I have great memories of hearing the commercials on my local rock radio station for Down on Us when it played at the—then—behemoth six-plex in the big city as a midnight movie. Our hopes were high. We loved the Doors. We all dog-eared our copies Jerry Hopkins’s No One Here Gets Out Alive. We loved those midnight showings of AC/DC: Let There Be Rock, Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same, and Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead. This was going to be an epic night where the classic rock spewed from the speakers, mixing with the waft of nacho cheese congealing over tortilla chips and the sweet flow of Mr. Pibb. . . .
To say we were disappointed at what unfurled across the silver screen would be an understatement. This wasn’t Rock ‘n’ Roll High School. This was Plan 9 from Outer Space: The Rock Musical. Yes, if Ed Wood made a rock ‘n’ roll flick, it would be this Larry Buchanan hot mess of a movie. Where’s Roger Corman and Allan Arkush when you need them?
While we’re on the subject of the Ramones: The modern-day doppelganger for Down on Us is Randall Miller’s muddled bioflick boondoggle, CBGB (2013). Randall Miller, the first film director in history to be convicted in the U.S. for the death of a cast or crew member (during the production of Midnight Rider, his Gregg Allman bioflick), was unable to secure permissions from the estates of Joey and Johnny Ramone, so faux “Ramones” tune were created—and Ramones tunes were absent from the accompanying soundtrack. (A movie about CBGB’s without the Ramones? Why bother making the movie at all?)
As for American exploitation filmmaker Larry Buchanan: He proudly wore his self-professed “schlockmeister” honor on his chest, an award he earned for his beloved (blue-jelled) day-for-night shoots trash-classics of Curse of the Swamp Creature, The Eye Creatures, In the Year 2889, Mars Needs Women, and Zontar: The Thing from Venus (need we say more: he made the Planet of the Apes rip-off Mistress of the Apes). Buchanan’s faux-biographical drama format—mixed with his ubiquitous speculations and conspiracy appendixes—that he utilized in Down on Us dates back to his “exposés” on the Kennedy assassination with The Trail of Lee Harvey Oswald (1964), the gangster chronicles The Other Side of Bonnie and Clyde (1968) and the life Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd in A Bullet for Pretty Boy (1970), and the “romance” between billionaire Howard Hughes and actress Jean Harlow in Hughes and Harlow: Angels in Hell (1977). Buchanan also twice explored the life of Marilyn Monroe with his same theories-vigor in Goodbye, Norma Jean (1976) and Goodnight, Sweet Marilyn (1989). Not even folklore dinosaurs are immune from the depths of Buchanan’s conspiracies: he made the speculative-drama The Loch Ness Horror (1982).
Courtesy of its chintzy-muddy production values, Down on Us looks like a porn movie—only backed by a cover band sloggin’ through some “originals” they wrote that ersatz-as-tunes for Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and The Doors. Yikes! This wasn’t Oliver Stone’s The Doors—not by a longshot. This was Ferd and Beverly Sebastian’s Rocktober Blood—only with Jim Morrison instead of Billy Eye Harper (and Nigel Benjamin) fronting Sorcery. And if not for Oliver Stone going into production with his 1991 biography on the Lizard King, even with the home video market’s voracious appetite for analog delights to line their shelves, this Buchanan conspiracy faux-fest would most likely have never made it to video on the cusp of the grunge decade.
Although many critically attacked Buchanan’s film that explores Jim’s paranoia of the government—not so much a theory, but more a cinematic license playing with a “what-if” story line—as rubbish, it seems those critics are not familiar with the legend of Jim Morrison. For Morrison, it was a real, believed threat: American Government agents were after him; that he was marked as “Number 3”—after Hendrix and Joplin. Therefore, Morrison left America for Paris to find shelter and reject the legal controversies of his life. Except, in Buchanan’s bizarro-Jim world, Morrison didn’t die in a Paris bathtub: Jim fled to Spain and took up residence in a monastery.
