Welcome back, Wastelanders!
This week, we're taking our first dive into the venerable (and batshit-bonkers) pastapocalypse genre.
In case you've never heard the term, pastapocalypse films were low-budget Italian b-movies, specifically aimed to cash in on the runaway international success of Mad Max. Studios churned them out by the dozen, often mixing in elements of other popular genre films. Sometimes the results were surprisingly good, as with Enzo G. Castellari's Escape From the Bronx or the half-genuinely-awesome Raiders of Atlantis.
Today's entry is not one of those films.
Wastelanders, I owe you all a preliminary apology for this one.
Welcome to Bruno Mattei's 1984 scholck-stravaganza, Rats: Night of Terror. Spoilers ahead.
The movie opens with a text crawl and voice over, along with grainy stock footage of a desert. And right away we're off to a bang-up start, as the movie manages to turn less than a minute of exposition into a painful slog. I'm quoting it here in its entirety, gratuitous ellipses and all:
"In the Christian Year, 2015, the insensitivity of man finally triumphs and hundreds of atomic bombs devastate all five continents...
Terrified by the slaughter and destruction the few survivors of the disaster seek refuge under the ground...
From that moment begins an era that will come to be called "After the bomb," the period of the second human race...
A century later several men, dissatisfied with the system imposed on them by the new humanity, choose to revolt and live on the surface of the Earth as their ancestors did...
So, yet another race begins, that of the new primitives...
The two communities have no contact for a long period. The people still living below ground are sophisticated and despise the primitives, regarding them as savages...
This story begins on the surface of the Earth in the Year 225 A.B. (After the bomb)..."
Leaving aside the fact that two whole continents appear to have been obliterated before the 2015 atomic war, the stage is now set. We can jump right into a rip-roaring, nail-biting, edge of the seat--
Umm, credit sequence?
An upbeat synth-rock score kicks in as our heroes, a gang of truck and motorcycle-mounted "new primitives," casually joyride across the wasteland. Scary, jagged-edged letters flash across the screen, offering the only reassurance this isn't a movie about a team of plucky, down-on-their-luck dune racers.
The music winds down just as our heroes come to an abandoned village. They cut the engines, dismount, and select a random building to explore.
That building turns out to be a bar, one containing a nest of rats and a large store of food. As the bikers are celebrating their discovery, one of the women wanders to a nearby bed. The large, human-shaped lump underneath cover—which no one else apparently noticed at all—is moving.
She pulls back the covers to reveal a swarm of rats chewing on a bloody corpse. She then proceeds to respond exactly the way a tough, hardened survivor of the post atomic wasteland would respond.
Her scream brings the others over. The women naturally join in on the screaming, and the men stand there looking like the director forgot to give them any guidance whatsoever.
After a good twenty seconds of uninterrupted screaming—I'm not exaggerating, I went back and fucking timed it—their leader, Kurt, yells at everyone to stop it. Assessing the corpse, he comes to the conclusion that someone came here before the bikers, fought for control of the supplies, and was murdered. A genius observation undercut only by the massive pile of untouched supplies less than ten feet away.
The bikers then decide to explore the rest of the building, finding more rats, a few more corpses, and a basement grow house with a functioning water purifier. They also find what appears to be a master control panel and computer, although they don't know what it is or what it's for. The gang's resident "genius," Video, manages to turn it on mostly by accident. Causing the words TOTAL ELIMINATION GROUP to flash on screen.
Rather than taking this an an ominous warning, the bikers decide it's just referring to the dead bodies they already found. After all, what further danger could there possibly be in a corpse-strewn hideout loaded with suspiciously untouched supplies?
Hauling the bodes outside, Kurt torches them with a flamethrower. The bikers then settle in for a night in the communal sleeping area. Everyone has a bed except Lucifer and Lilith, who are loudly and passionately sharing a sleeping bag. Kurt eventually gets annoyed enough to send them out to the building's disused kitchen.
Once there, Lucifer and Lilith finish their tryst, but Lucifer storms off angrily when Lilith refuses him a second go-round. While Lucifer drinks in the bar, Lilith zips herself back up in the sleeping bag.
At the same time, another of the bikers, Noah, is studying the grow room in the basement. He realizes the rats are getting into the water purifier. He tries to get them out before they can infect the clean water. Just then, a literal rain of rats drops onto him from above. He screams his head off, but either nobody hears him or nobody cares.
Meanwhile, Lucifer ends up drunk and stumbling around in the street. He falls part-way through an open manhole cover while chasing his dropped liquor bottle, but manages to catch himself against the ladder.
But before he can climb out, a literal rain of rats hits Lucifer in the stomach, pouring off of what I presume must be the second floor of the nearest building. No indication is given for how they leaped all the way to the middle of the street, mind you, but fuck it. Rain of rats it is. Lucifer falls the rest of the way down into the manhole, and gets eaten.
Back inside, a sole, solitary rat chews its way into the sleeping bag alongside Lilith. She feels the teeth chewing on her, and frantically tries to escape the confines of the bag. But the zipper is stuck.
Yes, Wastelanders. You read that right. "Trapped in an already ripped sleeping bag" is actually a plot point in this movie.
Springing from their beds at the sound of Lilith's screams—because fuck Noah, apparently—the bikers grab their weapons and dash to the next room. But by the time they get there, it's too late. Lilith is dead, and that single rat from her sleeping bag is now crawling out of her open mouth.
Sadly, the shock barely has time to register over the sounds of the women-bikers' screams. Noah stumbles out of the darkness, covered in rats and bleeding profusely. Kurt responds by blasting him with the flamethrower.
Why? Because sometimes, leadership means torching an injured and terrified friend in front of all his buddies, damn it!
In short order, the surviving gang members realize the tires on their motorcycles have been chewed through, trapping them in the village. Kurt then decides the best thing is to go back into the building where two of their number have already been killed.
At this point Duke, another of the bikers, challenges Kurt's leadership. No one agrees to follow him, which is a shame, since he's the only one with the sense to realize that barricading themselves inside the rat infested building is a stupid idea.
