BR: Robowar / Robot da Guerra (1988)

August 20, 2019 | By

Film: Good

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Excellent

Label:  Severin Films

Region: All

Released:  June 25, 2019

Genre:  Science-Fiction / Rip-Off

Synopsis: An elite team is sent into the Philippine jungle to terminate a rogue killer cyborg.

Special Features:  Interviews: “Robo Predator”: co-Director / co-Writer Claudio Fragasso: (23:06) +  “Italian Rip Off” co-writer Rossella Drudi (9:18) + “Violence She Wrote” screenwriter Rossella Drudi (21:51) + “Robo-Lady” actress Catherine Hickland (11:34) + “Papa Doc’s War” actor John P. Dulaney (12:50) + “The Robowarrior” actor Jim Gaines Jr. (9:02) + “War in the Philipines” actor / stuntman Massimo Vanni (17:23) / Catherine Hickland’s Behind The Scenes Home Movies (15:44) / Trailer / Bonus CD Soundtrack with first 3000 copies.




Alongside Strike Commando (1987) and Shocking Dark (1989), Robowar is an important entry in Bruno Mattei’s tropical rip-off series in which the plot, scenes, dialogue, and characters of an American hit film(s) are slightly reworked, as done by the husband & wife team of Rossella Drudi and Claudio Fragasso.

In this case, it’s the blend of military oddballs from Predator (1987) tasked with seeking out the cause of a downed helicopter in an unnamed jungle locale, and encountering a high-tech robot that tracks, hunts, and eviscerates each member until the band is reduced to a single pair.

Reb Brown is Major Murphy Black (or Marphy, as misspelled in the typo-riddled End Credits), playing the Arnold Schwarzenegger archetype; Romano Puppo is Black’s trusted second in command  Corey (playing the Carl Weathers role), Max Laurel is Kwang (the muscular, ‘spiritual’ aboriginal played by Sonny Landham), and Catherine Hickland Virgin, is the girl dragged into the bloody melee (as happens to Elpidia Carrillo). The rest of the cast are chum for the hunter, a cyborg prototype created by Masher (Mel Davidson) who’s a slight variation of Aliens‘ Burke (Paul Reiser), the secretive aide whose loyalty is to the industrial military complex.

Drudi was quite skillful in blending elements from other films into a semi-workable plot, but her dialogue, trimmed-down at the behest of no-nonsense Mattei, is below perfunctory. How much Mattei shaped the shooting script isn’t known, save for a lover subplot between Kang and a local girl that was shot but axed during editing. What exists onscreen are a series of Predator riffs and blatant scene grafts connected not by dramatic material, but endless montages of the dwindling group, wandering through the jungle; it’s literally the same filler approach used in Shocking Dark, but with more time and a bit more money spent on setting up a few tracking shots and close-ups, plus sunlight shearing through drifting fog.

Mattei’s goal was to inject short, regular bursts of explosions, gunfire, and mandatory shouting to impart a sense of urgency, and deliver the guns & ammo & action supposedly tailored to the film’s audiences, but there are huge lapses in logic. The group carry big guns and rolls of ammo, but the volume of bullets fired into vegetation is so reckless, it’s amazing the have enough to defend themselves in the finale. Equally loony are several occasions when the group wander into brightly lit clearings, and Arthur ‘Papa Doc’ Peel (John P. Dulaney) puffing on a pipe which, like the loud gunfire, would (and does) keep the cyborg on their tail. The cyborg never transcends its off-the-shelf motorcyclist outfit with unfashionable epaulettes, and its internal chatter of ‘Target Received’ and less intelligible nonsense seemed inspired by Twiggy, the beatnik mini-robot from TV’s Buck the 25th Century (1979).

While less vapid than Shocking, the wandering montages really weigh down the film, which is a shame given there are more than a few fun action sequences where the core ingredients are delivered with gusto, especially the raid on a rebel-held village (which is as violent and nihilistic as the raid in Predator).

