When Wrestling Went Metal
Way back in the days before the WWE Network or a million Stone Cold wannabes doing “What?” after every pause on the mic, wrestling was predominantly a regional enterprise full of mystery and danger. As silly as it might sound, TV viewers in Memphis had no idea that wrestling existed in Portland and vice versa. The only way fans of the squared circle could connect with different territories was through heavily kayfabed magazines like Pro Wrestling Illustrated or the occasional fanzine. (For all you pencil-necked geeks out there, “kayfabe,” in wrestling lingo, means the presentation of scripted or otherwise fictional storylines as being real.) Obviously, relying on print, especially sensationalized print, left a lot up to the imagination. Thus, Kevin Sullivan, a diminutive tough guy with a thick Boston accent, became one of the most hated and feared heels in the business during the mid-’80s.
Sullivan’s reputation was entirely built around blood and black magic, and as word traveled around about his bloody feuds with “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes, Blackjack Mulligan, and the Windham family, the mystique of his supposed Satanism only grew. At his home promotion of Championship Wrestling From Florida, Sullivan and his Army of Darkness, which included the likes of the “Purple Haze” Mark Lewin, Luna Vachon, The Fallen Angel (Sullivan’s future wife and Chris Benoit’s future murder victim Nancy Benoit), Olympic wrestler Bob Roop, “Superstar” Billy Graham, The Lock, King Curtis Iaukea, and others, gained a reputation for hitting women, stabbing people with an iron spike, and cutting bizarre promos in the fields and on the beaches of Florida. Although Sullivan and company could be outlandish at times, the fact that they played Satanists during the height of the ‘80s Satanic Panic, and in the Bible Belt no less, was not only brazen, it was also totally metal.
It didn’t take long for actual metal bands to notice, either. In the pre-death metal days, Florida belonged to power thrash acts like Savatage and Nasty Savage. The latter band helped to bridge the gap between evil-sounding metal and evil-looking wrestling when they thanked Sullivan in the liner notes to their self-titled debut in 1985. Several promotional shoots followed soon thereafter, and on the band’s second release, 1987’s Indulgence, Army of Darkness members The Lock and Luna Vachon even sang back-up vocals on “Triple (XXX).” During the later incarnation of the Army of Darkness, Nasty Savage were more or less unofficial members of the group.
The connection between metal and wrestling was intentional, at least according to Sullivan. Looking for a way to place himself at the top of the bad guy pecking order in the Florida and Georgia territories, Sullivan found inspiration in MTV and the music of Ozzy Osbourne and Billy Idol. Then, when thrash hit, the connection only strengthened as teenagers along the Gulf Coast began blasting Metallica, Slayer, Nasty Savage, and others. Parents were horrified and po’d. If you watch any of Sullivan’s matches from 1982 until 1988, you can see them in the audience booing or threatening to beat the spirit of the Lord into Sullivan’s ungodly Yankee body. For the Army of Darkness, this was proof positive that the gimmick was working; for the audience, the Army of Darkness was proof positive that the world, or at least Florida, was going straight to hell.
While rock and metal were certainly influences on Sullivan’s gimmick, it’s striking to note that Sullivan returned the favor in some ways. Besides touching the black hearts of Nasty Savage, Sullivan also sported some serious corpsepaint that not only highlighted the evilness of his character, but also the overall theatricality of the at times KISS-like Army of Darkness. During their heyday, Sullivan’s cult came to the ring with either Jeff Beck’s “Gets Us All In The End” or Deep Purple’s “Nobody’s Home” blaring behind them and a series of black-cloaked and corpsepainted minions who usually brought with them boa constrictors of varying colors and sizes. Add in a half-naked Fallen Angel, then you’ve got a good idea of just how much of a spectacle Sullivan’s Army of Darkness was. Metal bands in Florida and all across the Southeast certainly took notice, and even during the painful years when Sullivan tried and failed to recreate the magic of the Army of Darkness with Sullivan’s Slaughterhouse, which included Mick Foley as Cactus Jack, and the hilariously cheesy Dungeon of Doom, most metalheads still saw Sullivan as something of a kindred spirit.
It would be pointless to wonder if Sullivan and the Army of Darkness would work again today. Every fan is in on the game now, plus a Satanist who knows a collar-and-elbow tie-up is just not terribly shocking anymore. But the big elephant in the room is metal. In the ‘80s, metal ruled a large swath of youth culture, so Sullivan’s menagerie of Satanists and his veiled hymns to some Asian mystic named Abudadein were threatening, cool, and 100% a part of the zeitgeist. Nowadays, even though metal rules Spotify, it doesn’t dominate today’s musically diverse and fragmented youth culture. Therefore, there’s no Nasty Savage-Kevin Sullivan collaboration coming soon. We can all weep now.