The Rock ‘n Roll Cops is confusing right from the word go because there’s a bunch of different versions of it. At least three, as well as a whole different movie by the same name. Actually both names.
Confused yet? You see it starts with Jackson, for whatever reason, not getting the footage into Scott Shaw’s hands… I’d better let Shaw explain.
“Though Don and I talked about the film over the next few years, as I never had the footage, there was nothing I could do to make it become a film.
In 2002, I was teaching a class at U.C.L.A, The Art of Independent Filmmaking, and I got to be friends with one of my students, Rich Magram. A great guy, we decided to make a film together.
For that film, what I hoped to embrace was that same feeling of the TV show, Cops that I hoped to capture with the original Rock ‘n Roll Cops. I wanted it to be in your face cinematography. As I believed I would never possess the footage for the original Rock ‘n Roll Cops, I titled this new film, Rock n’ Roll Cops. We shot it very documentary style like I had hoped to do with the original film. Filmed and edited, it was then released.
Very soon after this, in 2003, Don became very ill and asked me to take him to the hospital. His time was almost up. Knowing this, and knowing that I was the only one who would keep his filmmaking legacy alive, he made sure that his wife gave me all of the footage to all of his and our movies. There were literally hundreds of hours of uncut footage. Immediately, I located the Rock ‘n Roll Cops footage and began editing the movie. But, Don passed away before I could finish.”
That explains the two different films, but with the rise of DVD Shaw began looking at those old VHS editions and decided it was time to retitle and release the two films in the proper order. Rock n Roll Cops became Hollywood P.D. Undercover and Rock n’ Roll Cops 2: The Adventure Begins, became The Rock n’ Roll Cops.
On top of that, there’s also a “lite” version, with less nudity and cut down a bit. That’s the version that was on Prime to rent. Of course, IMDB lists them as their original titles which only confuse things further. So for the record, we’re talking about the movie IMDB lists as “Rock n’ Roll Cops 2: The Adventure Begins” (Which is actually the first film that is currently in release as “Rock n” Roll Cops”). If you’re confused, look to make sure Donald G. Jackson is in the cast.
That’s right. I said “cast”. Not “director”.
“Due to Don’s feelings about financing the films of other people, it came as kind of a shock to me when he told me he wanted to do my film, The Rock n’ Roll Cops. I had previously told him about my idea for the film and he brought it up one day when we were having lunch out of nowhere. We certainly had co-directed several films together, but when he asked me to solo direct this film with him shooting it, I was very surprised. Though knowing Don as I did, I knew it was not going to be as simple as all that. ”
Shaw was correct. Don’s behavior on Rock n’ Roll Cops was far more abnormal than usual, exaggerating his worse traits.
“It was during this period that I really began to witness a shift in Don. Anger could be seen brewing in his eyes. ”
It began benignly enough. Jackson started playing games with people. Even his investors.
“one of the high-end money people came over to our production offices to discuss possibly financing a film. At that time, Don was very interested in getting the bumpers of his ’62 Plymouth Belvedere powder coated. Instead of even talking to the guy he let him sit there as he made phone call after phone call discussing the powder coating process.”
But soon, those eccentricities would coalesce into angry outbursts and a tendency to ride his crew extremely hard. While the crew was shooting the opening scenes of Rock ‘n Roll Cops with the vampire in the armorer’s shop Jackson kept on one particular PA. While prepping him as an extra for a scene, Jackson ended up frustrating the PA so much that the man ripped off the armor the crew was dressing him in and stormed off the set topless. Unfortunately, he stormed off in the wrong direction and ended up In the back of the show where there was no exit. An hour later, he ended up stomping through the middle of production, still shirtless, as he exited into the winter night.
Robert Z’Dar spent a harrowing night on the wrong side of Jackson’s anger as they shot scenes at a large parking complex. It was well past midnight and they had completed their shoot at that location and Jackson was hungry, so the group of them ran over to the nearby Denny’s. He was feeling bad about how much he’d been berating Z’Dar and offered to buy dinner. Z’Dar said he just wanted some fries. Jackson waved a waiter over and declared “Give him three plates of fries!”. He then proceeded to order a grilled cheese sandwich for himself. When the food arrived, Jackson discovered a tomato on his sandwich. He seized the plate and flung it across the room.
Then there was the night they were shooting at Jay Burgers. This was a public burger stand (it’s gone now), on the wrong side of the tracks, over in East Hollywood. A lot of gangbangers hung out there. It wasn’t turf though. Most of the gangsters in this situation were willing to ignore you as long as you didn’t come at them. There was what Shaw describes as a young gangbanger with a couple of friends hanging out at the burger joint. Don began hassling them, as he shot. He screamed at them to shut the fuck up and get the fuck out of the shot. The gangstas rose from their seats with hands reaching for their guns. Don had started packing recently (due to threats on his life) but didn’t have his weapon on him that night and stopped production to apologize. He offered a handshake. The gangsters just stared at him and then went back to their business. Everyone let loose a sigh of relief.
For some of the final scenes shot on the film, veteran actor William Smith was scheduled to film at a local hotel. He arrived with his girlfriend, (who would later become his wife) and it set Jackson off. He insisted that she had to leave. Bill goes into the bedroom of the suite, where Don was getting the camera ready, and put him in a chokehold. The girlfriend stayed, hanging out in the hotel bar.
Somehow, the film got made. So, what did it end up looking like?
I kind of dig the opening shot of a vampire coming at the neck of what looks like a Barbarian Queen. It takes place at the shop where Jackson and Shaw had gotten armor for other films like Big Sister 2000 (Julie Strain wears this very set on the cover). Scott Shaw shows up with his partner as the rock ‘n’ roll cops from the boogie-woogie division (Yes, that’s actually how they identify themselves).
“We are here to investigate the decapitation”
“Who was decapitated?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
They’re also looking for the man who makes the “D cappuccino”.
“Did you see any strange people coming to the shop – besides yourself?”
“There was a tall oriental fella…”
“Did he talk like this? Hang chang toy!” (David Heavener would be crucified for that stereotypical imitation today)
They take a knife from the shop (as evidence I suppose) and the vampire gets back to business. If this is what I’m in for, I’m not sure what to think – I’m really digging the puns though. We’ll get more of them as the movie goes on, but not as many as I like.
Outside, a ponytail kid attempts to steal Bonzirelli’s car. Scott Shaw leaps on top of the car in slow motion (The car itself is driving at a crawl, that’s the reason for the slow motion) and rolls off. He jumps into his Porsche and screams off in the hot pursuit as the opening credits roll.
While I’ve been critical in the past of Jackson’s ability to film exciting action sequences, the car chase is actually pretty competently filmed with good coverage and interesting angles. That shouldn’t come as such a surprise, Shaw recalls Jackson doing more than thirty takes on it. Indeed, it goes on so long, that the day stretches to night. You’ll see the sky going from daytime on the outside of the cars to night time during the interior shots of the drivers.
