Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Glutton for Punishment: Severin Films' BLOOD ISLAND Box Set

by JB
I wouldn’t say I was entertained, but I certainly learned a lot.

We are all interested in 35mm film, drive-in theaters, and the Philippines… for those are the things that will soon be covered in green blood. Yes, you heard me right, GREEN BLOOD! You are interested in the hot, the humid, and the mosquito infested—that is why you are here. And now, for the first time, we are bringing to you the full story of some of the worst movies ever made. We are bringing you all the evidence, based only on the secret testimony of the miserable soul who survived a screening. I am that miserable soul. The papier-mâché special effects, the identical plotlines, the endless jungle chases, the exploding grass-roofed huts—my friend, we cannot keep these a secret any longer. Let us punish the guilty. Let us reward the innocent. Remember, my friends: terrible movies such as these will affect you in the future!
It’s thrilling when a film or series of films take you down a deep, rich rabbit hole of nonsense, plunging you into the dark heart of a film genre that you hitherto never knew existed. I had that rewarding experience just last year, when Massacre Gun introduced me to the string of Japanese Crime Films produced by Nikkatsu Studios in the 1960s starring their stable of “Diamond Guys” leading men. That was delightful. Being introduced to the series of Blood Island films recently was… less than delightful. Still, I can’t say I didn’t have fun.

I can’t say that.

In the wake of WWII, Filipino film industry wunderkinds Gerry de Leon and Eddie Romero made a series of war films that were not financial successes. An American distributor suggested they make horror films tailored for the growing drive-in theater market instead. Their first effort in 1959, Terror is a Man—a loose rewrite of H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau—was a big success. This eventually led the pair to team up with American actor John Ashley to make a string of low budget drive-in hits, which came to be known as the Blood Island series because of their shared fictitious location.

The series could easily be considered a trilogy because these three films, which the trio produced in the late 1960s and early 1970s, had identical plots, locations, and tedium. Please understand that all of these films contain “good parts;” we just need to sit through endless jungle chases and stultifying “native rituals” to get to them.

The Plots in Brief: All four films follow roughly the same narrative: An American arrives at Blood Island by boat. He is immediately whisked into danger and intrigue involving scared, powerless villagers; a sympathetic local woman clad in a colorful sarong; a crazed scientist performing inhumane experiments and possessing a private army; a comely American girl with whom he quickly falls in love; and (best of all) some sort of low-budget monster. This generic plotline is established with Terror is a Man and then slavishly followed in the later films. I guess de Leon, Romero, and Ashley did not want to mess with success.
In Terror is a Man, the monster is a tall guy with lots of bandages and a cathead. In Brides of Blood, it’s a green, blobby mask that covers the actor’s head and shoulders and looks like a rejected version of “Grimace” from a 1970s McDonalds commercial. In Mad Doctor of Blood Island, the monster is a crazy papier-mâché mask that resembles what would happen if an elderly Boris Karloff made love to a homemade piñata.

Beast of Blood features what is arguably the best monster in the series: a dismembered head that looks like it has been kicked around an asphalt parking lot for a few hours, being kept alive with blood transfusions and applied electricity. Every twenty minutes or so, it awakens to shout, “Dr. Lorca! The time is coming, Dr. Lorca!”

I’m not making any of this up.
The plots of these films are so similar that they may as well all be ersatz remakes of The Island of Dr. Moreau. Except for Terror is a Man, which was made in 1959, the remaining films, made between 1968 and 1970, seem to also owe a debt of gratitude to the popular James Bond series of the early 1960s. Similarities abound: the rogue agent who is handy with the ladies, the use of exotic locales, the megalomaniacal villain bent on world domination, the villain’s horde of loyal minions (Beast of Blood’s Dr. Lorca even has a second-in-command who looks and acts… a little too much like Oddjob in Goldfinger!) the beautiful female love interest, and the inevitable destruction of the villain’s lair during the films’ climaxes. This leads me to think the producers either said to themselves, “What if we made a film like James Bond—but with a big monster in it!” or “What if James Bond films starred Elvis Presley?” You see, the final three films in this series feature American John Ashley, who looks, sounds, and acts a lot like The King.

Speaking of John Ashley… Just when you are thinking, “JB, these Philippines-lensed, drive-in quickies couldn’t POSSIBLY have a connection with Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam masterpiece Apocalypse Now, right?” I am here to tell you that THEY DO. Please follow along:

Ashley had appeared as star Frankie Avalon’s friend and sidekick in the popular series of Beach Party films produced by American International in the early 1960s. He even had a brief musical career and recorded a few singles and an album. He was married to Gidget star Deborah Wally, but the marriage ended in divorce. Looking to get away from LA, he chose to produce and star in a series of low-budget drive-in movies filmed in Manila; he fell in love with the island and made his second home there. When Francis Ford Coppola chose the Philippines as the location for Apocalypse Now, Ashley served as an associate producer, helping Coppola scout locations and securing the use of real Huey helicopters from the local government. Taking a break from acting and producing, Ashley then ran a small drive-in theater chain in Oklahoma for a few years. He eventually moved back to Los Angeles and produced three seasons of the popular television action series The A-Team. What a career this man had!
The transfers and extras on the new Severin Films box set are extraordinary. I never thought I would see late 1960s drive-in quickies look like this. Some shots feature a lot of film grain, but I think that might be the fault of the source material; it’s usually when the filmmakers are shooting day-for-night with filters.

Many of the most interesting extras are the interviews with the cast and crew originally filmed for Mark Hartley’s 2010’s documentary, Machete Maidens Unleashed! Severin Films’ Blu-ray of Mad Doctor of Blood Island even comes complete with a CD of the movie’s soundtrack music, which I have been listening to on repeat as I write this column to get me in the proper mood.

“Dr. Lorca! The time is coming, Dr. Lorca!”

Well, the severed head on my desk is calling loudly and seems to have mistaken me for Dr. Lorca. I must go and do battle with this bloody head, lest he use his latent brainpower to reanimate his own headless body, order it to attack me, subdue me, and crush my skull under a heavy machine. Ouch. My wife, who is a sympathetic native of these parts, will have to come save me!

And what’s sarong with that?
My friend, you have now read this column, based on my own sworn testimony. Can you prove the Blood Island doesn’t exist? Perhaps on your way home, someone will pass you in the dark, and you will never know it, but he might be Eddie Romero, the screenwriter/producer/director/apologist behind these quaintly risible gore-fests. Many scientists believe that bad drive-in movies featuring papier-mâché Grimace-monster machete fights are being made in the Philippines at this very moment. We once laughed at Imelda Marcos, sarongs, thatched huts, mad doctors, and green blood. Yes, you heard me right, GREEN BLOOD! So much laughter! And now some of us laugh at very bad movies. God help us in the future.


  1. On my tombstone: "A deep, rich rabbit hole of nonsense."

  2. When I watched Machete Maidens Unleashed! (many years ago now), I could not help thinking that it was a shame John Ashley died before the doc was made. I am sure he would have had plenty of stories to tell.

  3. Just listened to The Player podcast. This comment is for JB.