Film Review: Death Race 2000 (1975)

Also known as: Frankensteins Todesrennen (Austria)
Release Date: April 27th, 1975
Directed by: Paul Bartel
Written by: Robert Thom, Charles Griffith
Based on: The Racer by Ib Melchior
Music by: Paul Chihara
Cast: David Carradine, Simone Griffeth, Sylvester Stallone, Sand McCallum, Louisa Moritz, Don Steele, Mary Woronov, Roberta Collins, Martin Kove, Joyce Jameson, Paul Bartel, Leslie McRae

New World Pictures, 80 Minutes

Review:

“As the cars roar into Pennsylvania, the cradle of liberty, it seems apparent that our citizens are staying off the streets, which may make scoring particularly difficult, even with this year’s rule changes. To recap those revisions: women are still worth 10 points more than men in all age brackets, but teenagers now rack up 40 points, and toddlers under 12 now rate a big 70 points. The big score: anyone, any sex, over 75 years old has been upped to 100 points.” – Harold

When Roger Corman stepped away from directing to start New World Pictures, it really opened the door for young filmmakers to usher in a new era of outside-the-box indie pictures. Paul Bartel was one of the premier guys to come out of the Corman camp and while he made a few really good films, none of them had as big of an impact on me as the super stylish and insane Death Race 2000.

The film is about a transcontinental race from New York City to Los Angeles, a race where the drivers earn points for killing human targets. The more offensive the target, the higher the points. So babies and old people are prime meat for the sadistic drivers and their high octane killing machines.

The movie takes place in a not-too-distant future where society has kind of evolved similar to those more modern Purge movies. America is a fascist state and this grand motor race is patriotic. Those who die, as victims of the drivers, are considered heroes and their sacrifices usually come with rewards for their loved ones.

Within this severely screwed up America is a group of rebels who are trying to end the race and overthrow the sick and twisted president in an effort to reestablish an America that is closer to what the Founding Fathers fought for. There is a lot of political and social commentary sprinkled in throughout the film and it almost exists as a response to the American government’s expansion into the world and its quest for occupation and control. It makes sense that this was made at the tail end of the Vietnam War.

The film stars David Carradine as Frankenstein, the most elite of all the racers. He is a literal living legend but he has his own ideas on the race and his government’s politics, which play out subtly as the film progresses, leading to a big rebellious crescendo at the end.

The rest of the cast is rounded out by a very young Sylvester Stallone, who was a year away from Rocky fame, as well as Paul Bartel’s favorite collaborator, Mary Woronov. We also get Roberta Collins, who spent a large part of her career in exploitation films, a young Martin Kove, a decade before becoming the iconic John Kreese from The Karate Kid films, Joyce Jameson, who was a part of a lot of Corman’s ’60s horror productions, Don Steele, a charismatic and over the top shock jock from the ’70s, as well as two beautiful ladies: Simone Griffeth and Louisa Moritz, both of whom play navigators to the two top drivers. Paul Bartel even has a small cameo as Frankenstein’s doctor when the iconic racer is first introduced in the film.

One thing that makes this picture work so well, is that it is a tongue in cheek critique on the government and society but it doesn’t beat you over the head because of how ridiculous and stylized everything in the film is. Every character is more or less a caricature, every car has some sort of bizarre and hokey gimmick and things are so over the top and goofy that you don’t find yourself buried in serious subject matter. And maybe the political statements are sort of lost in this circus of a film but the sentiment seems pretty clear, even if it’s not fine tuned enough to be specific.

Bartel would follow this up with another action car picture for Roger Corman called Cannonball. That one also starred David Carradine and is enjoyable but it doesn’t stick out in quite the same way Death Race 2000 does.

This would also spawn a horrible remake that had even worse sequels. Eventually, a true sequel to this was made called Death Race 2050. I haven’t seen that one yet but I plan to give it a watch in the very near future.

Rating: 9/10
Pairs well with: Any Paul Bartel directed film but most notable Cannonball!

Film Review: The Final Comedown (1972)

Also known as: Blast! (recut version)
Release Date: April, 1972 (Chicago)
Directed by: Oscar Williams
Written by: Oscar Williams
Music by: Grant Green, Wade Marcus
Cast: Billy Dee Williams, D’Urville Martin, Celia Kaye, Billy Durkin, Raymond St. Jacques

New World Pictures, 83 Minutes

Review:

“Billy Dee Williams…Badder than ever!” – tagline

The Final Comedown isn’t very good but it does approach the issue of race relations in post-Civil Rights America in an uncommon way. This isn’t just about urban blacks taking it to the man, this has a deeper philosophical subtext to it and while Billy Dee Williams expresses his character’s concerns, every chance he encounters an ear, the narrative sort of pulls the rug out from under any sort of real solution.

