No one really knew about the 1986 Canadian horror obscurity Zombie Nightmare until it was featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000, and were it not for the classic cult TV series, it would probably be moldering merrily into mildew on defunct video stores shelves to this very day. Luckily for the world, MST3K – and its groundswell of popularity – managed to resurrect certain terrible underground B-movies, allowing them live on in the pop consciousness. Would anyone, for instance, be talking about Manos: The Hands of Fate without MST3K?
Zombie Nightmare, then, is well known to fans of the show, and is often regarded as a plainly terrible movie, and I have no grounds for argument. This is a pretty terrible movie. Zombie Nightmare is, to offer a quick primer, a film about a handsome metal-haired bloke (Canadian metalhead John Mikl-Thor) who is run down by a team of metalhead punks, and subsequently resurrected to elicit revenge.
Today’s edition of SoundTreks will be a special case. You see, there actually was, in 2009, a proper soundtrack record released for Zombie Nightmare, featuring all the songs – and incidental music – that was composed by the film’s star, John Mikl-Thor (“Mikl,” by the way, is pronounced like “Michael”) under his stage name Thor. That soundtrack is nine tracks long, and can be found on Spotify. But that is not the soundtrack I will be reviewing here.
You see, Zombie Nightmare features a really, really awesome collection of ’80s hard metal songs by bands as prestigious as Motörhead, and as obscure as Battalion. For deep-cut metalheads, this is actually a really great collection of songs. So, rather than let John Mikl-Thor dictate the soundtrack to me, I elected to pluck the songs listed on the film’s Wikipedia page, and review them as if they were a proper soundtrack record. I feel like I made the right choice. And Thor will be represented anyway, so we’re all happy.
Happy Halloween. Let’s get to zombie-ing.
Track 1. “Future Flash” – Girlschool
There are precious few female-fronted heavy metal bands. Aside from, say, Lita Ford and Wendy O. Williams, the pickings are slim. Metal fans will, however, happily point to Girlschool, an all-girl British metal band founded in 1978. And while they are sometimes lumped in with the New Wave, these chicks are most certainly heavy metal, through and through.
Girlschool, with “Future Flash,” rides the line between a bold, round, mainstream metal sound, and a slightly dirty, homemade garage sound. I wish they had skewed to the latter – I think I like my pop music dirty – but the knuckle-scraping is appreciated.
Track 2. “C’Mon Let’s Go” – Girlschool
“C’Mon Let’s Go” is from the same album as “Future Flash,” so if you like the sound, you’ll get more of it. As it so happens, I like the sound, so I like this song fine. This one is more driving, however, more forceful. This one feels more like the title song to a movie. It’s not the opening theme to Zombie Nightmare, but we’re about to have a more driving tune that will serve that function better.
Track 3. “Ace of Spades” – Motörhead
If Motörhead have a “big hit,” it’s “Ace of Spades,” a super-fast, super-intense clarion metal classic from 1980. This is the perfect song to open just about any movie, and it serves the awful Zombie Nightmare well, declaring its death-twinged heavy metal tone right out of the gate.
But I wonder if it was passé to include “Ace of Spades” at the head of a feature film made in 1986. Pop music ages rapidly, and radio hit tends to be required quickly (unless you’re listening to KROQ in Los Angeles, and then Nirvana and Sublime will live forever). Was the inclusion of “Ace of Spades” at the head of Zombie Nightmare a declration of tone, or was it an aging metalhead who couldn’t get over his favorite song from six years ago?
Track 4. “Danger Zone” – Fist
I can think of fewer better band names than FIST. “Thank you for coming out to the Ottowa Outdoors Fair! We’re FIST! And we’re gonna FIST you!” It’s too bad that Fist sucks so badly. Seriously, this song is terrible. I hate the affected vocals, the synth backup, the bland melody, and the dumb lyrics. Listening to this song all the way through is almost a dare. “I STAYAN-DIN’! Stan-dayn in the dangah zown!” Ick.
This being the internet, though, I’m sure I’ll hear from a cadre of Fist defenders now. Or from Fist themselves.
Track 5. “We Rule the Night” – Virgin Steele
The one quality you have to admire about heavy metal – whether you like the form or not – is its level of aggressive, demonstrative drama. Heavy metal always sang about gigantic themes, however stupid the songs must have been. Metal songs are mythic, about Satan, death, volcanoes, galloping horses, and rulership. So when the New York metal band Virgin Steele describes their sound as “barbaric romanticism,” you can smile, nod, and accept their honesty. They really do rule the night, these guys. At the very least, I’d rather hear about Virgin Steele ruling the the night than Fist standing in the danger zone.