Turns out it doesn't matter, though, since the bikers actually forget to barricade a fucking window. And as you might guess, a literal rain of rats spills through it to swarm over one of the women. The rest of the bikers manage to get them off her and escape into the sleeping room, but she's covered in bites. They realize they'll need to clean them or she'll get infected.
Kurt decides they need to get to the water reservoir in the basement. He also decides to leave Duke—the only member of the gang who's openly challenged his authority—to guard the women while the rest try to retrieve the water.
This goes about as well as you can imagine. Long story short, the water is polluted and useless, the rats swarm the bikers and take one of them down, and the survivors are forced to run for their lives. Naturally, Duke betrays them, refusing to open the locked door, and they're only saved by the quick thinking of Chocolate, one of the women that stayed behind with Duke. She actually manages to weaponize another female biker's reflexive, hysterical screaming by yelling "Look out, Myrna! A rat!"
I swear, folks. I've seen snuff films that hate women less than this movie does.
Anyway, Myrna's hysterical flailing and panicked screams manage to knock Duke out of the way, and Chocolate unlocks the door to save everyone. Myrna pleads with Kurt to spare Duke's life, which he does, despite the fact that Duke just attempted to murder half of the gang.
A short while after this bad decision, they hear a man's scream. They think it's Taurus, the man who didn't make it back from the failed water expedition. Kurt and the others go out in search of him, but find the adjacent room filled wall to wall with rats. They also see no sign of Taurus. Kurt begins to wonder if the rats are smart enough to try and trick them out into the open.
They decide to walk into the trap anyway, leaving Diana—the injured, feverish biker woman— behind. Kurt says she'll be safer alone, a statement in no way backed up by their experiences so far.
The rats let them get out to the main bar area, where the bikers find Taurus standing with his back facing them. Kurt spins him around, exposing Taurus' dead, bloody face. The women (of course) scream. Taurus falls over, and his body begins to bulge and swell. Then rats literally explode out of him, flying at the bikers through the air.
At this point, Myrna and Duke make a break for it, running for one of the trucks, which everyone suddenly remembers they have. At the sound of the engine cranking, the rest of the bikers give chase. A brief shootout erupts, and then a standoff, in which Duke holds Myrna and the truck hostage with a live grenade. It ends when the rats show up, causing Duke to drop the grenade, destroying the truck and blowing them both to pieces.
The survivors make their way back to the control room from earlier in the movie. On the way, they discover Diana, the girl who'd been rendered delirious by the rat bites. She'd regained enough of her lucidity to slit her own wrists. They don't have time to mourn her, though, because a literal rain of rats pours down the chimney.
Inside the control room, the bikers find Lilith's body, still wrapped up in her sleeping bag. The rats apparently dragged her in there, in a bid at psychological warfare. Note that this also suggests the room is neither secure nor safe, but that fact doesn't seem to occur to any of the surviving bikers.
As they drag Lilith's corpse out of the room and lock the door, Chocolate finds a recording device they didn't see last time. They get it to play, and listen to the last recording of a scientist engaged in something called "Operation Return to Light.
According to the scientist, the entire expedition is dead, wiped out by the rats. He says the rats were once underground dwellers, pushed to the surface as men migrated underground to escape the nuclear war. The rats survived on the Earth's surface, mutating, growing stronger and more intelligent, eventually taking mankind's place.
The scientist warns anyone who finds the recording that their only hope is to stay in the control room, and wait for the rescue team from someplace called Delta 2. The bikers realize there are still other people like them under the Earth, and that there just might be some hope left.
Just then, the rats begin to break through. Kurt tells Chocolate and Video to barricade themselves behind the computer console. He and Deus, the other surviving biker, will try and hold the door.
At the same time, a group of silent, mysterious men in yellow contamination suits emerge from the sewer tunnels. They begin methodically sweeping the streets and spraying poison gas.
Back at the control room, the door finally gives way. A literal rain of rats falls on Deus and Kurt, and as Chocolate and Video watch, both men are devoured. Chocolate begs Video to kill her. Before he can do it, the rats begin to leave. Video realizes there is gas coming in through the door. He quickly puts two and two together, realizing the men from Delta 2 must have arrived to rescue the dead scientists.
They make their way to the street, passing out from the fumes, but rapidly coming to with the men in the contamination suits surrounding them. As Video and Chocolate are thanking them, the one in the lead removes his mask, revealing the face of a giant, mutated rat.
It's an Italian horror film. Even money says they spent more of the budget on gore effects than they did on things like "safety rigging" and "standby medical personnel" for the stunt sequences.
Plenty of rat-chewed corpses get graphic close-ups, and there are two sequences involving rats ripping their way out of dead bodies—once with explosive results.
On that note, a special call-out has to be made here. While nothing as graphic as Cannibal Holocaust's infamous "tortoise scene" occurs here, some of the shots will leave animal lovers unsettled. Mattei wasn't shy about throwing live rats at his screaming, thrashing actors, or keeping them near his flaming stuntmen.
I didn't pick out any obvious injuries or deaths among the film's furry costars. But consider yourselves forewarned.
Man's Civilization Cast in Ruins -
For a micro-budget pastapocalypse movie, Rats: Night of Terror actually makes a respectable showing here. Yeah, the abandoned village is in suspiciously good shape. But it's suitably moody and atmospheric. Mattei manages to make it feel abandoned.
Credit where it's due. In a movie that does so much wrong, the set design stands out as something it manages to get right.
Dystopian Survivor Society -
None in evidence. In fact, the recording from the dead Delta 2 scientist is the only evidence of any kind of society, dystopian or otherwise.
Of the film's many weaknesses, this might be the biggest. Without any rival groups of humans to fight, there's frustratingly little for our mostly interchangeable bikers to struggle against. The movie is trapped into trying to paint the rats as a formidable and fearsome threat.
Unfortunately, this has the side-effect of making the bikers look like complete idiots.
I suppose some drama could have been milked from showcasing their struggle to find supplies, but that ship sails in the second or third sequence, when they find a giant stash of food, a functioning greenhouse, and a nearly-endless supply of purified water.
