If you ever wanted to see multiple members of Gwar cry – multiple times, even – then Shudder exclusive This is Gwar is the rock-doc for you. For anyone wondering what in the cripes “the Gwar” is, it’s a punk-metal band-cum-performance-art-collective whose concerts are The Damnedest Things: Members dressed like alien barbarians, fighting latex-and-foam dinosaurs and things, abusing their “slaves,” drenching audiences with fake blood and semen, decapitating effigies of current socio-political or pop-cultural figures, stuff like that. Gwar is certainly a singular institution whose 38-years-and-counting legacy has shed naysayers’ cries of gimmickry with sheer longevity, and as you’d expect, anything that’s existed for that long has its share of triumphs and tragedies, detailed here in this 110-minute doc. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, but you’ll spew juices either way.
The Gist: In the mid-1980s, Richmond, Virginia was, per a Gwar guy, “a good place to get your ass kicked.” In the heart of an abandoned milk-bottling plant converted into rental spaces for artists and bands, Gwar was born, in a greezy puddle of pulp and punk. Two projects became one: a mega-cheapo comic-booky sci-fi film project called Scumdogs of the Universe, conceived by art students Hunter Jackson and Chuck Varga, merged with hardcore punk band Death Piggy, fronted by maniac-about-town Dave Brockie. The three guys donned some of the movie costumes, borrowed a few musicians to make some punknoise, and staged a joke-band performance-art concert under Gwaaarrrgghhlllgh – that’s per Wikipedia; it may have been spelled differently in the film – a name they really should’ve kept.
Then again, nomenclatorial simplification surely rendered the project far more marketable, because the likes of Jerry Springer, Beavis and Butthead and Joan Rivers eventually showcased their ability to pronounce “Gwar.” But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Between that first very dumb concert and the height of the band’s ’90s infamy, the core trio pieced together a concept and adopted stage personae (Oderus Urungus, the Sexecutioner, etc.) and wrote songs and recruited musicians (drummer Brad “Jizmak Da Gusha” Roberts and guitarist Mike “Balsac the Jaws of Death” Derks being the longest-standing) and recorded albums and worked with stagecraft/FX artists and landed a deal with Metal Blade Records and made long-form videos and toured its wild show to any place that would have it.
The idiot genius of Gwar’s awesomely lo-fi performance-art concerts was rooted in underground comix, shitty Z-grade movies, Dungeons and Dragons and reactionary punk rock. Example: The first time I saw Gwar, they decapitated Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, and fake blood spewed from their necks, soaking their ecstatic and delighted fans, who wore white shirts so they could tout their hardcore devotion; Oderus/Brockie also routinely blasted fans with juice from his “Cuttlefish of Cthulhu,” which hung between his legs like a gigantic schwantz. He was arrested for doing that once, which got Gwar in newspapers and on MTV News, and eventually on ridiculous TV shows. Between that type of infamy and a devoted core fanbase, Gwar has become the world’s most ridiculous franchise, a full-time job for the core collective, who maintain a revolving door of crew and band members to this very day.
The doc gets into the personalities behind Gwar, the biggest one being Brockie, a True Character who we see comedically outpacing Joan Rivers on syndicated television. He died of a heroin overdose in 2014, which is the part of the movie where the waterworks start, and we see the sensitive sides of guys who wear oversized latex monster gear and play sloppy thrash for a living. These guys are legends, man. And who attests to that? Weird Al, Alex Winter, Lamb of God singer Randy Blythe, Metal Blade owner Brian Slagel, a guy who plays in the band The Sword. They aren’t the important voices here; they’re just color. The heart of this movie are those that beat strong, and sometimes break, within the greater body of the moronically brilliant art-punk seminary that is Gwar.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: There hasn’t been this much crying in a metal doc since Metallica: Some Kind of Monster. This is Gwar also reminded me of Death by Metal, which is about the metal band Death, and A Band Called Death, which is about the punk band Death, and Anvil! The Story of Anvil, which is about the band Anvil and is the best metal doc this side of The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years.
Performance Worth Watching: So many Gwar characters cycle in and out of this movie, but Derks, Roberts and Matt Maguire – a crucial supporting player who designs Gwar FX and tours as a character, Sawborg – open their hearts quite a bit for the camera.
Memorable Dialogue: Beefcake the Mighty: “They took Dave’s dick away in a five-gallon bucket.”
Sex and Skin: Skimpy Gwar stage garb; Oderus’ fake phallus.
Our Take: This is Gwar covers all the bases: Chronology, context, key players, triumphs and tragedies, a few wild stories. It opens with a crew guy talking about how he preps canisters full of fake blood for live shows, and ends with a big pile of warm fuzzies. It’s thorough, rock-solid, steady-as-she-goes for nearly two hours. It’s structured like an oral history, with lots of talking heads and archival footage. As rock docs go, it’s pretty good.
However, it could use a few flourishes. Some behind-the-scenes-of-a-Gwar-show footage. A deeper dive into the content of its shows, which can be political, un-P.C. and highly provocative. A montage of effigies Gwar murdered on stage, maybe – although there is a bit about the time they sodomized a pedophile priest on stage (“It was just a big rubber butt”) and the cops came and threw Brockie in the clink. (Brockie’s death leaves a big hole in the middle of the doc; without his voice, the story doesn’t quite feel whole.) There’s some wildly incomplete subtext here about a band that stirred a lot of shit in the ’90s, shit that would be problematic now – and considering Gwar still keeps on keeping on, have they had to tone it down at all? The question goes unasked, possibly because that’s a big can of worms, towering even taller than the T-rex Gor-Gor, who chows on Gwar “slaves” live on stage.
Otherwise, director Scott Barber pieces together an energetic narrative that ably captures the spirit of Gwar. Some warts included, because current and former members don’t mince too many words about each other, and some of them lament their lost friendships. Near the end of the movie, one member says Gwar isn’t the type of workplace where people talk about their feelings, which, considering the absurd context – and low-budget; this isn’t a band that can afford a psychoanalyst on its payroll – strikes one as a no-shit-Sherlock moment. But at least the doc gives them an opportunity to do so. Who knew Gwar could be so human.
Our Call: This is Gwar is an enjoyable chronicle of an institution of underground music. Do as Oderus’ latex dong always did, and STREAM IT.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at johnserbaatlarge.com.