The white man is evil, especially with a badge or a lawmaking pen. The young white liberals in the film try to right the wrongs of their parents and ancestors but even their call for justice and equality is met with an extremely violent end.

I actually liked this film more than the average bear, based off of other reviews I’ve read. Others considered this to be too preachy and to just beat its message over your head, relentlessly. While I don’t disagree with their claims of heavy handedness, within the context of the film, it works.

I thought that Billy Dee Williams was great in this, even if he spent the last half of the film, shot up and bloody, sitting in an alley. The real superstar here was D’Urville Martin. I’ve seen Martin in just about every blaxploitation film he’s ever been a part of and this is the best he’s ever been. Usually, he is a comedic sidekick or a stylish villain type. In this film he gets dramatic and is more real than I’ve ever seen him. From a serious acting standpoint, this is the high point of his short career, as he sadly died way too young.

If you are a fan of blaxploitation pictures, this one is jam packed with action. The second half of the film is essentially a street war between youthful blacks, liberal white kids and the racist police force. It is heavy handed and unapologetic but I don’t have a problem with that. I just wish Billy Dee Williams had more to do in the second half than sitting in an alley, waiting to bleed out.

Rating: 6/10
Pairs well with: Other Billy Dee Williams pictures from the era: The Take and Hit!

Film Review: The Return of Godzilla (1984)

Also known as: Gojira (original Japanese title), Godzilla 1984 (alternate title), Godzilla 1985 (US version), Godzilla: The Legend is Reborn (UK video title)
Release Date: December 15th, 1984 (Japan)
Directed by: Koji Hashimoto, R.J. Kizer (American scenes)
Written by: Shuichi Nagahara
Based on: The Resurrection of Godzilla by Tomoyuki Tanaka
Music by: Reijiro Koroku
Cast: Kenju Kobayashi, Ken Tankaka, Yasuko Sawaguchi, Shin Takuma, Yosuke Natsuki

Toho, New World Pictures, 103 Minutes

Review:

“A living nuclear weapon destined to walk the Earth forever. Indestructible. A victim of the modern nuclear age.” – Dr. Hayashida

In 1984, after Godzilla had been put to rest for nine years, Toho decided to resurrect the famous beast. Ignoring the lighter tone of the Shōwa era Godzilla sequels, this one directly follows the original 1954 film and cancels out the sequels before it. It was made in an effort to reboot the franchise and thus, launched the Heisei era of Godzilla movies.

In the same vein as the original Godzilla, this film has a heavily edited American version. And also like that film, the American version of this Godzilla featured actor Raymond Burr, reprising his role as Steve Martin from the original feature.

Like every kaiju film that has an American re-edit of its content, the Japanese version is far superior and that is the one I watch most of the time. I really only check back in on the American remake out of respect for Burr and his involvement in making Godzilla a household name in the United States. Without Burr, there is a strong possibility that I wouldn’t have met my favorite monster.

The American version featured a few narrative changes. Mainly, the edits made it more confusing. One of the notable changes however, is that it really paints the Soviets as enemies. Also, it was littered with Dr. Pepper logos in an obvious and over the top attempt at promoting the soft drink that featured Godzilla in some of its advertisements.

The film starts with a Japanese vessel being attacked by Godzilla, who was disturbed a few weeks earlier by a volcanic eruption. A large island near the boat appears to move and suddenly, it is revealed that it is no island but that it is in fact, the resurrected Godzilla.

The monster attacks and destroys a Soviet submarine and this brings in the Soviets and the Americans who insist on using a nuclear missile to destroy the giant beast. Japan refuses to allow nukes to be used on their soil again and we get to see a real world view of how Japan often times felt like a helpless and powerless country during the Cold War.

Godzilla starts to appear in Japan in an effort to feed off of nuclear energy. Japan then unveils its secret flying battle fortress the Super-X. Japan does a good job of getting the best of Godzilla and eventually, lures him into a volcano where he is assumed dead. Of course, he returned five years later to fight Biolante.

The Return of Godzilla is a return to Godzilla as a villain and a real threat to the world. Toho didn’t channel the lovable kaiju that became a protector of Japan. They went back to the series’ roots and turned out a solid film.