Scott Shaw’s character of Jake Blade (yeah, I can’t take that name seriously either. I suppose it’s better than his partner “Bonzarelli”. Nevertheless, we’ll just keep referring to him as Scott Shaw, shall we? ) grabs the thief, beat him up and toss him into a swimming pool. Afterward, Shaw’s lieutenant comes to chew him out for his excessive use of force.
“You’re a little wet behind the collar, huh?”
“Well, it is raining!”
The rain wasn’t planned, by the way. It just happened to be raining when they were setting up the scene so Shaw and Jackson decided to use it. Shaw got so soaked he had to stop at a department store for dry clothes before heading out to the next location. It’s interesting to notice that Shaw is wearing a “Guns of El Chupacabra” hat. The detective’s partner will later on complain about the hat and make him take it off… It’s the weirdest thing.
Jackson himself shows up as the Commissioner of police consulting with Shaw at a hamburger joint. It’s not just an assignment, its also a shakedown. Shaw tells him he picked up his last prescription, and Jackson complains he is in a lot of pain. This is eerie to me because at this point, Jackson’s leukemia was in its more advanced stages. Medication had destroyed the cartilage in his hip, causing him to walk with the cane we see in the film. He was on a lot of Vicodin, and indeed in a lot of pain and Shaw was actually doing just the sort of thing, getting prescriptions and things for him. I’m unnerved that they decided to use Jackson’s real-life suffering and immortalize it in the film.
Jackson gives Shaw an assignment, and he asks what’s in it for him (I’m getting some deja vu back to Guns of El Chupacabra). Jackson says he’ll give him the world, and then actually holds up an inflatable globe. Jackson also threatens him that if he fails, he’ll do this to his head -then crashes the inflatable globe.
Shaw and his partner pick up a couple of hookers in a limo and question them. Back at the vampire’s weapons shop, he and his Barbarian Queen are getting a little busy. We get another quick insert of Julie strain in chains on the couch under heavy-metal posters. These are the kinds of scenes that were trimmed for the “Lite” edition, cutting out nudity to make this a little more acceptable for release on certain platforms like Amazon Prime and Jackson’s backroom screenings at home over in Michigan.
Back to the cops harassing a Russian pimp.
They deliver a beat down on the pimp to get some information, then head out for burgers at a greasy self-serve place. They talk about girls, vegan food and the fact that Shaw needs a haircut.
“I got a haircut, it grew back.”
Their meal is broken up by a stool pigeon butting in. He tries to shake them down for a payoff.
“Maybe give me a couple hundred bucks…”
Shaw grabs him and slams him down onto the table
“Yeah, I’ll give you a hundred bucks and then I’ll kill you afterward!”
There is a third character in this scene too! A boom mike keeps dropping in the frame and is impossible to miss, that is if you’re not distracted by Jackson’s frequent reflection in the store window behind the actors.
The police chief catches up with them to complain again about them using excessive force on their witnesses. “I want to see some changes, and I want to see them on my desk tomorrow morning!”
The cops go and find someone else to harass, Bobby the Monk who they pull out of his car. He tells them that Robbie is hiding out of the seasons. Turns out, Robbie is a girl, and we find her swimming in a pool (fun fact, It’s the pool at Kevin Eastman and Julie Strain’s house. And the same one Shaw tossed the car thief into at the beginning of the film)They question her, searching for the name of Mr Big.
“Listen toots! We can do this easier we can do this hard!”
After they get the name, the picture shifts to widescreen for a couple minutes (So I guess we’re doing this the hard way) before we suddenly transition to a complete non-sequitur with the cops and one of their friends sitting watching a stripper by the pool. I’m not even sure what’s going on there… It’s actually a relief when we cut to the parking lot at night with a Corvette pulling up to the German pimp again. The pimp claims he’s gone straight and insists now that he only sells watches.
“Oh! A Jeweler?”
“No, I’m Catholic!”
The German is delivered another beat down with Shaw showing off his roundhouse skills, then the pair head off in search of a pizza with vegetarian anchovies. Jackson pulls up behind them shaking them down for drugs again. They don’t have any.
“I have some cashews here sir,” Banzirelli offers. “They won’t ease the pain but they’ll make you fat….” That satisfies Jackson who wants them to contact him the next time they make a bust and score some speed or something. He’s going to need some.
The Rock n’ Roll Cops go out and find Charlie, the car thief from the beginning of the film. It’s time for another beat down.
“Didn’t that king fu shit it go out in the 80s?” Charlie protests. It’s enough for him to remember the general location of Mr. Big.
The investigation’s taken too long though. Bonzerelli has been up for four days straight and is starting to hallucinate as they drive in the car. Shaw himself has a devastating secret – he’s already in business with Mr. Rinaldi (I think he is anyhow. Nothing ever comes of it and by the end of the film, Jackson and Shaw seem to have forgotten about this altogether). He heads over to see him for advice as his partner is wheeled through the dimly lit hallways of a mental hospital by two nurses. If the scene looks familiar, it should. It was filmed at Los Angeles Union Station, the same place Jackson filmed several of the monastery scenes in The Roller Blade Seven.
Jackson comes back and introduces Shaw to his new partner, a stunning blonde named Kelly, just before shaking him down for some prescription drugs.
“You’re not as cute as my last partner but you deafly better kisser…”
“I’m definitely cuter than your last partner!”
She takes to the excessive force right away, knocking down still pigeon Bobby before they even exit the stairwell. While Shaw and his new partner are beating up witnesses, Jackson is confronting Ranalli. meanwhile, Robert sirdar tries to seduce Shaw new partner…
“What a nice girl like you doing with a cop like Jake? “
“He’s a rock ‘n’ roll cop! Like me! “
Z’Dar is undaunted and offers to take her to the movies – a double feature with “The Roller Blade Seven” and “Hell Comes to Frogtown 2”!
After a brief monologue from Mr. Big Rinaldi, we cut to Shaw playing some guitar and shredding against a police “do not cross the line”… I guess this is where he gets the name rock ‘n’ roll cop from. Elsewhere, his new partner Kelly has been captured and tied to a chair as a weirdo in a D.A.R.E. (to keep kids off drugs) shirt and rollerblades in circles around her occasionally beating the poor woman with a short whip or riding crop.
Shaw and his old partner come to rescue her in the weirdest, most anticlimactic rescue I’ve ever seen. Bonzarelli explains that he spent four months in the nuthouse. Much more time must have passed than it appears. Shaw must’ve been playing guitar all that time.
The rollerblader comes out to attack Bonzirelli, and we actually get a bit of a scuffle here. The camera zooms in and out to add an additional sense of movement, occasionally missing shots but generally capturing the feel of the fight. Elsewhere, Bobby the Monk is setting up an ambush with his Uzi and executes rollerblade boy.
