The [Motor]Cycles of the Film Industry
It is no secret that Hollywood loves to be environmentally conscious by recycling product. What starts out “pure” gets used and then thrown in the trash where it is crushed to make several different products. This purity in movie terms would be represented in an “original vision,” and something that could be easily replicated.
Quality is not important, only familiarity. A perfect example would be Basic Instinct, which spawned rip-offs (Body of Evidence) as well as the entire genre of erotic thrillers, which were soon relegated to the direct to video pile (The Animal Instincts and Body Chemistry series, among many others). Eventually, the erotic thriller went away, and just became those soft-core parodies you see on late-night pay cable. Time passed before there was an attempt at re-invigorating the genre, but it arrived in the big budget Basic Instinct 2, which doesn’t so much resemble the first film as rip-off its imitators, with a muddled plot, a “shocking” conclusion which at most makes you shrug your shoulders, and a total desperation to offend and titillate, resulting in a movie that does neither. What was striking about the film wasn’t how bad it was; it was, despite relishing in trashy behavior, really quite boring.
More prevalent than even the erotic thriller is the post-apocalyptic genre. Specifically, in the last 25 years or so, this genre was influenced by two films, The Road Warrior (Mad Max 2) and Escape From New York. Both of these 1981 films were under the radar, low budget, ambitious B movies, that eventually developed enormous cult followings.
Trying to emulate this formula, Hollywood produced a slew of rip-offs, sometimes even in 3-D (Spacehunters in the Forbidden Zone). But the more interesting development was the way there seemed to be an entire industry in Italy, and eventually The Philippines, that was dedicated to ripping off these two films. Because it is so cheap to makes these types of films, all you need is a desert, decrepit looking cars, and abandoned property that you can pretend represents the remainder of society. The sub-genre lasted until the early 1990’s, until it eventually splintered off into cyborg and roller skating films. A few years passed until someone felt it had been long enough to revive the genre and throw tons of money at it, considering that was the perceived problem with it. The result was Waterworld, a nearly scene for scene “homage” to The Road Warrior, only on water. Its failure and the financially prohibitive way it was filmed meant that the genre was to disappear again. It made a brief resurgence with the Resident Evil films, but until Doomsday, from writer/director Neil Marshall (Dog Soldiers, The Descent), we never got such an unabashed [well-funded] steal from the two fathers of the genre, even going so far as to mimic Escape From New York‘s legendary synth score.
This sort of cinematic cannibalism is nothing new; Quentin Tarantino has made a career out of it. But does Doomsday know better than to take itself seriously, embracing its trashiness, like the Italian and Filipino forebears? I decided it was only fair to compare the films. So before starting Doomsday, I watched rip-offs of varying quality and competence. I started with three Road Warrior rip-offs, 2020 Texas Gladiators (Italy), The New Barbarians (Italy), and Wheels of Fire (Philippines, from producer/director Cirio H. Santiago, who made an entire career out of ripping off The Road Warrior) and ended with an Escape From New York rip-off, the surprisingly ambitious 2019: After the Fall of New York (Italy).
2020 Texas Gladiators is an Italian film all the way. From the hideous dubbing to cover up the language differences to cast members and crew taking credit under completely American-sounding pseudonyms to an amusing inability to spell (a sign reads “Danger Exsplosive!”). The advantage of these types of quickies is that they are made in shorthand; everyone is so familiar with the clichés of the genre, that the filmmakers rarely bother to fill in the plot, assuming you’ll know what scene they’ve skipped because it is rote and obvious. This tends to make the films shorter but also makes you focus on the only things that distinguish these films, the bizarre details. This movie implies that a woman with a blonde dye-job is so rare in the future that it apparently will cause a freedom fighter to want to rape. The villains look like they have triangular dents in their heads, until you realize that’s their attempt at a Mohawk. The heroes are bare-chested guys who all vaguely resemble Lorenzo Lamas. The movie is entertaining mostly because of its cheapness, and with its willingness to throw in everything, including the three N’s of low budget filmmaking: Native Americans, Ninjas, and Nazis.
2020 Texas Gladiators came off a lot better to me than it probably was, considering I watched it first. But The New Barbarians was both fantastically goofy and better made. Ejector car doors used as weapons, flying green orbs, a hilarious overuse of dummies as bodies, and a costume designer with apparently no concept of consistency (one character wears a headband and spandex, the villains are dressed like Star Wars stormtroopers, and a female character wears clear plastic clothes, go-go boots, and eye glitter). The movie still falls into the usual logic traps. If the world has run out of gas, why are there so many car chases and off-roading? But several things make it stand out. First there’s the scene where low-budget stalwart Fred Williamson shoots the head off one of his enemies and he does a double take as the body is still riding its motorcycle. The other thing is what normally would be unacknowledged: blatant homoeroticism. In this case, it is the initiation ritual by the villains, which includes being tied up and forced to bend over and be sodomized publicly by the leaders. For a genre generally aimed at short-attention-span teenagers, this was quite a revelation.
