Toxic Waste

Exploitation Videos 9

published in Video Age, March 1986, Melbourne

Don’t Answer The Phone. Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark. Don't Go Into The House. Don't Look In The Basement. Don't Open The Window. They are just a sampling of the shock/horror films that tell us what not to do. Amazingly enough, no one ever made a film with a title like Don't Go Down The Sewer Where Toxic-Waste Has Fed Mutant Monsters.

Pollution, atomic waste and toxic chemicals are the life-giving force behind so many horror films. Let's face it: without irresponsible scientists, we would only have half the horror films we now have. And if town-planners didn't construct underground sewer systems, where would all those poor monsters go?

But before we actually go down into the underground (home of the Freaks in Escape From New York, the giant ants in Them, The Phantom in Phantom Of The Opera, the Morlocks in The Time Machine and the Family in The Omega Man), let's check out the recent Palace Video release Toxic Zombies. Its original title in the mid-‘70s was Blood Butchers, but, believe it or not, its re-title is more appropriate. Now that's a first! Starring and produced, written and directed by Charles McCrann, this film is classic American Dream horror (every person in the USA has the potential to grow up and make a cheap horror movie, etc.).

Some Federal agents (one of whom is played by John Amplas, star of Romero's Martin) dump some experimental herbicide called DROMAX on a suspected marijuana crop located on a remote mountainside. Unknown to them, the hippie drug-growers are also camped on the mountain, and the deadiy DROMAX turns them into the most badly-acted crazed zombies you've ever seen. (Presumably the FBI is currently perfecting DROMAX so that it can turn out better-acted zombies.)

A few years later, a film called Slithis [1978] made its slippery mark. This monster occasionally hung out in sewers but, coming from sunny California, he preferred the putrid open-air canals of downtown Venice. (Venice, California, that it is. Sort of like Paris, Texas). The monster in Slithis was the result of some Californian pollution and a Hollywood low budget. He stalks drunks and bikini-clad girls for a while until he gets his just desserts — but make sure you're not eating your dessert when the end comes.

Bob Short designed the monstrous rubber suit for Slithis and, after doing design work on Virus, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind and Star Trek : The Movie, he worked on The Terror Factor (1980) with his fellow creature-designer William Malone, director of The Terror Factor and Creature.

(To correct last month's column in which I referred to The Terror Factor and Scared To Death as two separate films. They're not: they are the same film. These title changes drive me crazy!) Scared To Death (CBS-Fox) is recommended viewing despite the similarities of its creature to Alien. Scientifically known as a Syngenor (short for Synthetic Genetic Organism), this monster feeds living humans to its growing infants down in a cosy little sewer. And, boy, does this mother know how to give a tongue kiss!

1980 also saw a few more toxic-waste sewer-dwellers terrorising the cinemas. Alligator (directed by Lewis Teague who went on to make Cujo and Cat's Eye, and scripted by John Sayles, who also scripted Pirahna and The Howling) is based on that great white urban myth about giant, excretion-eating alligators that live in city sewers. Alligator (Roadshow) is more humorous than horrific but it still contains some suspenseful moments.

An out-and-out comedy dealing with toxic themes is The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1980). Starring Lily Tomlin and Rick Baker in his own ape suit, this film is a satire of Jack Arnold's classic '50s sci-fi The Incredible Shrinking Man. In Woman, Lily Tomlin starts shrinking after her loving husband (who works for an ad agency) tests out an experimental batch of breakfast cereal on his own family. What a guy!

But let's get serious here. Once again, I've saved the best till last. CHUD (1984), on CBS-Fox, is a genuinely great movie. The letters in the title stand for Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers and Contamination Hazard Urban Disposal. The plot contains everything you'd want in a contemporary toxic-horror movie: corrupt politicians, media reportage, government plots, derelicts, sewers and some pretty nasty ‘ex-humans’. The CHUD monsters were created and designed by John Caglione who also threw a few handsome devils around in Amityville II & III and engineered some bloody demises in Year Of The Dragon and The Cotton Club. CHUD stars John Heard (slumming it after Cutter & Bone and Heart Beat) and Christopher Curry (pre-Brat Pack star of Breaking Away) who give some unusually fine performances — for an Exploitation film, that is.

All these toxic-waste sewer-dwelling films are quite inspiring. Just imagine where we could go from here. One day, we might see films with glorious titles like The McDonalds' Mutants, Waste Not Want Not, Son Of Toxic Shock, I Was A Teenage Preservative. Ah, if only the Australian Film Industry did have some imagination ...

Text © Philip Brophy 1986. Images © respective copyright holders