Color, 1973, 88 mins. 5 secs.
Directed by Stephanie Rothman
Starring Don Marshall, Phyllis Davis, Tom Selleck, Ena Hartman, Marta Kristen, Barbara Leigh, Randy Boone, Roger E. Mosley
Vinegar Syndrome (UHD & Blu-ray) (US R0 4K/HD), Code Red (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)
Way before Escape from New York and Battle Royale did the whole "fight to the death on a futuristic island" routine, Stephanie Rothman (the first female drive-in director coming from a background in Roger Corman films) delivered a bare bones exploitation quickie about a novel solution to the jail overcrowding problem: round up all the worst felons, toss 'em on a boat, and abandon everyone on a desolate island where they'll hopefully kill each other off. While no one's gotten desperate enough to implement this plan in reality, Terminal Island's concept was catchy enough to inspire several generations of more prominent exploitation films. The extremely low budget definitely limits the execution here, but it's remained a video mainstay for years, even earning a solid VHS life throughout the '80s thanks to an important supporting role played by a bearded Tom Selleck in between Myra Breckinridge and his big breakthrough on TV's Magnum P.I.
Our story begins with a quick TV news recap about Terminal Island, where first-degree murderers are shipped off to spend the rest of their days fending for themselves. Basically the island consists of some huts and various areas (and, as Roger Ebert perceptively pointed out, "a great beauty salon for women"). Among the residents are a mercy-killing doctor (Selleck) with a talent for smoking herbs, a sultry poisoner named Joy played by Susan Davis (aka Aunt Susan from Beyond the Valley of the Dolls), and a little bank blower-upper named Lee played, rather disconcertingly, by Lost in Space's Kristen, all grown up. Oh, and there's another future Magnum alumnus, Roger Mosley. Accompanied by a drawling country theme song, we then meet our newest arrival: Carmen (Hartmen), a tough cookie who doesn't take kindly to becoming another sexual submissive for the island's men under the control of unofficial leader Bobby (The Corpse Grinders's Kenney). Soon the island's splitting into two factions, and all-out war breaks out with only the victors surviving to see a new day.
A good example of provocative ideas and ambition almost overcoming extreme budgetary limitations, Terminal Island operates much like Rothman's previous '70s exploitation films, The Student Nurses and the delirious The Velvet Vampire, all of which include the necessary staples of sex, quick bursts of sadistic violence, and weird humorous flourishes, here represented best by a bizarre sequence involving a female prisoner, her would-be rapist minus his pants, and a handy beehive. It's a shame she stopped working the next year (after the oddball Working Girls), as her unique perspective would've been welcome for a long time. The solid cast here is packed with recognizable faces lurking in the corners of the screen, even including an early appearance by James Whitworth before he went on to drive-in immortality as Jupiter in The Hills Have Eyes.
Considering it was made by a long-defunct indie distribution company (Dimension Films, who released Rothman's other non-Corman films with her financial participation along with titles like Kingdom of the Spiders, Dolemite, and The Redeemer), this film has had a healthy video history over the years from a number of companies. Unfortunately several shady, quasi-PD video companies have trotted this out on DVD in a terrible transfer yanked from a heavily edited TV print that lops out all of the nudity (and much of the storyline in the process); ignore the reviews on Amazon complaining about those pieces of ridiculous junk since Code Red's DVD release from 2010 featured the raunchier R-rated cut familiar from the old VHS days on Continental Video. As the packaging prominently states, this anamorphic, uncut presentation is taken "from UCLA/the director Stephanie Rothman's archieved[sic] print," so while it's definitely on the "grindhouse"-y side (visible damage at reel changes, some blown-out scenes here and there), it still marked a major step up over past editions. In 2016, the label revisited the title for a Blu-ray edition, pulled from the same source (damage marks are identical) but with slightly toned-down and more realistic flesh tones.
On the extras side, director/horror fan Scott Spiegel (Intruder) moderates an audio commentary with Kenney and the other male lead, Don Marshall, though their anecdotes tend to be pretty much limited to talking about the casting process and pretending that the wilds of Malibu could pass for an isolated penal island. Both actors also appear in separate video featurettes, both clocking in just under half an hour each, with more interesting overall surveys of their careers; Kenney in particular has some nifty tales about his TV work (including a well-remembered part of Star Trek) and talks about how he felt the lack of money hampered what seemed like a more ambitious film at the time, while Marshall also had a hefty TV career under his belt by the time including a regular on Land of the Giants and a funny bit on Bewitched. (Both are extremely windowboxed on the Blu-ray for no discernible reason.) Davis also appears in voice only via a 5-minute telephone interview in which she doesn't really touch on her most famous role for Russ Meyer, instead focusing on how she got the Terminal Island role and her really unusual career afterward including a regular role on TV's Vega$. The theatrical trailer is included along with (on the DVD only) additional Code Red promos (Rothman's other two Dimension titles, Stigma, The Black Klansman, etc.).
In 2021, Vinegar Syndrome gave Terminal Island a big upgrade as a 4K UHD/Blu-ray combo release featuring a new scan from the 35mm original camera negative. As you'd expect, the jump in quality here is very, very dramatic with a significant increase in detail, no more element damage, and most significantly, improved colors with pure, solid whites here and more vibrant and wide-ranging gradations in hues like orange and green. The UHD in particular has that gaudy Dimension Pictures look we all know and love, bordering on trippy at times in its intensity with reds that nearly sear your retinas. The DTS-HD MA English 2.0 track (with optional English SDH subtitles) is also cleaner and more dynamic than any past release, right down to that omnipresent theme song. All of the video extras are included only on the Blu-ray (the UHD maxes out the bit rate for the feature itself) with the big score here being “Why Be A Man, When You Can Be A Rothman?” (31m23s), a new interview with Rothman finally participating in a supplement for one of her films. It's a great, in-depth talk that starts with a bit about getting her start with Corman before going deep into the making of this film and approach to the characters, as well as the development of the story including those great "man on the street" interviews seen at the beginning. Don't miss the funny barfing story, too. Then in "From Hartman to Carmen" (19m51s), Hartman recalls making this film at the end of her career, her early modeling days and name changes as she dreamed of being "the black Marilyn Monroe," the reason she walked away from acting, and her thoughts on being directed by a woman. Separate interviews with Kristen and Kenny are edited together for "Crash Landing On Terminal Island" (27m50s), which features both of them briefly sketching in their careers to that point and cheerfully recalling the shoot including their favorite moments. Last but definitely not least is "The Rothmanaissance: Rediscovering the Work of Stephanie Rothman" (30m55s), an interesting analysis of the filmmaker featuring separate interviews with film historian Dr. Alicia Kozma and film programmer and author Heidi Honeycutt about their connections to her work, the themes running throughout her films, the distinctive traits and value of female filmmakers, and the way Rothman and her husband adopted to the demands of exploitation cinema while keeping their own stamp on the material. Also included are a still gallery and the theatrical trailer. Definitely a must for fans of '70s drive-in thrills with a little potent social commentary swirled in.
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray)
Code Red (Blu-ray)
Updated review on September 1, 2021