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Ripoffs of the Wasteland: Special Santiagothon Edition: WHEELS OF FIRE (1985); EQUALIZER 2000 (1987); and THE SISTERHOOD (1988)

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WHEELS OF FIRE
(US/Philippines - 1985)

Directed by Cirio H. Santiago. Written by Frederick Bailey. Cast: Gary Watkins, Laura Banks, Lynda Wiesmeier, Linda Grovenor, Joseph Anderson (Joe Mari Avellana), Joseph Zucchero, Jack S. Daniels, Steve Parvin, Dennis Cole, Henry Strzalkowski, Gary Taylor. (R, 81 mins)

Following 1983's STRYKER, Filipino exploitation legend Cirio H. Santiago went back for a few more laps around the same rock quarry for some more post-nuke ROAD WARRIOR ripoffs, starting with 1985's WHEELS OF FIRE, which is about as no-bullshit as drive-in actioners get. Santiago and screenwriter Frederick Bailey obviously know what you're here for and keep the plot as simple as it can be. In a post-apocalyptic wasteland, nomadic Trace (Gary Watkins) ends up rescuing his sister Arlie's (July 1982 Playmate of the Month Lynda Wiesmeier) dirtbag boyfriend Bo (Steve Parvin) from a death match against a post-nuke Robert Goulet lookalike. From then on, it's pretty much one long chase sequence, with the army of evil despot Scourge (second-unit director Joe Mari Avellana, credited as "Joseph Anderson," a last-minute replacement for Fear leader Lee Ving, who abruptly checked out of his Manila hotel room several hours after arriving and went to Tokyo without telling anyone) relentlessly pursuing Trace in one car and Arlie and the incredibly ungrateful Bo in the other. Arlie is eventually abducted by Scourge's creeps and repeatedly raped, while Trace hooks up with bounty hunter Stinger (Laura Banks) and psychic Spike (Linda Grovenor, Robby Benson's love interest in 1980's DIE LAUGHING) as he attempts to rescue his sister and wipe out Scourge's gang.


Except for one Trace-Stinger sex scene that's shot like the cover of a shitty romance novel, WHEELS OF FIRE is virtually non-stop action from start to finish. It's got more explosions than an Antonio Margheriti flick, constant car chases, countless shots of guys from Scourge's gang engulfed in flames, an out-of-nowhere appearance by a bunch of albino cavemen, and other instances of some truly hair-raising and clearly dangerous stunt work. With no plot to get in the way of the mayhem, WHEELS OF FIRE stands as one of the very best of the low-budget ROAD WARRIOR clones, and Code Red's new Blu-ray (available exclusively through Screen Archives as part of the "Roger Corman Post-Nuke Collection") is as good as it's ever looked. There's short interview segments with Corman, Bailey, and second-unit director Clark Henderson. Among the interesting tidbits is that one Filipino stuntman spent more than a week in the hospital after a stunt gone awry, and Henderson recounting when the crew discovered that Wiesmeier was such a natural behind the wheel that she was allowed to do her own driving, upstaging all of the professional Filipino stunt drivers in the process. WHEELS OF FIRE was the only big-screen lead for Watkins, who was known around Hollywood less for his acting chops and more for being John Belushi's coke dealer. He also had a supporting role in the previous year's JOHNNY DANGEROUSLY and a very small handful of TV and movie gigs after, with IMDb showing nothing after 1998.



EQUALIZER 2000
(US/Philippines - 1987)

Directed by Cirio H. Santiago. Written by Frederick Bailey. Cast: Richard Norton, Corinne Wahl, William Steis, Robert Patrick, Frederick Bailey, Rex Cutter, Warren McLean, Peter Shilton, Vic Diaz, Ramon D'Salva, Henry Strzalkowski, Bobbie Greenwood, Nick Nicholson, Eric Hahn. (R, 88 mins)

Despite some attempts at interjecting some story elements that only serve to slow it down, EQUALIZER 2000 follows the same template as WHEELS OF FIRE, right down to a mid-film appearance by an out-of-nowhere group of post-nuke freaks, in this case, a crew of ululating buffoons who look like Manila's most hopeless faction of the KISS Army. Set in northern Alaska 100 years after the nuclear holocaust has rendered it a scorched-earth wasteland, EQUALIZER 2000 centers on nomadic warrior Slade (Richard Norton) taking on The Ownership, a fanatical militia group that's hoarding water and supplies (just like in STRYKER) and generally making life even more miserable for everyone. When Slade makes off with The Equalizer, a high-tech (at least by Santiago's standards) automatic weapon that also functions as a high-powered bazooka (it's sort-of like a gun nut's version of a Cheap Trick five-necked guitar), psychotic Ownership commander Lawton (William Steis) leads the inevitable pursuit on the way to a solid 30 minutes of gunfire and explosions to cap off the film.


