Well, times have changed a bit: these days, thanks to DVD, a few more mainstream movie viewers recognize the names Bruno Mattei and Claudio Fragasso, and are less likely to mistake Terminator II for Terminator 2. More people are aware, now, that Mattei and Fragasso are the men who followed up Dawn of the Dead with Hell of the Living Dead, and Predator with the god-awful RoboWar; so when we see their names linked to a sequel to a major Hollywood blockbuster, we have a pretty good idea what to expect.
Still, even those of us who've suffered through the worst of Mattei and Fragasso might be a little surprised by this movie.
Remember: it took a full seven years before the real sequel to The Terminator came into existence. Anyone who's ever seen Terminator 2: Judgment Day has reason to be grateful for every minute of those seven years: the result was not only a great film, but a big step forward for the technical craft of science fiction film-making. By contrast, Mattei's dreadful little movie is everything the long-awaited Terminator sequel was not — a no-budget rush job made with little skill and less imagination.
As you might expect, the film makes plenty of references to the original: its heroine is named Sarah, and there is a hulking cyborg who tromps around the last part of the movie with half his face torn off. Since the movie came out a full year before the real Terminator 2 (in hopes of [cough] stealing some of James Cameron's thunder), it's only natural that there are no such references to that movie. But what you might not expect is that the bulk of the movie has nothing to do with The Terminator. Instead, it's a rip-off of Cameron's other sci-fi blockbuster, Aliens.
Now that I think of it, though, to call it a rip-off is to give it more credit than it deserves: in many instances, it's a word-for-word, scene-for-scene plagiarism... only without the talent or the technique. The movie's alternative title, SUCKING DI... — er, sorry; of course I meant SHOCKING DARK — is probably more appropriate, because like the finished film, it makes very little sense.
The scene: Venice, in the far-distant year 2000. A meandering voice-over informs us that the city is a stinking cesspool, with polluted waters, algae choking the canals, and clouds of toxic gas endangering the lives of the inhabitants. It's a dead (if slightly moist) post-apocalyptic wasteland that... uhh... wait a minute; I misunderstood — he's talking about Venice today. "What," ask the voice-over, "will happen tomorrow?"
Fade in on soldiers wearing gas masks, guarding a city which has been cordoned off. OK — they've just put up a sign that says "VENICE OFF LIMITS", and filmed a stretch of the water that has no traffic at the moment... but you get the idea. As the opening credits roll, we see a montage of what appears to be footage of Venice after the Second World War, standing in for the post-disaster Venice of the future.
Suddenly we find ourselves in a vaguely industrial-looking tunnel, full of the requisite smoke and moody lighting. Down the tunnel three men come running. They come to a dead halt in front of a security camera: "H-E-E-E-E-ELP!" they scream — not as though they were genuinely fleeing from something, but as though they were doing a screen test (you don't suppose...? Hmmm. Now there's a way to economize!).
On the other side of the camera, in one of those blinky control rooms that Mattei seems to love, three other men stand watching the first three cry for help. In just the way the three "terrified" men stand still and do nothing to escape their peril, these three also stand there inert, boggling at the screen, doing nothing to help. When the screen goes blank, as we knew it would, the men in the control room shrug: guess they're all dead. Bummer.
But the men in the tunnel aren't dead yet. Two of them run into something big and icky that emerges from the convenient smoke (Zontar: the Thing from Venice!). We're left to imagine their fate. The remaining man, whose name (as though we cared) is Tower, gets a false scare when an arm reaches out and grabs his shoulder. It's not a monster this time: Tower recognizes the newcomer as a man called Drake.
"Yeah! It's me!" says Drake — and, incredible as it sounds, with these three simple words the actor playing Drake immediately wins the prize for the worst perfomance in any Bruno Mattei film. Drake has turned into some sort of human cartoon character — a homicidal human cartoon character. Tower's false scare quickly turns real, as Drake chokes him to death with his performance.
Back we go to the other side of the security cameras, where everybody wears uniforms that look like varsity jackets with the sleeves torn off. The leader of the Guys Who Stand Around Doing Nothing Useful is reviewing a video with his subordinate, Captain Bond, and a female scientist named Sarah (aha!)... Sarah Drumbull.
The tape they're wtaching is the last transmission from one Dr. Rafelson, who had been working on some sort of secret project in a lab in the ruined city. On the tape, Rafelson claims he has (cough) no idea what's gone wrong — it's just that something is turning people into monsters. Rafelson's assistant Drake, he continues, has suffered some sort of psychotic break, and claims to be able to talk to the creatures. Before he can go into more detail, the tape goes blank.