Futuristic Bloodsports -
None, but I can't really say the film suffers for it. It's a simple survival tale, with a tight focus on a single gang of rovers. Sports, bloody or otherwise, would have made the story meander worse than it already does.
On the other hand, maybe a little athletic activity would have helped these guys, considering one of them died of "not being able to open a sleeping bag."
Barbarian Hordes -
The main characters, at least according to the lore the film shovels onto us in the opening crawl.
If so, then good news! The apocalypse of Rats: Night of Terror must not be so bad. Any atomic wasteland these guys could survive has to be pretty much devoid of any real dangers.
Kurt's biker gang is the sorriest bunch of barbarians to ever pillage a wasteland. Their juvenile banter and vapid characterization makes them come across more like a roving band of detention hall middle schoolers than a group of hardened survivors. They display all the survival instincts of a Hell-bound snowball, splitting up and wandering off alone at regular intervals, leaving their transportation and weapons out in the street, and not bothering to post any sentries while the rest of them sleep.
Also, they manage to get outwitted and overpowered by a pack of semi-intelligent rats.
Badass Warrior Women -
You'd think a movie featuring four punked-out post apocalyptic nomad women would have at least one tough enough to earn a nod here.
Wastelanders, you'd be wrong.
All of the women in this movie spend their time screaming at the sight of the rats, freezing in panic, and waiting for the barely-competent men to save them. It might not be so jarring if I didn't just watch The Blood of Heroes. But man... Kidda and Big Cimber would break these girls in half.
Watch Thou For the Mutant -
The "regular" rats are the example with the most screen time, being the product of nuclear radiation. But the prize here goes the ridiculous, giant human/rat-things from the ending scene. I don't normally like to repeat myself with screencaps, but seriously...
Just look at this fuckin' thing:
What can I even say about this movie? It almost feels like a cheat to say Rats: Night of Terror defies analysis, but damn if I'm not tempted.
George A. Romero is as obvious an influence here as George Miller. Rats could almost be seen as Mad Max meets Night of the Living Dead, featuring the least intimidating bikers culled from Dawn of the Dead's b-roll footage.
As far as antagonists go, the rats just aren't intimidating. This is doubly true of the Mutant Rat Man at the end. Rather than a snarling, terrifying monster, it looks like the lovable host of a PBS children's show. When your big monster reveal would be more at home on Reading Time With Randy Rat than in an atomic wasteland, you messed up big.
On that note, the "twist" ending makes no sense.
Moments before the big reveal, Video asks the Mutant Rat Men if they're from Delta 2. The lead Mutant Rat Man nods his head. The implication is that the scientist on the recording was also a Mutant Rat Man.
That more or less squares up with the opening crawl, which indicates there are two races of man, now. And the Mutant Rat Man scientists being attacked and devoured by the "regular" rats also makes sense, given the movie goes through great pains to remind us over and over again how territorial rats are. Repeated hints are dropped that rats can smell when an "outsider" rat enters their territory, and the scientist on the recording mentions the rats only started attacking them when they removed their environmental protection suits.
But if that's the case, who the hell came in and poisoned the Mutant Rat Man scientists? The last lines on the recording are clearly "They're here! Their poison! Ah..."
So were the scientists on the recording supposed to be humans, then? Was the Mutant Rat Man just being an asshole when he indicated they came from Delta 2?
Whatever the intention, I'm pretty sure I'm giving this more thought than the writer or director did.
The Rad Rating:
Rats: Night of Terror just barely avoids the lowest possible rating. Some creepy atmosphere and set design are the film's only major saving graces. The action always moves, which is probably another point in its corner, all things considered. But the action is nonsensical at best, and highlights just how incompetent and useless the "heroes" are.
As such, stakes and tension are nonexistent. The only real tension you can milk out of this one is wondering if any of the rats were injured or killed in real life. And that's frankly the kind of "thrill" most viewers can do without. Myself included.
Bottom line, if you're in the mood for Italian b-movie awesomeness, there are plenty of other pastapocalypse films out there. Nearly all of them are more deserving of your time and attention than Rats: Night of Terror.
Give this one a miss, Wastelanders.
Until next time.
This little nugget came across my Twitter feed earlier today:
I don't know M.T. Black, but a quick look at his Dungeon Master's Guild page shows about 70-odd publications. You can follow this hyperlink (or the image link) to see the thread his post generated.
Suffice to say, there's a lot of support for the idea.
Before seeing this tweet, I actually had no idea the D&D novel line had been discontinued. A little googling reveals it was killed off quietly, with Wizards of the Coast/Hasbro making no official announcements and enforcing NDAs against the writers involved.
Anyway, Black has a good point in regards the potential benefit of a program like this, at least from the WotC/Hasbro perspective. If the reason for shutting down the novels was financial, this would serve as an alternative with no production cost, funneling money into a revived fiction publishing arm. They could use that to fund the bigger "official" releases. Not to mention the ability to use the platform as a sort of "farm team" to scout for new talent. And he's right that thousands of writers would benefit from having such a big, name-brand platform to showcase their work.
But let's be real.
What Black is suggesting here is that Hasbro give "official" recognition to D&D fan fiction, in turn for split profits/monetization.
I'm not against fan fiction in principal. I think any SF/F writer with a shred of honesty will admit to writing it in one form or another. Hell, one of my very first "serious" attempts at fiction was a Castlevania/Ravenloft mashup, based on a weekend campaign I ran for my brother and his friends.
What rubs me the wrong way about this is the conciliatory, "mother, may I?" dynamic it encourages between the fan writers, and the corporate overlords in charge of the IP.
In this model, writers aren't encouraged to break out and build their own sandboxes. They're encouraged to keep playing in the one owned by the multi-billion dollar entertainment company, in hopes of getting some kind of official seal of approval at the end.
That kind of closed feedback loop is the enemy of long-term creativity.
If you write D&D fanfic, and you want other people to see it, there are plenty of sites and boards available. One of them even won a major industry award, if you're after a little name-brand prestige.
