Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Post-Futuristic Gang Violence, Italian-style: 6 Badass Trips from the early 80s

The holy triptych of the early 80s: ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, THE ROAD WARRIOR and THE WARRIORS (their 1979 inspiration) launched a giant leather glove into the face of banal 'urban vigilante' genre filmmaking (and the slasher offshoot) that choked the R-rated marquees of the time. They loved loved loved that glove in Italy, inspiring a vast, rewarding spate of inspired super-charged homage-type variations that were kind of just 'there' in bad pan-and-scans, before the advent of widescreen HD restoring their full wide frame glory. The charred landscape of the endlessly-evolving Italian genre pastiche filmmaking (quarries and left-over WW2 ruins) found perfect use for these films. All the old peplum, spaghetti western and WW2 movie props and costumes could be dug up and retro-fitted and made fine post-historical use of (i.e. Roman helmets painted silver and combined with western gun belts and WW2 machine gun mounted jeeps). Craftsmen like Antonio Marghereti, Sergio Martino, and Enzo G. Castellari cranked these out by the dozen at the time and--hey--they still hold up, especially with digital color corrections and good prints courtesy the likes of Arrow, Scorpion, and Blue Underground, the likes of which one can now access easily on good old American Amazon Prime!

One of them you should check out that is not on Prime yet is Sergio Martino's 2019: AFTER THE FALL OF NEW YORK (1983). A post-nuclear ("present day") Manhattan serves as ground zero for a stealthy battle between a pretty boy brooding Michael Becketty loner warrior (Michael Sopkiw) and mutants, ape men acrobats, robots, and a Catholic-style death cult presided over by a whip-snapping hottie all in leather (Anna Kanakis).

In grand Erich synchronicity of the gods fashion, I happened to see it the same night as the 2019 RENT broadcast premiered on FOX and it's set in the early 90s - and stars a brooding Michael Becketty loner warrio  musician, tangling with dangers like AIDS, landlords, and selling out. In RENT, NYC is a place were everyone in the neighborhood knows your name, and the landlord actually apologizes to his building's squatters for trying to get people to pay rent by threatening to turn off their free heating. No one in the film pays any rent!  Just getting a job is considered a betrayal of one's art, even if one's art depends on, for example, an unlimited supply of 16mm film and a pipeline to all the major news outlets (that's never explained). 

In short, it's a 90s fantasy that's really an idealistic imagining of what it must have been like in 1983, or whenever AIDS got going. Dude, it's all connected. See them as I did on the same night and the whole section of Martino's film, involving an array of types hanging out on a dilapidated NYC theater stage dovetails effortlessly with the vast squats of RENT. One is a post-modern broken down of the NYC of artistic fantasy, replete with homeless squatter urban dregs and skyscraper-painted curtains, the other is, well, pretty much the same, except they sing instead of fight. It's a wonderful town. Each is rife with eccentric kooks and stars a hunky smoldering-eyed young brooder for whom self-deprecation is anathema, and for whom the idea of working for a living is worse than death. But that's just the tip of their perfect intersection along the meta-draft!

Both are idealized, naive wish fulfillment but Sergio Martino's move is another kind of wish fulfillment, a kind that RENT--for all its Feral Kid-posturing--will never understand. Martino dares to hope that in 2019 Manhattan will be a war zone and not an overpriced ever-more-sterile collection of banks, haughty boutiques, and high-end coffee shops. It's not because he's a communist, or an artist, but because he's a filmmaker, and his screenwriter has a flair for the nihilistic. And he's got balls. 

It's not just because I love time warping Moebius strips of meta that I compare them. They're a lot alike: each idealized city (1983's 2019, and 2019's 1983) is 

top to bottom: 2019: AFTER THE FALL OF NEW YORK; 2019's RENT

Which is the bigger fantasy all depends on perspective.

