Alongside schlocky special effects and franchises with diminishing returns, the 1980s were a killer time for musicians traipsing around in between the bloodbaths of horror flicks. From David Bowie and Deborah Harry in critically acclaimed art creep-outs to heavy metal heroes slumming it in rock & roll nightmares, check out this list of flicks where rock met shock.
Years before she was Prince's "Nasty Girl" protégé or taking the elevator to "7th Heaven" in martial-arts musical The Last Dragon, Vanity was a model-turned-actress working under the stage name D.D. Winters. Her first credited role: Riding the Terror Train alongside scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis. For a throwaway slasher film, Terror Train boasted some marquee talent: Magician David Copperfield, Oscar-winning actor Ben Johnson, 48 Hrs. director Roger Spottiswoode, and Stanley Kubrick's longtime cinematographer John Alcott; all of whom, including Vanity, went on to better things.
Starting in the 1960s, the man born Robert Weston Smith reinvented himself as one of America's first celebrity DJs, harnessing his beastly growl as a shtick meant to mimic rock & roll's hormonal urges. For the cannibal horror satire Motel Hell, he tweaked his faux-bad-boy image playing Reverend Billy, a holier-than-thou TV evangelist with a penchant for all-white suits.
The scariest thing about this werewolf flick is how it makes the early-Eighties South Bronx look like an industrial wasteland in the vein of Kurt Vonnegut's bombed-out post-war Dresden. Sure, the "werewolves" who inhabit this wasteland look more like beautifully groomed huskies and the shape-shifting Native American storyline is a fanciful stretch, but this beautifully photographed, well-acted horror film also had a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo by Tom Waits, the boozy bard performing his Small Change track "Jitterbug Boy" in a smoky bar. Waits' uncredited role was subsequently edited out of all video and DVD releases due to rights issues, but thankfully the scene survives on YouTube.
The Blondie vocalist has been acting as long as she's been singing, and perhaps her finest onscreen role is in this early David Cronenberg head-trip. A commentary on media overload and our addiction to sensation, Videodrome cast Harry as a femme fatale drawn to an unprincipled television executive played by James Woods. Come for the future shocks and gross-out horror, stay for a performance that will make you wonder why she didn't have a career like Kathleen Turner.
In the same year he was transforming into a pompadoured dance machine, ageless sex vampire David Bowie played against type as rapidly aging sex vampire John Blaylock. Critics tore the movie apart — Roger Ebert called it "agonizingly bad" — but The Hunger developed a cult following thanks to its hyper-stylized atmosphere and its goth-as-fuck opening sequence. In maximum Eighties mode, the trailer thunders on about the "cruel elegance" of David Bowie, but it's not wrong: This was a role he was born to play.
Bauhaus' corpse-white Peter Murphy croaks his way through "Bela Lugosi's Dead" as David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve stalk a dark club, bring a couple home for a deadly four-way, and then finish it off with one of cinema's creepier shower make-out scenes.
For director Joe Dante's Twilight Zone: The Movie segment, he remade a classic episode from the TV series, "It's a Good Life," about a family tormented by their evil son Anthony. One of the segment's highlights: Former Runaways singer Cherie Currie playing a woman whose mouth has gone missing.
The Mumy returns! Lost in Space child actor Bill Mumy had a walk-on role in director Joe Dante's "It's a Good Life" segment of Twlight Zone: The Movie — a tip of the cap to Mumy's performance as Anthony Fremont in the original 1961 TV episode. We know Mumy as an actor first and foremost, but his musical side hustle, Barnes & Barnes, the warped duo behind the iconic novelty song "Fish Heads," was getting heavy Dr. Demento play only four years earlier.
The third chapter in George Romero's zombie social-commentary series assumes a Reagan-like maniacal militarization and isolationism. Of the first three films (including 1968's Night of the Living Dead and 1978's Dawn of the Dead), this was the most gory and most disturbing; it's also the only one to feature the world's greatest bar band. Amongst the hordes of grey-faced zombies, members of the band NRBQ — big fans of the previous Romero flicks — served as extras. Though not even getting a close-up, they could be seen wandering around in the scene where military nutbar Steel fires on a locked door with a machine gun.
Der Stingle would probably like to erase the mid-Eighties from his IMDb page. With the singer staring down the barrel of life post-Police, he followed up a ridiculous, mostly shirtless role in David Lynch's doomed Dune by portraying Baron Charles Frankenstein in The Bride, an ill-advised goth remake of the 1935 horror classic The Bride of Frankenstein. Starring an intriguing cast — a post-Flashdance Jennifer Beals, leader of the Time Bandits dwarf gang David Rappaport, and irrepressible raconteur Quentin Crisp — the film reunited Sting with Quadrophenia director Franc Roddam, but was reviled by critics.
