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Plot: criminals and hostages end up in bar somewhere on the Mexican border….

There’s no contesting that the ‘90s were pretty dark and abysmal time for the horror genre. Much of it had devolved into thrillers, self-aware or otherwise, on the one hand and comedy on the other. Hollywood had attempted to revive the classic gothic with Frankenstein Unbound (1990), Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) and Interview With the Vampire (1994) and Wes Craven’s Scream (1996) had resurrected (but not necessarily improved) the tired and tiring slasher for an entire new generation. Mexico always had been a steady haven for horror and earned its place in cult cinema history thanks to a handful of titles in the golden age. Who better to bring the Mexican spirit to America than the country’s promising export with the help from Hollywood’s hottest young new talent? From Dusk Till Dawn, or one of the best horror films of the ‘90s, may not reinvent the wheel but it puts a fresh spin on an old formula. What more could you possibly want? Occasionally the Hollywood machine gets something right.

What was From Dusk Till Dawn if not two friends getting together and throwing one hell of a kegger? These two friends just happened to be Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino. As the legend goes, Tarantino had offered the script to special effects man Robert Kurtzman to direct but he declined. This prompted Tarantino to hand it to Rodriguez and he gladly accepted. Kurtzman in turn lend his talents to the effects with his Kurtzman, Nicotero & Berger EFX Group. The time was right. Rodriguez had just legitimized himself in the face of the Hollywood bigwigs, first by making El Mariachi (1992) by the skin of his teeth on a very modest budget of $7,000 and he had admirably evinced that he could handle a sizable budget with the remake Desperado (1995) the year before. Presumably something of a diversion in between serious projects Rodriguez and Tarantino threw this curveball in between Desperado (1995) and The Faculty (1998) as well as the 1970s crime epic valentine Pulp Fiction (1994) and the blaxploitation tribute Jackie Brown (1997), respectively. Not only was From Dusk Till Dawn Tarantino’s first paid writing gig (he also executive produced and acted to help his friend Rob out), it’s also somewhat of an anomaly in the filmographies of both as Tarantino and Rodriguez haven’t made a horror before or since. A decade later both would reunite for Grindhouse (2007) but that was more of a valentine to ‘60s/’70s drive-in exploitation rather than a straight-up horror. Eli Roth has done more for exploitation horror than Rodriguez or Tarantino ever did. All quabbles and reservations aside, the spirit of Juan López Moctezuma proudly lives on in From Dusk Till Dawn.

After robbing a bank in Kansas and escaping jail, Seth Gecko (George Clooney) and his slightly psychotic and deeply unwell brother Richard (Quentin Tarantino) hold up Benny's World of Liquor where they add store clerk Pete Bottoms (John Hawkes) and Texas Ranger Earl McGraw (Michael Parks) to their ever-growing list of casualties. The two are pursued by FBI Agent Stanley Chase (John Saxon) and after leaving the liquor store in flaming ruin the two head to the Mexican border with their hostage bank teller Gloria Hill (Brenda Hillhouse) in tow. They pull in at the Dew Drop Motel in Texas where they bump into the Fuller family. Jacob (Harvey Keitel) has taken his adopted son Scott (Ernest Liu) and daughter Kate (Juliette Lewis) on a vacation. Jacob is a minister in the midst of a crisis of faith after the death of his wife. Seth and Richie commandeer Jacob's RV to smuggle them across the border at gunpoint and order to take them to their rendez-vous. The minister is to take them to the Titty Twister bar where the brothers will meet their contact Carlos (Cheech Marin) at dawn providing them shelter at El Rey. Carlos figures that a bar doubling as a stripclub/brothel will offer all the necessary entertainment.

The Titty Twister proudly exclaims to be open from “dusk till dawn” and if Chet Pussy (Cheech Marin) is to be believed they have every kind of girl for every kind of customer. The intrepid gang first meet resistance from bartender Razor Charlie (Danny Trejo) who insists that they don’t fit their strict “bikers and truckers only” policy. Jacob is able to negotiate their entry on a technicality. Before long they are introduced to the bar’s main attraction, the devilishly beautiful Satánico Pandemónium (Salma Hayek) whose dance of seduction instantly beguiles and enslaves Richie. When the bar employees reveal themselves to be a reptilian breed of vampires known as culebra the group find allies in tough bikers Sex Machine (Tom Savini) and Frost (Fred Williamson). They are able to hold their own against the first wave, but the things have a nasty habit of resurrecting their previously claimed human victims. As the vampires re-emerge and start to claw down the group must stay alive to reach the liberating rays of daylight.

