After being lost for 30 years, the wacky and wildly funny cult horror comedy/slasher satire “Arbor Day” chops its way back from oblivion.
If you’re like me and the rest of the world, today is a very big day for you.
That’s right; it’s Arbor Day… as if you didn’t already know. Despite being one of the most beloved and cherished American holidays, the genre has really slacked on its celebration of this major event. It seems like just about every other major holiday has gotten the horror treatment, except for Arbor Day.
Fortunately, this is a tragic oversight that has now been rectified.
I kid, of course. No one gives a damn about Arbor Day. Not me, not you, and certainly not the filmmakers behind the long-lost 1990 horror parody Arbor Day from writer-director Joseph Sikorski (co-written by Michael Calomino).
That conceit is just part of what makes Arbor Day so damn hilarious.
They know not a single person was clamoring for it, but they managed to gift us the perfect Arbor Day holiday-themed horror film we never knew we desperately needed. And, in doing so, they also lovingly skewer every 80s slasher trope in the book.
Within the universe of the film, Arbor Day is a big deal. Like, the biggest. It’s treated with the kind of reverence and celebratory significance normally reserved for holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving.
Promoted as “Jason Gets Aboard Airplane” at the time of its original release, Arbor Day was a low-budget comedy film meant to parody the rash of holiday horror movies of the 1980s.
It was the feature film debut from Sikorski, who had previously worked as a documentarian.
While spoofing the exploitive and gratuitous shock horror genre, Arbor Day also paid homage to motion picture classics like Citizen Kane and The Wizard of Oz.
The film became a cult comedy classic, growing a following of devotees called DAYzees (the nickname given to traveling fans of the film) as it played independent movie theaters/art houses, colleges, and even comedy clubs for almost two years after its premiere.
Throughout 1992, it was a popular weekly Midnight Movie at the South Bay Cinemas in West Babylon, NY. It finally ended its run in late 1993, when the filmmakers shifted to screening their newly completed mockumentary on Elvis sightings, the underground satire, The Return of the King?
Soon after, Arbor Day had completely vanished from the scene.
In recent years, enthusiasts have sought out the title over the internet, only to come up empty-handed. In the fall of 2022, a crowdfunding campaign helped the filmmakers create a full restoration from the original negative.
The newly released version is the highest quality master of Arbor Day ever available, with a 4k scan, restored colors, and significantly reduced grain.
And, of course, it’s being released today, April 28, 2023, in honor of the holiday it honors with its tongue planted firmly in its cheek.
After an insane opening, shot in black-and-white and paying tribute to classic gothic horror films, we get the backstory of our psycho killer. A young Elmer Jacobs is planting a tree in the woods with his dad and mom (for some reason, a man dressed as a woman).
But the idyllic day ends in tragedy when a grizzly bear (very obviously a man dressed in a bear suit) attacks, beheading the father and raping and murdering the mother.
It sounds horrific, but never fear; not a damn thing in this film is to remotely be taken seriously, and it’s all played for pure camp.
Fast forward to twenty years later, and a grown Elmer Jacobs (William Wash) is catatonic in an insane asylum, where he is taunted by apathetic doctors and cruel hospital staff. Though Elmer is non-responsive 364 days out of the year, his brain activity and physical strength are miraculously restored for one day every year on — you guessed it — Arbor Day.
Each year, Elmer seems to get stronger and stronger.
This year, having reached peak condition and near super-human strength, Elmer snaps while being berated by a monstrous orderly. He breaks out of the hospital and heads home to reap his revenge.
He dons the appropriate slasher uniform, a flannel shirt with the sleeves cut off and a pair of overalls, acquires his requisite mask (a handmade daisy mask that covers his entire head), and collects his weapons of choice, including an arsenal of gardening tools.
Unaware of Elmer’s rampage, a group of teens show up to party in his abandoned home only to be mowed down one by one, despite the dire warning from the overly animated Harbinger of Impending Doom, who pops out of the bushes when they arrive.
Among the group are the stereotypical victims.
This includes an oafish stoner named Pitbull (Chris Calomino, who also writes and performs the film’s epic theme song), a promiscuous temptress, an obnoxious prankster named Charlie (wearing boobs on his hat and a shirt that says “Tight Butts Drive me Nuts”), an unremarkable final girl, and her little brother, a boy genius named Bobby.
We also get an ineffective, near completely useless detective, who begrudgingly is assigned to track down the escaped Elmer — though he’s way more focused on his massive Arbor Day turkey feast and cake.
If you can name a slasher trope, I can almost guarantee you’ll find it parodied in this film. Over-the-top caricatures? Check. A killer who moves ridiculously slow one minute and the next arriving somewhere at inhuman speed? Check. A final girl who makes every impossibly bad decision imaginable? Check.
But that’s not all.
We can’t forget post-coitus murder in the woods, a cat jump scare, an insufferable prankster, a stoner who can’t talk about anything but weed, lots of epic 80s hair metal music, and a preposterous ending (with multiple fake-outs) that seems to go on forever.
“It’s over. No, now it’s over. Just kidding, now it’s REALLY over. Psych!”
Elmer’s tools of terror include a weed wacker, a garden hoe, a shovel, a garden hose, and even bags of fertilizer he uses to crush two young lovers.
Hilariously, Elmer shows both his brutal and softer sides throughout his murderous ordeal.
While standing out by the lake at sunset, an emotional 80s-style ballad starts to play.
The lyrics explain how nobody understands poor Elmer, a frightened and gentle soul. It reminds us that behind every killer, there’s a regular guy. As we get a montage of Elmer out having silly little adventures and hugging a homeless man he just stopped from shooting up, we get lyrics like, “If we’re not sharing and caring, perhaps we’re killer, too” and “Have some sympathy; your parents weren’t killed by a grizzly bear.”
Arbor Day is filled with terrible costumes and wigs, groan-inducing special effects, inane plot points, and atrocious acting. And if that sounds like a criticism, I assure you it’s not.
Every second of this intentionally unhinged film is laugh-out-load, satirical gold. It’s obviously made with love and affection by fans of the genre and people who obsessively consumed the pointedly ridiculous but wildly fun horror films of the 80s.
Grab some friends and some libations, plant a tree, and settle in for a night of absolute hilarity with the beautifully bonkers Arbor Day. You won’t be disappointed.