Sunday, February 11, 2018

Wheels of Fire (1985) review


Gary Watkins (Trace), Laura Banks (Stinger), Lynda Wiesmeier (Arlie), Linda Grovenor (Spike), Joseph Anderson (Scourge), Joseph Zucchero (Whiz), Jack S. Daniels (Scag)

Directed by Cirio H. Santiago

***WARNING! This review contains nudity***

The Short Version: It's sometime in the future after a nuclear holocaust. All that remains are gangs of capitalists and anarchists vying to either restore order or control it; while a cult-like gang of pacifists build a rocket ship for some paradise planet 20 million miles away; all this along with oodles of mindless violence and cannibalistic mole men in Cirio Santiago's utterly plotless, high-octane entry in the unusually prosperous sub-genre of THE ROAD WARRIOR clones. There's literally an action sequence every two minutes and not an ounce of story for miles. The Drive-in was made for movies like WHEELS OF FIRE.

Trace, a nomadic traveler roaming the desert in his weapons-laden mustang, reunites with his sister, Arlie. The meeting is short-lived when Arlie is kidnapped by an old enemy of Trace's, the ruthless Scourge, the leader of a gang of savages who roam the desert conquering what remains of mankind. Trace takes off in hot pursuit. Along the way he is joined by a determined lady bounty hunter, a clairvoyant, and a mumbling midget. With other factions fighting the Scourge, a new war is set to take place on the ruins of civilization.

Wasteland specialist Santiago fires up the engines for this, Cirio's second--a less somber actioner compared to STRYKER (1983), his first foray into ROAD WARRIOR territory. The differences between the two is night and day. STRYKER is a darker, slower paced picture; while WHEELS shares the sleazy atmosphere, but like a live-action cartoon with a pace that won't quit. These movies already beg for suspension of disbelief in not asking questions where the hell all the gas is coming from; but this one adds a bizarre subplot about a hippie commune who have built a rocket ship they plan to literally blast off into space for more sociable climbs.

WHEELS are constantly spinning; and rarely does the FIRE diminish. Literally every two minutes something is blowing up; or assorted characters of no consequence are being mowed down by machine gun fire. Easily one of the most brainless movies ever made, FIRE flaunts its lack of storytelling and common sense without a care in what's left of the world.

Even the music (from Christopher Young) never slows down. Possibly using Brian May's MAD MAX (1979) score as an influence (not the Brian May of Queen), it has that same kinetic energy that shoots an additional dose of adrenaline into the mix--making the digestion of rampant absurdity all the easier; and if WHEELS OF FIRE is anything at all, it's absurd.

This isn't a good movie in the classical sense, but as far as entertainment is concerned, it speeds past the average entry in this sub-genre and leaves a lot of other low budget actioners in the dust. An awkward mix of gratuitous nudity and caricature theatrics, if it weren't for the near-constant action, the predominantly awful acting would wreck the whole thing. Despite the mostly shoddy line delivery, it's still a great deal of fun helped by an over-the-top protagonist. 

Gary Watkins plays Trace, a futuristic Tough Guy armed with various guns and a mustang equipped with a spiked plate welded to the grill; a flamethrower; and alluded to in the title, a jet engine that propels him along the highway to send cars careening off cliffs and exploding on cue. Watkins is perpetually pissed off through most of the movie, only occasionally grimacing when he's feeling amorous towards his female counterpart, a Tough Woman named Stinger.

Watkins did very little before or after this movie. WHEELS being his one major leading role, he does well with what little characterization he's given. He's certainly not lax in the action department. The script gives him scraps to say, but a lot to do physically. If he's not speeding through desert locations, he's firing off any number of weapons, or jumping and leaping around dozens of villains he fills full of lead or engulfs in flames. 

