Cyber Monday: Project Shadowchaser Trilogy

Frank Zagarino dies hard!

Cinemasochism: Black Mangue (2008)

Braindead zombies from Brazil!

The Gweilo Dojo: Furious (1984)

Simon Rhee's bizarre kung fu epic!

Adrenaline Shot: Fire, Ice and Dynamite (1990)

Willy Bogner and Roger Moore stuntfest!

Sci-Fried Theater: Dead Mountaineer's Hotel (1979)

Surreal Russian neo-noir detective epic!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Listomania!: Will's September 2011 Viewings

Damn, another month gone already?  I was able to cram in 26 flicks during September, which isn’t too bad.  The number breaks down as follows: 20 DVDs (I include DVD-Rs in that), 2 VHS, 2 streaming online, 1 laserdisc and 1 venture outside to the theater.  It was, per usual, a collection of the good, the bad and the ugly.  The biggest question is what does it say about movie watching when the best thing I saw all month was released in 1985?  Of course, I need to get the bad out of the way quickly.  Consider this first one a huge warning *inserts sounds of Public Emergency Announcement*

GEORGE A. ROMERO PRESENTS DEADTIME STORIES vol. 2 (2011) – Fearless friend Mark Tinta warned the public about volume one of this direct-to-video anthology series back in July of this year.  Did I listen?  No, of course not! Horror fans never listen.  Honestly, I knew this would be low budget, but I went in with the hope that I could get at least a semi-decent episode to bring back that old TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE or MONSTERS vibe.  Nope, not even close.  What I got was a complete amateur hour (and a half) from filmmakers who should know better.  What we get here are three stories introduced by Romero.  Matt Walsh directs "The Gorge," where three spelunkers get trapped in a cave. They are stuck for 27 days before two of them decide it is time to eat a bit of the wounded one. Jeff Monahan directs "On Sabbath Hill,” about an uptight college professor who impregnates a student. After she commits suicide (in front of the whole class), he starts to see visions of her. Finally there is "Dust" directed by DEATH SPA helmer Michael Fischa, where a experimental lab security guard steals some dust from Mars after a doc tells him it might cure his wife's cancer. It does indeed and she turns into a nympho. But when she reverts back to her ill state, he needs more.

Good GAWD!  This is some rough stuff.  First, you have these awful stories where you can guess the twist about 2 minutes into each segment.  Gee, the guy who stole the miracle Mars dust lives next to a cemetery…I wonder what will happen?  Second, I’ve seen better production values on made-for-Youtube shorts.  Monahan and Walsh have been in the business for years, yet they still manage to look like complete amateurs.  The worst sting comes from Fischa.  That guy has actually made an entertaining exploitation flick (the glorious DEATH SPA) so he has literally no excuse.  Finally, there are the Romero segments.  The filmmakers cut between two different recording sessions where he is wearing completely different clothes and looks to be just sitting in his living room.  No set up and zero atmosphere.  The segments are introduced with generic, “You ready to get scared?” lines and are followed with some bad pun.  This was a Pittsburgh-shot production so I know they probably pulled on Romero’s heartstrings there to get him to do this.  It is just embarrassing stuff.  Think of me as your personal Crazy Ralph (the town loony from FRIDAY THE 13th), “If you go anywhere near this title, you’re doomed.  You’re all doomed!”

ASSASSINATION GAMES (2011) – I’m secretly a Van Damme fan, but even I can’t keep up with all of his direct-to-video outings.  I knew about this one because Scott Adkins was involved and I dig his work.  Sadly, this is just as disappointing as their previous teaming on THE SHEPARD (2008).

Two corrupt Interpol cops decide to clean house and get rid of Roland Flint (Scott Adkins), a retired assassin who knows the dirt on them but is in hiding with his incapacitated wife (Bianca Van Varenberg, Van Damme's daughter). They have the gangster who raped Flint's wife released as to draw him out for one last job. But things get complicated when another assassin, Vincent Brazil (Jean-Claude Van Damme), also takes the $1 million contract. Gee, I wonder if these two will learn to respect each other and work together to achieve their mutual goal. This is just another tired entry in Van Damme's filmography. I guess it is better than some of his most recent work, but we are still dealing with a cliché ridden mess. Are we really still doing the "two assassins confront each other with guns pointed at their faces" shot in 2011? And are we still doing the "assassin with the heart of gold" routine? And are we still doing the "cultured assassin" practice (VD listens to classical music and plays chess and the violin)? The film benefits from the addition of DTV staple Scott Adkins and the two leads have a good rapport onscreen. Unfortunately, director Ernie Barbarash has no idea how to shoot a fight scene and Adkins' considerable talents are wasted. Barbarash also turns in one of the ugliest pictures I've seen in a long time. He thinks he adds style by completely bleeding the film of any color, resulting in something that looks like the sepia toned retro-western gag photos you get at an amusement park. Seriously, look at this:

The DVD box says color on it, but that isn't what you are getting. The finale is filmed in normal colors, making me surmise Barbarash thinks he is displaying the cold world the assassins work in until they "do good" and things are suddenly colorful. Well, it doesn't work at all.

DEATH BY DIALOGUE (1988) - Perhaps the world's only possessed script movie? Cary (Lenny Delducca) and four of his friends (including A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3's Ken "Kincaid" Sagoes) go to visit his crippled Uncle Ive, who lives on a sprawling ranch that used to be a movie location in the 1950s. Trouble starts when Shelly (Kelly Sullivan) finds an old script for a film titled VICTIM 67. The kids start getting offed and the script title and plot line keeps changing with each victim. So how did the script get possessed? Seems an ancient tribe the Uncle was friendly with in South America had put the soul of a nosy reporter they killed into an ancient urn and it got loose on a film set in the 1950s and entered a script. Makes perfect sense, right?