But yo -- to get back to the holy trinity leather glove in paragrah one-- they too weren't born in a vacuum: THE WARRIORS came out of a late-70s yen for 'Brooklyn street gang movies' ala LORDS OF FLATBUSH, PARADISE ALLEY which were ignited by the Fonze (ayyy!) and Travolta's Vinnie Barbarino GREASE/FEVER streak. This Italian street gang thing itself came out of the  waning late 60s biker gang subgenre (via THE WILD ANGELS) and the urban revenge film of the early 70s, (via DEATH WISH, TAXI DRIVER). 

In short, we watched as the street gang archetype became less and less Officer Krupke and "We wanna get loaded" and more and more a fantasy about the cesspool that was 70s NYC, by then so crime-ridden and filthy they just put a wall around it and make the city itself the prison, i.e. ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK. We'd go there sometimes, the family, to see plays on Broadway and my 12 year old self would marvel at the plethora of XXX theaters and urban waste. It was gritty and terrifying and altogether swell. The idea of making the whole island a prison did not originate with Carpenter. Nearly everyone who visited thought the same thing. but JC acted on it - that's his genius. 

Down under, they were catching up thanks to George Miller: gangs of amok bikers didn't really work in Sydney or Melbourne, but out in the Australian Outback, on the open road, they could still pack menace. In the Outback, the apocalypse could had come without anyone noticing the difference. The cops were gone, as were gas stations. SEARCHERS-style space western elements circled back, like the Comanche, after leading the men off on a posse into nowhere. In Australia, the interior of the entire continent was the inner city. Turn off the pumps and bounce the cop's paychecks and the roving gangs simply took over. Calling a cop to complain might involve an hour drive to a pay phone and then two hours for him to get there. By then, your girlfriend would be ready for John Wayne to throw his coat over, and bury with his own hands. 

By THE ROAD WARRIOR, you didn't even need show a mushroom cloud in the prologue. Just show us dirt-covered vehicles manned by dudes in crazy punk rock eyeliner--the same wacky new wave punk monsters from the Escape/Warriors movies only now with cool killer cars-- and we knew the score. It was a time to man up, renew out Soldier of Fortune subscription, and order a chain whip out of the back. Time to get in the game (chain whip was always my fantasy weapon of choice - I'm a terrible shot).

(1982) Dir. Enzo G. Castellari
*** / Amazon Image - A

In this Castellari 1982 classic, 1990s NYC is still a cesspool. Oh if only!

Hell, maybe it still was up in the Bronx--I've only been there once, on the way to the Cloisters, and it looked pretty rundown. But in Castellari's fevered imagination, the Bronx has devolved into a kind of Escape from NY/Warriors wasteland / paradise. All the outlaws and derelicts now go there to be free of the encroaching Disneyfication to be found down in Manhattan. The best the cops in the Bronx can do is monitor he outskirts to make sure no one sneaks downtown to rob the 'good' people. But what about going the other direction!?  Ann (Stefania Girolami), a rich heiress (to the "Manhattan Corporation,") escapes her bodyguards to find out how the other half lives (a bit like Sullivan in Sullivan's Travels), sneaking up into the Bronx, where she's saved from hockey-themed thugs by the charismatic Swan-style gang leader, Trash (Mark Gregory). He's like the big man on the South Side, or something. Fred Williamson is 'the Ogre' the head of the uptown crew, and very stylish. 

In other words, if you've seen John Carpenter's 1995's Escape From LA, this is more or less the same plot, with the sympathies reversed. The Snake Plissken is played by Vic Morrow here - and named Hammer! He's up in the Bronx to try and ignite a turf war between the gangs, but Fred and Trash are both too sly to fall for that. Trash and Ann bop their way past various gangs on their long sewer tunnel odyssey uptown to parlay with him, and Fred and Trash decide to team up. Morrow and his army of guys in silver hazmat suits with flame throwers crrash the party. Sooner or later everything and everyone explodes. Everybody wins.

 Where are you, Joe (Walsh)?