George Clooney had played a guest role on the CBS hospital sitcom E/R (1984) and just finished his 6-year run as Doug Ross on the NBC medical drama ER (1994-2009). About ten years before Clooney had been in the horror spoofs Return to Horror High (1987) and Return of the Killer Tomatoes! (1988). Juliette Lewis was the prerequisite Hollywood alternative chick. Her star was rising due to her roles in Cape Fear (1991), Natural Born Killers (1994), The Basketball Diaries (1995), and Strange Days (1995). Harvey Keitel was and is a living legend and has played many iconic roles. Keitel has worked with Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Jane Campion, and Abel Ferrara appearing in, among many others, Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), the comedy Mother, Jugs & Speed (1976), Reservoir Dogs (1992), Pulp Fiction (1994), Bad Lieutenant (1992), and The Piano (1993). To top things off, the all-star cast is anchored by pulp cinema pillars Fred Williamson, John Saxon and Tom Savini and Rodriguez regulars Cheech Marin and Danny Trejo. This being a Tarantino script every line Clooney (and every other main character, Fullers excepted) utters is filled with rapid-fire expletives and random profanity. And then there’s her, Salma Hayek.

Salma Hayek as Satánico Pandemónium

No coverage of From Dusk Till Dawn is complete without mentioning, obligatory or otherwise, Salma Hayek. Are we terribly dating ourselves by calling Salma a hot tamale? Hayek’s electrifying performance was a sure-shot to international superstardom, if her sizzling role as the love interest in Desperado (1995) hadn’t done so already. Only Laura Cerón from ER (1994-2009) came close to matching la Hayek. In these times before Eva Longoria, Ana Ortiz, and Selena Gomez; Hayek was Mexico’s biggest export.

What other way to describe Salma other than the best of Bella Cortez, Tina Romero, and Maribel Guardia, combined? Rodriguez obviously was keenly aware of the fact and has Hayek writhing and slithering around suggestively in nothing but a tiny burgundy bikini and feathery headdress while handling a large Albino Burmese Python Reticulus. Tarantino on the other hand uses the opportunity to indulge his well-known foot fetish. First, by ogling Lewis and getting down and dirty with Hayek. If Salma’s scorching dance routine doesn’t get your pulse racing you’re either dead, barren or both. In age-old Hollywood tradition the extras get topless but the main attraction doesn’t. Hayek has a scant few lines but delivers each and every of them with wide-eyed, lipsmacking glee. It makes you long for Ukrainian belly dancer Diana Bastet to re-enact (and expand) the Satánico Pandemónium routine with costume and all. Salma’s delectable shapes and forms turned heads a quarter century ago and continue to do so to this day. In a now legendary 2021 Red Table Talk interview the 55-year-old candidly admitted hers only gotten more sumptuous and bigger with age. As a woman of such enormously gigantic proportions, the price of beauty comes with all the expected physical ailments.

Regardless of how you might feel about Tarantino and his post-modern witticisms From Dusk Till Dawn remains a formidable genre exercise on its own merit. Whether it’s the heist/action of the first hour or the suvival/vampire horror of the last 48 minutes the shift remains as brilliantly executed, seamless in transition and unexpected as when it first premiered. For cult cinema lovers there’s a lot to see if you know where to look. Judging from Hayek’s sultry dance Rodriguez apparently has seen Black Eva (1976). The batscene was clearly inspired by Hammer’s The Kiss Of the Vampire (1963). Once the surviving vampire killers emerge they bear some semblance to those of Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter (1974). The vampires are modeled after the Deadites from Army Of Darkness (1992). Frost’s slaying and ultimate demise echoes one of the earlier Derek enemy kills in Bad Taste (1987).

Sex Machine transforms into a grotesque behemoth rat-vampire monstrosity similar to the rat-monkey in Peter Jackson’s Braindead (1992). Hayek’s transformation into her reptile culebra form pre-dates Mallika Sherawat’s in Hisss (2010) by almost fifteen years and neither for that matter does she vocalize only in hisses and moans. Chet Pussy’s often sampled and legendary pussy monologue remains priceless as ever, as does Chango beer and Sleaze tequila. Equally funny is when during the Titty Twister massacre Tito & Tarantula continue to play music on a severed torso and various body parts. The vampires’ demise by daylight is eerily similar to that of the Gremlins in Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990) or the shambling corpses in A Chinese Ghost Story (1987), you be the judge. Oh yeah, and where else are you going to see a dive bar/brothel built on a Aztec pyramid/temple consecrated to snake god Quetzalcóatl or Coatlicue? Nowhere, that’s where. It also helps that it’s exceptionally gory. It’s a wonder that Hollywood and the censors allowed it.