Colonel Do-Nothing tells Bond and Sarah that they'll be going on a too-little too-late rescue mission, to see if there are any survivors in Rafelson's lab (while putting themselves in harm's way as much as possible). One more thing, interrupts a man who has suddenly appeared in he room; the most important thing of all: they must get Rafelson's "diary" (by which I suppose he means his lab notes). To make sure they retrieve Rafelson's journal, the new guy insists on coming with them.
And just who is he? asks Captain Bond.
"Samuel Fuller of the Tubular Corporation", replies the stranger.
The... Tubular Corporation?!
I know; you must find this whole "Tubular Corporation" business a little hard to swallow. Not this movie, though. In fact, Bruno Mattei movies almost always swallow the Tubular Corpora— Oh, OK, OK; I promise: no more dick jokes.
So now we have a mysterious stranger: he's tall, stolid, blank-faced... and he speak in a monotone. In a Mattei film, that usually describes practically everybody; but in this case, we might expect that Samuel Fuller of the (snicker) Tubular Corporation is the "Terminator" implied by the title. We'd be half-right. He's going along as a company representative on an obviously bogus rescue mission, so he's not just the movie's Terminator: he's the movie's Ash (from the original Alien).
And now it's time to meet the rest of the (ahem) elite squad of Marines who are going into the tunnels to be eaten. The first one we meet is Coster, played by Geretta Giancarlo Field. Geretta is infmous for having played Chocolate in Mattei's Rats: Night of Terror ("I'm white! I'm white!" is her most famous line); the funny thing is that all the while she was playing broad roles in crappy Itlian exploitation films, she was studying serious writing and film production. Later on she went to Ireland to further her craft; and now, under the name Geretta Geretta, she's a recognized writer and director. I suppose it's inevitable that a woman named Geretta Geretta would spend time in the Italian film industry, alongside such names as Damiano Damiani, Aldo Lado and Carlo Carlei... but my main point is this: clearly Geretta had a great deal of talent, and equally clearly this talent is nowhere in evidence when she appears in Mattei's films. Several of the actors involved in this particular production went on to acclaim in bigger and better things later on... but you'd never believe it from the results Mattei gets on camera.
Coster enters with what the movie imagines is Marine-style tough talk; it's embarrassing, but everybody else ignores her, so we can too. Suddenly she rounds on Kowalski, a fellow Marine who is cleaning his gun carelessly. A short time later, though, she picks up her own rifle and swings it around to aim at all her colleagues... something nobody trained in weapons-handling would or should ever do, unless they actually meant to pull the trigger.
Coster is overjoyed to see her friend Kane, a blond surfer type whose long ponytail somehow makes him look out of place in a Marine locker room. But Coster is seriously upset when she finds out that there's — GASP! — an Italian going with them into Venice! Who'd have thought? She and the "wop" (her term) Franzini exchange heated words, until Coster goes so far as to cock her rifle and point it at him (something else a Marine would never do to a fellow Marine without serious consequences). Before things can get any worse, Captain Bond steps in and separates them. He should be doing a lot more in the face of such extreme lack of discipline, but then again Bond is a lousy leader.
This band of idiots is the "elite" team known as the Megaforce... and only in a Bruno Mattei film would the term "Megaforce" seem like a step up. Before they go off to Operation Delta Venice — wasn't that a book by Anaïs Nin? — Col. Useless warns them that once they're in the tunnels, they'll be on their own, going into an area from which nobody has yet returned. "But they didn't have Marines from the Megaforce!" squeals Kane, with a pathetic attempt at a macho hand gesture. Col. Useless just throws him a long-suffering look — actually, it's the only expression the actor seems able to produce, but in this case it matches the situation perfectly.
No sooner does the Megaforce get into the tunnels when all hell breaks loose. Remember Drake, the loony? Well, Drake has found a rifle and is firing random shots at them. Bond gives orders to Kowalski and another guy called Price: "Try and get the sniper from the rear," he says. "Let's get out the KY, so we can shaft him real good!" quips Kowalski (hey — I said I wouldn't make any more dick jokes. I never said anything about the movie).
Soon it becomes clear what's happened to Drake: he's been possessed by the spirit of Criswell. "I can SEE you-u-u-u!" he calls in that curiously familiar sing-song: "I can KILL you E-E-E-EAsy! I only have to take ONE step to-WARDS you-u-u-u!" At which point he is subdued by Kowalski and Price.