Track 6. “Rebirth” – Thor
Thor is John Mikl-Thor, one of the most dramatic metal musicians to come out of Canada. His music is good enough, I suppose, although his vocals are a little too thin for the high notes he wanted to hit. I think the “rebirth” of the title was meant to be literal in the case of Zombie Nightmare.
Something you definitely need to know about John Mikl-Thor, though, is that he is the mastermind behind one of the more entertaining bad movies of the 1980s, Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare, wherein Mikl-Thor, playing himself and clad in nothing but a leather bikini and a lot of hairspray, faces off against Satan himself in one of cinema’s most awkward and ridiculous grudge matches. I hear Thor in Zombie Nightmare, and I can only picture that goofy-ass rubber Satan puppet.
Track 7. “I’m Dangerous” – Death Mask
Another thing to admire about heavy metal is the singers’ general willingness to shriek at the top of their lungs. Or the bowels of their lungs, depending on the tone or subgenre. Death Mask was willing to wail. Not well, mind you, but at least they were willing. Death Mask belongs to a subgenre of metal known as thrash metal, which is like metal, but faster and sloppier. It’s not really my beat, so “I’m Dangerous” is fun, but not memorable to me.
Track 8. “Out for the Kill” – Battalion
There are at least ten heavy metal bands called Battalion. The one pictured below was a thrash metal band that sang a song called “Thrash Maniacs.” I don’t know if this is the Battalion from the movie, or one of the others. It is a mystery that must, for now, remain unsolved. If you have information on Battalion, please inform me.
Track 9. “Midnight Man” – Pantera
Pantera is, in this case, not the well-known Texan band, but the stage name of one Rusty Hamilton, an associate of John Mikl-Thor. I gotta say, I love this song a little bit. There’s a weird Rachel Sweet quality to the vocals, and a seductive New Wave vibe to the music. It’s not exactly “metal,” but it’s nice to have a change in tone.
Track 10. “Zombie Life” – Knighthawk
This is one I would start regularly including on Halloween mix tapes. This song is fucking awesome. If anyone has the line on where I can get a Knighthawk record, let me know. Like many of the bands on this album, they seem to have emerged from obscurity for a brief moment, played on an obscure soundtrack to an obscure movie, and disappeared back into obscurity. I think I’ll include Knighthawk on the list with bands like Suburban Lawns as bands I love, but can never track down.
Track 11. “Dead Things” – The Things
Since I couldn’t find any information on The Things either, I present, instead, the preview for the 1989 Canuxploitation classic Things. Things is, without hyperbole, one of the worst movies ever made.
Track 12. “When I Dream” – Thor
I prefer “When I Dream” to the lugubrious dumbness of “Rebirth.” This mellower piece, featuring backup vocals from Pantera, is something I would actually listen to independent of the movie. I guess I like my cheesy ’80s hair metal when it straddles New Wave.
Which is Better? The Soundtrack or the Movie?
The movie sucks. No question about that. The soundtrack record, though, represents an era in music when hard rock, horror, and death were oddly mainstream, and heavy metal was pretty pervasive.
Is this soundtrack a good exemplar of heavy metal, though? Well, when it comes to the truly great metal artists, it’s way behind. Yes, we have Motörhead, but no Iron Maiden, no Slayer, no Anthrax, none of the A-players. But then, Zombie Nightmare is not a A-movie. Zombie Nightmare is a passion project from hard-working Canadians who seem to be having a ball creating a B horror movie for the first time. As such, it makes more sense that the soundtrack be a bunch of smaller bands.
Indeed, I often prefer soundtracks that feature deep cuts and obscurities over the obvious musical cues. Anyone can think up “Number of the Beast,” but only this particular music supervisor (Thor himself) would think to include Knighthawk and Girlschool and Fist. A soundtrack like this paints a more vivid picture of what the 1980s heavy metal scene was really like back in the day. It’s an honest time capsule of an earnest musical form that few still listen to today. Today, most people find the demonstrative earnestness of heavy metal to be immediately risible. But this was what music was. In the 1986 Canadian metal scene, anyway. And that integrity makes the soundtrack record more than just a collection of middling metal songs. It makes it kind of awesome.