But if you want to earn money for your D&D fanfic, then you're better off doing it the old fashioned way: by taking the storytelling skills you've learned, and using them to build something new.
Last week, I talked a little about the corporate same-y-ness that overtook later editions of D&D, and how it differed from the kitchen sink, anything goes weirdness of 1st Edition AD&D.
That post was written largely in response to a recent episode of Geek Gab, in which guests P. Alexander and Jeffro Johnson discuss some of the stranger, more overlooked aspects of the game. Once again, I recommend checking it out. The discussion is fascinating, lively, and in-depth.
One of the meatier subjects they breach is the idea that AD&D's implied setting is inherently post apocalyptic.
I had to spend a little time chewing that over, largely because I'm fairly new to the 1st Edition ruleset. I never had much exposure to it as a teen, aside from one group I played with after High School. Even then, it was just a handful of optional rules cribbed from Unearthed Arcana and Oriental Adventures, bolted onto a 2nd Edition chassis.
In a nutshell, the argument is that—independent of campaign setting—the rules of AD&D imply the game takes place in the wake of some unspecified, civilization-ending cataclysm.
For what it's worth, classic sword and sorcery fiction tends to make this same assumption. Conan's Hyborian Age is perhaps the most famous, taking place thousands of years after "the oceans drank Atlantis." Clark Ashton Smith's Zothique tales are more properly classified as Dying Earth stories, but the effect is the same: the last vestiges of humanity cling to superstition and sorcery on the Earth's last remaining continent. Not to mention The Dying Earth itself, where technology and magic are both remnants of long dead empires, and are completely indistinguishable from one another.
Simply put, without the collapse of some ancient civilization (or several), the landscape wouldn't be littered with ruins for the characters to go dungeon-diving in. But that assumption can hardly be called unique to AD&D. Later editions still feature plenty of ruined temples, lost cities, and dungeon delves, even if they are significantly less lethal than the old school variety.
So what was unique to AD&D that made it inherently apocalyptic? What was missing from the later editions that pointed to a post-cataclysmic world?
According to Geek Gab host Daddy Warpig, the answer is domain level play.
For those of you weaned on newer editions, a quick definition: "Domain" was a word that had nothing to do with the Cleric class back in the day. Rather, it referred to the fact that at 9th level or so, characters would begin to attract loyal followers and build a base of operations.
Furthermore, these weren't just optional rules, buried in an Appendix of the Dungeon Master's Guide. These were class features, listed in the Player's Handbook under each character class' description.
At first glance, that might not seem too apocalyptic. But the rules for Territory Development by Player Characters (found on page 93 of the DMG) are written assuming a vast, sparsely-populated wilderness as the default setting. A wilderness controlled by monsters, and littered with the ruins of countless, long-dead civilizations.
According to these rules, characters building a fortress go through considerable time and expense, selecting a construction site, clearing the area, paying and staffing a garrison, and conducting regular patrols to sweep for monsters. Once construction is complete, these strongholds attract settlers looking for safety and security.
In Warpig's opinion, this doesn't just represent a post apocalyptic style of play. It represents a specific kind of post apocalyptic play. The AD&D apocalypse isn't Mad Max, Warpig says, with humanity dropping into savagery and barbarism. Rather, it's at the point where humanity is climbing out of savagery, retaking and reestablishing civilization in a monster-infested wilderness.
Interestingly enough, I made a nearly identical point a few weeks back in my review of Rutger Hauer's The Blood of Heroes. In fact, a new DM trying to figure out domain play could do much worse than to look at that movie as a blueprint. The sparsely populated desert wastelands. The clumps of agrarian survivors gathered in Dog Towns. The powerful, governing elite clustered in the Nine Cities, demanding tribute and loyalty. The Juggers traveling around, engaging in ritual combat, and scouting new recruits.
Add some roving monsters and some dungeon-diving, and you've got a pretty good representation of what the world looks like according to domain play rules.
Domain play was still around in 2nd Edition, though I vaguely remember the rules for it being a bit more generic and simplified. I can't speak for 3rd, 3.X, or 4th Editions, having never played them. But in 5th Edition, it's entirely gone. Which means in terms of game mechanics, a 9th level character doesn't have any more responsibilities to his community than a 1st level one.
In that sense, it's easy to see Warpig's point. 5th Edition doesn't presume the characters need to establish safe areas, because it assumes there are already enough safe areas. Whatever near-extinction event caused all those ruins the PCs are exploring, 5th Edition's rules imply it's far enough in the past that humanity's overall survival is no longer in question.
But the argument for an "apocalyptic AD&D" doesn't stop there. The Geek Gab folks also spend a good amount of time on Vancian magic.
I've written about the subject before, so I won't repeat myself here. Suffice to say, the Vancian Magic system might be the single strongest argument for an apocalyptic D&D setting. But not in the sense of "fire and forget" spells.
In AD&D, the only way for a Magic-user to learn more spells is to find them, typically by recovering old scrolls or spell books from dungeons. Even then, there's a chance the character will completely fail to understand any spells they do manage to find.
In other words, AD&D Magic-users are a cargo cult, parroting scraps of mostly forgotten spells they barely comprehend, and risking life and limb in the ruins of lost civilizations to find more.
Granted, the "classic" Magic-user still exists in 5th Edition, as the Wizard class. But it exists alongside Warlocks and Sorcerers. And therein lies the difference.
Vancian Magic implies a lot about the setting, but only if it's used in isolation. If an accident of birth or a demon sugar-daddy can grant the same powers as those lost scraps of magic, how lost were they? How fantastical and rare are they now?
In the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide, Gary Gygax spends several paragraphs stressing the the scarcity of magic spells, and how difficult it is for the Magic-user to obtain them. NPC spell casters should be reluctant to divulge their secrets, demanding exorbitant fees, rare magic items, and quests in exchange. It's advice that makes sense, but only if magic is a forgotten art from a lost golden age.
And that's the thing.
That lost and forgotten nature was a base assumption about magic in 1st Edition. Taken along with domain play, the sparsely populated wilderness, and the sheer number of ruins players were expected to encounter, it's obvious the core rules had an apocalyptic setting in mind.
