MASKS, SWEAT & SPANDEX: GIVING GRUNT! THE LOVE IT DESERVES.
Neon Marquee contributor Mark Vanselow dives into a rare cult favorite of the wrestling variety. Stay tuned for an exclusive interview with Director Allan Holzman.
For whatever reason, movies about pro wrestling are generally ignored by film buffs, yet the wrestling movie deserves to be considered a legitimate subgenre of its own. There are many similarities between the illusory world of pro wrestling and the smoke-and-mirrors of cinema--something obviously forgotten by film fanatics when considering (or not considering) the pro wrestling film subgenre--that ought to make wrestling flicks popular with serious movie viewers.
Yet the door swings both ways. For some reason, wrestling fans with a casual interest in cinema generally do not embrace films about the mat game. They will most likely watch films that feature their favourite wrestlers doing something other than wrestling, yet with very few exceptions, wrestling movies do precious little business at the box office, failing to attract more than a fraction of their potential audience. The same fan that will plunk down a massive amount of money for a ringside seat at a wrestling show is unlikely to scower cinema programmes and video stores to enjoy a couple of hours watching a wrestling flick for peanuts.
Grunt! The Wrestling Movie (1985) is a mockumentary comedy concerning Mad Dog Joe De Curso (Greg ‘Magic’ Schwarz), an enigmatic pro wrestler whose promising career between the ropes is derailed due to the catastrophic outcome of his match with the world heavyweight champion, Skull Crusher Johnson (Victor Rivera). Mad Dog Joe disappears from the public eye, arousing much speculation as to his whereabouts. When a new wrestling sensation, known simply as The Mask, appears on the scene, there are those who believe the hooded behemoth is Mad Dog in disguise. A documentary team, headed by lifetime wrestling fan Lesley Uggams (Jim Turner), joined by fellow grappling guru Doctor Tweed (Robert Glaudini), hits the road, determinded to discover the secret behind The Mask—and maybe, the whereabouts of Mad Dog Joe De Curso.
Grunt! The Wrestling Movie could have bucked the trend of the wrestling film that struggles to find its audience, yet several factors worked against it. New World Pictures, eager to release a film that would cash in on the burgeoning rock ‘n’ wrestling craze, was upset that the film was a hip comedy rather than an action flick, and didn’t quite know what to do with it. The film was rushed onto screens in the southeastern United States, without a trailer, as a replacement for another movie, only for a tornado to hit the area at the same time, meaning everybody stayed home that weekend. Grunt! The Wrestling Movie did manage to get a single theatre release in Los Angeles at the (now defunct) Fox Venice Theater, opening with a live wrestling event outside the venue on Lincoln Boulevard, a spectacular that drew a sell out crowd. Unfortunately, that was about it for the film at the cinemas. Grunt! The Wrestling Movie failed to garner a wide theatrical release and was dumped, thoughtlessly, in the sports section of video rental stores, where it soon faded into cinematic obscurity.
Grunt! The Wrestling Movie has for many years been one of my favorite motion pictures. If you understand pro wrestling, then you ought to get the appeal of this criminally overlooked film. The dilemma with making a narrative movie about pro wrestling is, of course, whether to portray wrestling as the work it really is (a staged spectacle where the result is pre-agreed between the participants), or as a legitimate sport. The former option is certainly doable, and indeed, numerous films that acknowledge wrestling as a work rather than a competitive event are in existence. Take the latter option, and you risk insulting the intelligence of your audience. Granted, it’s easy enough to suspend disbelief when wrestling footage is shown in a film, yet it’s much more difficult to buy into those earnest locker room conversations where the heroes ponder whether they shall be able to defeat their next opponents, as if they don’t already know the outcome. For some fans, not willing to accept the kayfabe wrestling film (i.e. one that presents wrestling as genuine competition) on its own terms, this sort of thing might come across as terribly dated. The genius of Grunt! The Wrestling Movie is it’s presented in the mockumentary (pseudo documentary) format. Nothing takes place without the presence of Lesley Uggams and his trusty camera crew, so we are never asked to believe that these larger-than-life wrestling characters remain in character away from the spotlight. Pro wrestling television shows have, for many years now, tapped into the mockumentary format, with interviews, talk show segments (e.g. Piper’s Pit) and lengthy non-wrestling vignettes inserted between the matches. So for somebody like myself, who enjoys films as well as wrestling, Grunt! The Wrestling Movie plays like one big television wrestling storyline. I accept the kayfabe element wholeheartedly, as I would when viewing a regular wrestling show, then allow myself to be carried away by the sheer excitement of it all. And when you think about it, this is the same psychology required when watching any other sort of fictional narrative movie.
