Mike Apichella / November 17, 2020
The first music videos to air on MTV and broadcast television were chaotic blurts of arty nonsense defined by pastel colors, cheesy dance party theatrics, and avant-garde visual effects. Often realized by student auteurs working with little to no budget, even the weirdest of these clips didn’t aim for scares.
Early heavy metal videos were an exception. Sans any playful abstraction, these emerged as S&M nightmares brandishing dystopian, Mario Bava-esque atmospherics, and other classic horror movie elements. Iron Maiden, W.A.S.P., Ratt, Mötley Crüe, Judas Priest, and the ever disturbing Ozzy Osbourne were some of the earliest metal acts to dabble in these themes, and headbangers were mega-stoked to find their favorite shredders interspersed among skinny tie New Wave bands, foppish New Romantics, Barnes & Barnes’ “Fish Heads,” and all the other tamer acts that typically formed music video programming in the age before American Idol and reality shows.
No heavy metal chiller got more immersive or confrontational than the 1984 video Don Coscarelli directed for Dio’s “The Last In Line” (watch it here). By ‘84, Coscarelli was already well known in the genre circuit for cult classics like Phantasm (1979) and The Beastmaster (1982). The work he turned in here is a claustrophobic melange of suspense and political subtext, overflowing with scenes of torture and psychological horror.
The clip starts off with a courier (child star Meeno Peluce) bicycling in a peaceful California suburb, gliding through a squeaky clean business district. Sporting long curls, a dangling earing, and tight Levi’s, it would’ve been tough to find another actor who looked more like a young suburban rocker. Once he arrives at his office-plex destination, a beardo in an old sports car (Dio member Claude Schnell) gestures ominously with the sign of the horns, possibly an attempt to stop the kid from entering the glassy industrial space. Confused and annoyed, the teenager avoids the mysterious hairball. As he enters the building, the music chimes along with a folky lilt and forlorn vocals describing “a ship without a storm.”
The kid gets in the elevator, going up, then makes a sudden high speed plummet as the guitar distortion kicks in, crashing deep beneath the Earth’s crust. The elevator doors open to an attack of screaming riffage that ushers our hero into a murky, post-industrial Hades. Freakish processions of enslaved deformity mob the kid: shambolic zombies, doomed souls covered in infectious scars and pockmarks, and hastily assembled androids (including one that’s extremely Borg-like in appearance, years before the Star Trek: The Next Generation characters made their debut). The hapless creatures are pressed into electronic torture chambers by cyborg storm troopers armed with glow-in-the-dark cattle prods.
Several images here signify economic blight. One zombie can be seen clutching a grocery cart filled with sundry garbage (a boom box, a broken record, scraps of fabric) while dressed in a tattered trench coat. A balding middle-aged man limps along in filthy business attire wearing a cracked pair of reading glasses. Their vacant stares are fearsome, but also touched with overarching sadness and tragedy. Some of the less monstrous extras appear to be outcasts from L.A.’s Skid Row (whose hordes of homeless the LAPD was desperately trying to “clean up” on the eve of the 1984 Summer Olympics).
Of the video’s many scenes of suffering, there are two big standouts. The first occurs as our hero finds a fenced-in arcade where kids are chained to video game machines. Their wrists are locked in manacles that shock them whenever they make a mistake. If they lose a game, they’re fried to death. An obvious interpretation here involves criticism of consumer culture and the moral panic surrounding video games.
Another interpretation involves game theory—the belief that dog-eat-dog competition is a major building block of civilization. So Long Sucker (originally Fuck You Buddy) was a board game co-created by the infamous RAND Corporation and Nobel prize-winning mathematician John Forbes Nash Jr., a paranoid schizophrenic whose battles with mental health weren’t publicly known until several years after his research had concluded. In the early 1950s, Nash and RAND conducted a series of experiments in which people were monitored while playing So Long Sucker. They hoped the project would yield undeniable scientific proof of game theory’s validity. According to RAND’s own documentation, their first experiment was a failure; the others were successful, but occurred in an environment much more tightly controlled than that of the first one. Regardless, after many years of therapy and introspection, Nash later declared his belief in game theory to be nothing more than a bi-product of the paranoia brought on by his mental illness.