It's interesting reading through the AD&D rulebooks now. Like I mentioned last week, I don't have any personal nostalgia for this edition. So it's not like I'm viewing it though rose-colored glasses. Even so, it's hard not to come away with a feeling that something incredibly cool was lost in the transition to the slicker, more polished game I grew up on.
Thank God for reprints and second hand stores...
I was introduced to D&D in 1994, during my freshman year of high school.
I had no idea what to expect going in. The sum total of my exposure to D&D up to that point was vague memories of the old cartoon, half-remembered rumors about the Satanic Panic of the 1980's, and multiple viewings of Charles Band's glorious, b-movie masterpiece, The Dungeonmaster.
I knew nothing about the game itself, except for the fact that the DM—a kid from my school named Mark—said it was awesome.
Reader, it was.
The games Mark ran were a glorious, hot-mess mashup of every fantasy trope you could imagine. Shapeshifting humanoid dragon-kin, cribbed from Breath of Fire. Highlander-style immortals. Dhampir characters inspired by Vampire Hunter D. Anything and everything from the Dragonlance novels, including minotaur player characters.
All of it was thrown into a fantasy kitchen sink, stirred together with a +5 Vorpal Sword, and poured over the Forgotten Realms campaign setting, with not one bit of attention given to the published canon.
The house rules were a blend of the BECMI Rules Cyclopedia, AD&D 2nd Edition, and "fuck it, we'll just do whatever we want." And rule of cool always trumped rules as written.
Anyway, part of the reason I've been thinking about those first games at Mark's house is this recent episode of Geek Gab, featuring Cirsova editor P. Alexander, and Appendix N expert Jeffro Johnson.
The entire thing is worth a listen. They touch on several topics, including the gonzo, science fantasy weirdness that was baked into the first edition of AD&D. They also mention the organized "stripping out" of that weirdness, which began with Second Edition.
Simply put, there was a gradual separation of science fiction and fantasy elements in the official product line. Things like crashed space ships, energy weapons, and psionics appeared less frequently in published materials, except in certain "designated" campaign settings like Spelljammer and Dark Sun. AD&D became less about the gonzo, "play anything" ethos, and more about supporting TSR's own branded campaign settings, with a heavy emphasis on Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms.
In other words, AD&D wasn't a tool kit any more. It was a self-feeding mechanism for pushing homogenized, mass-produced fantasy product to the consumers.
That homogenized fantasy product has a perfectly descriptive nickname: Pink Slime Fantasy.
Quoting the above link:
You're a publisher or aspiring author. You've got a market here: a bunch of fantasy nuts who have been so starved of content that they're literally rolling their own, making up these elaborate worlds. You've also got Tolkien as proof of concept: if you can write the perfect book for these people, it'll be an evergreen best seller, ideally three years in a row (because God forbid you write just one novel).
Incidentally, I'm not knocking Pink Slime Fantasy. I remember enjoying the hell out of the Belgariad and the Shannara books, not to mention piles and piles of those Forgotten Realms novels. Hell, I even bought a copy of Goblin Slayer Volume 1 based on P. Alexander's observation that it was pure, in a vacuum, D&D fan fiction.
What's relevant here isn't the quality. What's relevant is the shift that Pink Slime Fantasy caused in the game's inherent assumptions.
While First Edition expected players to mash Jack Vance together with Michel Moorcock and Poul Anderson, Second Edition expected players to re-create and act out the plots of TSR's own in-house fiction line.
That assumption is even more explicit in Fifth Edition. The new Player's Handbook has its own version of Appendix N, one including D&D-branded series like The Legend of Drizzt and the Dragonlance Chronicles.
In other words, the D&D brand has officially begun to eat itself.
Nostalgia aside, that's one of the big reasons I remember those early games at Mark's so fondly. Our bizarre, kitchen-sink approach to fantasy put us in a kind of no-man's land between the pure gonzo of Appendix N, and the corporatized, self-regurgitation of Pink Slime.
That said, we didn't entirely escape the Pink Slime influence.
Aside from the inclusion of regurgitated fantasy fluff like Dragonlance, Mark's games never really contained any science fiction elements. That artificial split between the genres might as well have been law in our group, and for the longest time, I just assumed that's what D&D was. It wasn't until decades later—when I discovered the OSR and Appendix N—that I realized just how gonzo the game used to be.
Incidentally, part of the reason I gravitated towards anime and manga at the time is that as a medium, it largely rejected that artificial split. I found plenty of stories that scratched my science fantasy itch among those Japanese imports, since American publishers wouldn't give them to me.
Listening to that Geek Gab podcast, I think those games at Mark's represent an interesting data point. If there was a transitional period between the inspired weirdness of First Edition, and the self-perpetuating Pink Slime of the later editions, those games captured it.
Makes me wonder how many other groups were like mine.
Anyway, I want to close this one out on a slightly more personal note:
Mark and I drifted our separate ways after high school. We haven't spoken in years. But I'll always thank him for introducing me to a hobby that gave me so many hours of good times with friends. No small thing, for a kid as awkward and socially maladjusted as I was.
So if you're out there reading this, man... thanks. Friends were hard for me to come by in those days. You always tried to be a good one. And you introduced me to many more.
Welcome back, Wastelanders.
With the recent passing of legendary actor Rutger Hauer, I thought it only fitting to revisit his single greatest contribution to the post apocalyptic genre.
I'm talking about the largely forgotten 1989 cult classic, The Blood of Heroes, aka Salute of the Jugger.
The film opens on a desert vista, with a rough-looking group of wanderers approaching a small town. These wanderers are Juggers, players of a savage sport known only as The Game. At their head is veteran player Sallow (Hauer).
Excitement in the village mounts at the strangers' arrival. The local team of Juggers quickly assembles, prepared to play off against the newcomers. The rest of the villagers gather to watch. Among the observers is Kidda (Joan Chen), a talented and eager young player who apparently serves as part of her home team's second string.
The preparations for The Game commence. The players suit up, putting on armor and setting out the dog's skull that serves as the game's "ball." The locals set the goal stakes in the ground. They gather piles of counting stones to keep time with.