And speaking of legal controversies: It’s one thing to craft a bogus dramatical document about the psychedlic rock triumvirate of Hendrix, Joplin, and Morrison. It’s another to licensing their music. So Buchanan contracted musicians to forge replicates of those artists for the film. Oscar nominated and award-winning director Gus Van Sant exceptionally and effectively executed this same approach with 2005’s Last Days, his faux-Kurt Cobain docudrama concerning actor Michael Pitt’s eerily portrayed pseudo-grunge rocker, Blake, fronting the film’s scripted Nirvana substitute, Pagoda (featuring stunning Nirvana simulations composed by Pitt; it all goes back to poet William Blake, one of Jim Morrison’s lyrical inspirations. The circle completes). The man Buchanan hired to mimic Jim Morrison was a musician also speculated as one of the possible musicians behind the Phantom mystery of March of 1974; an enigmatic Morrison-ersatz that released the album Phantom’s Divine Comedy: Part 1 on Capitol Records: Richard Bowen.
Courtesy of Bowen, it was Buchanan’s film—not Oliver Stone’s The Doors—which offered the first on-screen interpretation of Jim Morrison, as done by actor Brad Wolf, who lip-synced to the music written and performed by Bowen. Bowen construct haunting Doors mimics with “Knock So Hard,” “Sorcery,” “Old Pictures,” “Holding On,” and “Phantom in the Rain”—each sounding like doppelganger leftovers from Phantom’s Divine Comedy: Part 1, or as outtakes from the recording career of Jim Morrison’s alleged son, Cliff Morrison. (Cliff Morrison—in a career-analogous path to Jimi Hendrix’s “son,” Billy Yeager (and to a lesser extent, Frank Marino of Mahogany Rush and his Hendrix-medium myths)—evoked his “dad’s” memory with two, late-nineties albums: Know Peaking and Color of People, fronting his Lizard Son Band.) Not only were the vocal similarities between Morrison, the Phantom, and Bowen contributing to the theory that Bowen could be the Phantom: the songs titles composed by Bowen for Down on Us also fueled the theory. Again, Bowen wrote two songs: “Sorcery” (which is what a “wizard” performs—and ties into the lead track on Phantom DC’s “Tales from a Wizard”), and the second song that appears in the film, “Phantom in the Rain.”
The first theory about Morrison’s demise was murder: In the backwash of Oliver Stone’s 1991 document, another film sloshed the brackish tributaries first navigated by Buchanan, a film that played it very fast and very loose with the Morrison-was-murdered theory: the 1992 direct-to-video rock flick Sorority House Party (You Tube). In this case, three hotties thwart a managerial plot to kill Attila, and unpredictable, high maintenance, costly ‘80s rock star, to boost album sales. This murder theory regarding Jim was the direct result of Hendrix and Joplin doing great sales numbers after their deaths. Moreover, with Jim flaking out on the band and a split of the Doors proving costly to both the band and the label, knocking off the Lizard King doesn’t seem like an implausible idea. (Also known as Rock and Roll Fantasy, Sorority House Party served as the directing debut of David Michael Latt, who came to incorporate the successful mockbuster purveyor, Asylum Studios.)
Other movies in the 1980s also tailored the mysterious threads of Jim’s death as cinematic narrative inspiration.
The second theory regarding Jim’s “demise” was a death hoax: Jim, tired of the dealing with the band and his Miami indecency trial ending in a possible jail sentence (like counterculture comedian Lenny Bruce), paid a French doctor to create a phony coroner report and death certificate. The cable movie-rock flick favorite Eddie and the Cruisers played with this myth—no doubt inspired, in part, by the last chapter of No One Here Gets Out Alive, the 1980 best-selling, first biography on Jim, which theorized Jim Morrison may have faked his own death. In Eddie and the Cruisers, a Rimbaud-inspired rocker of the Sixties, distraught over band infighting and record company hassles, bailed out with an elaborate death ruse. In the eventual Eddie sequel, the rocking protagonist, Eddie Wilson, ended up as a construction worker in Canada; not exactly ranking with the romanticized rumors of Jim running away to Africa—then returning to music in 1974 as a mysterious rocker, the Phantom; or as the Circuit Rider (that’s a whole other Jim-tangent that we won’t get into here).
And that brings us to best of the Jim-inspired conspiracy rock films: Down on Us (1984), eventually reissued to video as Beyond the Doors (1989). And we say “the best” because it’s all about the schlock n’ trash at B&S About Movies. (Honorable mention going Michael A. Nickle’s portrayal of the Lizard King in Wayne’s World 2, of course, living out his life as a sage beyond the immaculate perimeters in the desert.)