The script’s eventual shift from Predator to Robocop happens when Murphy’s seemingly disconnected flashback to ‘Nam has him suspect the cyborg may be the former ace soldier whom he left to die on the field; by not listening to his pal and giving him a coup de grace, Murphy’s buddy was snapped up by Mascher and reformulated into the ‘perfect’ killing machine. Brown’s acting chops (which are legit) are underused save for the finale, in which the two friends have an affecting exchange before a final kaboom. Murphy’s dive from a waterfall into a small pool is a great stunt, and just as delightful is Mattei’s addiction to blowing the shit out of anything: camps, huts, houses, and bodies explode and shred into the air, and it’s really in action where Mattei’s filmic forte resides.

While archetypal, very few characters have resonance, and token babe Hickland is largely forced to stand or hover near the men, pretty much forgotten by the writer and director until the cast is reduced to Murphy and Virgin. The remaining two share a key scene as they await the cyborg’s arrival in a hospital set that’s far too similar to the final confrontation in Fragasso’s Zombi 4 (1989), which also co-starred Jim Gaines and stunt coordinator / actor Massimo Vanni, aka Alex McBride.

Fragasso’s involvement with Robowar wasn’t as widespread as the lore suggests, and he clarifies the mushy history by confirming he never appeared in costume as the cyborg (it was Puppo), and only directed the hospital scene when Mattei was sick; all his other activities during the shoot was filming Zombi 4 at night, using the lone camera shared with the Robowar crew.

Now, you have to admire the drive and insanity of willingly planning the parallel shooting of two films whose schedules were divided by the boundaries of day and night, but as Fragasso recounts in his candid and very funny interview, while Mattei was content to stick with such an energy and sanity-draining system of killing two cinematic birds with one stone, Fragasso wasn’t, and perhaps he and Drudi sensed they careers were being diverted from tackling other genres, hence an eventual separation in 1991, ending a preposterously prolific triumvirate (see end tally).

Severin’s Blu-ray is a work of devotion to a film which everyone connected concedes was never meant to be art, original, or especially good; beneath the surprise at the film’s cult following and new life on Blu-ray lies a modest amusement, and maybe a few drops of pride for a project that may well outlive some of Fragasso & Drudi’s other film endeavors.

Fragasso and Drudi’s accounts of shooting in the Philippines is a treasure trove of outrageous & embarrassing tales of adventure, exhaustion, and kidney stones, and proof of the cast & crew’s special resilience, surviving a tight schedule for a movie many probably never saw – like Shocking, Robowar was never released in the U.S., and seemed to go straight to video in most markets, making this divine Blu-ray a premiere of sorts.

Inexplicably filmed in a music studio with Fragasso by an amplifier and Drudi behind a drum set, the pair are in a much more jovial light than prior Q&As at their home, where the tone is more mournful; there’s a sense the pair’s prior appearances in Severin’s Blu-rays & DVDs were taped at a time when they lamented their lengthy careers were known more for rip-offs than other genre efforts, many of which were barely released outside of Europe.

Fragasso’s interview offers lively anecdotes, whereas Drudi gets two segments – the first specifically on penning the script and staying in Italy while the directors melted in the Philippine jungle; and the second a career appreciation. Titled “Violence She Wrote,” this nearly half-hour featurette may seem baffling to critics – Drudi did co-author the infamous nonsense Troll 2 (1990) – but there’s an emerging message and inarguable appreciation for Drudi in being a rare female writer in a sexist industry whose producers could be absolute sleazebags.

The depth of Drudi’s career may never be known because she recounts working for many filmmakers uncredited for a decade prior to using pseudonyms, which was de rigeur for productions wanting to anglicize cast & crew for international markets. The use of English names enabled slimy producers to cheat talent of royalties and run afoul of union rules in later years, which may explain why even name talent would appear in grade Z productions late in their careers,  forced to cover sudden bills when supposed nest eggs were virtually empty.

The sad aspect of Drudi’s interview is that unless both her solo and collaborations with Fragasso are widely available, it’s impossible to judge the pair as proficient craftspeople when the few restored, remastered, uncut works in circulation are their most infamous genre rip-offs and nonsense like Troll 2; the latter is a genuine cult film, but in no way a fully good-bad film.