The cops pull up to the stakeout Rinaldi’s hotel room. Bonzerelli pulls out his phone to talk to the police chief while Shaw gets busy with Kelly in the back seat. Up in the hotel room, Jackson does his best to intimidate Ranaldi by repeatedly removing his glasses and staring long and hard at him.
Shaw and Kelly wait out in the lobby of the hotel where Shaw discovers Kelly has been infiltrating Ranaldi‘s organization for a while, starting at a strip club. They flirt and Shaw wonders what happened between her and the dark. The elevator ride ends with a contrived looking kiss. We shift to Rinaldi’s hotel room where Kelly is schmoozing with him over drinks. It doesn’t work, Rinaldi spots her as a cop, whips out his gun and executes her. Shaw is right behind her, with a bullet for Ranaldi as well.
We find ourself back in Shaw’s Porsche as the sun sets into night and the film fades out to black
“Don and I always felt we made two masterpieces as a team: The Roller Blade Seven and Guns of El Chupacabra. But, I would add The Rock n’ Roll Cops to that list. Even though it was a crazy, mind-bending experience due to the behavior of Don it, none-the-less, is a true embodiment of Zen Filmmaking.”
Shaw’s idea was to film it handheld, with an almost shaky-cam look; similar to shows like COPS.
“For the camera, we used the then, just on the market, Sony VX1000, Mini DV Camcorder. For the sound, we used a Sennheiser ME66 Microphone, predominately on a pistol grip, plus clip-on lavaliere microphones for many of the dialogue scenes.”
The format was suddenly becoming popular. At one point Shaw and Jackson ran out of the mini DV tapes this camera used and ended up driving all over Hollywood to find more stock. Every store had been bought out by another production team shooting at the same time.
The different format wouldn’t keep Jackson from obsessing over shots. Despite using the handheld camera, he would repeat shots, again and again, fine tuning until he got exactly the shot he was looking for. This, combined with using Jackson’s stock pool of players is why, in many ways, this still looks very like A Jackson film (and therefore merits coverage here), rather than a Scott Shaw Zen production.
Return to Frogtown begins in a darkened hall where the frog leader declares it time to rise up and throw off the yoke of slavery! Basically the first few moments are to let you know straight off just how over to top this movie is going to be. It goes even further than the first film and that’s no small feat.
The frogs look good as ever, and I wonder if Jackson made off with some of the masks that Steve Wang had crafted for the last film (Things do go missing from studios from time to time after all). The credits on the other hand, look cheap and shortly we find ourselves in a marble yard that may be the same one he filmed “The Roller Blade Seven” in one year prior. The toad warriors are hunting as a torn old flag flutters overhead. It doesn’t look as if the lips can move on these frog masks being used for the long outdoor shot (There’s a hero mask for indoor close ups with some very basic up and down movement on the bottom lip, but that’ll be it). Not a big surprise. Indie film making usually involves a slashed budget and Jackson is back to his old tricks, overdubbing the whole thing with hollow, tinny sounding looping. He’s chosen appropriate voices, deep and menacing, but the poor dubbing throws the whole feel of the film off – especially when you’re outside. Inside we can forgive a little echoey sound but outside with no lips moving and poor looping… Well that’s classic Donald G Jackson. Still, Robert Z’Dar, Lou Ferigno and even Brion James all show up in the credits which leaves me feeling hopeful.
Then the rocket man appears in the sky, and I’m pretty sure I know exactly what kind of film I’m in for. It’s Ferigno playing ranger John Jones (named after a different green guy than the one he normally plays) and now he’s trapped behind enemy lines.
Robert Z’Dar, One of the futuristic Texas Rocket Rangers (who dress like the Rocketeer only with the helmet on backwards) is assigned to go fly in and find him. Apparently he’s playing Roddy Piper’s character in this installment, I am somewhat mystified as to why they didn’t just create a new protagonist. There is no resemblance between the two incarnations of the character, physical, behavioral or otherwise. Z’Dar is given free reign to do his own thing. He’s accompanied by Denice Duff playing Dr. Spangle. Again, we have a character with the same name from the first film, but who has no actual resemblance to the previous outing. Spangle was blonde, smart and all business in the first one. In this film she’s a spunky brunette sidekick and I think I actually like her better. (To be fair though, that could be just my affection for Duff coming through from her time in Full Moon’s Subspecies series….)
In the meantime back at Frogtown, the toads interrogate Ferigno to discover the secrets of the rocket pack. It almost feels like Jackson is creating a serial here, He’s obviously influenced by the old Commander Cody episodes and stuff this film full of monsters, jet packs and cool vehicles – gun cars and dune buggies.
Frogtown in this installment is an old western ghost town rather than the industrial hellscape of the previous film. That stupid sign is upfront again too, “If you lived here you be home by now”. Jackson seems to have as much of an obsession with this gag as he does with samurai swords. The stock background along with the expressionless masks, limited jaw movement, and hand puppet mutant (and what’s with Jackson’s fixation on puppet nookie anyhow?) give the film a distinctly power rangers sort of feel. This thing is practically a cartoon.
Ferigno is still being interrogated and drugged, but now we see he is slowly being turned into a mutant as well by mad scientist Brion James in the single most uncharacteristic role I’ve ever seen him in. It’s a bizarre. He’s a poindexter type of character, with frizzy hair so wild that it would shame Larry fine.
In the meantime, because this is the 90’s and we’re still recovering from Vanilla Ice’s “Turtle Rap” in the second Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film on year prior, Donald Jackson felt it was very important to include a nightclub scene that featured a four-minute long original song sung by a band completely comprised mainly of mutant frog people and their slave girl dancers..
The Texas Rocket Rangers are captured, but still determined to break Ferigno out. Lou for his part, is looking greener every minute and I’m afraid he’ll hulk out at any moment! I mean that as a joke, but to be fair, Ferigno does bust them out of their prison cell by literally ripping the bars out of the window.
Shotguns in hand, they attempt their escape with the mad scientist and his formula to turn people into frogs. Only Z’Dar is able to slip away, with the help of the hand puppet. He almost makes it, long enough to Don his rocket pack. Suddenly, before he can tak off, he’s surrounded by frogs.
The frog master find the humans guilty of crimes against frog kind (Now there’s a sentence I never thought I’d say). Seconds before they’re executed, another Texas Rocket Ranger sweeps in and rescues everyone, blasting the frogs back and freeing Sam Hell up to shotgun everything in sight. This begs the question why they didn’t just swoop in like this this in the first place, (but that’s okay. The film still clocks in at under 90 minutes) Even the turtle head with the gatling gun is no match for our rocketeer wannabes and their hand puppet.
The frog man says “I’ll be back “more frequently than Arnold Schwarzenegger.
