I’m Obsessed With “Rockula” and You Might Love It, Too (aka How to Make the Most of Your Fandom and Get a Lost Cult Classic its Due).
At the time, Shout! Factory’s March 20th, 2018 Blu-ray release of Rockula (1990) was a dream come true. I had been rallying for months to have it put out on Blu-ray because it had never even seen a DVD release and had very limited distribution on VHS and laserdisc. Then finally, all my networking and hard work paid off.
Now it’s become a Halloween tradition for those who have discovered this lost gem — poetic, as the film shot the final scene and wrapped production on Halloween.
There are now dozens of podcasts and reviews online singing its praises. But why? Few movies can claim to have captured the spirit of a generation; fewer still have withstood the test of time, remaining watchable long after their initial release. ROCKULA is just such a film.
It’s also part of a tiny subgenre known as the “horror movie musical” which you can nearly count on two hands. But in case you’ve forgotten, here’s a list of the (arguably) best ones:
- Mad Monster Party (1967)
- Phantom of the Paradise (1974)
- The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
- Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (1978)
- The Forbidden Zone (1980)
- Shock Treatment (1981)
- Little Shop of Horrors (1986)
- Rockula (1990)
- The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
- Cannibal the Musical (1993)
- Phantom of the Opera (2004)
- The Corpse Bride (2005)
- Sweeney Todd (2007)
Of these, Phantom of the Paradise comes closest to that elusive generation-defining quality. It premiered when Paul “Rainbow Connection” Williams, who also wrote the score and played the film’s antagonist, was at the height of his songwriting prowess (between his Carpenters and Muppets phases).
POTP featured multiple genres, from the hard rock glitz of Gerrit Graham’s “Beef”, to the KISS-like antics of Peter Elbling’s “Harold Oblong and The Undead”, to the Carpenters-esque, soft-rock vocals of Jessica Harper (yes, the lovely, haunted dancer from Suspiria  and femme fatale of the Rocky Horror sequel, Shock Treatment) as “Phoenix”.
The music, drug, and sex culture of the ’70s are all on display in DePalma’s classic, which got an Oscar nod for best score. While its cult following is but a fraction of the more mainstream Rocky Horror Picture Show’s, it still plays in theaters annually in places like Winnipeg and continues to influence musicians such as French electronica wizards, Daft Punk.
But Rockula manages to pull off just as much era crystallization, if not more.
Shot in 1988, but not released till two years later (thanks to the ineffective distribution efforts of Cannon Films who went out of business right around the same time), Rockula does what no other movie of its kind has; it brings together the best and worst elements of a generation of music and showcases them loudly and proudly in one wackadoo feature film that defies description.
Take the power ballad “By My Side” — which could have been performed by any band of the large hair variety around that time — or Toni Basil’s “The Night” which would have fit in nicely on a Taylor Dane or Bobby Brown record. But don’t let me get too far ahead of myself.
Rockula has a fascinating history all its own, almost as interesting and quirky as the movie itself.
Writer/director Luca Bercovici and his writing partner, Jefery Levy were coming off the heels of their successful collaborations Ghoulies and Ghoulies 2 (which recently inspired the cover of the first issue of Midnight! magazine). Feeling like they’d been screwed over by producer Charles Band (Empire, Full Moon), they were wanting to strike out on their own and do a vampire film.
They wanted to try something more serious, but they’d already sold Cannon on the title Rockula and been guaranteed funding on that alone. The tension between the subject matter of the original script and the title was just too much for the movie to bear, and soon the original concept was scrapped and reworked with the help of their friend Chris Ver Wiel.
The Blu-ray commentary/interviews mention several spots throughout the film where bits of the old script are still evident.
The plot? Box synopsis:
Ralph (Dean Cameron, Summer School) is just your typical, average vampire with love in his heart, music in his veins — and a curse on his head. Every 22 years, poor Ralph is doomed to lose his soulmate, Mona, at the hands of a rhinestone-peg-legged pirate brandishing a large hambone (just go with us on this). But this time around, with the help of his newly-formed band Rockula, Ralph is determined to crush the curse once and for all — and show Mona that when you’re a vampire, true love is eternal … and rock ‘n’ roll never dies! Directed by Luca Bercovici (Ghoulies) and featuring an eclectic cast of co-stars, including cult favorite Susan Tyrrell (Forbidden Zone) and recording stars Thomas Dolby, Toni Basil, and Bo Diddley, Rockula is an absolutely batty, bloody bizarre comedy!
Not contrived and silly enough for you?
Consider the fact that the main villain (Dolby) produces records and music videos and manages bands but also has a successful side business in the funeral service industry called “Stanley’s Death Park” for which he produces some of the funniest segments in the film in the form of 80’s style infomercials.
I originally wrote this review about ten different ways trying to do Rockula‘s wonderfully eclectic and truly unique acting, direction, script, score, editing, and songs some justice. But I eventually realized that trying to describe Rockula in detail is like trying to describe the Grand Canyon. There’s just no way.
I could tell you about the dozen or so cameos by famous indie musicians and industry professionals of the time, the incredibly insane musical numbers like “Rapula” (which is exactly what it sounds like), and a plethora of other surprises. But that would spoil the fun.
And ultimately that’s what Rockula is all about – exactly what any horror spoof should be about: fun.
When vampire Ralph turns into a farting, midget-sized vampire bat, you’ll piss yourself laughing.