The deadly arcade serves as the proving ground for this cynical realm, ruled by a mutant military-industrial establishment. The players here, like the protagonist, are teens. Unlike the other haggard rogues, they’re fresh-faced and clean cut. The arcade of doom pinpoints and rewards those driven by the insane competition while rooting out and killing those who are not addicted to conquest. Presumably whoever endures gets a special place in the wretched promenade.
The scariest torture scene unfolds when Peluce’s character wanders into a theater where another large group of teens have been fastened to metal racks, their mouths stuffed with big red ball gags, foreheads primed for lobotomizing. They all face a giant screen TV that plays footage of singer Ronnie James Dio belting out incendiary lyrics:
Two eyes from the east
It’s The Angel or The Beast
And the answer lies between the good and bad
We search for the truth
We could die upon the tooth
But the thrill of just the chase is worth the pain
In the track notes of the 2003 Dio anthology Stand Up and Shout, the singer described “The Last In Line” as an open-ended tribute to perseverance: “This song has many interpretations. You could be the last in line meaning, oh shit, all the good stuff is already gone. Or you could be the last, the strongest, and, to me, it’s always been that, the perseverance that comes from going through challenges in life. And when you get to the end and you’re the last one standing, and you ask yourself, ‘Was it worth it?’ You better say yes. That’s gonna be my answer.” The song’s revelatory chorus reinforces this sentiment:
We’ll know for the first time
If we’re evil or divine
We’re the last in line!
See how we shine!
No one goes further with over-the-top theatrics than Ronnie James Dio himself. The guttural overlord gets to do all the things that have rightfully made him a superhero to generations of heavy metal fans. In many scenes he’s shown standing on a bonafide pedestal! His greatest moments come at the end of the clip with a hilarious sequence that’d be a spoiler if given any detailed description.
The other Dio band members also get interesting cameos. They emerge as impartial overseers breaking the netherworld tension by hamming it up in one ridiculous arena rock pose after another. Along with Schnell’s cryptic allusion are the scenes where drummer Vinny Appice flails away at a zany bronto-bone drum kit, while guitarist Vivian Campbell solos atop a bashed up car before an adoring crowd of zombies all clad in skull-crunching electrodes that are actually hooked into his axe. The rapt attention that the ragged zombies give to Campbell and his guitar’s connection to their head gear combine to symbolize another great creator of iconic ‘80’s trance states: the Sony Walkman and similar portable stereo devices, distractions that could just as easily enhance or annihilate reality. The scene also refers to another great moral panic of the time: the idea that heavy rock could turn people into disciples of Satan. It was one of many irrational fears that inspired the anti-metal crusades of The PMRC and other right-wing Christian groups.
Just like the dehumanizing repetition of factory work or the brain melt one experiences while stuck at the local post office or DMV, the prisoners keep on marching around and around, enduring the same endless cavalcade of machine-induced humiliation. In harmony with the lyrical themes, Peluce’s character stays focused on survival from start to finish, even when fear seems to control every expression. Coscarelli’s horrors only encourage the kid to resist the overwhelming bleakness.
While videos for tracks like The Plasmatics‘ “The Damned” and Motley Crue’s “Looks That Kill” prominently featured dystopian aesthetics, “The Last In Line” is one of the few clips to serve as an unflinching commentary on defying the apocalypse. Don Coscarelli turned the Dio anthem into an ideal soundtrack for Reagan-induced nightmares of cruelty and destruction. Grotesque monsters, wayward youth, and the impoverished are all enslaved in the same excruciating hell—what lies beneath the glassy veneer of the suburban industrial park. To find a way out of this infernal world the young courier must move against the tide of pain. His will to survive—tenacious individualism is another Reagan-era requisite—provides the only path to freedom.
Mike Apichella has been working in the arts since 1991. He is a writer, multimedia artist, musician, and a founder of Human Host and the archival project Towson-Glen Arm Freakouts. Under his real name and various pseudonyms, his work has been published by Splice Today, Profligate, Human Conduct Press, and several DIY zines. Mike currently lives in the northeast US where he aspires to someday become the “crazy cat man” of his neighborhood.