We find ourselves in a climactic battle of katana versus katana in a smoky room and we get a somewhat surprising twist with the frog master just before everything blows up.
It’s goofy dumb fun, and a little more unintentionally campy then the original film, but still passable. I’d probably be upset if I paid money to watch it, that wouldn’t necessarily turn it off if it were on cable. The Asylum has done far worse.
I gotta take a breather from these things for a minuet. I’ve watched enough of these movies that they may just have broken my brain…but I think I’ve cracked the code (feel free to turn this into a drinking game). Take any four or more of these elements, and spend $3000.
Make a sequel to Roller Blade or Hell Comes to Frogtown.
Hire Joe Estevez. If it’s too close to porn, hire Robert Z’Dar instead.
Put at least one character on wheels. Roller skates are preferred, but a skateboard will do in a pinch.
Shoot at the Los Angeles observatory, a junkyard or the overpass above the L.A. 170 freeway. (Bonus points for all three)
Make sure there’s a role for Conrad Brooks.
Include a Samurai sword.
Make one of the main characters a mostly immobile hand puppet. (Bonus points if it’s got a libido)
Hire Julie Strain or Jill Kelly.
Scott Shaw stars and/or produces while speaking as few lines as possible in his suit, t-shirt and amazing shades.
Mix Christian and Eastern mysticism. Quote liberally from one of Shaw’s books.
That’s it. You’ve now made a film indistinguishable from Donald G. Jackson! I’m sorely tempted to do my own comic or novel version. Joe Estevez has kidnapped Julie Strain and is holding her hostage until someone brings him the ashes of Donald Jackson! Scott Shaw straps on his roller skates and brandishes his katana. Off he goes and battles through Ninjas, Toad Warriors and Invisible Chuacabras but gets wounded. He is healed by the sisterhood from The Master of Light Institute and they present him with a rocket pack to continue his journey. He finds himself at the Junkyard where the ashes are stored. There’s a sign on the gate that reads “If you lived here, you’d be home now”. He finds the ashes in a secret room, covered in sheets and guarded by the ghost of Robert Z’Dar.
This has been a public service announcement. We now return you to your regularly scheduled broadcast.
It makes sense to take a quick diversion here into the films of Maximo T. Bird – that is to say, the pseudonym of Donald Jackson. As the 90’s began, Jackson, disillusioned from his experiences at Roger Corman’s New World pictures had exited the studio system completely, exclusively raising money and shooting independently. It would be during this time that he would eventually take on “Zen Filmmaking” as his standard. However, before he’d refocus on Sci-Fi fantasy zen films he found himself mired in exploitation.
While quite smutty, I struggle with what exactly to call these films. Are they porn? Jackson is certainly using porn actresses. During the production of “Guns of El Chupacabra” Don came up with the idea of going to the major adult film casting agency in L.A., where he was sure he’d easily be able to get some female talent who were willing to work in the nude. As there was no on-screen sex involved in that film, something that these girls did for a living, he was certain this would be a far easier sell. Jackson paid the two-hundred dollar casting fee, looked through their books, chose some girls, and got their numbers. He’d be making good use of that list of phone numbers for the rest of his career to provide ample nudity and the occasional sex scene for his films.
The thing is, is that enough to make it qualify for Porn? Would you call for instance, Paul Verhoven’s “Showgirls” porn? It also has copious amounts of nudity and sex scenes FAR more graphic (enough to get them slapped with a “NC-17” rating rather than a “R”) than anything we ever got from Jackson. But it also has more story and intent than a lot of these halfhearted attempts by Jackson under the Bird name. The main sort of titillation seems to come from girls walking around and various stages of undress and the vacuous looks of pleasure on their faces.
Many of them feel almost as if someone hired Jackson to make a porn film, and he set out to do as poor job of it as possible (and let’s face it. It’s HARD to screw up porn). It makes me think of Ed Wood’s later films, things like Orgy of the Dead, where the subject matter is definitely meant to be pornographic, but the filmmaker still clings to this fantasy of making real films and injecting some sort of genre plot. This isn’t like something from say, Jim Wynorski – who, when he makes porn… He lets you KNOW it’s porn. These films seem to be trying very hard to straddle the fence between those two worlds; an uncomfortable position to say the least, especially in an animal print thong.
The other thing is, I can’t understand exactly to whom this was marketed. It’s too racy and amateur from mainstream video stores, but not racy enough for an adult bookstore. It would’ve been perfectly normal to see this in one of the grindhouses of the 70s and 80s. “The Devil’s Pet” for instance was released in 1994, the year Rudy Giuliani was elected so it may have made it in as a last gasp before he cleaned up New York. A great deal of Jackson’s work would also end up overseas. He was a regular at The American Film Market, which would attract buyers from all over the world. Also it was still in the thick of late-night Cinemax, and when other filmmakers like Jim Wynorski would make this kind of stuff, that’s where it would end up.
And this is where I’m conflicted. We don’t review or promote porn here. But this is still a pretty integral illustration of Jackson as a filmmaker. So here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to pick four of these movies that best illustrate the Bird films, and basically give you some descriptions so hopefully you can know enough to avoid them. Let’s start with “It’s Showtime.”
For a moment “It’s Showtime” feels like a return to Donald Jackson’s original documentary roots. Actually, a straight documentary would have been a much better film. Interesting that in this case he uses the bird pseudonym as a film editor, but his real name appears as a director. It’s one of those tricks to pad the crew list and make it look like more people actually worked on this movie than actually did. What’s notable though that it foreshadows the way he’d soon start using it as a pseudonym to fully separate his smut work from the family films he’d start trying to push around this same time.
The movie starts off with a bunch of talking head clips of different strippers, describing what it’s like to work in the industry before heading into the club itself to show the atmosphere. The documentary opening may have been a mistake though. The film itself is a traditional narrative and this highlights how staged it is. We’ve got a familiar face in Robert Z’Dar behind the bar. He’s not around for long though (likely only worked one day on this one) after propositioning one of the dancers to “get ahead “. That proposition gets him fired by the manager/den mom, but as he leaves He threatens them – “I’ll be back” (He makes up on this promise a few minutes later in the alleyway with a knife)
In the meantime, the strippers discuss your lives and one falls on stage, twisting her ankle. Backstage, they examined her heels and find that one has been damaged… Sabotaged! We also
the Mafia type owners who are pigs of course, trying to get favors from the girls. For about ninety seconds it becomes a study of who will and who won’t. It almost wants to be a cautionary tale, but like a kid with ADHD the movie immediately loses focus and goes back to more scenes of the dancers. The monotony of random dancing is broken up when the partner of one of the dancers shows up and goes nuts. This lasts for about three minutes before heading back to dancing and random dialogue. We then get a quickie love affair for the manager that’s made up of a three minute sex scene then two more minutes of the happy couple riding rapturously on horseback. Before it’s time to jump scenes again.
