Production for Rigor Mortis’ documentary, Welcome to Your Funeral, started in 2007. The original idea was to make a film about the birth of the DFW metal underground. But after Rigor Mortis guitarist Mike Scaccia died in 2012, the focus shifted solely to the band, which was mixing metal with punk when their contemporaries were wearing spandex. Still, the movie doubles as a celebration of defunct venues that defined a generation of North Texas metal.
The first of two installments has been released on DVD and will screen at Kessler Theater on Wednesday. Rigor Mortis frontman Bruce Corbitt directed the film, working with musician and filmmaker Michael Huebner. In some of his last interviews, Scaccia explains how he played a crucial role in developing Rigor Mortis’ brand of speed metal the first time he picked up a guitar. Scaccia met schoolmates Harden Harrison and Casey Orr and a shared passion for horror films and heavy music led them to form a band.
Welcome to Your Funeral contains some striking footage of old venues, like the Tombstone Factory in Fort Worth. “It was a total dump,” says Orr. “A total BYOB joint, just lawless.” The long cinderblock building had a reputation with police that had nothing to do with its purported previous life as a tombstone factory. “After awhile the police caught on,” says Corbitt. “Every other show was getting raided.”
Many early underground thrash shows — parties, essentially — took place in settings like this, a concrete building with a makeshift sound system. Rigor Mortis were paid 80 bucks for their first gig and then they were playing to hundreds of people on any given night.
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Back then Dallas was thirsty for metal. There simply weren’t as many bands, but there were plenty of venues. Rigor Mortis were rivals with Pantera, but Pantera frontman Philip Anselmo narrates Welcome to Your Funeral and appears in the film to explain he always liked their music.
The Circle A Ranch near Deep Ellum was a different venue because it had a proper bar, but it also brought more chaos to the drunken party. Rigor Mortis didn’t make it to Dallas much and they weren’t familiar with the clubs. But Orr and Harrison visited this dirty little punk club with rickety stairs leading up to a dingy loft.
“They had a chicken wire cage for the bar,” Orr says. “Crappy little stage and shitty PA. But when we walked in with long hair and spikes it was all like skinheads and mowhawks. It was the first mosh pit I ever saw." They jumped in, started punching and swinging. Blood was shed, but they were accepted and the energy and volume of the music made quite an impression. “Many of those punk bands were faster than metal bands,” Harrison says. “We liked playing fast.”
“From that point on I always thought metal and punk were the same thing,” Orr adds. “I was standing on both sides.”
Welcome to Your Funeral also explains how everything changed when Rigor Mortis met Jeff Liles, the current artistic director of Kessler Theater. Liles appears in the film and has a hilarious way of talking about crazy shit that happened. He explains how the band showed up at his office in Longhorn Ballroom in 1986, demanding to open for Megadeth. The band left him demos and he called them before they even got back home.
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Liles immediately knew Rigor Mortis were something special. After he brought Rigor Mortis to Deep Ellum, they ended up on bills with artists as diverse as Edie Brickell & New Bohemians and Rev. Horton Heat, which was very rare for a metal band then.
Rigor Mortis also got their wish to open for Megadeth at Longhorn. “They were a bunch of assholes,” Orr recalls. “We were threatening to roll their bus down the hill.”
The footage of the performance featured in Welcome to Your Funeral was actually a point of contention. Corbitt says a friend of Rigor Mortis shot it and then someone from Megadeth’s camp took the cameras. “They had been dicks to us,” Corbitt says. “And then they had our friend’s cameras. We went out back and we were ready. They kept their doors shut and they are lucky they didn’t come out that night.” Their friend got his camera back.
Welcome to Your Funeral: The Story of Rigor Mortis (Beginning to 1987) screens at 8 p.m. Wednesday, at Kessler Theater, 1230 W. Davis St., thekessler.org, $10.