For the longest time, ‘80s cinema was considered one of the worst decades in American film history. Compared to the gritty adult-oriented stories and antiheroes brought to the big screen by the New Hollywood auteurs of the ‘60s and ‘70s, ‘80s filmmaking represented, for the most part, a shift towards happy endings and less challenging fare. But as more and more Gen Xers look back fondly on the VHS era of their childhood, the perception of ‘80s cinema is gradually improving, and boutique DVD labels are meeting the nostalgia-fueled demand by pumping out fan favorites as well as more obscure titles.
One film that was lovingly released on Blu-ray that richly deserves cult classic status, but has yet to attain it, is Luca Bercovici’s Rockula, a vampire musical comedy. It was made in 1988 but wasn’t released until 1990 because of bankruptcy woes facing its distributor. Even then, it was released as an afterthought with a horrible marketing campaign featuring a godawful trailer. After it materialized in just a handful of theaters, it was unceremoniously dropped on video store shelves. That’s a shame, because even though the title promises more cheese than a cannoli, Rockula is actually a good little movie.
The premise itself is hilariously bonkers. Dean Cameron plays Ralph, a perpetually 20-something-looking, 400-year-old vampire still living with his vampire mom. Ralph is a nice guy, but completely inept as a creature of the night. He can’t stand biting people, so he depends on the Red Cross for blood. He enjoys garlic – cooks with it all the time. Not only does he cast a reflection in a mirror, it constantly talks back to him. And when he tries to transform into a bat… well, best not to spoil it. Topping Ralph’s list of concerns is Mona, a centuries-old love interest who reincarnates every twenty-two years, only to die before they consummate – at the hands of a hambone-wielding pirate wearing a rhinestone peg leg, no less! When Ralph finds out that this time around Mona has returned as a rock singer, he forms a band named Rockula in hopes of getting close enough to save her.
As far as the music goes, all of the songs are surprisingly catchy, especially the one sung by Ralph’s sexy mom, performed by dancer and choreographer extraordinaire Toni Basil who’s clearly having a blast and absolutely sizzles in every scene she’s in. In fact, the whole cast is great. Dean Cameron, with his goofy profile and caterpillar eyebrows, is perfect as the dweebish Ralph, Mona is portrayed by Tawny Fere with pop star panache, Bo Diddley appears as himself, and ‘80s synth-pop icon Thomas Dolby is amusingly over the top as Mona’s jealous manager who also runs a novelty coffin business that advertises a rotisserie casket guaranteed to keep the dear departed spinning in their graves.
Luca Bercovici’s solid direction maintains a charming tongue-in-cheek tone, and the overall look of Rockula belies its low budget, beginning with a nicely done animated title sequence. The colorful sets and practical special effects were beautifully shot by future Oscar-nominated cinematographer John Schwartzman, nephew of Francis Ford Coppola. Another major plus, the story never drags thanks in large part to the punchy editing courtesy of Davenport local legend, Maureen O’Connell, who never lets a shot last a single frame too long. Rockula may not qualify as a forgotten masterpiece, but lovers of overlooked B-movie gems will, if you’ll forgive the pun, find a lot to sink their teeth in.
For KSQD’s Film Gang, this is Paul Kanieski