If you grew up in the late 1980s or early 1990s, you know there was no shortage of frugally made yet wildly enjoyable direct-to-video classics lining the walls of your local video store. I spent many a night renting these films back then, and few provided as many cheap thrills and good times as Hard to Die (1990), directed by Jim Wynorski of Chopping Mall (1986) fame. The film turned thirty this June, and its bare-bones plot, along with the even more bare-bones attire of the film’s leading ladies, is as simple and direct as ever, making for 77 lean, mean minutes of exploitation solid gold entertainment.
A supernatural slasher film set inside a mostly empty high-rise late at night, Hard to Die‘s origins will sound strikingly familiar to fans of cult legend Roger Corman, whose New Horizons Home Video unleashed it into the DTV market. Roger’s wife Julie Corman produced Wynorksi’s previous film, Sorority House Massacre II. Roger was impressed with the director’s ability to work fast and on the cheap, so he charged him with basically remaking that film while reusing sets from another recent Corman flick, Corporate Affairs (1990). Yet another in a long line of smart, economical business decisions from Corman, the master of shooting on the cheap.
Not only they did they reuses sets, but also footage from the legendary and subversive slasher masterpiece Slumber Party Massacre (1982) to establish that film’s driller killer is possessing this film’s murderous janitor Orville Ketchum – who returns as the killer from Sorority House Massacre II. You see, Hard to Die is also known as Sorority House Massacre III: Hard to Die, even though it doesn’t take place in a sorority house at all. Is your head spinning yet? The various connections between the Slumber Party Massacre films, The Sorority House Massacre films, and also the Cheerleader Massacre films run deep and are more than a little convoluted. They require an entire article of its own to explain. Suffice it to say, Hard to Die can most definitely be enjoyed just fine as a standalone.
The plot is exploitation cinema distilled to its purest form. Five female employees of a lingerie company are tasked by their slimy boss (whose slick-backed pony tail are enough to make you hate him on sight) with some strenuous overtime work inventorying bunch of boxes of lingerie, moving them from the basement level up to the office. Along the way, they have numerous run-ins with Orville, who stares blankly while lightning crashes ominously outside whenever he appears.
The women also accidentally unleash the serial killer’s spirit from an ornately designed box they stumble upon, which then takes possession of the dirty flannel-wearing slob Orville. Of course, the women wear the most impractical outfits to do all this heavy lifting – tight skirts and high heels – and later dispense with clothes altogether. Through typical B-movie contrivances, their outfits get soaked, they take showers one by one (while the camera lingers over each), they decide to wear some new lingerie arrivals they find in their boss’s office, while they wait for their clothes to dry. These are resourceful women, after all.
Wynorski occasionally cuts from the main action to a supporting cast that includes Famous Monsters of Filmland legend Forrest J. Ackerman as Dr. Ed Newton, who provides both Dawn and the audience with all the exposition necessary to understand what’s going on with all this demonic possession. The box that the ladies opened, which contained the serial killer’s trapped spirit, was meant to be delivered to Dr. Newton, and once he realizes the mistake, brings in the police to investigate. This leads to some sleuthing from our two tough-talking gumshoes, Jurgen Baum and Toni Naples, credited as Karen Chorak. The detectives visit a porn set (with a hammy Wynorski playing the director) to interview an actress with a connection to Orville. Keep an eye out for Chopping Mall star Kelli Maroney making an uncredited appearance as a porn actress.
The five buxom female leads in Hard to Die are memorable for other reasons besides just their measurements. Certainly, as concocted by men making a movie about women in lingerie fighting off a serial killer, they’re male-gazed to the hilt, but the actresses manage to create some easy chemistry, which helps us invest emotionally in their battle to survive this night of terror. Karen Mayo-Chandler (going by Lindsay Taylor) as Diana and Gale Thackray (billed as Robyn Harris) as Dawn are especially memorable.
Thackray displays all the of the great qualities necessary for a Final Girl: she’s a smart, resourceful, a natural leader, and because this is a Roger Corman produced exploitation flick, she also rocks that Frederick’s Hollywood getup she’s wearing like nobody’s business. Soon after discovering the conveniently located guns and ammo store in the building, she’s full-on guns-a-blazing, thus providing Hard to Die with its lasting visual signature: a beautiful woman in lingerie wielding an assault rifle like a boss. Paging Andy Sidaris!
Many of the women have their moments to shine throughout, kicking Orville’s behind at various points. None of them are easy marks, and each one gets in some good licks. At the end, and after several of our heroines have bitten the dust, the driller killer’s spirit leaps from Ketchum’s body into Diana’s, creating a final standoff between Dawn and Diana, two dueling lingerie-clad babes in a wild shootout that seems to go on forever. The amount of time they spend shooting and missing each other from ten feet away is more unbelievable than the film’s supernatural elements. Poor Orville, now trying to save Dawn, is riddled with so many shots that his survival at the end is a minor miracle. Dawn and Orville then share a lovely moment in the film’s hilarious last shot, which owes more to romantic comedies than slashers. It’s an absurdly funny final note, the kind Wynorski has done well in so many of his films, like Chopping Mall and Return of Swamp Thing.
Hard to Die is a gloriously entertaining mashup for the ages. It combines the slasher film with the Sidaris-style girls with guns genre, tosses in some supernatural ingredients, adds a bit of police procedural work, and wraps it all up in a setting and a title that knowingly wink in Die Hard’s direction. In other words, it has something for nearly everyone. It also moves along at a brisk pace, and like the best B-movies, accomplishes more in less time than most bloated highbrow epics ever will. Thirty years on, Hard to Die remains stubbornly, delightfully hard to kill.