2020 TEXAS GLADIATORS (1982) – HAPPY NEW YEAR! Balladeer’s Blog’s Weirdness at the End of the World welcomes in the year 2020 with a look at what Texas will be like in a few months. There are changes coming your way, Texans!
Actually, it’s not really Texas and there are NO gladiators in this film but at least it is now officially 2020!
When reviewing other post-apocalypse movies I’ve often made references to 2020 Texas Gladiators. The fact that I call it my favorite bad post-apocalypse movie has often prompted readers of Balladeer’s Blog to ask why I hadn’t reviewed it yet. The answer was always that I was saving it up for New Year’s Day of 2020.
Just because this is my favorite bad post-apocalypse film does NOT mean I consider it to be the worst one. That designation would be reserved for unwatchable trash like Empire of Ash III and the like.
2020 Texas Gladiators is my favorite bad entry in the genre because of how it defeats itself at every turn, because of its lame attempts to pretend it’s being filmed in America instead of Italy and because of how joyously tasteless it is. Tell the Hekawi tribe from F-Troop to move over! They’ve been replaced as the fakest-looking Native Americans in entertainment history by the post-apocalypse Indians in this flick, portrayed by obvious Italian extras!
Their black wigs with built-in headbands are one thing, their less than authentic vests are another thing, their Tonto way of speaking still another, but the POST-APOCALYPSE TEEPEES they live in will bring a smile to the lips of any true fan of really bad exploitation movies.
Taking things from the top, Al D’Amato directed 2020 Texas Gladiators under one of his countless aliases. For all I know he may have even directed a film using MY name. The following year Warrior of the Lost World, another Italian ripoff of Mad Max, would reuse this movie’s Nazi-esque uniforms and riot shields for the bad guys and many of this flick’s supporting cast. Hell, the largest vehicle in 2020TG even shows up as Mega-Weapon in that same movie.
Our story opens in 2020 Texas. Lest you think it’s really Italy like in so many other Spaghetti-pocalypse films, the name “Texas” is painted on several buildings. Just like in the REAL Texas … or not. Misspellings like “dinamite” for dynamite and “exsplosives” for explosives also betray the overseas origins of the movie.
Greenish-faced mutants are attacking what we’re told is a monastery, yet there are nuns and other innocent female bystanders living there. Since it’s supposed to be Texas, calling the place a “mission” instead would have been some half-decent verisimilitude AND explained the co-ed nature of the place.
The makeup on the crazed mutants is so bad I at first thought their greenish complexions meant they were just human thugs who painted their faces with “war-paint” because the color clearly ends at their necklines. Nope. It’s just slipshod filmmaking.
Eventually the “monastery’s” handful of defenders are killed, letting the torture and rape of the survivors begin. One nun uses broken glass to slit her own throat to avoid this fate and the same shot of her taking her own life is shown TWICE for some reason.
In the nick of time Several minutes too late for most of the monastery’s inhabitants, the good guys arrive. We later learn they are called Rangers, so given the setting of this movie it’s no wonder they titled it 2020 Texas Rangers … Hey, wait a minute! That title would make sense, so D’Amato and company were having none of that!
Though many Spaghetti-pocalypse movies really do feature arenas and gladiatorial combat this one does not, so to me part of its charm is the meaningless title when a much more appropriate title was staring the filmmakers in the face. (Insert your own “One apocalypse. One Ranger.” joke here.)
The story’s main Rangers are Nisus (Al Cliver), Halakron (Peter Hooten), Red Wolfe (Asian Al Yamanouchi), Catch Dog (Daniel Stephen) and Jab (Harrison Muller). No, Jab’s brothers Poke and Nudge do not appear in this movie. They must have died in the Atomic War that we’re told reduced much of the Earth to a wasteland.
At any rate the attacking Rangers emerge triumphant, but unfortunately Catch Dog shows his true stripes when he tries to rape blonde Maida (The overworked Sabrina Siani). Halakron and Nisus stop the scumbag from doing it and expel him from the Rangers for “violating his oath.”
