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.