Schlockmania has said it before but it bears repeat­ing: there was nev­er a stranger decade for the hor­ror film than the 1980’s. The VHS-dri­ven home video rev­o­lu­tion of this era cre­at­ed a demand for pro­duct that inspired an array of peo­ple who would have nev­er dreamed of mak­ing films oth­er­wise to start mak­ing their own home­grown epics. It was inevitable that the cra­zi­est out­sider-artists in that bunch flocked to the ever-mar­ketable climes of the hor­ror gen­re, which was enjoy­ing one of its peri­od­ic com­mer­cial peaks. 

Those untu­tored and unhinged film­mak­ers spewed out a wave of eccen­tric, glee­ful­ly deranged rotgut that fans and crit­ics are still strug­gling to come to terms with. That’s where Bleeding Skull comes in. This review­ing part­ner­ship between Joseph Ziemba and Dan Budnik began as a web­site that offers cri­tiques of the vin­tage VHS hor­ror tapes that the two col­lect. It became a favorite with gen­re fans, prompt­ing Ziemba and Budnik to cre­ate a book-length com­pendi­um of reviews recent­ly released by Headpress. The result suc­cess­ful­ly dis­tills the site’s essence into a ency­clo­pe­dia-style for­mat that is fun to flip through, edu­ca­tion­al and fre­quent­ly brain-scram­bling (in a good way). 

BleedSk-covThe trade paper­back ver­sion of Bleeding Skull is sub­ti­tled “A 1980’s Trash-Horror Odyssey,” which cues you in to the project’s ground rules. For the pur­pos­es of this book, they have lim­it­ed their jour­ney to lesser-known hor­ror fare either pro­duced or released dur­ing the ‘80s.  However, a flip through the pages reveals this is not a lim­i­ta­tion and more a way to give the book a very speci­fic focus. 

Bleeding Skull bypass­es big bud­get hor­ror fare and name-brand indies so it can devote time to the kind of films that once occu­pied the dustier shelves of your local video store’s hor­ror sec­tion.  A flip through the book’s pages will reveal a collector’s lev­el of knowl­edge about this stuff: the authors can wax elo­quent on the his­tor­i­cal impor­tance of Boarding House, Sledgehammer, Blood Cult and Video Violence to the devel­op­ment of shot-on-video hor­ror or dis­cuss casu­al misog­y­ny as a the­me in the work of direct-to-video film­mak­er Jeff Hathcock.  Anyone who has delved into this twi­light area of hor­ror will be impressed by their abil­i­ty to ref­er­ence and cross-ref­er­ence the kind of films and film­mak­ers that few crit­ics pay any atten­tion to.

However, Bleeding Skull nev­er allow the pro­ceed­ings to get too dry. Both authors bring a dead­pan wit to their work, cop­ping to their inher­ent humor in dis­cussing the­se films and their many foibles with­out ever con­de­scend­ing to the task.  In fact, they often show an unex­pect­ed but wel­come sense of whim­sy in the­se reviews:  Budnik’s review of Final Exam is framed by a sce­nar­io where he fan­ta­sizes about being friends with the film’s char­ac­ters and Ziemba’s review of Shadows Run Black dis­cuss­es how the pres­ence of cocaine in a slash­er flick guar­an­tees that it will be enter­tain­ing.  The authors have a lot of fun with their work and the­se touch­es com­mu­ni­cates the fun of their trash hor­ror hob­by.

It’s also worth not­ing the per­son­al touch that Ziemba and Budnik bring to the­se reviews, some­thing reflect­ed in their dif­fer­ing yet com­pli­men­ta­ry writ­ing styles.  Ziemba’s approach has a quirky intel­lec­tu­al bent — he throws in the occa­sion­al ref­er­ence to Chantal Akerman or Robert Altman — and he also brings in some per­son­al anec­dotes, like how Slumber Party Massacre brings back fond mem­o­ries of a god­dess-like clique of girls from his high school days. 

Budnik is more direct, doing his all to bring the view­er into the expe­ri­ence of watch­ing the film: his review of Witchery breaks down the dif­fer­ent attrib­ut­es that make the film feel like you’re watch­ing some­thing from an alter­nate Earth while the review of the 1981 min­i­mal­ist slash­er Scream dis­cuss­es how the con­stant slow move­ment of the cam­er­a­work gives the film an eerieness he finds addic­tive.  He shares an off-the-wall wit with Ziemba that unites their styles and reflects the any­thing-goes ethos of the throw­away films they’re review­ing.

In short, Bleeding Skull is worth­while to the cult movie buff on a few dif­fer­ent lev­els.  For starters, it’s a fun yet insight­ful primer on an era of hor­ror that’s often ignored by a lot of hor­ror crit­ics.  Better yet, it is writ­ten in a style that will help the lay­man under­stand why the­se films are so inter­est­ing to the adven­tur­ous horror/exploitation fan. Part of the fun in watch­ing movies that break all the cin­e­mat­ic rules is that it frees you up to use your own imag­i­na­tion in how you read their eccen­tric­i­ties. Bleeding Skull offers a beau­ti­ful exam­ple of how this can be done and might inspire you to have your own out­sider-cin­e­ma adven­tures.