The Music of Johnny Gruesome

CD Review by Gregory S. Burkart

Hot on the heels of the just-released (and quite groovy) soundtrack from Greg Lamberson's '80s splatter flick Slime City (check out my my review of the soundtrack if you haven't already... go ahead, I'll wait) is another bit of bizarre fun that taps into the same sleazy '80s splatter vibe, but this time with a jigger of E.C. Comics and old-school rock 'n' roll mixed in. This classic cocktail carries a mighty kick in the form of a guitar-totin', shades-sportin' zombie rocker named Johnny Gruesome ? the subject of an ambitious multimedia project spanning the printed word, comics and film... and of course this CD, the songs upon which partially represent the thoughts of its own undead anti-hero.

So, how does the CD fit in? Is Johnny the fictional alter ego for an existing musician or group, sorta like Gorillaz? Well, not technically. A movie soundtrack, then? Not exactly, since there's no movie to go with it... not yet, anyway. Well... there is a movie, but it's only nine minutes long. So what the hell? Maybe we need a little setup first.

To describe this album we have to venture back over 20 years, to when the Johnny Gruesome project was born as a screenplay by Lamberson ? who came up with the idea in the mid-'80s (even before Slime City) but couldn't find the financial backing to do the project justice. Instead, he reinvented the concept as a novel, but still held fast to the idea of having songs accompany the story. To this end he recruited Canadian musical team Giasone and Marcy Italiano to conceive the appropriately-titled track ?Gruesome,? created initially as a promotional theme for the book's website.

The demo version of this track so impressed Lamberson that he proposed an entire album of songs that either directly referenced events in the book, or at least expressed the same pulpy, horror-rock attitude. The result is this 10-track collection of straight-up, no-nonsense rock 'n' roll that will warm the leather-clad cockles of anyone who grew up digging Alice Cooper.

The album is Inspired by the novel's tale of Johnny Grissom, a hard-rockin' teen rebel who returns from the grave as ?Johnny Gruesome,? quite literally hell-bent on avenging his own murder. Several of the songs directly reference the plot, and are indeed sung from Johnny's point of view. It is these tracks where Giasone Italiano draws most heavily on the Alice Cooper influence to create the title character's persona: the influence of Cooper's '80s output, primarily Constrictor, is readily apparent in cuts like ?Monster,? ?Death Mobile? and the title tune, which is definitely my favorite.

There's also an authentic beer-drenched roadhouse feel to ?Graveyard Blues,? a quaint cabaret-gone-horribly-wrong approach in ?Aunt Alicia,? and old-school punk plays a hand in ?Sorry Mary.? The package is rounded out by some eerie atmospheric touches, including spoken excerpts from Coleridge's ?The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner,? and the somber, half-sung poem ?Mary Whispers,? which calls to mind some of the great haunted house records of the '60s.

While I occasionally felt a certain melodic sameness ? the kind of homogeneity that bogs down so many horror-rock acts following in the bootprints of The Misfits and/or The Cramps ? there's a real sincerity and sense of fun at work here that keeps these songs on target. The production is simple and uncluttered by excessive sound effects, and there's a storytelling quality to the writing that keeps it real. Italiano also knows how to write an effective hook, and quite a few of these tunes are seriously catchy.

Although the feature film is only in the planning stage and the novel won't be available until later this year, you can still pick up this CD right now through Lamberson's website,, and while you're in the neighborhood you can find plenty of other goodies including a creepy latex mask (cool shades included!) and a deeply disturbing online comic book. You can also hear the title track and ?Death Mobile? in an extended promotional trailer for the book featuring cult cutie Erin Brown (better known as Misty Mundae), an undead coke-snorting Johnny in Fulci-style zombie makeup, and a wraparound sequence with Italiano plugging his guitar into Johnny's headstone like an amplifier. It's an ambitious approach that promises wicked-cool fun for broad-minded adults who never outgrew their teenage addictions to heavy metal, horror comics and splatter flicks... hell, I just described myself.