Years before the Weinsteins made millions slashing films, they slashed teenagers. The Burning, a grim but comfortably anonymous entry from the salad days of the slasher craze of the early ’80s, was the first big break into moviemaking for Bob and Harvey, who were at the time largely concert promoters. Already sizably into their own legends (Harvey gives himself a “created by” in the opening titles, no doubt to the chagrin of the movie’s hired director, Tony Maylem), the two recruited the talents of prog composer Rick Wakeman and George A. Romero’s wunderkind makeup-effects artist Tom Savini to sleaze up their otherwise rudimentary exercise in suspensploitation.
Though their tale of summer-camp mayhem was conspicuously beaten to the punch by Paramount’s Friday the 13th, the Weinsteins’ real undoing ironically ended up being the zealousness of the MPAA, rapidly becoming sensitive to the genre’s race to the bottom and flexing their muscle in tandem with the rise of America’s moral majority. As a result, some of the wettest moments from The Burning ended up on the cutting room floor, leaving behind an unusually long exposition, more than just a few false alarm scares, and a young George Costanza (a.k.a. Jason Alexander) voicing his preoccupation with his bunkmates’ spunk, clearly not yet a master of his domain.
The Burning opens with a group of teen boys punking their camp janitor, Cropsy (Lou David), in the middle of the night, placing a flaming skull on the passed-out drunkard’s nightstand and watching him freak out upon waking up. It’s framed as a prank gone wrong, but the skull, having been jarred onto Cropsy’s bed by his flailing legs, lights up the mattress so fast you have to presume the caretaker just spilled an entire fifth of Jim Beam on the sheets before falling asleep. He’s instantly lit ablaze in the confusion and left for dead, but a hospital patches him up with what looks like flesh-colored Bondo and turns him loose to call up, strip down, and rip open the hooker next door.
Not far away, every teen at Camp Anawanna has paired off with their heterosexual counterpart except for open-mouthed shower-peeper Alfred (Brian Backer), who the movie at first seems to be preparing to reveal as either Cropsy’s younger brother, his love child, or his telekinetic avenger. Strapping counselor Todd (Brian Matthews) takes Alfred under his wing, occasionally allowing him enough free reign to wander into the woods and witness Cropsy murdering one of his tormenters with an oversized set of hedge clippers. Is Cropsy doing Alfred a series of favors? Or is he just resolutely butthurt that sexy teens turned his mug into a collapsed blancmange? Damned if the Weinsteins care. Notable mostly for its prime-era Savini bloodshed and a few quick glimpses of a young Holly Hunter (uttering about as many lines of dialogue as won her an Oscar a dozen years later for The Piano), returning to The Burning three decades later is like contemplating any summer at camp: Peel away your nostalgia, and you’ll be left with 20-second sex bouts and insect bites.
The Burning was gutted on its initial release, but Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray presentation offers the original cut, which is still pretty tame held against the likes of some of Tom Savini’s other contemporary efforts, most notably Maniac. The print is lovely, though, with nary an artifact or scratch. All imperfections appear to be inherent in the film’s cheap production values. The sound mix is occasionally too dynamic, with some of the jump-scare moments accompanied by musical stings many decibels above the general din of the dialogue sequences. But if that’s what it takes to turn The Burning into a horror classic, so be it.
Though there are no less than four interviews and two commentary tracks, no one’s making any great claims for The Burning’s place as some lost great classic of 1980s horror cinema. And yet the participants on the commentary tracks provided on Shout’s Blu-ray take the film pretty seriously, especially Alan Jones, the noted "international film journalist" moderating the commentary with the film’s director Tony Maylam. No one involved harbors any delusions that the Weinsteins were already feeling their oats as hands-very-on moguls in training, but at the very least their concurrent roles as concert promoters allowed the cast and crew a chance to see George Benson in concert. The image of Cropsy getting down to "Give Me the Night" is as amusing as any of the mayhem he commits on screen. Cropsy himself shows up for an interview. The actor playing him, Lou David, says the timing of the film’s shoot was unfortunate: His son was born one day, and the next he had to head upstate to kill teens. The film’s editor, Jack Sholder, reveals that he was far more into Fassbinder than Fulci, and Tom Savini reveals just how reckless some of his stunts actually were. In all, a solid package of extras that actually seem more diverting than the main feature.
Would The Burning have been a better movie without the involvement of Bob and Harvey Weinstein? Wouldn’t any movie?