Sam Dunn: The Journey of the World's Most Famous Headbanger

Sam Dunn
Sam Dunn

Arguably the world’s most famous metalhead, Canadian Sam Dunn is an anthropologist, former bass player in the metal band Burn to Black, and an award winning documentary maker. A man of many talents, Dunn is most famous for his documentary films based around heavy metal music. Most fans of heavy metal music are familiar with the work of Sam Dunn.

Sam Dunn: His Life and Works

When was Sam Dunn born?

Sam Dunn was born on March 20th, 1974 in Victoria , British Columbia, Canada. In Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey, Dunn described the city as the ‘land of the newly wed and the nearly dead’. He called himself a banger, rocker, punk, skid etc. He developed his love for metal music during his time as a teenager in Victoria. 

Where did Sam Dunn study?

Sam Dunn studied Anthropology at the University of Victoria. He also obtained a master’s degree from York University where his thesis was focused on Guatemalan refugees. .

Which documentaries has Sam Dunn made?

The documentary film that brought Sam Dunn in public eye was Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey. The documentary was loved and appreciated by heavy metal fans all across the globe. It also received widespread critical acclaim and went on to win a Gemini Award for Best Writing in a Documentary. Sam Dunn also made the Grammy-nominated Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage and Super Duper Alice Cooper. The latter went on to win the award for Best Feature-Length Documentary at the Canadian Screen Awards. Sam Dunn continued working in the field of heavy metal and collaborated with vh1 to bring the biggest ever TV series on the history of heavy metal, Metal Evolution. Dunn served as the co-director and host for the show. It went on to reach #1 on VH1 Classic (USA) and M3 (Canada). Sam Dunn also co-directed the famous Netflix original series Hip-Hop Evolution. The show has gone on to become a great success and has won a Peabody, an International Emmy, and a Canadian Screen Award. In 2015, Sam Dunn also released Satan Lives, discussing the impact of Satan on popular culture.

Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey

This was the first documentary film released by Sam Dunn. It was released in the year 2005. Dunn co-directed it with Jessica Wise and Scot McFadyen. The film followed Sam Dunn on a journey which documented the origins, culture and appeal of heavy metal in popular culture. The documentary explored the most prominent and notorious themes present in heavy metal music: violence, death, religion and Satanism, gender and sexuality. The documentary also delved into some key traits and idiosyncrasies of heavy metal’s various subgenres such as thrash metal, death metal, black metal, glam metal, progressive metal and power metal. For the purpose of this documentary film, Sam Dunn even created a family-tree style flow chart which documented all the subgenres of heavy metal and their relationship with each other.

The ‘Metal Family Tree‘ from Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey

The film also discussed the various aspects of the heavy metal culture along with people such as DePaul University’s Professor of Sociology, Deena Weinstein. She spoke at great lengths about the relevance and symbolism of the colour black and the true meaning of the testosterone fuelled hypermasculinity of heavy metal. Sam Dunn also attended Wacken Open Air, the most well renowned heavy metal festival of the world. He also spoke to Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider about the PMRC’s attack on heavy metal music in the 1980s. 

Global Metal

Sam Dunn co-produced and directed Global Metal. The documentary was released in 2008. Sam Dunn and Scot McFadyen embarked on a global journey to see the impact of heavy metal music all across the globe, especially outside of Europe and North America. The whirlwind journey featured Sam Dunn travelling through India, China, Japan, Indonesia, the Middle East  and South America. Sam Dunn discussed some unusual metal scenes from the underbelly of heavy metal. Those scenes ranged from Indonesian death metal to Israeli Oriental metal and Chinese black metal to Iranian thrash metal, etc. The film showed a truly global community of metalheads who took the essence of heavy metal and added their own cultural twist to it. As it is in the West, heavy metal music also helps create a form of cultural expression for the people who are fed up in societies dominated by conflict, corruption and mass-consumerism.

Iron Maiden: Flight 666

Sam Dunn has called Iron Maiden ‘his favourite band of all time’ on many occasions. This 2009 documentary, co-written and co-directed by Dunn and McFadyen chronicled Iron Maiden’s 2008 World Tour in which vocalist Bruce Dickinson flew a converted Boeing 757 from country to country. 

Rush: Beyond The Lighted Stage

This documentary on one of Canada’s most famous rock bands Rush, premiered on April 29th at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. It went on to win the Audience Award at the festival.

Metal Evolution

Sam Dunn went on to produce the biggest ever series on heavy metal music for vh1 Classic. The series, called Metal Evolution premiered on November 11th, 2011.  The series was created after feedback about Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey. “Some people said they wished that film was eight hours long,” Dunn said. The 11 part series featured the following episode. The 12th episode, titled Extreme Metal, was released online through crowdfunding.

1.”Pre Metal”   

This episode features Sam Dunn discussing about the ultimate progenitor of metal music: Rock n’ Roll. Sam Dunn also talked about early blues musicians and their impact in the development of metal’s style.  

2. “Early Metal Part 1: US Division”   

Metal morning in America begins with the clank of cars and guitars and the burning of draft cards, Including the likes of Ted Nugent & The Amboy Dukes, The Frost, Iggy & The Stooges and the explosive MC5 and of course KISS.

3. “Early Metal Part 2: UK Division”   

The UK wasn’t about to cede rock & roll dominance to America. This episode documented how early blues-influenced British bands cranked up the amps and used distorted guitars to give the first pre-metal sounds from the likes of Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, and of course Black Sabbath who most consider the first ever heavy metal band and are recognized for laying the blueprints of what became an entire genre of music. These bands tended to stay away from the label of heavy metal for a major part of their career and only called heavy metal a part of what they did. It wasn’t until the arrival of Judas Priest that the term heavy metal was fully embraced and given a distinct look.  

