In late 2014, when Ryan Graveface launched Terror Vision, an imprint of his Graveface label specializing in horror-movie music, he’d already secured the rights to its new release: the score for a 1988 obscurity called 555. It’s the only movie from director Wally Koz, who used Ukrainian Village as the backdrop to his no-budget slasher. (Graveface now lives in Savannah, Georgia, but he spent years in Chicago.) Koz shot the movie on video, a popular choice for aspiring horror filmmakers after the rise of camcorder technology in the 1980s. Shoestring productions like his, released directly to VHS, filled out the horror sections of the country’s rental shops.
Koz’s 555 has more going for it than the average cheapo horror flick. He was a reasonably competent director, and he hired actors and crew who knew what they were doing. His special effects artist, Jeffery Lyle Segal, had previously worked on cult favorites with six-figure budgets, including Re-Animator and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Segal built the severed head that appears on the hot-pink VHS box for 555, modeled on actor Scott Hermes, who went on to become an ensemble player in the Neo-Futurists’ Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind. (When Hermes appeared on Jeopardy! in 2002, his “fun fact” about himself was that he’d been decapitated in a film.) To make the movie’s music, Koz enlisted his friend Frankie “Hollywood” Rodriguez, a member of legendary house collective the Hot Mix 5.
Rodriguez’s pedigree made for a distinctive horror score. “The fact that Frankie was involved, obviously with his background, it’s funky and dancy at times,” Graveface says. “It makes the 555 score interesting and good. It’s got these, like, slasher bits of [mimics sharp synth “stab” sounds] and a fucking weird, spooky, disco-sounding tune. It’s very different.” For more than 30 years, you could only hear the score by watching the movie. Original VHS copies have become expensive collector’s items, but Michigan-based movie label Massacre Video released 555 on DVD in the early 2010s. Massacre founder Louis Justin helped Graveface secure the rights to the music, and late last month Graveface announced that Terror Vision would give the 555 score its first-ever release. It’s coming out on cassette and vinyl via the label’s new VHS Horror Favorites Series, which he says commemorates “crazy rare VHS tape releases that are things that people vaguely remember renting.”
Even this modest fuss has Rodriguez bemused. “I’m flattered that somebody would even ask me about this garbage,” he says.
Rodriguez met Koz in the late 80s, when both were auditioning for film and TV roles. In addition to DJing, Rodriguez had been making his way up the ladder at Second City, and he says he was part of the touring company when Koz began working on what became 555. “He had this little film he wanted to do,” Rodriguez says. “It was just this little piece of crap to throw out there and get it onto video—then this way we could build up to do something for real.”
Rodriguez contributed the movie’s original score (what Terror Vision is putting out) plus excerpts of a few previously issued house tracks that appear in the movie but not on the new release—they include material from 1986’s “Everybody Do It!” (for Chicago label Underground) and 1987’s “Feel the Fire” (for DJ International). To compose the score, Rodriguez tried to enlist help. “I hired a keyboard player to come down to the studio to lay down the scary music and all that other stuff,” he says. “The guy couldn’t show up. He was sick. And we only had so much time—for a small film, you’re gonna block out a studio for eight, nine hundred bucks, you better get something done.”
At Koz’s insistence, and against his better judgment, Rodriguez played the entire score himself. “Weird, horrible, out of key—I didn’t know how to play the keyboards,” he says. “Just throwing some music over stupid stuff.” It took him four hours to finish.
Rodriguez claims Alice Cooper has told him that 555 is a so-bad-it’s-good favorite of his (Cooper could not be reached for comment). But he doesn’t think much of 555 himself. “It’s so cheesy and horrible,” Rodriguez says. Not everybody sees that as a drawback, though, and the movie has attracted a cult audience in the decades since Koz self-released it.
It certainly made an impression on Graveface, a longtime fan of shot-on-video horror movies. “Growing up, when I was starting to obsess over Video Violence and 555, I would be amazed that I could just make these—and so I did,” he says. “I made a bunch of short films at like 12, 13, 14. None of them are any good.” Graveface says he’ll never show those old movies, but the DIY directors of the films he loved—”really highly motivated weirdos that had oftentimes stupid concepts”—lit a fuse in him the way 1980s punk did in many of his peers.
Graveface is serious about using Terror Vision to elevate the music from horror movies on the fringe, not from recognized classics. “If John Carpenter himself got in touch and said, ‘I’m a huge Terror Vision fan, and I would love for you to put out the Prince of Darkness or Halloween III score,’ and on the same day—and I have a limited budget—Frankie gets in touch and says, ‘Hey, you got to put out 555,’ I would do 555 over any Carpenter piece, any day.”
Transferring the 555 score to vinyl and cassette took some time. Engineer Collin Jordan of Chicago mastering studio Boiler Room cleaned up the audio earlier this year, as Graveface prepared to launch the VHS Horror Favorites Series. The preceding release in the series is the score to Video Violence, a 1987 shot-on-video flick whose writer and director, Gary Cohen, claims it cost $6 to make. Next to that, 555 appears positively professional, notwithstanding Rodriguez’s memories of its slapdash production.
In addition to making the music, Rodriguez appears in one scene as an unnamed cook at Peppe’s Hot Dogs, which in real life was run by a friend of his. Rodriguez says he got the OK to film during off hours—which meant that if he and the crew wanted food (whether for a scene or just to sustain themselves), they had to make it. “That’s why I’m behind the counter,” he says.
“How was the food?” I ask.
“It was just as good as the soundtrack,” he says. “It was horrible!” v