Once The Game begins, it's raw and brutal. Pretty soon one of the local players is broken and out of commission, and a player on Sallow's team named Dog Boy is playing with a badly injured leg.
Also in the exchange, Sallow's headgear is knocked off, exposing the tattoo on his face. The crowd is stunned. Sallow is (or was) a member of The League, the elite of the elite, the Juggers that play in the Nine Cities. What brought him out to the sparsely populated Dog Towns, they can only speculate.
With one of her home team's players out of The Game, it's Kidda's turn to shine. She suits up, taking her position as the team's "Quik." Her direct opposite is the injured Dog Boy. She begins taunting him before the round begins, saying she's going to break that leg.
The gong sounds, and immediately Kidda and Dog Boy are in a knock-down, drag-out fight over the skull. Kidda prevails, making good on her promise to break his leg. Then she takes the dog skull and makes a run for the goal stake. She nearly makes it, only getting stopped when Gar (Vincent D'Onofrio) and Sallow team up on her. Dog Boy gathers the skull, and drags himself to the home team's goal stake to win the game.
A night of drunken celebration later, and the Juggers are on the move again. Except now they have a follower.
Kidda, having tasted greatness against the traveling Juggers, decides she wants to be as good as the League Players. She follows at a distance, only approaching when they pause to let the limping Dog Boy catch up.
Kidda offers to take his place on the team, saying she's fast, she'll make a good Quik. Sallow rejects her at first. He says that Dog Boy will heal up soon enough, and tries to send her home. But she's still following a day later when Dog Boy admits he can't stand up anymore. The Juggers offer to bring him along, anyway, but he has too much pride to accept.
"No one carries the Dog Boy," he tells them. Respecting his wish, they leave him propped against a tree in the desert, with only his share of the food and water.
The next thing we see is an extended practice/tryout session, as Kidda works to earn her place. She gets knocked down. But she keeps getting up and trying harder. Sallow, deciding she's good enough to stay on, teams her up with the chain-wielding Gar, the team's "Giffer."
Soon the wandering Juggers enter another Dog Town, a village bigger than Kidda's. The ritual from before repeats as both teams square up and gear up. Then The Game begins, and Kidda has a chance to prove she's been paying attention.
Locked in another knock-down, drag-out brawl with the opposing team's Quik, Kidda is getting the worst of it, until she manages to climb onto her opponents back. She bites his ear off, forcing him to drop the dog skull. She scoops it up and makes a run for the goal stake. The team swoops in to protect her, and Kidda scores a victory.
Later, as the night's drunken celebration wears on, the team's surgeon Ghandi attends to Kidda's injuries. As he does, she asks about Sallow. How does a League Player end up out in the Dog Towns?
Ghandi begins to tell her the story: Sallow was apparently a rising star in the League, but young and foolish. He openly flaunted an illicit love affair with a lord's woman, which earned him an expulsion from the League and an exile from the Red City.
The story is interrupted by a drunk Sallow, who offers Kidda backhanded comments, criticizing her play style and saying she needs more practice, before he stumbles out into the night with a woman on each arm. This incenses Kidda, but Ghandi points out that he was actually complimenting her.
"He thinks you're very good," Ghandi says.
"That's not what he said," Kidda replies.
"That's what he meant."
Their talk then turns to the League, the Nine Cities, and the luxuries found there. Kidda's imagination—and her ambition—are stirred.
The film follows this with a montage of Dog Towns, matches, and drunken nights. The team wins every game they play, but the victories are always hard fought. Through all of it, Kidda is getting closer to the team, and especially to Gar, who she takes as a lover.
One night, talking to Sallow after a Game, Kidda observes that the boys in the Dog Town don't look like they've eaten in six weeks. He remarks that they probably haven't.
"We live good, compared to most," he says.
Kidda, though, uses this talk of hunger to pry for details about the League, and the Cities. She asks if they're really as good as everyone says, and if the stories about the luxuries Ghandi told her about are true. He says they are.
The Juggers continue to move further north, and they continue to play and win. But the matches get tougher the farther they go, and eventually Sallow gets blinded in one eye. As Ghandi patches him up, the surgeon remarks that maybe its time for them to turn south again, to head back to the smaller Dog Towns.
The following day, as they're walking to their next destination, Kidda asks why they don't just head for the Red City. She's been talking with the others. She knows now that any team can issue a challenge to the League. That's how Sallow got noticed and accepted.
Sallow refuses, saying they wouldn't accept anyway. But that night in camp, he sits awake, thinking. Kidda's hunger and drive for glory remind him of who he used to be, and what he used to stand for.
Come morning, he's making his way to the Red City. After some debate, the rest of the team follows.
A while later, the Juggers join a procession of refugees and travelers outside a lonely, isolated elevator shaft. They're all waiting to be allowed entrance down into the city. While they wait, Gar asks Sallow if it's true that no League team has ever lost a Challenge. He asks sallow if he thinks they can do it.
"Win," Gar repeats. "Or at least go 100 stones three times. That would be just as good, 300 stones. Tie."
Sallow says nothing, and Gar asks how many stones Sallow went back when he made his Challenge.
Sallow tells him they only went 26.
Gar is shocked. He asks how Sallow could possibly have been allowed into the League after a game like that. Sallow flashes a haunted smile.
"We were the only ones to ever last that long," he says. "Two of us were still standing. It was a good Game. We played very well."
Eventually, the elevator shaft opens, and the Juggers are permitted to take the long ride down into the underground City. Once there, the team goes to get food from a street vendor, while Sallow and Kidda go to watch one of the League Games.
At the sight of it, though, Kidda begins to have second thoughts. The Game is faster, more intense, and more brutal here than she ever imagined.
After the Game, Sallow and Kidda watch the winning players leave the field. The city's lords and ladies stand by the exit ramp, greeting and fawning over the victorious Juggers. While they do, Sallow's gaze drifts to one lord in particular. From there, it rests longingly on the lady by his side. They're obviously the ones from Ghandi's story, the object of Sallow's illicit affair and the lord behind his subsequent exile.
