Radioactive Dreams: Six-String Samurai & Post Apocalyptic Cult Cinema
At some point during production, Albert Pyun’s Radioactive Dreams (1985) was taken away from the writer/director by the insurance bond company. Nevertheless, you’d be hard pressed to notice, as the movie is just as (if not more) chaotic than Pyun's average industrial playland chic ‘80s shoot 'em up. A wasteland noir where two self-described “dancing dicks”, cheekily named Phil (John Stockwell) and Marlowe (Michael Dudikoff), emerge from a sixteen-year bomb shelter stay and voyage West to see whatever sights remain after the nukes were dropped on these here United States of America.
Radioactive Dreams navigates an arid tonal minefield, populated by New Wave dirt-bike raiders, marauding cannibals, neon-hued machine gun battles, literal stick-up kids, and a massive sewer-dwelling rat who haunts the hellish scrapyard metropolis, Edge City. Oh, and the movie stops dead around two-thirds of the way through to let sub-Benatar hair rockers Sue Saad and the Next wail the movie’s defining theme song, “Guilty Pleasures”, in a fourth-wall-shattering moment of face-melting infant MTV tomfoolery. No wonder Pyun made the liability hawks nervous.
Where Executive Producer H. Frank Dominguez (The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez ) and single-feature production shingle The Vanir Group were probably expecting a salable product in the vein of George Miller's Max Mad cycle, the Hawaiian writer/director turned in a sophomore effort more in line with a deranged mescaline-laced interpretation of Saturday morning cartoons. Just as he would with future efforts Vicious Lips (1986), Cyborg (1989), Nemesis (1992) or, you know, seemingly half of his filmography, Pyun saw the apocalypse as a clean canvas for his broad strokes of tongue-in-cheek (yet deadly sincere) genre pastiche. Is the film as reckless and clumsy as it is entertaining? Absolutely. Could it have come from anyone else? Absolutely not.
Granted, Pyun’s take on the End of All Things is just as era-specific as the submissions into the subgenre that preceded it, especially once Sue Saad breaks the fourth wall, letting Radioactive Dreams take a breather before its last act by becoming a straight up music video. Similar to how the Vincent Price-starring Last Man On Earth (1964) was manufactured for American International’s drive-in dominance, and The Omega Man (1971) saw Charlton Heston navigating a post-Planet of the Apes (1968) take on Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend”, the texture and concerns of each entry are dictated by the fact that they’re a decade apart.
Even without taking Harlan Ellison's severely strange source into consideration, something as purposefully perverse as A Boy And His Dog (1975) could’ve only arrived during the outlaw New Hollywood epoch. After all, when else would ex-cowboy and Sam Peckinpah regular L.Q. Jones be able to transform baby-faced Don Johnson into a pretty boy rapist who uses the titular telepathic pup to track down fresh flesh for the taking? Our guess: probably never. In turn, Pyun simply updated this specificity for the Age of Video Stores, crafting a Vestron shelf-stuffer that's now in dire need of a Blu-ray update.
Regional influence helped perfect the post apocalyptic template with Miller’s Mad Max (1979) series, as the Outback born Ozploitation boom that defined Australia’s most prolific period of genre output was practically careening toward Officer Rockatansky’s dystopian showdown with motorized hooligans*. What began as a simple revenge tale set against the backdrop of society’s collapse quickly morphed into filmic myth-making, as Max continued past his vengeful quest to become a savior (not mention international box office sensation), battling the hockey-masked, guzzoline-hungry Lord Humungus in The Road Warrior (1981) before becoming a literal gladiator in Beyond Thunderdome (1985).
Against generational odds - not to mention a plethora of natural disasters ostensibly aimed at squashing Miller’s ongoing vision - Fury Road (2015) fitted Tom Hardy for Max’s brutish digs and even introduced a more compelling hero in Charlize Theron’s Furiosa, who rebels against despotic leader Immortan Joe (the Toecutter himself, Hugh Keays-Byrne) to help free his enslaved child brides via further astonishing vehicular mayhem. While nostalgia will forever cement The Road Warrior as this author’s franchise favorite, Fury Road achieves levels of beautiful, chaotic destruction that have possibly never been topped. The entire affair is a breathless dopamine rush of fire, blood, and twisted metal, as a then-seventy-year-old Miller seems to be screaming “witness me!” along with those mindless, emaciated, dying boys who pilot Joe’s War Rigs, hoping to arrive in Valhalla all shiny and chrome.
Perhaps the most curious piece of time-keeping post apocalyptica is Six-String Samurai (1998): a million dollar indie from Video Store Class outsider Lance Mungia (whose later claim to infamy would be writing and directing The Crow: Wicked Prayer  - yes, the one with Eddie Furlong). After meeting co-conspirator and regular Cynthia Rothrock stunt player Jeffrey Falcon at a film market, the Loyola Marymount studied film geek wandered out into Death Valley with some borrowed equipment and Fuji-donated 100 yard mags of celluloid. When they returned, the Six-String crew carried with them the hipster answer to El Topo (1970), ready to be unleashed upon an unsuspecting audience punch-drunk off a decade of ingenious whiz-kids like Quentin Tarantino.
