“On the other hand . . . if I’m dead, why do I have to wee-wee?”
— Grandpa Dracula (aka, John Carradine)
Vietnam-born Nai Bonet began her show business career as a belly-dancer at the age of 13 and headlined a popular belly-dancer show at the famed Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas. And when a commercial, film, TV show (she appeared as a harem girl on The Beverly Hillbillies, for example), or a record company needed a belly-dancer for a cover shoot, Nia was there. Her famed reached a point — coinciding with the ’60s then-hot “Go-Go” craze — that, at the age of 15, she released the 1966 novelty-pop go-go song “Jelly Belly”; the video recorded for the song became a centerpiece exhibit of bar-arcade Scopitone video jukeboxes.
But what Nai really wanted to do was act. And she made her big screen debut alongside John Cassavetes and Mimsy Farmer (The Wild Racers) in the Daniel Haller-directed and Charles B. Griffith-penned Devil’s Angels (1967). But parts were hard to come by; so it wasn’t until 1973 when Nai was cast in her next co-starring role, this time alongside ex-60s teen idol Fabian Forte (Thunder Alley) in Soul Hustler. By the late ’70s, Nai wasn’t a star; she was buried in the credits of the “biggest” film of her career: the biographical sports drama The Greatest (1977) about and starring Muhammad Ali.
Frustrated, Nai decided to take matters into her own hands by writing and producing her own leading lady role (see Loqueesha and Easy Rider: The Ride Back for other examples of this filmmaking approach). And she wrote a vampire tale that filmed during a two-month period in October and November of 1978 for Compass International Pictures. At the time, Compass had a worldwide hit on their hands with their debut release: John Carpenter’s Halloween. Then the studio used their Halloween profits to finance Roller Boogie. And Tourist Trap. And Blood Beach. And Hell Night. And Disco Dracula, aka Nocturna. You see where this is going? Yep. The studio shut down for good in 1981. But, at the hands of studio co-founders Irwin Yablans and Moustapha Akkad, the 1985-reimaged and re-incorporated company, now known as Trancas International Films, retained the copyrights to the Halloween franchise and came to produce every picture in the series.
And Nai Bonet’s leading lady and writing debut wasn’t just any low-budget ($200,000) Dracula picture. Compass International negotiated with MCA Records to release a disco-flavored double album film soundtrack headlined by then hot disco-queens Gloria Gaynor and Vicki Sue Robinson. (You can review the album’s liner notes on Discogs.) Was the soundtrack more successful than the film? Oops. It was. Not that the soundtrack saved Gaynor and Robinson from their inevitable, new-wave career oblivion. Of course, all those pesky music rights and major-label legalese gibberish bit (sorry) the film in the
arse neck because, the film was barely released in the home video market; it’s currently lost to the ages, only available as a battered and ultra-rare VHS. The LP soundtrack is easier to find.
Yes. You heard right. In the grand tradition of Harry Hope meshing disco with hicksploitation in Smokey and the Judge (and hiring disco band Hot as “actors”), low-budget auteur Harry Hurwitz (here as Harry Tampa; he then taught at the University of South Florida in Tampa) came up with the idea of meshing disco with a Dracula picture. For reals. So what you have here is Saturday Night Fang. Or Thank God It’s Fang Day. Or Disco Dracula. And Uncle Harry probably wanted to use the titles Vampire Hookers and Lust at First Bite, but those were already used for a pair of slumming ’70s drive-in vamp romps. And Universal took Love at First Bite for their own George Hamilton-starring vamp comedy. So Harry and Company came up with — the admittedly original — Nocturna handle. And knowing he needed icon-horror names on the box to sell this mess — and that most of those “iconic” names were down-and-out and available on the cheap, he was able to convince Yvonne De Carlo and John Carradine to star. (Papa Carradine’s previous tenure as The Count was the western-vampire hybrid that was 1966’s Billy the Kid Versus Dracula. Poor John.)
And don’t be duped by that R-rating; this is a pure PG-13 boondoggle that ol’ Harry decided was a celluloid cluster that needed to be spiced-up with nudity because, well, no one counted on the Knack coming along and driving a new-wave stake through disco’s heart. What was Harry T. gonna do? Wipe the soundtrack and hire the Cars and Berlin to score the movie? Cut Vicki Sue Robinson’s part and graft-in Terri Nunn? Fire Moment of Truth and hire the Knack as Drac’s Castle house band? Let Rick Ocasek get fanged buy Nai?
There’s no doubt that Nai Bonet gives you that Garth Algar climbing-up-the-rope-in-gym-class-feeling, but yikes . . . she’s as wooden as a Van Helsing stake. So thank god Sy Richardson (Cinderella) shows up as a jive-talking vampiric pimp and Theodore “Brother Theodore” Gottlieb (Tom Hanks’s The ‘Burbs) is a piss as the Hotel Transylvania’s manager (with a boner for Nocturna that Papa Drac uses to his advantage). And Carradine — as Grandpa Dracula — and Yvonne DeCarlo — as “old” family friend and Drac’s ex-squeeze, Jugulia Vein — probably full knowing they were in a stinker, brought their A-game anyway and decided to have fun with this mess and own their roles. (There’s nothing finer than seeing the actors that you care about making chicken salad out of chicken shit. It only makes you love ’em more.) And Nocturna? Well, in addition Brother T., the Wolfman has the hots for her, but she only has eyes for Jimmy: the disco-drumming (and gay) Tony Manero-clone (Antony Hamilton, in his film debut; you might remember his later roles in Howling IV: The Original Nightmare and the late-’80s TV Mission: Impossible reboot).
And that sets up the movie. The tax man “haunts” the House of Dracula, so ol’ Drac turned the family castle into The Transylvania Hotel to pay the bills. Overseeing the operation is his granddaughter Nocturna, who also cares for ‘ol Drac hiding in the basement-crypt bowels (i.e., giving him his breakfast goblet of blood every morning, helping him with his false-fangs, and listening to him bitch about his erectile dysfunction and enlarged prostate).
But the estate’s blood supply is running low and business needs a pick-me-up, so Nocturna books American disco band Moment of Truth (who appear on the aforementioned soundtrack) to entertain the guests. And she begins to experience human love for the first time for Jimmy; she doesn’t want his blood and she sees her reflection for the first time. And she, unlike Elaine Benis in Seinfeld (sorry, Sam), can “turn” Jimmy back to the heterosexual nether regions.
So she runs away to New York with Jimmy and finds support with de Carlo, herself a vampire, who resides in darkness under the Brooklyn Bridge, and helps Nocturna avoid Grandfather’s henchmen who’ve come to return her to Transylvania. And mortal-immortal love, disco dancing, bat transformations, faux improv-crosses of neon-letter Ts, and vampires sharing their final kiss under a romantic sunrise, ensues.
Wow. There’s an actual VHS rip in the digital ethers? Yes! You can watch the full movie on You Tube, but because of the nudity, you’ll have to log in . . . if you dare to “turn that beat around,” that is. Bill Van Ryn is watching and getting his disco fix. So why not you? Don’t fret. You will survive.
Hey, be sure to check out our “Drive-In Friday” tribute to five of good ol’ Uncle Harry’s films!