SoundTreks | Rockula
In my research for SoundTreks, I have found that there is a dearth of horror movies with notable, rocking soundtrack records. There are, of course, horror films with excellent musical scores or title themes (indeed, SoundTreks wrote a list of the ten best not a few weeks ago), but there are relatively few horror films that bother to compile an extensive collection of excellent pop songs. I understand that Rob Zombie is doing his part in this arena, and most of the post-Scream neo-slashers of the late 1990s all had perfectly decent OSTs. But Zombie will get attention later (last week’s SoundTreks was already heavy metal centric), and, just for diversity’s sake, I’m trying to stay out of the late-1990s for the time being (it was, after all, the golden age of the soundtrack album).
Instead, I will choose to focus on what is one of the finest cult horror musicals that you will ever happily run into (and one of, not incidentally, my editor’s favorite movies). In 1990, Cannon Films – they of the finest exploitation flicks of my childhood – released a musical horror oddity starring Dean Cameron called Rockula, directed by Luca Bercovici (Ghoulies, The Granny). Yes, it is about a vampire who becomes a rock star. Cameron played the title vamp, while Toni Basil played his mother, and Thomas Dolby played his rival. Tawny Fere from Million Dollar Mystery and Angel III: The Final Chapter played Cameron’s ladylove, a reincarnation of the woman meant to take his centuries-old virginity, but who always is murdered (via hambone) before the deed can be done.
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It’s just as weird as it sounds, and those who have seen Rockula tend to love it in all its batshit crazy glory. It’s as energetic and strange as the genre – musical horror – often tends to be (it’s a genre that includes, after all, the legendary Rocky Horror Picture Show), but more silly and lighthearted.
An official soundtrack record for Rockula was never released, as far as I have been able to discover, but cult fans and Rockula enthusiasts have managed to compile a track listing of what one might look like. An enterprising online music snoop should be able to construct a proper Rockula record with only a small amount of effort. Below is a track listing, accompanied by the songs as they were made available on YouTube. For those that didn’t have a proper music video, well, I’ve hidden a little surprise. Enjoy the wonderment of Rockula.
Track 1. “I Just Wanna Rockula (Title Theme)” – Dr. Daddio
The only Dr. Daddio you’ll find online is a notable dentist in Denver, CO. This is not the Dr. Daddio of Rockula, I assume, although he may have a rollicking alter ego from his pre-dental days.
The title song to Rockula is a boldly late-’80s, synth-heavy musical collage that resembles something put forth by The Art of Noise, complete with a repeated atonal chorus of singers intoning “I just wanna rock you. I just wanna rock you… la.” It’s rare that movies get opening themes anymore, it seems, and even less common that movies get their own opening pop hits. When I encounter one, it pleases me, and when it’s catchy as this, so much the better. So the title theme for Rockula is entirely in the plus column.
Track 2. “Ralph on the Keys (Instrumental)” – Hilary Bercovici
Ralph (Cameron) is an aspiring would-be musician, who, like all good vampires, can play the pipe organ. There will be several tracks of (electronic) pipe organ solos throughout the film, as composed by one Hilary Bercovici. Hilary is the brother of director Luca, and hasn’t composed much in his career, including four episode of Tales from the Darkside.
Track 3. “Stanley’s Death Park” – Thomas Dolby
Yes, that Thomas Dolby. The “She Blinded Me with Science” guy. He has only appeared in two feature films: This one and Howard the Duck. In Rockula, Dolby plays a hustler vampire named Stanley. He’s the villain of the piece. Dolby is having so much damn fun in this movie.
Track 4. “Break These Chains” – Tawny Fere
Ralph must win the heart of Mona, a hot young thing who sings in a rock club and, Ralph assumes, only dates fellow rock stars. She is the Apollonia to his The Kid. “Break These Chains” is a showcase of what sort of music she sings, which is a familiar brand of post-New Wave pop. At the time, a song like this must have been seen as somewhat bland, indistinguishable from a lot of also-rans who were recording in 1989. But today, it feels nostalgically charming.
Track 5. “Hey Mona” – Dr. Daddio
Did I mention that Bo Diddley was in this movie? Yes, Bo Diddley is in this movie. There’s a scene wherein Bo Diddley and Susan Tyrrell (from Forbidden Zone) appear on stage together wearing bee costumes. They sing and dance backup, wearing bee costumes. This is a Bo Diddley blues number. Also, he’s in the movie and wears a bee costume.
Track 6. “Turn Me Loose” – Tawny Fere
Another dancey pop tune from Tawney Fere, and, just like the other Fere song, it is further evocative of Purple Rain. It’s loaded with the jungle noises, and confrontational lyrics (“Don’t tell me to have a nice day if you can’t make my night”). It’s a perfectly serviceable club song that could still play at parties today. Indeed, I like “Turn Me Loose” better than “Break These Chains.” Which can only be a controversial view.
Track 7. “A Vampire in the Rock Band (Instrumental)” – Hilary Bercovici
Sounds like “I Come Off” by Young MC. Have you ever heard “I Come Off?” Oh man, it’s great. Here, here’s the video. On the unofficial soundtrack record I own, dialogue is included, featuring Cameron coming up with the name for his rock band. And the name is…?
Track 8. “Rockula” – Dean Cameron
…Rockula, of course!
By this point in the film, Ralph has resolved to form a vampire-themed rock band (which is an idea that may still fly in today’s fractured music marketplace) called Rockula. This song, the band’s debut, functions as something super-cool that an ’80s dance audience would really dig. Outside of the context of the movie, I think “Rockula” would play well on The Dr. Demento Show, or in between hit songs during Halloween radio programming… if it were sung a bit better. Don’t get me wrong, I think Dean Cameron is a pretty awesome dude, and he’s having plenty of fun, but you need a real ’80s hair-metal style belter to knock this one out of the park.