It wouldn’t be too far off to call From Dusk Till Dawn the Bad Taste (1987) or Evil Dead II (1987) of the nineties. Is it as crazy as some of Mexico’s best horror of yore? Hell, no but for a mainstream Hollywood production it’s more than a little quirky and even mildly insane. People with no cinematic literacy or knowledge still delude themselves into thinking Tarantino is some prodigious genius that reinvents cinema on the regular. Nothing could be further from the truth. There’s no denying Tarantino’s visual mastery, vast knowledge, witty writing and technical craft but every single thing he has ever done is taking the exploitation genre of his preference, and blowing it up with all the bells and whistles that come with a massive Hollywood budget. As these things tend to go From Dusk Till Dawn spawned a pair of direct-to-video follow-ups in the form of the unnecessary sequel From Dusk Till Dawn 2: Texas Blood Money (1999), the prequel From Dusk Till Dawn 3: The Hangman's Daughter (1999) as well as the series From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series (2014-2016). That most, if not all, couldn’t hold a candle to the original was, sadly, expected but at least they built and expanded upon the mythology and characters it established. As of this writing, it hasn’t been tarnished by a modern-day remake/reimagining – hopefully it will remain that way too.

Plot: South American armsdealer sets up base of operations in Hawaii.

With the matter-of-factly titled Guns Hawaiian action director Andy Sidaris entered the nineties, a decade notoriously unkind to many a genre. The fourth LETHAL Ladies episode introduces a new partner for The Agency operative Donna Hamilton as they continue to battle drug runners and arms dealers. Guns is, as the title would have it, about big guns, both literal and figurative, and the first LETHAL Ladies without Hope Marie Carlton. It fares as well as one would expect. Sidaris returns to all the familiar locations, with many familiar faces, and all the familiar gadgets. Bronzed blonde babes in skimpy candy-colored bikinis engage vicious narcotic distribution rings, enemy agents and crimelords in combat by dropping their tops, or forgoing clothes altogether. Everything is bigger in Guns: the guns, the explosions, and the breasts – all except the plot, which remains as paper-thin and flimsy as ever. Not that anybody’s complaining…

Having ridded Moloka’i from drug runners and a giant python, safeguarding a reputeable artpiece while liberating the island of a vicious narcotics distributing ring, and taking down a paramilitary unit on a remote island, Donna Hamilton (Dona Speir) and Nicole Justin (Roberta Vasquez), a never-before-mentioned third partner of Molokai Cargo, become targets in an ambitious plan from armsdealer Juan Degas (Erik Estrada), who has something of a history with both LETHAL Ladies. When an assassination attempt claims the life of Rocky (Lisa London) in collateral damage and Dona’s hardnosed DA mother Kathryn Hamilton (Phyllis Davis) is kidnapped by Degas’ goons, things get personal. With help from CIA field agent Bruce Christian (Bruce Penhall), The Agency man Abe (Chuck McCann), and series mainstay Shane Abilene (Michael J. Shane, as Michael Shane) the LETHAL Ladies break out the heavy artillery to put Jack Of Diamonds, his assassins, and goons where they belong: behind bars.

Guns is the only Sidaris production to have both CHIPs (1977) heartthrobs Erik Estrada and Bruce Penhall present at the same time. Penhall had a history with Sidaris making his first appearance as a different character in Picasso Trigger (1988) before returning four more times as Bruce Christian and staying with the series until its original end. In the interim Penhall played Chris Cannon in the two Drew Christian Sidaris entries Enemy Gold (1993) and The Dallas Connection (1994). Penhall, along with Speir and Vasquez, did not return for Day Of the Warrior (1996) and Return to Savage Beach (1996), at which point Penthouse Pets Julie Strain, Julie K. Smith and Shae Marks took over The Agency mantle. Guns signaled the exit of London and Lindeland from the series, and introduced Nicole Justin as a substitute for Taryn. Phyllis Davis and James Lew later turned up in Under Siege 2: Dark Territory (1995) as a hostage and goon, respectively.

Helping Degas carry out his elaborate plan of dominating the armsdealing profession is Cash, played by Playboy Playmate Devin DeVasquez (June 1985), and Tong (Danny Trejo) and his girlfriend (Kelly Menighan). DeVasquez had appeared in House II: the Second Story (1987) and Society (1989), while Trejo’s first role of note was in Death Wish 4: The Crackdown (1987) and the Steven Seagal actioner Marked For Death (1990). It wouldn’t be until the second half of the nineties that Trejo established himself with Desperado (1995) and From Dusk till Dawn (1996). Despite fulfilling every requirement Guns is Devin DeVasquez' sole appearance in the Andy-verse. In 2009 DeVasquez married Ron Moss, or Rowdy Abilene from Hard Ticket to Hawaii (1987).