A poolside birthday party is up next, where the girls dance like strippers even when not at work. Another bartender is fired with a cake to the face. Finally we hit the Halloween party at the club. The cops come in, shut it down and arrest the owner so we have some semblance of plot and closure.
Ultimately this seems to want to be just a slice of life – a week in the life of a strip club. Imagine if “Showgirls” had no plot and never got out of that first strip club? That’s what this film is. There are no character arcs, no pathos, no relationships, no goals… Just ordinary life, but in this seedy setting with its almost cartoonish owners and hapless den mother/manager. If you were to pull all of the dancing inserts, the run time would likely drop by half.
On to the next one. “Queen of the Lost Island” also goes by the name “The Devil’s Pet”. Like “It’s Showtime”, the camerawork actually looks decent despite the fact that the sound quality is muddy. We also get the occasional directors trademark where the corners of the screen are periodically cut off from not removing the lens cap properly. It begins with a man dreaming of topless cavewoman and Robert Z’Dar.
Reporters hound him outside a Beverly Hills hotel, asking about people who died on the mysterious island. It seems he is a sole survivor of a trip, and there to tell his story to a magazine writer.
Flash back to Z’Dar, doing a photo shoot in the woods (I can’t help but notice how small the camera is by the way – no special lenses, just a kind of average to high and snapshot camera) . They make an appointment to head to the island for the next shoot. While there, the model starts to have flashes of sinister natives (Possibly a goddess or the spirit of the island, depending on which source you go with). She and her boyfriend find a mysterious bottle filled with a drug that triggers off a series of dire foreshadowing quick cuts. The drug seems addictive though, and inflames passions. They leave the bottle behind where it turns Julie Strain into a topless, native, wild woman. We’ll see quite a bit of her wandering and swinging her sword as filler inserts, designed to stretch this to feature length.
We cut back to our main character, talking about moving onto his next job – shooting girls by the pool. The girls fall into the typical stereotypes, the brain, the slut, and the nice girl. A phone call comes in, and the photographer is off to the island with the three girls. Their arrival is observed by the previous visitors to the island, now mentally changed by the bottled drug.
More topless sword swinging.
The photographer begins work with one of the models (He’s got the same plain camera as Z’Dar), while the other two are discovered by the survivors on the island. Sword girl begins a ritual that seems to be felt by the other survivors. It also seems to summon other native girls on the island to come and chase our helpless models. Our good girl model is forced to drink the strange elixir and everything that entails.
Jackson also resorted to another one of his trademarks, when in doubt go for the quick cuts. The final 15 minutes are almost all quick flashes from scene to image to seeing to image. He even manages a twist ending of sorts. It’s the sort of things that don’t make it feel like it wants to be more than just smut. Indeed, it’s listed on IMDb a “horror” rather than “adult” or even just “independent”. Whatever it is, this film is garbage and even at seventy five minutes this is too long. I watched this on 1.4x speed, and updated that to full double time for the last twenty minutes. Even reduced to 47 minutes it’s too long. I’m a little surprised it didn’t end Jackson’s career. It didn’t though and it moves us on to “Big Sister 2000”.
With Maximo T. Bird and Julie Strain in the credits, I’ve already got a pretty good idea what Big Sister 2000 is going to be like. If that weren’t enough, then opening with a girl in a cage pretty much seals the deal. She is guarded by a man clad in black and decked out in hockey armor, a bandanna, and a top hat. He has a katana. Very much a Donald Jackson-looking character. She escapes and makes a run for it, and the men pursue her. The credits end and we switch to A girl at the shrinks office. He thinks she’s delusional, but she attempts to convince him that what she believes is real, and that there’s a threat “out there”.
Jackson is filming in his office again, and we’re back to the old standard of hanging up curtains to create different sets. There is a fine visual gag in the bedroom set though, a number of Jacksons films such as Frogtown, Kill Kill Overkill, and a copy of “the anarchists joke book”. If anything, the movie is worth it just for that!
A girl is kidnapped from her bed and taken to a dark location where she collapses and wakes up in a prison with three other women.
She’s brought to the theater of pain to be interrogated about her sex life. The questions are interspersed by the torment of other scantily clad prisoners.
Around the half hour mark she is visited by a ghost – the spirit of someone who came to this prison and never left. The ghost reassures her there is a way to escape but only if she tells them nothing. The interrogator can only be defeated if she doesn’t break her (The interrogator has superiors as well who will punish her for failure). We see all of this play out minutes after the ghost’s warning – the interrogator lies, fails and is dragged off by another torturer. Then it’s back to the quick cuts to distract us while the film tries to think of a new direction for the plot.
It’s around this halfway point that the film starts to change, shifting from a lesbian dominatrix fantasy to something more philosophical,l with the ghost making repeated visits and the girls considering the ramifications of being held prisoner. She’s given a new interrogator. this time it’s a man who seems more serious about the job and is looking for a book from her collection. She uses interrogators and weaknesses against him to escape.
Using newly acquired guns, they attempt to navigate the surrounding junkyard (a standard Jackson outdoor set) fleeing armed guards, bullets, and the betrayal on one of their own according to the ghost’s prophecy. Our heroine escapes alone, with the ghosts benediction of “Be strong, go on the light”.
Finally, we discover her boyfriend is one of them and he explains what it’s all about – the men are searching for the anarchists jokebook because if people start making fun of the government, it will do what the government tells them to do! She shoots him and makes good her escape. This brings us back to the beginning where she is telling the shrink about the secret prisons. The problem is, the psychiatrist is in on it too and now, it’s time to escape again.
The weird thing about this is that despite all the garbage in this film, there really is an interesting story here. It almost feels as if Jackson had enough material for half a movie and needed an extra 40 minutes of filler – this is where the smut comes in. It’s a little disappointing, because it feels like he could’ve developed this into something bigger, better, if he’d taken some time to craft a good script. A good scriptwriter can overcome the shortcomings of the meagre cast. Instead, it looks like Jackson charged in with a story and half a script, leveraging his connections with various porn stars to create something quick, rather than taking time to create something good. It’s a problem we’d see time and again from Jackson. Scott Shaw once observed “He had great creative ideas but he couldn’t get anything done.” Don always needed someone to collaborate with, someone who could push him and keep him moving instead of just meandering off task. It’s why I think he tended to produce so much better work under the studio system. However, instead of heading back to the studios, Jackson would move either farther away from them.
I’ve seen a lot of b movies and watched a lot of bad directors, but very few have inspired the sort of obsessive fascination I have for Jackson.
