Thursday, July 11, 2019

Retro Review: ROBOWAR (1988) and NIGHT KILLER (1990)

(Italy - 1988)

Directed by Vincent Dawn (Bruno Mattei). Written by Rossella Drudi. Cast: Reb Brown, Catherine Hickland, Alex McBride (Massimo Vanni), Romano Puppo, Clyde Anderson (Claudio Fragasso), Max Laurel, Jim Gaines, John P. Dulaney, Mel Davidson. (Unrated, 91 mins)

A year after unveiling the never-released-in-the-US SHOCKING DARK, a beyond blatant 1989 Italian ALIENS ripoff, Severin Films has taken another dive into the cinematic cesspool of Flora Film and producer Franco Gaudenzi with the Blu-ray releases (because physical media is dead) of 1988's ROBOWAR and 1990's NIGHT KILLER. Like SHOCKING DARK (shamelessly released in Italy as TERMINATOR 2), neither of these two Italian ripoffs ever made it into US theaters or video stores back in the day, though they've been available in inferior quality versions on the bootleg and torrent circuit for years. Reuniting the star (Reb Brown) and director (Bruno Mattei) of 1987's immortal RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II ripoff STRIKE COMMANDO, ROBOWAR doesn't even try to hide the fact that it's stealing entire set-ups, scenes, and plot points from the previous year's Schwarzenegger smash PREDATOR. Brown IS Major Murphy Black, the tough-as-nails leader of a mercenary unit called BAM ("It stands for Big Ass Motherfuckers"). He and his men have been commissioned by government stooge Mascher (Mel Davidson) for a mission to help take out some rebels who have gained control of island that's been wiped out by a cholera outbreak. The real mission, known only to Mascher: to find and eliminate Omega 1, a State Department-funded robot killing machine secretly "created by a team of bionic experts" and sent in to kill the rebels but now out of control and on a rampage. Black and his men--Guarini, aka "Diddy Bopper" (Massimo Vanni), Corey (Romano Puppo), Quang (Max Laurel), Peel, aka "Blood" (Jim Gaines), and pipe-smoking medic Papa Doc (John P. Dulaney), plus UN aid worker Virginia (Catherine Hickland), the sole survivor of a hospital massacre by the rebels--are stalked and offed one-by-one in PREDATOR fashion by the helmeted Omega 1, played by both Puppo and future TROLL 2 director and frequent Mattei writing partner Claudio Fragasso, who also stepped in to direct a few scenes when Mattei briefly fell ill on location in the Philippines.

Shot in the same sweltering Filipino jungle locations as most Gaudenzi productions of this period (STRIKE COMMANDO, ZOMBI 3), ROBOWAR wastes a lot of time on tedious stretches where everyone's just walking around and asking "Did you see that?" Brown gets to do his signature Reb Brown yells, but up to a point, it's rather restrained and too hesitant to commit to the all-out insanity of STRIKE COMMANDO or SHOCKING DARK. That is, until the last 15 minutes, when Mattei and screenwriter Rossella Drudi (the wife of Fragasso, who also made some uncredited contributions to the script) abruptly switch gears and turn it into an out-of-nowhere ROBOCOP ripoff with a revelation about the Omega 1. Only then does ROBOWAR reach the heights of madness usually associated with Mattei and Fragasso, capped off by gaffe-filled closing credits that list Brown playing "Marphy Black" and Hickland playing "Virgin," and misidentify Gaines and Vanni. The hapless Mattei can't even properly copy the PREDATOR heat vision shots thanks to Gaudenzi's cheap-ass budget, with the Omega 1 vision just a blurry pixellation, which begs the question "A high-tech, state-of-the-art US government funded robot killing machine and the best vision they can give it looks just like the scrambled porn you tried to watch when you were 12?" Until the last 15 minutes, ROBOWAR isn't as much fun as it should be, but more interesting for Eurotrash fans is the wealth of extras offered by Severin on the Blu-ray, including interviews with Fragasso, Drudi (two interviews with her), Hickland, Dulaney, Gaines, and Vanni, with at least two of those participants going into specifics about why everyone hated co-star Davidson, a Danish actor who lived and worked on B-movies in the Philippines. Both Dulaney and Gaines describe Davidson as a known pedophile, with Gaines mentioning him being caught in the act with a 12-year-old boy at one point during production, and members of the cast restraining Brown from beating the shit out of him (perhaps the Davidson issue is why Brown, who contributed to the YOR Blu-ray and is a convention regular, is MIA in these extras?)

