Plot: vacationers face mercenaries, zombies, and cannibalistic monks.
The eighties was the last great hurrah for classic Filipino exploitation. As the 90s dawned Hollywood reinforced its grip on the international market with big budget, special effects-driven event movies that no little independent could ever begin to compete with. The decline of grindhouse theaters as well as the ever-expanding home video market cut directly into profit margins that were already razor-thin to begin with at this point. South America and Asia had served American producers and distributors well, but the eighties would signal the end of that too. In those waning days of dwindling budgets and shrinking international distribution elder institutions like Cirio H. Santiago, and Bobby A. Suarez managed to churn out their last classics. Santiago even was strong enough to survive the nineties. There was no doubt about it, though, the Pinoy exploitation industry, once so indefatigable and resilient, was starting to run on fumes. Like any good fighter it wouldn’t go out on a wimper. Raw Force was one of those sub-classics that kept the Philippines afloat in those dark sullen days.
The men behind Raw Force were Lawrence H. Woolner and Edward D. Murphy. Murphy was a professional boxer and bit part actor, and no stranger to the Philippines. As an actor he had gained valuable on-set experience working on Mad Doctor of Blood Island (1968) from director duo Gerardo de León and Eddie Romero and as a producer Woolner was involved with the Antonio Margheriti giallo Naked You Die (1968). Half a decade later he would act as a presenter on Beyond Atlantis (1973). By the eighties he and his brother Bernard had firmly established Dimension Pictures. Under that banner he had produced several Stephanie Rothman features and now the company was looking for a rookie to write/direct a script based on an idea Larry had been kicking around. This project would combine two then-hot commodities that did good business at the grindhouses: martial arts and zombies. It’s almost as if Woolner saw Tsui Hark’s We’re Going to Eat You (1980) and couldn’t wait to do a Filipino-American action/martial arts take on it. There are enough similarities to warrant the comparison and to be mere coincidence. The cast Woolner was able to attract was the stuff cult cinema dreams are made of. To make it even better: Raw Force is just non-stop delicious gory fun.
The members of the Burbank Karate Club - Mike O’Malley (Geoffrey Binney, as Geoff Binney), John Taylor (John Dresden) and Gary Schwartz (John Locke) – have reserved a place on the cruise of foul-mouthed gun-fetishist Harry Dodds (Cameron Mitchell) and his often booze-addled business partner Hazel Buck (Hope Holiday) for their vacation. Also on the boat are vacationing platinum blonde LAPD SWAT member Cookie Winchell (Jillian Kesner, as Jillian Kessner) and her fellow blonde cousin Eileen (Carla Reynolds). Dodds is in the habit of making confused mildly-racist remarks to his Filipino first mate about opening a Chinese restaurant while soft spoken martial arts expert Go Chin (Rey Malonzo, as Rey King) slaves away in the kitchen. Before setting course for the South China Sea Dodds first embarks on a tour of the nearby ports where the occupants are free to engage in heavy partying. It’s here that Cookie, Eileen, John, and Gary go watch a martial arts competition while others go boozing at the Lighthouse Bar. Mike and Lloyd Davis (Carl Anthony) visit the local brothel (or “cathouse” as they call it here) The Castle Of 1001 Pleasures where madam Mayloo (Chanda Romero) overhears that they’re tourists and hands them a leaflet about Warrior Island.
At the Lighthouse Bar thick German-accented, twitchy-eyed, middle-aged accountant Thomas Speer (Ralph Lombardi) (who sports the fashion-conscious combo of horn rimmed glasses, a white suit, and a Hitler mustache) is engaged in matters pertaining his jade import business when he overhears the American tourists. Seeing an opportunity Speer decides that no matter what the cost the Americans must end up on Warrior Island (an island bypassed by the Japanese during World War II as it, according to local folklore and superstition, was the place where disgraced martial artists commited suicide) as he has an understanding with the head monk (Vic Díaz) to provide warm bodies for his sexslave trading – and transport for his drug trafficking ring. When Speer’s merry goons try to kidnap Captain Dodds at the bar the incident inevitably ends up inciting an all-out brawl.