Larry Buchanan’s film speculated Jim was not murdered, nor did he fake his death: he went underground to avoid assassination. The plot line: President Richard M. Nixon, despondent over the antiwar sentiments agitated by the hippie icons of Hendrix, Joplin, and Morrison, sanctioned the F.B.I to kill the trio. Morrison apparently caught wind of the plot and “got out alive.” And, to complete the final cover up of the plot: the agent (Sandy Kenyon) who carried out the sanction is murdered. When his son discovers his dad’s files, the plot unfolds via flashback, then the son tracks down Morrison in Spain . . . .
While Buchanan’s film doesn’t get into it: The alleged “F.B.I murdered Jim” scheme has been in circulation since Jim’s death in 1971, cobbled in a basket with theories alleging the American government assassinated Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Marilyn Monroe (Hi, Larry!), along with Robert Kennedy and his brother, President John F. Kennedy (Hey, Mr. Buchanan!).
One of the earliest critics of the Warren Commission report regarding President Kennedy’s assassination, Mae Brussell, the late counterculture public radio personality of the Carmel and Monterey, California, radio stations KLRB and KAZU, most likely influenced Buchanan’s screenplay. The former host of the nationally syndicated Dialog: Conspiracy program compiled her government conspiracy theories in an unpublished November 1976 report: From Monterey Pop to Altamont, Operation Chaos: The C.I.A’s War Against the Sixties Counterculture (it was online to read in full; now it’s gone again). This report, along with current Doorsphile conspiracy theorists on social media platforms, contend there was a coordinated effort initiated in 1968 by the F.B.I’s Counter Intelligence Program and the C.I.A’s “Operation Chaos” to undermine the counterculture movement. These theories point out that Jim Morrison knew Charles Manson, through his mutual acquaintanceship of the Beach Boys’ Dennis Wilson and music producer Terry Melcher, and Morrison composed “Riders on the Storm” about Manson’s “murderous” followers.
Additionally, theorists opine the membership list of the 27 Club (with its own outlandish conspiracies; e.g., Courtney Love hired El Duce of the Mentors to murder Kurt Cobain) ties into the military service of the rockers’ parents. In addition to the high-ranking, classified naval service of Jim Morrison’s Admiral father, Lt. Col. Paul James Tate, the father of Manson Family murder victim, actress Sharon Tate, also served in the military. Theorists also point to Lewis Jones, the father of the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones, a PhD mechanical engineer, who served as a military aeronautical engineer for Bristol Aircraft . . . et cetera, one may read the extended theories online, but the point: the deaths of their famous children were “assassinations.” The “theory” concludes: Charles Manson and his family were either hired as “actors” for the “plot,” or Manson himself was a patsy—like Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald (Oy! Larry!)—set up to take the fall for the Tate “assassination.”
It all began, according to Brussell, with the 1966 death of anti-establishment comedian Lenny Bruce (1967 memoirs: How to Talk Dirty and Influence People)—the first victim of the “operation.” The critical and financial success of the Monterey Pop celebration in the summer of 1967 simply solidified the government’s resolve to snuff out the counterculture’s icons. Brussell goes onto state that, between 1968 and 1976, many of the most famous names of the counterculture movement, were dead: Mama Cass Elliot of the Mamas and the Papas, Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones, and Janis Joplin all participated in or attended the Monterey Pop Festival. The report’s assassination roster also “stars” Duane Allman and Berry Oakley of the Allman Brothers (Hey, Randall?), folkie Tim Buckley, Jimi Hendrix’s manager Michael Jeffrey and the Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein, along with Graham Parsons of the Byrds, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan of the Grateful Dead, blues musician Jimmy Reed, and, of course, Jim Morrison, along with his wife, Pam Courson. All became victims of coordinated mind control tactics via Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD)—a poisoning that altered the icons’ personalities and behaviors, encouraging their accidental “deaths-by-misadventure. . . .”
I know . . . I know . . . tangents and non-sequiturs. Let’s get back to the movie! But wait! There’s one last tangent: what’s this all have to do with Rocktober Blood?
