It's not every day that I get a cold call from a publisher asking me to review an upcoming collection. It's even rarer that said collection contains work from several of my favorite writers.
Folks, I can't tell you just how fast I jumped at the chance to be among the first to lay eyes on The Penultimate Men, scheduled to be published the first week in July by Pilum Press.
Longtime readers of the blog will know I'm a fan of post-apocalyptic stories. But truth be told, with lockdowns, global pandemics, riots, and other such pleasant subjects saturating the daily news cycle for the last several months, I haven't been turning to the genre as much.
It's not that I've lost my taste for it. Not exactly.
What I've lost my taste for is the way most authors—and filmmakers—present it. The apocalyptic genre is one that easily lends itself to nihilism and misery. Think back to some of the most foundational works of the genre, and you'll see I'm right: Max Rockatansky being double crossed and used as bait, after finally agreeing to help the survivors in The Road Warrior. Charlton Heston's helpless, maddened scream on the beach at the end of Planet of the Apes. The trigger-happy posse executing Duane Jones at the end of Night of the Living Dead.
Sorry, but I've been getting plenty of doom and gloom on the news lately. I definitely don't want any more of it in my entertainment.
But folks, that nihilism and misery is not intrinsic to the genre. As proof, you need look no further than the stories contained in The Penultimate Men. If a collection of post-apocalyptic fiction could ever be called a breath of fresh air, this is surely it.
Authors Jon Mollison, Neal Durando, and Schuyler Hernstrom give the reader tales of heroism, brotherhood, and community. These are hopeful stories, full of wonder, awe, and struggle. Yes, the apocalyptic world presented here is dark. But the light of humanity burns as brightly as ever against that darkness. So what if those humans are sporting a few extra arms or eyes?
The collection opens with a thoughtful introduction by Misha Burnett, in which he discusses genre, tropes, and the loosely-shared universe concept behind the collection: to use the setting of a post-apocalyptic RPG as a starting point (Gamma World, by inference), and for each of the authors imagine a sort of "retro-apocalyptic" future, expanding on it with their own unique, fresh takes.
You heard that right, folks. What we have here is basically an unauthorized Gamma World anthology, written by some of the strongest indie voices working in the #PulpRev.
Jon Mollison offers up two stories, and the range he shows between them illustrates why he's quickly becoming my favorite writer of the apocalypse. The first, "Fire and Folly," is a short, simple coming of age tale a that packs a deceptively powerful emotional punch in its final lines.
The second, "Wind on the Water," is much more action oriented. Opening with an unexpected sighting of strange sails on the horizon and a call of alarm, the story follows mutant hero Wind and the rest of the odd inhabitants of his lakeside village as they try to discern if the strange fleet is attacking, or fleeing from some even greater threat. What follows is a tale of a desperate stand against impossible odds, featuring everyday protagonists—or as close as you're likely to find in this book—wretched monsters, and high stakes. This is the stuff pure adventure fiction is made of. And quite frankly, Mollison's short came closer to capturing the peculiar magic of the late David Gemmell's work than just about anything I've read since the Big Man's passing.
Neal Durando is a writer whose work I was entirely unfamiliar with prior to reading this collection, so his "Root Hog or Die" was my first exposure to his work. This beautifully written short brings the reader into the mind of the mutant in a way that few stories ever do. Its opening lines are delightfully, deliberately off-balancing. The characters, particularly the two-headed narrator Walbur/Wilbar, don't "think" entirely human, and Durando does an excellent job putting us there. But the tribe leader, Gordo, clearly does think in somewhat human terms. He suspects there's more to life than rooting for scraps and hunting, and wants to lead the tribe to the strange lights on the horizon. Definitely a story that will reward multiple reads.
"The Judgement of Daganha" by Schuyler Hernstrom is a sequel to his acclaimed novella, "Mortu and Kyrus in the White City." In that story, Hernstrom used his barbarian and monkey duo to take on one of the sacred cows of science fiction, to wide critical praise. This time around, Hernstrom uses the pair to pay tribute to classic Sword & Sandal films of the 1960's, like Jason and the Argonauts or The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. Tightly plotted, with plenty of intrigue, action, and humor, "The Judgement of Daganha" manages the difficult task of improving on its predecessor, already an acknowledged classic among #PulpRev fans. Featuring scorching deserts, scheming cults, and giant scorpions, it's like the best Ray Harryhausen film you never saw, the one that only ever existed in your wildest imagination.
Take my word for it. If you're a Hernstrom fan, you need to buy The Penultimate Men for this story alone.
Rounding the book out are two essays by Jeffro Johnson, who brings the same level of analysis and lucid commentary that earned him fame for his landmark book, Appendix N: The Literary History of Dungeons & Dragons. "Starship" is a retrospective look at the game Metamorphasis Alpha, and how it relates to the mega-dungeon and Old School play. The other, "Symbiot," is a look at the literary (and film) inspirations for Gamma World. This essay serves as a sort of coda to Appendix N, and if you found yourself wishing you could get just one more taste of Jeffro's gaming/fiction commentary, you'll at least find it here, as he tackles Gamma World's unofficial "Appendix G."
The final verdict?
A new Mortu and Kyrus novella would be reason enough to buy this collection. The fact that the other characters you'll meet here are more than worthy of sharing their company is just an unexpected and added bonus. Once you meet them, I can promise you'll never forget Spearshaker, Ironmane, Wind, Gordo, or Wilbar/Walbur. Jon Mollison, Sky Hernstrom, and Neal Durando have given us heroes for the end times. What's more, they're heroes worth rooting for, with virtues we'd recognize in ourselves. Men who fight for family, home, and one another, rather than the usual parade of nihilistic survivors, selfish loners, and emotionally broken scavengers.
This is the apocalypse we deserve, genre fans. And it's been too long in coming.
The Penultimate Men will be available to purchase on Lulu.com. You can get it here.
Sorry for the lack of updates lately, folks. Fact is, with so much of the country having to deal with lockdowns, layoffs, and curfews as a result of COVID-19, I haven't been sure what to write about.
I did have a whole slate of 'Pocky-clypse Now reviews planned, but I get the feeling they'll go over like a lead balloon right about now. Something about a deadly disease dominating the news cycle 24/7 just makes reading about the end of the world a little less recreational for some people.
That said, if you are looking for a great post-apocalyptic read, I want to draw your attention to the work of Jon Mollison. I read his A Moon Full of Stars recently, with the intent of dedicating a full-length 'Pocky-clypse Now review to it soon. I do still plan on doing that. But I'm probably going to wait until after our daily news cycle looks a little less like the opening credits to the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake.