Nisus falls in love with Maida, fascinated by her wish to reject violence and to try rebuilding the world rather than just adding to the bloodshed. Jump cut to about six or seven years later. Nisus obviously left the Rangers to marry Maida and the two had a child, Kezia (Isabella Rocchietta).
The three of them are part of a Texas settlement doing some of that rebuilding that Maida dreamed of. In one of many inconsistent bits in the movie we are told that they work at drilling for oil (I guess because it’s supposed to be Texas) but are also told the structure they tend to is really a nuclear power plant. Nuclear oil-drilling! It’s the wave of the future I guess! After all, what could possibly go wrong?
Nisus may be retired from the Rangers but he’s still a hero. When there’s a technical malfunction that threatens to blow up the oil refinery/ nuclear power plant, killing all the settlers, Nisus manages to set things right.
The guy just can’t catch a break, though, because right after that, different alarms go off, and the settlers must race to their positions at assorted automatic weapons to defend their settlement from attacking armed bikers. We learn these are mercenaries led by Catch Dog, Nisus’ former comrade in the Rangers.
The mercs soften up the settlers, making them easy pickings for the uniformed soldiers that follow. Those troopers also sport bullet-proof, electric-charged “perma-shields” (the riot shields later recycled for Warrior of the Lost World).
The mercenaries work for the New Order, an emerging dictatorial regime that is conquering what’s left of America and enslaving all non-combatants. And raping the women AND little boys. The New Order’s elite refer to themselves as “the Martial Race.” (Hey, do you think they’re trying to draw a parallel to … naaahh!)
Donald “Dr Butcher” O’Brien plays the commanding officer of these particular New Order troops and their mercenary allies. His character, nicknamed after his uniform’s color, is called the Black One. No, not the Dark One. That’s in the Spaghetti-pocalypse movie Robot Holocaust.
After Catch Dog and the Black One force the captive and bound Nisus to watch several men rape his beloved Maida and steal away his daughter Kezia, he winds up getting killed. And so dies any emotional investment we viewers had in this figure who seemed likely to be the story’s hero. Expectations subverted!
NOTE: For newcomers to these kinds of Italian flicks from the 80s, please observe that, as usual, since there are only a tiny handful of black actors and actresses in the cast, they once again do double duty as “the black people” among the good guys AND “the black people” among the bad guys. The recognizable and recycled faces add to the Bad Movie Charm. Especially when they get killed more than once.
We return to our story about a year later. Halakron, Jab and Red Wolfe are still Rangers. This jumbled mess of a movie conveys the impression that they aren’t, but we learn later in a throwaway line that they ARE still in that organization.
These three Texas Musketeers, I mean gladiators, drift into a cutthroat, unsettled Texas town overflowing with desperate characters and cowboy hats. They’ve somehow gotten word that their former colleague Nisus was killed when his settlement was seized by the New Order, and they’re looking for his killers. Or looking for his stolen Ranger necklace. Or trying to find Nisus’ widow Maida. Or something. We viewers are left to our own devices for much of this movie.
(“Schlock doth make authors of us all.” Sorry, I was channeling Mauler for a moment there.)
Life is so cheap in the post-apocalyptic saloon our heroes have entered that Russian Roulette is even more popular than poker at the establishment’s gambling tables. Halakron and Jab spot Maida, who apparently has been sold as a sex slave since a crusty gambler says he “owns” her, like he owns the late Nisus’ Ranger necklace. He won them in a card game, he says.
Halakron challenges the gambler to a game of Russian Roulette, with the winner getting Maida and the piece of jewelry. Our “heroic” Ranger cheats, with help from Jab, and the gambler dies, sparking a barroom brawl.
Our heroes win, but before Halakron can question Maida about Nisus’ killers (IF that’s even what he wanted to do), Jab and Halakron are arrested by the town’s sheriff. They are subsequently found guilty for the destruction of property at the saloon. In a nice touch – if indeed it was intentional – no mention is made of the loss of life, just the damaged property, helping to convey the “survival of the fittest” nature of the place.
Halakron and Jab (NOT a wacky Morning Zoo DJ team) are sentenced to slave labor in the nearby salt mines, where prisoners are overworked, ill-fed and barely given drinking water. Needless to say, none of the prisoners generally survive very long.
