Written and Directed by: Edward D. Murphy
Starring: Cameron Mitchell, Geoffrey Binney and Hope Holiday
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
ďYeah. Look around this place. It's the devil's den."
"Are you joking?"
"No, the devil's no joke."
"Are you joking?"
"No, the devil's no joke."
The Hong Kong scene struck gold in the early 80s when it melded kung fu comedy with the horror genre, with films like Sammo Hung vehicle Spooky Encounters, Kung Fu Zombie, and Mr. Vampire emerging as the premiere output from this short-lived but entertaining sequence. No sooner were audiences delighted by these films than American producers took notice and formulated their own rip-offs. Raw Force (aka Kung Fu Cannibals) is the most notorious of these films, and, as is often the case when Americans try to cash in on the martial arts craze, the result is inelegant, grungy, and altogether shoddy; however, this one was also outsourced to the Philippines, a region thatís often proved to be fertile ground for batty material, some of which is on par with Hong Kong lunacy itself.
Raw Force is pretty close to earning this distinction. It centers around an island in the Pacific thatís home to both female trafficking and a drug ring, but maybe thatís part for the course; far more unusual is that this place is also inhabited by a group of monks keeping guard over the not-so-vanquished spirits of dishonored martial artists. Naturally, itís a place youíd like to stay away from, so much so that the film itself pretty much avoids it after an opening prologue. Instead, it sticks us with members of the Burbank Karate Club, a group of American mouth-breathers who board a tour ship that takes them out into the region, where theyíre warned to stay away from a particular haunted island.
This puts them on a collision course for the island, but first they brawl, wine and dine some of the broads on board the ship, and then fend off a small army of thuggish, Nazi mercenaries looking to seize the boat and kidnap all the women for their illicit slave trade. Good thing these guys are members of a karate club, right? Just as absurd as it sounds on paper, Raw Force is one of those truly mystifying, impossible movies made by people who seemingly have no idea how to make a good movie. They sure as hell know how to make an entertaining one, though, as Raw Force is rarely dull, not so much because itís shockingly inept, but because itís aggressively illogical and stupid. Self-aware grindhouse movies werenít really a thing at this point, but youíd never know it by observing this one because youíd think someone would have to try to make something that manages to be as horribly brilliant as Raw Force.
As such, you might expect this to be the sort of movie thatís only ironically enjoyable or only worthwhile with the assistance of controlled substances. While its threadbare production values, laughable acting, and ludicrous script make it an easy target for mockery, thereís a real earnestness to Raw Force thatís admirable. On the spectrum of bad movies, Iíll take a thousand movies like this over the horde of forgettable mediocrity Iíve encountered. Its crazy quilt approach stitches together an awesome grindhouse patchwork of comedy (some intended, some not so much), kung fu, and the undead, so itís consistently entertaining even when the plot has basically stalled.
Character interactions during the downtime still manage to be quite wacky; for example, one of the guys on board the boat runs into a woman who claims sheís attempting to escape the country for murdering her boyfriend, a casual revelation that comes as she strips for him. Even the villains are buffoonish cartoon characters, with Ralph Lombardi playing an absurd, Hitler-styled ringleader whoís stuck with a bunch of idiots (upon learning about the islandís undead cannibals, one of them is careful to make sure the zombies take the time to barbecue their victims instead of simply eating them raw). Frequent bad movie MVP Cameron Mitchell serves as the boatís captain, and he clashes with the on board help while also bemoaning how rickety his vessel is; itís a routine that really belongs in a different sort of movie, but the beauty of Raw Force is its refusal to be put into a genre box.
At its heart, itís really a shitty martial arts movie. The frequent fights are sometimes impressively staged, and there are a handful of ridiculous stunts (a dude jump kicks right through a windshield, a feat also glimpsed in Bruce Lee Fights Back From the Grave, a similarly incoherent and gonzo masterwork), but a few gaffes occur in the way of some blows that donít even come close to landing. If thereís a real fault to be found in Raw Force (well, besides the obvious half dozen), itís that the Kung Fu Cannibals alternate title and subplot is perhaps a bit misleading (which is probably exactly why someone re-branded it in such a fashion). See, Raw Force is sort of the Friday the 13th Part VIII of kung fu zombie island movies since the main cast doesnít make landfall on the damned abode until the final act. Until then, itís more of an action movie that even throws in a gunfight among its hand-to-hand fisticuffs. But once the zombies arrive, Raw Force shambles its way into true nutso greatness. Often arriving on screen with an arbitrary slow-motion effect, the undead masters wander in, pursue the group all over the island, and occasionally show off their skills (itís kind of easy to see why these guys were disgraced). Their uninspired chalky design betrays the obvious low budget, but thatís easy to overlook when the movie is generous enough to provide goddamn ninja zombies in the first place.
A ďto be continuedĒ tag at the end of Raw Force indicates that someone was keen on delivering even more, but, alas, the world remains without a sequel thirty years later. Now, the tease just serves as a farcical exclamation point at the end of a ridiculous, nigh-incoherent sentence. Itís a true howler in a film full of laughs; coming after the crutch-aided brawls, the scantily-clad kung fu fighting, and the undead eviscerations, the promise of more might be the funniest moment since thereís pretty much nowhere left to go. At any rate, Raw Force is top shelf lunacy, a movie that demands to be seen; even though a filmís quality is intrinsic, Iím guessing this one is even better with a crowd, where the delirious silliness would be infectious. Itíd certainly beat the filmís only ďofficialĒ DVD release on the Grindhouse Experience Volume 1 set, which features nothing more than a VHS rip of the film. The poor quality will often find you fumbling for the phantom tracking button on your DVD remote, so the filmís already poor aesthetic is done no favors. Given the filmís reputation, itís hard to believe no oneís acquired it and released a restored version; indeed, itís truly one of our great failures as a civilization thus far. In the meantime, go ahead and pick up the Grindhouse Experience since youíll also get 19 other films along with it. If even a fourth of them are as nuts as Raw Force, itíll pay for itself. Buy it!
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