Anyway, Mollison's book is a fantastic, fast-paced story full of adventure, action, and capital-R Romance in the classic Burroughsian sense. It's well worth your time, especially if you want a post-apocalyptic tale that doesn't wallow in nihilism and misery. You can buy it here.
The other thing I haven't wanted to do is shill or give updates about my upcoming Fantasy Vietnam project. Money is tight for lots of folks right now, and it's not really much of a priority for me to put out a game that no one is going to have the disposable cash to buy for the foreseeable future. I'm still going to work on it. But at a slower pace.
So, what does that leave?
Well, Adam Lane Smith had some thoughts on that a couple of weeks ago, when discussing the possibility of his day job shutting down:
He's completely right about that. What will continue throughout this—and likely for a long while afterward—is a desire for cheap, good entertainment. Pure, fun escapism is what people want right now.
To that end, I've started work on something I hinted at about three weeks ago on twitter, in a joke exchange back and forth with Smith.
That's right. The bad guys would have gotten away with it, if not for those meddling kids. Only this time, two of those meddling kids are recently returned Vietnam Vets, one is the take-no-shit daughter of a Boston cop, and the other knows how to mix a bomb in the bathtub. They'd better hope the police get there first...
The other thing I'm doing with this project is test-driving Smith's outlining and writing process, as described in his writing book, Write like a Beast.
Longtime readers will remember the glowing praise I gave Smith's book a few months back, as well as the eagerness I expressed to try out some of his methods to see how they affect my own productivity.
My impressions so far? Smith's method is working for me.
I feel like I have a stronger outline than I've ever had in the past. I also feel like the characters are more fleshed out, with clearer goals and motivations. My total time, from planning the characters, to plotting the story, to choreographing the two most difficult scenes ahead of time with individual beat sheets, was about two days of solid writing.
While I'm not up to Smith's impressive speeds yet, this is already a vast improvement. Over my usual two weeks or more. I can already say this book was worth every penny. At least in my case.
Anyway, I'm planning to start drafting this week. Meddling kids, (sort of) talking dogs, and (almost) ghosts await. As do some vicious beat downs, explosions, and hellacious firefights.
Welcome back, Wastelanders!
Since I've picked up a few new followers in recent weeks, a brief word of introduction: this is a regular column on the blog, where I do in-depth reviews of post apocalyptic films and books. Here's a quick link back to my general mission statement, and another one for my overall rating criteria.
Now for my regular readers, a fair bit of warning. Today's entry is a bit on the trippy side. We're not dealing with Road Warriors, Rampaging Wrestlers, or Rodents of Unusual Scientific Acumen. We're not even dealing with the late, great Rutger Hauer.
Today, we're taking an electric slide into the animated side of the apocalypse. And we're doing it with a healthy side of funky guitars, WWII stock footage, and rotoscope.
I'm talking about Ralph Bakshi's 1977 cult science-fantasy phantasmagoria, Wizards.
The film opens with a live-action shot of a large leather-bound book. The camera slowly pans down the title page, as the feminine narrator's soft, soothing voice croons out the words for us.
Then, to make sure we don't get bored with all the fancy book learnin', we're immediately treated to a shot of the entire goddamn world exploding!
It's at this point, Wastelanders, that snark and humor completely fail me. What follows is one of the most exquisite and beautifully realized opening sequences in the entire apocalyptic genre. Combining pen and ink artwork by Mike Ploog with live-action background effects like smoke and lava, the narrator delivers the history of the post-holocaust earth.
According to the story, five terrorists set off a nuclear blast that plunges the earth into a worldwide atomic war. For over 2 million years, radioactive clouds keep the world in darkness, driving nearly all human life to extinction, and turning most survivors into hideous mutants. In these scorched and poisoned lands, radiation causes each birth to be a new disaster in a never-ending chain of mutation.
But in the good lands, fairies, elves, and dwarves awaken from their long sleep, and begin bringing life back to the planet.
Millions of years later, Queen Delia of the fairies gives birth to twin wizards, one good and one evil. Avatar, the good wizard, spends his childhood around his bedridden mother, trying to keep her entertained. Blackwolf, the mutant wizard, never visits, and spends his time torturing other creatures. When the Queen eventually weakens and dies, the two brothers fight for control of the fairy lands, but Avatar wins and Blackwolf goes into exile.
But before he leaves, Blackwolf throws out an ominous warning. "The day will come, my brother, when I will return and make this a planet where mutants rule."
I should point out this "history" sequence clocks in at around three and a half minutes. It's a testament to Bakshi and his crew that it never quite feels that long. In fact, the only reason Bakshi and company manage to get away with this kind of gratuitous info-dump opening is that they paired it with some truly stunning visuals.
At any rate, the story begins 3000 years later in the irradiated wasteland of Scorch, with Blackwolf issuing orders to his assassins to begin destroying the leaders of the free states. We're then treated to a succession of merciless killings across the hauntingly psychedelic landscape, as the action follows one assassin in particular, the stoic and brutally effective robot, Necron 99.
The action then cuts to the deep forest, and a pair of mounted elven scouts. They're taking a short rest and allowing their animals to graze, but the lead elf—Weehawk—says they need to push on. Avatar must be warned of what they've seen.
Just then, Necron 99 ambushes them, killing Weehawk's partner. Weehawk attempts to escape, but it's no use. At last, he's forced to throw himself at Necron in a desperate, kamikaze-like fury, launching them both over a cliffside and into the river below.
Meanwhile, back in Montagar, a sort of war council is going on. Avatar, the President, and the President's half-fairy daughter, Elinore, are all waiting for the elf scouts to report in. The President wants to arm the free states against the growing threat of Blackwolf, but Avatar urges against it, pointing out that science and technology were both outlawed millions of years ago.
Avatar tells the President and Elinore that he spent years searching out his twin brother, trying to learn what ever became of him. He knows that Blackwolf has been trying unsuccessfully to mold the mutated creatures of Scorch into an army. Balkwolf's frustrations have been driving him to dig deeper and deeper into the past, searching for the secrets of warfare among the ancient, pre-holocaust ruins.
Tales have reached Avatar of new war machines being built in Scorch, and of a great and ancient power that will enable Blackwolf to control his armies.
"What do you know about war?" Avatar asks them. "About bombs that could turn a planet molten and liquid? To think it could start again, ten million years after the last one..."