If you lived in Manhattan in the actual 1990s, you know, in real life, there were parts--dwindling like Savannah watering holes in summer--that were still this dilapidated and scary.  Turn the wrong corner downtown and you could wind up in a pimp-and-crack-whore war zone. But then you'd try to find it again next week to show your drunk friends, and it would be gone, replaced by a blockade of cops making everyone pour their beers out. Boo! Not exactly flame throwers, but it felt pretty close at the time. It was all over but for the planting of the Warner Bros. flagship store next to Planet Hollywood. Then the smoking ceased. I had to get sober. The 90s were over.

But man, if we'd have seen 1990: The Bronx Warriors in time, maybe we'd have known how to fight back, perhaps futilely but oh so stylishly. Its fusion of Warriors / Escape from NY iconography, kinetic streamlined forward momentum, anti-corporate nihilism and droll humor seems to smell Giuliani coming like some cheap knock-off cologne in the wind. The permissive Age of Dinkins was over. 

Castellari filmed in the actual Bronx, and used a lot of real bikers (supposedly Hell's Angels) as extras, giving the shots of Trash and Ann zipping around in front of a vast parade of bikers under an overpass extra oomph (top). Of the scattered Warriors-style gangs, the best is a bunch of Bob Fosse style fey dancers in steel bowler hats and metal rod canes. Their leader (Carla Brait-above) let's Trash pass because she's kind of turned on by his tight jeans. And I'm a fan of the gruff bond that forms between Trash and the Ogre. At the end, the Ogre and his mob throw Ann a birthday party with a big NYC skyline cake! 

Trash my walk like a Harryhausen cyclops with a stick up his ass, but that's not a debit in anyone's book. Certainly not mine. It is, in fact, quite hilarious (no doubt Castellari kept yelling at Gregory to keep his shoulders back and spine straight when he walked - the result is almot a passive-aggressive parody of straight spine walking). Surely cast for his passing resemblance to both Warriors' Michael Beck, John Travolta and maybe the wandering wolf-boy from the 1977-78 TV series Lucan, Marc Gregory's lithe youthful beauty contrasts marvelously with growly Bronx-accented voice he's been dubbed in (Italian film fans will recognize the dubbing guy right off - he does all the 'gruff' Bud Spencer parts). Great combination!

Doing his own dubbing and dazzling us with wild smiles and raw flashy charisma, Williamson seems to be savoring his own sexiness as much as we are. The man moves and acts like a king. No posture coaching needed. Sometimes his easy going attitude suggests maybe he thinks he's a little too good for the film he's in, but he makes that work by being larger than life to match it. He proves he's too good for it, proves it to himself and that's enough for him to relax and become delightful, like a black Cary Grant. He also has a cool right hand woman, "the Witch" (Betty Dessy), who rocks Krueger/Wolverine claws and snaps a whip. Together with Trash and Ann, Ogre and the Witch bop their way through the sewers to round up the other gangs in revolt, leading to tons of wild stunts of people on fire, people falling from holes in second story windows or down into sewers. The flame throwers explode everything including themselves. Castellari's camera frolics in the ruins with lots of great comic book panel-style compositions, strikingly shots and swooping crane movements going up and down between exposed floors from the outside of a blasted out building or up through giant holes in the concrete floor. You can tell he too is having a good time. It's all way better than one would think it needs to be, at times it's almost Hawksian!

And of course, as in any classic Italian joint, the score is everything. Composer Walter Rizzati knows what we need: rockin' synths, drums and a thudding electric bass, with appropriate moody synth washes. Man what a crime that those kind of old school electric bass lines are so gone from movies. Give me a badass electric bass over an orchestra any day. Morricone whipped together his first truly great score with just a simple two-note bass line. Sure maybe his genius was born from necessity, but born it wa.