Wheels of Fire finds none of this ingenuity and simply goes through the paces. Primarily made up of sped-up racing footage, sloppy editing, music that appears to be ripped off from the Batman TV show, no gore, mostly off-screen kills, the obligatory rape-sex of the females (who suddenly love being pillaged), terrible English dubbing, women with mullets, a rather loud, incomprehensible midget, and a constantly shameless duplication of the most famous shots from The Road Warrior. The only saving graces are the opening riot, which looks like the KKK fighting a Filipino gang, and the insane translation of the dialogue such as, “I always like when we peel their skin off… We haven’t done that in a while.”
2019: After the Fall of New York is a huge step up from Wheels of Fire. Its conclusion even attempts profundity regarding the inherent violence of the human race, though it clearly overreaches. Even so, the movie is constantly trying new things, and not just with its silly-looking NY miniatures or the midget who asks the heroes to take him with them by hiding him in a suitcase. Basically, this is a Death Race 2000, Children of Men, The Warriors, Escape From New York mash-up, which works for its ability to get away with certain logical gaps. But is well-made enough to almost stand on its own, where you kind of wish it didn’t cave to sloppiness. Because it incorporates everything about these types of B-films, it is never dull, and you may find yourself enjoying the film in a legitimate way.
If any of these films were granted $30 million to evoke their vision, they probably would have been overwhelmingly happy, and overwhelmed. Cheapness can be endearing and lets you forgive a lot of problems. Doomsday, just released to DVD after an unsurprisingly unsuccessful theatrical run (these kinds of movies are better suited to home video anyway) has the post-apocalyptic despair that the other films lacked, but not the economy. Hence, the bloated running time – nearly 2 hours in the unrated cut. Comparatively, Wheels of Fire, while not having a moment of invention, at least gets in and out in 77 minutes before the end credits. On the Doomsday director’s commentary, Marshall says that he intended to make “a post-apocalyptic movie… with an edge.” This is a pretty stupid statement, because what differentiates these movies is their abundant violence and quirkiness. Marshall’s comment also reveals his major problem, because though he acknowledges his influences, somehow he felt the need to cram them all in. So the movie plays like an unstructured video game. Once we are past the virus-gone-amuck level, we move on to the Escape From New York level, followed by the attack by the feral and unruly villagers on your tank, which leads to your capture and eventual escape… to the Lord of the Rings level which eventually gets you the medieval castle level with knights, castles, and horses. In fact, Marshall doesn’t even get to his Road Warrior-esque sequences until the 90 minute mark, long after most of the other retreads would already be wrapped up.
The misstep of overstuffing the story, I haven’t mentioned the leather gimp, mohawked punks doing the CanCan on a stage while the cannibals in the crowd are thrown plates so they can eat their cooking in front of them, human, or the foam grenade used to protect soldiers in a falling elevator, puts Marshall in a bind, because he doesn’t seem able to write himself out of a jam. Hence we get one Deus Ex Machina (and editing gaffe) after another, which he probably hoped would be ignored in favor of the plentiful gore and dismemberments. It also makes the movie a lot less fun, Marshall doesn’t bother to do anything with the clichés, he just replicates them. That’s not to say there aren’t moments of entertainment, the aforementioned foam grenade was pretty nifty, as is our heroine’s glass eye that she can take out and look around corners so she knows where to shoot.
Since women are always treated badly and are simply pretty afterthoughts in these types of films, one would assume Marshall decided to have his lead be a woman, played by Rhona Mitra. That allows her to both have the typical catfight with a tattoo and cleavage-heavy punk, as well as an emotional back story (If the lead was male, it would be thought of as wimpy). However, Marshall forgets about her back story until nearly the end of the movie, where it is thrown in randomly, just like everything else. The concentration is solely on action scenes and a plethora of wonderful flying dummies, which could have easily been replaced by CGI, but thankfully, weren’t. One thing’s for sure (in a total misunderstanding of the point of the genre, everything is supposed to be destroyed and looks cheap), this is the only post apocalyptic movie with product placement, a cell phone and a brand new Bentley, arriving just in time for the concluding car chase with the requisite dirty and unkempt futuristic types. In his haste to copy all of his favorite childhood movies, Marshall forgot that one genre is plenty to steal from in its entirety, anything more is overkill.