Just then, a burst of gunfire takes the President in the chest. Necron 99 has arrived, unseen by everyone. Avatar reacts, frying the robotic assassin with a blast of magic. At the same time, Weehawk bursts in through the door, sword drawn and ready to fight. But it's too little, and far too late. The President of Montagar is dead, and Elinore's cries fill the night.
Meanwhile, in Scorch, Blackwolf steps out onto the castle balcony to address his soldiers, calling them the "leaders of tomorrow's master race." He tells them the time has come to share the ancient secret of war, the key to creating hysteria and fear.
He then uncovers the secret relic he's found: an ancient movie projector, which he uses to play an old, Nazi-era propaganda film against the sky. German army marching music swells. Swastika flags flap in the breeze.
Below the balcony, the mutants stare, awestruck. The new uniforms they're wearing, Blackwolf's new war machines. The new weapons. All of it looks like the strange old images in the sky.
The movie whips the mutants into a frenzy. Battle footage from WWII joins the propaganda reel. Explosions. Gunfire. Artillery. Soon the mutants are screaming and chanting "seig heil," and clamoring to get to the front.
In East Elfland, an army is already manning the trenches, preparing for Blackwolf's invasion. We get a short exchange between an older elf and young recruit, the standard war movie trope of the scared private confiding in the old veteran. The old veteran reassures him that the last time Blackwolf invaded, the evil wizard lost over a million men. He says the goblins and mutants look mean, but they're cowardly, they always run when met with resistance. This time will be no different.
Blackwolf's armies approach, and the elves prepare to meet them. But just as they get into range, the wizard activates the projector. As soon the propaganda film begins playing, the elves stop and stare at the sky, frozen in abject horror at what they're seeing. The mutant army steamrolls into them, pouring into the trenches and slaughtering the defenseless elves in droves.
Back in Montagar, Avatar reads Necron 99's thoughts, learning of the existence of Blackwolf's movie projector. He says that it must be destroyed, and that the robot assassin—who he renames Peace—can lead them to it.
"I'll reason with him when he wakes up," Avatar says. He urges the others to go and prepare for the trip.
Weehawk spends the night saying goodbye to his tribe, and instructs them to name a new chief if he does not return. Elinore holds a funeral for her father. Then she promises the fairies that she will avenge his death, and that when she returns it will be as a full-fledged fairy, one ready to take her place as the Queen of Montagar.
As far as Avatar's reasoning with Peace, whatever he said must have been successful. Come morning, the ex-robot assassin has agreed to help lead them to Blackwolf's projector. But before the group sets off, Avatar offers Peace a final word of warning:
"You let me down, you hurt my friends—especially the broad—I got stuff planned for you that will take 20 years to kill you. And you'll be screaming for mercy in the first five seconds."
This is our first real hint that Avatar is more than the simple, kindly bumbler we've seen since the end of the "history" portion. There are some fangs beneath that bushy red beard, Wastelanders. Sharp ones.
For their part, Weehawk and Elinore aren't quite ready to trust their former enemy, either. Weehawk even goes as far as reassuring Elinore that he plans kill Peace the second the ex-assassin shows them the projector.
Preparations complete, our four heroes mount up, and they're off.
Meanwhile, back at Scorch, Blackwolf is attending his pregnant mistress. He's asking if the birth will be soon. She says it will. He says she is young to be queen—a statement which draws a look of shock from the girl—but if she delivers him a son, she will help to rule the planet.
The mistress tells him she doesn't want to rule the planet, that just their kingdom is enough. But this seemingly innocent statement sends Blackwolf into a rage.
"Enough! Enough for mutants to stay in their place, huh? Live with radiation so our bodies crawl with hell? We will live in the good lands! My son will grow where there isn't death in the very waters we drink, and the air we breathe!"
He then asks the wise men whether his son will be born mutant or human, to which the wise men reply "mutant." Blackwolf turns away in disgust.
"The next one won't be," he says coldly.
As he stalks off to attend to the business of his war, the mistress runs after him, crying and begging him not to have their child killed.
Back on the trail, Weehawk warns the others that Peace is taking them through the mountain fairies' domain. He urges them to go around. But Avatar and Elinore overrule him. They can't afford to lose time, Avatar says, and the fairies may have useful information. But according to Weehawk, the fairies and the elves are bad-blood cousins.
True to his warning, this direct route gets the group in trouble. This misadventure sees Elinore captured by the mountain fairies, as well as seeing the rest of the group separated, lost, half frozen, and—in Weehawk's case—nearly eaten by a monstrous spider.
However, the group successfully reunites after this ordeal, and resumes their journey toward Scorch. But unexpectedly, they run into an elf patrol armed with guns like the ones Blackwolf's army carries.
Back at the elves' camp, they learn the patrol is a part of a larger army, under the command of General Abdul. Abdul—an old friend of Avatar's—tells them the guns are captured Scorch weapons. Now, with weapons to match Blackwolf's, Abdul plans to sail across the sea and attack Scorch directly.
Avatar, still hoping to avoid all-out war, tries to talk him out of it, but to no avail. General Abdul is convinced the only way for elvenkind to survive is to take the fight back to Blackwolf's doorstep. And the warriors following him agree.
Late that night, a demon attacks the camp, attempting to take over Peace's mind. Avatar successfully fights the creature off, but it almost appears to be a decoy, as a tank comes speeding at them along the beach.
As Peace raises his rifle to protect the others, Elinore stabs him in the back with her sword, killing him. She then jumps into the tank, which immediately speeds away. Avatar chases after it, calling her name, but the tank disappears into the distance without so much as firing a shot.
In pre-dawn darkness, General Abdul's ships begin crossing the sea for the attack on Scorch. Avatar stands alone on the deck, lost in a depression and muttering to himself. Weehawk stands away, speaking to General Abdul. He says that Elinore's betrayal has broken the old wizard's heart.
Weehawk takes charge of the mission, practically forcing Avatar along the rest of the way, dragging the old wizard to shore ahead of the rest of the fleet. He still intends to sneak inside the castle, find the projector, and destroy it before Blackwolf can use it again.
The two sneak their way into the lower city of Scorch. There, the mutants have wholly adopted Blackwolf's propaganda film, as we see mutant officers in full Nazi regalia. We hear audio recordings of Hitler's speeches being broadcast over loudspeakers, and captive fairies being forced to sing songs in German. The mutants have even begun referring to Blackwolf as "the furher."
Avatar, still in a deep depression, finally snaps. He attempts to beautify some of the lower city with his magic, in a last-ditch attempt to prevent the war. This draws the attention of some mutant officers, and forces Weehawk to take action. In a lightning fast, three-on-one battle, the elf warrior kills the mutants, before being blindsided and knocked down by one of Blackwolf's little toadies. The toady then claims victory, and scurries off to claim rewards and praise from Blackwolf.