Trash and the Ogre team up to fight Vic Morrow!
Mark Gregory as Trash - center, in the distance, - walking to the left, straight as a street pole or half a gazelle
(1983) Dir. Enzo G. Castellari
**1/2 / Amazon Image - A

Mark Gregory returns as the stiff-postured Swann/Vinnie-esque gang leader Trash for this napalm-drenched sequel. Even more flagrantly cynical and anti-capitalist than its predecessor, it picks up where 1990: The Bronx Warriors left off (see them back-to-back on a lazy Saturday double feature for maximum yield). It's a few year later and the 'Manhattan Corporation' is out of Ann's hands, evil has triumphed, and now they've been given the green light by the mayor to raze the Bronx and evict (i.e. incinerate) its denizens. Cops in flame-thrower gear slowly 'cleanse' the area, going block-to-block, burning out the resistance and any hold-outs, including Trash's oblivious Bronx-dwelling parents. Well, as you can guess, Trash ain't leaving and he ain't hiding and now you better believe he's going to get even. But--while his long black hair still flutters as a banner of freedom--most everyone from the last film are dead. The few survivors of the last film's climactic battle are now hiding out underground under the rule of earring-wearing Diablone (Antonio Sabato). He's cool enough, but he's no Fred Williamson. Luckily, scene-stealing Carla Brait--the Iron Man leader from the previous film--is also a survivor, and as refreshingly coy as ever, with her one line of dialogue. 

Meanwhile, above ground, an intrepid journalist named Moon Grey (Valeria D'abici) gets ejected from a Manhattan Corp. press conference for speaking truth to power! She sneaks into the Bronx to tell Trash that if he wants to really get anyone to listen to the truth, he'll need to kidnap the president of Manhattan Corp! Enter master thief Strike (Giancarlo Prete) and his young son Alessandro, whose innocent glee planting bombs evokes Brigitte Bardot in Viva Maria (1965). As they work their kidnapping plan, a ruthless efficiency expert (Henry Silva) is sent into the Bronx to kill Trash. Like Morrow in the last film, Silva achieves that rare balance between menace and fun, giving the sense that--as in the previous film--hunter and prey don't mind changing roles as long as they get to kill each other. Naturally Silver 'rescues' the president with a bullet- and then shakes hands with the slimy successor (Paolo Malco, sans House by the Cemetery facial hair).

Whatever one thinks of Italian trash cinema, there's no denying Castellari gets interesting performances from his actors. Also, he's so antiauthority he makes John Carpenter seem like a Reaganite. I haven't read any interviews about what it was like on set, but the vibe on the screen is wryly jacked-up without ever tumbling into camp. The dubbing is flawless, the vibe of the music is propulsive. The climax is an all-out bloodbath of massive explosions (cars erupt into fireballs from a single pistol shot) and lots of guys in hazmat suits with flamethrowers die in cool falls and window crashes. Great stuff! There's also exploding hostages, lots of other explosions. Fireballs. Explosions. And more shit getting blown up. Some more explosions after that, lots of gunfire, and blasting. And explosions. And people setting each other on fire with flamethrowers. And so on. Castellari as usual gets great mileage out of the ancient tunnels and ruins of, presumably, Rome. (Exteriors are all filmed in Manhattan and the Bronx though, as usual - this being back when NYC was an urban jungle, so it works). So in short, Trash's hair is even fuller, Francesco De Masi's synth score is more than serviceable, and The death count hits triple digits if you're counting. No Fred, but otherwise, hey....

(aka 'The New Barbarians')
(1983 Dir. Enzo G. Castellari
*** / Amazon Image - B+

The Old Testament gets rewritten in high Road Warrior style in this (unrelated) third film in Castellari's trilogy. Now we're outside the city in a desert wilderness of souped up goofball vehicles. Cars have bubble roofs for no reason, clear body armor lets us see the pale skin of the hero, the evil gang are gay nihilists, and some peaceful villagers are building a flimsy rocket to the moon. Straggling religious pilgrims travel the wasteland in search of the holy land, recruiting Nadir (Fred Williamson-- wearing outrageous black leather and gold trim armor) and 'Scorpion' (Giancarlo Prete) as guides/guardians. Both would rather just roam around trying to mind their own business but this world must be awfully small as they keep crossing paths and bailing each other out of jams. If you've seen a lot of Italian westerns you know these kind of strange male frenemyships occur frequently, perhaps because of Clint and Lee in A Few Dollars More. Or maybe it's just a thing Italian guys do for/to each other...

