Monday, April 20, 2015

Ripoffs of the Wasteland: 2020: TEXAS GLADIATORS (1983)

(Italy - 1983; US release 1984)

Directed by Kevin Mancuso (Aristide Massaccesi and Luigi Montefiori). Written by Alex Carver (Luigi Montefiori). Cast: Harrison Muller, Al Cliver, Daniel Stephen, Peter Hooten, Al Yamanouchi, Sabrina Siani, Donald O'Brien, Geretta Geretta. (Unrated, 86 mins)

The credits of the Italian post-nuke ROAD WARRIOR ripoff 2020: TEXAS GLADIATORS take great pains to make the movie look American. All of the technical credits are pseudonymous, starting with score composer Carlo Maria Cordio going by "Francis Taylor" and production manager Donatella Donati as "Helen Handris," all the way to the end with assistant director and future Italian horror auteur Michele Soavi (CEMETERY MAN) hiding incognito as "Mike Soft." But all of that effort is for naught early on with the repeated sightings of signs reading "DANGER: EXSPLOSIVE," the tell-tale, "Do Not Entry" sign from THE BEYOND that, despite the Herculean efforts of everyone involved, the ruse collapses thanks to the Italian prop guy. And if you watch enough of these, you'll start recognizing not only the same actors being dubbed by the same voices, but also the same Italian locations, as 2020's action mostly has the actors running around the same abandoned factory and the stunt drivers careening around the same gravel pit and dirt mounds that can be spotted in most entries in the subgenre.

Set in the ruins of Texas several years after "the Atomic Wars," 2020 focuses on the Rangers, a group of mercenaries led by Nisus (Al Cliver). The Rangers battle the jack-booted forces of The Black One (Donald O'Brien), a nefarious dictator-type who's trying to conquer the community so he can have access to a refurbished refinery that now produces clean drinking water. After an early Rangers expedition results in Nisus banishing Catch Dog (Daniel Stephen) after he tries to rape single mother Maida (Sabrina Siani, in one of her few appearances outside of an Italian CONAN ripoff), Catch Dog immediately switches sides and joins the Black One, using his knowledge of the Rangers to get back at his former cohorts. When Nisus (the character is listed as "Nisus" in the credits, but it sounds like the dubbing team is saying "Nexus," which sounds cooler) is killed in a raid by the Black One's goons and Maida is sold into prostitution, the rest of the Rangers--Halakron (Peter Hooten), Jab (Harrison Muller), and Red Wolfe (Al Yamanouchi)--rescue her and avenge Nisus by taking on The Black One and Catch Dog. Filled with the usual goofy-looking cars, mutant goons, wild stunt work, gun battles, "exsplosions," completely inconsistent beard continuity for Hooten and Muller, over-the-top violence, and a pretty impressive body count, 2020 is total guilty pleasure stupidity, right from the start with the Rangers killing about 50 bad guys before the opening credits are even finished. There's no shortage of bloodshed and the near-constant action keeps things moving briskly, but 2020: TEXAS GLADIATORS doesn't really try to take advantage of its setting. Other than a hand-painted "Texas" sign, and Halakron challenging Maida's cowboy pimp to some DEER HUNTER-inspired Russian Roulette in an old west saloon, no effort is made to create the illusion of "Texas," unlike the many post-nukes set in NYC, like 2019: AFTER THE FALL OF NEW YORK, where even a half-melted model of the Statue of Liberty went a little way toward creating some NYC atmosphere. 2020 does an OK job of being a post-nuke western of sorts--an idea more successfully explored in Giuliano Carnimeo's EXTERMINATORS OF THE YEAR 3000--but it mainly resorts to cliches and cringe-worthy stereotypes that would've been antiquated in the 1940s, like the late-film introduction of some constantly war-whooping "Indians" who stop just short of saying "How!" and "We smokum peace pipe" when they reach a tentative truce with Halakron and the Rangers and join their fight against The Black One.