Avatar, looking on the bloody aftermath of the fight, comes partly to his senses again. He at last realizes what kind of bloodshed the world is looking at if the two of them don't finish the job, however distasteful it's going to be.
Following the trail of Blackwolf's scurrying little toady, Weehawk and Avatar make their way into the castle. As they walk, Avatar commends the elf warrior.
"You know, the world owes you much, kid. Even if we don't take another step."
Meanwhile, General Abdul's fleet pulls to shore. The alarms goes up, and Blackwolf's army takes the field to meet them. Another set-piece battle begins, but with the heavily-armed elves on the offensive this time, it's an even match.
Then the ancient film projector begins rolling. Once again, the sight of the ancient propaganda film horrifies and paralyzes the elves, leading to a shift in the battle, and Blackwolf's forces begin to gain the upper hand.
Back in the castle, Avatar and Weehawk find Blackwolf in the throne room. They agree to split up, with Avatar confronting Blackwolf, and the elf warrior seeking out the projector.
On his way through the castle, Weehawk finds Elinore. In a rage, he leaps to kill her for betraying them, but he's stopped at the last moment by Blackwolf's mistress. Grieving her mutant son's death, the mistress says there has been too much bloodshed, and begs him to stop and think before he swings his sword.
In that moment, Elinore explains that Blackwolf took over her mind and possessed her when they were on the beach. He made her attack and kill Peace. She had no choice. Weehawk realizes he must run back to the throne room and tell Avatar, before the old wizard throws his life away.
Meanwhile, Blackwolf urges Avatar to give up. "Brother, there is no need for me to destroy you. Surrender. Surrender your world."
But Avatar, snarky as ever, only gives his twin brother a round of applause. He then begins loosening his sleeves in the classic "nothing-up-here" motion typical of performing stage magicians.
"I ain't practiced much magic in a long time. But I wanna show you a trick mother showed me when you weren't around. To use on special occasions like this."
He then produces a 9mm Luger pistol from one of his sleeves, and shoots Blackwolf in the chest.
As Blackwolf dies, castle begins to crack and crumble around them. Avatar tosses the pistol away, ready to just be buried along with his twin. Right then, Weehawk runs in with Elinore, screaming that she's no traitor, that she was possessed. The three of them run for their lives, barely escaping as the castle falls behind them.
With the projector destroyed, the mutant army collapses into a disorganized rabble. Most scatter and run. The elves mop up the few resistors. There is some brief celebrating, but mostly the elves are eager to return home.
Outside, Weehawk asks Avatar and Elinore if they are ready to ride for Montagar with the others. But Elinore says tells Weehawk he will ride home alone, and rule as king. She plans to start a new kingdom somewhere else with Avatar.
A word of caution, Wastelanders. If you grew up on a diet of anime and newer, post-90's western animation, don't look for lavishly detailed or choreographed fight scenes. The battles in Wizards are stylized. But they're done in a style that really has no other equivalent, except maybe in Bakshi's other fantasy works.
Even then, I'd venture to say Wizards stands completely apart.
Bakshi combines live action newsreel footage with rotoscoped and hand-drawn animation, the latter using creatures with a distinct "head shop" aesthetic.
The collage-like result is a bunch of elves and mutants swinging swords at each other while Adolf Hitler screams in the background, artillery explodes, Messerschmitt fighters soar through the air, and rotoscoped warriors from movies like Zulu and El Cid stalk through the battlefield like otherworldly wraiths.
In sum, it's not really a depiction of a battle. It's more like a weird, psychedelic hallucination of one.
It's also a wonderfully effective and ballsy move on Bakshi's part. The Battle of Helm's Deep it ain't. But damn if it also doesn't capture the confusion and disorientation of the modern battlefield better than it has any right to.
Fact is, as unconventional as they are, the battle scenes in Wizards are a genuine artistic achievement, and the movie would be worth the price of admission for them alone.
Man's Civilization Cast in Ruins -
Hardly any, but Wizards earns a free pass here for plot and world building reasons. Millions of years have passed since the apocalypse, so it's unlikely there'd be any standing ruins left from modern-day society. If anything, the opposite is true. Scorch aside, the world has grown into an exotic and lush place in the wake of its destruction.
The one notable exception is in the short and somewhat heavy-handed "religion" sequence. The inside of the temple is filled with kitschy remnants of 20th century American culture: cola signs, pinball machines, juke boxes, and an old Oscar statue.
Naturally, none of it offers any salvation when Blackwolf's troops come calling, which is precisely the point. Neither do the two goofball priests, who would much rather spend their time engaged in hours' long ceremonies than in helping the needy prisoners right outside the temple's doors.
Dystopian Survivor Society -
I mean, sure, it's basically just Mordor with the serial numbers filed off. But so what? If you're going to go with an expansionist dictatorship ruled by an insane magician at the heart of a blasted wasteland, it's best to wear your inspiration on your sleeve. Bakshi—who went on to animate a Lord of the Rings adaptation a year later—does so here with pride, and the movie doesn't suffer one iota for it.
If anything, Bakshi leans into Tolkien's anti-industrial metaphors even harder.
If Montagar and East Elfland have returned to a state of pastoral, almost tranquil wilderness, Scorch has bypassed the early industrial revolution entirely, to become a full-on, mid-20th century industrial power, with 1940's-style assembly lines turning out planes and tanks for Blackwolf's coming blitzkrieg.
Futuristic Bloodsports -
Nada. Granted, it wouldn't be much of a stretch to imagine the mutants of Scorch would have some among their decadent pastimes, but the story never suggests or hints at it.
Barbarian Hordes -
The mutants of Scorch definitely qualify. In fact, one of the film's biggest plot points is that they're such a barbarian horde, they're utterly incapable of fighting as a cohesive unit until Blackwolf rediscovers the secret of 20th century propaganda.
And frankly, it's the fact that Wizards takes this "war for the mind" approach to building the enemy horde that makes it stand out from most of the genre.
Where so many films made in the wake of the gasoline crisis of the '70s focus on things like physical shortages and civil unrest to create the wasteland hordes, Wizards really feels more like a belated product of the 60's.
Hell, there's barely a wasteland here, let alone a wasteland horde. The world of Wizards is a hodgepodge of hippie counterculture, Cold War paranoia, and environmentalism, filtered through a weatherbeaten old copy of Lord of the Rings.
