Our story begins in Germany, 1945. Prisoners are falling ill and even dying in a Nazi war camp, where sinister doctor Manteuffel's (Robert Vaughan) iffy experiments have started to raise more than a few eyebrows.
Upon learning that the Russians are en route to the camp and their days in power are effectively over, the Nazis determine to flee. Manteuffel's parting shot - literally - is to shoot former colleague, Spaatz (Donald Pleasence), in his leg. It's a betrayal that Spaatz, who dreams of reinventing himself as a millionaire businessman once he's fled to anonymity, will never forget. "I'll be the devil on your back!" he screams at Manteuffel as the latter flies away in a chopper.
Flash-forward twenty years, and we're now in the Amazon jungle. Our narrator is John (Michael Dudikoff), an explorer who's there to assist an aging professor (Victor Melleney) and his sexy daughter Anna (Sarah Maur Thorp) in finding a cure for the flesh-eating disease that's wiping out the local tribes.
Unfortunately the trio are captured by a cannibal tribe and imprisoned in a bamboo hut. Fortunately, John is the resourceful type and a daring escape plan is soon hatched. This leads to a chase through the foliage which culminates in the professor's death and Anna's abduction. In all the confusion, John is certain he caught glimpse of a white man amongst the action - and is also convinced he stumbled past a fabled "lost city" at one point.
Negotiating the perils of the jungle, John eventually makes it back to civilisation and the nearest port of Romano. Here he tries to report the old man's killing and Anna's kidnapping but the authorities show little interest. So instead, John determines to journey back out into the jungle and find the lost city, where he believes Anna is being held.
He persuades old pal and fellow adventurer Eddie (L.Q. Jones) to help him. Before long, word has spread that John is planning an expedition/rescue mission to the lost city, and a pair of Nazi-hunters turn up in his hotel room, demanding they go along for the ride. Their motivation? They've received intelligence suggesting notorious war criminal Manteuffel is hiding out in the lost city.
They're not the only ones interested in joining in on the fun. A newspaper magnate who looks suspiciously like Spaatz in a bad toupee is prepared to pay John $50,000.00 if he'll take him and his sexy sidekick Maria (Cynthia Erland) along for the ride. Even local police colonel Diaz (Herbert Lom) seems to have an unhealthy interest in the outing...
Anyway, this motley crew embark on their journey together, transported via chopper deep into the heart of the Amazon. John has several maps which he's drawn up from memory, while ensuring that only he understands them - which effectively makes him the only indispensable member of the group.
Of course, the helicopter crash-lands. As if the threat of cannibals and Nazi war criminals wasn't enough, the first hostility the group encounters is from a bunch of gun-toting pirates...
Will John find Anna? Will Spaatz and the Nazi hunters catch up with Manteuffel? Will the hungry cannibal tribe get fed? Will anyone remember about the flesh-eating disease threatening mankind in the meantime?
RIVER OF DEATH is an old favourite from the video rental store days. It harks back to 1989 and is clearly influenced by the likes of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and ROMANCING THE STONE. This being a Cannon film, it's a little meatier than those films in terms of language and violence.
But Dudikoff, of AMERICAN NINJA fame, is definitely being pitched as an Indiana Jones type of hero. The trouble is, he doesn't have much charisma and his drawling noirish narration can get a tad tedious. Visually, he looks like a cross between MAD MAX 2-era Mel Gibson and a monkey. And it's amazing how, even when he's stranded in the Amazon jungle for presumably days on end, his stubble never grows.
The "boy's own adventure" formula works well here, being based upon an Alistair MacLean novel. His isn't the only big name attached here. As mentioned in the synopsis, the supporting cast of Pleasence, Jones, Lom and Vaughan is impressive for this kind of fare. And it's always good seeing former Jess Franco collaborator Harry Allan Towers being credited as a co-producer.
However. This is most definitely B-movie quality. And I don't mean that in a negative way. From the questionable script, to the veteran actors portraying Germans by pronouncing "the" as "ze", to Pleasence's typical talent for turning up and simply playing himself (which is enough), this is camp fun of a very enjoyable kind.
True ... the action set-pieces are explosive but in a cheap manner; we may be in the jungle, but there's a sense that the film crew are always just out of frame. The melodramatic score tries its best for adventure but is often unintentionally intrusive. For all the action, there's a paradoxically sluggish nature to the mid-section.
But there's just enough star power, daftness and entertainingly diabolical dialogue to make RIVER OF DEATH a most tantalising proposition indeed. We don't really get films like this anymore, more's the pity.
88 Films have brought RIVER TO DEATH to UK blu-ray and it looks great, in a healthy new transfer which presents the film in full 1080p HD and respects the original 1.85:1 ratio.
The print used is largely pristine; colours are warm and bold; fine grain allows for an agreeable amount of detail to shine through.
A lossless English stereo audio option is equally clean and clear throughout.
The disc opens to a static main menu page. The film has 8 chapters, though there is no scene selection menu on the disc.
Bonus material gets a huge boost from an excellent new 51-minute interview with director Steve Carver. This featurette, a collaboration between 441 Films and 88 Films, is entitled "Back Upriver" and is an excellent assessment of Carver's break in the industry, his experiences working for Roger Corman, and how he came to direct RIVER OF DEATH. He has a good recollection of the on-location shoot in South Africa (after filming in Brazil was abandoned). Carver reveals that the script to RIVER seemed rushed and poor. But, because it was based on a MacLean novel, he had faith that he could redeem it somewhat.
Carver comes across as a likeable, honest and easy-going chap, which makes for a highly engaging featurette.
The film's original trailer is just over 2 minutes long and will thrill anyone who remembers it from the halcyon days of VHS.
Stills galleries are rarely essential, but the one proffered here is definitely a must for fans of the film. What we get are 10 minutes of photos taken on the film's shoot, all of which have been provided for this release from Carver's personal archive. Their inclusion results in a fascinating pictorial account of what appears to be a diligent but well-natured shoot.
18 minutes worth of trailers for other 88 titles follow: CHILDREN OF THE CORN, DON'T GO IN THE WOODS ... ALONE, HOLLYWOOD CHAINSAW HOOKERS, LIVE LIKE A COP DIE LIKE A MAN, MOTHER'S DAY, SLAUGHTERHOUSE, TRANCERS and SPLATTER UNIVERSITY.
We also get an attractive 4-page booklet containing Phillip Escott's interviews with co-screenwriter Andrew Deutsch and composer Sasha Matson.
All of that, plus we get double-sided cover artwork and a nice black blu-ray keepcase.
RIVER OF DEATH is a fun slice of trash cinema, an interesting mash-up of ambitious on-location filmmaking and keen-eyed exploitation tropes. I like it, and 88 Films' blu-ray is a beaut.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Released by 88 Films|
|see main review|