Aristide Massaccesi (1936-1999),
 aka "Joe D'Amato," "David Hills,"
and at least 50 other pseudonyms
Released in the US in 1984 by short-lived grindhouse outfit Megastar Films and shown on TNT's MONSTERVISION with Joe Bob Briggs in 1999, 2020 was directed mostly by Aristide Massaccesi, who used countless pseudonyms over the course of his career, the most frequent and familiar being "Joe D'Amato." Massaccesi dabbled in everything, starting as a camera operator on Mario Bava's HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD (1961) before graduating to cinematographer by the late '60s and moving on to directing in the '70s, with everything from Laura Gemser's BLACK EMANUELLE films to the gore classics BEYOND THE DARKNESS, aka BURIED ALIVE (1979), and ANTROPOPHAGUS, aka THE GRIM REAPER (1981). As "David Hills," he directed several ATOR films during the post-CONAN craze, and under the name "Steven Benson," he would gather most of the cast and crew of 2020 for the same year's Italian post-nuke favorite ENDGAME. The workaholic Massaccesi also used the D'Amato name on several old-school Skinemax favorites like ELEVEN DAYS, ELEVEN NIGHTS (1986) and TOP MODEL (1988). By the early 1990s, Massaccesi was working exclusively in hardcore porn, where he would finish his career prior to his death in 1999. 2020: TEXAS GLADIATORS' direction is credited to "Kevin Mancuso," which is actually a shared pseudonym for Massaccesi and familiar Italian cult actor Luigi Montefiori, better known as "George Eastman."

Luigi Montefiori, aka "George Eastman"
Montefiori first gained notice as The Minotaur in 1969's FELLINI SATYRICON, and, as "Eastman," would later co-star in the Charlton Heston version of THE CALL OF THE WILD (1972) and with Kirk Douglas in SCALAWAG (1973), as well as one of the kidnappers in Mario Bava's RABID DOGS (1974), but that's about as classy as his resume got. As "George Eastman," he was a regular fixture in Eurotrash cinema, usually appearing in "Joe D'Amato" films. He starred as the cannibalistic killer in THE GRIM REAPER and in the D'Amato horror/porno crossovers EROTIC NIGHTS OF THE LIVING DEAD (1980) and PORNO HOLOCAUST (1981), the latter known more for its close-ups of porn actor Mark Shanon's genital warts than anything else. "Eastman" is perhaps best known by post-nuke fans for his performance as Big Ape in 2019: AFTER THE FALL OF NEW YORK (1983). In addition to acting under his "Eastman" moniker, Montefiori scripted numerous films, either under his own name (1976's KEOMA) or under a variety of pseudonyms (as "Lew Cooper," he co-wrote Michele Soavi's 1987 breakthrough STAGEFRIGHT). Montefiori scripted 2020 under the name "Alex Carver," and wanted to try his hand at directing some of it as well. It's been rumored that Massaccesi handled the action scenes, which would mean he directed most of the movie. Considering they remained friends and worked together several more times over the years, it's doubtful that this was a situation where Massaccesi stepped in and took over for Montefiori. More likely, Montefiori wanted to get his feet wet behind the camera and Massaccesi delegated some scenes to the neophyte director. Cult actress Geretta Geretta--aka Rosemary in Lamberto Bava's DEMONS--had a small role in 2020 and when asked who directed what, she responded "All I remember is that the director was tall and handsome," which would probably indicate that the few scenes she was in were handled by the the 6' 9" Montefiori. If Montefiori wanted to branch out into filmmaking, it didn't really pan out after partnering with Massaccesi on 2020: to date, he's only stepped behind the camera on one other occasion, the Norfolk, VA-shot horror film METAMORPHOSIS (1990)--memorable to back-in-the-day video store denizens for having one of those great, gimmicky Imperial Entertainment VHS boxes--where he's credited as "G.L. Eastman." Now 72, Montefiori hasn't acted since 2004 and has spent recent years writing for Italian TV.