One of my favourite aspects of Grunt! The Wrestling Movie is the fact it was shot on 16mm format, thus giving it a cheap look that is not only authentic to documentary filmmaking, but also true to pro wrestling itself. Take a look at footage of regional wrestling television programmes from the 1980s, and you will find that many of them appear to have been filmed on a budget of nickels and dimes. Most wrestling promoters in those days were notoriously stingy where money was concerned, or simply didn’t have much capital in the first place, a fact made obvious by the lack of production values in their television shows. Grunt! The Wrestling Movie was made on a budget of $600,000, and is all the better for it, because if the film had been afforded a high budget gloss, it would have lost much of its verisimilitude, both as a portrayal of 1980s wrestling and a guerrilla documentary.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Grunt! The Wrestling Movie is that its director and editor, Allan Holzman, was not a fan of pro wrestling prior to his involvement with the project. Still, during the shooting of the film, he did his research, leaning upon the wrestlers invited to appear before his cameras, the result being a film that touches all the bases of pro wrestling. Singles matches, handicap matches, tag team bouts, male wrestlers, female wrestlers, the sexually ambiguous (i.e. Exotic Adrian Street), midget grapplers, lucha libre (Mexican “free fight” wrestling), crazy interviews, flamboyant talk show segments, the battle royale: you name it, Grunt! The Wrestling Movie has it all. To me, it ranks as the most well-rounded wrestling movie for the grappling fanatic, at least from the many wrestling-related films that I have encountered.
Naturally, wrestling fans reading this article shall wonder “is the actual wrestling in the film any good?” Mando Guerrero, brother of the late Eddie Guerrero and son of Gory Guerrero, assembled the wrestling footage in the film, so that should tell you all you need to know. Mando also makes an appearance as El Toro, employing the lucha libre style in his bout with The Mask. Many of the wrestlers who appear in the film shall probably be unfamiliar to most contemporary wrestling fans: Exotic Adrian Street, John Tolos, Dick Murdoch, Richard ‘The Destroyer’ Beyer—these are wrestlers who peaked in the 1970s, if not earlier. The most “recent” wrestler in the film would have to be ‘Dangerous’ Danny Spivey, an American wrestler who was still fairly prominent in the 1990s. It’s something of a time capsule, but for somebody like myself who started watching wrestling at the same time this film was made, that’s a tremendous part of its appeal.
If you have never seen Grunt! The Wrestling Movie (and such is most likely the case), then I recommend it most highly. Somehow, the film manages to be politically incorrect without being the slightest bit offensive (unless you’re some type of prude with zero sense of humour). It’s a film that is devoid of elite Hollywood stars, yet many of the players (including several pro wrestlers) probably have more star quality than whomever got top billing in the last blockbuster film you saw at the multiplex. Grunt! The Wrestling Movie is available as part of a three-in-one video disc, along with another documentary-style wrestling film, I Like To Hurt People (1985) and the sci-fi action comedy Hell Comes To Frogtown (1988, featuring the late ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper). If you see it available, be certain to give it your time. It’s not often that one sees a film this good that is still largely unknown—and perhaps in time, it shall find the cult audience it has deserved for the past thirty years.
Finally, here are some fun facts about Grunt! The Wrestling Movie (with thanks to Allan Holzman):
Allan Holzman, director and editor, appears in the scene where we are first introduced to Lesley Uggams (Allan is wearing sunglasses, standing to the right of the screen as Lesley opens the door), then reappears in the Wally George scene, hoisted into the air by a security guard.
Lesley Uggams (as the name appears in the closing credits of the film) was named after Leslie Uggams, the legendary American singer-actress. It was Allan Holzman’s idea to name a character after Miss Uggams, based upon his memories of the entertainer appearing on television with musician Mitch Miller in the 1960s.
Jim Turner, the actor who appears as Lesley Uggams, was credited pseudonymously as Jeff Dial. This was because Turner did not have a Screen Actors Guild card while working on the film. Jim was also a member of Duck’s Breath Mystery Theatre, a comedy troupe that featured Dan Coffey, Leon Martell, Bill Allard and Merle Kessler, all of whom appear in the film.
Mando Guerrero, the wrestler who appears as El Toro, juiced hardway (i.e. bled for real) when The Mask threw him onto the breakaway ring steps.
J.Rae Fox and Linda Burbank (Repo Man and Sid and Nancy) worked as the art directors on the film.
Tony Randel, producer and co-story writer, came up with the name Commie Warhead for the Russian wrestler in the battle royale. Costume designer Merril Greene put the hammer and sickle logo on the red trunks for Mr. Warhead.
Susan Justin, wife of Allan Holzman, composed much of the music in the film, and performs leading vocals on the song (Do You Wanna Dance?) that accompanies the battle royale. Susan also makes a cameo appearance as the woman who is interviewed by Uggams and expresses her immense distaste for wrestling. Jim Turner came up with the dialogue for the scene. Also visible in this scene is the poster for the New World Pictures release Mutant (also known as Forbidden World), Allan Holzman’s first feature as a director.