Lee Ving of the punk rock band Fear was initially attached to play Scourge, but left just before shooting began for undisclosed reasons. He did do STREETS OF FIRE (1984), another movie with 'Fire' in the title. Fear had been in the industry spotlight since at least 1981 after an appearance in Penelope Spheeris's THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION (1981). John Belushi was enamored with the band and hired them to cut a song for the soundtrack on Belushi's NEIGHBORS (1981). When Belushi's desire for a punk-style score was ruled out, he then invited Fear to play on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE's Halloween episode in 1981--introduced by Donald Pleasence, no less. This too was short-lived as Fear was banned from the show after things got out of hand during their stage performance. 

You would think with the chaotic filmmaking industry in the Philippines, Lee Ving would feel right at home. Whatever led to his bolting from the picture, the guy that replaced him on WHEELS OF FIRE, Joe Mari Avellana (as Joseph Anderson), was a Filipino actor and filmmaker who worked on a lot of Cirio's movies both in front of, and behind the camera.

Trace may be a loner type, but he's not alone in this movie. Along the way, he meets up with various other characters. These are either grossly underwritten (Spike played by Linda Grovenor) or are barely explained at all (Pug the midget).

Laura Banks as Stinger gives Trace a love interest... if only the script was interested in doing so. After rescuing her and another nimble female from the cannibalistic Sand Men (a race of humanoids doused in white paint that are the low budget Morlocks of the movie), there's the inevitable love scene; but then this angle is abandoned to make way for more gun battles and explosions. Banks would return to Cirio land a couple years later in DEMON OF PARADISE (1987).

Grovenor's Spike is the most unassuming character in the movie. Playing a clairvoyant, she's like the girl next door; but during the big battle finale, she suddenly turns into an acrobatic hellcat. Her character doesn't exude the demeanor of a fighter, but she looks good on camera when she turns into one. Within the span of a few minutes, she easily surpasses Laura Banks' Stinger character (see insert), the female Mad Max of the story. There's a late-blooming hint that Spike has some affection for Trace, but it's too little and too late with this revelation just shy of the end credits.

What little string of plot holding WHEELS together is Trace retrieving his sister Arlie from the clutches of Scourge and his gang of killers. Played by Playboy cover girl and July 1982's Playmate of the Month Lynda Wiesmeier, she's the most tragic character of the bunch. Getting only slightly more to do than some of the supporting cast, Wiesmeier's main function is to show off her perky butt cleavage and stay half-naked for much of her screen time--displaying her assets for those who may have missed her Playboy spread. Despite her character's lengthy humiliation as a trampoline for the bad guys, she does get to go out with a bang at the end. Sadly, Ms. Wiesmeier would pass away aged 49 December 16th, 2012 from a brain tumor.

WHEELS OF FIRE (originally titled 'The Vindicator') found itself in a hot spot in the early months of 1985 when Roger Corman and New World's new owners (lawyers Harry Sloan and Lawrence Kuppin) jousted lawsuits between one another. New World's new owners seemed little interested in distributing Corman's Drive-in style exploitation--opting to put more high-profile pictures at the front of the slate. So, after announcing he was going to release his films on his own, New World sued him for 40 million over breach of contract and defamation. 

Corman's 400 million suit charged that New World refused to distribute his movies. He was also seeking to take back control of his former company which he'd sold to them in 1982.

New World, on the other hand, charged that Corman was intending to set up his own distribution company in violation of their sales agreement. In countering, Corman stated at the time his whole point in selling the company was to free himself of the laborious work involved so he could focus solely on distribution. Corman also stated New World had not only refused to release two of his pictures--WHEELS OF FIRE and the teen sex comedy SCHOOL SPIRIT--but that they'd cheated him on his distributors fee on films like SPACE RAIDERS (1983) and SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE (1983). 

New World then argued that Corman was bypassing them for deals with other companies. Ten days later the two parties dropped their respective lawsuits and settled out of court. Corman was free to distribute his own productions while New World was no longer obligated to do so. The subject of this review was ultimately released under the Concorde Pictures banner, set up by both Roger and Julie Corman in March of 1985. Among the slate of movies already completed and ready for distribution included STREETWALKIN' (1985)--their own version of New World's popular ANGEL (1984); and Cirio's THE DEVASTATOR (1986).