4. “New Wave of British Heavy Metal”   

The movement began to grow and was spearheaded by the likes of Motörhead, Diamond Head and gained even more momentum when Iron Maiden began packing local clubs and later went on to sell millions of albums. The media and record labels could no longer ignore these bands and this became a major force in music that had to be reckoned with and was dubbed as the new wave of British heavy metal. Other notable acts which were part of this included Saxon, Tygers of Pan Tang, Angel Witch, Raven and Praying Mantis. The NWOBHM bands started losing their popularity in the wake of the rising glam metal scene in America. The glam metal bands featured a more polished, mainstream friendly sound which the raw NWOBHM bands couldn’t keep up with. However, NWOBHM did end up igniting the fire which led to the birth of the subgenre of thrash metal in America.   

5. “Glam”   

Sam Dunn made it abundantly clear that he loathed Glam Metal during his days as a teenager in the 80s. He even went on to compare Glam bands to boybands. In this episode, Sam Dunn met some key figures associated with the glam metal movement such as such as Mötley Crüe’s Vince Neil, Dokken’s George Lynch and Van Halen’s Michael Anthony. These former stars divulged their side of the story and revealed the attitudes, influences and decisions which dictated their lives and careers on  L.A.’s storied Sunset Strip. On the flipside, Dunn also interviewedScott Ian from Anthrax and Slash from Guns N’ Roses who discussed the reasons behind the vilification of glam.

6. “Thrash”

This episode featured the subgenre of metal which took metal straight into its most extreme form and gave birth to some of the biggest bands in the history of metal viz. Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer and Anthrax.

7. “Grunge”   

While grunge has widely been credited to fueling the demise of heavy metal from popular music, Sam Dunn still believes that it is associated with metal in some ways. Dunn discussed the impact of early metal bands such as Black Sabbath, Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin in the formative years of most grunge musicians. Also featured in the episode were the circumstances that led to the rapid decline of grunge.

8. “Nu Metal”   

If hair metal was the antithesis of heavy metal purists in the eighties, that was delegated to nu metal in the late nineties. Likewise, if the keyboard was an instrument that such purists felt had no place in a heavy metal band, that disdain was now held by the incorporation of the turntable. Early influences came from bands such as Anthrax and their 1991 collaboration with Public Enemy, Faith No More, even thrashers whose riff-driven hooks were described as “groove metal”. Sepultura’s Roots album was also credited as an influence on Nu Metal. This spawned the rise of a new genre of music influenced by two seemingly opposing forces: hip hop and hard rock. Nu metal broke ground and gave way to bands like Korn, Deftones, Rage Against The Machine, and Limp Bizkit. At the height of its popularity the show documents the unfortunate events that conspired in Woodstock in 1999 which included performances by Korn, Rage Against the Machine and Limp Bizkit leading to nu metal’s decline soon thereafter. Yet the mantle has still been carried on by acts such as Linkin Park and Disturbed, among others.

9. “Shock Rock”   

Unlike any other genre profiled on the show, Shock Rock is defined by its visuals and public image, not by its sound. The genre’s roots were traced back to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Arthur Brown. This episode focused on metal’s impact in pushing the envelope when it came to disturbing and horrific imagery and its place as Public Enemy #1 to conservative America. Shock Rock as we know it, started with Alice Cooper in the 1970s. It was made more (for the lack of a better word) shocking by early black metal pioneers Venom and Mercyful Fate (featuring the vocal histrionics of lead singer King Diamond) in the 1980s. The episode also discussed Marilyn Manson, who was made a scapegoat for the Columbine High School massacre of 1999. Slipknot and Rammstein are also featured.

10. “Power Metal”   

Completely alien to the genre, Sam Dunn sets off to find out what it’s all about, and why it’s so unfamiliar to him. Dunn analyzed the difference between power metal and traditional heavy metal and traced the genre’s roots to continental Europe. Also discussed in the episode are the ties of Power Metal to Classical Music and the way in which power metal flourishes with metal festivals such as Germany’s Wacken Open Air and Slovenia’s Metal Camp. Power Metal figureheads such as Yngwie Malmsteen and Kai Hansen were interviewed in this episode.

11. “Progressive Metal”   

The series finale showcased the subgenre of progressive metal. This subgenre was heavily influenced by 70s progressive rock, which used textured sounds and intricate arrangements while incorporating the rock element in its own distinctive way. Modern progressive rock most often cites the influences of the percussive guitar-playing of Steve Hackett of Genesis, and the instrumentals of Yes. Progressive Rock came to the forefront with the Canadian band Rush which is profiled in one-on-one interviews with the band’s 3 members, Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson and Neil Peart while on tour in Cleveland, Ohio. The nineties introduced the groundbreaking, innovative sounds of bands like Tool, Queensrÿche, Dream Theater, Mastodon, Meshuggah and The Dillinger Escape Plan.

12. “Extreme Metal: The Lost Episode”   

Produced after the original series aired, this episode covers Florida Death Metal, Norwegian Black Metal, Grindcore, and other extreme subgenres. The episode was produced with the help of donations through IndieGoGo.

Banger TV – All Metal

Sam Dunn and Scot McFadyen’s Banger Films has a Youtube channel “Banger TV – All Metal”. 

The channel features regular album reviews, subgenre discussions (Lock Horns) and contests such as Shredders of Metal. Sam Dunn and Banger Films are currently working on creating a Netflix style streaming service, which will specialize in streaming heavy metal related content. 

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