Speer’s goons are thwarted in their attempt forcing the German to wait it out. Upon nightfall he and his goons assault the ship in numbers leading to massive casualties and the vessel’s fiery destruction. The Americans manage to escape but are forced to make landfall on Warrior Island (whether it’s close to Savage Beach or Taboo Island is, sadly, never made clear). When Mike recognizes one of the slave girls as Mayloo, the proprietress of a brothel he and Lloyd visited on the mainland, it threatens to expose the monks’ true motives. As the situation deteriorates the strangers must learn to work together if they are to keep out of the the clutches of the ruthless mercenaries, the jaws of the sword-wielding undead, and the maws of the cannibalistic monks at the source of all the horror on the island.
And who exactly is in the cast, you wonder? Pulp mainstay Cameron Mitchell, famous around these parts for his roles in Blood and Black Lace (1966), The Toolbox Murders (1978), Supersonic Man (1979), and Blood Link (1982). Jillian Kesner from Evil Town (1977), Starhops (1978), and Naked Fist (1981). Carla Reynolds from Night Games (1980), Bits and Pieces (1985), and Maniac Cop (1988) and Don Gordon Bell from Cleopatra Wong (1978), Naked Fist (1981), Stryker (1983), Wheels of Fire (1985), Naked Vengeance (1985), Silk (1986), and Red Roses, Call for a Girl (1988). Joe Pagliuso from Revenge of the Ninja (1983), and Jerry Bailey from American Ninja (1985). Then there are television actors Geoffrey Binney, Hope Holiday (Mitchell's then-girlfriend), John Dresden, Jennifer Holmes, and Robert MacKenzie as well as Filipino exploitation veterans Rey Malonzo, Chanda Romero, and Vic Díaz whose combined filmographies are too extensive to detail. If all of that wasn’t enough there are brief cameos from Carl Anthony from Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space (1957), and The Sinister Urge (1960); Hong Kong martial arts pillar Maggie Li Lin-Lin (李琳琳), Jewel Shepard from H.B. Halicki’s The Junkman (1982), and Return Of the Living Dead (1985); Camille Keaton from Meir Zarchi’s I Spit On Your Grave (1978), and Mike Cohen from the Weng Weng spy caper For Your Height Only (1981). Where else are you going to see a cult ensemble like this?
The good part? Raw Force is just as crazy as it sounds, and it’s never apologetic about it. During the Lighthouse Bar brawl one particularly dedicated exotic dancer continues her routine dutifully, in what was either left in intentionally or a case of very sloppy editing, seemingly unfazed by the property destruction happening around her. The boat scenes is made campy by the fact that the water around it is completely still. Evidently all the scenes, both on-deck and off, were filmed stationary. During the onboard party director Murphy spends inordinate amount of time pointing his camera at the various female cast members in advanced stages of undress. In true exploitation fashion each cast member develops a sudden aversion towards fabric and the camera takes a leering look at the heaving bosoms and bottoms of various nubile bit part actresses and no-name extras. The party segment not only will have you counting familar faces, there’s enough female nudity to satiate anyone’s craving. On top of all that, there’s a truly wonderful amount of gags, both visual and otherwise, that can be spotted during this section. Once the group makes landfall on Warrior Island Raw Force pulls out all stops as Murphy rips through action movie clichés as martial artists, cannibalistic monks, and explosions all happen in quick succession. That the piranha attack scene was borrowed liberally from Piranha (1978) makes it even better.
Boasting a star-studded cast of American hopefuls and Filipino veterans as well as a wide array of cult cameos Raw Force is almost guaranteed to have you in stitches. The action direction and fight choreography was handled by Mike Stone with exception of the Lighthouse Bar brawl that Murphy choreographed himself. The only thing Murphy would direct after Raw Force would be Heated Vengeance (1985). Meanwhile he continued acting in bit parts in, among others, the comedy 3 Men and a Baby (1987), the crime epic Goodfellas (1990), and the thriller Doppelganger (1993). His claim to fame is playing thirteen different guest roles in as much episodes on Law & Order (1991-2000). Producer and director of photography Frank E. Johnson would go on to do second unit cinematography on Predator (1987). Allegedly the original cut ran about 105 minutes but to get most out of their investment Raw Force was trimmed down to a more grindhouse- and audience-friendly 86 minutes. When, and if, there’s ever going to be a fully restored director’s cut is anyone’s guess. A sequel, purported to have starred Jonathan Winters as the ex-husband of Hope Holiday's character and Mitchell reprising his role as Captain Dodds, was planned (hence the “to be continued” in the credits) but as fate would have it, Woolner tragically passed away some three years later in 1985. Understandably, the promised sequel never materialized. Some things just are better without any sequels. Raw Force is one of those things.