This isn't the Lord Humungous promising his followers gasoline and human chattel, folks. This is Mordor meets MK-ULTRA. This is about what the people in charge can make you think. What they can make you believe. And by extension, what they can make you do.
Heady stuff. And sadly, never more relevant.
Badass Warrior Women -
The Half-Fairy Queen, Elinore.
The half-fairy queen, Elinore. And no, I'm not being snarky.
While she doesn't do much in the way of actual fighting, Elinore shows plenty of grit in swearing to avenge her father's murder, and in undertaking a dangerous quest into an irradiated hellhole to dismantle the enemy's doomsday weapon. When she believes she's cornered by assassins on a frozen mountaintop, she's more than willing to face the them head on with her sword drawn and a battle cry on her lips.
Does she get quite as many chances to prove herself as The Blood of Heroes' scrappy, tough-as-nails underdog, Kidda?
No. But let's be real. If I start judging every Badass Warrior Woman in the genre by that criteria, this category will probably have to go away altogether.
Watch Thou For the Mutant -
This being an animated feature, we can expect Wizards to deliver the goods when it comes to mutants. And it does, with the caveat that most of them conform to the "head shop" aesthetic mentioned in the Violence entry. It works just fine, provided you don't mind your slavering, inhuman beasts bent on murder and conquest to look like they'd rather be chilling somewhere with a bag of 'shrooms.
While most of the mutants in Wizards serve as the film's off-brand orcs, special attention should be called to the subplot involving the Blackwolf and his young mistress.
Blackwolf—himself a mutant—has gotten his mistress pregnant, and apparently not for the first time. He's hoping for a pure-blooded child, and he consults the wise men for an augury. They inform him the child will be born a mutant, and the mother immediately begins pleading in vain for its life. But Blackwolf has already written the child off as worthless, and is already telling himself that "the next one won't be."
Which means for all his bluster and rhetoric about seeing the mutants as "tomorrow's master race," Blackwolf clearly holds mutant life—even his own, one suspects—more cheaply than he does pure human life.
It's an interesting dichotomy. One that adds a bit of dimension to Blackwolf.
Right out of the gate, Wizards won me over by using one of my all-time favorite storytelling tropes: the return of magic in the wake of an apocalyptic event.
It's a trope that's largely fallen out of favor in the last forty years, thanks to the gradual segmenting and separation between science fiction and fantasy. I groused a little about this subject a couple of months back, when I talked about the awesome, science fantasy weirdness found in earlier editions of Dungeons & Dragons.
Expanding on that post slightly, 1977 can be seen as something of a watershed moment when it comes to viewing science fiction and fantasy as two separate genres. Not only was Advanced Dungeons & Dragons published, bringing an already popular game to an even wider audience, but Terry Brooks' The Sword of Shannara also appeared, proving the economic viability of the Tolkien clone. The explosive, runaway success of both products can almost be seen as a "twin Big Bang" event, one that largely drove "pure" fantasy to form its own separate publishing category.
Ironic, considering that both Shannara and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons are almost certainly post-apocalyptic science fantasies.
All this is to say that Wizards, being released in 1977, managed to hit the market just before this kind of wild genre-mixing went out of style. And man, does it ever show.
We've got wizards shooting lightning, orcs flying fighter planes, and lizard-imps working computer consoles. We have mutant armies with machine guns and tanks battling elf armies with bows and arrows, while giant pterodactyl-birds screech through the sky.
It's a glorious, post-apocalyptic fantasy kitchen sink, rendered in funkadelic 70's color with every animation technique Bakshi and company could find the time or budget for. Simply put, this movie is a feast for the eyes, folks. One I heartily recommend to all fans of animated storytelling.
That said, the film isn't entirely without flaws.
There's a certain disjointedness to the narrative. Some pieces of the film never quite feel like they come together to serve the coherent whole. The scenes in the mountains are unevenly paced, and the later "betrayal" and reveal about Elinore come a little too close together to have any real emotional impact. Likewise with the separation and reunion of the traveling party. Both are obviously attempts to ratchet up the tension as we near the film's climax, but both end up falling a little flat.
Speaking of the climax, Avatar's willingness to use a gun against Blackwolf was undoubtedly one of the film's biggest and most satisfying payoffs. Bakshi shows us that for all Avatar's ideals about magic versus technology, and his genuine desire for peaceful solutions, the old wizard understands that sometimes there are no easy or clean answers. Sometimes a violent solution is necessary to stop a truly evil threat.
Avatar tosses the gun away at the end, clearly feeling like he's irrevocably dirtied himself by using one of the ancients' death machines. It's a very human reaction, and one the audience immediately empathizes with.
Admittedly, the idea of an apocalyptic fairyland is one that's stuck with me ever since first seeing this film, probably because it's just so damned weird. But looking at my outline for my current work in progress—and at the few chapters I've already drafted—I'm just now seeing how deeply that idea took root.
I'm seeing my post-holocaust world with its re-born magic. I'm seeing my gun-toting elves and my illusion-casting fairy. I'm seeing my warlord obsessed with digging into the technological secrets of the past. I'm seeing my killer robot with the--
Hmmm... A few surprises should be left on the table, I think.
The thing is, Wizards has long been a favorite of mine. I've always been a fan of the amazing visuals, the science-fantasy genre mixing, and the wide range of animation styles Bakshi plays with to tell his story. But I've never realized until now what an influential film Wizards is to me.
And for that, Mr. Bakshi and company have my deepest and heartiest thanks.
The Rad Rating:
While part of me feels like I should give Wizards a lower score for not having a tighter and more carefully structured plot, the other part of me feels like doing so would be missing half the point. Wizards is at least as much a purely visual experience as it is a traditional animated movie.
If you don't believe me, go back and watch that opening "histories" segment again. But do it with the sound on mute. See how much of the story you manage to pick up just from Mike Ploog's wonderful pen and ink illustrations, and the carefully selected background effects.
Bottom line: although it sports some undeniable some flaws, Wizards is a genre-defining classic, one that arguably represents the high-water mark of apocalyptic animation in the West. It's a criminally underrated film, one that's never quite gotten the wider recognition or the audience it deserves.
Until next time, Wastelanders!
Welcome back, Wastelanders!
This week's review is one I've been looking forward to. Not only is it the first book review to join the 'Pocky-clypse Now lineup, it's a title I've been eagerly awaiting since the author announced it several months ago.
I'm talking about Adam Lane Smith's heavy metal, post apocalyptic, Christian knights versus devils pulp-stravaganza, Gideon Ira: Knight of the Blood Cross.