Aside from the silly tubes and futuristic gizmos welded onto the wacky vehicles. the craziest things are the main villains: a gang of nihilistic zealots called the Templars. Dressed in white Star Wars storm trooper armor (not a good fashion choice in a mangy desert) with big shoulder pads (giving a subliminal impression of folded angel wings), purple mohawks and/or samurai pony tails and eye liner, their mission: wanton torture and killing. Their leader, "One" (a very hammy and wondrous George Eastman) blames the apocalypse on "books". There's something to be said for the purity of their mission (they also seem to be gay, as we're spared the usual sexual assaults.) Apparently, Scorpion used to be a Templar but he left after winning a duel with "One" but sparing his life (is this a kind of sequel to Endgame?). "One" needs to be cajoled into going after him to 'reclaim his manhood' and if the guy in the ponytail doing the cajoling seems familiar, it's because he wasthe president of the Manhattan Corp. in the previous entry on this list. How the mighty have fallen. (Ennio Girolami, i.e. the Italian B-list Burt Lancaster). Small world indeed!

Most Road Warrior knock-offs are shit, but Castellari has no interest in wasting our time with a lot of static talk, sadistic bullying and/or driving scenes; he just wants to keep the fireballs coming, the heads lobbing, and the screen buzzing with tricked-out futuristic vehicles. In fact, all the vehicles here look like normal, dinged-up, dirty cars with a few (suspiciously clean) sci-fi additions affixed, evoking Death Race 2000 as much as they do The Road Warrior, helping us wonder just how much of this Castellari intended as sociological deadpan satire. 

And as with Fred Williamson's other work for Castellari (see above), he seems to enjoy himself immensely here, especially when he hooks up with a smoky blue-eyed creature in a tie-dyed dress named Vinya (Iris Peynado - above). Fred's eyes light up when he first catches sight of her, and when they begin to hook up, Fred's eyes carry such a complicated range of emotions--from caution to tenderness to tough blaxploitation studliness to shyness and back again--that he once again transcends his weird dialogue (he seems to have been written as a kind of Muslim warrior/friend in the Parsifal myth) to become the gravitic core of the lunacy around him. If you've lived the joy of an out-of-the-blue hookup with a knock-out girl in her bedroom while in a strange town after being forever on the road (say, as a musician), you'll feel it all come rushing back, even if it's cloaked in enough weird 'code' to fool the kids and make Joe Breen's head explode.

The rest of the time we can't tell if Fred's having a blast, just clowning around because he doesn't give a shit, or is just slowly going insane. It's surely all three, and that's why it's always Hammer time at chez Kuersten.

Wait, there's another girl? Two? The Sean Young/Jennifer Beals-esque Anna Kanakis (she'd play the whip-snapping villainess in the same year's 2019: After the Fall of New York). She plays a big-haired lady in red goggles, no pants, and a capable attitude. The blue-eyed towhead kid from Lucio Fulci's House by the Cemetery (Giovanni Frezza, much better dubbing voice this time) is the mechanic who outfits our two apocalyptic heroes in all sorts of explosive ordinance and automobile souping-up, including a big phallic drill bit, for the climactic bout. He also comes along with his exploding smoke bomb-slinging sling-shot, noting "there's only one thing that matters, winning!" Hot damn! I don't like kids in movies unless they're badasses and I like him so what's that tell you? Here he's clearly modeled on the pyro son in the same year's Escape from the Bronx, both of whom are surely inspired by the Feral Kid in the Road Warrior, who must have given the Italians some ideas as to how wild a child can be.

