When James Vance and Ray Belknap voluntarily took shotgun spray to their respective jaws back in 1985, they did so with at least a modicum of taste. They had just seen Judas Priest in concert, and knew, perhaps subliminally, that shit would soon be going down hill. In a sense, they were correct. Turbo would be Priest’s next album, grunge was soon on the horizon, and Rob Halford would be coming out of the closet. For the loyal punters, the latter would’ve been seen as a big no no. Heavy metal is war, and pussy is one of the spoils that go to the victor. Rob would have, in some twisted hetero way, been seen as a hypocrite.
However, their respective parents disagreed with this assessment, preferring the no-less-valid junk science approach; every effect has a cause, and since they effectively decapitated themselves, it follows that, ergo, etc., blah blah. They rode this tidal wave into court, where a judge deemed that it could not be proven that a perceived subliminal message on an album directly caused someone to displace their cranium.
So, the debate rages on. Do people commit suicide after reading a lyric sheet for an album with a cover depicting Satan holding a battle axe whilst fondling a half-goat/half-woman? Or, do they find a little self-imposed peace because they hate themselves, their parents, the entire society they find themselves thrust into, the fact that no one gives a shit about them, etc.? Dead Girls is sort of a cinematic version of this debate, where examples and retorts come in the form of informal stabbings.
The Dead Girl’s music, like Judas Priest before them (although their barely glimpsed music is more “death rock” than heavy metal, it would seem) is used as inspiration for a group of enterprising young suicide victims. These are the usual faux wiccan, crossover rivet-head burnouts only found in the movies, who slice their wrists open in one those fancy schmancy suicide pacts by gothy ambient candlelight. It takes a lot of balls to get this serious and grim right off the bat, to tackle the issue of teenage suicide head-on, rather than using the usual pussyfoot slogans (“Teenage suicide! Don’t do it!”) and impotent attempts....oh wait, it was all a dream. Jesus fucking Christ.
The band consists of Lucy Lethal, Bertha Beirut (who likes to strangle herself with the American Flag on stage, a remarkably unsubtle indictment of Orwellian self- paralyzation that comes with the freedoms inherent within), Cynthia Slain (who supposedly eviscerates herself on stage), Randy Rot (the token male drummer and, ironically, the pussy of the group), and, my personal favorite, Nancy Napalm, the guitarist and weapons expert, combining the two when playing her machine gun guitar (also used by former Alice Cooper guitarist Kane Roberts in the “real” world). Also, lest we forget Artie, their token sleazy Asian manager, who wants them to sell out in the other direction; maybe less grand guignol and more Bangles.
“Drama” comes in the form of Bertha’s sister, who was one of the youngsters that tried to kill themselves. She sits in a coma, protected by Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden posters angelically positioned above her bed. Her aunt and uncle blame Bertha for the suicide attempt, failing to realize that, if not the Dead Girls, something else would have been thrown on the turntable during the wrist slitting (like say, The Best of Loverboy).
Well, whatta ya know, some jackass puts on a scary skull mask and starts killing people. Mercifully, the killer whips out a nail gun and ends Artie’s endless agent speak tirades about capitalism and shit. Meanwhile, Bertha keeps having dreams about the killer, her sister again, her uncle, dreams within dreams, etc. They also have a leather clad super fan, who follows them like a lost puppy (she even has an “I heart Dead Girls” sticker on her car bumper).
The sister finally gets her ass out of the coma and Bertha decides to take her out to the country cabin with the group while they write a new album. This cabin is kept spic and span by Elmo, who Bertha claims is “retarded or something, or is at least a little weird". In case he turns out to be more than a red herring, Bertha is flanked by a security guard who is sort of a beefy, mullet infested version of Tom Selleck.
The issue of artistic responsibility is brilliantly introduced when Bertha receives a threatening envelope from the killer, including lyrics from the band that correspond to the various murders. The proverbial chickens have come home to roost, artistic license be damned. We get further snippets of the prevailing societal attitudes of these “evil bitches” and their music when a bacon officer shows up, telling them he burned his daughter’s Dead Girl records. He calls them liars and promptly leaves when they ask for some assistance with the psycho killer that’s hacking them up. As we all know, evil rock musicians lie as a matter of course, and even if they are being honest…fuck ‘em, the world is better off.
This is further exemplified during the twisty twist ending, where the killer reveals his motive. The girls’ “art” is nothing but immorality set to a metronome, and they deserve to get cut to shit, one by one. Never mind that whole “murder is bad” stuff; let’s stick to the topic at hand. Don’t try to change the subject, you no-morality, hard rockin’ fuck.
Despite the murderous headbutting of this ongoing debate, it is the normally quiet Nancy Napalm, surprisingly, that offers nuggets of wisdom and hope amidst it all, such as "death is nothing to be afraid of, it is a mystery we all must explore", and "work on your karma". This would have to make her the only Confucist that plays guitar with a machine gun. Regardless, I see the film as an attempt to point out that art can productively deal with dark subjects, as long as the artist approaches it from an honest place, and not from a position of commerce. Yes, “death sells”, but mostly to poseurs. Die-hard outcasts yearn for truth, and, occasionally, blow their own heads off; but hey, c’est la vie.