With Hope Marie Carlton, arguably one of the better actresses of the cast, choosing not to return for Guns, Sidaris brought back Roberta Vasquez as a replacement. Vasquez’ Nicole Justin - who acts, dresses, and talks just like Taryn – is an interesting choice. Nicole Justin, a brunette of South American descent, is, for all intents and purposes, Taryn. It would be the first (and only) instance of Andy Sidaris putting a minority character in the lead. Sidaris spents a good 20 minutes setting up Justin’s character, but there’s nothing that drastically changes the familiar Donna Hamilton-Taryn dynamic. Neither will it ever be brought up in the series again. Like Taryn in her final appearance Nicole Justin dates Bruce Christian, and she has all of Taryn’s post-Hard Ticket to Hawaii (1987) habits. The Justin part was one you’d halfway expect Liv Lindeland or Kym Malin to usurp given their Nordic looks and bulging chests, or Cynthia Brimhall for her sheer longevity with the series. It does help that Roberta Vasquez at least can halfway act and handle a gun. She also happens to look good in and out of a skimpy bikini. What does remain a constant is that most of the bit players still are awful at line reading, and that it usually doesn’t take long before they lose their tops. Carlton went on to star in Bloodmatch (1991) from Albert Pyun a year later.

In fact for the first time Andy Sidaris seems genuinely concerned with plotting and character development. In the interim Edy Stark (Cynthia Brimhall) has become a lounge/nightclub singer at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, which is just an excuse to have her prance around in tiny glittery bikinis and sing, among others, the theme song. In all honesty, Brimhall isn’t too shabby a singer. Edy has left her restaurant Edy’s to redhead Rocky who turned it into Rocky’s. Kym (Kym Malin), last seen as in Picasso Trigger (1988) as part of the multi-talented linedancing duo Kym & Patticakes, has picked up oilwrestling and is seen hitting the canvas with Hugs Huggins (Donna Spangler), a 90s callback to Malibu Express (1982) peroxide blonde June Khnockers (Lynda Wiesmeier). It’s only at a record 27 minutes in that Sidaris flashes the first pair of breasts, but he compensates by showing three consecutive topless scenes from as many actresses in close succession. Substituting for the Professor (Patrick LaPore), who made his final appearance in Picasso Trigger (1988), is red bikini-clad stunner Ace (Liv Lindeland), more or less the same character as Picasso Trigger’s resident computer wiz Inga. Perhaps Sidaris genuinely didn't remember that Lindeland's character was named Inga originally?

Sidaris’ humour remains as unsophisticated and lowbrow as ever and plot-convenient excuses to get the girls naked are filmsy as always. When Degas explains to a hired duo of cross-dressing assassins that his target requires a “cerebral approach” he gets nothing but blank stares. Instructing them to “shoot her in the head” on the other hand is explanatory enough. During the final shootout Nicole Justin engages in an exchange of gunfire with Degas’ goon until Bruce Christian, brandishing an oversized gun, barges in saying “so this is what goes on in the ladies room!” In Sidaris tradition both Rocky and Cash die by gunshots between the breasts, and only Ace (the Inga substitute) is cowardly shot in the back. Cash fails to shoot Edy even though she’s mere meters away, apparently distracted by mirrors. Shane, being an Abilene, can’t shoot straight no matter what he does. Abe, a stand-in for The Professor, is killed while fishing by a remote controlled model boat and Juan Degas, the Jack Of Diamonds, is quite literally blown up at close range by Donna with a rocket launcher. For the first time in quite a while Edy Stark is given a more action-heavy part, which doesn’t mean that Sidaris doesn’t relish in her voluptuousness. Kym Malin’s Kym still only exists to raise the skin factor. Malin’s oil wrestling gig mostly serves a pretext to show a naked Donna Spangler, the Beverly Hills Barbie, who appeared in Playboy in December 1989, as the alliterative named Hugs Huggins.

As a disciple of the Russ Meyer school of filmmaking the material’s light tone and 80s fashion sense remain its strong points, even though the formula is starting to wear thin. Guns, if anything, is superior to Savage Beach (1989) in every way and as the first episode of the 90s it could’ve fared far worse. As enjoyable as Sidaris’ shtick tends to be in Guns things start to feel rusty and tiresome. The following year’s Do Or Die (1991) would adopt an overall darker and more cynical tone before returning to the series’ signature lighthearted tone with 1993’s Hard Hunted and Fit to Kill. At the halfway point of the LETHAL Ladies franchise the Sidaris formula starts to show its limitations, but that doesn’t change that they are almost universally fun. Guns has no shortage of big guns, both literal and figurative, and with a cast comprised almost exclusively of Playboy Playmates and Penthouse Pets was there really any reason to bother with such trivialities as plot? Andy Sidaris was hardly an auteur, but that never stopped his Bullets, Babes and Bombs or Girls, Guns and G-Strings series from being entertaining romps. Things could be worse…