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Cemetery Massacre

a/k/a Freedom R.I.P.

          "I know your kind -- I go to the movies. More over and less under, you're guilty as charged."

-- So says the Judge.      




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The Northville Cemetery Massacre


Our film opens on a highway leading into Northville, Michigan, where an elderly couple are sidelined with a flat tire. Soon, they are surrounded by a horde of bikers. And though things appear ominous as they noisily swarm all over the car, things are not as they seem. See, the Spirits aren't about that kind of thing, man, and soon have the flat off, the spare on, and send the couple peacefully on their way. Bluntly in the face of this act of altruism, the Spirits are then stopped at the Northville city limits by the police and summarily rousted, hassled, and jailed on several bogus charges just because of who and what they are.

And here we have the entire theme of the film wrapped up in a nutshell. So you could stop now, but, stick around, the film is just warm'n up...

However, the Club actually celebrates their incarceration by sharing the pot Chris, a hitchhiker they picked up on the way into town, managed to smuggle in. Seems Chris (David Hyry and voiced by Nick Nolte) is a local, making a less than triumphant return after his tour in Vietnam to see his girl, Lynn. One should also note that Chris appears to be a long-haired hippie; and hippies and bikers are like oil and water, right? But the Spirits don't hassle him -- after all, it's his pot, and this mongoloid menagerie tokes the night away.

Come the dawn, after being sentenced to a wash and wax at the local car wash (-- much to the locals amusement), the Spirits are escorted out of town. At this point, Chris peels off, finds Lynn (Jan Sisk) and invites her to a wedding -- Spirits style, which is taking place in an open pasture up the road apiece. And while the majority of the bikers scrum for the garter belt, Chris and Lynn sneak off to a nearby barn for a roll in the hay. (And at this point I have to pause and say that Ms. Sisk -- or maybe the actress dubbing her over, has all the acting skills of an avocado; but bless her, she tries real hard. Nice rack, though.) But no matter where the Spirits go, Johnny Law never seems too far behind and the bikers are soon sent packing again. Thus, Chris and Lynn are left alone in the barn, where they have the misfortune of being discovered buck-naked by a sadistic little sociopath with a badge named Putnam (Craig Collicott), who quickly bludgeons Chris unconscious with the butt of his shotgun, and then turns a lecherous eye on Lynn. Oozily, with his pants around his ankles, everything else soon follows; and once the dirty deed is done, Putnam continues to beat on Lynn, threatening that if she doesn't say it was the bikers who raped and brutalized her, he'll kill Chris and slice her face to ribbons...

Film-buffs always argue over where a particular genre started. Some say the outlaw biker flick began with Brando's The Wild One; others say it was Roger Corman's The Wild Angels. Most, but not all, agree the genre reached its zenith with Easy Rider -- personally, I say it was Satan's Sadists, but almost everyone agrees the genre officially died with Northville Cemetery Massacre. More Easy Rider than Chrome and Hot Leather (-- and what a stinky piece of poop that film was), the film is a lot more blunt with its message on the dangers of misperceptions based solely on what you see and what you think you see.

Northville Cemetery Massacre had a -- well, interesting birthing process from script to screen. Inspired by the works of Hunter S. Thompson and Sam Peckinpah, first time filmmakers William Dear and Thomas Dyke (-- who co-wrote, directed, shot, and edited --) began production on the originally titled Freedom R.I.P. in 1971; and due to a constant lack of a budget, the film was shot piecemeal over the course of almost two years. Their cast consisted mostly of a local Detroit club called The Scorpions. Making contact with them through a friend of a friend who was a member, the only thing the filmmakers had to show the bikers of what they were capable of, film-wise, was an anti-drug educational short they'd just finished called Jump. Nobody knows if it was the quality of the film or the kahonies it took to show an anti-drug short to that crowd, but the Club signed on. And according to Dyke, it was several "encouraging" calls from the Scorpions to "Keep on keepin' on" that got the film finished so they could all get paid. (I assume they were promised a piece of the pie.) The cast was then rounded out by several local actors, who range from good to passable to downright awful and, to be honest, the amateur thespian bikers handle their lines better than anyone else.

When filming was finally completed in 1974, it took almost another two years to complete post-production. Editing began in New York until they ran out of money. Vacating those facilities, the production moved to Los Angeles, but upon arrival, they discovered most of their negatives were missing, which were back in New York and wouldn't be returned without payment (-- seems they skipped town without paying rent). A red-eye back to New York and a midnight raid (-- since they still had a key --) on the editing studios didn't turn up their film but they did find a copy of the newly finished Fritz the Cat, which they pilfered and eventually traded back for the much needed negatives.