This little horror flick was from City Lights, the earlier company from PM Entertainment producers Joseph Merhi and Richard Pepin. It is like a lot of their early stuff, flatly shot but with enough technical sheen to put it above most horror muck. Director Tom DeWier is primarily a stuntman in Hollywood and gets a few cool stunt bits in here, including a girl being blown out of a barn mid-sex. The film's biggest attribute is its M.S.U. (Makin' Shit Up) quality like when one victim wanders into the woods only to see an 80s metal band jamming out before they make his head explode with a guitar to the cranium. Co-star Sagoes must have hated his agent, thinking, "This is the best you could do for me after ELM STREET 3?" Even worse, the filmmakers have him dress exactly the same as his earlier, popular character so audience know he is "the kid who survived A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3" (as the VHS box proudly proclaims).

Two reasons to watch EVIL TOONS
EVIL TOONS (1992) - Roxanne (porn star Madison Stone), Jan (porn star Barbara Dare), Terry (Suzanne Ager), and nerdy Megan (Monique Gabrielle) are hired by Burt (Dick Miller) to spend a weekend cleaning up an old house. You know Megan is the nerdy one because she wears glasses. Anyway, they are delivered a Necronomicon looking book by Gideon Fisk (David Carradine) and, after an incantation is read aloud, a cartoon wolf creature springs forth and starts killing folks. Leave it to Fred Olen Ray to call his film EVIL TOONS, yet only have one cartoon in it with only roughly a minute of animated footage to boot. WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT this ain't. This is deliberately goofy stuff and it serves its purpose (topless scenes) for its 82 minutes. The funniest bits are nearly all from Miller, including a scene where he DOESN'T want to get it on with his horny wife (Michelle Bauer). Carradine probably only shot one day on this for drug money and Ray hilariously cuts to reaction shots of him to make you think he is just chilling outside. See David Carradine slink behind a tree! Helping beef up the "name" factor is Arte Johnson as a perv neighbor. It is filmed at that same recognizable house where Ray also did TEENAGE EXORCIST and SPIRITS. Wynorski also did SORORITY HOUSE MASSACRE II there.

THE CURIOUS DR. HUMPP (1969) - A reporter and a detective try to figure out who is behind a series of kidnappings of young couples making out. Their only clue is a hulking monster seen around town picking up girls and pharmacy orders (oddly, no one freaks out about when they see it). The man behind the mysterious abductions is Dr. Humpp, a mad scientist who is hellbent on turning humans into "veritable sex machines" to increase physical and mental performance. Wait, why is he a bad guy? Well, he also has the talking brain of an old Italian doctor in a bottle and uses fluid from his prisoners' libido (huh?) to keep himself young. This softcore T&A horror flick from Argentina is curious indeed. If you took out all the sex scenes, you might have a 25 minute movie. Lots and lots of shots of naked bodies (the first real line of dialogue isn't until about 12 minutes in). This import does have some really nice B&W photography though and you'll be surprised at how expertly dubbed it is.

And finally, the best movie I saw in all of September 2011…

THE LOST EMPIRE (1985) – Tom previously reviewed this one of the blog here, but I feel it deserves another mention because it is that damn good.  Three bosomy babes go undercover to the island of Dr. Sin Do (Angus Scrimm) to find out why Angel's cop brother was murdered by some ninja looking dudes. The diabolical doctor holds a martial arts tournament, but it also using his conquests for slaves to be sold while staying young by drinking their blood. Oh, and he is also looking to gain world power by combining the ancient Eyes of the Avatar stones, one of which just happens to be in Angel's purse. This was director Jim Wynorski's directing debut and it is delight from start to finish. It is incredibly pulpy and definitely has its tongue-in-cheek. The most surprising thing here is all three female leads (Melanie Vincz as Angel, Raven De La Croix as Whitestar, Angela Aames as Heather) are actually really funny in their roles, showing they were on the same page as Wynorski. Of course, seeing as this is Wynorski, you know that the screen will be covered in busty babes who get topless. Hell, his opening shot is a James Bond-style scope that pans across a pair of boobs! He doesn't disappoint and Russ Meyer would be proud. It is such a strong debut for Wynorski that it saddens me that he basically stopped giving a damn 10 years later and now just cranks out generic action and T&A messes. Co-starring Paul Coufos as love interest Rick, Robert Tessier as evil sidekick Koro, and Blackie Dammett (aka Anthony Keidis' pop) as a corrupt cop.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Listomania!: Thomas' September 2011 Viewings

THE MAN ON THE ROOF (1976): Bo Widerberg's cool, gritty, realistic police thriller based on Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö's Martin Beck novel of the same title. An old cop is brutally murdered in a hospital room in a genuinely creepy opening sequence that feels like it was straight out of an Argento movie of the same era. As detective Martin Beck investigates the case, it becomes clear that this was one bad cop and that a lot of people may have had it in for him, even worse, one of those people could be a police officer. Gritty and stark, Widerberg plays out the scenario with an almost documentary style (aside from the opening scene), with minimal music, allowing the silence to heighten the sense of realism. The last half of the film where a sniper pins down an entire police force is an absolute classic of the genre. Not just a gripping police thriller, the story takes some great unexpected twists that would undoubtedly be completely reworked if it were made today. It's pretty obvious that the source material has been cut down to fit in a 110 minute movie, which will cause some Sjöwall and Wahlöö diehards (like my father) to grumble, but taken for what it is, it's a great movie. One of these days, I should get around to reading those books. One of these days.

