Decampitated (1998): Pitching Tent

Troma acquisitions can be a motley crew in terms of quality, but Dave is confident that this backwoods slasher comedy is among the company’s finest pick-ups.

Writing in Demon Theory: A Work of Fiction, his literary film treatment from 2006, Stephen Graham Jones remarked how “Decampitated includes one of the best all-time opening sequences, right up there with Broken Lizard’s Club Dread (2004).” [1]

He’s absolutely right, too. As you sit agog at the sight of a helpless camper hacking her own limbs off with an axe in a desperate attempt to escape a series of bear traps and flee from whatever is chasing her, it manages to be both unrelentingly savage yet hysterically funny. It’s no surprise, then, that among Troma’s dizzying triple-figure slate of acquisitions over the past few decades DECAMPITATED remains a film that fans are drawn to, as CEO Lloyd Kaufman explains:

“I go to a lot of conventions and people definitely talk about things they’ve discovered, like Decampitated, which is on Troma Now. A wonderful film, though we didn’t write or direct it (we were executive producers). It’s hilarious and has a very Troma sense of humour.” [2]

Though forever associated with the house that Toxie built, the future of Decampitated was less than secure back in 1995, when make-up obsessive Matt Cunningham (“I got Dick Smith’s book, and it totally set my hair on fire” [3]) began shooting the movie he co-wrote with friends Ryan Lowery and Carolyn C. Miller, deep in Colorado Springs. It was about a quirky group of seven friends who plan to spend the weekend away at the infamous DeCamp Acres. However, in the wake of a car crash, they’re forced to hike the rest of the way through the dense forest, and it’s here that they encounter a barbaric psychopath hellbent on bloodshed and butchery.

Well, let’s use the term ‘psychopath’ in its most ambiguous form: until the final act it’s a tough call to pin any kind of definitive label on the skipping, wader-wearing, plaid shirt adorned nutjob at the heart of Decampitated. Nevertheless, he’s handy with an assortment of weaponry, and Cunningham’s heptad mishmash of kooky personalities are ideal slasher fodder. From long-haired and lanky surfer dude Garrett (Mike Hart), to hoop-sweatered nerd Toby (Steve Ladden), they’re a collection of cranks who foster little affection. Except that is for Ryan Lowery’s crossdressing nympho of an ex-quarterback, whose seduction of the strapping Vince (Deus Xavier Scott) is just delicious.

Music is key to the success of Cunningham’s film. Not only does it boast a kick-ass soundtrack that mixes metal, rock and punk, but the dramatic musical cues that are woven through the movie feel like they’re the result of a raid on a royalty free library stash of cuts from a host of ‘40s crime capers. It’s an aural blend that has no right to work, but it does so perfectly and punctuates the on-screen anarchy with ironic wit and a real element of class.

With the picture in the bag, the cost of preparing Decampitated for market proved to be a bridge too far for Cunningham and his production partners. It’s here that Kaufman stepped in to help the young filmmaker, taking the film to the 51st Cannes International Film Festival.

“Distributors like Troma regularly provide filmmakers with finishing funds,” wrote Kaufman in his seminal tome, Make Your Own Damn Movie! “We’ve done that for a number of movies that included Decampitated. If you can raise every dime for every stage of the process, then great! But if you can’t (and it’s very possible that you can’t), don’t let it stop you. Focus on getting your movie shot. The rest will work out in time.” [4]

For Cunningham, it couldn’t have worked out better. Decampitated hit American video stores in November ’98, and a decade after that it appeared in comic book form via a Troma Graphic novel from Devil’s Due publishing. In terms of directing, he’s only wielded the megaphone on one other occasion, and that was for the much-maligned Stephen King-based sequel, The Mangler Reborn (2005) (“It was made for the price of two brand new BMWs, and we shot it in ten days” [5]). Granted, the latter hasn’t yet been bestowed with the cult status afforded to his debut, but give it time. Give it time.

USA ● 1998 ● Comedy, Horror ● 90mins

Mike Hart, Amy Gordon, Steve Ladden, Ryan Lowery, Deus Xavier Scott ● Dir. Matt Cunningham ● Wri. Matt Cunningham, Ryan Lowery, Carolyn C. Miller

[1] Demon Theory: A Work of Fiction by Stephen Graham Jones, 2006, MacAdam / Cage.
[2] A True Artiste: Lloyd Kaufman on His Career and His Final Film by Simon Abrams, Variety, 8th April 2022.
[3] Horror Movie Guy Talks Books – From Lovecraft to Judy Blume, GuysLitWire, Blogspot, 23rd March 2010.
[4] Make Your Own Damn Movie! Secrets of a Renegade Director by Lloyd Kaufman and Adam Jahnke, 2003, St. Martin’s Press.
[5] Matt Cunningham Interview, Stephen King Short Movies, 14th September 2007.

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