Despite being fourth billed in the credits, Hooten is the real star of 2020: TEXAS GLADIATORS, at least after second-billed Lucio Fulci regular Cliver gets Janet Leigh'd out of the film by the 30-minute mark. A native of Florida, Hooten worked steadily on TV in the early '70s with guest appearances on shows like THE MOD SQUAD, MANNIX, and THE WALTONS. Over 1977 and 1978, with a co-starring role in ORCA and the title role in the CBS/Marvel pilot movie DR. STRANGE, it appeared as if he was about to break out, but DR. STRANGE wasn't picked up for series and Hooten quickly became a Next Big Thing instantly forgotten. By the end of 1978, he made his way to Europe where he would work almost exclusively starting with Enzo G. Castellari's THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS. Already showing signs of disinterest in the projects he was being offered--his only Hollywood gig during this time came in a supporting role as one of Ken Wahl's commando unit in James Glickenhaus' 1982 actioner THE SOLDIER, and he didn't even stick around to dub himself for 2020, leaving it to voice actor Frank von Kuegelgen--Hooten only worked sporadically as the '80s went on. He eventually retired from acting in 1990 after starring in TROLL 2 director Claudio Fragasso's completely obscure NIGHT KILLER. It was shortly after shooting 2020 that the openly gay Hooten met Pulitzer Prize-winning poet James Merrill, and the two were together until Merrill's 1995 death from AIDS. Now 64, Hooten currently lives in Florida and came out of retirement in 2013 to appear in a pair of extremely low-budget Sarasota-shot regional horror movies, HOUSE OF BLOOD and SOULEATER.

2020: TEXAS GLADIATORS is a fun film, but between young Montefiori working with Fellini and Hooten almost becoming a Marvel superhero, it's also a film that those with once-promising careers settled for when they just needed the work. French-born Irish actor O'Brien was no exception. He got his start with supporting roles in big-budget films like John Frankenheimer's THE TRAIN (1964) and GRAND PRIX (1966) before finding his niche as villains and miscreants in a slew of Italian spaghetti westerns throughout the 1970s, going back to Sergio Sollima's RUN MAN RUN (1967), all the way up to era-enders such as Lucio Fulci's FOUR OF THE APOCALYPSE (1975), Enzo G. Castellari's KEOMA (1976), and Sergio Martino's MANNAJA (1977). He also played a Nazi general in THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS and an exorcist in Massaccesi's sleazy nunsploitation classic IMAGES IN A CONVENT (1979). O'Brien is best known to Eurotrash audiences for Marino Girolami's ZOMBIE HOLOCAUST (1980), where his zombie-creating mad doctor was granted the title role when the film was rechristened DOCTOR BUTCHER M.D. for its 1982 American release. Vacationing in Paris in 1980, shortly after completing his work on ZOMBIE HOLOCAUST, O'Brien suffered a serious head injury when he slipped and fell in the bathroom of his hotel room. After spending several days in a coma, he awoke to find he was partially paralyzed. 2020: TEXAS GLADIATORS was his first film after the accident and its effects are obvious: he has a halting limp and is often dragging his left leg, and the right side of his face demonstrates frequent, involuntary twitching very similar to that of Japanese actor Takeshi Kitano/Beat Takeshi in the aftermath of his 1994 motorcycle accident. Still, the veteran actor, while dubbed, manages to create a vivid impression with his shaved head, hammy overacting (check out his overdone Dr. Evil cackle at a not-very-funny joke that Catch Dog makes), and memorable death scene. O'Brien continued to act in films, but his paralysis took its toll. He required a cane and as the years went on, in later films like HANDS OF STEEL (1986) and THE NAME OF THE ROSE (1986), he's usually seated or leaning against something. O'Brien would go on to appear in Massaccesi's final ATOR film QUEST FOR THE MIGHTY SWORD (1990) and Michele Soavi's THE SECT, aka THE DEVIL'S DAUGHTER (1991), before retiring from acting in 1994 after severely injuring his hip in another fall. He died in 2003 at the age of 73.


  1. I directed SOULEATER and Peter Hooten was just great, a real trouper. He has some fun stories about the making of 2020 and his spaghetti war films.

  2. I'm sure the stories about those Italian B-movies are fantastic! It's too bad Hooten never hit it big. Good to hear you enjoyed working with him and that he's a class act. Thanks for reading.