Shot independently in Michigan as “Freedom: R.I.P.,” the movie which would be known as NORTHVILLE CEMETERY MASSACRE was the brainchild of young filmmakers Thomas L. Dyke and William Dear. Commenting on how their generation was often stereotyped and judged by their outward appearances, the film was obviously inspired by the carefree counter culture attitude of EASY RIDER, as well as the excessive comic book violence of THE WILD BUNCH, two of the most popular films of their era. The much deserved cult status for NORTHVILLE has been a rather quiet one, and it’s almost as if you’ve seen it, you’re part of a private club. One of the most surprising titles to get the “special edition” treatment, VCI has kindly obliged with this rousing DVD release.
Blonde “hippy” Chris (David Hyry) tags along with the biker club the Spirits (played by real members of the Scorpions motorcycle club) after offering one of them some homegrown weed. When the Spirits hold a rowdy outdoor wedding, Chris meets up with his girlfriend Lynn (Jan Sisk) and they proceed to make love in a nearby barn. After the law arrives on the scene, the corrupt Deputy Putnam (Craig Collicot) knocks out Chris and forces himself sexually on Lynn, warning her not to tell anyone. When Lynn ends up in the hospital, Putnam convinces her furious father (Herb Sharples) that the bikers are responsible for her rape, and the two play sniper against the Spirits with the help of a wealthy hunter (Len Speck). The Spirits look for clues as to who’s been knocking off their people, confronting a rival biker club at a deserted drive-in, and eventually arming themselves with the proper artillery. Everything leads up to a bloody showdown in a cemetery, which has a three-coffin biker funeral interrupted by trigger-happy antagonists hovering over in a helicopter.
Hyped as “The Ultimate Biker Flick,” NORTHVILLE CEMETERY MASSACRE may or may not be that, but it certainly ranks among the most intriguing cycle pictures and is an all-out satisfying slice of exploitation that can even be classified as a modern Western. From the opening moments -- featuring the Spirits toying with an old couple pulled over on the road, only to repair their flat tire -- you know this is not your typical AIP or Crown International biker fare. The bearded, longhaired Harley riders here are posed as misunderstood rebels who just want to have a good time, and the Scorpions of course play them authentically and with pathos. No one’s gonna win any performance accolades here, but the rest of the cast is made up of local actors who hold things up well. Interestingly enough, lead actor Hyry was over-dubbed by an easily recognizable Nick Nolte some years before he became a household name.
The film’s WILD BUNCH-style violence is displayed in the numerous slow-mo shootings, complete with exploding blood squibs, all which are impressively photographed. The violence is offset by some clever satire, including a scene where the Spirits are ordered by a judge to ride their bikes through a car wash, and an oddball arms salesman giving a Patton-like speech in front of a hanging U.S. flag. Ex-Monkee Mike Nesmith (an underrated solo artist in his own right) did the country/rock score in a raunchy style that really befits the film (someone should release a soundtrack CD pronto!). It’s interesting to note that the film started production in 1971 (pretty much the year that the biker film had died) and completed over a period of a few years, though not released theatrically until 1976 by Cannon.
Shot on 16mm and later blown up to 35 for theatrical showings, NORTHVILLE CEMETERY MASSACRE has been “digitally re-mastered” for DVD. Aside from some blemishes and grain caused by the original 16mm film stock, the picture looks quite good, with crisp detail and vivid colors. The mono audio track also comes of well, and optional Spanish subtitles are included.
VCI has furnished the disc with a lot of supplements, including three (that’s right, three!) separate audio commentaries. The first one is from co-director/co-producer/co-screenwriter Thomas L. Dyke. Dyke shares a lot of behind-the-scenes recollections, dispersed (with some dead space) in what appears to be pre-written form, as he’s apparently not watching the film. But what he says comes off as interesting, including a meeting with director Robert Altman and details about all the post and pre production headaches. The second commentary, with co-director/co-producer/co-screenwriter William Dear, is the best of the three tracks. Dear’s talk is thorough and scene-specific, and he remembers a lot of details, including how leftover hamburgers were added to the squibs to make them look really gross. A third commentary is with members of the Scorpions, and Dyke is also present, sometimes throwing questions at them. This track is all over the place and it’s hard to tell who's who as nobody is properly introduced, but it can be fun to hear some of the no-holds-barred comments. There are two still galleries. One of them has behind-the-scenes stills and contains some opening narration by Dyke (talking about his initial meeting with the Scorpions), and the other features various video covers as well as German lobby cards. Bios are included on Dear, Dyke and the Scorpions, and there are some trailers for other VCI DVD releases. (George R. Reis)
For more information, check out the official NORTHVILLE CEMETERY MASSACRE Website HERE.