[24 March 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
An elderly couple’s car has broken down along a lonely country road. With their tire flat, the man struggles to change it with little success. Suddenly, a motorcycle gang shows up, a bunch of leather-wearing weirdoes with their sleazy old ladies along for the ride. But instead of harming the aged pair, they proceed to repair their car and send them on their way. While still out for a sometimes illegal good time, this Harley-riding horde is also considerate and concerned for their fellow man. Recognizing that the freedom they seek must be provided to others as well, they only use their bad-ass image to undermine the Establishment.
When the girlfriend of a dead buddy’s brother is assaulted, the police naturally pin the crime on the Club. Turns out, it was a rogue officer that was responsible for the frame-up. With the help of the gal’s frantic father and a local weapons lover who masquerades as a nature-loving sportsman, the town hopes a little vigilante justice will drive the bikers away once and for all. Resolved to clear their name, the clan prepares for a showdown. A funeral for a fallen member provides the perfect backdrop for a standoff, and with everyone loaded for bear, it’s not long before the Northville Cemetery Massacre is in full, fatal swing.
Let’s just call this two-wheeled wonder Uneasy Rider and get it over with, shall we? Like Robert Altman directing a Roger Corman biker epic, Northville Cemetery Massacre defies description as precisely as it plays with certain cinematic classifications. Some sort of counterculture experiment by first-time filmmakers Thomas L. Dyke (his only credit) and William Dear (who would go on to helm Harry and the Hendersons and Angels in the Outfield), this combination of cinema vérité, born to be wildness, and standard cautionary storytelling is one bizarre bit of motorcycle mayhem.
Both embracing and examining the outlaw nature of the chopper champion, Dyke and Dear originally called their movie Freedom: R.I.P. , with good reason. This movie was meant to symbolize the inner corruption among so-called law-abiding citizens, including the police themselves, while striving to show the leather-wearing biker as a righteous dude with an undeserved rowdy reputation. Oh sure, there’s some bar-based fisticuffs, and the movie ends in one of the biggest bloodbaths captured on independent film, but at its heart, Northville Cemetery Massacre wants to draw a distinction between brutality based in the support of brotherhood, and cruelty as a sense of civic duty.
Buried inside all the “us vs. them” underpinnings are class-crossed lovers who just want to get high and roll in the hay. With a voice dubbed by a very young Nick Nolte, our slightly fey hero is an ex-Vietnam vet whose decision to drop out has a lot to do with the treatment of his dearly departed brother at the hands of authorities. His potential old lady is a typical small-town twinkie who’s lost in her own inner world of frilly drapes, romantic phone calls, and sexual assault at the hands of a psychotic sheriff’s deputy. Together, the duo makes an uneasy core for the average audience member. He feels like an afterthought to the whole narrative construct, a drive-in denizen who presents passion pitters with a like-minded weed head they can identify with.
As for the gal, she emanates about as much sex appeal as a socket wrench, and her moments of tasteful toplessness do very little to stir male viewing interest. It would be interesting to see a version of this film sans the lovebird life lessons, one that uses the real-life Detroit Scorpions Motorcycle Club as a foundation for a pragmatic look at how ‘70s society viewed such “gangs.” Instead, we get the gratuitous rape, the sportsman/serial killer who can’t wait to hunt that most dangerous of games, and an ending that’s both perfunctory and profound, questioning all that’s come before while offering little in the way of easy solutions.
For many a seasoned grindhouse fan, this sounds like solid sleazoid stuff, right? Well, the truth is trickier than that. While obviously aimed at an exploitation-appreciating throng, there is a strange, audience adverse approach to Dyke and Dear’s designs. Obviously unable to “direct” the real-life bikers, we get a clashing confrontation of styles and substance, amateur acting accented by professional performers trying to add to the authenticity. Many of the scenes are fascinating free-for-alls, dialogue constantly overlapping and conversations collapsing in on each other. We never really get to know the riders, and their women are pure props, positioned on the back of their Harleys for maximum hot mama effect. But this was probably not Dyke and Dear’s point. With that original title of Freedom: R.I.P. , they were clearly responding to the idea that America was becoming a nation divided along generational lines.
To the conservative clans who held the power, a group like the Scorpions represented lawlessness and defiance. That many of them were actually decent people drawn together by a sense of family that was sadly lacking in a post-‘60s society never really mattered much to those in charge. Bikers were an easy breed to pick on (the Hell’s Angels not helping matters much). By turning them into amiable anti-heroes here, the directors manage the mirror reflection on the culture that so many movies of this kind miss. For those who long for the days of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper puffing their way across a dying America, Northville Cemetery Massacre will be a big, bad, bloody mess. But for those looking for more depth than defiance in their motorcycle storyline, this movie makes a very strong, if rather surreal, point.