Color, 1988, 90 mins. 43 secs.
Directed by "Vincent Dawn" (Bruno Mattei)
Starring Reb Brown, Catherine Hickland, Massimo Vanni, Romano Puppo, Claudio Fragasso, Max Laurel, Jim Gaines Jr., John P. Dulaney, Mel Davidson
Severin Films (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
The era of Blu-ray has brought many miracles and just as many frustrations, with major works by directors like Robert Altman, Paul Verhoeven, and Otto Preminger still missing in action. Fortunately you can ignore all that since we can now enjoy pristine HD versions of all the major works written or directed by Claudio Fragasso, the distinctive artist who gave the world Troll 2 along with his wife and frequent co-scenarist, Rossella Drudi, and frequently collaborated with (and sometimes ghost directed for) the prolific Bruno Mattei. Their output speaks for itself with titles like Hell of the Living Dead and Rats: Night of Terror, and even when they all went for straight sci-fi action, the results were no less insane: Case in point: Robowar, which ranks up there with the following year's Shocking Dark for shameless pillaging of recent Hollywood hits. In this case the primary source is Predator with a heavy dose of RoboCop, loaded with outrageously non-PC dialogue that would probably be offensive if the actors made any of it sound convincing or even coherent.
Something strange and deadly is attacking any military presence in the jungle right down to helicopters, so it's up to elite squad BAM to investigate under the guidance of stalwart Major Murphy Black (Yor, the Hunter from the Future's Brown). While scouring the jungle, they come across some ruthless guerrillas and save an imperiled relief aid representative, Virginia (One Life to Live's Hickland) during a village raid, just in time to find out what they're really facing: Omega 1, a cyborg designed to be the ultimate weapon and now set loose on a killing spree in the wild.
Adorably trashy, Robowar also operates as a fun showcase for familiar late-period Italian staples like Massimo Vanni (Zombie 3), Romano Puppo (Escape from the Bronx), Jim Gaines (After Death), and even Fragasso himself under his most common alias, "Clyde Anderson," as the hunter -- well, at least according to the credits, but more on that below. The blatantly impaired budget means you don't get a terribly impressive villain (though he does come with laser abilities); however, the barrage of gunfire and explosions more than makes up for it as the cast tromps around in the Philippines locations. On top of that you even get a pounding electronic score by none other than Al Festa, the man who gave the world the unforgettable Fatal Frames. In short, it's the kind of exploitation movie conjunction that results in something truly special, albeit one on a brain-damaged wavelength for special tastes only. And don't miss those closing credits, whatever you do.
In a peculiar but very welcome turn of events, Severin Films has become the banner label for infiltrating the United States with Mattei and Fragasso gems that never made it stateside before outside of terrible and elusive bootlegs. As with Shocking Dark and Night Killer, this one gets a lavish edition that puts many big studio efforts to shame, starting with a transfer sourced from a fresh 4K scan(!) of the camera negative. While the mind reels at the idea of this hitting UHD someday (though there's probably some lunatic in Europe working on it right now), it's hard to imagine this film looking better than the pristine presentation here that presents every bit of foliage and metal in excellent quality, or at least as much as the inconsistent cinematography will allow. The DTS-HD MA 2.0 options include the English and Italian tracks with optional English SDH or translated English subtitles; obviously the English track is the most entertaining option by a long shot, but it's fun to compare how the meanings shift a bit between the two versions. The movie also comes with no less than six featurettes -- "Robo Predator" with Fragasso (23m6s); "Italian Rip Off" (9m18s) and the career-spanning "Violence, She Wrote" (21m51s) with Drudi, still at that drum kit; "Robolady" (11m34s) with Hickland, hilariously credited with her end titles character name; "Papa Doc's War" (12m50s) with actor John P. Dulaney; and "The Robowarrior" (9m2s) with a fantastically candid and very amusing Gaines -- which dovetail into each other for the most part with stories from the set. You'll hear plenty about Fragasso and Drudi's role in the script, Fragasso stepping in a direct a little, the disgust almost everyone had for actor Mel Davidson (for understandable reasons), the lingering impact of Apocalypse Now on the locations, the earlier Mattei-Fragasso-Brown collaboration Strike Commando, the presence of bug-eyed character action Luciano Pagozzi (who was cut from the final assembly), the simultaneous shooting of After Death at night with the same camera, the challenges of jungle heat, Hickland's stint on the soap Capitol, and Fragasso's insistence that he didn't play the robo villain, credit notwithstanding. Not enough? In addition to the trailer, how about a whopping 15m14s of Hickland's VHS home movies capturing all the major players and many of the locals having fun on the set, with Hickland vocally identifying almost everyone and capturing a special moment in time that's finally about to get its due from trash movie fans everywhere. The limited first pressing of 3,000 units also comes with a soundtrack CD, marking the first (and possibly last) availability of Festa's handiwork anywhere in the world.
Reviewed on July 17, 2019.