SKY PIRATES (1986): When I watched this back in the day I was bored stiff by it. I guess it just didn't push the boundaries of a PG rating like RAIDERS did. I watch it now and I am stunned by how much I enjoy it. Arguably one of the best Indiana Jones rip-offs simply because it creates its own little world that exploits all of the things people loved about RAIDERS, but goes about it's business in an entirely original way. Legendary air force pilot Dakota Harris (John Hargreaves) is commissioned with flying a mysterious crate off to Bora Bora along with a priest (Simon Chilvers), and his former WWII rival and now superior officer (Max Phipps). After crashing into the sea due to a bizarre electrical storm, Harris must escape from the stockade to search for the missing priest and the mysterious crate of ancient power. Yeah, well, if you watch it, you’ll get the INDIANA connection (or just look at the German DVD cover). Great Aussie cast with Hargreaves playing it cool as a cucumber in that huge fleece-lined flightjacket and Phipps setting a fashion-statement for the next decade of Asian films with a tall, peroxided flattop. Meredith Phillips is also thrown in as the priest's hot daughter with whom Hargreaves (again) has zero chemistry. Director Colin Eggleston does an about face from his disturbing-as-hell LONG WEEKEND and who knew John Lamond could produce such a fun, sleaze-free film?

AUSTRALIA AFTER DARK (1975): John Lamond's notoriously shoddy excuse of a mondo film promises FACES OF DEATH meets MONDO TOPLESS by a rather carefree narrator and delivers some of the most embarrassingly amateurish staged "events" of a totally unshocking nature as padding between a staggering amount of full frontal nudity. Some of the brutal mondo footage includes body painting; three not-terribly attractive middle-aged women roll around in paint for what seems like a freakin' eternity. More crotch shots than a fistfull of Franco flicks, but the rest of it is painfully uneventful. I guess there is a reason that Australia never was very competitive in this sub-genre.

THE RATS (1982): Aka DEADLY EYES. Bob Clouse. The best deaf director in Hollywood. I see you snickering. Yes, it's got Terriers dressed up as rats, yes it has a teenage girl trying to seduce an older man (happens every day, right?), no it doesn't have Peter Weller. Suck it up, punk. Sure it’s probably one of Clouse’s lesser works, but it’s still pretty damned entertaining and you have Scatman Corruthers playing a character, who one assumes, has a history of naval service due to his sodium-rich dialogue.

CHOKE CANYON (1986): Ovidio G. Assonitis makes the most out of his meger budget (for once) with this actioner about an oiled-up, iron-pumping, knuckle-brawling, six-gun shooting, dynamite blowing-uping physicist (Stephen Collins) who is working on a project to save the environment via clean energy. Problem is, some big corporation with a load of toxic waste to dump wants to use his canyon. They aren't going to take no for an answer and he ain't going without a fight! You may want to take a moment to let that sink in. Completely ludicrous, even by Ovidio's lofty standards, but loaded with enough crazy-ass vehicular and pyrotechnic stunts to make Hal Needham green with envy. Plus you have Nicholas Pryor as the evil Pilgrim, Lance Henriksen in George Romero's glasses and Bo Svenson as a soft-spoken uber-mercenary badass who gets his butt soundly kicked by a scientist. What more could you want? Serena Grandi running around naked? Well, yes, but that would just be too much of a good thing.

Ooooooh, snaps! Holmes is down!
SHERLOCK HOLMES AND DR. WATSON, PART FOUR: DUEL TO THE DEATH (1980): Not quite up to par with the first set of films from '79, in part due to the fact that this entry based on "The Adventure of the Final Problem" which details Holmes' meeting and subsequent battle with Professor Moriarity. This is a bit premature in the series as Moriarity has barely been introduced and it's supposed to end with the death of Holmes. Still entertaining, but not as good as the previous films, in part due to some wildly melodramatic over-acting by Viktor Yevgrafov, who appears to believe he is a villain in a silent movie. Someone give that man a mustache to twirl!
HARD KNUCKLE (1987): The CITIZEN KANE of dystopian pool movies. Seriously, one of the best movies I've seen this year. Check out the full review here.

HOODWINK (1981): Wrong-headedly marketed as a crime-comedy, this Aussie drama starts off on the right foot as a solid crime flick about a bank robber / con-man (John Hargreaves) who gets busted for his latest robbery and figures that the only way out is to pretend to be blind. This quickly stumbles into a romantic angle with a married bible-thumper (Judy Davis) who is moon-eyed by the dashing con and the film crawls to it's inevitable conclusion. Great casting, including Dennis Miller (no, not that one), Max Cullen, Colin Friels and for a minute or two, a very young Geoffrey Rush as a cop with an attitude. This film is loaded with issues, one of which is that it is clearly made by and for those who enjoy seeing Hargreaves in as little clothes as possible. Hargreaves is sweaty and stripped to the waist. Hargreaves in the shower. Hargreaves in speedos running on the beach (looking like he's about to pimp a product that promotes "freshness"). Hargreaves in the shower again. Hargreaves wearing only a little towel that conveniently falls open. Fer chrissake John, keep your damn clothes on! If that isn't a clear enough example of what the main focus of the movie is, Hargreaves and Davis have the most akward chemistry (for obvious reasons) and provide some of the most awkward and passionless romance in cinema history. Hargreaves has always had issues playing it straight, with none of his female relationships really coming off well (except maybe LONG WEEKEND, in which he is supposed to be madly in hate with his wife), but this one is particularly painful since it takes up the last hour of the movie. Gotta love that Yugoslavian poster though. Clearly P.T. Barnum had some cousins in the film distribution business.