Kidda notices, but she makes no comment, allowing him his private memories.
Then Sallow spots an old colleague of his, a League Jugger named Gonzo. He approaches Gonzo at the end of the ramp, far from the city's elites. He asks about a Challenge match. But Gonzo says the League will never accept. At least not with Sallow on the team.
As they're leaving, Kidda tells Sallow she doesn't want to go through with the Challenge anymore. He asks if she's scared. She says yes. She says she doesn't want the League's attention anymore.
Sallow tells her he wants it.
In the very next scene, the Juggers appear before the League officials. For consideration, they present all the dog skulls they've collected as trophies in their wanderings. While they wait for the officials to give word, Sallow tries to stand near the back, unobtrusively. But the same lord from earlier, the one behind his exile, recognizes him. He wanders from official to official, whispering in their ears.
At last, the chairman announces they will deliberate before making a decision.
At a dining hall, the team sits around, dejected. They suspect that in not being accepted right away, they've been turned down. They saw how the officials looked at Sallow. They know if they're denied, it's his fault, an opinion Gar states out loud.
Both Sallow and Kidda leave to wander the city, eventually winding up in the Red City's ghetto. As Sallow offers to pay for two beds in a flop house, Kidda tells him to just pay for one.
As Kidda and Sallow spend the night together, the action cuts to Gonzo. The League Jugger is dressed in silk finery, enjoying a dinner party thrown by the city's elite. There, he's approached by the same lord seen whispering to the League officials earlier, Lord Vile.
Vile tells Gonzo that at his personal insistence, the challenge from Sallow's team has been accepted. Also at his request, Gonzo will be playing against them. He then instructs Gonzo to put out Sallow's good eye and break his legs when The Game commences.
Gonzo is practically dumbstruck. "You want me to damage him on purpose?"
Vile gives him a cold look. "I insist."
The next day is the day of the Challenge. In the audience stands above the arena, Lord Vile arrives with his lover in tow. Without telling her, he's brought her here to watch as Sallow is broken and humiliated.
On the arena floor, Kidda eyes the opposing Juggers. She talks to Sallow about her fears. She says she was never afraid in any of the other games, because before now, she never imagined it was possible to lose. She always expected to win.
"Then win," Sallow tells her.
On the opposing side, Gonzo tells one of his teammates to pin Sallow and hold him for the remainder of the round. Despite Vile's instructions, he intends to protect his old friend by any means possible.
The Game begins. In short order, Sallow is pinned. One of his other team members, Big Cimber, is down and badly injured.
But Kidda manages to keep the opposing team's Quik from making a goal, running out all 100 counting stones in the first round. It's an unprecedented achievement, and news of it spreads around the Red City as spectators flock to the arena.
During the intermission, team surgeon Ghandi is forced to take Big Cimber's place. The Red City's team gets fresh replacements. Lord Vile berates Gonzo for failing to carry out his instructions.
The second round begins. Sallow takes Gonzo head on. Kidda battles her rival tooth and nail. It's all-in for the entire team, and soon Sallow gains the upper hand on his old friend. He pummels the League Jugger into submission, then he slowly removes his helmet and locks eyes with Lord Vile.
At the same time, Kidda wrests the dog skull from the opposing team's Quik, beating him into unconsciousness. But Sallow stops her from running to the goal stake. He gestures around the arena. To a man, their team has the Red City Juggers down, pinned and defeated.
There's no one left to oppose her.
"Walk," Sallow tells her. "Slowly."
To the sounds of the roaring crowd, Kidda triumphantly strides up to the stake, placing the skull on it. For the first time in the history of The Game, a challenger has beaten a League team.
Plenty of it, and hallelujah to the b-movie gods for that!
While the bloodshed is entirely confined to the playing fields of The Game, a significant amount of the film's runtime is dedicated to it. We get bone-crunching, eye-gouging, skin-ripping action every time the Juggers take the field.
When it comes to violence, The Blood of Heroes lives up to its title.
Man's Civilization Cast in Ruins -
Probably one of the most restrained cases in the entire genre. Arguably, it's also one of the best.
A lesser film would have labored to show the Juggers wandering past the blasted out remains of a city. But The Blood of Heroes doesn't go for such an easy or extraneous shot. Instead, it hints at the ruined state of things by carefully selecting the pieces of the old world the wandering Juggers carry with them.
Ghandi lugs around an old dresser full of his medical supplies, wearing it like an oversized backpack. The Juggers' armor is piecemeal, with most of it being made of old tires or chains.
But the single most striking example is the chess set made of sockets. It's a wonderfully understated piece of world-building, one almost bordering on genius: the competitive, tactically-minded Juggers finding a use they understand for an old-world artifact they don't comprehend the original purpose of.
Is it as spectacular or visually stunning as a shattered Statue of Liberty?
But it brings the world of the film to life in a way that no amount of crumbling landmarks in the background ever could.
Dystopian Survivor Society -
The Red City is an underground hellhole where the aristocracy lives in luxury, the poor live in squalor, and the Juggers fight to entertain the masses.
Sure, it's a fairly standard set-up. But with the story's tight focus on the Juggers themselves—and especially on the parallel character arcs of Kidda and Sallow—the film really doesn't need to stretch here.
Less is sometimes more, and The Blood of Heroes gives us just enough to keep things moving.
Futuristic Bloodsports -
With apologies to Tina Turner and her Thunderdome, The Game featured in The Blood of Heroes is the greatest example of this trope in the entire genre.
It's basically a heavily armed variant of football, where the goal is to put a dog's skull on the opposing team's spike. Time is divided into three rounds, and kept by throwing piles of 100 stones at a metal gong. When the pile runs out, the round ends. One goal is all it takes to win.
Simple enough. But there's a hidden complexity beneath the surface. Each of the five named player positions has a fairly a defined role. Only the Quik gets to handle the dog skull. The chain-wielding Griffer acts as the Quik's blocker and backup. The Slash appears to be the offensive line, with the Back-Charge, and the Drive serving as the defense.
