Thirty years ago, on May 31, 1986, Jeff Krulik and John Heyn hauled some borrowed public access equipment to a Judas Priest/Dokken concert at the Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland – where they spent two hours weaving through the Mustangs, mullets, and muscle tees, pounding the parking lot’s pavement while shooting footage of Priest fans pounding beers. The aspiring guerilla filmmakers thought they were just making a fun video to share with friends – but they had another thing comin’.
(movie below contains profanity)
The result was the brilliant, now-demi-legendary documentary – or (Marty Di Bergi voice) “rockumentary,” if you will – Heavy Metal Parking Lot. A fascinating, highly quotable, Wild Kingdom-esque study of Jack Daniels-swilling, real-life Beavises and Buttheads in their natural habitat (a pre-concert parking lot, of course), the 16-minute film was, it can be argued, one of the very first “viral videos.” Such a concept didn’t even exist in the 1980s’ pre-YouTube, pre-social-media, pre-reality-TV, pre-Internet age. But thanks to word of mouth and an underground network of avid tape-traders, by the mid-‘90s, Nth-generation bootleg copies of HMPL had made it into the hands of everyone from Sofia Coppola to Dave Grohl. Eventually, the VHS video’s standout characters, like “Zebraman” (a haystack-haired headbanger with a fondness for animal-print Spandex and a deep hatred of both Madonna and punk rock) and drug-legalization champion Graham (“like Graham of dope!”) became viral stars – the precursors to today’s Chewbacca Mom, Chris Crocker, and David After Dentist, only a helluva lot funnier.
And Krulik and Heyn, who went on to legitimate careers in film and television, became cinematic heroes in their own right. Their cult creation spawned such imitations as Monster Truck Parking Lot, Brian Wilson Parking Lot, and Fugazi Parking Lot, as well as American Hi-Fi’s “Flavor of the Weak” music video; Krulik and Heyn even returned to the same asphalt 10 years later for a sequel, Neil Diamond Parking Lot, and later helmed a short-lived reality show on the Trio network called, simply, Parking Lot. But none of these efforts quite captured the magic of the original.
“I think it’s just something that all people can relate to. You either were at a metal concert, or you sat next to someone in homeroom who was at that concert,” Krulik tells Yahoo Music, three crazy decades later – when, ironically, HMPL is now readily viewable on YouTube for a new generation to discover. “You’re just tapping into the fandom and that passion… It’s always going to be great subject matter. But it doesn’t necessarily work all the time. I know somebody in Canada went to a Marilyn Manson concert to try to do Heavy Metal Parking Lot Part 2, and it just didn’t work. Nobody was doing anything outrageous, and everybody was sane.”
The HMPL anniversary celebration includes trading cards, beer, and the launch of a year-long gallery exhibit, “Heavy Metal Parking Lot: The 30-Year Journey of a Cult Film Sensation,” at Krulik’s alma mater, the University of Maryland. Among the exhibit’s key artifacts is an actual piece of the parking lot’s hallowed ground, salvaged during the demolition of the Capital Centre 14 years ago. “I loaded up my trunk with a hell of a lot of asphalt that day,” laughs Heyn. “I’ve got a big pile in my shed, basically.” The “moonrock”-shaped chunk of granite also symbolizes the end of an area – as Krulik puts it, “They tore it down in 2002, so you don’t have any kind of tailgating; that kind of gathering just doesn’t exist anymore.” No wonder Heyn tells Yahoo Music: “We’re so grateful that we’re talking about this 30 years later.”
Culled from two interviews (one conducted this month to celebrate HMPL’s 30-year milestone, one from 1998 when HMPL first became available for mailorder sale) and the directors’ panel at South by Southwest this year, here Krulik and Heyn present the very loud oral history of Heavy Metal Parking Lot – from the whereabouts of Zebraman and Graham to the reaction of Priest themselves. And remember: Judas Priest is still number-one in heavy metal!
JEFF KRULIK: John had the idea; I had the equipment, because I was actually running a public access studio called Metrovision Cable. I was 25, I had access to this professional equipment, and John and I were aspiring filmmakers – we met over a mutual love of old movie theaters. It was John’s idea to do a documentary about heavy metal fans, and he just picked a date. It was a very random, lucky date, because it could’ve been any band – but it just happened to be Judas Priest, who were appearing on a beautiful spring night on May 31, 1986. We weren’t heavy metal fans, necessarily, but we were curious. We just spent two hours in the parking lot. We paid our admission like any concertgoer, wandered around with this camera gear that was professional – nobody had cameras back then, so it was a real novelty to be walking around somewhere with a camera like a news crew.
