Jedidiah Ayres / October 1, 2019
You may not know the name Cirio H. Santiago, but, if you grew up in the United States in the 1980s or ‘90s, chances are his films made some kind of impression on your developing sensibilities. You didn’t have to be a sheltered, Midwestern pastor’s kid starved for mainstream popular culture, forced to glean your insights and knowledge of the offerings available to your less spiritually-minded neighbors and peers from the lurid poster-art beckoning from the video section of your local grocery store or gas station. You didn’t have to be, but it sure didn’t hurt.
For those like me who grew up with their media intake strictly monitored and curated heavily toward “wholesome” and toothless fare typically at least twenty years stale before first exposure, it’s difficult to overstate the importance of those stolen peeks behind the curtain into the vulgar and extremely now world of popular books and films that tagging along with mom on weekly trips to the supermarket afforded us. In retrospect, it’s a wonder that I didn’t develop an ocular condition from all the heavy-concentration studying I did with side-eye. The impressions made by quick glimpses of the pulp art on the paperback display near the grocery check-out or the movie posters featuring ripping teeth, roaring guns, and heroic bosoms straining against their fabric captors had to suffice. It’s the reason why, to me, The Ice Pirates was just as important as Star Wars, Lyle Alzado shared similar status with Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Richard Chamberlain’s Allan Quatermain was every bit the equal of Indiana Jones. Eventually I did see The Empire Strikes Back, The Terminator, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, but many of the films that I lusted after did not survive my wait for independence.
The cultural chaff blown away by the winds of changing technological platforms and the C-listed mock-busters clogging up the cable feed were mostly lost to me, and those that I did catch years later in the VHS bargain bin and DVD action pack usually disappointed. With few exceptions, the tantalizing cover art had predictably and expertly over-sold the product it represented. Once in a while, I found a common denominator to the unlikely durability of some of those re-claimed childhood cultural artifacts: a performer, a writer or director with a knack, a voice or gutsiness to maximize the potential of the material and budgets. One of the most consistent deliverers of the (largely forgotten) goods was Cirio Santiago. The Filipino director had been making movies in Southeast Asia since the late 1950s, and in the early ‘70s he began a partnership with Roger Corman, cranking out low-budget English-language films in diverse genres: blaxsploitation (TNT Jackson, Death Force, The Muthers, Ebony, Ivory & Jade), horror (Vampire Hookers, Demon of Paradise), martial arts action (The Naked Fist, Angel Fist, Bloodfist 2050), Vietnam combat trash (Kill Zone, Nam Angels, Beyond the Call of Duty), sex comedies (Fly Me, Cover Girl Models), and cop and vigilante stuffs (The Devastators, One Man Army, Silk). He left his most indelible mark on me, however, with the slew of post-apocalyptic films he made in the cultural wake of George Miller’s original Mad Max trilogy.
Doubtless Mad Max planted many seeds of auto-fury in 1979, but it was 1981’s Mad Max 2 (released as The Road Warrior in the US) that broke through to the world-wide mainstream consciousness with its vision of a lone hero reduced to a life of scavenging. He wanders incessantly, tormented by memories of the life and loved ones he’s lost as well as by demonic packs of sadistic neo-barbarians and, perhaps most relentlessly, by his own instinct to survive without anything to live for. If the matinee cowboy roaming the open range, pressing ever-westward, is romantically doomed in his quest to live free as civilization nips ever at his heels, then the wasteland warrior chases after a civilization lost like a mistreated lover, telling himself it will be better this time around. If mid-century, post-war nuclear anxiety was (at least partially) what the 1950s cowboy was fleeing, then that fear had metastasized into a resignation of inevitable devastation by the late 1970s.
George Miller was a pioneer and iconic visionary of the genre, but turned out a scant three offerings in the three decades after Mad Max; Santiago, on the other hand, became one of the most prolific post-apocalyptic action producers, with nine films fitting comfortably under the label. What they may have lacked in originality or unique perspective they largely made up for in budget-savvy spectacle and volume (five in the 1980s alone; that’s five out of fourteen Santiago feature films released in the same decade), and it is this viewer’s considered opinion that they both stand the test of time and forever remain products of their era.
Santiago’s post-apocalyptic pictures rest nearly all of their collective weight on the work The Road Warrior’s production design team had done establishing a baseline aesthetic for the genre: full of tattered furs and studded leather with a smattering of re-purposed sporting gear. And of course cars and guns. There’s little to no cultivation to be done any longer in these desolate spaces, but there’s a hell of a lot of chasing, fleeing, and shooting to get to after the end of the world. The cowboy’s horse and wagon train become stripped down muscle cars and dune buggies, or pointlessly bulked-up motorcycles traveling in packs, or the occasional convoy hauling along suspiciously well-preserved highways toward endless barren horizons of dust and rock.