In the interest of full disclosure, I donated to Smith's Kickstarter for this project. And as a backer, I received an early copy prior to general release. Other than that, I don't know Smith. This is an honest review, with no favoritism given or expected.
If you're a first time reader of this column, a word of caution before proceeding. My reviews always include a detailed summary, followed by a breakdown of the story's essential genre elements, overall critical analysis, and a numerical "Rad Score" based on my personal rating criteria.
In other words, this review will be spoiler-filled.
Normally, I'd follow that format here. But since Gideon Ira: Knight of the Blood Cross won't be available to the general reading public until October 4th, I'm going to change up the format for this one. I'm going to put the spoiler-free Rad Rating first, followed by the somewhat spoiler-y Vitals.
I'll also put one, final spoiler warning before the summary. After that, Wastelanders, you're on your own. The rest of the review is going to be a spoilerific Thunderdome.
So, what did I think of Adam Lane Smith's blood-soaked demon-slaying adventure epic?
The Rad Rating:
Gideon Ira: Knight of the Blood Cross has all the makings of an instant cult classic. Over-the-top violence and blisteringly paced action meld perfectly with gruesome horror imagery, nightmarish monsters, and deep theological themes. The result is something truly unique and memorable. It's a roller coaster ride from start to finish, a high-tech Crusade through the blasted wastelands.
That said, it's not all blood and thunder. There are genuinely human moments in the story, moments of brotherhood, tenderness, and kindness that remind Gideon of the grace humanity is fighting for.
All in all, Adam Lane Smith has crafted a vastly entertaining book, a solid first entry into what promises to be a cult hit series. Highly recommended.
Wastelanders, of all the areas where Gideon Ira: Knight of the Blood Cross shines, this might be where it shines the brightest.
Simply put, Adam Lane Smith has a fantastic gift for writing violence.
His knack for pacing a fight sequence is exquisite, and the way he weaves the horrific details of the demon-infested world into the action helps to create something that feels fresh and unique with each scene.
One of the best examples of this is from Chapter 12, when Gideon battles a demon in what can only be described as a Cathedral of Bones:
With a huge foot, Zagoroth kicked Gideon in the chest. The knight's battered breastplate and the hit hurled Gideon through yet another bone pillar. His armor was so compromised that one of the sharp human spines stabbed into his lower back. Gideon slammed into the ground and skidded to a crashing halt with his back against another pillar. His HUD shrieked at him about a serious penetration, and when he looked down, the bloody tip of a bleached spine stuck out from his belly.
Because of details like this, the battle scenes never feel repetitive. Each one is genuinely edge-of-the-seat exciting, with stakes that matter, villains you want to see dead, and heroes you want to root for.
What more could an apocalyptic fiction fan ask for?
Man's Civilization Cast in Ruins -
Mostly simple and straightforward, with brief but effective descriptions of ruined cities, abandoned highways, and villages made from salvaged parts. Smith prefers to keep the story moving, without bogging his prose down.
That said, he manages some nice, clever touches here, brining his post apocalyptic world to life in ways that reflect the characters and their outlook. For example, Gideon muses about the words UNLEADED and DIESEL, reasoning that they must have been sacred to the Ancients, since they wrote them everywhere. To the wandering knight, only something of religious significance could be so common and so widespread. No other explanation makes sense.
One wonders what he'd make of the real explanation if someone gave it to him. Especially when the fuel source his Order uses to power their hovercraft is revealed later in the book.
Of all the passages describing society's destruction, though, the real show stoppers are the ones describing the ruined city in in chapters 17 and 18. With its enormous pyramid of packed, piled scrap in the center, this nameless ruin is an awe-inspiring monument to death and carnage, a cultists' and demons' hive built in the hollow corpse of the ravaged world.
Dystopian Survivor Society -
For a bunch of demon-worshiping cultists, the Ba'al cult displays a surprising level of sophistication. There's a clear hierarchy among the demons, the fallen angels, and their human followers, including lines of succession and chains of command. During a pre-mission briefing near the book's climax, mention is made of the vast amount of territory they control to the north.
In other words, this isn't some unruly rabble. This is a thriving civilization, one that's coming dangerously close to ruling the mortal realm.
That said, the legions of hell are prone to jealousy, backstabbing, and infighting, and the power vacuums created by the knights' Crusading can lead to bloody power struggles.
Futuristic Bloodsports -
None in evidence yet, although the series is just getting started. I wouldn't be surprised to see depraved gladiator games and contests to the death between the cultists in future installments. I also wouldn't be surprised to see something a bit more civilized, like some kind of futuristic jousting or tournaments taking place among the knights.
Barbarian Hordes -
The highway bandits from Chapter 6 represent the only truly lawless faction in this world, the only reavers and raiders that owe no allegiance to anyone but themselves. That said, their quick and brutal end shows what a stupid choice that is.
Smith's post apocalypse is one where demons and fallen angels walk the ravaged Earth. Powerful necromancers and witches stalk the ruins, along with legions of demon cultists. Opposed to them are the anointed warriors of God, using salvaged weapons of the Ancestors to hold the darkness at bay.
In other words, this is a world built on faith in—and faith to—something greater than oneself, be it God or devils.
Red Hat and company are the only ones foolish enough to try holding themselves apart from that. In doing so, they've tacitly declared themselves as powerful as those major players, as the demons and devils stalking the world.
Of course, Gideon Ira makes laughably short work of them, and in doing so, reinforces to the reader that this is not a world of human conflicts. Rather, this is a world of supernatural and metaphysical conflicts.
And men like Gideon are merely its foot soldiers.
Badass Warrior Women -
Sister Heather, of the The Iron Doves. She's a stealthy, brutally efficient killing machine, and the Chapter 17 infiltration showing off her skills is one of the book's absolute highlights.
In the interest of keeping this section relatively spoiler-lite, I will say no more.
Watch Thou For the Mutant -
Swap out "demons" for "mutants" in this case. I'm not going to make any semantic quibbles. Bottom line, the monsters in this book are memorable and awesome.
As with violence, Smith has a gift for creating unique and vile creatures. From the feathered Pride demon in the opening chapter—described as hulking and ape-like, with reptilian jaws and insect-like chitin covering its body—to the fallen Angels with their profane, stained glass wings and molten silver eyes.
What's more, Smith doesn't shy away from showing us these demons are evil. Casual atrocities like the slaughter of a village's adult population are just the prelude to the organized, large-scale sacrifice of that same village's children. Screaming girls have their entrails ripped out on altars. Temple floors are gore-soaked charnel houses, with the demons promising momentary power and respite to those that would serve them.