Riba Meryl, who co-wrote the faux-rock epic “Rainbow Eyes” with Sorcery’s Richard Taylor, became an actress and portrayed Janis Joplin in Down on Us. Surprising, Riba, an accomplished singer in her own right, lip-syncs the faux-Joplin tunes “Easy Now” and “No Way” written-performed by Janet Stover (her lone film credit). Riba also repeated her Joplin character in a 1987 episode of the syndicated rock ’n’ roll U.S television series Throb (You Tube). After her lone, non-Janis character acting role in 1987’s Banzai Runner, Meryl concentrated on television and film session work and contributed the song “Brand New Start” to a 1987 cop-murder drama, The Jigsaw Murders (You Tube). Sadly, Riba passed away in 2007 at the age of 52 from breast cancer. (And why didn’t Riba Meryl provide the vocals for the song she wrote for Rocktober Blood? We may never know.)
The studio band who helped create the faux-soundtrack for Down on Us was comprised of the members of the American-New Jersey hardcore punk band Adrenalin O.D (they also as appeared as musicians-background actors). If you’re familiar with the Slickee Boys (their punky-take on Status Quo’s “Pictures of Matchstick Men”) or the Dead Milkmen (remember “Punk Rock Girl”?); AOD are goofy like that. How else can you describe a band who releases an album Crusin’ with Elvis in Bigfoot’s U.F.O that features “Bulimic Food Fight” as a lead single? Formed in 1981, AOD broke up after the failure of their “big rock move” on Restless Records, their fourth album, Ishtar (1990) (they do Queen a hell of a lot better than Metallica; it’s like the Monkees on crack. And they played CBGB’s several times).
And we never heard again from the acting-musician duo behind faux Hendrix: Gregory Allen Chatman mimed to the music written and performed by David Shorey (he also served as the film’s music supervisor): “Today or Tomorrow,” “Looks Like You,” “Crystal Wings,” “Three Day Rain,” “Poet’s Reprise,” “Just My Size,” and “Seriously Shot Down.”
We did, however, hear from two of the film’s lead actors, again: Sandy Kenyon, as government agent Alex Stanley, and Toni Sawyer as his wife; neither let there involvement with Buchanan dissuade their careers. Kenyon continued to work up until his 2010 death, amassing over 130 credits on a wide array of TV series since the 1950s (. . . I’ll never find a copy of the 1974 TV movie Death in Space starring Kenyon and Cameron Mitchell, will I? Nope: The only known surviving English language print is stored at Library of Congress, alongside Kim Milford’s lost TV rock flicks Song of the Succubus and Rock-a-Die Baby). Toni Sawyer’s latest (her 74th project), the family-adventure, When the Moon was Twice as Big (Facebook), is currently in post-production.
As for Richard Bowen, he and his band, the Source, also worked with Larry Buchanan on A Bullet for Pretty Boy (1970) that starred Fabian (Disco Fever) as gangster Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd; the band also provided music for Joe (1970), an early Peter Boyle (Young Frankenstein) film. (The 1970 studio version of “Phantom in the Rain,” which never appeared in an American International Pictures production, is posted, below.)
Both versions/titles of the movie are exactly the same: so don’t fret over which VHS issues you decide to buy. Although, in all my years, I’ve never seen a post-1984 VHS on the shelves as Down on Us, only the 1989 Beyond the Doors version. And I only found the ’89 VHS, out of six video memberships —once—at a 10,001 Monster Video. The VHS pops up in the online marketplace from time to time, Amazon and eBay in particular. However, beware of those DVDs: they’re all grey market rips-from-the-VHS.
As for online streaming: There’s only two choices to watch this online—via You Tube, natch. There’s a multi-part upload (of 13, 10-minute segments) HERE that was the only choice for many years. However, someone recently uploaded the complete film in one upload HERE.
“Our assignment: neutralize the three pied pipers of rock music.”
— F.B.I Agent Alex Stanley
Indeed. And you “neutralized” the after effects of my cheesy nachos and Mr. Pibb, Agent Stanley. (I miss you, John, my brother. Good times.)
About the Author: You can learn more about the writings of R.D Francis regarding Jim Morrison’s doppelganger, the Phantom of Detroit, on Facebook and Medium. He also writes film reviews for B&S About Movies.
Post Script: Down on Us is a movie that never ceases to keep on giving. Check out Bill Burke’s new, February 2022 take on the film at Horror News.net.