The martial-arts-horror film is a difficult cinematic feat to pull off convincingly. The action needs to be done well enough to satisfy the chopsocky crowd, but the horror needs to have the right set-up and scares. That’s not always the most natural fit. Imagine, then, also trying to squeeze in the silly and salacious antics of a sex comedy, all set aboard a cruise ship. On paper, this shouldn’t work! On screen, it sometimes doesn’t! On a toasted bagel, it’s delicious! To hell with our pre-conceived notions, though, because filmmaker Edward D. Murphy had a vision for 1982’s RAW FORCE (a.k.a. KUNG FU CANNIBALS) that I can only assume was informed by the consumption of late-night spaghetti, LOVE BOAT re-runs, and psychedelic drugs (in reverse order). Let’s dig in.
On an island somewhere in the South Pacific, the souls of disgraced martial artists throughout history — some are samurai, others are Shaolin monks, etc. — are doomed to an eternity of fantastic weather and drinks served out of coconuts. A group of evil monks living on the island (led by Filipino acting legend Vic Diaz) has determined through trial and error that by sacrificing innocent women and eating their flesh, they can actually conjure up the island’s undead and deploy them to do their bidding (as eating fish just made the undead twitch slightly and go back to sleep). But while the island has plenty of undead martial artists and caverns full of pure uncut jade, it completely lacks women. An opportunistic German with a Hitlery moustache named Speer (Ralph Lombardi) employs a hippie named Cooper (Mark Tanous) and his pals to kidnap sex workers on the mainland and fly them to the island in exchange for the monks’ precious jade. If you ever forget how the laws of supply and demand work, this is a good example to mention in your Economics 101 class.
Outsiders have dubbed this spooky, isolated corner of the world, “Warrior’s Island” and a niche tourism industry has sprung up around it. Ship owner Hazel Buck (Hope Holiday) and her ship captain, Harry Dodds (Cameron Mitchell) operate a leisure cruise liner for which Warrior’s Island is a port of call on the voyage. The latest round of curious tourists includes a few handsome dudes from the Burbank karate club, Mike O’Malley (Geoffrey Binney), John Taylor (John Dresden), and Gary Schwartz (John Locke). Joining them aboard are the usual tourists, like married couple Ann and Lloyd Davis (played by Jennifer Holmes and Carl Anthony, respectively), and a couple of secretly great fighters — Los Angeles SWAT team bad-ass, Cookie Winchell (Jillian Kesner), and a friendly guy named Chin (Rey Malonzo).
Dodds steers the ship while squabbling with Hazel, the booze flows without pause, strangers pair off for random sexual escapades, husbands step out on their wives for unfaithful excursions, and everyone is having a grand old time. But when a couple of the passengers encounter Speer and Cooper on the mainland during one of the kidnapping operations, all hell breaks loose. The baddies follow them back to the ship with reinforcements and board the ship with bad intentions that have nothing to do with overindulgence of the buffet service. Will the cruise-goers be able to fend off these unwanted party crashers? Will our heroic tourists make it to Warrior’s Island to take in the sights? Better yet, will the ship run out of mai tais or are they truly bottomless as advertised?
If you like your cinema weird and wild with a musty grindhouse stank, this is the flick of your dreams. Despite trying to stamp this work with so many hallmarks of the exploitation cinema of the day (and doing none of it especially well) Murphy still manages to wrangle all the elements together for an enjoyable movie. It’s flawed but fun! RAW FORCE fell right in the middle of Cameron Mitchell’s prime check-cashing run (some will say it lasted a couple decades) but he’s motivated to steal scenes and has good chemistry with Hope Holiday, his then-girlfriend. The ship’s cast of characters are a good mix, but I can’t lie: I couldn’t tell the Burbank karate bros from each other at all, making the presence of Kesner and Malonzo — and their high usage rates in the fight scenes — all the more essential. The villains are mostly good. The monks are creepy, cackling, and lecherous. Speer is a terrific shit-bag villain. The weak link in the coalition, believe it or not, might actually be the army of undead martial artists. They have a decent look (dirty with the gray-blue hue of the DAWN OF THE DEAD zombies) but they turn out to be rather terrible and unthreatening fighters.
Before “fight choreographer” became a standard crew credit in action films, there was the catch-all “stunt coordinator” position, occupied here by Mike Stone. (Most will remember him as “Tojo Ken” in AMERICAN NINJA 2; he did fight choreography for four of the films in that franchise). Outside of Rey Malonzo, I’m not sure how many members of the RAW FORCE cast were serious martial artists before they got to this film set, but the fight scenes are enjoyable for what they are — energetic without being especially technical. Case in point is the cramped cabin fight between a thug wearing a helmet with a swastika while throwing around gasoline — let’s call him Petrol Nazi — and an unusually vociferous guy who will just not stay down no matter how beaten up he gets. His persistence becomes almost comical as he screams and kicks his way through the bathroom door behind which Petrol Nazi is hiding out, and stuffs his head into a toilet. Did I mention there’s a nude woman strapped to the bed the entire time this fight takes place? Again, this is a strange movie.
I’ve made no secret about my admiration for the kitchen-sink film, that rare work of cinema that throws everything at the problem of filling a solid 80-90 minutes of screen time — planning, budget, and logic be damned. RAW FORCE is yet another example of that wacky witch’s brew and it has just enough spooky stuff for you chopsocky heads looking to get that seasonal fix.
— This content was originally posted at Fist of B-List