I encourage enterprising musicians to cover “Rockula.” Soup it up. Make it bigger than it was in the movie. You might just have a new novelty hit on your hands.
Track 9. “Rapula (He’s the DJ, I’m the Vampire)” – Dean Cameron
Yo, yo. Yo, yo. Kick it. That’s some kick.
By 1989, rap had very much entered the white-boy mainstream, but only through ultra-safe, kid-friendly rap acts like DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince. Most white people were still intimidated by the likes of Public Enemy and N.W.A. But, and I recall this vividly, a lot of lame white kids and wimpy adults fancied themselves rappers, resulting in a pop landscape littered with TV commercials and Bar Mitzvahs choked with dippy dads trying to sound hip.
“Rapula” comes from this thinking. Dean Cameron, bless his heart, sells it as best as he can, but he’s not a rapper by any stretch. Of course, some would say that his earnestness and energy greatly outweighs his lack of skill. I might agree. “Rapula” is utterly fascinating as a late-’80s curio. Also, the songwriters did a few wonderful backbends to come up with rhymes for “vampire,” including “campfire,” “either,” and, most pleasantly clever “William Safire.” There is also a lyric that references “premarital sax.”
You know what? Fuck it. “Rapula” is amazing.
Track 10. “By My Side” – Tawny Fere and Dean Cameron
“By My Side” is the emotional center of Rockula, as it’s the time when Ralph and Mona finally meet and emotionally intersect through song, following a romantic rain-soaked kiss, and the achingly romantic intonation of “I think the rain is stopping.” There’s a lot of echoey drum, passionate vocals, and rock lullaby synth. There’s a lot of fist-pumping and chest-heaving. On stage, this would be a barn-burner. In the context of the film, though, the song is punctuated with slapstick set pieces and an army of homeless people that keep our two lovers physically apart.
I can’t fault this film’s music for energy, although you may only love “By My Side” if you have context.
Track 11. “The Night” – Toni Basil
In one of Rockula‘s more bizarre sequences (and that’s saying something), Ralph and Mona are forced to watch Ralph’s Mom, Toni Basil, sing and dance for them. I think we may all agree that Toni Basil is an amazing performer, and her dancing is first rate. She’s also a bit of an odd duck, having appeared not just in Rockula, but other weird-ass rock-themed monster films like Slaughterhouse Rock and Village of the Giants. For “The Night,” the film grids to a dead halt, allowing Basil to sing and dance.
I get the impression that none of the cast or crew knew that Basil was going to perform that day, and she thought she’d surprise everyone with an original song she wrote on set. Rather than say anything, the cast and crew just allowed her to perform, and subsequently allowed her song to make it into the final cut of the flick.
Track 12. “Budapest By Blimp” – Thomas Dolby
Tawny Fere’s songs may function as standalone pop hits, but, upon a close look, they function better as Broadway showcases and dramatic intermissions to a movie than they do actual rock hits. “Budapest By Blimp,” however, does function as a standalone rock song, and could have come wholesale from a Thomas Dolby record. It may not have been a hit, but I can hear this song running independently from Rockula.
Track 13. “Phoebe’s Dance (Instrumental)” – Hilary Bercovici
Dance, Toni, Dance.
Track 14. “United State of Beat” – Visiting Kids
“United State of Beat,” as performed by in-movie band Visiting Kids sounds like a mockery of Gloria Estefan’s “Rhythm is Gonna Get You” which was released in 1987. I recall “Rhythm is Gonna Get You” as being well-regarded, but I suppose parody was inevitable. Well, if it is a parody. What do you think? Is this a spoof, or just a silly pop song?
Track 15. “The King is Back (Hey, Rockula)”– Dean Cameron
The show-ending climactic song. Ralph dresses up as an Elvis, and shreds up the stage with his boldly major-keyed meedlies, and charms us with some of the goofiest lyrics heard in this movie (“party in my pants,” “pink salamander,” etc.). The rockabilly beat makes the song super-catchy, though, and the driving pop energy is enough to have even the most cynical of audience members giving into this bizarro cinematic treat.
Which is Better? The Soundtrack or the Movie?
You know I just want to rock you, la.
Rockula is not for everyone. Like most cult movies, you have to be on its very peculiar wavelength to fall in love, or at least have a deep appreciation for camp. Rockula is a surreal idea that gains a lot of points for mere audacity; they actually went through with a vampire-themed rock musical, and gathered up a few real-life pop stars to lend some credibility to the incredible. Certain minds will take to it right away (I wholeheartedly accept the bonkers Rockula into the cult canon). Others will only see awfulness.
The soundtrack and the movie, however, are at a dead heat. The soundtrack record is goofy and fun and possesses all the silliness of the movie, along with all of its actual musical chops (such as they may be). The movie, however, gains traction from its weird cameos, weird dialogue, and weird premise.
Nothing like Rockula came before it (monster-themed rock musical comedies are thin on the ground), and, thanks to the period-specific sounds of the music (none of these songs could have been written anything before or after 1989, with the exception of the Thomas Dolby track), you will never see anything like it again. In an era when it seems studios aren’t taking risks, and oddball movies are few and far between, we can look to 1990, and find some gems of what the movie industry was once like. There was a time when a B-movie studio like Cannon could thrive, and enterprising filmmakers could make Rockula.
Let it live on.