This film tells the story of witches, magic and a kid named Harry Potter — seriously, that's the main character's name — but instead of a boy wizard as the star, we get Sonny Bono as a wacky neighbor. Troll is mostly known for inspiring Troll 2 a totally unrelated B movie which is on the shortlist of the worst films ever made. Bono served as comic relief in the original, being attacked in his apartment by the titular creature (who disguised itself as a little blonde girl) and turned into a grotesque pod that eventually flowered into a magical forest. Really.
Heavy metal's success put the genre under attack by the religious right and scapegoat-seeking "concerned" parents who decided that the music was driving their kids to delinquency and worse, transmitting satanic or just plain anarchic messages. Absurd, of course, so horror and heavy metal joined forces a few times during the Eighties to mock these crackpot theories. Most successfully, in 1987's The Gate (Stephen Dorff is chased by a demon unleashed by a metal album) and most knowingly in Trick or Treat, which got Kiss' Gene Simmons and Ozzy Osbourne in on the action. The movie concerns a young metal fan (the guy who played Skippy on Family Ties!) resurrecting his favorite musician with the help of a rock DJ played by Simmons.
In the same flick, Ozzy Osbourne — who cleans up nice! — plays a conservative blowhard condemning metal on a daytime talk show.
A year after Alice Cooper embarked on his Nightmare Returns comeback tour, he met filmmaker John Carpenter backstage at Wrestlemania III and surprised the director by being a "normal, wonderful person." Shep Gordon, Cooper's manager, co-produced Prince of Darkness, and the rock star appeared in the film — which follows a priest as he investigates a vat containing pure evil — as "Street Schizo," an ominous vagabond who stares at the church where the vat is being held. In one scene, Cooper impales a man (who happens to be listening to the song "Prince of Darkness," which Cooper wrote for the film) with a bike frame, echoing an onstage gag from the "Nightmare Returns" script. The film was so popular, and Cooper's performance so memorable, the the shock-rocker began getting recognized without his makeup.
Starring Canadian bodybuilder and self-made hair-metal myth Jon-Mikl Thor — one part Conan the Barbarian, one part Bruce Dickinson, and frontman of the band, um, Thor — this is an extremely messy vanity project. Hard rocker John Triton battles demons from hell who dismember the members of his band, Triton, while they're holed up in an abandoned house out in the boonies to record an album. Highlights include gnarly puppets, gratuitous groupie sex scenes and a cock-rock soundtrack; somehow, there's a cluelessly sincere logic to the whole thing.
Long before "Sax Man" prank videos or Jon Hamm's leather-bound turn as Saturday Night Live's Sergio, Tina Turner sideman Tim Cappello blazed the trail for saxophone colossuses everywhere with his Lost Boys beach cameo. Boasting 215 pounds of greased-up muscle, swinging BDSM chains and, as David Fricke put it it back in the day, a "pelvic thrust that could bust open a bank vault," Cappello upstaged the vampire flick's cast during his triumphant cover of the Call's "I Still Believe." Rumor has it that he only made it into the film after the Call declined to appear, and sexy saxman history was made.
By the late Eighties, the slasher-flick bubble was about to pop, so some truly batshit projects were conceived before the money dried up. Like Blood Harvest, starring Tiny Tim, whose career had already bottomed out — the ukulele-playing folkie's only hit, "Tiptoe Through the Tulips," had been released 19 years before. Blood Harvest is rough. Tim seems to be the only remotely professional performer involved and some super-shaky camerawork suggests that the crew wasn't all that seasoned either. But the singer, who plays a psycho slasher, is an inspired and singular choice, with his oddball charisma still shining through.
Brought to you by Robert Shaye, producer of Critters, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors and, shockingly, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, this low-budget sci-fi film features the Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist as a bumbling alien on the run from an extraterrestrial bounty hunter. After crashing to Earth, Flea kidnaps a farmer's daughter, played by Ione Skye. After Stranded completed filming, Flea introduced Skye to his bandmate Anthony Kiedis, who dated the actress for two years, around the time she performed her breakthrough role as Diane Court in Say Anything…
The final, and by far the dumbest, installment in the "Dirty Harry" vigilante-cop series involves a serial-killer plot that revolves around a rock star (Jim Carrey), the director of a slasher film (Liam Neeson), a schizophrenic fan, and a mysterious death pool in which participants predict the next San Francisco celebrity to die. Though not exactly a horror film, there's no doubt that The Dead Pool's ornate and ugly murders are in response to the era's slasher-flick brutality and gore. Adding to the sense that the movie is desperately trying to catch up and stay cool are cameos by all five members of Guns N' Roses at the funeral for Carrey's rock star. In another scene, Slash fires a harpoon during a music-video shoot.
One of the lesser known gigs for Carmine Appice — a hard rock landmark that has drummed for everyone from Pink Floyd to Ozzy Osbourne — was in Black Roses, the fictional titular band in this laughably low-rent flick about some metal-loving rockers who turn a small town's teens into their demonic slaves. "Everything your parents ever told you about rock & roll just might be true" warns the trailer. Though even Tipper Gore probably thinks this movie is harmless.