ROBOWAR in no way inspired by PREDATOR

That's all interesting stuff, but the big treasure among the extras is a 15-minute compilation of on-set home movie footage, blurry but with clear audio, taken by Hickland during some downtime on the shoot. An American soap star married to David Hasselhoff at the time and serving her required stint in the Italian exploitation industry (she was also in WITCHERY with Hasselhoff, and Stelvio Massi's never officially released TAXI KILLER), Hickland managed to get some absolutely priceless footage of the cast and crew goofing off ("There he is, the maestro Bruno," as Mattei waves to the camera from his director's chair, or Brown yelling "Eat your heart out, David!" when she gathers her co-stars--"my guys"--for an impromptu cast introduction that, judging from Davidson being included in the fun, must've been before everyone found out about his off-set activities), specific dates of production (Brown is heard saying "Today is May 1, 1988"), and even a brief interaction ("This guy right here...") with Mario Bava and Antonio Margheriti regular Luciano Pigozzi, aka "Alan Collins," who's in the cast credits but nowhere to be found in the released film. Pigozzi is credited but unseen in several Filipino-shot Italian productions of this period (including ZOMBI 3), with IMDb adding a parenthetical "(Scenes deleted)" with each entry. It's unknown why Pigozzi was supposedly cut from so many films, or if he was credited for some kind of quota reason, but Hickland's footage proves he indeed was there on the set. Raise your hand if you ever thought you'd see behind-the-scenes footage from a Filipino-shot Reb Brown/Bruno Mattei joint.

(Italy - 1990)

Written and directed by Clyde Anderson (Claudio Fragasso). Cast: Peter Hooten, Tara Buckman, Richard Foster, Mel Davis, Lee Lively, Tova Sardot, Gaby Ford. (Unrated, 93 mins)

Shot in Virginia Beach and Norfolk, VA in December 1989, the obscure NIGHT KILLER was a film that Claudio Fragasso envisioned as a serious auteur statement, a psychological thriller that was also a riff on Ingmar Bergman's SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE. Italian schlock producer Franco Gaudenzi didn't like what he saw with Fragasso's initial cut, and while the director was off in Louisiana working on 1990's BEYOND DARKNESS for Joe D'Amato's Filmirage, Gaudenzi had Bruno Mattei shoot an interminable opening sequence and additional murder scenes in Italy, plus several insert shots that significantly cranked up the gore and splatter that was virtually non-existent in Fragasso's cut. This essentially brought an end to Fragasso and Mattei's working relationship, and to top it off, Gaudenzi, taking a page from the ZOMBI 2 and ALIEN 2: ON EARTH playbook, sold the film as TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 3 for its Italian release (the real LEATHERFACE: TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE III, released in the US in January 1990, wouldn't hit Europe for another year). The retitling is in complete disregard for the film's Virginia Beach setting and the fact that the killer is clearly inspired by A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, wearing some rubbery hands with talon-like fingernails and what looks like a knockoff Freddy Krueger mask that Fragasso picked up at a Norfolk Rite-Aid.

After the Mattei-shot opening where an irate choreographer (Gaby Ford) loses her shit with her dancers and storms off only to be disemboweled and tossed off a balcony by the killer, the story shifts to Melanie Beck (Tara Buckman), who's still reeling from the collapse of her marriage to an alcoholic, disgraced cop. She sends her young daughter Clarissa (Tova Sardot) to spend the day with family friends Sherman (Richard Foster) and his wife Annie (an uncredited actress who's terrible) and is soon terrorized by an obscene phone caller who turns out to be calling from inside the house (there's no stated reason for Melanie to have two phone lines, much less ones that dial to phones that are five feet apart). Unable to escape, she faces certain death until Fragasso makes a time jump to Melanie in the hospital, stricken with amnesia and unable to even recognize her own daughter. It seems that offscreen, Sherman returned to the Beck home in the middle of the killer's attack and suffered a facial laceration in the process of saving Melanie when the killer fled the scene. Still suffering from amnesia, Melanie is released from the hospital (?!) and is soon harassed by a creep in a Jeep named Axel (Peter Hooten), who ends up saving her from a suicide attempt not out of the kindness of his heart, but because he wants to kill her his way.