The negatives were okay, but the audio track was a shamble and work commenced to try and salvage it. Former Monkee Mike Nesmith provided the soundtrack. Approached at a gig and shown the film, he -- according to Dear, thought it was awful but still agreed to score it and serve as the occasional balladeer. Next, Nick Nolte was approached the same way and agreed to dub over Hyry over a free beer and a promise of $150.

With their film finally complete, they found a distributor with Roger Corman's Cannon Films, but then ran into a snag with the MPAA, which threatened to scuttle the deal when Northville Cemetery Massacre was slapped with an X-rating for its gratuitous violence. After making some cuts, the filmmakers appealed the rating and won an R. And with that final obstacle cleared, Cannon released the film in 1976, and Freedom R.I.P. finally hit the theaters. Now whether that title means Freedom: Ride in Peace or Rest in Pieces kinda depends on how the rest of the film plays out as Putnam stays ahead of his lie by personally escorting Lynn to the hospital. 

Scared of him, and what he might do to Chris, Lynn refuses to tell her father, John Tyner (Herb Sharples), what really happened. But Putnam is -- his version of the truth, anyway. Laying the blame on the Spirits, Putnam presses things further, stoking Tyner's need for revenge, by saying they'll never be able to prove what happened due to a "lack of evidence." And he keeps pushing the father's buttons until Tyner is well past the point to kill, and more than willing to help eradicate those animals who hurt his daughter. Putnam then seeks out one more person for his crusade: a local businessman with a Count Zaroff complex named Armstrong (Len Speck), who's more than happy to help hunt and kill the most dangerous game.

And be sure to enjoy his wonky justification speech about culling the herd. Wow...

Later, at the Spirits' Clubhouse, the wedding is finally winding down; and while Chris relates to Deke (Carson Jackson), the club's president, how the cops attacked him and Lynn in the barn, and how he woke up to find everyone gone, a couple members step outside to take a whiz -- 'cuz you don't buy beer, you only rent it. But they're barely outside the door before both fall -- very messily, to a sniper's bullet.

Thinking at first that a rival gang was behind the ambush, Deke sets up a meeting with The Road Agents at an abandoned drive-in theater to settle things. When the Agents deny any involvement, this is quickly verified when the sniper strikes again, taking out bikers from both sides. Never leaving a man behind, the bikers pull the wounded and the dead onto their bikes and haul ass out of there. But before getting clear, the Agent's leader takes one in the leg, leading to some impromptu surgical procedures in a gas station restroom.

I'm gonna assume Chris was a medic in Vietnam -- or at least the guy with a bullet being pried out of his leg better hope he was medic in Vietnam...

Whoever it is attacking them, they're packing some pretty high caliber heat. Knowing they're outgunned, Deke leads the Spirits into Detroit to see Captain Freedom (Ray Gardener), a whack-o radical who runs guns out of his garage. All of his automatics are "spoken for" but the Captain tops off their order with several hand grenades to make up for it. Then, on the way back to Northville, any doubts about Putnam's manhood are put to rest when he ambushes a lone Spirit, broken down on the side of the road. He spills and spells out his psychosis first, and it's depressingly familiar, before blowing a hole in the other man's chest ... Suspicious of psycho Putnam from the beginning, Chris has this confirmed when Lynn finally reveals what happened in the barn. Aware of what's been happening, she also fears her father might have something to do with the ambushes. Chris agrees, but feels Putnam is the root cause of everyone's grief and is ready to kill him for what he's done. Lynn doesn't think he should (-- or could --) kill anybody, but promises to tell her father the truth and that will be the end of it.

She never gets the chance.

Things reach a climax at the Northville Cemetery, where a procession of bikes and hearses wind their way to the secluded spot. One of the hearse drivers has the ballgame on, and as the National Anthem plays, it gives you the sense that something very gladiatorial is about to happen. Sure enough, as the Spirits try to bury their fallen comrades, the cemetery is buzzed by a Armstrong's helicopter. On board, Armstrong, Tyner and Putnam open fire, but the Spirits are ready for them. Breaking open the coffins, that are filled with the weapons they got from Captain Freedom, the bikers quickly return fire. Chaos reigns and the blood flies, but unfortunately, the Spirits prove better targets than marksmen.

After several sweeps, it appears the mercenaries got everyone. Landing the chopper, the men get out to make sure and mop things up. But this time, they're the ones who are ambushed as the Spirits still kicking were playing possum. Another firefight erupts, and as the helicopter and its pilot are taken out with several hand grenades, Chris moves around to try and help the wounded until he takes one in the shoulder. Again, though the Spirits have them outnumbered, Armstrong, Tyner and Putnam take cover and pick the bikers and their old ladies off one by one until none are left standing. Well, not quite all; Deke manages to get to his bike and takes out Armstrong -- how exactly I'm not sure, but trust me, he's dead -- before he falls in a hail of bullets. 