In a sub-genre crowded with lackluster imitations of George Miller's wasteland classic, Cirio's WHEELS OF FIRE is nitro in comparison. The Italian variants usually take center-stage but Santiago was more often than not the superior when it came to action; and movies like this require about as much attention to plot and characterization as to the obligatory abandoned factories and desert locales that make up the settings. Silly and never boring, this is a FIRE that burns hot for a brief, but action-packed 81 minutes.

This review is representative of the Code Red Bluray. Specs and Extras: 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen; Interview with writer Frederick Bailey; interview with production supervisor Clark Henderson; trailers; running time: 01:21:07

Sunday, February 4, 2018

The Exterminators of the Year 3000 (1983) review


Robert Iannucci (Alien), Alicia Moro (Trash), Luciano Pigozzi (Papillon [as Alan Collins]), Eduardo Fajardo (Senator), Fernando Bilbao (Crazy Bull), Beryl Cunningham (Shadow), Luca Venantini (Tommy), Venantino Venatini (John)

Directed by Giuliano Carnimeo (as Jules Harrison)

The Short Version: It's the year 3000 after a nuclear holocaust and somehow everyone is still driving 1970s model cars and have one word names like Alien and Trash. Sacrificing common sense for an environmental message, water is scarce while no one seems to run out of gas out in the desert. Cartoonish and run-of-the-mill, this Italian-Spanish ROAD WARRIOR (1981) clone does feature some great stunts and explosions. Unfortunately, when there's no car chases onscreen, Carnimeo's movie stays in the slow lane going about 35mph.

A nuclear holocaust has left the remnants of humanity struggling to survive in a desert wasteland. Water is more precious than oil and a vicious gang called The Exterminators is out to get it all. A lone man named Alien, his ex-lover, a boy with a bionic arm, and a former astronaut seek out a secret location where plentiful water is held.

After MAD MAX (1979) became a huge hit, the sequel, THE ROAD WARRIOR (1981), emerged a couple years later and was an even bigger success. This meant a flood of copycat flicks--predominantly from foreign territories. Italy being the main movie machine churning out clones of popular productions, THE EXTERMINATORS OF THE YEAR 3000 was one of the near two dozen results. 

You will likely never find Italy's lineage of genre filmmakers compared with the Euro art house crowd (the auteurs; the mise en tedium); but unlike those revered artisans of pretentiousness, guys like Sergio Martino, Antonio Margheriti, and Italo western specialist Giuliano Carnimeo could be counted on to deliver entertainment in a variety of genres.

Carnimeo is best known (in America, anyway) for his westerns; and it's those that make up the bulk of his resume. He did dabble in Giallo and comedies--and was attached to a SciFi movie that was never completed. Carnimeo's appreciation for comedy is evident in many of his works. His initial westerns were serious in tone, but this changed after the THEY CALL ME TRINITY (1970) became a global phenomenon. There were hints of humor in his early westerns and his gadget-driven SARTANA entries; but he really cut loose into full-blown Looney Tunes mode in the early 1970s with a slew of slapstick westerns like HIS NAME WAS HOLY GHOST (1972), and THE CRAZY BUNCH (1974) to name two.

Flash forward a decade, and his post-apocalyptic movie casually resembles a western. The formula for THE ROAD WARRIOR is the reason for its existence, but adds some ingredients in a mostly futile attempt to set itself apart. Even the Italian title is similar--translating to 'The Exterminator of the Streets'. Akin to Carnimeo's past work, there's humor in this wasteland--some of it intentional, and most of it the unintended variety; the dubbing shares culpability with such exchanges as "You've got the feeling of a fossil!" and "Die, you unspeakable varmint!".

In comparison, EXTERMINATORS never gets in the same lane as George Miller's influential actioner; the low budget keeps it under the speed limit for 90 minutes. However, it is ambitious, and it's clear during the first major action sequence that the crew were trying awfully hard to match the stunts of their inspiration. Unfortunately, the movie runs out of gas right after this impressive sequence and never recovers that level of vigor. For example, the demolition derby finale lacks the bombast and creativity of this first action scene. 