Donald Jackson was born on April 24, 1943 in the midwest, growing up in Adrian, Michigan. He began collecting comic books at the age of five and this formed his desire to make movies. While working at a factory building speedometers, he met Jerry Younkins. Younkins was involved in an industrial accident at the factory, losing a couple of fingers. The factory paid him off, giving him about $6000. Jerry and Don quickly decided that this should go towards their shared goal of making their first film. Jackson wanted to do a pulpy privet investigator movie with as black lead. Younkins disagreed and pointed to the success of “The Exorcist” and the hype around occult horror movies. He persuaded Jackson that this was the way to go instead and Jackson reluctantly agreed. Don took sick leave from work, claiming that he was under a doctor’s care, they found a camera crew and set to work creating “The Demon Lover”.
The Demon lover was a troubled production, with Don frequently butting heads with his crew. The inexperienced filmmaker never had a firm plan on what was going to be shot or how to accomplish it, but his charisma managed to draw people in and secure actors and sets. They brought in Gunnar Hanson from Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Ted Nugent lent them his house and penned music for the film. Money dried up quickly, with a $5000 payout to Hanson alone and another $1000 to keep the camera crew working. Jackson was soon forced to mortgage his house, his car, and even his furniture to get the film made. The camera crew ran off at the last minuet after trashing Jackson’s mother’s home where they were staying.
Somehow, the movie got finished. And after two years of post, it was released to moderate success on the drive in circuit. Jackson never saw a penny, and when the factory discovered he’d been off making a movie instead of sick like he had claimed, he lost his job. Hanson was demanding more money – his deal had been $5000 up front, with another $5000 on the back end if Jackson turned a profit. He never did and was therefore unable to make the secondary payment to Hanson – a sore point that Gunnar would still be holding on to when Jackson ran into him at Comic Con in 2000, more than twenty years later.
“I walked up to say, “Hi.” I asked him why he was mad at me and all he could tell me is that I owed him $5,000.00. ”
In the meantime, The camera crew was spreading the word that Jackson wasn’t to be trusted, even going as far as to release a documentary on the making of “The Demon Lover” in an effort to paint Jackson in as crazy a light as possible. Still, he had made enough of an impact that he was getting noticed. Sam Raimi contacted him, telling him that he was one of Raimi’s biggest cinematic influences, and Don was happy to talk with him about what it was like to work on an indie Production like “The Demon Lover”. Other projects were explored. One even involved legendary Cleveland horror host “The Ghoul”, but never materialized. While he never stopped trying, it would be ten years before he would make a return to the film making world with the advent of the VHS market.
This time around, Jackson would play to his strengths, and his own interests. In addition to comics, Jackson was a fan of professional wrestling.
“In the Midwest, were I grew up, Wrestling has always been one of the lifeblood’s of sports.”
Matches would be on television every weekend and at least once a month there would be one big matchup in the city. Jackson was a frequent attendee. It was there that he started to get an idea for his next film.
“What I began doing was to take, first my 8 mm, then my Super 8 Camera, and later my 16 mm Bolex to matches and I began to put a lot of wrestling footage together.”
What Jackson needed was a star. Someone to focus on. Big names like Hulk Hogan were out of the question. Payments would have to be made, and clearances for every shot would be necessary. Jackson didn’t have that kind of cash or time on hand. He found his star in a well known heel named “The Shiek”.
“I went up to him at a match one day, told him what I wanted to do. And, he was the nicest guy. He gave me full access. He also introduced me to many of the other wrestlers, who allowed me to film them, as well.” A real coup would be getting footage of Andre the Giant and Dusty Rhodes for the nascent film.
Jackson’s idea was to make a horror film based in the wrestling world. “Ringside in Hell” however, failed to get traction and Don decided to change direction, cutting the horror scenes and instead, taking inspiration from Robert Altman’s “Nashville”, began to create something following the people in this world – the stars, the up-and-comers, and the never-will-bes, diving into their own personal stories as they orbit the bigger narrative. Slowly he put together a feature that was half documentary and half narrative. After running out of resources with a film that was too short for a VHS release, Jackson added an entire new subplot revolving around a movement against his main character the “Stop the Shiek” drive. The film would become “I like to Hurt People”, and it would finally garner him the attention of Hollywood. Jackson would take matters into his own hands and sent out copies to various film studios, and New World pictures showed some interest, agreeing to pick it up and distribute it. They paid Jackson $50,000. It was enough to finance his move out to Hollywood.
Now settled in out west, Jackson needed work. He leveraged his contacts at New World to get work there as a camera operator and started to make contacts out there like Fred Olen Ray, who would loan him out both his son Christopher and his girlfriend Michelle Baur to be in his next project. One of Don’s early jobs was assistant camera on effects for the sci-fi foray, “Galaxy of Terror”. It was n this film that he’d make another Hollywood up-and-comer. James Cameron was working on FX where Jackson was shooting and Cameron would become a contact that would lead to more work on future films, not the least of which was “Terminator”.
Cameron was almost finished with the film, but wasn’t happy with everything and needed some additional scenes filmed. The problem was, he was out of money. It was at this point that he called up Don for help shooting things like the opening where Schwarzenegger arrives at the L.A. Observatory. Time drew short. Cameron was on his own dime and the shoot was about to go into overtime for Schwarzenegger, even as the crew decided to break for lunch. Cameron looked to Don for a solution.
“We got a small portable light, known as a “Mini Cool,” out of the truck of my car and I had Jim hold it and pan it as Arnold walked through the scene. We got the shot, Arnold got to go home without being paid overtime, and the movie was completed.”
Still, Jackson wasn’t content to just run film on other people’s productions. he came to Hollywood to make his own films. He was working on his next project – a post apocalyptic roller skating battle called “Roller Blade”, which he was financing using his credit cards. Around this time, the returns were coming in for “I Like To Hurt People”, making half a million dollars for New World Pictures. He was $5000 in debt when New World came to him and asked if he had any other projects in the works. Jackson grabbed the footage he had and cut it into a trailer. It didn’t take long for them to work out that a $5000 movie gave them ample room for profit and New World immediately snatched it up.
I’ve written about Roller Blade elsewhere. It was screened for us at the Cedar Lee theater and left me gobsmacked and unable to move half of my body for several minuets. Yet despite the abject lunacy of a sci-fi epic about roller skating nuns in a dystopian future, the combination of creativity and the unique promotion of Roller Blade as the first film marketed direct to video, made the film a success. After raking in a million dollars in sales, New World was ready to give Jackson a shot at a film with a big budget, stars and support. That film would be arguably Jackson’s most well known film; “Hell Comes to Frogtown”.