"So you caught me," says Drake. "So what? You're gonna DIE, DIE, DIE." He goes on to warn them about future events that are going to affect them, in the future: the monsters-to-be-pitied, monsters-to-be-despised are expecting them down the tunnels. Drake then gives a sudden ear-splitting scream, which starts out as a deafening howl but trails off like a SHAKING DUCK. While the Marines are clutching their heads in agony, Drake grabs ahold of Price and drags him off down the tunnel.
It takes the Megaforce a surprising amount of time to realize one of their own has been abducted. Once they do, Bond sends them off in pairs to find Price. They all have those little beeping machines we remember from the Alien movies — the ones that sense nearby life-forms and their positions.
It's Kane and Coster who find Dallas — er, excuse me, Price — covered with alien goo and embedded in the wall along with other miscellaneous human remains. Now, in the original Alien, Dallas knew very well what was happening to him when he was left in the monster's lair; so did Ripley, and for that matter, so did the audience. But when Price — who has only been gone for a matter of minutes — looks up at Coster and says, "Kill me!" it's only our acquaintance with Alien that allows the scene to make any sense. Coster is bewildered at first, but she catches on very quickly when the chest-burster pops out of Price. I call it a chest-burster, because it kind-of looks and behaves like the snakey critter that ate its way out of the other Kane in that other movie... but this "chest-burster" is clearly a hand puppet being operated by the actor playing Price. After a quick reaction-shot cutaway, a slightly more dignified prop wraps around Coster's neck, until Kane fires a few rounds into what was once his fellow-Marine.
In the meantime, Franzini and Kowalski walk into the huge rubbery thing we saw in the opening. No sooner have they gone running back to Bond when they all hear Coster's screams in the opposite direction. After a few more minutes of pointless running around, the team re-assembles, and Sarah consults her beep-o-tron.
"There's something moving toward us!" cries Sarah.
They all stand there.
"My God, there's lots of them!" she continues.
And still they all stand there.
They'd probably continue to stand there picking their noses, if Samuel Tubular of the Fuller Brush Corporation didn't clear his suspiciously-metallic throat and suggest a retreat to the relative safety of Zone 14.
Once in Zone 14, Sarah again picks up "a life-form" on her beep-o-tron. This time, because they've read the script, they go toward the signal. They know that this time there's nothing to be afraid of... because Zone 14 is actually the script of Aliens, and it's time for them to run into the little newt named Girl... uhh, the little girl named
You know the drill: first introduced as a foreground blur, Samantha stays so close to her prototype that she even bites Bond's hand when he reaches out to her. But naturally, she bonds (forgive the expression) with Sarah, because otherwise she'd have no one to quote the "Mommy always said that monsters didn't exist" speech to — VERBATIM — later on.
It just so happens that Zone 14 is of particular interest to Samuel Fuller of the Totally Tubular Corporation, since that's where Rafelson's lab is located. While Kane gets thrown down a multi-story drop to his death, and another Thing tosses Coster straight over a wall, Fuller crouches over a microscope and a computer in rapt attention.
"Incredible! Ingenious!" he finally announces, as the survivors crowd around him. They ask him what he's discovered, and unfortunately he tells them:
"It's practically DNA. No: it's more like an enzyme that's similar to DNA, completely redesigned by computer. A masterpiece! A masterpiece of genetic engineering — cybernetics applied to molecular biology!"
I'm not sure what this has to do with cybernetics, but then I am not a scientist. Do go on, Mr. Fuller!
"Nothing like this has ever existed before."
Really? So apparently the 1978 Nobel Prize was awarded in advance.
"It's not alive, that is." (Here Fuller puts the pause in the wrong place) "It's not alive until it finds something to live in... something to reprogram on the basis of its own genetic program — a chromosome databank."
Ah. So... it's a virus. In other words, the Tubular scientists have done what genetic engineers often do, if I understand the process right: they've manipulated a virus into inserting specific new genes into its host. And they're also using restriction enzymes. But this is all way over my head; perhaps there's a simpler way to put it, Mr. Fuller?
"It's like a floppy disk: you insert it into the right computer and it literally brings its program to life."
And needless to say, the drive it's sticking its floppy into is... us! Gee; at this point, the dick jokes are practically writing themselves.