Vanni’s interview shows the actor / stunt choreographer in a philosophical state, regarding the Mattei jungle film with a special fondness perhaps because pressure and creative freedom enabled Vanni to develop his stunt choreography skills, and build up a substantive film & TV resume.

Hickland, who never saw the film, reflects on her first movie after leaving the cancelled soap opera Capitol and her divorce from Knight Rider star David Hasselhoff, and stepping away from acting in 2012 for a career in writing and a hypnosis show. Dulaney recalls filming with the largely male cast and 99% lead Italian crew, and has positive impressions of all, except loner Mel Davidson, and his alleged taste for young boys. Actor Jim Gaines adds further details of Davidson’s behaviour and Brown’s protective actions that more than likely helped stabilize filming. (Dutch-born Davidson’s career was brief, appearing in a succession of 17 action film between 1987-1989 before disappearing after 1991’s McBain.)

Whereas the otherwise dull AliensThe Terminator rip-off Shocking Dark offered a perverse game of spot-the-stolen-scene, Robowar’s less complicated plot offers a better platter of action, laughable dialogue, and the cast looking confused in scenes where there’s insufficient dramatic motivation, and many performances are on autopilot.

Brown’s shouting – further amplified in Mattei’s rip-off masterpiece Strike Force – was mandated by the director, and for all the praise heaped on Mattei as a brilliant editor, the reactions of the cast in close-ups and tracking shots feel like tail ends of takes or hastily shot single takes, with film stock saved for gunfire and stunt-heavy explosions.

The inherent strangeness of Mattei-Fragasso-Drudi’s collaborations makes their work weirdly dreamy; they’re not especially good films, but they’re alluring; strange creatures; the jungle productions have the dramatic gravitas of student films remade with bigger budgets by working professionals.

Severin’s fantastic Blu-ray replaces the awful copies floating on the internet, offering fans a first-rate transfer and English & Italian dub tracks. The cast spoke their dialogue in English, but the Italian mix features better sound, especially in the bass range, although the subtitle track (which at times differs greatly from the English audio) includes descriptive text for sound effects.

A really nice bonus is an edited suite of John Dulaney’s home videos, shot as cast & crew breaked for pasta, and when he and Hickland had time to observe the filming of some stunts. Dulaney’s YouTube channel features 50+ minutes of material over three parts, and Severin’s edit offers highlights of the footage which largely consists of Hickland narrating, asking cast & crew questions, and covering the jungle locales (and some locals) with a tube video camera. The footage is a copy-of-a-copy on tape, shot with a basic camera that couldn’t handle the tropical sun’s brightness and high contrasts, so there are blown-out areas and extreme green hues – technical flaws typical of some Newvicon tube cameras.

Composer Al Festa gets some accolades from Fragasso, recalling how the composer felt a little cheated by low pay, and reportedly repurposed some music from Zombi 4. The mish-mash of score and songs borders on the bizarre. Only a couple of the repetitive cues match the intended intensity of the group’s jungle trek, and the two songs similarly feel ill-suited, especially a hard rock ditty that would in a normal actioner bolster a kinetic preparatory montage, but in Robowar plays in full over more jungle wandering. (Note: early editions of the Blu-ray come with a CD soundtrack album.)

Bruno Mattei and Claudio Fragasso’s collaborations span a whopping 21 films over 10 years: The True Story of the Nun of Monza (1980), Hell of the Living Dead (1980), The Other Hell (1981), Violence in a Women’s Prison (1982), Women’s Prison Massacre (1983), The Seven Magnificent Gladiators (1983), Rats: Nights of Terror (1984), Hanna D: The Girl from Vondel Park (1984), Apache Kid (1987), Scalps (1987), Double Target (1987), Strike Commando (1987), Cop Game (1988), Robowar (1988), Zombi 3 (1988), Strike Commando 2 (1988), the TV mini-series Appuntamento a Trieste (1989), Born to Fight (1989), Shocking Dark (1989), Three for One (1990), and Night Killer / Non aprite quella porta 3 (1990).



© 2019 Mark R. Hasan





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