Director: Cirio H. Santiago
Vinegar Syndrome

Vinegar Syndrome’s latest Drive-in Collection disc takes in a double bill of prolific Filipino exploitation auteur Cirio H. Santiago: DEATH FORCE and VAMPIRE HOOKERS.

A trio of Vietnam vets – Doug (James Iglehart, BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS), Morelli (Carmen Argenziano, NIGHT OF THE COBRA WOMAN), and McGee (Leon Isaac Kennedy, PENITENTIARY) – on their way back to the states make a stopover in China to sell a shipment of cocaine smuggled in a coffin to “The Chinaman” (Vic Diaz, WONDER WOMEN). After collecting their payment, Morelli and McGee double-cross Doug and dump him off the boat. Somehow Doug survives being stabbed and having his throat cut and washes up on an isolated beach where a pair of Japanese soldiers who have been hiding out in a cave since World War II rescue him and nurse him back to health for use as a “Man Friday” to do all of the dirty work. Meanwhile, Morelli and McGee have returned to Los Angeles, donned forties gangster wear and have violently disposed of their competition and taken over the drug trade, and McGee is putting the moves on Doug’s “widow” Maria (Kennedy’s actual spouse Jayne Kennedy, MS. 45) who is left alone to raise her son Jimmy (Iglehart’s actual son James Monroe Iglehart, now a stage actor).

The elder of the Japanese soldiers is a samurai sworn to uphold the honor of the emperor – and bristles when Doug tells him that the emperor surrendered years ago (“American propaganda!”) – but he sees potential in Doug to temper his anger and become a skilled samurai (“You do not become a man until you first become a child”). Meanwhile, Maria is fired from her job as a lounge singer and – thanks to McGee’s machinations – unable to find work anywhere else, but she refuses his advances and he shows his true colors. Doug sees his opportunity to get back to the states when the island is visited by soldiers surveying the island and picking up stragglers. When he arrives home, a helpful cabbie (seeming a fixture in director Santiago’s films, as well as Filipino exploitation in general) fills him in on who the town has changed with the takeover by Morelli and McGee. Doug resolves to “pay them a visit” after he settles down and finds his wife and child; however, he discovers that Maria has moved out of their home and is no longer working at the club. Armed with his samurai sword and a tracksuit, he begins slicing and dicing his way through Morelli and McGee’s operations while also searching for his wife and son.

DEATH FORCE isn’t the first of hybrid Blaxploitation/martial arts film. Other examples include Al Adamson’s BLACK SAMURAI (also an alternate title for this film) and DEATH DIMENSION, BLACK BELT JONES, THAT MAN BOLT, as well as director Cirio Santiago’s own TNT JACKSON and EBONY, IVORY & JADE. While DEATH FORCE becomes entertaining in the third act, it’s a bit of a slog before then; and it’s hard to determine on whom to pin the blame. Santiago is no master craftsman, but most of his efforts are undemanding in their entertainment. The joint editing credits of Gervasio Santos (DEMON OF PARADISE) and producer Waters suggest some post-production tinkering, possibly reshooting since Irene Waters (who plays Maria’s waitress friend), Jayne Kennedy, James Iglehart, Leon Isaac Kennedy, Carmen Argenziano, and Armando Federico (who plays Rico, a gangster who has betrayed his boss and taken over his operation under Morelli and McGee) all receive associate producer credits like the five main actors involved in the reshoot of the Waters-produced Filipino/American production ALLEY CAT left uncompleted by the original director and finished by distributor Film Ventures’ Igo Kantor. Exploitation favorite Jaime Mendoza-Nava (THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN) is prominently billed with the music score, but the end credits also have a music credit for Eddie Villanueva (SHE-DEVILS IN CHAINS). This certainly isn’t the first augmented Santiago production. FLY ME featured additional action scenes directed by Jonathan Demme during New World’s post-production of the film, and the later TNT JACKSON-remake FIRECRACKER had an additional action scene – including a recreation of the heroine’s topless fight scene – directed by New World editor Allan Holzmann.

The story is credited to Santiago and the script to Howard Cohen, a Roger Corman/New World Pictures alum who first collaborated with Santiago on COVER GIRL MODELS. He would write this disc’s co-feature VAMPIRE HOOKERS the same year, and later STRYKER for Santiago (and wound continue on with Corman during the Concorde period with efforts like DEATHSTALKER and BARBARIAN QUEEN). The first two thirds intercuts quick sequences of Morelli and McGee eliminating their competition with not-so-much tranquil as listless scenes of Doug’s recovery and training. The gunplay is actually rather tame compared to some of the film’s brutalization of its female characters (although this is tempered by the fact that two of the actors involved were married, unless you want to interpret these scenes as some sort of psychodrama exercise). The violence quotient is upped considerably during the third act with Doug lopping off heads and limbs with much arterial spraying, as well as a de rigueur downbeat ending that is shoved to the very last second, you’ll be wondering “who the hell was that?”