The scenes with Axel psychologically preying on the weak, confused Melanie lead to some truly unhinged performances from Hooten and Buckman, the latter starting out the film hysterical and only ramping it up from there. Hooten appears to be visibly smirking in some shots, and it doesn't seem to be a character thing. The joys of NIGHT KILLER are endless, whether it's Melanie holding a gun on Axel and making him strip and flush his clothes down the toilet (!);  Hooten picking up some KFC and yelling "Friiiiied chicken and french friiiiiies!"; Fragasso subjecting Buckman to the most random "kamikaze disrobings" (© Leonard Maltin) this side of Kelly Lynch in Michael Cimino's DESPERATE HOURS; the absolutely atrocious performance of the woman playing Annie; the insane way Fragasso makes most of the film's logic lapses suddenly make perfect sense in a third act reveal complete with Virginia-based regional actor Lee Lively pulling a Simon Oakland as Melanie's shrink; or the cheaply-done gore inserts with the killer punching his rubber-gloved talons through the stomachs of his victims. Factoring out the post-production splatter, one can see Fragasso's intent as far as a Bergman-inspired thriller is concerned, no matter how misguided it may be. Perhaps more reasonable performances might've helped the credibility, but both Hooten and Buckman are so mannered and absurdly over-the-top that there's absolutely no way to take it seriously.

As evidenced by TROLL 2, Fragasso has a knack for setting up an Italian production in an American location and finding local actors who seem like pod people for whom English is, at best, a second language. While TROLL 2 had a cast of amateurs who've gone on to have a good sense of humor about the experience, NIGHT KILLER is anchored by a pair of professional American actors with a long list of credits, yet they still look like they've never been in front of a camera before. Buckman had a TV career going back to the late '70s, and co-starred with Claude Akins on THE MISADVENTURES OF SHERIFF LOBO but is perhaps best known for teaming with Adrienne Barbeau as the cleavage-baring Lamborghini duo in 1981's THE CANNONBALL RUN. By the late '80s, Buckman's career was tanking and she was starring in softcore Italian erotica for Joe D'Amato, like 1989's OBJECT OF DESIRE and 1990's HIGH FINANCE WOMAN. Hooten co-starred in 1977's ORCA and had the title role in the 1978 Marvel TV-movie DR. STRANGE, a pilot for a proposed CBS series that didn't get picked up. His career never really took off stateside but he found quite a bit of work in Italy, like Enzo G. Castellari's THE INGLOURIOUS BASTARDS (1978), Duccio Tessari's THE FIFTH COMMANDMENT (1978) and Joe D'Amato and George Eastman's post-nuke 2020: TEXAS GLADIATORS (1982). He acted sporadically from the mid '80s on and would walk away from the industry after NIGHT KILLER to devote himself to caring for his longtime partner, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet James Merrill, who would succumb to AIDS in 1995. Hooten virtually disappeared from public life, relocating to his native Florida, though he did emerge from retirement in 2013 for a pair of regionally-produced, no-budget horror movies, HOUSE OF BLOOD and SOULEATER. The latter film was directed by Michael Lang, who conducted a career-spanning interview with Hooten around that time and posted it on YouTube. Fragasso and his wife and uncredited co-writer Rossella Drudi are interviewed in the Blu-ray bonus features, both reiterating how displeased they were with the additional Mattei footage, plus Fragasso dishing on Hooten and Buckman's mutual dislike of one another, with Buckman allegedly complaining throughout the shoot about the openly gay Hooten's sexual orientation making him an unconvincing kisser and unsuitable to play a "macho" character.


  1. Entertaining review of a very dubious film. I left NIGHT KILLER out my Hooten interview film as he was very embarrassed about being in it. He told me he only got paid $2,000 for it.

  2. Mel Davidson didn't die in 2016, he's very much alive.