This is Gwar (Review): The History of Metal’s Zaniest Collective
This is Gwar is a celebration of the group, chronicling their journey from art school weirdos in Richmond, all the way to the Scumdogs of the Universe the metal world knows and loves.
Weird Al Yankovic described them as “Barbarian interplanetary warriors who play heavy metal music and shoot various bodily fluids over the audience.” Alex Winter described them as a “big, bawdy, violent, sexual, theatrical rock show.” I would describe them as one of metal’s most original, exciting, inventive, and over-the-top live acts that ever graced a stage. A thousand words would not be enough to adequately describe an art collective as unique and wonderfully strange as Gwar, but This is Gwar, Scott Barber’s new documentary, aims to try.
This is Gwar is presented as a history of the band, the timeline beginning in the 1980s when the group’s founders were artists living and working in an abandoned milk bottle factory. Disillusioned with art school, Gwar’s members shunned the “elitist and alienating” world in which they found themselves, choosing instead to follow their own passions of Dungeons and Dragons, sci-fi novels, horror movies, and Japanese monster media, even if it was all considered “low-brow” by the art school community. They made their own costumes, props, fake blood, promotional material, movies, tour bus: inspired by Richmond, Virginia’s punk scene, they DIYed everything and anything.
The documentary is filled with stories about the band told from the people who were a part of it, as well as those who knew them best. While watching, you’ll quickly realize that just because someone wasn’t in the band doesn’t mean they weren’t in the band. In addition to musicians like Dave “Oderus Urungus” Brockie, Mike “Beefcake the Mighty” Bishop and Mike “Balsac the Jaws of Death” Derks, there was a team of artists behind the scenes who characters themselves and would perform on stage with the band. Costume makers, puppeteers, dancers, technicians, and a fire-eater would come together to make an incredible onstage spectacle, showing how a project as ambitious as Gwar truly required an entire community, a family, to really make it run properly.
Shots of people discussing the group are interspersed with behind the scenes footage, and scenes from their stage show, and the images of Gwar’s performances are spectacular. You get to see their evolution from their shoestring budget performances in primitive Mad Max-meets-Conan the Barbarian inspired costumes, to the addition of puppets like a massive dinosaur fighting a giant cockroach on stage during songs, to the mainstay of decapitating puppets of fascists and politicians resulting in blood spraying all over the audience. You also see how they added blood to their performances in the first place, starting with balloons and water bottles, then fire extinguishers, and eventually massive pressurized canisters.
There are so many wild stories shared in This is Gwar, I could not possibly recount them all here, but let me give you just a small taste: In their early days, they used a massive homemade catapult to launch meat into the audience. In the early-90s, they were given $50,000 dollars by their label to make a music video and instead they made an entire feature-length movie called “Phallus in Wonderland” that earned them a Grammy nomination. After a show in Charlotte, North Carolina where the characters shoved swords up a priest’s giant rubber butt, vocalist Dave Brockie was arrested for obscenity; the name of the judge assigned to the case (and I’m not making this up) was Dick Boner.
If I had to give some criticism, I guess I wished the documentary could have spent some more time on the latter half of their career. The way the doc is structured, once you get to about the year 2000, it starts glossing over a lot of their history, whether it’s due to not having the runtime to get to everything or because there just wasn’t much to talk about is unclear. Because of this, This is Gwar spends very little time talking about the late Cory Smoot. He’s described as being the best Flattus Maximus Gwar ever had, he was in the group for nearly ten years, and they even retired the character after he passed. For such an integral member of Gwar’s history, the doc devotes very little time to him, and I would like to have a little more regarding his contributions.
This is Gwar is an absolute blast: following this ragtag team of artists throughout their history takes you on a wild ride filled with humor, incredible set pieces and props, some genuinely heartbreaking moments, and a lot of heart. Gwar has amassed legions of devoted fans drawn to the immense amount of creativity and dedication shown by the people in the project, and it’s clear that Scott Barber is among their ranks. Gwar certainly isn’t a band for everyone, but their story is an inspiring one of how a few dedicated weirdos with a great idea can create something truly special. To quote drummer Brad “Jizmak da Gusha” Roberts: “The world needs a Gwar. […] Needs it to smack it around and tell it it looks like shit, and tell it why it sucks […] And hopefully there’ll be some beauty in that.”
This is Gwar will be released on Shudder on July 21, 2022.