Warlords (1988): Doing the Post-Nuke Nasty

Matty gets to the mean-spirited centre of Fred Olen Ray’s ho-hum future-shocker.

Although it would be wrong to call WARLORDS an outright folly, it suffers for two very big reasons. The first is that it had the unenviable task of following the single greatest film-to-film run of Fred Olen Ray’s directorial career. And compared to the nine awesome pictures that preceded it — Biohazard (1985), The Tomb (1986), Star Slammer (1986), Armed Response (1986), Cyclone (1987), Commando Squad (1987), The Phantom Empire (1988), Deep Space (1988), and Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers (1988)Warlords doesn’t cut muster. It’s irritatingly slow and often technically sloppy, with one too many displays of poorly choreographed action killing what little momentum it has already. The second is that Warlords is stricken with a truly dreadful lead turn from David Carradine. So good in Armed Response, here, the star barely hides his disinterest in the material. Playing a genetically engineered replica of a decorated army hero who treks across a post-nuclear wasteland on a mission of vengeance, Carradine eschews the stabs at angsty, existential drama in Scott Ressler’s otherwise fairly uninspired script in favour of submitting a drainingly disinterested performance that would be an insult to the term ‘phoning it in’.

However, if you can ignore, move past or forgive such flaws, Warlords still has some cool stuff on show. The coolest is, undoubtedly, the film’s supporting cast who provide Warlords with a bit of much-needed energy. The former Mrs. Ray, Dawn Wildsmith, is great as Carradine’s tough n’ sexy sidekick; Fox Harris is typically quirky and twitchy as a duplicitous wasteland dweller; and the film’s villains, Ray regular Ross Hagen and Jack Hill fav-cum-late-in-the-day horror icon Sid Haig, are stupendous. Hagen is pure smarm and charisma as a slithery lackey, and Haig is ferocious as the eponymous — albeit singular — Warlord that Carradine is hunting. Clad in a lavish, Jill Connors-designed outfit that’s part Ming the Merciless and part Colonel Gadaffi, the future Rob Zombie mainstay radiates a magnetic intensity that ignites the screen whenever he pops up. Scream Queens Brinke Stevens and Michelle Bauer also briefly appear.  

Another plus is the general air of nastiness that Ray conjures. While Warlords isn’t entirely serious, Ray’s penchant for humour dribbling through in the scenes involving the diminutive, wise-cracking creature that Carradine lugs about in his backpack (he’s a weird, Boglin-esque “genetic mistake” who, I’m 99% sure, is voiced by an uncredited Jay Richardson), by and large, it’s a gritty and downbeat offering closer to the gristle-strewn savagery of Ray’s ultra-cheap slasher flick, Scalps (1983), than anything else on his sprawling CV. There’s an effective, grubby, and uneasy atmosphere to Warlords in spite of — or, like Scalps, maybe because of — its ragged shooting and uncharacteristically un-Rayian lack of polish. It’s certainly something that bugged the BBFC: Warlords was pruned of forty-five seconds ahead of its British video debut in August 1990 (NB: I have no idea what the actual snips were, and the BBFC’s site is as vague and as unhelpful as ever. But, if I were to hazard a guess, I’d say it was probably to the mix of bare tits and sexualised violence when Bauer and Debra Lamb’s fleeing harem girls are recaptured by a gaggle of Hagen’s gasmask-wearing mutant soldiers).

Released on U.S. tape via Vidmark in October 1989, Warlords was shot in ten days on a budget of $220,000 at Vasquez Rocks — a location Ray had used on Biohazard and The Phantom Empire, and would use again on Dinosaur Island (1994) and Wizards of the Demon Sword (1991). In fact, Wizards of the Demon Sword started lensing around the time of Warlords’ making and keen-eyed Ray scholars will notice a lot of structural and thematic overlap between the two films, as well as a shared Bedouin-style tent set.

USA ● 1988 ● Sci-Fi, Action ● 86mins

David Carradine, Dawn Wildsmith, Sid Haig, Ross Hagen ● Dir. Fred Olen Ray Wri. Scott Ressler

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