Director: Ian Barry
Umbrella Entertainment

THE CHINA SYNDROME meets MAD MAX in the Ozploitation outbreak thriller THE CHAIN REACTION, on Blu-ray from Umbrella Entertainment.

Mechanic Larry Stilson (Steve Bisley, SUMMER CITY) and his wife Carmen (Arna-Maria Winchester, INITIATION) have planned a dirty weekend without the kids at a friend's cabin in the countryside of Western Australia. Along the way, Larry has a run-in with pompous Junior Constable Pigot (Richard Moir, AN INDECENT OBSESSION) over his souped-up car and nearly runs down the apparent survivor of a wreck they discover off the side of the road. They take in the injured and seemingly amnesiac Heinrich (A TOWN CALLED ALICE's Ross Thompson) who believes he is still a college student studying chemistry. What neither the couple nor Heinrich realize is that he is actually a scientist working for the Western Atomic Longterm Dumping Organization (WALDO) who has been exposed to a fatal dose of nuclear waste from a leak caused by an earth tremor and escaped when he learned that the company's president (Arthur Sherman, THE PUNISHER) has no plans to warn the public about the danger of the waste reaching the water table. Furthermore, WALDO has dispatched a team of "garbage cleaners" lead by Gray (Ralph Cotterill, THE SURVIVOR) to silence him and anyone else who may know about or be exposed to the waste. They have latched onto Larry through a case of crossed wires with the local switchboard attempting to place a call by Larry to his mother-in-law to check on the kids and Heinrich attempting to place a call to Eagle (Hugh Keays-Byrne, MAD DOG MORGAN), an anti-nuclear waste activist. While Carmel tries to piece together the clues of Heinrich's memory flashes as he continues to get sicker, Larry finds himself on the run from Gray's men until he is detained by the local constabulary who believe the legitimacy of the sudden quarantine of the entire town.

An anti-nuclear message film and outbreak thriller under the guise of an Ozploitation action film, THE CHAIN REACTION suffers from the incongruous elements but nevertheless each aspect has its successful moments. The corporate corruption at the expense of human lives aspect hits the right notes of injustice, the George Miller-directed action sequences are bracing, and the ways in which Heinrich's memory is triggered as he continues to mentally regress are novel. At first, Larry comes across as annoying thick-headed when listening might be helpful, but we start to cheer him on in his drive to not only save his wife but to visit some gratuitous violence on the villains just for the hell of it. On the other hand, Cotterill's scenery chewing makes him hard to take seriously even at his most gleefully sadistic, and the resolution may be a bit too tidy for those expecting something more realistically downbeat or at least a sting-in-the-tail. Compromises due to budget and a troubled production schedule result in a film that seems smaller scale than the poster art suggests. The behind the scenes crew include some of Australia's top-tier talents of the eighties, from production designer Graham "Grace" Walker (THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU), costume designer Norma Moriceau (DEAD CALM), and cinematographer Russell Boyd (PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK). Writer/director Ian Barry only directed a handful of additional features including the Australian western WRANGLER, the Phillipines-lensed ROBOT JOX sequel ROBO WARRIORS, the Brooke Shields thriller THE SEVENTH FLOOR, and the family film JOEY but he continues to work prolifically as an episodic television director. MAD MAX was not yet released at the time of production, but a young Mel Gibson makes a cameo appearance here.

Released directly-to-video stateside followed by an iffy triple-feature DVD release from BFS called GREAT DOWN UNDER MOVIES (with the dramas TIM and THE RIGHT-HAND MAN), THE CHAIN REACTION finally got respectful treatment when Umbrella put out a region 0 PAL special edition DVD featuring an anamorphic transfer, a retrospective featurette, and some deleted and extended scenes. Their new Blu-ray ports these over but makes the upgrade worthy on several fronts. Although the cover provides no information on the transfer, 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.85:1 widescreen image does not appear to be an aged master, boasting good detail in the bright daylight exteriors and the inky blacks of the night scenes, and only a few specs here and there. The dialogue is clear on the DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track while the synthesizer scoring of Andrew Thomas Wilson is undistorted even at its most bombastic attempts to jolt the viewer. Optional English SDH subtitles are also provided.

Carried over from the DVD is "Thrills & Nuclear Spills" (32:56), a documentary with director Barry, producer David Elfik (NEWSFRONT), and actor Bisley. Barry recalls the concept behind the film that waste could be buried deep enough in the geologically-stable Australia and the belief that such a leak caused by a tremor could never happen. Elfik had gone to school with George Miller and bringing him on as associate producer allowed them to avail themselves of some of MAD MAX's crew and actors. Bisley recalls the circumstances of the shoot and how the production wore out their welcome on location by going over schedule and various production mishaps (including an accident with Gray's car on the first day of filming that meant having to cut away before and after characters got in and out of it since the doors could no longer be opened). Also carried over is "The Sparks Obituary" (24:50) which was a pitch reel in the form of a short for investors to give them an idea of how it would be visualized. The feature went unproduced but it led to Elfik and Barry putting together the more commercial THE CHAIN REACTION. The story of a corporation's development of technology that allows for the visualization of thought patterns as an innovation for cinema and its first test subject in Harry Sparks, a once great filmmaker struck blind, does have in common with THE CHAIN REACTION the theme of corporate greed at the expense of human life as the project's corporate representative is the one who seems to be calling the shots rather than the technology's developer with disastrous results.

New to the Blu-ray are extended interviews from the seemingly bottomless well that is Mark Hartley's documentary NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD (64:10) featuring extended interviews with actors Bisley and Winchester, director Barry, and associate producer Ross Matthews (SUMMER OF SECRETS). Bisley covers some of the same stories about the location shoot but also discusses the film's nudity within the context of being expected to "nude up" in films and stage work of the period (although he does make a crack about his ridiculously tight pants in the film). He also provides his opinion on the film's "clunky execution." Winchester also discusses the film's nudity but mainly focuses on the necessity of making a more commercial treatment of the film's anti-nuclear to reach audiences. Barry also discusses the film's genre treatment of a serious topic but also provides background on the development of the project, the low budget they were given, and being cocky enough to think that his footage would be so good the producers would have no choice but to put more money into it; instead, it necessitated various compromises and the filming of additional scenes in sets created in Elfik's own home. Matthews recalls budgeting the film and the challenges of finishing it (including completion guarantors arriving on location and looking over their shoulders).

In addition to the feature presentation (92:24), the disc's first new extras is the film's workprint cut titled THE MAN AT THE EDGE OF THE FREEWAY (93:56) upscaled from a fullscreen video source and featuring a handful of additional bits that can also be watched with contextual footage in the disc's selection of deleted and extended scenes (8:35). The additional bits are interesting but the final cut of the film works without them. On the drive to the country, Carmel overhears a radio news story about the Baader-Meinhof Gang, and the later scene of Gray's arrival has him explaining to Pigot that they are hunting down Heinrich as an escaped member of the gang. This cover story might seem to make more logical but the film manages to demonstrate without it why Pigot would assist him without question. The finale also plays out a little differently with the survival of one character seemingly killed off, but the resolution is unchanged. The disc also includes the film's theatrical trailer (3:40), VHS trailer (2:20), TV Spot (0:33), and an image gallery (2:58). The cover is reversible. (Eric Cotenas)