Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Carpocalypse Now: STRYKER (1983)

Like so many other people back in the day I was totally and absolutely floored by a series of films by an Aussie by the name of George Miller and some dude who never did anything else named… I think, Mel something. A nightmare vision of the civilized world falling into ruin with smatterings of populated areas between vast wastelands populated by blood-thirsty outlaws driving suped-up muscle cars. Unlike most mainstream filmgoers that thrilled to MAD MAX (1979), THE ROAD WARRIOR (1981) and MAD MAX: BEYOND THUNDERDOME (1985), I saw no reason to stop there. I was one of those alleged degenerates that happily would sit through every single Italian, Filipino, American and even Kiwi post-apocalyptic action flick no matter how much Siskel and Ebert disapproved. I was the guy who lamented Patrick Swaze's demise because it finally crushed my hopes of ever seeing STEEL DAWN 2. Some of the films have gone on to be classics in their own right, such as Enzo G. Castellari’s brilliant epic 1990: THE BRONX WARRIORS (1982) or even better, my all-time favorite Sergio Martino’s 2010: AFTER THE FALL OF NEW YORK (1983). Still others have either fallen through the cracks or have become cult hits in the true definition of the word.

One of the Philippine’s most prolific directors is Cirio H. Santiago. With somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 films (that we Westerners know of) under his belt, Santiago began making films at his father’s studio, Premier Productions, in 1955. In the early ‘70s Santiago made trend-setting English language exploitation pictures ranging from black action, nudies, women’s prison, Vietnam war, martial arts, biker pics and more. His work attracted the keen eye of Roger Corman who starting with the seminal women’s prison film THE BIG DOLL HOUSE in 1971, has co-produced over 30 films with Santigo, a partnership that continues to this day. In 1983, a few short years after the world-wide success of THE ROAD WARRIOR, Santiago tried his hand at the first of several post-apocalyptic movies with STRYKER.

Starting with stock footage of ye olde mushroom cloud, a narrator tells us that the war to end civilization as we know it was simply an accident by someone who history has forgotten. Seems like Santiago was more than just a filmmaker as he taps straight into what would probably be the very real truth about a post holocaust environment: the scarcest commodity is water and “whoever controls the water, controls the world”. Though I'm not sure why anyone would actually want to be the ruler of a desert planet populated by random handfuls of scavengers, but I guess that's beside the point. While Mr. Rockatansky waged war for a tank of juice, Santiago shows a solid knowledge of real-world economics and makes water the chief resource of the future long before the issue became front-page news.

Out on the desert highways a girl, Delha (Andrea Savio), on a raked out trike is being chased by a bunch of leather-clad ruffians in (and on) a matte-black muscle car. After catching her they demand to know where her water is, but before they get an answer a wanderer named Stryker (Steve Sandor) and a competitor named Bandit (William Ostrander) blow the bad guys away and make a mad dash for the water. Delha escapes in Stryker's car only to be nabbed by the bad guys again after the car runs out of gas. As it turns out Stryker wants to help the girl out of his memories of his dead wife (or Common Wastelaw Partner) and Bandit needs to bring her back to the head of a camp run by Trun (Ken Metcalfe of countless ‘70s and ‘80s Philippine trash epics), who happens to be Stryker’s only slightly megalomaniacal brother. Delha needs to get to Trun to tell him that his old partner, her father, has found an underground oasis and has built a commune around it. Apparently they had a deal that whoever found water, he would let the other one know. So Stryker and Bandit team up to raid the gang’s hideout and save the girl, thus saving the world, or at least themselves. Maybe taking a cue from Steve Barkett's THE AFTERMATH (1982), the hooligan's hideout happens to be a medieval castle (though it does not belong to Ted Mikels), which is the center of power for the evil, hook-handed ruler of the wasteland, Kardis (Mike Lane).

