They're not she-devils on wheels or crunchy, tasty wild rebels, but Judge Bill Gibron really appreciated the counter culture relevance of this "lost" 1970s biker picture.
The day that law and order went berserk.
An elderly couple's car has broken down along a lonely country road. With their tire flat, the man struggles to change it with little success. Suddenly, a motorcycle gang shows up, a bunch of leather-wearing weirdoes with their sleazy old ladies along for the ride. But instead of harming the aged pair, they proceed to repair their car and send them on their way. While still out for a sometimes illegal good time, this Harley-riding horde is also considerate and concerned for their fellow man. Recognizing that the freedom they seek must be provided to others as well, they only use their bad-ass image to undermine the Establishment. When the girlfriend of a dead buddy's brother is assaulted, the police naturally pin the crime on the Club. Turns out, it was a rogue officer that was responsible for the frame-up. With the help of the gal's frantic father and a local weapons lover who masquerades as a nature-loving sportsman, the town hopes a little vigilante justice will drive the bikers away once and for all. Resolved to clear their name, the clan prepares for a showdown. A funeral for a fallen member provides the perfect backdrop for a standoff, and with everyone loaded for bear, it's not long before the Northville Cemetery Massacre is in full, fatal swing.
Let's just call this two-wheeled wonder Uneasy Rider and get it over with, shall we? Like Robert Altman directing a Roger Corman biker epic, Northville Cemetery Massacre defies description as precisely as it plays with certain cinematic classifications. Some sort of counterculture experiment by first-time filmmakers Thomas L. Dyke (his only credit) and William Dear (who would go on to helm Harry and the Hendersons and Angels in the Outfield), this combination of cinema vérité, born to be wildness, and standard cautionary storytelling is one bizarre bit of motorcycle mayhem. Both embracing and examining the outlaw nature of the chopper champion, Dyke and Dear originally called their movie Freedom: R.I.P., with good reason. This movie was meant to symbolize the inner corruption among so-called law-abiding citizens, including the police themselves, while striving to show the leather-wearing biker as a righteous dude with an undeserved rowdy reputation. Oh sure, there's some bar-based fisticuffs, and the movie ends in one of the biggest bloodbaths captured on independent film, but at its heart, Northville Cemetery Massacre wants to draw a distinction between brutality based in the support of brotherhood, and cruelty as a sense of civic duty.
Buried inside all the "us vs. them" underpinnings are class-crossed lovers who just want to get high and roll in the hay. With a voice dubbed by a very young Nick Nolte, our slightly fey hero is an ex-Vietnam vet whose decision to drop out has a lot to do with the treatment of his dearly departed brother at the hands of authorities. His potential old lady is a typical small-town twinkie who's lost in her own inner world of frilly drapes, romantic phone calls, and sexual assault by a psychotic sheriff's deputy. Together, the duo makes an uneasy core for the average audience member. He feels like an afterthought to the whole narrative construct, a drive-in denizen who presents passion pitters with a like-minded weed head they can identify with. As for the gal, she emanates about as much sex appeal as a socket wrench, and her moments of tasteful toplessness do very little to stir male viewing interest. It would be interesting to see a version of this film sans the lovebird life lessons, one that uses the real-life Detroit Scorpions Motorcycle Club as a foundation for a pragmatic look at how '70s society viewed such "gangs." Instead, we get the gratuitous rape, the sportsman/serial killer who can't wait to hunt that most dangerous of games, and an ending that's both perfunctory and profound, questioning all that's come before while offering little in the way of easy solutions.
For many a seasoned grindhouse fan, this sounds like solid sleazoid stuff, right? Well, the truth is trickier than that. While obviously aimed at an exploitation-appreciating throng, there is a strange, audience adverse approach to Dyke and Dear's designs. Obviously unable to "direct" the real-life bikers, we get a clashing confrontation of styles and substance, amateur acting accented by professional performers trying to add to the authenticity. Many of the scenes are fascinating free-for-alls, dialogue constantly overlapping and conversations collapsing in on each other. We never really get to know the riders, and their women are pure props, positioned on the back of their Harleys for maximum hot mama effect. But this was probably not Dyke and Dear's point. With that original title of Freedom: R.I.P., they were clearly responding to the idea that America was becoming a nation divided along generational lines. To the conservative clans who held the power, a group like the Scorpions represented lawlessness and defiance. That many of them were actually decent people drawn together by a sense of family that was sadly lacking in a post-'60s society never really mattered much to those in charge. Bikers were an easy breed to pick on (the Hell's Angels not helping matters much). By turning them into amiable anti-heroes here, the directors manage the mirror reflection on the culture that so many movies of this kind miss. For those who long for the days of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper puffing their way across a dying America, Northville Cemetery Massacre will be a big, bad, bloody mess. But for those looking for more depth than defiance in their motorcycle storyline, this movie makes a very strong, if rather surreal, point.
Presented by VCI in the best possible print available, this 30th Anniversary Director's Cut of Northville Cemetery Massacre is not without its issues. The 1.33:1 full-screen image is given what the company calls a "digital" remaster. This must mean that colors were optically tweaked and brightness balanced electronically, since you can see some minor solarizing during the title showdown. There is dirt o' plenty, a minor amount of grain, and some editing errors that argue for both the company's care with this title, and the horrendous nature of the original stock elements. For a 16mm effort that was more or less left for cinematic stasis, the DVD presentation is almost acceptable. Almost. As for the audio, we are treated to a Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 mix that is pure aural mayhem—from the overlapping line readings to the finale reliance on exploding ammunition. Ex-Monkee Mike Nesmith is credited with creating the soundtrack here, but unless you are a fan of his neo-country canoodling, there is no great distinction in his contribution.
Without a doubt, the best aspect of this entire package is the stellar added content—in particular, a trio of telling audio commentaries. First up is director Dyke. Reading from prepared notes, he provides a blow-by-blow backstory on the "hiring" of the Scorpions, the problematic production, and the financial issues that almost undermined the film. Then Dear delivers his discussion, and it's a genial, anecdotal affair. More than happy to dish the dirt and laugh at the movie's many flaws, he sees his contribution to the project as more comical than considered. Perhaps the best alternate narrative track however is the last one, featuring actual members of the Detroit Scorpions Motorcycle Club. Loaded with nostalgic wistfulness for a time long gone and quite emotional when remembering fallen comrades, it's a great listen. This trio of telling dialogues truly elevates the DVD version of Northville Cemetery Massacre to must-own heights. It is rare when you get a collection of conversations that cover the entire spectrum of a film. Along with an excellent gallery of behind-the-scenes stills, and a look at the various covers and posters prepared for its release, this movie gets a major technological re-launch, thanks to the cast, the crew, and VCI.
If you simply remember that this is not your standard biker epic, if you realize that all the mayhem and menace are going to come from the citizenry, not the chopper chicks and their bad-ass bo-hunks, you'll discover an unique and engaging time-capsule treat. More than anything else, Northville Cemetery Massacre is a freeze-frame feature giving us a lamentable look at America circa the early '70s. Amid all its gory, blood-soaked brazenness, there's a message about personal and public perspective that is awfully hard to miss.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: VCI Home Video
• Full-length Audio Commentary by Director Thomas Dyke
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