LADY OF THE NIGHT (1986): Now you'll see how I really don't have any integrity when it comes to objective film viewing. This Serena Grandi soft-core drama probably found a home on Cinemax back in the late '80s due to it's clumsier than average dubbing. Plot-wise it's a pretty straightforward drama about a newly married, but sexually restless wife (Grandi) who cheats on her uni-brow husband in dangerous situations (dangerous, like getting caught or with strangers, not dangerous like on a rollercoaster, unfortunately). On the one hand, it's got a pretty mediocre plot, on the other, it has a lot of Serena runnin' around nekkid, stripping out of a rain-drenched white dress, spread open in medical stirrups, showering after an aerobic work out, etc. Oh, yeah, there were characters that talked and stuff too. Not sure what that was all about. Did I mention Serena Grandi gets naked a lot in this movie? There's some interesting fetishistic stuff for those who are looking for it. Upskirt shots, consensual rape, objectification and the always popular jazzercise sequence complete with lingering close-ups of Danskin-clad crotches. The reason I didn't even bother doing a full review of this is there is nobody reading at this point. Hello? Anyone? You're welcome e-bay.

Serena Grandi playing Intellivision in her jammies? Haaaaaaawwwt!

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The "Never Got Made" Files #69: George Romero's original DAY OF THE DEAD

Like many of his fellow horror directors, George Romero has a long list of unrealized projects (some of which we covered earlier here). Unlike his contemporaries, however, Romero can actually claim that he got an unmade project made with DAY OF THE DEAD (1985). Confused?  I hope so.  The third in his initial zombie trilogy, DAY OF THE DEAD was a decidedly different beast when Romero originally put pen to paper.  NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) had put Romero on the map and his follow-up DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978) proved that not only did the horror filmmaker deliver the gut-munching goods, but also that audiences were receptive to the notion of a zombie nation.  DAWN grossed an estimated $55 million worldwide, unheard of for an unrated film.  Naturally, a third film was quickly considered by Romero and his producing partners at Laurel Entertainment.

The first public mention of the third film I can find came in a June 1979 Variety where Laurel listed it (“tentatively titled DAY OF THE DEAD”) among their future releases.  The article does mention that Romero had not started the script yet.  On December 13, 1979, a 5-page synopsis titled DAY OF THE DEAD written by Romero was granted a U.S. copyright.  The next three years saw little public activity on the script as Romero directed KNIGHTRIDERS (1981) and CREEPSHOW (1982).  This changed on December 18, 1982, just over three years from the first copyright, as Romero’s first draft of DAY OF THE DEAD was copyrighted. The screenplay came in at a whopping 216 pages, so the epic quality of DAWN definitely seemed to be carrying over.  A heavy editing session resulted in a third copyright just under a month later on January 13, 1983.  This script was registered at 145-pages and now bore the title OLD SOLDIERS NEVER DIE, SATAN SENDS THEM BACK!: DAY OF THE DEAD. Apparently ol’ George had it in for the folks who changed the movie marquees back then.

Now here is where things get interesting.  Romero’s new script was certainly more ambitious than DAWN in that it traded a shopping mall with minimal characters for an inhabited island with lots of characters.  That means more money to spend on production and Laurel figured they would need a budget of about $7 million to do the film properly.  United Film Distribution Company (UFDC), who had a three-picture deal with Laurel and had previously released KNIGHTRIDERS, didn’t feel they could recoup their investment on an unrated picture.  The film’s rating was the major sticking point as advertising for unrated films had been strangled in the years between sequels.  If Romero could deliver an R-rating, he could get the big budget. If not, UFDC would only pony up $3.5 million. Romero, bless him, would not budge on the rating aspect, knowing his main man Tom Savini needed a chance to shine (remember kids, this was before unrated video releases were the rage). With a contractual filming deadline looming, the director again chipped away at his script during early 1984, bringing it down to 104-pages (the version we review below). Regardless, it was still deemed too expensive to make ($4.5 million) and this led Romero to do a major overhaul of his original script, resulting in the DAY OF THE DEAD film fans know today.

A considerable sense of déjà vu will overcome any Romero deadhead when they start reading this script.  Opening 5 years after the zombie outbreak (the actual year given is 1987), the screenplay kicks off with the same opening as the released DAY as a group of survivors land (via boat rather than a helicopter) in an unnamed Florida city looking for other living humans.  The “Hellllllo? Is anyone there?” cries are met only with the groans of the dead walking the street alongside alligators.  Our survivors – latinos Sarah, Miguel, Chico, Maria, and Tony – then head out looking for gas and discover some in a small dock.  This results in a firefight with some unfriendly locals who want their weapons; several group members are injured in the clash with Sarah chopping off boyfriend Miguel’s arm to avoid infection following a zombie bite (a bit carried over to the final DAY). Once back in the safety of their boat and out to sea, the group loses Tony, who succumbs to his gunshot wounds and comes back as a zombie, and his girlfriend Maria.  The remaining trio decides it is best to try and make it to an island…any island.