(Aka Atlantis Interceptors)
(1983) Dir. Ruggero Deodato
**** (Amazon Image - B-)

I reviewed this in an earlier Prime round-up, but it's become one of my favorite go-tos when afflicted with that Goblin-scored, aurora grotesk-credit-fonted 70s-80s Italian horror/action/sci-fi hybrid itch, which is very specific and very--if you can find the right salve--rewarding. Raiders is one of the best such salves, right up there with Nightmare City and Contamination as far as recently-discovered Italian psychotronica I can return to again and again when the never-ending film marathon of my life runs dry of viable programming options. I've already seen Raiders at least four times since discovering it in 2017. There are so many reasons it rocks: I love that the central relationship is between two men: Italian cinema mainstay Christopher Connelly and Tony King as a pair of mercs who own a boat together and do all sorts of dangerous work outside the jurisdiction of the US military (?) ala The Expendables. They have great banter/rapport and the film is nonstop cool, with Hawksian attention paid to cigarettes, alcohol, and manly camaraderie (they also have a helicopter pilot buddy played by Ivan Rassimov). Giola Scol is the Hawksian girl, also a professional, whose skill at deciphering ancient text on a plaque found down on the ocean floor by a sunken Russian submarine triggers the rising of a domed Atlantis. Then there's that strange reaction in a certain percentage of the population, turning them all into marauding savages on a nearby island (maybe the world, who knows?) driving around in their pimped out bikes and ride slaughtering everyone who's not infected with their strange madness. Decked out like a glam Humongous (Bruce Baron) in a translucent skull bubble helmet (above), their leader calls his gang 'The Interceptors' and announces the return of the Atlanteans and that all others "but one" must die. Time to get the molotov cocktails lined up, and--luckily--find a warehouse full of guns and ammo.

I wonder if John Carpenter ever saw this film as it bears striking resemblance to his last great film: 2001's Ghosts of Mars. In both films a violent genocidal ancient race is accidentally awakened from its timeless sleep and able to possess normal humans and convince them to dress up like metal mutants, wiping out all non-infected human life in preparation for the original inhabitant's return (2). It's the same movie!!

Naturally with the word Raiders in the alternate title one expects a certain amount of tomb robbing (a lot of films in the 1982-3 era had to have ancient treasures laying on altars deep within booby-trap filled tombs and pyramids), but that's towards the end, during the big super-weird climax. Mostly there's a lot of molotov cocktails being thrown and great real time stunts, like people jumping out of a helicopter onto a speeding bus, or vice versa. The whole thing leaps around giddily from one scrape to the next. We can always figure out what's going on but never what's going to happen next, making it 90 minutes of action packed awesomeness to file next to Ghost of Mars, The Expendables 2, and Nightmare City in your goofy inner 16 year-olds dream cue.

(1983) Dir. Giuliano Carnimeo
** - (Amazon Image - B-)

I shy off films where a kid is in the lead (too sentimental) but this kid has literal tricks up his sleeve and he drinks a beer! Once again we're in the wasteland, but instead of petrol being the number one commodity it's water. There hasn't been any rainfall in years! The result is terrible 80s-style curly hair (with headband) on hunky antihero "Alien" (Robert Ianucci) who drives around in a tricked-up (stolen) car, being pursued by its rightful owner, a bald maniac. The kid goes along on a mission to get water for his thirsty colony of ragtag survivors, but the driver of the truck is slaughtered and the kid is left in the middle of nowhere as the only survivor, so he recruits Alien to help him. Alicia Munroe is a sexier, nicer road wanderer, and her hair has a nice post-Farrah blonde Meg Ryan kind of feathering (above) that puts her far ahead of most action babes of the year 1983. There may not be water, but damn there must be dry shampoo.