The problem with increased budgets from a legitimate hollywood studio, is that they come with increased scrutiny. Jackson suddenly found himself surrounded by handlers. He would constantly butt heads with the script supervisor who insisted on word for word line readings when Jackson was more interested in getting the jist of the dialogue. The strict adherence to structure and process that the studio imposed constantly rubbed Jackson the wrong way and by the time Frogtown was finished, Jackson’s relationship with New World was also finished. Donald Jackson departed the studio system, never to return. Leaving the studio however didn’t mean leaving film. Long time collaborator Scott Shaw once said of him; “Don was an obsessional filmmaker. He loved making movies. But, he was willing to make them at any cost.”. Jackson would spend the rest of his career making films independently, raising the money in any way he could. At one point Jackson even found himself in the middle of a ponzi scheme with investors raising money using his name and reputation. The financiers managed to get their hands on over five million dollars before the bottom fell out. Jackson received a mere $500,000 of that. He managed to get three films in the can before the scheme was revealed and the investors went to court. Jackson emerged with his films as well as footage shot for future movies as well. He began to leverage the name recognition behind films like “Hell Comes to Frogtown” and “Roller Blade” producing sequels to each. The modest budgets in these productions is evident, but there is still a sense of linear storytelling and structure to them. They are commercial rather than strictly abstract and artistic as Jackson’s output would later increasingly become.
More money could be found in the family video market. Shaw recalls the era.
“Don knew that if he attempted to sell these investors on making the kind of films he actually wanted to make; i.e. more exploitation based films, they would never invest. So, what he did was to take his own unique vision of comic book based characters and create films, which he felt could be viewed by the younger audience. He did this, while siphoning money from those films, so that he could create the kind of movies that he actually wanted to make.”
Don himself would put it simply; “What I did, was give them the Donald G. Jackson version of a Children’s film — weird.”
The children’s films were never among Don’s favorites. He used to refer to them as “Just another piece of shit on the crap pile.”, but it was becoming evident that he was building his own style and collection of stock players including people like Joe Estevez and Robert Z’Dar
This was the era where Jackson would frequently collaborate with scriptwriter and actor Mark Williams, possibly best known as the artist who designed the album cover for the band Poison’s “Open Up and Say…Ahh!” record. Jackson met Mark via Steven Wang, the artist that created the creature effects and masks for Hell Comes to Frogtown back in Don’s New World days. Mark had moved to L.A. to pursue a career in movies. Much like Steve, Mark was also an FX artist, pursing a career path in the field when he met Don. Also being heavily influenced by comic books, Mark and Don meshed well. According to Scott Shaw
“Mark became an essential element in the filmmaking of Donald G. Jackson, beyond simply the SFX. Don would provide Mark with the concept for a film and Mark would go home and write the entire script in one evening.”
William’s enthusiasm however didn’t match Jackson’s. Don would go hour after hour, even day after day perusing his cinematic vision. He’d constantly be working on set and it wouldn’t be unusual to see him spending hours doing an insanely excessive amount of takes on a single scene in order to get things just right. Williams on the other hand might show up and just hang out puffing on a cigar while he occasionally handed out story direction or acted in a supporting role here and there. Jackson’s work ethic was fanatical. William’s was not. The relationship burnt out in a quick four years with Don eventually exploding at Williams in anger and furiously firing him. They would never speak again, though Jackson would attend William’s funeral at Dark Delicacies in Burbank after the creator’s untimely death from cancer in 1998.
Williams wasn’t the only victem of Jackson’s temper. Outburst on set were common. Scott Shaw remembers one particular incident “we had brought on this one guy who was the godson of actor William Smith. Good guy. I really like him. But, he pissed Don off for some nondescript reason and Don just went off. I was driving in the car behind them and for nearly an hour I could hear Don screaming at the top of his lungs at this guy”
During the filming of “Rock ‘n Roll Cops”, Jackson started screaming at Robert Z’Dar.
“I wish we could get a decent fucking actor on this set!”
Z’Dar, as huge and intimidating as he was, gave a soft and simple response. “I take exception with that, Donny.” He’d put up with it most days, but at one point on the set wher he and Jackson were filming the sequel to “Hell Comes to Frogtown”, the abuse just became too much. Z’Dar, decked out in leather and a jet pack, ripped off his Texas Rocket Ranger helmet and flung it at Jackson who lept up to doge the large chrome colored projectile.
By far, the worst victem of Jackson’s outbursts was Ed Wood alumni Conrad Brooks. Like Z’Dar, Brooks fell in to Jackson’s regular rotation and the two were fast friends. But Jackson was also abusive. Shaw recalled the way Jackson would treat Brooks.
“I believe this abusive mindset was one of the key downfalls to the overall career of Donald G. Jackson. He would test people and if he would find them venerable, he would go after them nonstop. Conrad was often on the wrong side of this abuse. ”
“I guess I shouldn’t have been so hard on him,” Jackson once admitted, but he never apologized.
Scott Shaw met Donald Jackson when he was called in for The Roller Blade Seven, the third film in Jackson’s post apocalyptic roller skating series. That partnership emerged with mixed results and Shaw parted ways with Jackson for a time under bad terms. Jackson went off and made his kids films and Shaw went off to shoot “Samurai Vampire Bikers from Hell” and other films of his own. Shaw would find himself drawn back into Jackson’s orbit in 1995, shortly after Jackson was diagnosed with leukemia. Jackson was given six months to a year to live.
“He found out he only had a few more years to live as he was dying from leukemia. He remembered how well we worked together and that I was one of those people who gets things done. I think he wanted to leave a legacy and without someone like me that wasn’t going to happen.”
Jackson would defy the odds, and live another eight years, producing over a dozen films with Shaw. This was the era he truly embraced Zen filmmaking.
“Many people believe that Zen Filmmaking is simply based upon the fact that no screenplay is used in the creation of a Zen Film. Though this is the basis for Zen Filmmaking, in reality it is much more than this.” says Shaw, who describes how the idea of Zen Filmmaking came to being on the set of The Roller Blade Seven;
“Don and I were very disappointed with the performances of the massive cast we had hired to take part in the film. We looked at each other and realized that the majority of them did not have the talent to truly pull-off the roll of the character they had been assigned. With this, we came to a realization to just go out and film the movie, not expect anything from our cast and crew, and make up the story as we went along. After a few days of this style of production, I had a realization, based in my lifelong involvement with eastern mysticism. I looked at Don and said, “This is Zen. This is Zen Filmmaking.” And, that was it”
Shaw returned in time for Jackson to begin the final installment of his Frogtown series, though that was far from the only collabration.
“It is essential to note that the moment Don and I began working together again, we did not wholly focus on Toad Warrior. We, almost immediately began to formulate, come up with other projects, and begin filming them, as well. Most notable filmed around this same period of time were the films that became Shotgun Blvd. and Ghost Taxi. Though none of these first, “Next Generation Zen Films,” rose to the cult status of Max Hell Frog Warrior, at least in my opinion, they were all better films than Toad Warrior.”
For the rest of his career, in addition to Jackson’s own curious directorial signatures like Swords, roller skates and L.A.s 170 overpass bridge, you can see the specific methods of Zen filmmaking present.
