The Corman-Santiago Postatomic Cinematic Universe


Red Shirt
Following the astounding international success of Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior in 1981, the prolific ultra-low-budget trash filmmakers Cirio H. Santiago (1936-2008) and Roger Corman (1926-2024) collaborated to make Stryker (1983), which Variety called a "grade-D imitation" of the Australian phenomenon. Despite the consistently scathing critical reception, profits from international screenings and explosive popularity on the new home video market led the pair to repeat this formula another five times over the next decade with Wheels of Fire (1985), Equalizer 2000 (1987), The Sisterhood (1988), Dune Warriors (1991), and Raiders of the Sun (1992). Santiago and Corman were each experienced in both direction and production, but for these six films, Santiago always directed and Corman always produced.

All six movies were shot in Santiago's native Philippines, reusing the same rock quarries, ruins of the old Spanish walled city Intramuros in Manila, sandy backroads and sand dunes, old cars painted black with bad spraypaint designs and goofy fake spikes, costumes of black leather with fake spikes and football pads, some random crane thing, plywood sets painted to (very unconvincingly) look like brick or stone, props, background actors, and even footage, including a hilariously terrible matte shot of a car jumping a fake gap which makes everything else in this nearly-no-money world look expensive. Even the lead and supporting roles often saw the same minor actors play multiple characters across films (or essentially the same character by another name).

I watched The Sisterhood perhaps a couple years ago after chancing across it in a Google search for postapocalyptic films. I was intrigued to discover one that was new to me. Set in 2021, this happens to be the most unusual of the half dozen and has even been described as containing a strong feminist undercurrent throughout, with the vast majority of men outside of a noble few (including, of course, the heroic lead) being portrayed as hopelessly savage, incapable of rebuilding the world they destroyed, and in need of a supernatural sisterhood of earth witches to guide them. Having lurked in the shadows for generations, this sisterhood appears in full force near the end to usher in a new era of peace and reconstruction, armed with a cache of forbidden knowledge, technology, and firepower recently unearthed by the sister we follow throughout the film. I'll always remember Chuck Wagner's (b. 1958) hilariously-delivered line upon reaching a small, fortified settlement which is the pinnacle of civilization and culture in his postatomic wasteland: "This is Calcara!"

I returned to watch the other five over the past few days, starting with Dune Warriors, starring David Carradine (1936-2009) as a mystic elder warrior in 2040 who leads an impromptu alliance of fellow lone wolves Richard Hill (b. 1953), Blake Boyd (b. 1970), and Maria Isabel Lopez (b. 1958) in the defense of the hamlet of Chinle, whose villagers' well is coveted by a warlord played by Luke Askew (1932-2012).

Having just watched him forsake the way of the wandering warrior of the wastes after winning the heart of village princess Jillian McWhirter (b. 1962) as Dorian in Dune Warriors, seeing Boyd reappear as married militiaman Talbot in Raiders of the Sun was a bit strange. Talbot joins his valkyriesque wife Vera (Brigitta Stenberg) and commando Brodie (Australian martial artist Richard Norton, b. 1950) in a fight to save their democratic Alpha League from the combined armies of the blackclad fascist Colonel Clay and Clay's jean-jacketed crazy biker brother Hoghead, as portrayed by William Steiss (1945-1995) and Rick Dean (1952-2006). You may notice some shots reused from Stryker, Wheels of Fire, and Equalizer 2000.

Next, I watched Wheels of Fire, in which wanderer Trace (Gary Watkins) and his tough bohemian sister Arlie (Lynda Wiesmeier, 1963-2012) join mercenary Stinger (Laura Banks, b. 1956, who played the uncredited role of Khan's navigator in The Wrath of Khan) and—after her rescue from bizarre "sand people" who live under the dunes—telepathic falconer Spike (Linda Grovenor, b. 1956) are pursued by the warlord Scourge (Joe Mari Avellana, 1941-2011) as he moves to destroy the Ownership, an apparently benevolent league of allied settlements for whom Trace once worked. The four save the Ownership's army from falling into a trap laid by Scourge, and freedom spreads across the land...

...but not really, because in Equalizer 2000, "a hundred years after the nuclear winter," the Ownership has abandoned all pretense of democracy and established itself for what passes as a superpower in this dark age. Accordingly, the green camo uniforms have been replaced with the usual villainous black (neither of which make any sense in a desert). This is the only one of the six with an explicitly established setting: amusingly, North Alaska, which, due to increased solar activity, now looks exactly like the Filipino desert seen in the rest of these movies (because it is). Richard Norton, who would later play Brodie in Raiders of the Sun, here plays Slade, an Ownership captain who goes rogue after his father, a colonel, is assassinated by intentional friendly fire from his megalomaniacal rival Colonel Lawton (William Steiss, who later played the essentially identical Colonel Clay in Raiders of the Sun) in his plot to seize command of the Ownership.