Actually, the coolest character doesn't have hair at all. Fernando Bilbao as the main bad guy (ala Wes in ROAD WARRIOR- below) eagerly pursuing Alien --who stole his car (it's got a TV camera so you don't have to look through the windshield, an accessory even more useless than Scorpion's bubble roof in WARRIORS OF WASTELAND) We're supposed to root for Alien even though it's rightfully Bilbao's car. Talk about shallow. BOOOM!

 Those Italians... You can call this a derivative piece of shit but you miss the point: it moves zippily and never wastes time with dull conversations. Like the best Italian imitations, it reeks of the joy of on-the-fly creativity and momentum. Just look at that crazy car design up there! Those alterations are totally superfluous, just bits of nutty madness zipping by so fast you barely clock them before Boom! Up in flames.  Surely I can forgive the presence of tacky curly hair in the lead and the presence of a child and the scenes of thirsty settlers passively watching their plants die of dehydration! When this many cars explode one must be charitable. 

Some SPOLER debits: why does Alien think he can sell out the settlers to "make a fortune" with the purloined water. What kind of fortune even exists in the wasteland? What, are you going to fill a bucket and drive to the city? Money is only as good as long as the country that issues it has a viable economy, "Alien." But you can't think twice about those kind of plot inconsistencies unless you're really obsessive and possibly older than the target demographic. Better maybe to ponder the question of whether Alien and the girl show any kind of honor by bringing the water to the passive settlers. Considering Alien and company got it by killing its previous owners, all moral compasses seem cracked and spinning. The answer? Since the original reservoir-minders are ugly and wear strange suits, they must die, just as Bilbao must for being bald and uncouth. (nowhere is there the idea the settlers should move where the water is. Instead the aquifer must be blown up and the water currently stored there relocated to them, who have done nothing to earn it. Such is morality: the cleanest haired rovers and meekest of benefactors are always in the right when they steal from grungier, uglier people.

Filipino Bonus: WHEELS OF FIRE
(1985) Dir Crio Santiago
** / Amazon Image - B

OK, so this one ain't Italian. Fuggedabout it. Shot in the Philippines for New World/Concorde with a pretty impressive large cast (thee local army being employed as extras), and many many vehicles, all of which are so dirt-caked you feel the desert grit under your fingernails and on your tongue while watching.  The Mad Max (Gary Watkins) this time is named Trace, as in 'they traced Mel Gibson's outline' --same leather pants and utility belt dragging him to a cocked hip and a disposition that says "no chicks or smiles or fun for me thanks, just give me the wild open road and the suspension of disbelief that its possible to drive for even half a day in a world with no gas stations."

Crio Santiago directed with an international cast and set it in an Outback-style wasteland (really a quarry that's the Filipino equivalent of Bronson Canyon). One should point out there are key differences between Trace and Mad Max. The most obvious being Trace has a super cool flamethrower. He has one for his car, too. Lots of guys wind up on fire as a result (3). There are lots of guys on fire, actually, in all the movies on this list. And they did name it Wheels of Fire - well, honey that's truth in advertising. As Cool-Ass Cinema notes "WHEELS are constantly spinning; and rarely does the FIRE diminish."

Alas, Trace can't wander as freely as the original Max because he has a sexually precocious kid sister, Arlie (Playboy playmate Linda Weismeir, above). Wild, ill-bred and liable to run off with the first pit fighter who flashes his beady eyes her way, she won't listen to Trace's advice to keep a low profile. Meanwhile, a band of skuzzy outlaws led by Scourge (Joe Mari Avellana - one of the cast's few native Filipino leads) runs around killing, siphoning, and abducting women for much lurid abuse. Naturally, the sister winds up in their hands and that's why the film gets a low rating from me. Despire her acting tough, spitting and clawing. seeing Arlie spread eagled and topless bouncing around on the dirty hood of Scourge's car, etc, is not fun, or cool. We admire her resilience and toughness, and that her breasts are natural, but then the nights pass and Santiago rubs our noses in the whole gang bang / punked-out whore thing, as Arlie is thrown to the crew after Scourge is 'finished with her' and winds up housed in a dirty tent and all the dirty ass dudes take their turns, snickering etc. We're spared the seeing of it all (we just hear about it; Santiago wants us to know for sure what's going on) but her continued subjugation sits uneasily over the rest of the film. Though she does get a mildly satisfying revenge, it still leaves a skuzzy residue, like the dirt-caked oil that flecks the tanned skin of the cast, giving an extra grubby, oily sheen to everyone's make-up.

