Forgotten Horrors: Blood Massacre
Considering the troubled nature of this film’s production, a more appropriate title for this article might have been Blood Massacre Massacre. What could have been director Don Dohler’s best and most commercially viable film to date ended up as not one but two uncompleted features and nearly caused him to abandon his filmmaking career permanently. Fans of Dohler’s work, which by this point included Alien Factor, Fiend, Nightbeast, and Galaxy Invader, can sum Blood Massacre up in one word – frustrating!
The sad tale of Blood Massacre actually begins with another unlucky film, Graveyard. In 1986, following a string of features that had performed admirably on television and home video, Don Dohler was offered the financial backing to produce a new movie. This one was to be based on a script he had completed following Galaxy Invader in anticipation of further demand from that film’s distributor. Cast and crew had been assembled for Graveyard and everything was in place to begin filming when the financing fell through. Believing this to be only a temporary setback, Dohler decided to make an even lower budgeted feature to keep everyone assembled busy until the monetary issues on Graveyard were resolved.
Don Dohler was no stranger to pulling a film together quickly from scratch. Fiend had come about because his first attempt at making the film Nightbeast had to be aborted half way through production. When a new version of Nightbeast was completed a few years later and the investors did not want it sold directly to television to honor an existing contract, Galaxy Invader was hastily created to take its place. With the constraints of an extremely low budget in mind, Dohler came up with a simple plot about a robbery gone wrong that has some not so simple consequences and titled it Blood Massacre.
Acquiring the necessary funding through a new distributor, Dohler decided to shoot this feature on ¾ inch broadcast quality video equipment to keep the cost down as much as possible. In the mid 1980’s, this was an acceptable format for the product starved home video market where almost anything could get released. The video production told the story of a gang of thieves who carjack a young woman following a less than successful getaway from their latest crime. They force the woman to take them to her rural home and then hold her entire family hostage while they plot their next move. Things are looking up for the criminals until they discover that the girl has just escaped from a mental institution (her dead doctor is still in the trunk of the high jacked vehicle) and her seemingly normal family are really cannibals! The hunters become the hunted and are quickly dispatched by the psycho clan, culminating in a showdown between them and the gang’s unhinged Vietnam vet, Rizzo.
As the video was nearing about two thirds completion, something almost unprecedented happened. After seeing a rough cut of the completed footage, the investors were so impressed that they requested a budget estimate for remaking the movie from scratch on 16mm film. Dohler gladly obliged and his still low budget feature was given the green light for film. The video version of Blood Massacre was halted and, since much of the story takes place outdoors and the harsh Maryland winter was about to set in, the new production was put on hold for a few months.
During the down time, Dohler revised and fleshed out the video script to better fit a potentially theatrical production. He also had to spend time recasting due to the unavailability of about half of the video’s cast by the time the new version went before the cameras. One carry over from the video was Dohler regular George Stover, who was cast against type as the unstable Rizzo. According to Stover, “Rizzo was a welcome departure because he wasn’t one of the nerdy characters I usually get to play. It was nice not to wear a lab coat for a change”. His almost too clean cut appearance for the character gives him a feeling of hiding a whole host of underlying neurosis that no one wants to touch. In the original video version he was a secondary member of the gang but his role was expanded considerably for the film.
Like most Don Dohler movies, the low budget did not mean there wasn’t a lot going on in the story. The final draft of Blood Massacre begins like a psycho thriller with Rizzo murdering a lounge lizard and manager who cross him at a bar. It then switches to a crime drama when he meets up with his gang and they botch a video store robbery. When their car is damaged during their escape, they are forced to procure another one by holding the driver at gunpoint and forcing her to take them back to her house. Once there, the entire family is seemingly at the mercy of the criminals while they wait for the heat to die down. At this point the film finally enters horror mode when the family turns out to be cannibals and the gang starts dropping like flies. When the final victim, Rizzo, escapes, he starts having flashback to Vietnam and we get an entertaining final act of Rambo vs. the cannibal clan!