One look at Six-String allows the viewer to recognize how Mungia was totally tuned into his scene; or, at least, the up-all-night over coffee and cigarettes in a Waffle House approximation of the flicks that defined his generation of Sundance hustlers. For all of Six-String Samurai’s dusty, Coxian myth-making about the bombs having gone off in the late '50s, encasing a certain brand of Rockabilly Americana in plutonium-licked amber as Elvis is crowned King of "Lost Vegas", it’s still nuclear Swingers (1996), sporting a similar “Vegas baby!” ethos strained through co-screenwriter/producer/star Falcon’s adoration of Japan’s Lone Wolf and Cub (1972 - 1974) splatter ronin serial.
Playing an iteration of Buddy Holly who wields both a mean guitar and sword, Falcon slashes his way across a barren dystopia, hoping to claim the throne recently vacated by a deceased King Presley (please, leave your toilet jokes at home). The bulk of Six-String is a road movie, following an episodic template very similar to Pyun’s hyperactive action reverie or the baby cart gore fests that clearly inspired it. Buddy is single-minded in his trudging pursuit of the crown, reluctantly adopting a nameless, pint-sized companion (Justin McGuire). Meanwhile, Death Himself (played by key grip Stephane Gauger, along with various interchangeable stunt players**) and His collection of archers are in hot pursuit, transforming the threadbare narrative into an inversion of Stephen King’s inaugural Dark Tower tome. In this case, it’s the Man In Black who follows our weary antihero across the wasteland, desperately attempting to halt him from reaching his fantastical destiny.
Along the way, several tribes are encountered. A legion of pissed off bowlers (who, [un]naturally, use their pins as weapons). Cannibalistic family units, frozen in a tableaux of perverted Rockwellian values (note: as Marten points out in this week's episode, a staple of the post apocalyptic subgenre). Dune occupying Russian soldiers (ostensibly responsible for the desolation that surrounds them). And, perhaps weirdest of all, a troupe of literal Red Elvises, randomly reappearing as a sort of demented Greek chorus (playing their own Stalinist transmutations of big wave swing that itself experienced a resurgence during the '90s indie heyday).
The story goes: Mungia actually discovered the Red Elvises while on a date; a bit of indie cinema "print the legend" that, while undoubtedly funny, also somewhat explains the movie’s primary surface level appeal. Six-String Samurai is an exercise in pure “cool”: a collection of in the moment aesthetic fixations that might not necessarily hold up to much subtextual analysis. Why was Elvis crowned king after the bombs dropped in ‘57? Why does our hero dress like Buddy Holly? Why is Death fashioned after Slash from Guns N’ Roses? Did these Red Elvises really start the fire after all?
One could form a crudely basic hypothesis that Mungia and Falcon are stuck on the notion that modern pop culture has engaged in an endless foot chase with Boomer Era nostalgia for the last 30+ years, but even that critical analysis would be comprised of superficial guesswork. It’s worth noting that Six-String was originally envisioned as the first chapter in a trilogy that never materialized. The next entries would’ve worked backwards; prequels that respectively explored the origins of Buddy the swordsman and Elvis’ rise to nigh despotic rule. But even this half-assed internet research ignores the fact that the original working title was The Blade, a generic moniker changed only because New Line Cinema threatened legal action over a similarly titled comic book adaptation revolving around a daywalking bloodsucker slayer that the studio was developing simultaneously.
Still, an argument could be made that some sort of deep reading of Six-String Samurai isn’t necessarily what the movie is going for. Instead, it’s the work of a hungry crew, wandering out into the desert on the same spirit journey that every cadre of young filmmakers has taken, hoping to leave a mark upon the art form that they hold dearest to their hearts. Mungia was tossing out every neat idea he had in his head, and Falcon was filtering those inspirations through his previously established years of service to a foreign martial arts industry, right down to a good deal of his lines being ADR’d in post, often lending the dialogue a similar brand of obvious dubbing that became synonymous with Chinese wuxia pictures. The vast nothingness of Death Valley became their canvas, just as the Outback was for the rogues working in Ozploitation, and warehouse-sized sound stages became Edge City in Pyun’s nuclear noir.
Yet there’s also something oddly poetic about the way in which so many artists - especially those working on the fringes of the system - return to civilization’s demise to craft their idiosyncratic entertainments. In a sense, they’re rebuilding society in their own image, commenting on a mainstream that never really expressed a desire to indulge their personal visions. So, in the absence of anything resembling normalcy, these rogues can play God, rebuilding while actively chiding those institutions that they always found stuffy, antiquated, or downright immoral. Because when you’ve reached the literal End, and there’s nothing left but rubble, dirt, and dust, all that's left is to do is create something shiny and bright in its place, hoping that those who remain will tune into a frequency which could very well save their lives.
*For fine examples outside of the Mad Max series, do check out such lesser lauded entries as Brian Trenchard-Smith’s Turkey Shoot (1982) and Dead End Drive-In (1986), the latter of which is a neon lit hoot operating on nearly the same level as The Road Warrior.
**Mungia cops to even donning the death mask as well, as the blank visage allowed anyone available to slip into the Reaper’s digs.