Sunday, September 12, 2021

Endgame (1983) review

Al Cliver (Ron Shannon), Laura Gemser (Lilith), George Eastman (Kurt Karnak), Gabriele Tinti (Bull), Hal Yamanouchi (Ninja), Gordon Mitchell (Colonel Morgan), Mario Pedone (Kovack), Dino Conti (Professor Levin), Nello Pazzafini (Kijawa), Christopher Walsh (Tommy), Franco Ukmar (Stark), Bobby Rhodes (Woody Aldridge), Alberto Dell'Acqua (Gabe Mantrax)
Directed by Joe D'Amato (as Steven Benson)
The Short Version: Joe D'Amato's surprisingly entertaining post-apocalyptic, Orwellian adventure starts out as a junkier version of Richard Connell's short story 'The Most Dangerous Game' by way of Lucio Fulci's flashy THE NEW BARBARIANS (1983); then quickly transforms into 'The Magnificent Seven In the Wasteland'. No matter the influences and current relevancy, this Italian hodgepodge is a blast. There's barely a budget, but lots of bang for those few bucks.

Ron Shannon, Endgame champion for 22 years, agrees to sit out the 23rd as a hunter and be the hunted for the seventh time; tracked by three specially selected predators over a 12 hour period in the internationally televised, human-hunting sporting event. During the game, Shannon encounters a mutant named Lilith. Part of a segment of society gifted with the ability of telepathy, the government wants them all wiped out over fears they will eventually overthrow their tyrannical rule. She offers Shannon a job escorting her and a group of other mutants to a safe haven 200 miles away from the totalitarian city limits. To do this, Shannon needs more men for the journey where they encounter human-animal mutations, cannibals, a crazed, black-robed and blind band of cultists, and the government's militaristic police force led by Colonel Morgan. Following not far behind is Shannon's arch nemesis, Karnak; who wishes a final duel with Shannon to End the Game.

Aristide Massaccesi, aka Joe D'Amato (and numerous other pseudonyms) directed a lot of crap in his career; and then he helmed some genuinely exceptional, and highly entertaining motion pictures. One distinguishable trait between the good and bad is that the humble D'Amato had a signature style that alerted viewers to whose movie they were watching if they happened to miss the opening credits. The ghoulish BEYOND THE DARKNESS (1979), aka BURIED ALIVE, is arguably the best movie of his lengthy resume. ENDGAME deserves a spot at the top of that list, too; and, according to D'Amato himself, it's his favorite film of his career.

Another in the string of Italian-made, post-apocalyptic adventures, ENDGAME (1983) combines Richard Connell's short story 'The Most Dangerous Game' with THE SEVEN SAMURAI (1954); or, its more commercially viable remake THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960), if you prefer. The first 30 minutes is not only a futuristic version of Connell's oft-filmed story, but it manages to cram the entirety of Fulci's classier, more polished WARRIORS OF THE YEAR 2072 (1983) into that first quarter (but minus the dueling motorcycles).
After that, it's Cliver and Laura Gemser (under the pseudonym of Moira Chen) wandering the gravel pits in Rome to recruit mercenaries to escort the mutants to an unnamed safe-zone. Mutants are something ENDGAME has in plentiful supply. The dubbing refers to the peaceful telepaths as mutants; but there's also the cannibalistic lepers, and the ape and fish people variety of man's evolutionary regression. 
The rest of the cast is a cool collage of D'Amato regulars and genre favorites like Gabriele Tinti (THE EERIE MIDNIGHT HORROR SHOW), Hal Yamanouchi (2020 TEXAS GLADIATORS), Bobby Rhodes (DEMONS), Nello Pazzafini (ARIZONA COLT), Gordon Mitchell (THE FURY OF ACHILLES), Alberto Dell'Acqua (SEVEN GUNS FOR THE MACGREGORS), and a brief appearance by Michele Soavi (CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD) before he hit the big time as Italy's last major director of horror pictures.
The pacing seldom lets up as our heroes go from one set-piece to the next. Gas is generally in short supply in these movies but energy is something ENDGAME never run out of. Shot in and around an abandoned factory, the filmmakers make do with very little resources. Stunts are minimal, and mostly limited to a few guys crashing their bikes into the mud and a cool jump over some cars. One character's exit from the picture ends in a head-on collision and explosion. There are no car chases that these movies normally demand, but so much happens in D'Amato's movie you don't even notice it.

Popular cult actor George Eastman wrote the script (as Alex Carver), punctuating it with plenty of action and an array of characters that encapsulates the Quest paradigm more successfully than other films of this style. After ENDGAME, Eastman would also write 2020: TEXAS GLADIATORS (1983) and start the film as its director; but shortly into production, lost confidence in being able to complete the job, so he asked D'Amato to take the reigns.

Eastman's ENDGAME script places its exploitation value within the framework of an all-controlling government--not unlike the direction our own is headed--that watches your every move and benefits monetarily from the public's misery. This government has partnered itself with various corporations and the entertainment industry to keep the masses under control; those not immediately deemed undesirable, that is. 
We learn there's a contingent of society that has the power of telepathy. The government fears them because they believe these telekinetic freedom-lovers may one day overthrow the tyrannical overlords; so the black-clad, masked, secret police force seeks out these individualists with special powers to exterminate them.

The character Eastman plays (Kurt Karnak) is arguably the best major role he ever essayed this side of the Anthropophagus Beast. Wearing a cool black and red outfit and sporting a shotgun, Eastman's Karnak is unique in that he's basically a villain, but an honorable, anti-hero type. He follows our heroes throughout their journey, even helping them out on occasion, and saying little. The mystique as to where his allegiance lies is key to Eastman having written the best portrayal for himself. The rest of the characters, colorful as they are, are largely one-dimensional in comparison.

A familiar face in European exploitation movies, Al Cliver (alias Pier Luigi Conti) is a curious choice for a leading man in a movie like this, but he makes it work despite his face never moving. It's the sort of wooden acting style of numerous Italian westerns where the protagonist uses actions in the place of words. Cliver may have been channeling Kurt Russell's Snake Plissken minus the style.
With Plissken in mind, these movies tend to riff off of either ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981) or THE ROAD WARRIOR (1981). Some show influence from Walter Hill's THE WARRIORS (1979), like Enzo Castellari's BRONX WARRIORS series. D'Amato's Italian title links itself to Castellari's popular series as well as the others mentioned. Like Fulci's WARRIORS OF THE YEAR 2072 (1983), ENDGAME appears to have influenced Paul Michael Glaser's THE RUNNING MAN (1987) starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. THE RUNNING MAN was based on a Stephen King novel (under the pseudonym of Richard Bachman) written in 1982. It's entirely possible the Italians read the novel; but if not, it's one of the only times an American production--whether consciously or otherwise--would seem to have ripped off the Italian one.
The END of the GAME both closes things out with an unexpected display of Jedi powers, and a final scene that sets up a sequel that never came. Nonetheless, it's a satisfying finish to a highly entertaining, if cheaply made adventure.

This review is representative of the Severin blu-ray. Specs and Extras: 1080p 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen; English dubbed and Italian language versions; English subs; George Eastman interview; trailer; Bonus CD of the film's soundtrack; running time: 01:36:46
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