Instead of gas, water is the priceless commodity. This being a European production, there's an environmental message hovering over Dardano Sachetti and Elisa Briganti's silly script. It works best when there's action onscreen yet hits a dead end when it attempts exposition. The entire middle portion is a wasteland of unavailing dialog that acts as nothing more than a bridge between the action. 

Elsewhere, the hero is as far away from Max Rockatansky as you can get. This might of seemed like a good idea on paper to write a less-than-heroic protagonist, but unfortunately, this is to the film's detriment.

Robert Iannucci's nihilistic good guy is surprisingly weak. For long stretches he's written as heroic and in others he's a self-serving bastard. Altogether, he is constantly duped by the various characters. He has a really cool car, though. It may look like a clunker but it has a number of gadgets like protective metallic plates, rockets, and tires that inflate themselves when flat. Among his personal arsenal, Alien uses a lethal Bolas (curiously, we only see it once); and a late appearance by a laser gun. Iannucci looks good in the role, he's just not the typical Action Hero type. Alien is less about saving the day than stealing it.

Luca Venantini is the boy with the bionic arm. A civilized version of THE ROAD WARRIOR's Feral Kid, he's the only character the script is somewhat successful in presenting. The son of prolific actor Venantino Venantini, the father has a role here too. You think he's going to be a major player in the movie only to meet an unexpected fate just prior to the impressive chase sequence early on.

Additionally, Italian genre fans will recognize Eduardo Fajardo--the villain in numerous westerns--here playing the passive patriarch of the remains of the human race now living in caverns. Luciano Pigozzi as Papillon, is another familiar face from westerns and horror pictures--here disguised underneath a lot of facial hair essaying the role of the grizzled elder who remembers a much kinder Earth... before the holocaust of Italian ROAD WARRIOR rip-offs.

Crazy Bull is the main villain played by Spanish actor Fernando Bilbao. He's virtually identical to the memorable Wez in THE ROAD WARRIOR (as played by Vernon Wells). Bilbao had worked with Carnimeo before in some of his westerns and was an unforgettable presence as the axe-wielding giant in THE VAMPIRES NIGHT ORGY (1973). The most memorable dubbed lines are his, including "CHARGE! Once more into the breach, you mother-grabbers! Let's purloin that water!" Mother-grabber is never defined, but Crazy Bull loves saying it.

Whereas Miller's movie had an oil refinery under siege by the villains, it's some remote factory with plentiful water and a solar panel garden that's the centerpiece in EXTERMINATORS. This is one of the major deviations from ROAD WARRIOR--especially since Crazy Bull's gang (the dubbing calls them The Exterminators) never find the place.

How bizarre that this H2O-asis everybody is looking for is lorded over by a bunch of mutants armed with flame-throwers! The presence of irradiated humans guarding likely contaminated water doesn't seem to change our heroes' minds to, as Crazy Bull would say, "purloin that water!" This absurdity aside, the place is loaded with booby-traps; so we get a satisfying action precursor to the less than stellar finale that answers why you should never bring a knife to a gunfight.

After a final return to the water hole proves to have been a colossal waste of time, the last scene makes amends with some divine intervention that brings rain (apparently the first time in decades); and yet the first thing Trash does is wipe mud all over her face. This pretty much sums up THE EXTERMINATORS OF THE YEAR 3000.

In the end, Giuliano Carnimeo's (he died September 10th, 2016) post nuclear holocaust hokum does little to stand out among the celluloid ashes of ROAD WARRIOR clones. Aside from its attention-grabbing title, it's not quite as energized as Castellari's entries in this genre; yet Carnimeo strives to entertain with his. With no nudity, cartoonish violence, and some modest gore, it's relatively safe--if unremarkable--exploitation fare.

This review is representative of the Shout! Factory bluray. Specs and Extras: 1080p HD 1.85:1 widecreen; audio commentary with star Robert Iannucci; interview with Robert Iannucci; TV spots; running time: 01:30:24

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