Meanwhile, Trace runs across a girl road warrior named Stinger (Laura Banks, above), who demonstrates that - 1) the Pat Benatar look must have still been big in 1985 and 2) now matter how dire things get, a girl can still find cheap 80s eye shadow. Luckily, the rather weather-beaten Stinger has other assets, like a hawk who can warn her of danger -like when she's abducted by underground mutants in the dead of night). Stinger and Trace rescue other Scourge survivors too, like a cute civilian with psychic powers named Spike (Linda Grovenor) whose make-up is way less oily; and a spunky little person in a Civl War uniform.

Many stunts, crashes, explosions, big sets (some old guns placements left behind by the Japanese, maybe?) and a vast underground cave system for mutant burning follow. The whole thing becomes a war movie at the end, with the late plot addition of a big outfit of 'good guy' civilization proponents that Trace used to be a member of (now he tells us?). There are climactic raids, a group of civilians building a rocket out of sheet metal and gumption (just like in Warriors of the Wasteland!), and a final battle with Arlie as a kind of hot mess Gunga Din.  The final shootouts as all the mean jerks from Scourge's outfit die painful deaths are very nicely gratifying.

Other strong points: Christopher Young's sweeping score, which taps into the Brian May-style pumping Road Warrior original, adding orchestral grandeur like what might happen if the Jaws theme was widened and Wagner climbed down in between the notes like a spelunker on too many Pervatin. As with most Santiago films, it may be shitty but it's never dull. The Amazon Print is not quite at the level of Warriors of the Wastelend, but probably looking as good as it ever did on the drive-in screen.

Cool-Ass Cinema also points out that Wheels was one of the films caught in the tussle when Corman sold New World and the new owners betrayed him by ignoring his drive-in fare in favor of their own bigger releases. So Santiago's film wound up being one of the first releases of Corman's own new distribution company Concorde, instead. Alas, just as he gave up directing when he left AIP to form New World, Corman gave up producing, for the most part, when he left New World to form Concorde. It being the dawn of the drive-in's demise in favor of the endless made-for-VHS sloggery-doggery, sexual imbecility began to reign. Until that is, the arrival of DEATH RACE 2050. Hurrah for that badass movie!

And that's about it for part 4 of Acidemic's Drive-in on Prime series. Next time will be the concluding entry, the post-CONAN sword and sorcery kick of the 1981-88 era. That's not to say this amazing and endless series will stop, because someone has to keep track of the wild, never-ending flow of great shit floating amidst the ocean of dross that is Prime. Now that these films are safely preserved, we must preserve the sanity of their future viewers by guiding the unfamiliar away from the interest-killing dreck surrounding these watchable gems. (PS - if you know of any other great weird underseen movies from the drive-in era on Prime, let me know!)

And don't forget these other Drive-in on Prime Roundups:




1. some sharp-eyed fellow critics have pointed out it's war footage borrowed from another Santiago film, Equalizer 3000)
2. Not accusing JC of plagiarism, if anything it would be a homage, as much as it is to Howard Hawks. 
3. Stuntmen must love to fall off ledges while on fire. Think about it: ultimately guys on fire is not the kind of thing anyone cares about, yet time and again they burn and scream and burn, maybe because they know how to do it without getting hurt, so it's like skydiving or crowdsurfing for them. For us, it's like the cole slaw garnish. We're okay with it being there, but it's hardly we we came.

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