Yup, Rhodes is still a prick
Their small tugboat finally reaches Gasparilla’s Island, an isolated “tropical paradise” with no visible inhabitants.  (It should be noted there is a real Gasparilla’s Island off Florida, but it doesn’t appear to be the one Romero is using here.)  While exploring the land, the group is shocked to discover the opening to an underground facility.  Hiding in the dense bushes, they watch as a group of military men led by Captain Rhodes emerge from underground. Even more shocking is what they have with them – zombies in red jackets with rifles that seem trained to act as soldiers. Trying to sneak back to their boat, the interlopers draw the attention of the Rhodes and his undead army.  Miguel, who has gone quite mad since losing his arm, is killed in the ensuing shootout and Chico is captured and tortured by Rhodes before a sympathetic guard, Toby Tyler, puts the injured man out of his misery. Naturally, this draws the ire of the sadistic Rhodes and he later has his underling drawn up on charges of insubordination.

John, Bill and Sarah -
together again for the second time
As the only survivor, Sarah tries to make her way back to the boat but is attacked in the night by some zombies.  She is saved by a group of humans that include John, Bill McDermott and mute girl Spider.  John breaks down the island’s caste system for Sarah. Living high on hog underground is former Florida Governor Henry Dickerson, who has adopted the nickname Gasparilla from the Spanish pirate, and his Doral Country Club cronies; below them is the military led by Captain Rhodes; working alongside Rhodes are Dr. Mary Henried and Dr. Julie Grant, who are responsible for the conditioning and experimental training of the zombies; and finally there is the working class residing topside in the fenced-in, zombie-surrounded shantytown Stalag 17 who do most of the manual labor and unwittingly supplying the zombie munchie incentives during instruction sessions. Within the workers is a small rebel movement led by John and supported by various folks including Dr. Logan, a patchwork medic who is already certifiably insane.

Such conditions obviously set the stage for a battle between the have and the have-nots. Rhodes has Tyler sentenced to three months hard labor topside and he quickly joins up with the rebels, who are planning on escaping from the powers that be.  Their plan is to subdue the guards (using a plant with anesthetic qualities found on the island) and slip Dr. Mary, Tyler’s love interest, out so they can sneak off the island.  Trouble starts though when Logan goes off his rocker and decides he and a few followers are going to start their own holy war by blowing up the underground base with nitroglycerin snuck into the facility by hiding it in glass tubes inside Spider’s body. Naturally, all hell breaks loose in the underground facility and our heroes have to survive both crazed military men and armed zombies alike.  Oh, and protect the children. Yes, Romero lazily introduces a room of school children out of nowhere during the film’s final battle.

As you can see, several of the main characters from the final DAY already existed in Romero’s earlier drafts.  Lead character Sarah is Latino in this script and it appears Romero fused her and a part of the Dr. Mary Henried scientist character into the role eventually played by Lori Cardille.  The best change is that Sarah doesn’t retain any of Dr. Mary’s timidity and isn’t as much of a push over.  John is the still the central male hero character; although he has a stronger Caribbean accent here and is deeper into religion (the final scene literally has him as John the Baptist as he baptizes everyone on the new island).  Bill McDermott still has his flask and quips handy.  Rhodes is pretty much the same old Rhodes, although here he has a vested emotional interest in a previous relationship with Henried.  Interestingly, his support system of equally despicable enablers/underlings is missing here.  By far the biggest change is with Dr. Logan, who is far removed from his final character.  He is crazy from the get-go here and has no interaction with the zombie students.  In the final film, Logan definitely has a few screws loose, but he also had the zombie teacher aspect applied to Dr. Henried here.  And, of course, there is everyone’s favorite zombie Bub.  He is again the top zombie in his class, but his evolution seems a bit too advanced.  Not only is able to fire two six-shooters from his hips, but he can slap on his own holster and reload as well.  He does still give Rhodes his comeuppance, but it is done in a classic western standoff with Bub shooting him twelve (!) times.  Joining Bub are a few other smart zombies with nicknames like Tonto (because he is Indian) and Bluto (because he looks like the Popeye character).

This evolution might be the script’s biggest problem – the leap between DAWN and this DAY is just excessive.  Going from the mindless “they can use tools” zombies in DAWN to the quick learning pus buckets (thank you, Joe Polito) in this script is just too much, too soon.  For example, Henried teaches Bub to shoot at a certain color in one quick scene in the finale.  Quick learner, this brain dead zombie is.  As it reads, this is the perfect fourth film in the series (in fact, several ideas would appear 20 years later in Romero’s LAND OF THE DEAD [2005]), but there needed to be something in between
to bridge the gap.  The script does still have some other major problems, namely the dictator-in-chief Gasparilla. Described by Romero as a huge fat man with a handlebar mustache (really!) that “makes him look like Pancho Villa,” the character is a complete caricature and over-the-top.  No joke, his first scene has him gorging on fresh fruit during a military tribunal where he holds court in a General’s jacket with a Hawaiian shirt underneath.   He also likes to hold orgies where he makes hookers work out naked on exercise machines. Well, that ain’t too bad.  Someone as vicious as Rhodes listening to this guy’s commands is a bit silly.  Even if he is the benefactor of this island retreat, I have no doubt that, had the world ended in a zombie apocalypse, that someone would have made sure he “died” comfortably in his sleep rather than put up with him.