Dohler saved a particularly gruesome death for Rizzo that had George Stover hung upside down from a tree and covered in gore. As the actor recalls, “It was an all night shoot until dawn the next morning doing that scene. I had to drive home with all that blood on me because we were out in the woods and there was no place for me to clean all that blood off. It had dried up on my face and clothes so I wasn’t worried about getting it on my car. I was mainly worried about being stopped by the police or having them pull up next to me at a traffic light with all this blood on my face. You never know what would have gone through their minds but they probably wouldn’t buy that I was making a movie.”
The film is fast paced and never lags long enough to get dull, how could it with a 90 minute running time and at least four genre changes? Unfortunately, the downbeat ending goes just a little too far in trying to keep the audience off balance. During Rizzo’s gruesome death scene, it is revealed that for some reason not previously even hinted at in the film, at least two of the family members are some type of ghoulish zombie creatures hiding behind human disguises. George Stover explains, “I have no idea why Don had that ending with the zombies. It didn’t make much sense and it wasn’t in the version shot on video. Maybe he was being pressured by the investors to add more horror elements to the film. They might have thought that the zombies would make it more marketable”. Whatever the reasoning behind it, this was an impressive effects piece for such a low budget production but it is an ill fit with everything else that has led up to the ending.
The filming of Blood Massacre went smoothly since there had already been the luxury of a dry run on video. It was not until the project entered the editing phase that things started to go wrong. First Dohler discovered that the soundtrack was missing for the robbery scene that kicks off the story. With no money left for dubbing, he was forced to cut down the footage and under play what should have been a very tense early sequence. As the editing neared completion, Dohler found out that the film was being used by the investor as part of a sale package that included other properties. To facilitate the deal, he was asked to deliver the work print in its current unfinished state. The financial backer had the final say so he no choice other than to comply. He was promised the print would be returned to him for completion but Don Dohler would never see it again.
Having essentially made the same movie twice and having nothing to show for it demoralized Dohler to the point that he decided to get out of filmmaking. Several years later, in 1991, Blood Massacre resurfaced when Dohler discovered someone shopping for a distribution deal for the picture. The original negative had apparently been damaged and the rough cut, unfinished, work print was all that survived. This didn’t stop the group that had acquired the film rights from trying to make some money from it. The film was eventually released, with only a minimal amount of clean up work, on a small video label called 3 Star Releasing. According to George Stover, “3 Star Releasing was a small outfit that I believe specialized in porno movies. They were trying to work their way up in the business and I guess Blood Massacre was the next step up for them from porno!”
Don Dohler did eventually return to filmmaking but it was only after a hiatus of close to fifteen years and in a reduced capacity. The second phase of his career, centered mainly on his new production company Timewarp Films, would last less than five years due to his untimely death from cancer in 2006. Interestingly enough, one of Don’s last projects in 2005 would be a final edit on Blood Massacre, whose rights had lapsed over the intervening years. While this edit was nothing close to what his original finished cut would have been, he was able to give the film a more finished look and at least make it a more marketable product. George Stover adds, “The DVD release is shorter and there was some smoothing out of things. When he made the cuts for the DVD release, he also cut a new trailer. He couldn’t take the scratches out because all he was working with was a VHS tape. He didn’t get access to the original materials or the work print. This was something he did on his own. He made some changes to the music and the dissolves because the work print had no transitions. He polished up the editing and tightened up a few things that gave it a shorter running time.”
Thankfully, at least some version of the film is now available to the public even if it isn’t the finished product Dohler had originally envisioned. What does make it to the screen is a tight thriller that stands as a stark departure from Dohler’s earlier creature features. To anyone familiar with his work, it is obvious that this could have been the film that propelled him to more commercial endeavors, had it been completed and marketed properly. Instead, this was a bittersweet conclusion for a man who had entertained millions of fans just like himself but at least he was able to leave his final mark on Blood Massacre.
Special thanks to George Stover for providing his insights and photos for this article. For anyone wishing to see the DVD version of Blood Massacre, it is available on the Serial Psychos collection from Pendulum Pictures and can be ordered through Amazon.Com.