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Savage Dawn (1985)

Here’s a throwback to the days of the VHS rental when movies would just appear out of nowhere on the new release shelf and the names or art on the box cover would make it a must see for teenage boys. Whether the film was any good or not mattered very little. As long as there was action, explosions, a tough guy with little to say as the hero kicking ass, and if we were really lucky a breast or two then we were happy.

And talk about “names” on the box cover for this classic piece of exploitation released to the home video market. We get George Kennedy turning up and probably polishing his Oscar between takes, Karen Black wondering where her career in meaningful films went, William Forsythe knowingly hamming it up for the camera as the heavy, Richard Lynch playing to his strengths as a minister with a taste for young female flesh, big Leo Gordon as a town sheriff and in the central role one of the most popular actors over the past fifty years on the cult circuit, Lance Henriksen, looking awesome while combining the traits and skills of both Rambo and Shane.

The film from director Simon Nuchtern feels as if it’s a cross between a modern day western, biker flicks, the returning Vietnam veteran genre and the post apocalyptic flicks that exploded in the VHS market following the success of Mad Max.

“Don’t touch me unless you love me.”

A stern warning from Lance who is going to run afoul of a gang of bikers led by Mr. Forsythe in the Lone Pine area of California where part of the movie was filmed. He’s traveling to a run down, dusty frontier town to meet up with old army buddy, Kennedy, who is now strapped to a wheelchair and raising two kids of his own.

Pretty much a ghost town since a mining operation went bad, the town’s central meeting place is the watering hole where we can find hostess, Karen Black, who has a taste for violent men and will soon find herself strapped to the back of Forsythe’s Harley.

When Forsythe and his gang who at times don’t seem to be any more coordinated then the Black Widow Spiders who once tangled with Clint and Clyde arrive in town, they make like Brando’s Wild One and pretty much wreak havoc on those around them including Kennedy’s clan and Sheriff Leo who years earlier while in his prime would have mopped the screen with them. Among the riders is Mickey Jones who was a very common “face” to fans of movies and TV shows during this time period.

Still wearing dog tags and looking “McQueen Cool”, Lance, quickly makes himself the target of Forsythe’s anger when he steps in to defend those that can’t defend themselves including Kennedy’s son and a young teenage girl being brutally manhandled.

Forsythe’s anger is simmering but with Miss Black looking to wipe the town clean from her memory, her biker boy will rob a local armory and before we know it he has the tanks rolling in too town putting Sheriff Leo at a major disadvantage. Kennedy turns to Lance to help him lead the vigilante squad but our returning war hero has had enough bloodshed and moves on leaving Kennedy and his Oscar to take on the bikers with his motorcycle adapted wheelchair and some trusty bazooka rockets.

But like John Rambo turning down Col. Trautman in Rambo III leaving the older officer to handle a dangerous mission on his own, Kennedy like Richard Crenna, is going to need rescuing and like Stallone, Lance will return with a violent rage that will leave no one left standing by the the time the final reel unwinds itself.

Far from classic and with some choppy editing sprinkled in, this film really leaves me wondering just why no one ever cast Lance Henriksen in a major action film as the good guy. He nails this role as the brooding hero one shouldn’t mess with and with his tanned, lean physique he commands the screen with that intimidating look of his. Then again maybe it’s that he was just so damned good at playing villains like the one he played opposite Van Damme in John Woo’s Hard Target.

I had first seen this one on VHS and it’s been that long since this second go around thanks to a blu ray release in a limited edition release of 4000 copies from Vinegar Syndrome. With a number of actors I’ve always looked for when deciding on what to watch it’s hard not enjoy this for what it is. A low budget affair with a high body count amidst plenty of action sequences. And some thickly sliced ham via Mr. Forsythe. Been a fan of his ever since seeing Leone’s epic Once Upon a Time In America.

By this point both Kennedy and Black had found their way to the lower budget fodder that populated the home video market and Lynch had pretty much been there forever with his looks that lent themselves to villains right from the beginnings of his career tormenting Pacino in 1973’s Scarecrow and hunting “game” in the shocking for it’s day, Open Season.

While Savage Dawn was sitting on the new release shelf in video stores, Lynch, was playing one of his memorable roles as the lead terrorist opposite Chuck Norris in Invasion U.S.A. Incredibly, a film that gets more enjoyable with every viewing.

Henriksen has of course a legion of followers and far too many film roles for me to ever catch up on. Everyone has a favorite or two but I’m sure his Bishop in Aliens ranks very high on the poll. First recollection looking back? Probably Damien: Omen II. While I haven’t seen the movie Falling as of yet, I was quietly pulling for him last year when his name was tossed about as a possible Oscar candidate for his work opposite actor/director Viggo Mortensen.

Give Savage Dawn a go if you can locate a copy but go in with low expectations and you’ll find it fun fodder for a late night viewing.

6 Comments »

  1. I don’t recall seeing this one. But you are right, movies turned up on VHS out of the blue very much like the straight-to-DVD bunch, but I wonder if there was already a straight-to-VHS category of whether it as made with double bills and drive-ins in mind. Certainly has a great cast – the biggest names, I’m assuming, all down on their luck.

    • A whole new market of releasing movies opened up with the VHS machine becoming a popular addition to homes around the world. Not unlike today and the streaming world. I hear of films nowadays and some I have no idea how to locate. Just too many to keep up with and yes I think Mr. Kennedy and Miss Black had seen better days.

      • I always bought all the film mags to keep up with what was coming out and then I’d go into a video store and see movies ‘d never heard of. Great times.

  2. Saw SAVAGE DAWN on the Deuce in the 80’s. Perfect venue for it. A few years later when working as sound editor, I was at August Films, Nuchterns company buying sound effects, I ask about the movie and he told me some stories about the making of it. Oddly enough the phone rang while were chatting and it was Karen Black. Synchronicity?

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