so much better.
Writer/director O'Rawe provides the first commentary track and it's one big overblown mea culpa. He begins by admitting his own weak skills as a writer and director. He then laments the loss of the original F/X guy (who apparently just "disappeared") and apologizes for the semi-decent job the replacement team did. He systematically deconstructs the acting, the sets, the lighting and the pace. Before you know it, he's convinced you that the fun but flawed film you've just sat through was actually a ballistic bowel movement aiming to destroy your artistic sensibility. It's nice that O'Rawe is so honest with his feelings, and you have to give any auteur credit for admitting his faults. But there is just too much apologizing here.
Cinematographer Michael L. Raso offers up another alternative narrative track that spends less time asking for forgiveness and more time on the technical aspects of the movie. He explains how certain shots were achieved, the basics of independent movie making and the reasons why O'Rawe's first feature, the never-released Basement failed to see the light of day. Though O'Rawe is far harder on the film that Raso, the DP gets his opportunities to question the casting and performances. Together, these two discussions give us a clear picture of a film in trouble, almost from the beginning, and some of the reasons why Ghoul School was less than successful.
Of the other bonus material, the featurettes function to fill out some of the details that went into the making of the movie. Most of them are superficial and straightforward, without much depth. And Tempe knows how to cut a decent trailer. Yet the best extra of the bunch is a trio of short films by O'Rawe offered in something called The Meadowlands Showcase. This cable access program gives the director a chance to feature a few of his homemade mini-macabre. Tag, You're It starts off with a man asking directions from a stranger near a cemetery. He is attacked, and suddenly takes on the fiend's freakish face. Next up is Evil Vision. While visiting a public washroom, a man spies on what he thinks is a couple copulating in a stall. Turns out, he's caught a serial killer in the act. A somewhat pointless chase ensues. Our final offering is entitled A Halloween Tale and centers around a horrible hag of a woman who hates Halloween and won't give trick or treaters any candy. Naturally, she gets her comeuppance. The first two installments are black and white...and rather weak. The third vignette is in color, and though it suffers from some bad print issues, the gore and make-up effects are nice and cheesy.