Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Death Run (1988)

My friends and I once attempted to develop a feature length film.  I should probably back up a bit.  This was back when we were in elementary school (I’m thinking seventh or eighth grade), and films featuring ninja were widespread.  Having recently experienced the warped insanity of Kosei Saito’s The Ninja Wars (most likely rented from the local Hollywood Video), we were inspired.  The other big thing that was going on in the world of cinema (at least as far as twelve-year-old boys were concerned) was the avalanche of low-rent Action films from the stables of such studios as Cannon Films.  Consequently, our film couldn’t just have plain, old ninja.  They had to be ninja who also used machine guns and pistols.  At any rate, a “script” was written (most likely by hand in composition book), and it was as juvenile and threadbare as you’re imagining.  

As you might suspect, problems quickly arose.  For starters, we couldn’t decide on who was going to play the lead (who also got to kiss the heroine).  None of us knew the first thing about martial arts outside of what we’d seen on screen (and we sure as shit couldn’t duplicate even that much).  None of us had a ninja uniform (and none of us could afford one from the ads in such magazines as…well…Ninja).  Probably most damning of all was the fact that none of us had a camera with which to film our magnum opus (although I would argue that the dearth of ninja outfits was a very close second).  Once a few weeks or months of trying to outthink reality had passed, we conceded that our totally awesome ninja movie would never take shape.  But the world is not poorer for this lack.  We still have plenty of films made in kids’ backyards (go check out some back issues of Cinemagic, if you doubt me), and if even something like Michael J. Murphy’s Death Run can see some form of release, there simply has to be hope for every starry-eyed child filmmaker out there.

Paul (Rob Bartlett) and his girlfriend Jenny (Wendy Parsons) are put into suspended animation by Paul’s doctor mother (Kay Lowrey), as a nuclear holocaust tears civilization apart outside their bunker.  Waking up twenty-five years in the future for no discernible reason other than to start the film, they discover that the world is full of mutants on one side and post-apocalyptic punks on the other.  The latter are centralized in Junk City and ruled over by the villainous-just-by-looking-at-him Messiah (Patrick Olliver), a claw-handed sadist who splits the lovers apart and forces Paul to run the eponymous “obstacle course.”

The reason why I mention this film in the same breath as my and my friends’ abortive cinematic attempt is because I like to think that, had we been successful, the end result would likely have been similar in quality to Death Run.  It’s clear from the very first frames here that the film was made for a budget upon which even a shoestring would feel pity.  Most interior shots appear to be lit with a single light source (possibly a flashlight).  Cuts rarely match.  The majority of the actors look like they used their own clothes for their wardrobe (the one exception being Messiah, but you never know).   The whole film is post-dubbed (whether because it was filmed on a non-sync system or they couldn’t afford sound equipment or they could and the soundtrack turned out like crap, I couldn’t say), and the voices rarely match the actors’ lips.  The actors also seem to be very careful about not only not making contact with their fellow thespians in the action scenes but also about not giving the impression that they could have for the camera’s sake.  I’m unfamiliar with the heavy metal bands and/or songs used copiously on the soundtrack, but I wouldn’t be in the least bit surprised if one or more of them listed some of the film’s actors as members.  The mutant makeups are largely slapped on bits of colored latex with bladders threatening to make them pop off the actors’ skin.  

But despite the movie being strictly amateur hour, it manages to be astonishingly well-paced, partly because it’s only a little over an hour long and partly because it wastes absolutely none of its time on extraneous things like exposition, characterization, et cetera.  The filmmakers jump in with both feet, hit the ground running, and simply don’t let up.  It’s also clear that the people behind this were forthright about their work.  How else do you explain the extraordinarily homoerotic, extraordinarily straight-faced training montage (including shirtless one-armed pushups, shirtless grappling, and shirtless military presses done with a log)?  And yet, they’re also clearly having fun, because why else carry something like this all the way to distribution unless you are?  Plus, it’s evident that there are no boundaries in what can and will happen to the characters, so there is an element of tension just to see which of the cardboard cutouts makes it to the final credits (you might be surprised).  This, combined with the film taking the time to hit every single Action/Post-Apocalyptic genre cliché ever invented (okay, that’s maybe an exaggeration, since they clearly didn’t have the money for the bigger effects, but the point remains the same), gives just enough of a mix between the familiar and the unexpected to make the viewer not want to scream throughout the experience. 

The most interesting aspect of the film is the Adam and Eve element that’s supposed to be embodied (in conception if not necessarily execution) by Paul and Jenny.  They are literally reborn into a new world of which they have no knowledge.  They are supposed to be the saviors of the human race or the progenitors of a new, “clean” (read: non-irradiated) race (the only conceivable reason to put your scion into cryogenic suspension during a nuclear war; it’s not as if the world is going to become more hospitable down the road from there).  The young couple transform from beings of innocence (which is not strictly true, since they went to sleep as young adults) into beings formed (one could say corrupted) by the world in which they find themselves.  The knowledge gained is beneficial for survival but not necessarily “good” since it brings with it much suffering.  Thankfully, the film does its best to ease the pain (for the audience, at any rate), so no harm, no foul.

MVT:  The earnest attitude of the filmmakers is reflected in every frame of the film, and, I have to say, it is infectious.

Make or Break:  I can’t give out details, but the Make is the scene where our group meets up with a gang of rebels.   It’s actually shocking for what’s revealed in the action as well as how this affects our protagonists.             
Score:  6.25/10

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