While The Return of Godzilla didn’t feature a big kaiju battle, it wasn’t necessary. The Super-X battle fortress made for a good opponent and helped keep this film on course with what the filmmakers intended. Another monster would have complicated the formula and it would have been difficult to paint Godzilla as a destroyer.

The tone of the film is perfect. It’s dark and it’s haunting. While Godzilla is dwarfed by some of the Tokyo skyscrapers, the scale works wonders. It has a magical and surreal feel to it and from a special effects standpoint, holds up in the same vein as a lot of the 80s action films from the United States. Sure, Godzilla is still a man in a rubber suit but Toho created a larger scale robot for more detailed shots. Besides, Godzilla doesn’t feel right when it isn’t a guy in a rubber suit.

The score by Reijiro Koroku is a departure from the more famous Akira Ifukube scores of the Shōwa era films but it is really good and it has a dark and intense vibe to it. I feel like the music from this film isn’t as beloved and appreciated as the Shōwa era themes but it is effective. The opening titles get you pretty pumped for this new version of Godzilla and it greatly accents the vibe of the new Heisei era.

The Return of Godzilla might not be every fan’s cup of tea but it was a step up in production value and effects. It opened the door that allowed Godzilla to continue to rampage for another decade before taking a second break for a few years.

The film failed to attract an audience in the States and was the last Japanese Godzilla film to be released in US theaters for quite some time. Regardless, once the Heisei era films became available to American audiences, the response was mostly positive.

Film Review: Shogun Assassin (1980)

Also known as: Kozure Ōkami (Japan)
Release Date: November 11th, 1980 (United States)
Directed by: Robert Houston
Written by: Robert Houston, David Weisman
Based on: Lone Wolf and Cub film series
Music by: W. Michael Lewis, Mark Lindsay
Cast: Tomisaburo Wakayama, Kayo Mautso, Akiji Kobayashi

New World Pictures, 90 Minutes

Review:

“They will pay… with rivers of blood!” – Ogami Itto

For fans of Wu-Tang Clan, especially of the Genius/Gza’s Liquid Swords album, will recognize a lot of the dialogue and narration from this film. Also, it appeared in Kill Bill vol. 2 and quite obviously had an influence on the Kill Bill films, as the sword cuts causing geysers of blood to burst out of people was borrowed by Quentin Tarantino in those movies.

Shogun Assassin is actually a re-edit of two of the Lone Wolf and Cub series of films from Japan. This film uses twelve minutes from the first film and then is fleshed out with the majority of the scenes from the second picture. With both those films coming out in 1972, this film does look visually dated for 1980, when it was released.

This film was directed by Robert Houston with creative input from his partner David Weisman. Weisman was the director of 1972’s Ciao! Manhattan and was a protege of Andy Warhol.

Additionally, the film’s star Tomisaburo Wakayama is the brother of Shintaro Katsu, who was known for playing the famous cinematic samurai Zatoichi over the course of twenty-six films.

Needless to say, this film had some interesting origins and connections.

The plot is pretty simple. The main character Ogami Ittō is the Shogunate Decapitator. He fears nothing, not even the shogun. The shogun fears him however and sends ninjas to kill him. The ninjas kill his wife and Ittō cuts them down. He then travels Japan on foot pushing his toddler son around in a carriage. Almost every five minutes they are ambushed by ninjas. Throughout the movie, anyone they encounter could be a ninja in disguise waiting to strike. There is a constant tension throughout the film and it is primarily made up of battles and action sequences.

Shogun Assassin is violent and bad ass. However, I may be in the minority here, as it doesn’t have much of a long lasting effect and after a few encounters, the over the top violence runs its course and isn’t as effective. Blood geysers and limbs flying everywhere is pretty much guaranteed every time our hero crosses another human being in his path.

I like Shogun Assassin but it has never been a film I’ve been in love with. I would, however, like to see the Lone Wolf and Cub movies in their original context in order to compare them to this.

Film Review: The Stuff (1985)

Also known as: Larry Cohen’s The Stuff
Release Date: June 14th, 1985
Directed by: Larry Cohen
Written by: Larry Cohen
Music by: Anthony Guefen, Richard Seaman (jingles)
Cast: Michael Moriarty, Andrea Marcovicci, Garrett Morris, Paul Sorvino, Danny Aiello, Rutanya Alda, Patrick Dempsey (uncredited), Mira Sorvino (uncredited)

New World Pictures, 87 Minutes

Review:

“The name’s Mo Rutherford. They call me that ’cause when people give me money, I always want mo’.” – David ‘Mo’ Rutherford

The Stuff was a film that flew under the radar when it came out in 1985. Its theatrical release was very limited. Also, when it was released in New York City, a hurricane hit on that day and newspapers weren’t able to be delivered. Apparently, as the director Larry Cohen claims, the film had good reviews that never made it into the audience’s hands. In 2017, the film does hold a 70 percent critics’ rating at Rotten Tomatoes.

