Director: Wayne Berwick
Screenplay: Thomas Singer
Cast: Jackie Vernon (as Donald); Claire Ginsberg (as May); Loren Schein (as Roosevelt); Al Troupe (as Philip); Karen Marshall (as the Neighbour)
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies) #109
Synopsis: After his tolerance for his wife May (Ginsberg) and her failed attempts at elaborate cuisine snaps, Donald (Vernon) in a drunken rage ends up killing her. When he accidentally eats one of her chopped up body parts, he develops a taste for cannibalism which twists into his redeveloping libido when he discovers he can still woo the opposite sex.
Microwave Massacre is not a popular film. When the American exploitation oddity was recently re-released for a modern cult audience, many of the viewers I've read have given it scathing reviews for the most part. Offensive or as funny as a napalm enema, amateurish or just crass, dated junk. Yet it says something peculiar within the film that, even if it's an inexplicable and tiny cult, it still gets a lavish Blu-Ray restoration from Arrow Video and you have former Coil member and film scholar (of American exploitation cinema especially) Stephen Thrower defending it in spite of its immense flaws. Microwave Massacre is a film, as documented, where after living within the culture of cinema for his whole life, director Wayne Berwick finally took the chance to make his own movie, only on the first day of production to realise that the script for their serious horror film was full of awful puns in the dialogue. In a moment where a production has a gun directly pointed to its head, as other independent exploitation films from this era of American cinema have had to face before them, the creators of Microwave Massacre decided to make as intentionally as dumb and ridiculous a film as they could.
The issues with this are with the humour that's of its time, including the terrible puns constantly in the dialogue and puerile jokes about sex or stereotypes. One or two of them are actually offensive for a modern viewer like me, but it feels within context of the film of it being merely dumb as a movie and of its time. I've only been offended by a couple of films morally for their attitudes - The Birth of a Nation (1915) for obvious reasons, and Brother 2 (2000), an already middling sequel to an interesting cult Russian crime film which, after a sincere monologue about African Americans, becomes morally toxic in how offensive the scene with that dialogue is. A film like Microwave Massacre in contrast is a film so desperate to pull laughs that its stuck having to punch low below the belt. Most of the time its instead a weird tone that works in its favour rather than anything truly morally problematic, as most of the jokes are so poor they give the tone of anti-humour by accident.
The result is closer, if it was made in Britain, to a 70s British sex comedy of the era with a little bit more gore, more sleaze, but the same disjointed view on good taste separated from the modern day. It's an apt comparison with comedian Jackie Vernon in the lead. A figure who'll make the film more shocking for American viewers due to having voiced Frosty the Snowman in beloved Christmas animated specials in the US, he's at times almost in slow motion alongside other performances, making it impossible for the jokes to work regardless of the quality of the writing itself. If the original choice for the lead was affordable, Rodney Dangerfield, then even the tired "nagging wife" jokes would've had more spark in them, and even added some credibility to an older, larger man being about attract nubile, younger women due to his natural charisma. Other times however Vernon is perfect as long as a viewer reads the film with Donald not being a sympathetic character. A lot of time he's a bumbling dolt, but the only really likable moment in the whole film is one scene, when he's stuck to eating dog food sandwiches because of his wife's cooking, where he befriends a stray on the construction site he works for. For the rest of the film however he's a useless chauvinist male from an era whose wife, barring the terrible decision to try to cook elaborate food without enough skill and with a stupidly large microwave, is completely innocent and his midlife crisis becomes cannibalism by way of sex ritual.
Helping the film is having been made available on Blu-Ray with a pristine image, revealing in the current day that, whilst the director's previous career as a documentary and public information short director has a significant influence on the film, technical competent but not attempting any risks on such a low budget in terms of elaborate camera moments or editing, the production design gives the film a colourful, garish kitsch that adds to the perversity of its tone. Having art and production designer Robert A. Burns, famous for his incredible and terrifying work on The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), helps so much in Microwave Massacre's favour. Donald's home feels like it's from a sixties sexploitation movie rather than the late seventies when the film was shot, and the general sense of colour the whole film has gives it a cartoonish tone appropriate for such broad stereotypes and broad, dumb humour, giving the failure of most of humour a more interesting tone of being alien, a suburban environment where everyone acts with a disconnect of sitcom characters in a deeply inappropriate and adult narrative.
Then there's the titular microwave, a comically giant monstrosity where Donald can put multiple fake arms and prosthetics in it at once (courtesy of Burns' effects, some of which he had no shame in recycling from previous gigs). I originally found this, even for a horror comedy, utter absurd until I heard a late seventies radio ad advertising a Sears microwave, suggesting the public could cook a whole lavish dinner (pork chops, mashed potatoes, vegetables) within one to save time for busy families. In the modern day, unless a microwave is all a household can afford or fit in a very small apartment, the notion of a microwave replacing an oven as the main tool of a kitchen is absurd, only seen now to defrost ingredients to cook in an oven late or to heat up microwave food and leftovers, but at one time there was a serious suggestion (at least from companies) suggesting they were important new innovations. (This at least lasted into the late eighties, as my parents still own a second print version a Hitachi Microwave Cookbook from 1988). Even Vernon's own stab at a meaning to the film, documented in retrospective materials, that it's a warning about modern technology corrupting people fits in how, for all Microwave Massacre's failings, it's a gleefully perverse tale of a suburban white slob whose sex cannibalism murders, including giving his co-workers the spare meat to eat, is helped by the ease of using such a stupidly elaborate microwave. Even the subplot of the machine effecting his pacemaker is an exaggeration of an actual fear with the machines even if it seems ridiculous now.
Abstract Spectrum: Grotesque/Psychotronic/Weird
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): None
Unintentionally Microwave Massacre redeems itself for me. Even with the fact, baring slashers, 'I'm fascinated with this period of independent American horror cinema, Massacre feels like with one nudge, and significantly better jokes, it would've been in a kitsch, perverse view of middle or upper working class life, pissing on suburbia as Donald does into the fireplace at one point out of frustration. While its far from the weirdest films of this era, it's still a peculiar experience where even the absolute pits stand out, stumbling through a deliberate lame world such as Donald picking out a woman with an unknown foreign accent dressed in the worst chicken costume you could ever see just for terrible poultry puns.
And some of the jokes do work. Everything with the bartender at a strip joint, who hates people crying about their terrible existences and talks about his haemorrhoids to get rid of patrons is funny, as is Donald's female neighbour who is sexually liberated and has many sex parties. Some of the later is the writing trying too hard, such as her digging holes into her lawn to plant seeds with a vibrator, but the introductory moment is perfect to try to find a tone to appreciate Microwave Massacre, where a male patron of an orgy at the home, a cameo by one of the film's producers in women's underwear, closes the curtains but still looks through at Donald with a disgusted look as if he's the real deviant, proved by everything he commits no long afterwards.
Microwave Massacre has to be approached with caution. Many have rightly dismissed it as junk for its awful jokes, some that rightly you couldn't get away with today, but like a lot of these films you can still gain a lot from it even if its unintentional. For me, like many American exploitation films, there's entertainment even in their failures and manage to still show a picture of when they were made. It's a film many would understandably feel embarrassed about seeing, but with its combination of "take my wife" era jokes, crass eighties sex comedy (but with a middle aged stand-up in the lead rather than a hunky, brainless male lead), and moments of gore in the Herschel Gordon Lewis mould are already a curious combination alongside strange, unexplained moments such as a nude woman being smeared with mayonnaise than covered with a giant piece of bread. It's a queer taste in terms of a movie, but one that's appealing as much as it is scrapping the barrel for that reason.