The film was released theatrically stateside as DEATH FORCE by Caprican Three and then reissued in 1981 by pre-Menahem Golan 21st Century Film Corporation and subsequently on Continental Video as FIGHTING MAD (with posters billing the Kennedys – “She’s in PLAYBOY. He’s out of PENITENTIARY” – over Iglehart) with twenty minutes lopped away including the WTF ending shot by freeze-framing seconds earlier. Vinegar Syndrome’s progressive, anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) transfer of DEATH FORCE bears the title VENGEANCE IS MINE, and is the uncut version at an epic (for an exploitation film) one-hundred-and-ten minutes. For the most part, the transfer looks good given the original cinematography, but the entirety of reel four features one green vertical strip dancing in the middle of the frame (the disc’s chapters are divided by reel rather than scene or sequence). The end credits also seem to derive from an inferior source. The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio is problem-free.

In VAMPIRE HOOKERS, sailors Tony (Bruce Fairbairn, CYCLONE) and Terry (Trey Wilson, THREE WARRIORS) are stationed in the Philippines and in search of action. After striking out at the local clubs – including one for transvestites – their chief petty officer Eddie (Lex Winter) and his knowledgeable cab driver/guide Julio (Leo Martinez, TNT JACKSON) turn them on to one of the local hot spots. Tony spots the stunning Cherish (Karen Stride, RUNAWAY NIGHTMARE) but gets into a brawl with Terry and the locals while Julio introduces her to Eddie. Cherish takes Eddie back to her digs, the local cemetery where she lives with two other “vampire hookers” Suzy (Lenka Novak, SLAUGHTERHOUSE ROCK) and Marcy (Katie Dolan) who supply fresh blood for themselves and their king Richmond Reed (John Carradine, HOUSE OF THE SEVEN CORPSES) who whiles his time away spouting Shakespeare (who is sure was a fellow vampire) and Walt Whitman over Bloody Marys (whilst lamenting that vodka is the only alcohol that mixes well with blood). When Eddie fails to report back to base, Tony and Terry take it upon themselves to find him and find themselves in a not-entirely-unenviable position since “Warm blood isn’t all they suck!”

If you thought the nadir of vampire comedies was Freddie Francis’ THE VAMPIRE HAPPENING or Carl Schenkel’s DRACULA BLOWS HIS COOL, then you haven’t experienced VAMPIRE HOOKERS. The script was again written by Howard Cohen, and the comedy is along the lines of his own directorial efforts SATURDAY THE 14TH and SATURDAY THE 14TH STRIKES BACK. Carradine entertains himself spouting Shakespeare throughout in between some of the cheesier lines (“Blood is thicker than water” he says when one of his vampire babes says she would prefer a Scotch and water), but I wouldn’t call it any more of a dignified performance than Vincent Price in BLOODBATH AT THE HOUSE OF DEATH. The other actors are hampered by the script (“It’s not murder, it’s dinner!”) with Fairbairn coming across the best as the straight man while Wilson’s Texan fraidy cat is grating. As with many Filipino exploitation films, this one is rather stingy on the exploitable elements other than an interminable seven minute sequence of heavy petting with oblique views of nudity and a music track that seems to date the film at least a decade earlier than its release date (cut this and some crude dialogue and you might have a time-waster TV movie). The surprise ending will be no surprise to anyone who has seen THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS, THE DEVIL’S WEDDING NIGHT, or either of the COUNT YORGA films. The ubiquitous Vic Diaz is once again on hand, here as moronic wannabe-vampire manservant Pavo who spends much time playing vampire – with a burlap sack cape and fake fangs – and farting.

VAMPIRE HOOKERS was first released in 1978 by Caprican Three and on video by Continental Video under that title and by AIR Video as TWICE BITTEN in big box editions. It first arrived on DVD in a 16:9 transfer courtesy of BCI/Eclipse in a double bill with COUNT DRACULA’S GREAT LOVE (although the cover used the reissue title CEMETERY GIRLS). Code Red Releasing later reissued this double feature with an added commentary on VAMPIRE HOOKERS by production supervisor Emmett Alston (who later directed NEW YEAR’S EVIL). I have not seen either of those releases, but Vinegar Syndrome’s progressive, anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) transfer comes from their own 2K scan of the original 35mm interpositive; and the results are immaculate (no complaints about the Dolby Digital 2.0 mono audio track either). There is no trailer for DEATH FORCE here under any of its titles, but the disc does include as its only extra a trailer for VAMPIRE HOOKERS (1:50) narrated by Carradine (“Close encounters of a different kind”).
(Eric Cotenas)