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Shudder Secrets: This Is GWAR Explained

Courtesy of Shudder

Prior to watching This Is GWAR, if you asked me to name something about the band, I’d likely mention their rocking cameo in Empire Records. Who can forget that scene when Ethan Embry’s Mark eats a pot brownie and a GWAR stage monster devours him? Or maybe I’d tell you they were one of Beavis and Butthead’s favorite bands. In fact, I’m pretty sure that show is where I first heard of them.

The point is, I never claimed to be the biggest GWAR fan. My encounters with them are mostly through other pop culture avenues. However, director Scott Barber’s nearly two-hour documentary gave me a newfound respect for the misfits and monsters, especially all the highs and lows they endured over the years. This Shudder original is a bloody delight, a true behind-the-scenes look at the art project turned 30-year band that is GWAR. Hardcore and casual fans will get a kick out of this film.

GWAR’s Early Days

For even the most avid devotee, This Is GWAR likely contains some footage they haven’t seen before. The band started in Richmond, Virginia in the early 1980s. As one member says, “it was the capital of the Confederacy.” Despite that, Richmond still had a punk scene. That’s where some of the band’s earliest members, including Chuck Varga, frontman Dave Brockie, and Hunter Jackson found each other.

GWAR’s founders were art nerds who rebelled against the establishment. Their art was never cool enough because it was inspired by comic books and Dungeons & Dragons. If you look at the GWAR stage costumes, it makes sense. This documentary really digs into the history of the band’s earliest days and inspiration, including sketchings of their earliest state costumes and characters.

Courtesy of Shudder

There’s plenty of rough concert footage of the band’s first shows, way before they perfected their stage antics and sound. It’s rough, dirty, and bloody. There’s also something beautiful about the band’s early DIY aesthetic, including the hours they spent perfecting their stage props. As someone who also came from the punk scene and whose worldview was very much shaped by it, I can appreciate the first 30 minutes or so of this documentary. It’s as much a tribute to the American punk scene as it is a documentary of the band’s earliest days.

GWAR and Censorship

Barber also does a good job placing the band within a larger historical, social, and political context. For instance, there are clips of Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snider testifying before Congress about censorship. There’s another clip of Al Gore railing against entertainment he deems inappropriate. His wife, Tipper Gore, led the charge.

GWAR battled its own cases of censorship. After they painted some of their early tour buses/school bushes with crazy slogans and images, police often pulled them over, especially in the South. Frontman Dave Brockie was arrested and faced trial over censorship/obscenity charges. The documentary constantly reminds viewers that the band always pushed the envelope.

When one of the band’s long-form music videos was nominated for a Grammy, they showed up in costume, terrorizing celebs and musicians on the red carpet. They did this despite being warned not to arrive in costume. When their label, Metal Blade, inched close to a distribution deal with Warner, the major label insisted GWAR drop one of the tracks from their forthcoming album because of profanity. The band refused, and to their credit, Metal Blade stuck by them. It cost the indie label a major distribution deal.

Courtesy of Shudder

Documenting GWAR’s Highs & Lows

I’m hard-pressed to think of many contemporary artists today willing to push as much as GWAR pushed. You can dislike their music or find their stage set-ups silly. But you must respect the way they challenged censorship laws and America’s Puritan underpinnings throughout their career.

I grew up in the 90s, so I distinctly remember seeing GWAR on “Beavis and Butthead” and in Empire Records. However, I wasn’t fully aware of just how much attention the band received, especially by the mid-90s. They were true shock rockers, appearing on “The Joan Rivers Show,” “Jerry Springer,” and other daytime pop culture staples. They gained all this attention without the support of a major label. I’m unsure that’s even possible today. These clips of GWAR and Joan Rivers are priceless. She looks frightened, yet bemused.

Yet, the documentary takes a sad turn within its last 45 minutes. There are various band fights, especially between old-school members Brockie and Hunter. Being a band for so long can be a bitch, especially when members have competing visions. So many members drifted in and out of the band, that it’s hard to keep track. Several are interviewed for the doc. It’s a real credit to Barber that he tracked so many of them down.

Then, the band suffered two major tragedies, the death of guitarist Cory Smoot and then the death of Brockie, who passed at 50 from a heroin overdose. The doc gives ample time to both their deaths and the aftermath of the tragedies. After Smoot’s death, the band didn’t stop. They grieved together and continued to play shows. Brockie’s death left the remaining members wondering if they should continue. Ultimately, they decided to press forward. Former member Mike Bishop returned to front the band, certain it’s what Brockie would have wanted. When you see past and current members talk in front of the camera after their fallen bandmates, it’s clear they’re family. That really comes across throughout the runtime, but especially in these moving segments.

Decades after first playing punk shows in dingy Richmond dives, GWAR trudges on, as loud and bloody as ever. This Is GWAR is a testament to the band’s resilience and DIY ethos.

Not Just for the Hardcore Fans

In short, This Is GWAR is a blast. The nearly two-hour runtime passes in a breeze, a blood-soaked breeze. I always held a little curiosity about the band. Now, I want to see them the next time they’re in town. Just don’t count on me pushing towards the front of the pit. I’m a little too chicken to get sprayed with bodily fluids.

This documentary captures the highs and the lows of the shock rockers, giving you insight into the men and women who have donned the rubber suits for decades to shred those guitars and sacrifice a fan or two. Behind all the theatrics is a very human story about a band of misfits and monsters still going strong after 30 odd years.

This Is GWAR rocks Shudder on Thursday, July 21. Keep up to date on the streaming service’s latest content by following my weekly Shudder Secrets column.