Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Retro Review: JUNGLE WARRIORS (1984)

(West Germany/Mexico - 1984)

Directed by Ernst R. von Theumer. Written by Robert Collector and Ernst R. von Theumer. Cast: Nina Van Pallandt, Paul L. Smith, John Vernon, Alex Cord, Sybil Danning, Marjoe Gortner, Woody Strode, Dana Elcar, Kai Wulff, Louisa Moritz, Suzi Horne, Mindy Iden, Kari Lloyd, Ava Cadell, Myra Chason, Angela Robinson, Isabel "Chichimeca" Vazquez. (R, 95 mins)

From the producers of 1983's legendary women-in-prison masterpiece CHAINED HEAT comes this similarly sleazy actioner packed with slumming big names, including returning co-stars John Vernon, Sybil Danning, and Louisa Moritz. The ludicrous plot involves a group of fashion models managed by coke-snorting asshole Larry (Marjoe Gortner) heading to a shoot in the Amazon and getting caught in the middle of a war between South American drug lord Cesar Santiago (Paul L. Smith) and gregarious mob kingpin Vittorio Mastranga (Vernon). Mastranga and a few of his goons, including his nephew/lawyer Nick Spilotro (Alex Cord), are trying to muscle in on Santiago's turf, but things get complicated when Santiago shoots down the models' plane and takes them prisoner. Of course, this leads to an extended and distasteful sequence where Santiago's slobbering underlings take turns raping all of the women before they revolt--one of them (Mindi Iden) is actually an undercover FBI agent, which begs the question "What would the point of her going undercover as a model be if the plane didn't get shot down?"--and become the titular ass-kickers. JUNGLE WARRIORS also provides ample space for Vernon to overact and for Smith to do his patented glowering stink-eye routine, but there's also some additional trashy enjoyment to be had from Cesar's obviously incestuous relationship with his sultry, psycho-bitch sister Angel (Danning), who instigates the models' gang rape and gets a nude oil rubdown from her brother, though the lighting of the scene suggests neither Danning nor Smith were directly involved with it.

Greatest grindhouse group shot ever? 
You also get Woody Strode as Luther, Santiago's top henchman, top-billed Nina Van Pallandt (a former model and one-time Robert Altman muse) as Joanna, the producer of the photo shoot, German actor Kai Wulff as a pilot and brief love interest for Joanna, and Dana Elcar (MACGYVER) as irate FBI agent D'Antoni, who seems to exist in another movie altogether (Elcar shares no scenes with any other main cast members and is always shown stewing and yelling in an office). The primary reason anyone remembers JUNGLE WARRIORS today is because of who wasn't in it: Dennis Hopper was originally set to co-star when the film went into production in early 1983, and he arrived at the remote Mexican location with his legendary drug and alcohol problems at their apex, working for a couple of days before fleeing the set when he was convinced people were trying to kill him. He was discovered in a small village 20 miles away, where he was picked up by local police after stripping nude and wandering around in a daze shouting "Kill me naked!" He was fired and put on the first flight to Los Angeles, where he had to be restrained when he tried to open the plane's emergency exit. Hopper would tell this story many times over the years, and the details only came from those who witnessed it--he had no memories of being in Mexico or even working on the movie before his dismissal. After years of escalating and ultimately out-of-control alcoholism (he was drinking over a case of beer and a nearly a gallon of rum a day) and substance abuse ("I'd do a few grams of coke to sober up"), Hopper hit bottom with his JUNGLE WARRIORS meltdown, and it proved to be the wake-up call that got him into rehab upon his return home, after which he remained clean and sober and within a few years, rebuilt his career with his triumphant comeback that began in 1986 with BLUE VELVET and an Oscar-nominated supporting turn in HOOSIERS. The common belief is that Hopper was cast as Larry and replaced by Gortner, which makes sense given some of Larry's behavior and Gortner's very Hopper-like performance. But an early trade ad in Variety that ran when the film started production (thanks to Video Junkie's William Wilson for that bit of history seen below) shows that both Hopper and Gortner were in the cast. That same trade ad makes no mention of Kai Wulff, so it's possible--and this is pure hypothesis on my part--that Hopper was cast as Larry and Gortner as the pilot/Joanna love interest, and when Hopper was canned, Gortner was shifted over to the more showy Larry role. It doesn't seem likely that Hopper would've played the heroic love interest to the main heroine, and since both Larry and the pilot are killed off before the midpoint (Larry by booby-trap impalement, the pilot by one of the least-convincing decapitations ever), Gortner wouldn't have had to stick around any longer in order to play Larry instead.

"and Marjoe Gortner as Larry"
Distributed in the US by 42nd Street mainstay Terry Levene's Aquarius Releasing in November 1984, JUNGLE WARRIORS is a mostly crummy grindhouse affair that's prime guilty pleasure material thanks to the bewildered-looking cast and some splattery shootouts, not to mention one killing involving the rotor blades of a chopper that probably sounded better in concept that it plays in execution. And you really haven't lived until you've experienced Marina Arcangeli's incredible JUNGLE WARRIORS theme, quite possibly the worst song ever recorded. In addition to the headaches involving Hopper, the film also switched directors early in the shoot, with veteran German producer Ernst R. von Theumer giving Billy Fine the axe and taking over direction himself. Fine was also a producer on CHAINED HEAT and 1982's THE CONCRETE JUNGLE, and JUNGLE WARRIORS was set to be his debut behind the camera. Von Theumer had been a journeyman in German B-movies going back to the late 1950s (he also directed the 1972 Roger Corman pick-up THE BIG BUST-OUT under the pseudonym "Richard Jackson") and carved a brief niche for himself in the 1980s women-in-prison/jungle action explosion: he would later produce and co-write (and do some uncredited directing) on 1985's RED HEAT, a CHAINED HEAT semi-sequel that reunited Danning and Linda Blair, and he'd direct 1986's HELL HUNTERS, a typically sleazy jungle exploitationer that brought together the seen-better-days likes of Maud Adams, George Lazenby, William Berger, and Stewart Granger as a former Nazi hiding in Paraguay and working on a spider venom-based mind control drug.

1 comment:

  1. The theme sounds like it is sung by the Latin housekeeper from Family Guy.