While wandering alone, Slade rescues Karen, played by Corinne Wahl (formerly and currently Corinne Alphen) (b. 1954). Karen, in turn, takes Slade to her village so Slade can recover, after which he completes another Ownership defector's work on the Equalizer 2000, a combined minigun/grenade launcher with regenerative ammunition. This leads to lengthy pyrotechnic displays during battles (both during the day and at night) which outdo all of the other movies' gratuitous mag dumps and explosion fests. The movie's writer, Frederick Bailey (b. 1946), appears as Lawton's right hand, Hayward. In one of his debut roles, Robert Patrick (b. 1958) appears as Deke, a bandit forced into the Ownership military. Years later, an extra in the movie, Matthew Westfall, met a boy in Africa who recognized him and excitedly took him to see a hand-drawn replica of the movie's poster. The boy explained that Equalizer 2000 is his village's favorite movie, and when Westfall asked why, the boy exclaimed, "The gun!" After defeating the Ownership, Slade destroys the Equalizer 2000 and his allies follow his example. This is also the only one of the six movies without any nudity, whereas a woman's shirt is always ripped open by a leering pack of mooks at some point in the others, making Equalizer 2000 simultaneously the hardest and the tamest of the bunch.
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I finished with the first, Stryker, starring Steve Sandor (1937-2017) (Lars in "The Gamesters of Triskelion") as the title character, a road warrior whose estranged brother Trun, who leads a hidden community with a vast supply of water, has been captured by the warlord Kardis. Stryker rescues Trun and leads a dwarven army to defeat Kardis. This one has a slightly less kitschy look because the vehicles are unmodified, and the costumes lack the goofy and dated postapocalyptic accoutrement of the later movies. The rainfall which heralds the end of the final battle evokes midcentury sword and sandal epics.

Stryker, Wheels of Fire, Dune Warriors, and Raiders of the Sun all feature a friendly tribe of dwarves who play a pivotal role in the final battle, assisting the heroes with bows and spears, always portrayed by the same group of Filipino dwarves. Their leader is always played by the same actor (hilariously dubbed in high, normal, and deep voices depending on the movie). I couldn't find any information on these actors. Equalizer 2000 features a peaceful warrior tribe of Filipino actors of normal size.

Except in The Sisterhood, a heroine in love with a hero dies in battle in a stupid way.

Lee Ving (b. 1950) of the band Fear was originally cast to play Scourge in Wheels of Fire, but he disappeared shortly before the first day of shooting (supposedly because someone was trying to kill him), so the movie's associate producer and production designer Joe Mari Avellana replaced him.

Colonel Lawton just might possibly have been named after Henry Ware Lawton.

These movies were made for about a half-million dollars each, but since they were shot on film, they exist in high definition, and thanks to the boutique labels Scorpion Releasing, Shout! Factory, and Kino Lorber, all six are on Blu-ray in 16:9 1080p, and all are streamable (although Raiders of the Sun is available in HD only on the Blu-ray double feature disc with Wheels of Fire).

Except for the Ownership appearing in both Wheels of Fire and Equalizer 2000, none of the six movies are explicitly connected, but I don't think there are any explicit contradictions, either, so some canon welding could establish a cinematic universe. Both Wheels of Fire and The Sisterhood have a woman with a telepathic connection to a falcon, and Stryker features a small group of Amazons; perhaps members of or precursors to the Sisterhood? Do so many characters look exactly alike because of cloning, or are they just siblings or cousins? Equalizer 2000 occurs in Alaska and includes locations seen in the other movies, so do they all occur in Alaska? How far apart from each other do these stories occur? How did these settlements and cultures develop? Logistically, how do they survive? How are a few women able to maintain perfect hair, skin, and makeup while wandering the wastes? How does everyone (men and women alike) avoid sunburn despite exposing a lot of skin? Why do Brodie and Slade both have identical Australian accents in addition to having identical appearances? They're both seen performing superhuman feats. Are they androids, cyborgs, or mutants—or perhaps the same android or cyborg or mutant?

I also watched Future Hunters (1986), which begins with Richard Norton as yet another postapocalyptic commando, but ten minutes into the movie, he uses the tip of the Spear of Destiny to travel back to 1986 and prevent the nuclear holocaust from occurring. Minutes after arriving in the present, he's murdered by a biker gang, leaving a young heiress named Michelle (Linda Carol, b. 1970) and her ex-Marine boyfriend Slade (Robert Patrick) to complete his mission. This movie is streamable and on DVD (exclusively in Mill Creek's twelve-disc Sci-Fi Invasion: 50 Movie Set) but is limited to a terrible 4:3 SD transfer. The acting and writing are laughably atrocious to the point of making the six movies discussed above seem Shakespearean in comparison. It's one of the most bizarre and ridiculous movies I've ever seen.

Finally, Santiago and Corman made one last postapocalyptic film together, Water Wars (or Road Raiders), which was Santiago's last project before his death in 2008. With Corman as executive producer, Jim Wynorski (b. 1950) completed the project which was released on a now very difficult to find DVD in 2014. While Raiders of the Sun looks similar enough to the previous movies for the footage it reuses to blend well, Water Wars' mishmash of eighties film footage with new material shot with a Syfy TV movie digital video look doesn't work at all. The others (even Future Hunters to a lesser extent) are good bad movies. This is just bad.
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