Then all is quiet.

Lynn arrives on scene, too late, and tearfully confesses that all this carnage was for nothing. The Spirits didn't hurt her. She then angrily points at Putnam, and says he's the one who raped her. Putnam replies by blowing Tyner away. Hearing a shotgun being racked behind him, Putnam turns to see that Chris -- bloodied but still kicking, has the drop on him. And after a brief Mexican stand-off, we have a close-up of a trigger-housing, a finger twitch, and the sound of a gun clicking empty. But whose? As the stand-off silently continues, we switch to an aerial shot to view the carnage and fade to black before we get an answer.

The End

Now it is that concluding, almost operatic, bloodbath that has cemented Northville Cemetery Massacre's status as a cult movie. Dear and Dyke wanted to keep the ending ambiguous -- and it took me three viewings to realize whose gun clicked empty. From the editing, to the slow-motion shoot-outs, to the volcanic blood squibs, the filmmakers were definitely big Sam Peckinpah fans. These nasty squibs were done on the cheap and on the fly, consisting of baggies of fake blood and illegal firecrackers strapped to their actors and actresses chests -- who risked life and limb and ear-drum to get the shot. One of the film's sponsors was place called Burger Chef, who provided food for the production, and most of the leftover burgers were mangled up and added to the concoction to make the hits more messy. I'm amazed at how well it worked. This appears to be Dyke's only production, but Dear went on to have quite a career, helming Harry and the Hendersons, one of my all time favorite bigfoot movies, and also directed Mummy Daddy, thee greatest episode of Amazing Stories ever; that's the one where the actor, trapped in his mummy costume, tries to get to the hospital for the birth of his daughter -- if the locals, thinking he's a real monster, don't kill him first.

It was Cannon Films that changed the name from Freedom R.I.P. to the more lurid Northville Cemetery Massacre, and that wasn't the only change they made. A lot of the satire and comedy scenes were left on the edit room floor (-- about eight minutes worth --) but all the blood and violence was left in. Now VCI Entertainment has managed to cobble it all back together in a spiffy new DVD marking the film's 30th Anniversary. And again, VCI has packed their DVD with a ton of extras, including three separate commentaries: one from Dyke, one from Dear and one by the surviving Scorpions. They're all a hoot.

Personally, at heart, I think Northville Cemetery Massacre is a western (-- another genre that was dying out by the mid-70s.) The Spirits are cowboys out of time, with no place left to roam in this world, and the script had some lofty ambitions to show that the perception of reality is reality. At the time filming commenced the counter-revolution of the '60s was fizzling out and Nixon was on his get-tough law and order kick; a bad time to be a disillusioned freak just wanting to wear your colors, ride you scooter, smoke, drink and screw without being hassled by the man. Dear and Dyke's goal was to satirize this notion by making the bikers the good guys and the clean-cut cops the bad guys. (And I think it would have been made better if the the club had remained The Scorpions and not changed to the more milder Spirits.) Things get more complicated when you realize most of the "bad guys" in this film act the way do only because Putnam is manipulating them. All of the chaos and bloodshed that follows is based on a lie, to feed and fuel Putnam's psychotic bloodlust under the excuse of a crusade against the outlaw bikers. And once the others buy into that lie (-- some happily, others reluctantly), everybody's screwed. A strong metaphor for the time, that still has some resonance today. So despite all the technical hiccups and gonzo execution, when it's all said and done, Northville Cemetery Massacre has a lot to say about society and its ills; and despite a limited budget, a bane of rudimentary acting skills, and an atrocious audio track, it says those things pretty darn well.

The Northville Cemetery Massacre (1976) Cannon Films / EP: Robert H. Dyke / P: William Dear, Thomas L. Dyke / AP: Marvin Lee Camp / D: William Dear, Thomas L. Dyke / W: William Dear, Thomas L. Dyke, Jim Pappas / C: William Dear, Thomas L. Dyke / E: Christa Kindt, Jerry Wellen / M: Michael Nesmith / S: David Hyry, Jan Sisk, J. Craig Collicut, Carson Jackson, Herb Sharples, Len Speck

Originally Posted: 06/15/07 :: Rehashed: 05/20/09

Knuckled-out by Chad Plambeck: misspeller of words, butcher of all things grammatical, and king of the run on sentence. Copy and paste at your own legal risk. Questions? Comments? Shoot us an e-mail.
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