JOHN HEYN: The kids were drunk. A lot of ‘em were drinking. So when they saw some guys walking around with camera equipment, they kind of embraced that and wanted to make an appearance on camera. It wasn’t too hard to coax interviews from them. Some of them would even grab the microphone out of our hands and not give it back to us – just go on a rant!
JEFF: We didn’t have a clue what we were going to be stumbling into, literally – we just took the cameras out and started wandering around. But as you can see, everybody was really gracious and got into the spirit of things and just were themselves on camera. And we were just very lucky, because there was no hostility – if any hostility, it was playful. We thought we were going to encounter drug deals or get beat up, but nothing happened.
JOHN: And we didn’t even ask them to sign any sort of release or anything like that…
JEFF: We were pretty young. Who knew about releases? We didn’t have a game plan, so that included not getting releases. Because who knew it would even be screened beyond just our living rooms?
JOHN: It would’ve been really tough to do – thinking, in hindsight, people were underage, so you would’ve had to say, “Take this home to your parents and sign it and mail it back to us.“ It wasn’t realistic. We subscribed to guerrilla filmmaking, and that’s part of the concept of guerrilla filmmaking – you run and gun, you shoot from the hip, you don’t get releases, you just go out and get the footage. We didn’t even know what we had at first. We got in the car, and we were hurrying because we needed to go return the equipment that evening. But when we then popped a couple of the tapes in the video deck to watch them later, we realized we had some really special material.
JEFF: I came up with the name right then. We were at the studio watching the tapes, and I said, "John, this is Heavy Metal Parking Lot.” And that was it. We premiered it that fall at a punk-rock club called D.C. Space, at their experimental Super 8 and video screening nights, in October of the same year, '86. So then, we just showed it around – film festivals wouldn’t take video at this time, even though we wanted to be known as documentary filmmakers creating films. We didn’t have the budget to blow it up to celluloid. So we ended up just screening it at clubs, or we’d give copies to record stores or video stores. Basically what people did was they copied it, and they traded it. This was pre-viral, analog tape trading. It would go from tape to tape and it became something that – thankfully; we’re very grateful for this – people wanted to see. We encouraged it. But I certainly had no clue that it was getting circulated like it was.
JOHN: We didn’t know for a long time – for decades. It was just a whole different era then.
JEFF: In this day in age, it’s kind of a given that viral videos are a gimmick, coming into your inbox every day. But back when we made this in the analog world, that technology didn’t exist. We didn’t have any idea that it was being taped or traded like it was. And we certainly didn’t have any expectations that it would be.
JOHN: It wasn’t until 1994 that we found out it had a West Coast following. I received a phone call from Sofia Coppola – directly. She found me in the White Pages, with the help of one of her assistants, after renting it at this place in Los Angeles called Mondo Video. Of course, this was pre-Internet day.
JEFF: John later called Mondo Video and talked to the owner, who was just raving about it, telling us that all these people like Paul Mazursky and Belinda Carlisle and all these bands had rented it.
JOHN: Sofia called me up and said she was a fan of the film, and at the time she was producing a TV pilot for Comedy Central called High Octane, and she was really interested in showing clips of Heavy Metal Parking Lot on her show.
JEFF: That’s really the moment that we actually knew, because we stopped showing it in 1990. And we were only showing it where we lived – beyond that, it was just kind of giving out tapes and letting people have opportunities to see it, whether it was in my living room or at a local club or at a local record convention. We gave VHS copies out like water, just locally, but by 1990 we thought we were done with it. We had one final showing: We curated a film festival at the AFI Theater that was called the “Don’t Quit Your Day Job” film and video festival, and we literally said, “This is our last screening of this; we promise not to show this anymore!“ And that was February of 1990. But in 1992, a friend of mine, Mike Heath, was moving to the West Coast, and he asked for copies of Heavy Metal Parking Lot because he wanted to give it to some friends. I gave him a handful of copies, on VHS – now we consider him the Johnny Appleseed of Heavy Metal Parking Lot. He was very astute musically and he got a copy to Bill Bartell in Los Angeles, who was in [the seminal punk band] White Flag. Bill used to have screening parties, apparently, and friends of his and colleagues of his saw it, and somehow it eventually got to Nirvana’s tour bus. Bill would give it out as a holiday gift, so it got to a roadie, I think, of Nirvana.
JOHN: We got confirmation of this years later, because we got ourselves backstage at a Foo Fighters concert and gave a copy to Dave Grohl – Dave was very happy to give us backstage passes and invite us back, and it was a thrill of a lifetime for us to present him with his official DVD. And he verified that he had seen it and was a big fan of it.
JEFF: We didn’t actually start selling it, providing it with any kind of effort, until the late ‘90s.
JOHN: Until the Internet. We put a website up in '98, and that really gave us the ability to actually get the word out. This was even pre-PayPal or electronic payments; people would have to write a check for 10 bucks or 15, post-paid, and mail it to me. And I dubbed a lot of these video cassettes myself and printed out the labels. And somebody bought this on eBay for $34 recently!