There was also probably some genre confusion about the film. While it appears to be a horror film in all its marketing material, which it is, the film is also a satirical comedy that pokes fun at the health fads of the 1980s, which saw a huge influx of “diet”-branded foods hit the market that people jumped on like hotcakes covered in crack cocaine.

I never even heard of this film until the early 1990s and I was a kid that spent a great deal of time in video stores, wherever I went. I think that most people discovered this later, as it has since developed a pretty large cult following.

One thing this film has, is pretty brilliant special effects. Different substances were used throughout the movie to represent “The Stuff”, as it moved and attacked people. The scene with a lake of “The Stuff” was done by superimposing imagery and using animation techniques. It came off great for a film from this era with a very small budget. Also, the rotating bedroom set used in two scenes of the original A Nightmare On Elm Street is used in The Stuff to recreate the same effect but instead of blood crawling up the walls, we get homicidal marshmallow goo.

The effects that were especially cool where when people’s bodies started to rip apart and ooze out “The Stuff”. The scene, at the end, where Garrett Morris’ head starts to tear apart is a fantastic practical effect and still pretty horrifying.

Now the acting is far from commendable but this picture does feature the always great Garrett Morris as well as Danny Aiello and Paul Sorvino. Also, Michael Moriarty’s “Mo” is an entertaining character.

The Stuff is a fun movie and it is hokey in all the right ways. I’d almost like to see a sequel that is sort of the reverse of this that pokes fun at all the anti-GMO hysteria and the religiously pro-organic people.

Film Review: Caged Heat (1974)

Also known as: Renegade Girls
Release Date: April 19th, 1974 (Washington, D.C.)
Directed by: Jonathan Demme
Written by: Jonathan Demme
Music by: John Cale, Mike Bloomfield
Cast: Juanita Brown, Roberta Collins, Erica Gavin, Ella Reid, Rainbeaux Smith, Barbara Steele

New World Pictures, 83 Minutes

Review:

“Don’t you realize sex is what put you behind bars in the first place? Stealing to dress better for a man. Fornicating from the back of the pockets of women using pimps. Killing to eliminate a sexual rival. Give me contrition! Let’s have redemption! Repentance! Repentance! A worm’s death to society!” – Supt. McQueen

While the “women in cages” sub-genre of exploitation films weren’t new by the time that Caged Heat came out in 1974, Jonathan Demme did a few things that set this one apart from those before it and thus, made it one of the most memorable pictures of its type.

For one, Demme cast horror icon Barabara Steele as the prison warden, a departure from the oppressor being a man. He also put her in a wheelchair and made her sex deprived.

Demme also added in elements of social consciousness, feminism and liberal politics. These new elements broke the mold and made Caged Heat a more interesting film than all the previous “women in cages” flicks.

Roger Corman initially didn’t want to distribute the film but then Jonathan Demme raised the production money on his own. Impressed, and maybe seeing a bit of himself in Demme’s ability to raise the capital on his own, Corman decided to distribute the film through his company New World Pictures. Before this film, Demme had worked on The Hot Box (another “women in cages” movie) and the biker film Angels Hard as They Come for New World Pictures.

Caged Heat, regardless of its cult success and its refreshing take on an overused exploitation gimmick, is not a good film. It isn’t awful, as the vast majority of “women in cages” movies are far worse, but it certainly doesn’t stand up to the test of time and it is a mess of a story.

Barbara Steele is as alluring as always, even if she is a fascist crippled bookworm. But watching her in this feels like a major step down in her career. Granted, she never reached superstardom but if she had any momentum, this probably snuffed it out. Plus, she was playing like seventh fiddle to a bunch of less talented actresses billed before her. She also didn’t get to do anything too interesting other than her stage performance during a dream sequence.

The other villain of the story is this male doctor who administers therapies that leave women mindless and helpless so he can rape them.

There are three other notable people in this film. The first is Juanita Brown, who was in Foxy BrownWillie Dynamite and Black Starlet. The second is Roberta Collins who played Matilda the Hun in Death Race 2000 and also starred in other “women in cages” films like The Big Doll House and the appropriately titled Women In Cages. She was also in Tobe Hooper’s Eaten Alive and the 80s teen sex comedy School Spirit. Lastly, there is Rainbeaux Smith who has the Frenchiest spelling of “rainbow” for a first name ever and was also in that awful shit storm of a film Laserblast. She was also in ParasiteUp In Smoke and had an uncredited bit part in Logan’s Run.

