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Blood Diner

So bad it’s good? I wouldn’t go that far. But Blood Diner is definitely something—a no-frills pastiche of 1950s disembodied-brain sci-fi potboiler, 1960s Herschell Gordon Lewis splatter movie, 1970s cannibal-cuisine flick, and early-1980s buddy-cop movie. I’m tempted to say it stitches together a Frankenstein’s patchwork of genre movies because it has no vision of its own, but that’s too glib. If nothing else, 20-something Asian-American director Jackie Kong (Night Patrol) loves L.A.: she wrapped all of those genre influences around a love letter to the city’s underground music scene circa 1987, casting punk rockers and rockabilly singers as extras, bit players, and movie stars in a story about a pair of pretty-boy sibling serial killers who run a popular foodie destination on Hollywood Boulevard where the vegetarian dishes are, unbeknownst to patrons, boosted by the presence of human flesh in the recipe.

Conceived as a direct sequel to the late H.G. Lewis’s Blood Feast (partly in hopes he would come out of retirement to direct the film himself), Blood Diner‘s characters’ names have been changed, though the new story picks up roughly where the old one left off. It opens with young brothers Michael (Rick Burks) and George (Carl Crew) being visited by their Uncle Anwar (Drew Godderis), who makes a quick detour in his flight from the cops to gift them with ancient Egyptian amulets before running back outside to be gunned down by police. Long story short, the boys grow up, disinter their uncle’s body from the grave, put his brain in a jar, and follow its spoken instructions. Uncle Anwar’s brain has them stitching together female body parts to create a vessel into which the goddess Sheetar (Tanya Papanicolas) may be summoned following a suitable “blood boo-fay.”

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The tone is comfy, taking every opportunity to wink at the audience. Burks and Crew play their characters as jackass Angelenos whose pleasant handsomeness masks the American psychos lurking underneath. (One minute, Burks is asking his date if she’s ever heard of “battered girlfriends;” the next, he’s slathering her in an egg-and-flour mixture and shoving her head in hot oil.) The police duo assigned to investigate the murders is a mixed bag: while the guy is played very broadly by Roger Dauer as a sexed-up schlemiel who gets slugged by his boss on the regular, his straight woman, detective Sheba Jackson (LaNette La France, never heard from again after this movie), has cute bangs and a devastating side-eye. She should have had her own franchise of dopey serial-killer movies.

It’s lucky that a woman was at the helm of Blood Diner (a “PMS Filmworks” production), as Kong’s interpretation probably went some way towards diffusing the misogyny inherent in a script about men who take orders to seduce and murder everyday “tramps” in order to pave the way for the return of a mythical goddess. It’s not that Kong backs off on the film’s gonzo nature; rather, she embraces it and shapes its energy. When Uncle Anwar starts reminiscing fondly about his life in crime, Kong cuts in footage of old black-and-white “roughies” featuring scenes of sexual violence set to good-timey polka music as flashbacks—acknowledging her own movie’s place in the continuum of exploitation cinema while simultaneously criticizing its problematic nature. There’s a fun scene where one of the Tutmans interrupts a couple having sex, dispatches the man, and then comes at the nude woman with an axe. Instead of running and screaming or simply falling under the blade, she assumes a martial arts stance and beats the hell out of him. And during the big rock-concert set-piece, Sheetar comes back to life unexpectedly, revealing a chomping vagina dentata running vertically from between her breasts down to her belly button–all the better to chew your dick off.

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Yes, Blood Diner is unfocused, with too many amateurish performances, but it is committed to its premise, and it somehow manages to fill 88 solid minutes with a new idea lurking around every corner. Topless aerobics! Zombie attacks! A wrestler called Little Jimmy Hitler! Think of it as outsider art. It’s not well-made by any traditional yardstick of quality, but it is simultaneously possessed of genuine wit, feminist sensibilities, and a weird aesthetic integrity.

