30 Years Of 'Heavy Metal Parking Lot,' The Classic 'Cult Classic' Film | KUOW News and Information

30 Years Of 'Heavy Metal Parking Lot,' The Classic 'Cult Classic' Film

Oct 22, 2016

Thirty years ago this week, an unknown filmmaker walked into a club in Washington, D.C., with a videotape in his hand. It was one of those nights when anyone could screen their work ... but this was the first public screening of a short documentary that's gone on to become the very definition of a cult classic.

Heavy Metal Parking Lot was only 16 and a half minutes long, and the concept was bare-bones: just fans and staff outside the Capital Centre arena in Largo, Md., before a concert by two metal bands, Dokken and Judas Priest, in May of 1986. And yet it went viral before viral was a thing: One fan would make a copy of a video and give it to a friend who would do the same thing, until it spread, literally, around the world.

"Nobody could have imagined that it would have taken on the life that it has," says Jeff Krulik, one of the two directors. Over the course of 30 years, he and his partner John Heyn watched their little documentary become the subject of websites, a mural, and mainstream press coverage in The New Yorker, GQ, Spin and Premiere.

Back in 1986, John Heyn and Jeff Krulik were aspiring filmmakers in their 20s looking for a story. "I'd heard the radio ads, so we knew it was a metal show," Kulik says of their trip to The Cap Centre, as everyone called it. "We kind of knew what we were getting into, or hoping to get into."

They paid for parking and, with gear borrowed from Krulik's studio, started shooting. They had no plan, no list of questions. "We didn't have a clue about how to do this the right way. But I think for what it was, it was the right way," Krulik says.

Krulik and Heyn captured something: a moment in time in a particular place — suburban Maryland — and a culture, says Laura Schnitker. She's an ethnomusicologist and an acting curator at the University of Maryland, where an exhibition devoted to the 30th anniversary of Heavy Metal Parking Lot is on display into next year.

"For anyone who wants to understand what a heavy metal crowd looked like when heavy metal was at its peak popularity in the 1980s, this is a perfect document of that point in musical history," she says. "It's just a great snapshot of fandom."

Zev Zalman Ludwick was one of those fans. Back then, Ludwick was flipping pizzas during the day and playing bass in rock bands at night. Today he builds and repairs instruments — violins, violas, and cellos. He says tailgating before concerts was half the fun.

"We would all get the word out to our friends: 'Hey, meet us before the concert,' you know? We'd go there a couple of hours beforehand," he says. "There's a whole feeling when you get around people for that same thing in common — all about the music, and just about having fun."

But Ludwick admits the fun was sometimes fueled by drugs and alcohol. And the teens in Heavy Metal Parking Lot are primed. Jeff Krulik rejects any suggestion the documentary is making fun of them.

"Neither one of us ever set out to do that," he says. "I mean, there is manipulation involved: You're editing it, you're getting right to the most entertaining content. And that was our agenda, was to make an entertaining 15-minute video."

Heavy Metal Parking Lot would eventually be shown at the American Film Institute and other venues. But Krulik says the documentary eventually seemed to run its course.

"We kind of had stopped screening it in 1990 for a variety of reasons," he says. "We couldn't force our friends to sit through another public screening of it."

Two years later, a friend was moving to California and asked for some copies to take with him. One eventually made its way to a Los Angeles store called Mondo Video A-Go-Go.

"When I saw it I was busting up, because what a great idea that they took a camera into a parking lot!" says the store's then-proprietor, "Colonel" Rob Schnaffer (the title was bestowed by his mentor, filmmaker Russ Meyer). "And I started making copies of this thing, and it just started spreading on the underground like a plague."

Heavy Metal Parking Lot wound up on Nirvana's tour bus. And Krulik says the organic way it spread, from fan to fan on physical videotapes, had a lot to do with its enduring appeal.

The same can't be said of the parking lot the film immortalized. The Cap Centre was demolished in 2002 to make way for a shopping center with its own parking lots. Standing in one of them, Krulik points out a car that wouldn't have been out of place here in 1986.

"That's the last muscle car in the parking lot at the Cap Centre," he says. "It's the ghost of Heavy Metal Parking Lot."

Those ghosts still walk the earth. And John Heyn and Jeff Krulik are eager to conjure them whenever they can.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

An aspiring filmmaker walk into a club in Washington, D.C., carrying a videotape of his documentary for a public screening. That premiere took place 30 years ago. And the film would go on to become somewhat of a cult classic. It's called "Heavy Metal Parking Lot." And if that doesn't exactly ring a bell, NPR's Tom Cole is here to ring that bell for you.

TOM COLE, BYLINE: It's just 16 and a half minutes long - just fans and staff outside the Capital Centre arena in Largo, Md., before a concert by two metal bands, Dokken and Judas Priest, in May of 1986.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "HEAVY METAL PARKING LOT")

COLE: And yet it went viral before viral was a thing. One fan would make a copy of a video and give it to a friend who would do the same thing, until it spread literally around the world.