As it stands, even in its truncated form, Romero’s original DAY OF THE DEAD script is a fun read.  It has lots of action from the opening scene all the way to the end.  It is funny because Romero told The Zombies That Ate Pittsburgh author Paul Gagne in 1985 that he couldn’t yet remove himself from the difficult process of having to rewrite his script in order to accurately gauge his final film.  More recently, Romero has come around and states that DAY OF THE DEAD is his favorite of the original DEAD trilogy.  I’m inclined to agree with him as it seems to have the perfect balance of personal and political struggles mixed with some jaw-dropping (literally) effects work and one of the strongest zombie performances in cinema history (Howard Sherman as Bub).  I’m actually glad that Romero didn’t make his original film as intended as the trilogy needed something like the released DAY to show the zombie evolution in its infancy.  When there’s no more room in development hell, the creator of the dead builds a better movie.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Sci-Fried Theater: HARD KNUCKLE (1987)

In the world of exploitation cinema there are those that give the people what they want, and there are those that give the people what they want, but in their own special way. Lucio Fulci gave the people and his financial backers what they wanted (flesh eating zombies), but he did it his way. Instead of just doing a straight rip-off of DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978), which is what everyone wanted of him, he delivered a zombie menace in an old-school voodoo setting that echoed WHITE ZOMBIE (1932) just as much as DAWN OF THE DEAD. Sure, it also pushed graphic on-screen undead carnage way past the already impressive level set by the Pittsburgh peeps, but it takes more than that to make it a true classic of exploitation cinema.

The Italians weren’t alone in this purpose of vision, either. The Australians also took their exploitation filmmaking seriously, writing interesting plotlines and quirky characters into what are essentially low-rent potboilers. An excellent example of this would be HARD KNUCKLE. The Aussies may have re-invented the western (with the help of Bob Clouse’s 1975 epic THE ULTIMATE WARRIOR) with the MAD MAX films, but they let the Italians and Filipinos exploit their success. When they did take the time to riff on it, you can bet that it’s not going to be what you expected.

Have you ever watched MAD MAX and thought, “damn, what this really needs is a good game of pool!” Yeah, I know, we all have. But then did you think to yourself, “a good game of pool where the loser gets his finger chopped off in a big-ass cigar cutter!” Well this is for you! Aussie character actor Gary Day’s one screen-writing credit is exactly this. As someone who at one time used to watch hours of competition pool on ESPN and is clinically obsessed with post-apocalyptic cinema, Gary Day is now my hero. Yeah, I don't know how the finger cutting comes in, but whatever.

Rolling back into town after a stretch of soul-searching in the wasteland, one-time pool champ Harry (Steve Bisley), has shaken his life-wrecking love-affair with the bottle. If there is one thing that science fiction writers like to ponder it is the nature of being human. If there is two things, it is what people will do for entertainment. ROLLERBALL (1975) hypothesized that the corporations would get larger and sporting events would become more violent. In SALUTE OF THE JUGGER (1989), David Webb Peoples downsized the corporations and made the post-apocalyptic passtime a dirty, brutal version of football where anyone could put together a team and get their teeth knocked in. Here, Day has decided that in a run-down dystopian anarchistic society, sports would be even further downsized to a more logical conclusion. Every town has a pool hall where wagers can be placed by an agent for his pro in tournaments. If you don’t have the cash (here represented by pill packets), you can always play on the Knuckle Table. The knuckle table is a game of pool where a black tile is set in the middle of the table after the break. Whoever knocks over the tile while making their shot has a digit removed and the tile is reset. The game continues until there is a winner, or, presumably, nobody has any fingers left. The audience puts up the stakes for the winner, the house provides a bunsen burner and a tin plate to cauterize the stump(s) of the loser.

Harry discovers his old rival TopDog, who he blames for ruining his life (and taking his motorcycle in a game), is living up to his name at the local pool hall. Harry is hell bent for revenge, but doesn’t have a manager for a title shot. Nor has he worked up the ladder. After a local urchin volunteers himself to be the manager, Harry, works his way up the in a tournament, only to be beaten down and robbed in the street by TopDog’s twitchy manager, Vince (Esben Storm). After a somewhat elaborate bit of revenge which leaves TopDog trussed up like a chicken, hanging in front of the pool hall, Harry with street-urchin-cum-manager, set out on a road-trip of sorts to hustle some of the smaller town tables, get enough cash for that title shot. Trouble is, the yokels don’t like being hustled and TopDog, spitting nails, decides to go after Harry himself.

Only in Australia. Seriously, there is no way in hell this movie would get made in America, even in that more tolerant era when there was so much demand for product that fucking Donald Farmer could make it into your video store. The movie isn’t really a pool movie as such, and not really a post-apocalyptic movie, either. It’s more of a character-driven film that is a sharply written and really entertaining tip-of-the-hat to Paul Newman’s classic THE HUSTLER (1961). Not only is it surprising that it got made at all, but it’s doubly surprising that it was made for television. There are plenty of TV movies made in the States that are well worth viewing, but they tend to be either low-rent ripped-from-the-headlines exploitationers or low-rent box-office knock offs. I can’t imagine this movie getting pitched to a TV executive. “So you want to do a MAD MAX rip-off? Great! Wait, what was that about pool?”

Day spends a lot of effort overcoming his lack of budget with tons of great little moments, such as the subplot in which TopDog takes a train to where he thinks Harry is going to be hustling. TopDog is a complete prick to a polite card player, who he later learns is the owner of the pool hall Harry is playing in and is really not pleased with TopDog’s attitude. Even though Day wrote the part of TopDog for himself (and is clearly having a blast playing the part to the hilt), he never softens the character up too much or makes him a really likable guy. He’s an asshole who enjoys being an asshole, but also has some honorable qualities. Yes, a muli-faceted character. In a TV movie. Really!