Scott Shaw’s Six Tenets of Zen Filmmaking
1. Make all unforeseen situations work to your advantage.
2. Don’t waste time, money, and energy attempting to create your sets when you don’t have to. Instead, travel to them and allow their natural aesthetics to become a part of your film.
3. Just do it! Ninety-nine percent of the time you can get away with it.
4. Never let your story line dominate your artistic vision. Too many would be filmmakers attempt to write what they believe is a, “Good Script,” and then try to film it. Without an unlimited budget it is virtually impossible to get what is on the page on the stage.
5. Zen Filmmaking is a spontaneous process. If you acutely plan your productions, with screenplays, storyboards, and locations, there is no room for the spontaneity of Cinematic Enlightenment to occur and you will always be lost between the way your mind desired a scene to be and the way it actually turns out.
6. Ultimately, in Zen Filmmaking nothing is desired and, thus, all outcomes are perfect.
If that sounds terrible…it frequently is. And that’s fine by Shaw. ““We did not set out to make Gone with the Wind… It’s not intended to be good.” It’s a quick way of creating movies though. Jackson would always have several movies in varying stages of completion, a valuable thing given the uncertainty of his future. Sometimes things work out. I think “Ride with the Devil” is one of the better efforts. But the films frequently fall short of the artistic heights that this format presumes. Writer Michael Adams, author of “Showgirls, Teen Wolves and Astro Zombies” is perhaps the only person on earth who has watched as many of these films as I have. Here’s how he describes it.
“It’s 1:05 a.m. I’m staring blankly at the blank plasma screen. She (my wife) looks at me, looks at the TV.
“What are you doing, bubble?” she asks, a flicker of concern mixed in with amusement.
“I’ve cracked,” I say. “I can’t watch any more of this dude’s movies. I think this guy has broken my brain.”
“They’re that bad, huh?”
I nod. “And they’re all the same.”
“How much can you say? He tried, mostly failed, and died” Ted Newsome once wrote of Ed Wood.
The term “The next Ed Wood” has been entirely overused since the Medved brother’s golden Turkey awards in 1980 declared “Plan Nine From Outer Space” to be the worst movie of all time (It isn’t. It isn’t even the worst movie Ed Wood ever made). Since then, this mantel has been directed at any and every low -budget filmmaker in Hollywood. Artist Johnny Em even directed the term towards me in my student film days. With most filmmakers it’s mere hyperbole. If any filmmaker ever deserved this sobriquet however, it was Jackson. When looking at Jackson’s life and career in overview, he parallels Wood more than any other director I can think of.
Both men started out working behind the scenes in film doing whatever jobs the studio had available. It was an attempt to break into the business in whatever way they could. They both seized whatever opportunities came their way and bent those films into their own vision whether it was “Bride of the Monster” or “I Like to Hurt People”. Films like “Hell Comes to Frogtown” or “Glen and Glenda” would deliver the studio a far stranger production than they had bargained for.
Both had to fight for creative control of their films. As far back as “Glen or Glenda” Wood had to put up with things like producer George Weiss inserting a short B&D lesbian scene in to the film without Wood’s knowledge or consent. It’s a move that feels very reminiscent of the way Jackson’s financer Tanya York, would recut the footage from both The Roller Blade Seven and Return of the roller Blade Seven into one unauthorized feature she titled “Legend of the Roller Blade Seven”. Wood ended up changing the name and ending of “Bride of the Atom” to appease investors. Still, he fared better than Jackson on “Hell Comes to Frogtown” where control was largely wrested away from him by the studio assigned co-director.
Both men had an unstoppable desire to make films, and yet both lacked resources, time, and patience. They both were masters of the one take scenes and would race through their productions with little regard for traditional film structure. What they lacked in traditional resources, they made up for in their synchronicity with their stock casts. Both had their reliable B-listers; Wood with Bela Lugosi and Jackson with Robert Z’Dar. They would back that star power up with fringe b-listers, Wood with Tor Johnson and Jackson with Joe Estevez and Scott Shaw.
There was a surprising prudishness to both Wood and Jackson as well. In his book “The Cinematic Misadventures of Ed Wood”, Andrew J. Raush writes of Wood’s film “The Violent Years” ” After watching this, one must conclude that Wood was somewhat of a conservative man (startling considering the number of pornographic films Wood would later make or be associated with)”
“His simplistic assertion in the film that leading children “Back to God” would ultimately put an end to juvenile delinquency”
It’s interesting to note a similar conservative message in “The Sinister Urge”, Wood’s cautionary tale warning of the perils inherent in pornography (and sadly foreshadowing his own descent into that genre).
Jackson likewise had his own reservations, particularly when he was still under the influence of his community in Michigan. He was never comfortable with the occult subject matter in “The Demon Lover”, and frequently would express his regret in making it. When he returned home to his native Michigan around the turn of the century, he was welcomed back with open arms and considered the hometown boy made good. At one point Scott Shaw recalled Jackson asking him for a reedit on “the Guns of The Chupacabra” to eliminate the nudity, so he could show it to his friends. That edit would go on to be know as “Crimes of the Chupacabra”.
These old-fashioned values also came through in a certain degree of patriotism. You can frequently see it displayed by wood in places like “The Sinister Urge” where he hints that porn may be a strange foreign plot to wipe out the American way of life. It’s a motif that would pop up from time to time in Wood’s work, not the least of which is “Plan 9 From Outer Space” which can be boiled down to America vs. the Flying Saucers! For Jackson, the best example is simply the names of the scientists in Hell Comes to Frogtown; Star, Spangle, and Banner.
Both Jackson and Wood had one notable film and a lesser known one or two before their careers would be drug down into smut. It’s interesting to note that they were both incompetent flesh peddlers, delivering some of the least arousing nookie films ever made. It’s obvious that their hearts were never in it. Both kept up a good front at first, at least trying to infuse these blue features with some sort of plot before giving up and just delivering the requisite boobs.
To be fair, both Wood and Jackson manage a few legitimate films mixed in with the smut. in 1970 we got one of Wood’s movie scripts made into “The Revenge of Dr. X”, a blatant Frankenstein rip-off. There’s also 1974’s “Fugitive Girls”, a reimagining of the girl-gang theme from “The Violent Years”. Jackson would fire off Toad Warrior, and Shotgun Boulevard along with a handful of other Zen films that Scott Shaw would finish for him.
Neither ever gave up. Neither ever stopped working.
I’m grateful that Scott Shaw was there for Jackson at the end. He helped him keep going, keep filming, keep making movies. Wood should have been so lucky. After all, it’s what he had done for Bela Lugosi. Upon his death in 2003, Jackson transferred all rights to all of his films to Shaw, who has been a fine custodian of his legacy.
It’s a legacy of lunatic guerrilla filmmaking and insane story ideas that absolutely fascinates me and is very much a life that is worth exploring.