Made in 1978 – but unreleased until 1983 – Microwave Massacre was probably a few years ahead of its time – three or four years later, the likes of Troma, Empire and others had made instant cult movies with catchpenny titles and a deliberate sense of cheesiness a going concern, but this film was quickly buried on video, doomed to be a question in trivia games and pub quizzes (“is there really a film called Microwave Massacre?”). Arrow’s new bells ‘n’ whistles edition is either a sign of their admirable commitment to unearthing obscure – and of course, by now much sought-after – movies, or a mad folly.
I saw it on tape at the time it first came out in the UK, and for years afterwards had only the vaguest memories of the film – Marla Simon’s Russ Meyeresque bouncing breasts in the opening titles being the only thing that really stayed with me. As it turns out, the almost cartoonishly sexy Simon is still the most entertaining thing about the film, jiggling across the screen in hot pants and tight tops, showing off the kind of body that you just don’t see in movies any more. It’s all very exploitative and sexist of course, as she is hit on, molested and leered at – but quite frankly, if you’ve picked up a film called Microwave Massacre expecting political correctness, more fool you.
Jackie Vernon is the dead pan, relentlessly blue collar Donald, a construction worker who’s wife May (Claire Ginsberg) has become a would-be cordon bleu chef after buying the world’s biggest microwave (this thing is huge). For a man who craves a boloney and cheese sandwich, this is a disaster, and after a drunken row, he finally cracks and kills her. Chopping up her body and putting the parts in the freezer, he then, while searching for a snack later that night, accidentally takes a bite out of her microwaved hand – and finds he likes it. Before long, he’s picking up hookers in the local bar / strip joint to cook and eat, the meat proving to be so delicious that workmates Phillip and Roosevelt are demanding he bring in meat every day. Soon, Donald has a new lease of life – hanging out with friends, even feeling sexual desire for the first time since 1962. Only the unexpected arrival of May’s equally unpleasant sister Evelyn, and a mild heart attack brought on by his pacemaker being affected by the microwaves present clouds on the horizon.
Essentially, Microwave Massacre is a single joke stretched rather thinly, and even at 76 minutes, it feels a little padded. There are probably only so many jokes you can make about cannibalism, or a preference for legs or breast. And the film is an oddly uneven balance – there are moments when it is trying to be a Mel Brooks style comedy, bits of deliberate ‘bad’ acting and other parts where the performances seem genuinely dreadful. Vernon’s performance is entertaining though, even if his character is actually pretty unsympathetic (you get the idea that we are supposed to be on his side, but frankly he seems such a slob that even before he becomes a killer, you find him rather unpleasant).
This uneven feel of the film expands to the style – it’s not really a horror film, and too restrained in the gore stakes to be the sort of splatter comedy popular at the time. It often feels like sexploitation – there’s a stream of very 1970s sexy girls who have no other purpose than to be eye candy, but less nudity that you would expect (or want, under the circumstances). All this means that you can never quite work out just what the film wants to be, or quite how successful it is.
So the thing to do with this is not to over think it. Just accept that it’s a little bit of T&A, a smattering of bad taste, a whole bunch of late 1970s aesthetics and a lot of Jackie Vernon doing Jackie Vernon – half the film feels like him doing chunks from a stand-up routine and mugging to camera. Treat it as trivial nonsense, and you might have a reasonably entertaining time with the film – it’s not in any way a good film (and director Wayne Berwick is the first to admit that in the entertaining featurette on the film) but the individual elements – the odd good gag, the ludicrousness of the whole idea and the string of sexy girls taking their tops off – ensure that is never becomes an ordeal. Trash cinema, perhaps, but there’s nothing wrong with that.