The films exist in explicitly different fallen worlds, as the viewer is told in early and brief expository voice-overs, but they hold to remarkably similar looks and settings (we’re never told where Stryker takes place, but it could be Australia, judging from the accents, while Equalizer 2000 is, hilariously, set in Alaska). While genre contemporaries like Enzo G. Castellari, Joe D’Amato, and Sergio Martino utilized plenty of urban settings that borrowed as liberally from Walter Hill’s The Warriors and John Carpenter’s Escape From New York, Santiago stuck very close to Miller’s wasteland vision. The vehicles, costumes, and locales used aren’t just consistent in their appearance, they’re often recycled. Early viewers would have needed sharp eyes and memories to spot it, but watched in quick succession a lot of the applied budgetary yoga is obvious, especially to anyone familiar with Roger Corman’s bag of tricks (anything good enough to use once is worth recycling). The movies rarely exceed 90 minutes (Future Hunters is the longest at 96), and when all the recycled footage of explosions, car chases, and shootouts between large groups of conveniently color-coordinated armies (yellow or white bedecked good guys, while the bad guys are always in black football helmets and shoulder pads, catcher’s vests, headbands) is subtracted, the leanness of the productions is outrageous.
Future Hunters (1986) and Equalizer 2000 (1987) share star Richard Norton and go so far as to recycle the character name “Slade” (Robert Patrick in Hunters, Norton in Equalizer). Even the spectacularly overcompensating weapon built and brandished by Norton in Equalizer 2000, a gun with five barrels stacked in an unwieldy tangle of steel, started as an inconsequential prop in Future Hunters, though there it is fired bazooka-style from the shoulder rather than from the hip, Rambo-style, as in Equalizer 2000. Why? Because it was just too damn cool not to squeeze for a feature’s worth of production value? Or maybe as a wink to fans? The reason doesn’t matter, because both work. It is very cool and it is very funny. Which is basically a summation of the entire aesthetic.
While some of the action footage is re-used from film to film, it should be stressed that the footage is pretty badass. Inexpensive digital effects are an inescapable fact of today’s straight-to-streaming-video action films; the absence of green screens and the abundance of real explosions and fire are essential to the lasting appeal of Santiago’s films (for real, some motherfucker is always getting set on fire). Late career efforts like Bloodfist 2050 (2005) and Water Wars (2014) used digital effects, but there’s a special value and ambience to Santiago’s ‘80s movies: their in-camera vehicular stunts and jarring gunshots keep them bursting with vitality, even decades later.
Santiago worked in markets heavily skewed toward male viewership and, while many of his films featured women and people of color in the lead roles, his post-apocalyptic fare is almost entirely the domain of white dudes. The Sisterhood (1988) is a notable exception. In this one, society is being re-built on the pillars of religion and commerce, both of which predictably commodify women. The titular sisterhood is a group of women who live well outside of society and “won’t be ruled by men.” Further segregating the ladies is a latent mutant gift that reveals itself “when she passes from girlhood.” The special abilities are different for each woman and include the gift of healing, the ability to shoot lasers from eyeballs, the power to move small objects telekinetically and—of surprisingly practical use—the ability to communicate telepathically with a bird.
The more or less straight-forward efforts (Stryker, Wheels of Fire, Equalizer 2000, and 1992’s Raiders of the Sun) remain my favorites, but one endearing trait of Santiago as a filmmaker is his slavish devotion to formulas and tropes mixed with his capacity to blend genres that mix like oil and water. The Sisterhood took the post-apocalyptic genre and mixed in elements of sword and sorcery epics with unclear rules: combat of the hand to hand, bow and arrow, and sword fighting variety is prevalent, but people also ride cars and motorcycles and shoot the occasional bazooka, but nobody has guns (until an ancient arsenal is discovered and its purpose eventually worked out).
But Future Hunters takes the cake for bonkers. It begins as another post-apocalyptic actioner with a chase and a fight scene that could’ve appeared in any of the others, but quickly changes genres and becomes a time-travel adventure, and though Norton’s muscular-man-from-the-future-arrives-in-1980s-L.A.-shortly-before-the-nuclear-war set-up sure seems like an attempt to capture some of that sweet Terminator appeal, the Road Warrior and Terminator elements are quickly swept aside in favor of a globe-trotting-race-against-Nazis-for-a-mysterious-religious-relic-a-la-Indian-Jones flavor, albeit one that can always spare a few minutes for another genre—such as a single helping of kung fu heroics. The bait and switch applies to heroes as well as genres. Norton is quickly supplanted by the team of Robert Patrick and Linda Carol, and just as Bruce Le appears ready to steal the film from them, he ends up making his exit after one scene.
Aside from a willingness (if not eagerness) to engage in this sometimes bizarre genre cross-pollination, Santiago’s films were often built on scripts that covered the ground between unconventional and inept. Though they featured cliché-ridden scenarios full of leaden dialogue, they never quite bounced the way you’d expect them to. Some characters die suddenly, others pop up and take over or switch loyalties without much fidelity to logic or conventional screenwriting wisdom. In fact, the scripts often feel more like thick, visible stitching that is binding disparate films into one Frankenstein-ian monster than the blueprint someone would (or could) attempt to build a movie from.
And yet the combination of populist appeal, blatant thievery, genuine badassery, and cheapskate hilarity (plus the ever-growing appetite to process decimation anxiety through pop culture) should ensure that the films of Cirio Santiago continue to survive, thrive, stimulate, and educate in this post-multi-plex-apocalyptic movie world.