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River Of Death

    Horace Cordier
    Senior Member

  • River Of Death

    Released by: Kino Lorber
    Released on: May 26h, 2105.
    Director: Steve Carver
    Cast: Michael Dudikoff, Robert Vaughn, Donald Pleasence, Herbert Lom, L.Q. Jones
    Year: 1989
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    The Movie:

    Producer Harry Alan Towers was a larger than life character. In and out of bankruptcy and various legal tangles from a vice conviction to reputed soviet spying, the one-time radio man may have been short on cash, but he surely never lacked ambition. His films were often cheap and cheerful knockoffs of successful big studio fare, and he liked to have his films shot in exotic and verboten locations like South Africa. But he had a taste for champagne acting talent.

    Cannon's RIVER OF DEATH is clearly an Indiana Jones ripoff. Nazi plot hook, period setting (40's to 60!s), jungle adventure. Our hero wears snappy hats in the South American bush. This enjoyable bit of nonsense is based on, of all things, an Alistair McLean story. But while the cast is filled with upper level talent in smaller roles, this is not the class act that THE GUNS OF NAVARONE was. I'm still not sure what the plot of this thing is exactly but the 1945 prolog has a nazi doctor who's practicing ghastly experiments on inmates in a concentration camp. The fact that the doctor is played by Robert Vaughn who's not even attempting a German accent shows where we are headed right off the bat. He has an argument with the general running the camp and shoots him dead. Then visited by his close friend Heinrich (Donald Pleasence in pure camp glory), they have some kind of falling out involving Vaughn's Dr. Manteuffel shooting Heinrich in the leg during an attempted escape from the camp during a bombing raid. Then it's fast forward to 60's Amazonia and tour guide John (Michael Dudikoff). He's taking a doctor and his daughter on a disease fact finding mission. Suddenly beset by bloodthirsty natives, John loses the girl after the doctor is killed. He returns to the small town that doubles as his base of operations determined to mount a rescue but is stymied by local military man colonel Diaz (Herbert Lom). A couple of Nazi hunters show up (including a hot girl) and LQ Jones as a shady local arms supplier who hooks up John with Pleasence's Nazi, (now traveling under an assumed name and with a gorgeous young blonde woman) who is looking for a tour guide. Then it's off on a hike to the Lost City.

    Part RAIDERS, part EMERALD FOREST and with a big shot of THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL, RIVER OF DEATH is preposterous. Dudikoff - looking about as period as a surfer in POINT BREAK, actually does a good job. He's solid in the action sequences and has the sweaty look down. Some of the supporting players are lacking but the cash trio - Pleasence, Lom and Vaughn, are hilarious. Pleasence is particularly amusing with his repertoire of puckered faces and bizarre line readings, though Lom comes close with his slimy military guy and Vaughn does good menace. Director Steve Carver had been doing these kinds of films so long at this point that he could do them in his sleep, but to his credit, he keeps things moving at a decent clip. Set design is excellent for such a low budget as well - the Nazi doctor's secret lab inside a cave replete with massive Third Reich flag looks as good as any Hollywood blockbuster of the period.

    The plot holes are too many to list, but it doesn't matter. There's more then enough weirdness on display to keep anyone occupied. The climatic "reveal" and final plot twist are also quite predictable but it the still satisfying. One major flaw is Dudikoff's mumbled voiceover throughout the film. Totally unnecessary.


    Sorry to be so predictable but this is yet another solid mid-level affair devoid of disastrous tinkering that seems to be Kino's default transfer. This 1.85:1 framed 1080p AVC encoded affair boasts strong color reproduction, good black levels and nice fine detail. You can count the stubble nubs on LQ's beard and see the glue lines on Pleasence's many absurd wigs. No serous restoration was done here but the film elements on display here show minimal damage. No serious complaints on the transfer. Sound is dished out via an 2.0 DTS-HD MA mix that sounds robust for a track with limited range. Still, the gunshots and other dramatic sound fx have a nice lifelike quality and a bit more bottom end than is usually the case.

    Aside from the theatrical trailer, the only extra is a commentary track featuring star Dudikoff and director Carver, moderated by Bill Olsen of Code Red fame. This is a must listen though with fascinating stories about shooting in South Africa under apartheid, Robert Vaughn's reading habits, and Donald Pleasence's penchant for wacky improv. Director and star have genuine fondness for each other and show a lot of enthusiasm for the film. Olsen is pretty quiet for the most part but does the job well.

    Parting Thoughts:

    Dumb but fun and with a great cast having fun slumming it, this one is easy to recommend to its target audience: Cannon junkies, 80's action freaks and lovers of the wacky and overambitious genre film that TRIES to be in the big leagues. Here's to the strivers.


    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!

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