You’ll scratch your head trying to figure out if Ralph’s reflection (that he talks to…which talks back) represents some psychological muse or just serves as a cool but confusing sight gag.
You can try to wrap your head around Nancye Ferguson and The Visiting Kids, one of the most bizarre neo-punk groups to come out of the ’80s. You can marvel at Bo Diddley in spandex (which is mentioned in pretty much every online review) and have your head explode at Tony Cox (yes, the dwarf from Bad Santa) taking an inexplicable bath with Toni Basil’s character while she and the little guy have a casual conversation with her son.
You can marvel at the youth and beauty of the gorgeous and talented Tawny Feré (who played the title character in Richard Marx’s video for Angelia – how’s that for obscure ’80s?), and get lost in a thousand different, bizarre, silly things.
I’ve written a slam-poetry-worthy list of highlights here, and I haven’t even scratched the surface.
But no matter what stands out to you, it is likely that you will watch it again and again.
Henry Weintraub, the Shout! Factory production guru who brought the Blu-ray to life back in 2018 not just with a beautiful transfer but with incredible special features like new interviews with the cast and crew, the original trailer, and an entertaining commentary with actress Feré, the director, and his brother Hilary Bercovici who composed the original score (also available with an alternate score option), totally outdid himself and was clearly a fan of the movie.
To date, it’s sold approximately 7,000 copies, and I have made it a personal mission to increase that number as much as I can.
The story behind the story of why I’m telling you any of this is that, as I mentioned at the beginning, I personally went out of my way to make sure this Blu-ray happened.
I first saw Rockula streaming on Amazon and instantly fell in love with it. I couldn’t believe I’d never heard of it; my mind was even more blown when I discovered it had never even been released on DVD. What injustice!
Scouring the web for everything I could find on it, I discovered it had a somewhat formidable presence in the cult film community and that those who loved it (like me) REALLY loved it and that the haters were surprisingly few and far between.
I decided that it deserved a Blu-ray release and that the movie, and those who helped make it, deserved more recognition. So I created a “Fans of Rockula” page on Facebook and invited every member of the cast and crew I could find, starting with Tawny Feré (ageless songwriter now known as Tawny Ellis who is married to a guy who makes custom amps for guys like Aerosmith’s Joe Perry, and who plays a mean guitar himself), and an amazing thing happened…they showed up.
I started to gather every Rockula fan I could find on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and random web pages.
I compiled a ton of Rockula related material (it wasn’t easy…it’s a damn obscure movie!), and then a couple of miracles happened.
The first miracle was that we fans couldn’t figure out who a certain uncredited dance partner of Toni Basil’s was in one scene, so someone suggested it was Shabba-Doo, the guy who played “Ozone” in the Breakin’ movies. I asked him directly, and he said nope – it’s the guy who does a dance-off with Damon Wayans in Earth Girls Are Easy. Somehow, I convinced Shabba-Doo to send me a friend request, and eventually helped him write his biography and picked up some editing gigs for his friends! GTFO!
Sadly, he passed away from a sudden illness on December 30, 2020, but not before changing my life for the better and helping me make some great industry connections.
The second miracle was that the director, Luca Bercovici, (who is now co-Admin of the FB page) told me about a deleted scene with Thomas Dolby singing a cover of Tom Lehrer’s “I Hold Your Hand in Mine” which they traded in the form of a can of film for the use of his song “Budapest by Blimp” off his third album; a brilliant move as it is one of the most complex, melancholy, surreal tunes you will hear in ANY film.
I asked Thomas Dolby if he still had the canned footage, and he not only said yes but that he’d be willing to put new music to it and transfer it to digital. WHAT??!!!? I shat myself.
But the third miracle was the best of all, which is that I bugged co-writer Jefery Levy (who is now a bigtime industry insider and married to Rockula’s costume designer Pamela Skaist who went on to create Juicy Couture, one of the most successful fashion lines in modern history) enough times that he made a call to MGM (who own most of Cannon’s old catalog), and not three weeks later news of a Blu-ray from Shout! Factory reached the public.
I returned the favor by hooking Mr. Levy up with a vinyl record he had thought lost forever of one of the songs from the movie, “United State of Beat”.
So, I am listed in the bonus feature credits (along with another friend of mine and fellow superfan, Cassandra Amador-Cheatham, who aided in production), and I am friends with most of the surviving cast and crew.
How’s that for making the most of your horror musical fandom? But with every triumph, there are also some failures and losses.
The worst losses are four of the cast members: Rick Zumwalt, Tamara DeTreux, blues rock legend Bo Diddley, and the incomparable Susan Tyrell. Do yourself a favor, dig around a little, and familiarize yourself with each of their legacies – you won’t regret it. Another loss though, which was more of a timing failure, is that the missing Thomas Dolby footage wasn’t recovered in time for the Blu-ray release.
Here’s how we fix that, though:
All of you buy Rockula right now (go ahead, I’ll wait…), watch it with someone you love, and then tell all your friends about the greatest horror-comedy musical romance movie of all time. When enough of you do that, we’ll rally Shout! Factory to release a Special Edition to include the 30th Anniversary Zoom Reunion, a 30-years-later performance of the duet “By My Side” by the film’s star crossed lovers, and best of all, the lost footage of Thomas Dolby to which he just put new music and had restored after 30 years!.
Then you can all either kiss my ass or kick my ass based on how you truly felt about the movie. I anticipate much more tenderness than ire.
And remember: “He’s the DJ…I’m the vampire.”