In spite of what is obviously a low budget, director Lex Marinos (something of a staple of Aussie TV) gives the film a very detailed, retro-future, almost Fallout-esque, look which makes the film feel bigger than it is. Add to that David Skinner’s very cool Ry Cooder style bluesy, slide guitar score and you have a movie that fires on all cylinders and is more than the sum of its parts. Ok, to be fair, it's not an action movie. Nobody wages war for a tank of juice and no dwarves are able to blow their whistles at the end of the film. Because of this it is likely to turn some people off who are wanting something more fast paced and action oriented. On the other hand, you'll be missing out on a great movie if you let that get in your way.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Strung Out on Slashers: BLOOD SISTERS (1987)

I have a confession to make – I love Roberta Findlay!  Well, I love her movies.  The strange this is I’ve never seen the “big” films she has been associated with. Somehow the late 1960s FLESH trilogy (THE TOUCH OF HER FLESH, THE KISS OF HER FLESH, and THE CURSE OF HER FLESH) made with her husband Michael has never passed before my eyes.  And, at the risk of losing virtual street cred, I’ve never seen SNUFF (1976), their reworking of a South American film that fooled both deviants and naïve protestors alike.  So what is the source of my affection?  It is Findlay’s 1985 works TENEMENT (“Tenement…it’s the place to be” goes the theme song) and THE ORACLE.  An action and horror picture, respectively, both of these films have a unique feel all their own.  Filmed in real New York City locations with mostly unknown actors, they sidestep the artifice of soundstages and sets; production design courtesy of real life.  Naturally, Findlay’s further excursion into low budget horror in the late 1980s (BLOOD SISTERS, LURKERS, and PRIME EVIL) drew my interest.

BLOOD SISTERS opens with a young boy being ridiculed by a young girl for 1) asking to cop a feel for some candy, 2) having a whore for a mom and 3) not knowing who his father is.  Damn, that little girl is cold and she's quite the gossip too. Her actions soon send the little tyke over the edge.  He runs home to a big house on the hill, which also happens to be a whorehouse, and blasts a woman and her client with a shotgun (it is unclear if this is his mother or not).  Haha, that’ll teach that little girl.  Okay, Freudian death openings aside, the film proper picks up 13 years later at a college during Hell Week. A group of 7 girls are pledging Kappa Gamma Tao sorority and this involves them drinking red liquid from a big ass cup and attending the lamest dance you’ll ever see.  And this is quite a happening party, let me tell you.  You know it is a wild night when the token fat guy grabs an orange slice out of someone's drink with his teeth.  Someone stop that party animal!

What they don’t know is the biggest part of their initiation lies ahead.  Sorority leader Linda (Amy Brentano) apparently has seen HELL NIGHT (1981) and decided the girls need to spend the night at the spooky old house where the murders took place as part of their hazing.  But she is going to make them work for it as she has planned a scavenger hunt where the girls have to find various items, not knowing that the house has been rigged with a bunch of scary gags by Linda’s jock boyfriend Ross (Dan Erickson) and his pals.  Naturally, we get every stereotype in the book with this crowd.  There is the snotty rich girl, the nerdy girl with glasses, the athletic girl, the constantly horny girl (who sneaks her boyfriend in, of course), the lesbian, the fat girl (who always has food in her hands), and the girl with no noticeable quality.  The one girl no one expected to show up is the hulking “girl” in drag who starts killing off our hapless sorority babes one-by-one.  Who could it be?  Hmmm, that boy in the opening was about 7 or 8 and 13 years have passed.  Hey!  I think I might know who is killing these lovely young ladies.

You can’t really hold a Roberta Findlay movie to the normal standards of the horror genre.  Her work won’t hold up against a classic like FRIDAY THE 13th (1980) and her style would get smoked by Sam Raimi.  So don’t take my endorsement of this film as an indicator that it is a “good” film.  The film, however, has a unique low budget charm that endears itself to me.  And, honestly, can you really hate on a film with a big scary house (perhaps the film’s best asset), prostitute ghosts, a slasher in a big silk nightgown, and a bevy of babes who are willing to get topless?  Okay, that last line really lets you know how cheap and easy I really am.  But I just love this type of movie.  It is the kind of movie where a girl can become possessed and sexually aroused by finding an old nightgown hanging in a closet.  Seriously, who hasn’t that happened to in real life?  It is the kind of movie where three girls see ghosts walk right in front of them, yet in the very next scene one girl is adamant that the house isn’t haunted (“Visions? Haha, I might have to die from laughing.”).  It is the kind of film where the final girl asks the killer the classic “why are you doing this” line and the reply is, “I’m crazy.” BLOOD SISTERS works with its own logic, not giving a damn about, well, logic.  I’ll take it.

Besides, Findlay reveals during an interview on the Shriek Show DVD that the only reason this movie was made is because TENEMENT and THE ORACLE had made a lot of money and they wanted to elude the taxman.  Has a film born in order to escape tax levees ever turned out badly? Wait, don’t answer that. There are inspired moments in the film (some of the ghostly flashbacks are well done with effective lighting and mirrors) and there are bits where you could tell Findlay didn’t give a damn (like when the cops pull away in the end and you can see the intersection and houses near this “isolated” mansion; or the killer’s right hand alternating between holding a knife and the victim’s shirt between shots). Also on the DVD is a great Joe Bob Briggs commentary where he goes into detail on Findlay’s career and even lets you know all about the careers (or non-careers) of the players and production folks.  BLOOD SISTERS ain’t going to change your world.  Hell, it probably won’t even enter your world.  But if it does, make sure to treat it like you would a beloved family pet - with love, honor, respect and the ability to laugh at it when it does dumb things.


Saturday, September 17, 2011

Oh, Thank Heavener: TWISTED JUSTICE (1990)

We're making history here at VJ with our first guest review.  After all, how could we possibly turn down an offer for a review of a David Heavener flick?  Heavener's work is a unique sub-sub-genre that we've been meaning to cover here, but haven't due to lack of time and sanity.  Without further ado, here is Guest Reviewer/Heavener addict Jamie Edwards trying to get you hooked on the heavenly Heavener.  Enjoy!