JEFF KRULIK: Nobody could've imagined that it would've taken on the life that it has - certainly us.

COLE: That's one of the filmmakers, Jeff Krulik. And what he and his partner John Heyn could not have imagined was that, over the course of 30 years, their little documentary would become the subject of websites, a mural and mainstream press coverage in The New Yorker, GQ, Spin and Premiere.

LAURA SCHNITKER: And it's funny. All of these magazines - they all say, you know, this is a really iconic film. But they describe it in totally different ways.

COLE: Laura Schnitker is an ethnomusicologist and an acting curator at the University of Maryland, where an exhibition devoted to the 30th anniversary of "Heavy Metal Parking Lot" is on display into next year. Back in 1986, John Heyn and Jeff Krulik were aspiring filmmakers in their 20s looking for a story.

KRULIK: I had heard the radio ads. So we knew was a metal show. We kind of knew what we were getting into or hoping to get into.

COLE: They paid for parking and, with gear borrowed from the cable access studio where Krulik worked, started shooting.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "HEAVY METAL PARKING LOT")

KRULIK: Where'd you come from tonight?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Reston.

UNIDENTIFIED MEN: Reston, Va.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Mayberry, USA.

KRULIK: They like heavy metal down there?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah, buddy.

COLE: They had no plan and no list of questions.

KRULIK: We didn't have a clue about how to do this the right way. But I think for what it was, it was the right way.

COLE: Krulik and Heyn captured something, a moment in time in a particular place, suburban Maryland, and a culture, says Laura Schnitker.

SCHNITKER: For anyone who wants to understand what a heavy metal crowd looked like when heavy metal was at its peak popularity in the 1980s, this is a perfect document of that point in musical history. It's just a great snapshot of fandom.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "HEAVY METAL PARKING LOT")

ZEV ZALMAN LUDWICK: Ian Hill, I'm a former bass player. I'm - inspiration - you're an inspiration of mine.

That was a slip of the tongue - a drunken slip of the tongue - because I was a fellow bass player.

COLE: Back then, Zev Zalman Ludwick - ZZ, as he likes to be called - was flipping pizzas during the day and playing bass and rock bands at night. Today, he builds and repairs instruments - violins, violas and cellos.

(SOUNDBITE OF STRING PLUCKING)

LUDWICK: This probably needs new strings, this one.

COLE: Ludwick says tailgating before concerts was half the fun.

LUDWICK: And so we would all kind of get the word out to our friends, hey, meet us before the concert. You know, we go there a couple hours beforehand. And there's a whole feeling when you get around people for that same - yeah, that same thing in common - all about the music and just about having fun.

COLE: But Ludwick admits the fun was sometimes fueled by drugs and alcohol. And the teens in "Heavy Metal Parking Lot" are primed. Jeff Krulik rejects any suggestion the documentary is making fun of them.

KRULIK: Neither one of us ever set out to do that, you know? I mean, there is manipulation involved. You're editing it. You know, you're getting right to the most entertaining, you know, content, especially if that was - that was our agenda - was to make an entertaining 15-minute video.

COLE: "Heavy Metal Parking Lot" was shown at the American Film Institute and other venues. But Krulik says the documentary eventually seemed to run its course.

KRULIK: We kind of had stopped screening it in 1990 for a variety of reasons but mainly because we couldn't force our friends to sit through another public screening of it.

COLE: Two years later, a friend was moving to California and asked for some copies to take with him. One eventually made its way to a Los Angeles store called Mondo Video A-Go-Go.

KRULIK: And they became huge supporters of us, you know, really. And they were essential in helping to spread it around.

ROB SCHAFFNER: When I saw it, I was busting up because - what a great idea that they took a camera into a parking lot.

COLE: Colonel Rob Schaffner - the title was bestowed by his mentor, filmmaker Russ Meyer - was the proprietor of Mondo Video A-Go-Go.

SCHAFFNER: And I started making copies of this thing. And it just started spreading on the underground like a plague.

COLE: "Heavy Metal Parking Lot" wound up on Nirvana's tour bus. And Krulik says the organic way it spread from fan to fan on physical videotapes had a lot to do with the enduring appeal. But the parking lot it immortalized is long gone.

KRULIK: I'm completely lost.

COLE: The Cap Centre, as everyone called it, was demolished in 2002 to make way for a shopping center with its own parking lots.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR REVVING)

KRULIK: That's the last muscle car in the parking lot at the Cap Centre. It's the ghost of "Heavy Metal Parking Lot."

COLE: Those ghosts still walk the earth. And John Heyn and Jeff Krulik are eager to conjure them whenever they can. Tom Cole, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "HEAVY METAL PARKING LOT")

LUDWICK: Let's rock. OK. All right.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JUDAS PRIEST: (Singing) Making a curve, taking the strain. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.