Kardis, looking like an experimental crossbreeding of Ming the Merciless and Sid Haig, is totally evil because a) he’s got a hook for a hand, b) he dresses in flamboyant black and red, and c) he pronounces all of his syllables. This shows a clear comprehension of the Rules of Exploitation Cinema. Good guys are working men who drop some of their consonants or at the very least drawl when they talk. Bad guys have had diction lessons and are probably foreign educated. Bastards! Of course Stryker and Kardis have history, which is told in flashback, where Kardis murders Stryker’s woman while he is chained to a wall. Naturally Stryker breaks loose, fights off guards and while escaping grabs a sword and turns Kardis into a mono mano man. What's funny is that while the flashback in monochrome, the shot of Kardis' hand being lopped off and blood squirting from the stump is in full color! Santiago knows on which side his bread is buttered, making up for a lack of budget with some bloody effects littered through out the film.

Santiago gets to do his version of the famous climactic tanker scene from THE ROAD WARRIOR here, though on a slightly more modest budget and then it’s only to cause a diversion so Stryker and Bandit can gain access to the castle in order to rescue Delha who is busy being ravaged by her captors. Once free from the castle they head to the camp to find out that Trun has been captured by Kardis' men. Kardis' men are mean. To let the audience know just how mean they are, they bury Trun up to his neck in the sand and when he begs for water, they give him some... though it's been *ahem* previously used. After that action flies back and forth as someone gets captured and has to be rescued until everyone winds up at the commune oasis and it’s all out war. During the slow pursuit of Delha through the desert, Stryker and Bandit run across a group of dwarfs dressed in tattered brown monk robes that talk with high-pitched squeaky voices (do they sell droids by any chance?). Stryker being a man of few words shows what a helluva guy he is by giving them some of the water he just stole. Of course, at the end of the film the dwarves are glad to return Stryker’s favor by helping them defend the “commune” from the raider’s attack. At one point the dwarfs actually pull out a freakin’ M-80 machine gun so that Stryker can bust out all Rambo on the bad guys. Ummm... these guys are wandering around the desert with a freakin' normally turret-mounted machine gun that weighs more than two of them combined?

This was clearly made on a shoestring budget, even by Santiago's standards. I’m guessing it was one of those films that they weren’t sure they could sell and once they did sell it the budget for the next one (1985’s semi-sequel WHEELS OF FIRE) went up considerably. Here Santiago can only afford two nice muscle cars, the rest are jeeps and holy crap! Are those tanks? Man, what did he have to do for the military to be able to borrow those? Most of the vehicles are amusingly given a “crazy wasteland” appearance by painting them flat black and then hitting them with some brown spray paint! Spray paint. It’s the future.

Veteran TV actor Steve Sandor is (probably wisely) given about a handful of lines and most of them are chuckle-inducing platitudes such as the one when Trun demands that Stryker tell him why he decided to leave his camp and become a wanderer. Stryker allows a dramatic pause and says “everybody’s got their own highway to hell. You got yours. I got mine.” Damn, man, I just asked a simple question! No need to get all So-crates Johnson on me! William Ostrander is pretty much worthless as Bandit, though his scenes where he falls for a chick warrior who snaked her armor from the local football team are pretty damned amusing. You see Bandit wears a head-band and she wears a headband… can you hear the strings swelling under the moonlight? No joke, the scene is played out with swelling music and moonlight. Ahhh, romance in the post-apocalypse wasteland.

I saw STRYKER when it hit video back in ’84-ish and it made a pretty big impression on me, in spite of the extra-low budget, leading to a minor obsession with MAD MAX rip-offs. Sure it’s not going to go toe-to-toe with the Italian stuff, but what does? Even if you are not wracked with nostalgia over Andrea Savio’s wasteland Daisy Duke's, there’s some good fun to be had here and may even lead you into some of Santiago’s other post-apocalyptic outings including EQUALIZER 2000 and FUTURE HUNTERS (both 1986).

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