These aren't a bunch of misunderstood muties, Wastelanders. These are unholy abominations in need of a good purging.
And Gideon Ira is just the man for the job.
FINAL WARNING: DETAILED SPOILERS AHEAD!
The book opens in a warren deep below the earth, where power armored knight Gideon Ira is locked in a death struggle against a feathered demon.
Ira battles the creature tooth and nail, and the reader gets a glimpse of the power-armor's capabilities. Ira deploys revolver, sword, and enhanced strength to little effect, but the creature does not fall. It's only when Ira wraps his rosary beads around his fist, literally beating the demon monster down with his own faith, that the creature begins to show signs of defeat.
Now, with the creature weakened, Ira is able to activate his sword's hidden plasma cutting edge. He finishes the monster, removes its head, and rides back to the nearby town of Blackbriar.
And with that, Wastelanders, Adam Lane Smith earns my implicit trust as a reader. He isn't here to waste my time. He's here to deliver on the promise he made when he announced this project months ago: Knights in power armor battling demons across an atomic wasteland.
And deliver he damned well does.
In Blackbriar, Gideon stops at the church to deliver the demon's severed head, and to give his report to the village priest, Father Harris. The priest then takes Gideon's confession, and just as the knight is preparing to leave the church, a blinding light and a booming voice from the heavens stops him in his tracks.
The radiant being has eyes of molten silver, and wings like stained glass windows, depicting the Lord Jesus Christ.
Far from being overawed, though, Gideon is unimpressed. The being is Azaria, an angel who's been standing by his side through his many battles, and who has appeared and spoken to him dozens of times in the past.
After his initial, dramatic entrance, Azaria takes a more human aspect, and the angel and the knight settle onto one of the pews to talk like old friends.
Azaria wants to know why Gideon appears so sullen and upset. The battle against the demon was far from the worst he'd faced. Gideon admits that he's frustrated at how long it took to track the monster. Months of battling through underlings, slaying cultists, and hunting for clues, when Azaria simply could have revealed the demon's location to him.
The angel reassures him that there was a purpose to the seemingly aimless running around. Many evils were removed from the world as he fought his way to the demon, including a powerful necromancer.
But the angel promises that his next task will be simpler, and more straightforward. All he must do is go to the tavern, and the location of the next target will reveal itself.
Gideon, still frustrated, asks if Azaria will just tell him directly. The angel's response isn't exactly what he wants to hear.
Another roundabout purpose, I'm afraid. Giving you a list of exact tasks does nothing to build your faith. My job is not to interfere in your life. I'm to guide you on your path, help you make sense of your experiences, and assist you with the choices you make. I cannot make your choices for you, and I will not rob you of your chance to experience a life of discovery which builds your faith.
With no path open to him except the angel's vague hints, Gideon heads next door to the tavern. After a short meal from the grateful proprietor, Gideon overhears news that cultists have massacred the adults in the village of Juniper, about a week northwest of Blackbriar, and taken the children away to use as human sacrifices.
Without saying a word, Gideon leaves the tavern and heads for the road. His first few days' travel are uneventful, but he eventually has a run in with a pack of bandits, led by one he mentally tags as Red Hat. He warns them off, seeking to avoid a fight and urging them to go to Blackbriar and confess their crimes. He says that they are not yet beyond redemption.
The bandits leap to attack, and Gideon makes short work of them. In the end, the only bandit left standing is Red Hat. The knight urges him to surrender, offering to take him along on his quest, to give him a chance to atone for what he's done.
But when Red hat learns that Gideon is bound for the territory of the Ba'al cultists, he takes a desperate last shot at the knight. But Gideon's power-armor enhanced reflexes are quicker, and he kills the bandit leader with a single, well placed shot.
Before Red Hat expires, Gideon again attempts to get him to repent, pleading with him to accept Christ in his final moments and be saved. But the bandit leader dies without uttering another word.
Another day's travel brings him to the corpse-strewn ruins of Juniper. True to the rumors, he finds no children among the bodies, and signs of a caravan headed northward.
Before he can begin his pursuit, though, he encounters another knight in power-armor. A quick ID between them reveals the man beneath the helmet is his old friend and academy classmate, Sir Caleb Davis.
Caleb has been on the trail of the same cultists that kidnapped the children, and he is visibly shaken by the carnage. He admits that the evil in this world sometimes makes him feel like giving up hope. The things he has seen battling against the demons and their human servants haunt him, and he sometimes believes that the darkness is winning.
Gideon does his best to reassure his friend, and urges him to give confession and ease his spirit. Caleb refuses, saying they must press on and finish the job first.
Gideon and Caleb follow the wagon tracks into the ruins of a nearby city, one from before the apocalypse that destroyed the civilization of the Ancients. The sign near the outskirts identifies it as Minneapolis.
They silently make their way through the ruins, eliminating sentries with brutal efficiency until Gideon gets spotted. The sentry manages to squeeze off a burst of machine gun fire just as Gideon impales him, and the rest of the infiltration into the cultists' hideout is a running firefight through the streets.
In the middle of the chaos, Gideon notices Caleb executing wounded enemies. He confronts his brother knight, saying it is not their way. Caleb counters that killing the enemies of the faith, and making sure they can't return to prey on the innocent, is the only way, and believing otherwise is naive.
Before they can settle the argument, the firefight resumes, and they're forced to fight and maneuver their way to the massive, bored out tunnel that serves as the cult's lair. Gideon, having seen this before, surmises that the cult is led by a demon.
Clearing the entrance, Gideon and Caleb work their way inside. They manage to locate and free the children of Juniper, but they cannot risk letting the cult leaders escape. Placing the oldest child in charge—a thirteen year old girl named Mary O'Rourke—the two knights work their way deeper into the tunnel.
At last, they find the grand central chamber, where they interrupt the end of a sacrificial ritual in progress. Gideon and Caleb make short, bloody work of the cultists, before they enter the final corridor and the heaped earthen throne room of the demon Zagoroth.
Zagoroth taunts the knights, saying their quests and their suffering have been meaningless, and offering them a chance at true power. Gideon resists, but Caleb, whose faith has already been shaken, succumbs to the temptation.
Demonic power flows into and transforms Caleb, and Gideon is forced to fight his old friend while the demon watches. It's an emotionally powerful, gut wrenching duel, and Gideon narrowly prevails, striking a death blow with his plasma sword.