When Jab tries to stick up for an abused elderly prisoner, he gets beaten, has his mouth stuffed with salt and is left with his only potential drinking water being from a bucket that one of the sadistic guards just pissed in.
The still-free Ranger named Red Wolfe joins forces with Maida to free Halakron and Jab and the escapees flee in a souped-up, “futuristic” car, pursued by the sheriff’s goons AND Catch Dog’s mercenaries.
Our leads wind up cornered in a box canyon, where Catch Dog gleefully has his men start a landslide that supposedly kills the good guys. They survive and fake their own deaths in a series of scenes which make no sense whatsoever, but Catch Dog is fooled. (Snoop Dog was unavailable for comment.)
Maida wants the Rangers’ help in finding her daughter Kezia and freeing her from whatever presumably hellish fate she has been enduring. Unfortunately, before any steps can be taken toward that goal the foursome are captured by the aforementioned post-apocalypse Indians.
The Indians, even faker than Elizabeth Warren, live in a forest in tastelessly kitschy teepees like I mentioned above. These noble forest-dwellers with their crude weapons are enlisted to help our heroes bring down the high-tech, totalitarian villains of the story in a bit George Lucas would rip off with his Ewoks the following year. (I’m kidding!)
The faux Native Americans join Maida and the Rangers in attacking the conquered settlement seized by the New Order and slaughter Catch Dog’s mercenaries as well as the uniformed troopers. Hilariously, the “perma-shields” that were impervious to bullets earlier in the film are now easily penetrated by the arrows fired by the Native-Italian-Americans. Just go with it.
Maida gets to kill Catch Dog, Halakron kills the Black One and Jab dies in the final battle. The grandmother of one of the little boys raped by the New Order thugs kills the man who did it. Red Wolfe survives as do most of the Italian-American Indians. With the battle over, the paisan-warriors ride back to their forest village, whooping like it’s a 1950s western.
Maida’s daughter shows up alive and well with absolutely NO thanks owed to our heroes. She just appears in the settlement at the end, to everyone’s surprise. I’d like to see a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead-style parallel movie to this one showing how she survived and was returned to her home town.
Idiotically, Halakron, Maida and Red Wolfe refer to everything being over, despite the fact that we were told earlier that the New Order controlled most of post-apocalypse America. This is the polar opposite of sequel-baiting.
But at least Halakron and Maida live happily ever- oh, wait. Halakron and Red Wolfe say goodbye to the liberated settlers and ride off back to Ranger headquarters. In what looks like an inserted scene from a reshoot we see Halakron asking Maida to wait for him and adding that he’ll be back some day. It’s so slipshod he might as well have muttered “or whatever” at the end.
So why is this flick my favorite of the many bad ripoffs (Italian or otherwise) of Mad Max and The Road Warrior? Because, while the worst bad movies are the ones that are boring-bad the best bad movies are fun-bad. Even if we use the go-to example of Plan 9 From Outer Space that rule applies. There is something engaging about the notion of aliens reanimating the dead to use them as an army against living Earthlings, no matter how badly that premise was mishandled in the final product.
It’s the same thing here. Handled correctly, these post-apocalypse Texas Rangers could have been a cool combination of Mad Max‘s Main Force Patrol officers and Jedi Knights. And that remains true no matter how badly that premise was mishandled in this final product.
A movie like 2020 Texas Gladiators needs to embrace its B-movie campiness, not run away from it or downplay it. If every story element was as crazily over-the-top as the post-apocalypse Indian tribe and the nihilistic saloon this baby might have been a guilty pleasure to end all guilty pleasures.
Even the opening could have been a supercharged high-concept set-piece by making the “monastery” a mission – like, say, the Alamo – being besieged by the marauding mutants instead of Santa Anna’s army. Throw in a title change to 2020 Texas Rangers and this could have been the start of a kitschy franchise to rival the original Planet of the Apes series.
Somebody tell Quentin Tarantino to stop asking for the chance to direct a Star Trek movie and instead remake THIS flick.
2020 Texas Gladiators is not for all tastes, of course, but if you enjoy laughably bad movies it’s a must-see. +++
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