The biggest highlight of Caged Heat is the big prison break shootout finale. It isn’t necessarily an impressive action sequence but it was pretty well executed for a first-time director. And being that this was Demme’s first picture, as a director, it set the stage for what would come, as he has made some solid pictures throughout his career.

And while this film is full of boobies and violence, it isn’t as over the top as other pictures like it. It certainly gives you plenty of those things but there’s more to Caged Heat than just tits, ass and violence.

Film Review: No Retreat, No Surrender (1986)

Release Date: May 2nd, 1986
Directed by: Corey Yuen
Written by: Keith W. Strandberg
Music by: Paul Gilreath
Cast: Kurt McKinney, J.W. Fails, Ron Pohnel, Kathie Sileno, Peter “Sugarfoot” Cunningham, Kent Lipham, Jean-Claude Van Damme

Balcor Film Investors, Seasonal Films, New World Pictures, 84 Minutes

Review:

“L.A. karate… I’m impressed.” – Dean Ramsay

For some reason, I liked this as a kid. I mean, I had a pretty strong cinematic palate, even as a child, but I must have been cracked out on Jolt Cola and Smarties candies because this thing stinks to holy hell.

Sure, Jean-Claude Van Damme is in it but this is a few years before the classics Bloodsport and Kickboxer. Also, he is barely in it. He is in the opening brawl and then doesn’t reappear again until the very end where he takes on all the top fighters in Seattle because Manhattan karate is better even though he is a commie Soviet hired by evil Manhattan businessmen trying to conquer America’s dojos for some bizarre ass reason.

That was a run-on sentence but this is a run-on movie where a bunch of concepts get thrown around for no apparent reason and are supposed to be some sort of coherent story. But let’s talk about that.

Essentially, this film is a mashup of The Karate KidRocky IV and The Last Dragon. All good movies on their own but not when you stuff them into an 84 minute package with even more shit thrown on top of it.

In regards to The Karate Kid portion of the film, we follow a teenage boy, who gets beat up a lot, mostly by bullies of a martial arts school. He has to train and get tough to show those guys, especially the one who has his eyes on the same girl the hero has his eyes on. Except the jerk in this movie isn’t as cool as William Zabka’s Johnny. The bullies also aren’t as cool as the Cobra Kai. One of them is this fat guy that smears food all over himself every time he is on screen. It’s pretty gross, actually.

From Rocky IV it steals the evil commie Soviet bad guy. While Jean-Claude Van Damme would prove his superiority over Dolph Lundgren years later in Universal Soldier, it is pretty clear that Lundgren’s Ivan Drago is a much better villain than Van Damme’s Ivan Kraschinsky. But at least they are both jacked up and oiled up Soviet monsters named Ivan.

What it takes from The Last Dragon is the most blasphemous thing I’ve seen in a movie in quite some time. They take the hero’s love of Bruce Lee and give it to the audience in the most disrespectful way possible. Not only do they film scenes at the legendary martial arts superstar’s grave, they also have some actor appear as Bruce Lee’s ghost to train our hero. So we basically have an American Brucesploitation film of the worst kind.

Also, the hero kid claims he knows everything there is to know about Lee yet he calls him “sensei”. Lee was a “sifu”. “Sensei” is Japanese, “sifu” is Chinese. But then again, the hero is a karate master that is being taught by the ghost of the creator of Jeet Kune Do. Anyone who actually knows anything about martial arts will probably find this confusing. Also, from a competitive standpoint, everyone is doing kickboxing. Granted, karate moves are used in kickboxing but the style allows for a broader range of attacks.

The film also has a lot of homoerotic moments. In fact, this may have more gay innuendo than A Nightmare On Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge. That is a hard movie to top in that regard but just watch the relationship between our hero and his bestie R.J., especially the workout montage. To be clear, I don’t see this as a negative, I think it’s awesome in the same way I think the gayness of Freddy’s Revenge is awesome.

Other than the fabulous gay innuendo, No Retreat, No Surrender is really a pile of crap. I should definitely run it through the Cinespiria Shitometer. Aha! The results state that No Retreat, No Surrender is a Type 5 stool, which is defined as “Soft blobs with clear-cut edges (passed easily).” Well, if you say so, machine! It didn’t pass that easily but maybe it did have a clearer path due to being worn down by the movie’s gayness.