By now, Samantha's had enough of all this; so she walks up to the computer, looks Fuller in the eye and says in heavily-accented English that her Daddy, Dr. Rafelson, suspected the Tubular Corporation was responsible for the virus-enzyme-DNA doohickeys. And Tubular Sam stares daggers at Samantha, as though she's just said something she shouldn't have.
Well, now... correct me if I've missed something here,but Rafelson was apparently in charge of the program... he ought to know who was responsible for it. Somebody had to be paying the bills. Somebody had to be signing the paychecks. Or maybe it was the big words TUBULAR CORPORATION on the top of all the computer screens that tipped him off? Great detective work!
At this dramatic juncture, the power suddenly goes out... leaving everyone in the SHOCKING DARK. "They cut the power!" quotes Sarah. "What do you mean, they cut the power?" continues Bond, who has also seen Aliens.
It's time to evacuate and head for what Sarah believes is their best target: the Tubular Corporation headquarters, where All Will Be Explained. But what's happened to Coster and Kane? Shouldn't they go look for them? No, according to Captain Bond: "We're not safe here," he says, muttering something about meeting up with them later.
That's right: the leader of an elite Marine squad is leaving two of his team behind because it's "not safe": an act that really makes him look like a SHIRKING DORK.
Out in the tunnels, Franzini picks up readings from a large number of life-forms heading toward them (James Cameron's lawyers, no doubt). Bond instructs the Megaforce (now downgraded to a Kiloforce at best) to "shoot in a tight pattern", even though from their current positions, this would turn Franzini into cole slaw. Franzini shouts that the things are getting closer and closer... so close, in fact, that (all together now) they should be able to see them. "You can't be reading that right!" says Bond, predictably — the quote isn't exact, but in the heat of the moment, he can probably be forgiven.
Of course, the aliens — sorry, mutants — pop up and take the humans by surprise. In Aliens, they dropped in from above, but Mattei's production didn't have that kind of budget; so the monsters rise up from below, in spite of the fact we've just seen a wide-angle shot of the floor that shows us clearly there's no place for the monsters to come from.
In the sad little firefight that follows, we get to see the same extra in the same rubber mutant costume get blown away again and again. "One of the monsters" [sic] manages to get close enough to maul Samuel Fuller of the Tubular Corporation's arm. He spends the next several scenes clutching his arm, as though he were trying to hide — oh, I don't know; maybe the exposed metal and circuitry underneath?
As the battle rages on, Bond sends Sarah over to the control panel that will open the door to the Tubular Corporation HQ. She pushes the button furiously, but the door doesn't open. All around, mutants [sic] are roaring... bullets are flying... Samantha is whining... and Sarah screams in frustration as she continues to push the button. Finally Tubular Sam suggests she push the other button — the one right next to the one that doesn't work — and the door opens easily.
The movie kills some more time by having Fuller send Sarah and Samantha into an obvious trap. This time, the monsters have to exert themselves not to kill the two of them. Naturally, after lots of reaction shots and walking around, Sarah and Samantha are rescued at the Last Possible Moment®. Now it's time for Samantha to walk primly over to a video monitor and press a button. A generically-pretty blonde appears on the screen — let's call her Tubular Belle — and begins reading a statement intended for the Tubular shareholders. This is the speech usually reserved for the villain at the end of the movie, where the whole dastardly plot is revealed. In it, we learn that
And so Fuller activates the
T H E T U B U L A T O R
Having dealt with the Marines, the Tubulator now turns his attentions to Sarah and Samantha... the same Sarah and Samantha he'd just recently tried to feed to the mutants. And what does he do? He does what you'd expect him to do from his actions so far: he lets them go.But he also grabs his weapon and follows them, just in case they stand a chance of actually getting out of the tunnels.
(Fuller's motivations escape me. He wants Rafelson's notebooks — and then he already knows what's in them. His company designs a virus to destroy the remaining population of Venice — which backfires and makes it impossible for them to operate. His company wants to loot the city — then it wants him to destroy the city. He tries to kill Sarah — then he dares her to try and escape. Is it too much to ask for some consistency here?)
Now I have to debate with myself whether I want to reveal the plot twist (if you can call it that) which leads to the actual "Terminator" part of the movie. I wouldn't exactly call it a "spoiler", since the whole movie is pretty rancid; and by its very nature, it spoils the end of the flick all by itself. To call it a deus ex machina would also be too charitable... machina ex deo might be more accurate.
Oh, what the hell. I don't want to leave any possible reason for a viewer to have to undergo this terrible ordeal of a film, so here it is: Sarah finds a Tubular Corporation Time Machine in the tunnel.
