Color, 1985, 81m.
Directed by Cirio H. Santiago
Starring Gary Watkins, Laura Banks, Lynda Wiesmeier, Linda Grovener, Joseph Anderson, Joseph Zucchero, Jack S. Daniels, Steve Parvin
Code Red (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)
When people think of '80s post-nuclear films as dusty, cheap productions with lots of actors in crazy outfits zooming around in dirty cars, this is exactly the kind of thing they have in mind. Commissioned by Roger Corman as a project for his frequent Filipino collaborator Cirio H. Santiago (the guy behind the vast majority of Filipino exploitation imports dating back to the early '70), this one ticks off all the necessary boxes for a very derivative but undeniably entertaining Road Warrior cash-in.
A loner named Trace (Watkins) jets into a makeshift desert wasteland village where he meets up with his perky peroxide-blonde sister, Arlie (late Playboy Playmate Wiesmeier), and her territorial but friendly boyfriend, Bo (Parvin), who's set to duel in a local tournament in which two guys whack at each other with a pair of metal pipes. His opponent gets switched at the last minute for a rigged match, which puts Bo at the brink of being killed before Trace sets him and saves him. That move costs them as the hooligans behind the fight go after them in hot pursuit, which results in a lot of cars flying off of cliffs and exploding. Eventually the bad guys, who are ordered by Trace's old nemesis Scourge (Anderson, aka Filipino acting and production vet Joe Mari Avellana), get their hands on Arlie, whom they lash topless to the hood of one of their cars and take off to be sexually assaulted, and Bo, who gets his pants hauled down and then dragged brutally behind one of the cars until Trace finally has to put him out of his misery. The rest of the film is essentially a showdown between Trace and a new cohort, Stinger (Banks), as they tangle with Scourge's men, fend off some pasty sub-humanoid dwellers, rescue a tough psychic named Spike (Grovener), and stumble across a makeshift rocket under construction by some of their neighbors. Of course, everything eventually leads to another car chase or explosion before the semi-happy ending.
From the opening shots of Trace's jet-propelled car, it's clear where Santiago and company are drawing inspiration, and if you're a post nuke nut, this one has plenty of trashy pleasures to offer. Wiesmeier provides an inordinate amount of T&A for the subgenre, Anderson hams it up royally as the main baddie (in a role originally slated for Fear frontman Lee Ving before he bolted from the production under mysterious circumstances), and the story manages to throw in enough curve balls to keep things interesting, especially those creepy underground cannibals. Boosting the production more than it deserves is a solid orchestral score by Christopher Young, a recent UCLA grad who had just moved up from films like The Dorm That Dripped Blood to New World films like Def-Con 4 and Avenging Angel. Of course, he would soon score Hellraiser and move up to the big time with a string of big studio films like Sinister and Drag Me to Hell.
Strangely difficult to see for much of its existence, Wheels of Fire bowed on VHS in America from Vestron and popped up around the world from a variety of other labels. However, it essentially vanished entirely in the '90s and never saw an official DVD release anywhere, though it was slated at one point by New Concorde before Corman's short-lived deal with Disney. Fortunately it managed to leapfrog all the way over to Blu-ray courtesy of a limited edition from Code Red, available either as a single release or as part of a post nuke bundle with The Sisterhood and Equalizer 2000. Image quality is obviously a massive improvement over the previous '80s-era transfer, framed at 1.78:1 and looking substantially cleaner, sharper, and healthier than before. However, it also still looks like a very cheap, grubby Filipino movie shot in the desert, so keep your expectations in check given the source. The DTS-HD MA two-channel track sounds fine given the pretty flat nature of the original elements; Young's score sounds fairly solid though. The film can also be played with a "Katarina's Post Nuke Theatre" option with hostess Katarina Leigh Waters starting off in a car race as "Mad Kat" and rattling through the major facts and credits for the major participants. A brief (3-minute) interview with Corman essentially covers his rapport with Santiago and how the script by Frederick Bailey came about after another of his stories was turned down. More substantial is a 12-minute interview with Bailey himself, who talks about how he got his start with Corman acting in Gas-s-s-s and was informed at the first screening how different this film would be from what he originally wrote. He also went on to write Demon of Paradise, which brought back Banks after Corman violated her contract by using another model on the poster for this film. Corman's post-production producer Clark Henderson also appears for a featurette (just under 10 minutes) covering the Corman/Filipino era, the actors on this film, and the knack for finding unknown talent including a young Robert Patrick popping up for Warlords from Hell. Finally the disc closes out with spoiler-laden trailers for the film under its current title as well as the alternate Desert Warrior title, plus a bonus video trailer for Equalizer 2000.
Reviewed on June 27, 2015.