There has never been, nor will there ever be, anyone like GWAR, the metal outfit hailing from Richmond, Virginia, who dress up as space barbarians, act out all manner of onstage obscenity, and spew their audiences with fake blood, semen, and other sticky bodily fluids. For the past four decades, GWAR has carved out a wholly unique niche in the music industry, serving as a nexus point for those who love horror movies, science fiction, fantasy, comic books, superheroes, Dungeons & Dragons, punk, and headbanging. They’re the mutant manifestation of every geeky thing in modern American popular culture, and their legacy of gonzo anti-establishment satire, pornographic performance-art pyrotechnics, gory tongue-in-cheek violence, and absurdist mania are all lovingly celebrated by This is GWAR, a non-fiction introduction to a band that long-time member Danielle Stampe (aka Slymenstra Hymen) refers to as “a joke with no punchline.”
As laid out by director Scott Barber’s (The Orange Years: The Nickelodeon Story) fun-loving documentary (July 21 on Shudder, following a limited theatrical release beginning July 16), GWAR was the byproduct of a meeting of two idiosyncratic—and, for a time, kindred—minds. In 1980s Richmond, Hunter Jackson was an aspiring and unconventional artist at Virginia Commonwealth University and his efforts to create an out-there cinematic spectacular at The Dairy—a former milk factory that had transformed into a de facto home for artistic collectives, including Hunter’s own Slave Pit—led to an encounter with David Brockie, the lead singer of on-the-rise punk band Death Piggy. By this time, Brockie was already a local celebrity thanks to his theatrics, such as providing audiences with pinatas filled with quarters, candy and cat shit, and he immediately took to Hunter and, in particular, the bizarre movie costumes he and his Slave Pit comrades were creating. One night, Brockie asked to borrow those get-ups to pose as his own opening band, dubbed “Gwarggh,” and a perverse phenomenon was born.
This is GWAR features input from admirers (Thomas Lennon, Ethan Embry, Alex Winter) and just about everyone who was ever in GWAR—and that’s a lot of people, since the band has seen numerous line-up changes over the course of its long history. The only notable omission is Brockie himself, since the co-founder and lead singer died of a drug overdose in 2014. Nonetheless, copious photos, home movies, performance clips, and other archival material capture the frontman’s live-wire personality, which soon compelled him to embrace GWAR as a full-time gig. Despite an early breakthrough show at VCU’s Shafer Court, numerous members abruptly quit—including Hunter, who opted to take a job in Detroit rather than pursue any metal dreams. Yet Brockie soldiered onward, aided by dedicated compatriots such as Chuck Varga and Don Drakulich, who developed an entire roster of characters for each musician to embody, as well as an overarching mythos about the band as alien savages hellbent on mayhem and destruction.
At this point, one should mention that GWAR is about as profane, disgusting, and outlandish as they come, headlined by Brockie as alter ego Oderus Urungus, a loudmouthed goliath with a huge goo-spewing cuttlefish hanging from his crotch (a goofy phallic creature designed to skirt domestic obscenity laws). They’re certainly not for everyone, and yet after emphasizing musicianship with 1990’s Scumdogs of the Universe LP (on Metal Blade Records), and with an enhanced live show full of latex monsters, decapitations and rowdily over-the-top fights, they attracted a loyal following. When Mike Judge made them Beavis and Butthead’s favorite band on the duo’s animated MTV series, GWAR found itself in the spotlight, embraced for both their gruesome craziness and the self-aware humor with which it was delivered.
As admirer (and one-time collaborator) “Weird Al” Yankovic says in This is GWAR, “If you’re going to do a show, you put on a show,” and that ethos—along with a DIY spirit—made the band a cult hit. Attending a GWAR show and getting drenched by geysers of who-knows-what was a rite of passage for many a metalhead, and helped create a fanatical fanbase of outcasts who were drawn to the wild and weird corners of the entertainment landscape. It also turned GWAR into its own type of fringe community: a rolling carnival of likeminded artists who were bonded by their shared love of deranged lunacy. Even though participants changed—due to assorted mishaps and conflicts—Barber’s film paints GWAR as a family, or at least a fraternal brotherhood guided by a shared vision of bringing ridiculous chaos and madness to a town near you.
“Attending a GWAR show and getting drenched by geysers of who-knows-what was a rite of passage for many a metalhead, and helped create a fanatical fanbase of outcasts who were drawn to the wild and weird corners of the entertainment landscape.”
GWAR’s 1993 Grammy nomination for their film Phallus in Wonderland is perhaps the most unlikely nod in that award show’s history, and naturally resulted in the band attending the ceremony in full barbarian attire, much to the organizers’ chagrin. Such anecdotes are plentiful in This is GWAR, none more jaw-dropping than the one about guitarist Pete Lee (aka the second Flattus Maximus) getting shot during a roadside encounter and nearly dying with his mate Mike Derks (aka Balsac the Jaws of Death) by his side. The fact that, after this near-death experience, Lee kept playing with the band while boasting a colostomy bag is in keeping with the gross, reckless, boundary-pushing nature of the band, which persevered despite severe internal clashes between attention-hogging Brockie and insecure Hunter, as well as more than one untimely death. GWAR was more than the sum of its parts, and by incorporating various voices into its mix—be it guitarists, bassists, vocalists, or the countless craftsmen like Matt Maguire and Bob Gorman who created the performers’ costumes, sets, and props—it was able to survive a raft of ups and downs that would have felled lesser units.
Even in the wake of Brockie’s Viking-funeral send-off, GWAR continues to traverse its own bonkers path, poking fun at itself and various sociopolitical targets, be it law enforcement, censorious American politicians or rape-y priests. More than merely a tribute to unrivaled devil-may-care insanity, though, This is GWAR is a portrait of creative misfits who came together to express themselves through grotesque, childish, and surprisingly revealing outsider art. They were, and still are, larger-than-life cartoons born from demented imaginations, and Barber’s film illuminates their absurdity in all its grisly glory.