First off, I want to say thanks William and Thomas for the opportunity to do a guest review. So thank you good sirs, it's an honor. Ok, onto a topic near and dear to me: The films of Mr. David Heavener! Heavener comes from the school of D.I.Y. low budget film making. Since the late 80's he's literally been a one man movie making machine, often acting/directing/producing/writing and even doing the music for his films. I've seen almost all of them, and I’m not going to sit here and tell you they're all cinematic perfection. But more often than not, they deliver what a good low budget movie should: Action, entertainment, and a little humor thrown in. My favorite of his films (heck, my favorite low budget action movie of all-time) is TWISTED JUSTICE. I've been championing this movie to friends/whoever will listen to me for the past 10 years. Yep, it's your turn now!

The story takes place in Los Angeles circa 2020. Guns have been outlawed and even the police aren't allowed to carry them. Renegade cop James Tucker (Heavener) plays by his own rules. This frequently finds him butting heads with Police Commander Gage (Erik Estrada). The irony here is Estrada went from being the cop who irritated his sergeant on CHiPs, to being the irritated sergeant. But I digress. Tucker is a man of action, cool under pressure, smooth with the ladies, wearer of long johns, and always armed with a witty quip. He's the man you call when all else has failed.

And speaking of that, the movie opens with Tucker being called in to diffuse a tense situation (he arrives in style in his futuristic 72 Buick Riviera complete with "TUCK U" personalized license plates!). A man (Don Stroud) hopped up on a new designer drug called Umbra is on top of a refinery threatening to blow everyone up with a bomb. Apparently Umbra makes you crazy and gives you superhuman strength, kind of like PCP - OF THE FUTURE! (to borrow a line from MST3k). Negotiations break down and Tucker has to shoot him with tranquilizer darts, which of course have no effect. A fight ensues and ultimately Tucker is forced to pull out his contraband gun and put some holes in Mr. Stroud. There's a few actors that I think automatically make a movie better/more interesting just by them being in it. Guys like Dick Miller, Gary Busey, Clu Gulager, and Tim Thomerson. I’d put Don Stroud on that list too. It's too bad he's offed at the beginning of the movie, but a little "crazed Don Stroud" is better than none at all I always say.

Next we're introduced to a new crazed psycho (David Campbell), and he's paid a prostitute to put on some fake blood and pose so he can take lurid photos of her ("look buster, this blood crap is your idea, not mine!"). Strange hobby, but he is a crazed psycho after all.

"I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. Deranged."

We then cut back to the police station, and Commander Gage is giving Tucker his usual "you've crossed the line" type lecture (bonus points for it including the phrase "damn good cop"). One thing I never grow tired of is the angry chief "you've crossed the line" lectures in cop movies, keep 'em coming I say. The scene ends with Commander Gage demanding Tucker turn in his gun or his apartment will be searched.

The crazed psycho is now on to his next target, Mrs. Granger (Karen Black), the wife of the Downing chemical corporation co-owner. He's poses as a limo driver and takes Mrs. Granger out to a secluded area, chases her around with a knife, and stabs her to death. Both Mrs. Granger and a previous victim were found with a bull’s eye painted in blood on their bodies, leading the media to believe both killings were the work of the "Bull’s Eye Killer". Commander Gage makes good on his promise to search Tucker's apartment for the weapon, and sends Jim Brown and James Van Patten over to turn his place inside out.

Thanks to a tip from the prostitute, the police start to piece together a connection between the murders, Umbra, and the chemical company. Gage assigns Tucker to the case while a woman from a police watchdog commission named Andrea Layton (Julie Austin) barges into Gage's office. She's none too happy with the rumors that Tucker has a gun and vows to stay all over him like a cheap suit.

Tucker goes back to the Granger murder scene to search for clues. At this point I should mention that he communicates with HQ through a dispatcher named Hinkle. Hinkle and Tucker have never met face to face, and Hinkle has a deep, electronically altered voice (why, I’m not sure) which leads Tucker to believe Hinkle is a man. In reality, Hinkle is played by the lovely Shannon Tweed. This leads to a running gag where Hinkle flirts with Tucker, and Tucker has to find ways to fend off her passes.

While out at the crime scene, Tucker runs into the killer, who then escapes by car. The car chase scene that follows ends up at the killer's hideout. He's brought down by tranquilizer darts and evidence is found that shows he's a chemist and ex-Downing employee named Steelmore. Gage is thrilled that the Bull’s Eye Killer has been brought in (and without the use of guns) and asks Tucker to appear on the "Sally Winfrey" talk show to discuss the gun ban.

But wait! Steelmore is released on a technicality! Tucker finds this out while taking a shower at Andrea Layton's house! Even the tough-as-nails Andrea isn't impervious to Tucker's charms. It's revealed that the murders are part of an extortion plot by Steelmore to keep his chemical supply from Downing flowing so he can continue making/using Umbra. Jim Brown and James Van Patten show back up at Tucker's place for another gun search. Brown (one of the baddest men ever to play in the NFL) is startled when he finds Tucker's pet rat "Freud" chillin' in the medicine cabinet. I don't want to spoil how Tucker hides his gun, but it's quite clever. With Steelmore back on the streets, he continues with his murder plot. Now all that's left is the final showdown.

TWISTED JUSTICE has several things going for it. The cast of veteran actors seem to be having a good time with their roles. Plus David Heavener's easy going persona and dry sense of humor help elevate it above your average low budget action flick.

Gun nut, rat lover and Raiders fan?
That explains it all!