Zagorath then traps Gideon in the plane of demons, and the already weakened knight is forced to fight for his life and soul against the demon in a cathedral made entirely of human bones. The demon spends most of the battle toying with the knight, as Gideon's armor gets weaker and weaker. At last, Gideon defeats the demon, but not before he is gravely injured.
Barely clinging to consciousness, and with only the thoughts of the freed children and prayers to the Lord for the strength to see them to safety driving him onward, Gideon crawls his way out of the tunnel and activates his distress beacon before darkness finally overtakes him.
When Gideon finally regains consciousness, he's on an air transport back to Belltower, the human stronghold and headquarters of the knightly Orders. Seated across from him is Sir Andrew Stone, another old friend and companion from his academy days. Andrew tells him they found the children, and all of them are safe and accounted for. They also found the remains of Caleb.
Gideon spends a day in recovery at Belltower, while his power-armor is undergoing repairs. He enjoys a day of quiet reflection and an evening Mass. Then Andrew picks him up for a major operations briefing. Something big is happening up north.
High Paladin Tharson, the regional commander of the knights, announces that they've identified an advisor to the Ba'al cult's regional high priest. If they capture the advisor, they can learn the identity and location of the high priest. And if they can kill the high priest, they can break the hold of the Ba'al cult in the region, potentially freeing hundreds of square miles of territory from their demonic influence.
The operation is going to be a small, surgical strike, with a team of just three knights. The priority is to get the target out alive without being noticed.
Andrew is named team leader, with Gideon selected as his number two. Also attached to the mission is Sister Heather of the Iron Doves, an order of covert intelligence specialists.
What follows is the single most thrilling action sequence in the book, an extended and harrowing infiltration and exfiltration filled with grotesque horror imagery, edge-of-the-seat action, and Smith's trademark, over-the-top violence.
These two chapters are worth the price of admission alone, Wastelanders.
By the end of it, the advisor is in the custody of the Belltower's interrogators, and Sister Heather predicts he'll reveal the identity of the High Priest in a matter of hours. The knights get a little downtime, but not much. It turns out Heather's prediction is right. The prisoner talks early, and soon the High Paladin is calling for another mission briefing.
Tharson identifies the target city, another Ancestor ruin to the north, and instructs the knights that they'll be riding out at first light. This is a search and destroy mission. The goal is to hit the city, and to slaughter every cultist they find, with the high priest being the raid's primary target.
The knight's have one last evening of quiet reflection and camaraderie, and Gideon and Andrew choose to spend it sharing a beer and reminiscing about old, departed comrades. The war against the demons has caught up with too many of them, it seems.
The knights depart the next day, and from here on out the book is non-stop action. The column of knights is attacked by flying demons en-route, forcing them to push on instead of resting. After a hard ride, they finally come to a ruin dominated by a huge, obsidian dome. Arrayed before it is an army of demons, necromancers, risen corpses.
With a battle cry, the knights charge the host. The fighting is fierce, bloody, and chaotic, and the knights gradually begin losing ground. Then last-minute salvation arrives, in the form of a Belltower gunship. The gunship manages to clear a path through the demonic host, and Gideon, Andrew, and three other knights manage to make it as far as the Obsidian Dome. High Paladin Tharson orders them to locate and kill the high priest.
Gideon and the others find him, but killing him turns out to be difficult. The priest—a demonic sorcerer called Snapdragon—has the ability to command a sort of living fog, whirling and shaping it into the shape of a vicious dragon. The priest more than holds his own against the gathered knights, and he even manages to kill one of them. It's only through some impressive teamwork, tactics, and faith that the other knights pull off their final victory.
The rest of the knights finally breach the dome, gathering their wounded and their dead, and planting a nuclear warhead to ensure the Ba'al cult will never use the site again. And as the transport ships speed back towards Belltower, Gideon Ira, Knight of the Blood Cross, watches the mushroom cloud form on the horizon.
I'll put this as bluntly as possible. Gideon Ira: Knight of the Blood Cross fucking rocks. It's a rollicking roller-coaster ride of righteous violence from start to finish. Fans of post apocalyptic action and military SF will find lots to love here. For some reason, the hive-like pyramid of the Ba'al cultists, in Chapters 17 and 18, reminded me of the Ant Nests in John Steakley's Armor.
That said, I think it's the quieter moments that truly define this book. Gideon's sense of brotherhood with his fellow knights, his tenderness towards the rescued orphans, and his simple, quiet faith when he's alone in the church are what make him a compelling character.
Sure, I may be following Gideon's adventures because he's a futuristic knight in badass power armor. But I want him to win because of the gentle kindness he shows to Sister Mary Brigid, and the easygoing humor he shares with William the armor smith.
Speaking of relationships, a special mention needs to be made of Gideon's relationship with the angel Azaria. It feels organic and real, with all the one-sided gravity a relationship between a mortal and an immortal should have. Azaria genuinely loves Gideon, and he's doing his best to guide him and nurture his faith. And we get the sense he finds it painful to see his friend go through these tribulations. But like Gideon, he's just a servant. He has a role to play in this grand design, whether he understands it or not.
This being the first book in the series, Adam Lane Smith lays plenty of groundwork for future installments. There are mysteries hinted at in Gideon's past, as well as a startling reveal involving Sister Heather of the Iron Doves. We're also introduced to a fallen angel who makes some menacing appearances, but otherwise doesn't do much in the course of the narrative. I'm expecting that all these strands will be developed in the next books.
Honestly, if there's any criticism to be had here, it's that Smith places the most emotionally powerful and complex fight scene too early in the story.
The battle against Caleb is the fight where the personal stakes are at their absolute highest for Gideon. A lifelong friend and brother has just succumbed to darkness. Gideon has no choice but to fight him, not just out of self defense or self preservation, but to honor everything Caleb once stood for and believed in. Only by standing true and refusing to give quarter can Gideon honor himself, his God, and the lost soul of his one-time brother.
The problem is, none of the battles that come after it have quite the same sense of gravity. After we've seen him forced to kill a comrade in arms, the personal stakes just don't feel as high when Gideon is battling the cultists and the demons. This is an admittedly minor quibble, one born more of my writer brain speaking up when my reader brain just wanted it to shut the hell up and enjoy the damn story.
The simple fact is, Gideon Ira: Knight of the Blood Cross kept me glued to my seat from start to finish. It's a wildly fun and entertaining story with a compelling hero, a vividly imagined world, and kick-ass action. And when I reached the last page, I sure as hell wasn't second guessing Smith's placement of that one fight scene. I was far too busy thinking about Gideon Ira and his next adventure.
Wastelanders, I suspect you will be, too.
Until next time.
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.
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.