Once the game is on, anything goes, with biting, gouging, and leg-breaking all deemed acceptable moves. Sallow ends up blind in one eye. Dog Boy ends up crippled and left for dead.
But despite the game's brutality, there's a sense of honor and fair-play surrounding it. Gonzo says it best, when defying Lord Vile's instructions to intentionally injure Sallow on the field.
"I've broken Juggers in half, smashed their bones, and left the ground behind me wet with their brains. I'd do anything to win. But I'd never hurt a soul for any reason but to put a dog's skull on a stake. And I never will."
Barbarian Hordes -
None, surprisingly enough. That said, The Blood of Heroes is the rare example of an apocalyptic movie that doesn't need them.
Aside from the Juggers themselves, nothing in the film's world building hints at any intertribal or inter-village rivalries. We see no war-bands, no weapons, and no guards or sentries of any kind, other than those at the Red City. Warfare is never even mentioned outside the pre-title card.
The assumption we're left with is that by some unspoken tradition, all war and conflict have been replaced by The Game.
It's a conceit that 100% works in the context of the story. One the movie pulls off by presenting it matter-of-factly, along with the rest of its premise.
Badass Warrior Women -
While Anna Katarina's battle scarred, boisterous, and fearless Big Cimber certainly deserves a nod, The Blood of Heroes' Badass Warrior Woman MVP is undoubtedly Kidda.
From the first frame she appears in, Kidda has the eye of the tiger. She makes good on her threat to break Dog Boy's leg in her initial game. In her first match as a member of Sallow's team, she bites the opposing Quik's ear off. She battles tooth and nail to help drive her team to victory after victory, culminating in the climactic Challenge match in the Red City.
Sure, Kidda might be small. But she's as tough as they come, and the movie forces her to prove it time and again.
Watch Thou For the Mutant -
None to speak of. Gonzo is probably the closest we get, but that's stretching the definition past its useful limits.
In fact, I'm only bringing him up here because of what he represents in the story.
While most apocalyptic films use the grotesque and the freakish as shorthand for the forces trying to tear down civilization, The Blood of Heroes does the reverse. Gonzo is actually this civilization's representative: an abnormally large Jugger with an exposed steel plate in his head. He's what Sallow could have been if he'd remained in the Red City, and an illustration of the "good life" Sallow was exiled from.
It's an interesting visual choice, especially when coupled with the almost Dantean elevator ride down into the Red City.
For one thing, it underscores that Sallow's exile may not have been an entirely bad thing. We see the Red City, the aristocracy, and the League, and we come away with the conclusion he was better off in the Dog Towns.
Sallow descends into a metaphorical hell in search of his redemption. Keeping with the Dantean metaphor, the Red City is Inferno rather than Paradiso. And Gonzo is one of its bloated, grinning devils.
The first thing that needs to be pointed out about The Blood of Heroes is how flat-out brilliant the concept is. It's a post-apocalyptic sports movie, equal parts Rocky and The Road Warrior. And while the set-up has the potential to be gimmicky, Writer/Director David Webb Peoples uses it to break new ground in the genre.
Where most apocalyptic stories feature characters focused on survival, The Blood of Heroes instead gives us characters primarily concerned with honor. That's a fresh enough take to be noteworthy on its own. But what's truly fascinating about that choice is what it implies about the movie's setting.
The Mad Max films and their imitators mostly portray a world falling into savagery. Bands of lawless nomads rape, murder, and pillage their way across the wastes in an endless struggle for limited resources. But The Blood of Heroes shows a world where the pendulum is just beginning to swing the other way, a world taking its very first steps away from barbarism. The celebrity status of the Juggers, the reverence everyone holds for The Game, and the unspoken but pointed absence of any other kind of violence all hint at a new and emerging order, an infant civilization crawling out of the ruins of the old.
It's the kind of story that rarely—if ever—gets told in this genre.
The second thing that needs to be said about The Blood of Heroes is that in terms of pure story, it's flawlessly constructed.
By maintaining a tight focus on the unknown but ambitious Kidda and the disgraced veteran Sallow, it seamlessly blends two opposite—but not opposed—character arcs, creating a larger and more powerful story in the process.
The film's biggest strength is the way it leverages the main characters' motivations. Kidda's hunger for glory is played perfectly against Sallow's desire for redemption. Most importantly, it avoids the easy trap of dropping them into a traditional Mentor/Pupil relationship, opting for a more nuanced approach.
While Kidda learns the ropes of The Game from Sallow, the aging Jugger sees a reflection of his own lost, youthful enthusiasm in her. It sparks a deep desire to go back and right a wrong committed against his pride.
By act three, both characters have a powerful, consuming need to play in the Red City. The Challenge match is more than just another Game to either of them. It's everything. Win or lose, they'll go down swinging.
And damn if we're not on the edges of our seats the entire time.
Ultimately, The Blood of Heroes is a film is about hope and heroism in a brutal, unforgiving world. Victories are short and fleeting, and they only happen when you make them happen.
But when they do, they're stuff of legends.
The Rad Rating:
The Blood of Heroes comes within reaching distance of the coveted Five Rad rating, but it falls just short of apocalyptic perfection.
The pace never flags for an instant. The action moves along smoothly without feeling rushed. The characters have ample time to grow and breathe. The film knows which moments are important to show us in full, and which ones can safely be summarized in an action montage.
Above all, The Blood of Heroes doesn't engage in hand-holding. It presents its characters and its world matter-of-factly. It trusts its audience enough not to pause and point out the obvious, allowing us to gather everything from the subtext, the dialogue, and the art direction.
Honestly, the film's only real flaws are the relatively wooden performances from the supporting cast, and its somewhat uninspired cinematography. Neither are grievous sins. But they're just glaring enough to prevent me from awarding a full Five Rads.
That said, The Blood of Heroes is a criminally underrated masterpiece of post apocalyptica. It deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Mad Max and The Road Warrior when discussing the genre's all-time classics.
Until next time, Wastelanders!
I'm an award-winning science fiction and fantasy writer based out of North Carolina. This is where I scream into the digital void. I like cookies.