“Death By Metal”: Guitarist Chuck Schuldiner’s influential extreme death metal band Death

By on January 7, 2019

Canadian filmmaker Felipe Belalcázar’s Death by Metal is the definitive documentary about the Florida band Death, who many consider to have created the death metal genre, paving the way for future extreme death metal bands like Cannibal Corpse and Napalm Death.

Watch it now on Night Flight Plus.

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The 1 hr. 45-minute film — which theatrically debuted back in 2016, and was released on DVD in 2018 — is a tribute to, and an epitaph for, Death’s late lead guitarist Chuck Schuldiner.

Sometimes considered the “Father of Death Metal,” Schuldiner’s life was tragically cut short at just 34 years old, and Death by Metal ultimately reveals what pushed Schuldiner (a.k.a. “Evil Chuck”) to the extreme edge, creating a lasting legacy with Death’s dark guitar anthems.

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This official authorized documentary features candid interviews with Schuldiner’s friends and former band members (two to three members from each lineup), including Chris Reifert, Rick Rozz, Sean Reinert, Steve DiGiorgio, Gene Hoglan, Richard Christy (familiar to many as a cast member of the “Howard Stern Show” since 2004) & many, many more.

Belalcázar also spoke at length with a few members of the Schuldiner family (including Chuck’s mother Jane).

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This documentary project also involved lengthy discussions with Eric Grieff, Death’s former manager who now helps oversee the Schuldiner musical legacy and estate (he was also the film’s co-producer, along with Belalcázar) , as well as record producer Jim Morris.

There’s a ton of raw footage here from Death’s live shows (much of it sourced from VHS footage of the band shared by VHS tape traders).

During the early pre-production stages of this film, Belalcázar discovered that Decibel magazine’s 12-page “oral history” in issue #77 was the most accurate source for dates the band’s shows and other Death ephemera.

Decibel has called Death by Metal “…inarguably the most important death metal-related documentary ever filmed.”

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Read more about Death by Metal below.

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Death were formed in Altamonte Springs, Florida, a suburban city just north of Orlando in Seminole County, circa 1982.

Right from the start, Schuldiner’s band took the tempo of speed metal further outward to the very edge, introducing a dark, death-centric morbid edge to their lyrics, which were frequently culled from gore movies like Make Them Die Slowly and Re-Animator.

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This was all happening right around the same time that hugely popular bands like Metallica and Slayer were in the process of slowing down their own musical tempos and adding more subtle elements.

The arrival of Death on the scene further highlighted why they were so different from what was happening elsewhere in the Florida-based death metal scene, including Tampa, where they played some of their earliest shows.

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Originally, the very first lineup of the band — Chuck Schuldiner, Kam Lee and Rick Rozz — were called Mantas.

They released a demo called Death by Metal in 1983 before breaking up, but the tape was traded so frequently by fans of then-burgeoning sub-genre of death metal — under the name Death — that they decided to reform under that name.

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In the following two years, Death would release two more demo tapes, Reign of Terror and Infernal Death.

Kam Lee possessed a low, guttural-sounding vocal sound, and his singing style was hugely influential on the death metal music scene, which would then become a staple of the sound; if you wanted your band to sound death metal, your singer sounded like Kam Lee (he doesn’t appear in this documentary, unfortunately).

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Ultimately, Death evolved, and Schuldiner would adopt the band’s lead vocal duties.

By that point, they had already made a major impact with their fast, dark metal riffage and fast-paced drumming, complimented by Schuldiner’s frenzied guitar solos.

On Death’s first album, 1987’s Scream Bloody Gore — considered one of the all-time great death metal albums — guitarist Chuck Schuldiner played every single instrument save for the drums.

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There were more albums for Death — Leprosy (1988), Spiritual Healing (1990), Human (1991), Individual Thought Patterns (1993), Symbolic (1995), Sound of Perseverance (1998), not to mention a “Best Of” (1992’s Fate) and 2001’s Live in L.A.: Death & Raw.

Schuldiner continued guiding his band through countless lineup changes as he searched for the appropriate musicians to help him create his visionary music.

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By the early nineties, however, the death metal scene had become, in Schuldiner’s own words — as he said in an interview with U.K.’s Metal Forces in 1991 — “exclusively about being evil, Satanic and playing full speed ahead,” which he said he wasn’t into at all.

While his lyrics often attempted to tackle tough subjects, like abortion and euthanasia, he was also making the attempt to show the world that it wasn’t all about heavy stuff.

He memorably made an appearance on MTV’s “Headbanger’s Ball” in a shirt covered in images of kittens, in fact.

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In 1996, Schuldiner continued branching out from where death metal had taken root, founding a secondary musical project called Control Denied, which was to become his main gig thereafter.

This band, pushing the musical envelope even further out, featured a melodic, straight-ahead metal vocalist singing over intricate and overly-complicated compositions.

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Then, just a few years later, in 1999, Schuldiner was diagnosed with brain cancer, which he battled for the rest of his life.

Benefit concerts were organized by metal acts worldwide, and numerous friends and fans donated merchandise for an online auction to help raise funds to pay for the expensive medical procedures Schuldiner needed.

Schuldiner was just 34 when his battle came to its tragic end on December 13, 2001.

Watch Death by Metal and other great music documentaries on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.