THE BLU-RAY DISC
Blood Diner debuts on Blu-ray as part of Lionsgate’s Vestron Video Collector’s Series with a straightforward HD transfer that gives it an adequate but certainly not flashy revival. The box copy indicates that it was “restored from original vault materials,” and they have been handled pretty conservatively. The picture here is a little on the flat side, with low contrast and muted colors. If I generally wonder if Blu-ray images are cranked to pop too much, this is the rare transfer that could have used a tad more oomph. Dust-busting and grain-reduction don’t wreck the presentation but are definitely in evidence; the video bitrate runs at an average 27 Mbps, though I’d like to see what it looks like with less noise reduction at around 35 Mbps. The frame is opened up slightly from the theatrical 1.85:1 aspect ratio to an HDTV-friendly 1.77:1. (As with the concurrent Chopping Mall, the packaging misidentifies the AR as 1.85:1.) Sound quality of the 2.0 DTS-HD MA track is quite good. There’s not a lot going on in the monaural mix, but what’s there is clear and well-balanced. Much of the dialogue seems post-sync’d and is rendered with especially good definition. The selections from Wagner are clearly detailed, and the rock music from the climactic club scene has a decent, bassy thump that suggests a live-concert environment.

Extra features are fairly extensive, starting with Michael Felsher’s five-part, 65-minute documentary “Killer Cuisine: The Making of Blood Diner“. In part 1, screenwriter Michael Sonye (a.k.a. Dukey Flyswatter from L.A.-based horror punk band Haunted Garage) and Jimmy Maslon recount the movie’s origins—basically, Sonye and Maslon had bonded over a shared love of Blood Feast, to which Maslon owned the rights. After trying and failing to interest Lewis in directing, they cut the budget substantially in hopes of getting a green light. In part 2, Kong talks about coming onto the production after the success of her previous film, Night Patrol, got Vestron interested in finding a script for her. She reveals that Blood Diner was made on a $330,000 budget, and says the bond company was betting against her being able to complete it at all. Part 3 features interviews with actors Carl Crew, Roger Dauer, and Drew Godderis that add color commentary on how the project came together. (Rick Burks would probably be here, too, but the poor guy passed away in 1989, at the age of 29.) Part 4 is an interview with composer Don Preston vis-à-vis his synth score, and part 5 lets cinematographer Jürg V. Walther have his say about what it takes to make a good-looking movie on a tight schedule and a low budget.

For whatever reason, none of these interviewees appear on screen together. That’s the source of some frustration because they sometimes contradict each other. Specifically, Kong claims (both here and in her audio commentary) that the script she was given was “as serious as a heart attack” and that she had to work to inject humor into the proceedings. Yet Sonye relates a story about calling Maslon up to discuss his ideas for the film. He claims that if Maslon didn’t laugh—if the ideas weren’t inherently funny—he didn’t use them. It’s possible that Kong was just on a completely different wavelength from Maslon and Sonye when it came to humor, but there is a fundamental disagreement here on who was responsible for the picture’s overtly comic tone. Sonye also mentions that he had hoped to play a role in the film but was barred from the set by Kong, so there’s that.

I’m not trying to throw shade in Kong’s direction. I’ve sat through too many audio commentaries from directors of low-budget 1980s horror movies who talk about their film like it’s an unloved child to have any quarrel with someone who’s as proud of her genre work as Kong is of Blood Diner. Although it’s true that her yak-track covers much of the same ground as her 20-minute documentary segment, it’s nice to be able to see what she’s referring to when she describes a dolly move or makes the point, repeatedly, that she transcends her budgetary limitations in part by making sure shots have a foreground, a mid-ground, and a background to suggest the depth and complexity that’s often missing from movies made on the cheap. She also discusses her penchant for planning every shot in detail, down to drawing lighting diagrams in order to ensure the truck is loaded with exactly the lights that are required for specific effects, rather than a generic indie-film roll-out. I especially like her idea to go out unrated, which Vestron apparently embraced, as opposed to trimming this and that in an attempt to appease the MPAA. I don’t know how many indie directors have the talent or the temperament to be as demanding in this regard as Kong is, but it sounds like pretty good advice to me.

Also on board is an 8-minute HD interview (dating to 2009) with Eric Caidin, the owner of Hollywood Book & Poster Co., who had a hand in Blood Diner‘s development and who died unexpectedly last year. The film’s lightly comic trailer, featuring food critic “Phil A. Mignon” directing adventurous diners to dangerous eats at Blood Diner, is included in two versions (both HD), along with a pair of derivative TV spots and three unrelated radio ads. Closing this joint down for the night, a slideshow of production stills clocks in at 5:34.