JEFF: Now that’s it’s really out there, no one has complained yet about being in the movie. It’s always possible. Most of the alumni, as we call them, are all pretty honored, and look at it now with a sense of nostalgia. We’re really happy that they feel that way. And overall, I feel like they’re like family members to me. It’s nice to get to know them as adults. We’ve been in touch with about 25 of them so far, and Leopard Girl is supposed to come to the anniversary celebration.
JOHN: Everybody’s thrived, grown up, and for the most part, is doing really well. And they aren’t mad at us.
JEFF: There’s a band in L.A. that wrote a song called "Zebraman.” It’s been this incredible thing. Everybody wants to know what happened to the folks who were in Heavy Metal Parking Lot. We were able to track Zebraman to where he lived outside of Baltimore. We ambushed him. He didn’t respond to our letters. We knew what we had to do, which was a door knock. He was very accommodating, and you know, he knew who we were, but he hadn’t seen the video, so we basically showed him the video. And he’s like, “Yeah, that’s me…” He was into country music, wasn’t really into metal anymore. He was a successful businessman, a contractor outside of Baltimore. Lived in a nice suburban home. He turned out OK. That’s what we were really happy to see.
(Zebraman shows up around the 14:45 mark below)
JOHN: Some alumni went on to work at the World Bank. There’s a bunch of them that are all pretty successful.
JEFF: One guy his name was Robby Ludwick at the time, and now he’s ZZ Ludwick, and he’s been studying to be a rabbi and is an orthodox, very devout Jewish person who is really into mandolins and fiddle music and got to be a big bluegrass nut. He has own mandolin- and fiddle-repair business.
JOHN: He’s the guy who says, “Rob Halford, I don’t know about you!” He really keeps in touch with us.
JEFF: Michelle is a dental hygienist and raises dogs – giant dogs. Graham, aka “Graham of Dope,” wrote a book Graham: The First Twenty. He’s taken ownership; he’s embraced his celebrity and his appearance in the film. It’s available on Amazon. Graham’s great – he’s a grandfather now. He’s an executive chef and he’s done well. One guy, Jay, works for Nederlander concert promotions. He’s been in the music industry for years, at record labels and whatnot, so it’s like a badge of honor. He gets a lot of street cred for actually being in Heavy Metal Parking Lot.
JEFF: Heavy Metal Parking Lot wasn’t made for MTV, let’s just put it that way. We did submit it to television networks – we have all the rejection letters, from MTV to Discovery Channel. We did send a copy to Penelope Spheeris, because she was doing The Decline of Western Civilization, and we’re big fans of her; she’s a great influence on us. And John also worked with John Waters as a production assistant, and so he knew John Waters and he sent him a copy. John Waters sent a really nice postcard and gave us some good quotes.
JOHN: The postcard basically says his review of it: “What monsters! This movie gave me the creeps!” And that was the ultimate endorsement for us, you know? There was no way back then to take it viral, but we certainly saved the postcard and used it in quotes later on.
JEFF: Penelope called us at our jobs, and we have the phone message where she was very complimentary – and to this day she’s been very supportive, we’ve kept in touch with her. She’s a fan of it.
JOHN: As for Judas Priest themselves, they’ve acknowledged it, basically – there’s been tacit acknowledgement of it. [Editor’s note: Yahoo Music reached out to Judas Priest for comment for this article, but did not hear back at press time.] Ultimately, they came around. I think what happened is throughout the years a lot of music journalists’ interviews would always include the question: “Have you seen Heavy Metal Parking Lot, and what do you think about it?” I think it wasn’t on their radar for a long time, so I think they just constantly got this question, so they had to check it out.
JEFF: When we made the film, one goal we thought was, “Let’s try to get it played before the fans at the next time Judas Priest were at the Capital Centre,” which was in 1988. We secured a pass – we actually went backstage and screened it for the band’s accountant and the tour manager. Well, it turns out the arena, they balked – even though the management were cool. The arena balked and said, "We can’t show this! We can’t endorse what’s going on out there!”
JOHN: We were able to give management two VHS copies to give to the band to take it back with them on tour, take it back to England… but we never heard from the band, ultimately, either positively or negatively. Nothing.
JEFF: We kind of felt that was an endorsement to keep doing what we were doing, which was just giving out copies. They didn’t come down on us for borrowing their music or anything, so we just basically said, “All right, well, we tried.” We knew we were taking some risk going there to give it to them… but they were accommodating. We never heard anything negative. They’ve always been cordial about it, which is really gratifying.
JOHN: We always wondered why we never got a cease-and-desist. Every day, we’d look at our mailbox. Thirty years later…