The Wait Is Finally Over: Massacre At Central High!

Wow, I never thought this day would come.  Subversive Cinema announced a special edition DVD of Renee Daalder's notorious Massacre At Central High well over a decade ago.  It never materialized, and eventually the rights wound up with Dark Sky.  Fans got excited, waited and well, nothing came of that either.  Then in 2013, Cult Epics announced special edition blu-rays of two Daalder films: Hysteria and, yes, Massacre At Central High.  Well, Hysteria happened, but for mysterious reasons, Massacre's release was cancelled.  Finally, in the summer of 2015, when Synapse announced it, I said to myself that I'd believe it when I saw it.  Now, Synapse has a history of taking their time with titles, but it's been over five years.  It was really looking as if Massacre was some kind of cursed film... until, lo and behold, it's actually here!
But before everyone gets too excited, I should warn anyone considering blind-buying this that Massacre At Central High is not for everyone.  Anyone expecting a traditional high school-based slasher film along the lines of Prom Night or Graduation Day better be ready for Animal Farm in a high school instead.  Except, of course, it's a completely bonkers, wonderfully 70s Animal Farm with outrageous kills that wound up providing the structural skeleton of Heathers years later.  Massacre isn't scary, but it is inventive and funny, even if it's hard to gauge just how intentional all of the laughs it inspires are.  What is clearly intentional is the ambition: from the major stunts and set pieces to the allegorical storyline that's cramming in as many ideas as it possibly can into their distributors' mandated premise.  It's an art film masquerading as an exploitation film that also fulfills its every exploitative promise and then some.  But it's all so untethered from realism, shamelessly dated (we're talkin' bell-bottoms, hippies and a student lounge that looks like my grandmother's old living room) and unbothered with tone that conventional audiences will be repelled like opposed magnets.  But ever since I saw a print of it at an Exhumed Show in 2003, I was in love.
Now, I've detailed the crazy history of this film finally getting the special edition it's always deserved.  But that's not to say it's never been on DVD at all before.  There's actually been a plethora of fullscreen, barebones gray market discs in just about every region around the world.  Unfortunately, I sold my first edition off long before I started this site, but I still have the 2004 German DVD from X-Rated I replaced it with.  It's as barebones and fullscreen as the rest of them, but at least it wasn't interlaced with macro-blocky night skies, so it was a step up.  They pretty much all shared the same master, but I'd read at the time that the limited edition (666 copies) X-Rated DVD made the best use of it out of any disc around the world.  And you can see below how that looks.  But now, of course, it's been completely trampled by Synapse's progress, as they've just released the world's first HD edition in a DVD/ BD combo pack, limited edition (4000 copies) steelbook.  And it's a whole new experience.
1) 2004 X-Rated DVD; 2) 2020 Synapse DVD; 3) 2020 Synapse BD.
The one thing you can say for the DVD: it's open matte.  Synapse does reveal a little bit along the sides, but it's mostly about correctly framing the film by matting it down.  As you can see, the DVD is boxy with a lot of dead vertical space; the blu is smartly composed.  Maybe not perfectly composed, though.  The DVD is clearly wrong at 1.31:1, but Synapse's 1.78:1 should probably be a little wider, too.  Their booklet explains this, stating that the masters were given to them by Daadler himself, who'd supervised the transfer "of the 35mm element used" himself, and that "the delivered files were composed in the aspect ratio of 1.78:1, and Synapse Films had no access to the original, uncorrected/ unrestored full-aperture film scan."

So this may not be the ultimately perfect 4k restoration of our ideal dreams, but it sure is a beauty far beyond anything we've ever been able to see before.  The DVD has all sorts of issues like edge enhancement, too much contrast and film damage dancing in and out of nearly every frame.  Synapse of course corrects all of that, but even if you don't allow for previous editions' faults, this is a gorgeous transfer with very natural colors and authentic grain.  In fact, the production notes explain the years long wait for this edition with the extensive restoration they did to Daalder's imperfect scan in a massive effort akin to their celebrated work on Tenebrae.  And the screenshots posted above speak clearly to the success of their endeavor.

Apparently a lot of restoration work went into the audio as well, and the new DTS-HD 2.0 presentation of the original mono sounds cleaner and less compressed than X-Rated's track.  Synapse also includes all new, optional English subtitles, which none of the old DVDs ever had.  One small thing X-Rated has going for it, though, is an alternate German dub, if you're at all interested in that.
And that's about the only thing it's got, because like all the other DVDs, it certainly doesn't have any worthwhile extras.  All we get are trailers for an admittedly whopping 46 films in X-Rated's catalog... not including Massacre itself.  Synapse actually has the trailer, and a TV & radio spot.  But it also finally delivers on the long-promised special edition.  First of all, there's an excellent, 43-minute documentary by Red Shirt Pictures that interviews almost all of the main cast members as well as the first AD and DP.  It's full of fun anecdotes about the filming, and yes, they discuss the infamous Sexy Jeans version.  Then there's a series of audio interviews that play as an audio commentary with stars Andrew Stevens, Robert Carradine, Derrel Maury and Rex Steven Sikes.  We're warned up front that the first two don't remember much about Massacre (though they seemed to in the doc), so they talk more about their careers in general.  But we still get some interesting stories and unique tidbits about Massacre that didn't make the doc.  The only short-coming is that they don't have a lot of insight into the ideas behind the film itself and can mostly just reflect on their fond memories during the shoot.

For the headier stuff, we only have two things to rely on.  First is an audio interview with Daaler himself.  This plays as a second audio commentary, but only runs for the first twenty-five minutes.  He definitely solves a few mysteries fans will have wondered about, but the interview spends as much time asking him about his other film work and history as Massacre itself.  But since Daaler has passed, this is all we get, and it's a lot better than nothing.  The other insightful thing we have to work with is the booklet with liner notes by famous Fangorian Michael Gingold, who gets into this film's recognition from several important critics and even quotes the screenwriter of Heathers on his influence.  Besides all that, this release includes a stills gallery and comes in an impressive looking steelbook and slipcover.
Oh yeah, this release also includes Synapse's latest catalog, which still promises The Kindred and an all new 4k restoration of The Deadly Spawn as "coming soon."  If they match the level of quality they've reached with their last couple of releases, that'll be amazing.

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