EQUALIZER 2000 is fun, but it's not quite as good as WHEELS OF FIRE. Norton could be a little more engaging, while Steis does a pretty good job as the chief villain. Female lead Corinne Wahl, married to actor Ken Wahl at the time, is better known as Corinne Alphen, 1982 Penthouse Pet of the Year. She plays a character similar to WHEELS' Stinger, and she and Slade get their obligatory tame sex scene. While the usual Santiago and Filipino exploitation regulars appear--Vic Diaz, Henry Strzalkowski, Nick Nicholson, Eric Hahn--the film's most interesting bit of casting is then-rookie Robert Patrick as a secondary bad guy. Patrick was just starting out and knew someone who worked at Roger Corman's office. According to Clark Henderson on the WHEELS Blu-ray, Patrick came in to read for another Corman production (WARLORDS FROM HELL) and it was instantly clear to them that he was a better actor than everyone else in the room. Patrick gained his earliest experience being farmed out by Corman to Santiago, who took an instant liking to the young actor and cast him in both Corman productions (EQUALIZER 2000 and 1987's EYE OF THE EAGLE) and his own solo joints (1986's FUTURE HUNTERS, 1988's BEHIND ENEMY LINES). Patrick also met his wife Barbara, then going by Barbara Hooper, another American on loan to Santiago (they worked together on Santiago's BEHIND ENEMY LINES), and they eventually headed back to Hollywood when he landed a small role in DIE HARD 2 (1990) before his breakthrough as the T-1000 in TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY (1991).



THE SISTERHOOD
(US/Philippines - 1988)

Directed by Cirio H. Santiago. Written by Thomas McKelvey Cleaver. Cast: Rebecca Holden, Chuck Wagner, Lynn-Holly Johnson, Barbara Hooper, Robert Dryer, Henry Strzalkowski, David Light, Jim Moss, Anthony East, Tom McNeeley, Warren MacLean, Peter Shilton. (R, 92 mins)

WHEELS OF FIRE and EQUALIZER 2000 were not big-budget productions but they were professionally-constructed and made with flair and style, putting forth the effort to make it look good in spite of what little money they had. THE SISTERHOOD, on the other hand, shows some concrete evidence of Corman and Santiago beginning to cut corners. Oddly, of the three initial entries in Code Red's Corman Post-Nuke collection, THE SISTERHOOD has the most plot, but the film is so unbelievably cheap, badly-written, poorly-acted, and straight-up dull that it's easily the least of the trio. Still, it's not without its bad movie charms, set in 2021, several years after "The Final War," as the world is once again a desolate wasteland represented by the same stretch of Filipino desert seen in STRYKER, WHEELS, and EQUALIZER. It's a world dominated by men, where women have been relegated to a commodity, but a group of female warriors called The Sisterhood roams "The Outlands," fulfilling their mission to protect the disenfranchised and the marginalized, and rebel against the brutal patriarchal society. There's some potentially interesting ideas in Thomas McKelvey Cleaver's script, but Santiago is just content to break the same old post-nuke junkers out of storage and drive them around the desert while Jun Latonio's terrible synth score squonks endlessly, sounding like random notes farting out of a defective Casio. Branded as witches by the despotic male rulers, The Sisterhood is led by Alee (KNIGHT RIDER's Rebecca Holden), who teams up with Marya (champion figure skater Lynn-Holly Johnson, a long way from ICE CASTLES and FOR YOUR EYES ONLY), who has a strange psychic connection to a falcon, to rescue captured Sister Vera (Barbara Hooper), who's been abducted by Mikal (AMERICA 3000's Chuck Wagner) for leverage with the post-nuke overlords. Or something to that effect.


Santiago's post-nuke formula is here, right down to the mid-film appearance of a crew of freaks, in this case a bunch of robed mutants chasing Alee and Marya through a "radiation zone." A gust of wind causes the hoods to blow off a couple of the mutants, revealing them to be some normal-looking extras just making idiotic grunting noises. Performances are terrible across the board, though Wagner at least seems to realize he's in a shitty movie and tries to enjoy himself with some vaguely Shatnerian over-emoting (one interesting thing about Wagner that probably helps in his current career in touring Broadway productions is that his actual speaking voice sounds like a dubbed bellowing voice in a 1960s HERCULES movie). SAVAGE STREETS villain Robert Dryer overacts shamelessly as the fey, sneering Lord Barak, a sort-of post-nuke Billy Idol. A strange mix of sword & sorcery, post-nuke, and the supernatural (Alee has telepathic abilities and can shoot lasers from her eyes, but Santiago seems to forget about it until the end of the movie), THE SISTERHOOD is one of the most obscure titles from Corman's Concorde era and isn't nearly as fun as it should be. It's strongly indicative of the difference between '70s Corman and '80s Corman: a '70s Corman production (think of his women-in-prison titles like THE BIG DOLL HOUSE and CAGED HEAT) would've done something with the potential social commentary inherent in the concept. It's also a real slog at an interminable 92 minutes, which is epic by 1988 Corman standards. The Blu-ray contains the overseas version, where the US theatrical and VHS cut ran 75 minutes--the absolute last thing THE SISTERHOOD needs is 17 minutes of additional footage. It may be good for some laughs (watch the sloppy closing credits, where the cast listing changes format midway through), but is really only for die-hard Santiago completists and the most fanatical Henry Strzalkowski stalkers.


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