Yes. A Time Machine. You might wonder how the Tubular Corporation could build such a thing... but any company that could build underground tunnels in Venice can do just about anything. You'd be better off wondering why a company with time-travel technology would need to resort to such primitive means to get what they want as we've seen throughout the movie.
Anyway: just as
What an opportunity! Now they can save the future by fighting the Tubular Corporation! And while they're at it, maybe they can keep Aschenbach from eating the strawberries, and dissuade Donald Sutherland from following the knife-wielding dwarf. Hooray!
But just a moment — not so fast. We can't end the movie that quickly. We still haven't got to the "Terminator" part of this supposed Terminator sequel. So just as Sarah and Samantha are picking themselves up off the ground, we get a James Cameron-style feet-first introduction of... Samuel Fuller of the Tubular Corporation. There was a second time machine in the tunnel, set for the same point in time and space.
With that said, do you really care what happens next?
I didn't think so, but here it is anyway: Sarah grabs a convenient broken bottle, and the Tubulator conveniently lets her cut open his face with it. Bullets wouldn't touch him... but broken bottles, like mutant claws, are a different matter. Now with the requisite piece of skin missing from his android face, the Tubulator can chase his quarry through present-day Venice. At one point,he grabs a local and tosses him off a bridge... giving him a SOAKING DUNK. At the Last Possible Moment®, when Sarah and Samantha are cornered and Fuller stands there gloating (but, as usual, doing nothing), Sarah tosses him her Speak-n-Spell. And, amazingly, Fuller catches it. You'd figure he'd sense the trap and let it go whizzing by... but since when has common sense played any part in this movie? Amid a shower of animated sparks, the Tubulator gets sent back where he came from, presumably into the heart of the explosion set to destroy the Venice of the future.
Left unexplained, of course, is what present-day Sarah can actually do to avert the situation she's just escaped from. It's also left unexplained what Sarah's going to say to her younger self when she meets her, since I was under the impression the future Venice she just left wasn't really that far away. Oh, well. There are enough things left unresolved by the parts of the movie we did see that it's useless to speculate about what's going to happen after the screen goes dark.
We'll save that for the sequel.
Joe Bob Briggs is right when he says that most people go to a sequel expecting the same movie they saw the first time. Most of the time, that's what they get... whether it's an official sequel, a pseudo-sequel, or just an unauthorized rip-off. And most of the time, even if the retread is reasonably well-done, it's disappointing — because it's almost impossible to recapture the feeling of the original just by going through the motions. The recap of the lobster scene in Annie Hall symbolizes this sort of thing nicely.
Sequels really come into their own when they remain reasonably consistent with their inspirations, yet manage to be movies with their own character and identity. The real Terminator 2, for example, actually was a sort of new version of the movie we'd all seen and admired seven years before... except that this time, though patience and hard work, the film makers had managed to advance their technique to the point they could actually show us some of the amazing and spectacular effects they'd only been able to hint at in the first installment. Aliens, on the other hand, though it followed organically from the original, succeeded as a sequel because it was a completely different film from the first one. Anyone going into the film hoping for more of the same came out again thrilled by a film that was almost a new original, capable of inspiring its own set of pseudo-sequels and knock-offs.
All of which comes together to make Mattei's Terminator II even more of a depressing experience. A no-budget hack sequel to a great movie is bad enough; but when that hack sequel is actually made up of overt plagiarisms from another great movie — which was itself one of the greatest sequels ever made — it's more than an audience can bear. Say what you want about the legion of Italian Exorcist follow-ups, or Mad Max rip-offs, or Star Wars cash-ins, most of them at least displayed a little imagination of their own. Few relied so heavily on literal theft, to such poor effect, as this film. Even the previous Mattei-Fragasso collaborations stand out as self-contained masterpieces of unintentional humor compared to this... All SHOCKING DARK does is remind us at every turn how far inferior it is to the movies it's stealing from.
So now I believe I've done my best to convey to you how lousy this would-be sequel really is, in the hope you will avoid the agony of actually seeing it for yourself. You may not have much chance: I'm sure potential lawsuits will prevent the film from ever seeing a release on commercial US DVD. If you still have any lingering curiosity about Terminator II: SHOCKING DARK, let me leave you with this little bit of trivia: Claudio Fragasso broke off his working relationship with Mattei after this film. That's right: this was the movie that was so awful even Fragasso couldn't stand it.
You have been warned.