Color, 1985, 85m.
Directed by Carlos Tobalina
Starring Mic Morrow, Glenn McKay, Cydney Hill, Susan Silvers, Mai Lin, Robert Z'Dar
Vinegar Syndrome (DVD) (US R0 NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)
In the 1980s, it was surprisingly common for directors who started off in adult films to try to break through into mainstream films by hopping into another genre, usually horror films or thrillers. Tom DeSimone probably had the best luck with Hell Night, The Concrete Jungle, and Reform School Girls, while Armand Weston made a honorable one-off attempt with The Nesting. At the other end of the spectrum you have Carlos Tobalina, who had been cranking out zero-budget smut since the early '70s, usually shot in San Francisco or Las Vegas. Four years before his death in 1989, Tobalina tried to make a legit thriller with Flesh and Bullets, which feels tailor made for the home video market but trips all over itself trying to tell a straightforward crime story. However, as a curious fusion of his porn sensibility with what he thought suspense audiences wanted to see, it has an undeniable fascination and sports one of the weirdest supporting casts you'll ever see.
After pulling off an unlikely bank heist involving a fake beard and a couple of unaware homeless accomplices in order to pay his mounting alimony and child support costs, Roy (McKay) decides to hit the bar for a drink and strikes up a rapport with Jeff (Morrow), a surfer type who's in the same boat, ex-wise. Both of them have criminal histories (which we discover in flashbacks), and they soon come up with a plan to get close to and bump off each other's problematic spouses, Gail and Dolores (Silvers and Hill). Of course, the plan doesn't go smoothly as the men start to fall for their targets and other thugs enter the mix including a cowardly brute played by none other than a very young Robert Z'Dar (Samurai Cop). Whether flesh or bullets triumph in the end, of course, remains to be seen until the last five minutes.
Even if you didn't see his name in the credits, there would be little question about Tobalina's involvement here thanks to the haphazard plotting, endless padding, frequent out of focus shots, and bizarre performances in which the editor seemed to fall asleep and start chopping at random intervals. Tobalina even had a hand in the strangely catchy soundtrack, which features a heavily-used R&B theme song credited to "Bullets," and the sex scenes feel like they're about to jump into hardcore at any moment but just stop short. On top of that the cast is peppered with adult vets like Mai Lin (as a Vegas hooker), Bill Margold (billed as a "homo wrestler"), and a very fleeting appearance by Sharon Kelly. Even weirder, the film was prepared in two different cuts, as demonstrated on the Vinegar Syndrome DVD. The main version (and the one you're better off watching first) as Flesh and Bullets clocks in at 85 minutes and features some bizarre cameos by familiar, slumming celebrities, including blink-and-you'll-miss-it turns by Yvonne De Carlo and Cesar Romero as judges. However, the winner for the weirdest inclusion in the movie is the rambling, barely connected footage of Cornel Wilde (in his last film appearance, sporting an unfortunate dye job and suffering the indignity of having his name misspelled in the credits), Aldo Ray, and male erotic model Bill Cable (Bijou), all cast as cops sitting around babbling about gunshots. (The fact that all three are now deceased is a little sobering, too.) A longer, very different version under the title The Wife Contract is also included from a rare VHS copy, running 12 minutes longer thanks to a much longer opening sequence and extended flashbacks without any of the celebrity appearances. It's a pretty long, tough slog to get through, so make sure you watch the main version first.
Barely released and seen by very few, Flesh and Bullets comes to DVD from Vinegar Syndrome in a typically top-notch transfer from the original negative (which has probably sat untouched for three decades). Everything looks top notch here, and should the 2K master ever get streamed in its full resolution, it should look pretty amazing. In addition to the aforementioned alternate cut, the disc also contains the theatrical trailer -- featuring an intro to the audience by Cesar Romero himself, believe it or not.