Empire of Ash I & II (1988/9): Double Bubble?

It’s a two for the price of one post-apocalyptic special! Matty takes a look…

With talk of a “great virus” and a “great infection”, it’s a little unnerving revisiting EMPIRE OF ASH in our lord’s year of 2020 — particularly as the mean streak that bubbles beneath this post-apocalyptic VHS programmer is amplified by a few more eerie modern-day parallels. A group of gun-toting, hate-filled arseholes, hanging on the twisted words of some crap-spouting cult leader? Murdering and maiming their way through what’s left of civilisation, while a small throng desperately tries to find a cure for a freaky illness that’s split America apart? I might be overreaching, but there’s something frighteningly prescient in there. Thank God, for Joe Biden, eh? 

The rest of Empire of Ash plays in classic ‘mug to your market’ fashion. It’s a collection of beats and ideas swiped from other, bigger action and sci-fi movies of the period, rather than a cohesive whole. Mad Max (1979), Aliens (1986), The Terminator (1984), Star Wars (1977) — they’re all here, albeit on a drastically cheaper and far less polished scale. Hell, even The Rolling Stones aren’t safe from Empire of Ash’s shameless pillaging, with John Wednesday and David Park’s soundtrack cut, Gonna Get Some, sounding suspiciously close to (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, right down to the shouty “get some!” refrain.

Written with a gusto that flies in the face of its obvious shortcomings (ie. the aforementioned unoriginality and the complete lack of anything resembling character development), the thrust of the film’s narrative concerns Melanie Kilgour’s Ripley-esque Danielle and Thom Schioler’s Kyle Reese-tinged soldier, Orion, as they trudge across the futuristic wasteland of ‘New Idaho’ (in reality, the woods of British Columbia) looking for Kilgour’s kidnapped sister. Neither Kilgour nor Schioler are the most gripping or convincing performers, but they do an OK job pretending to be tough and heroic as they go toe-to-toe with a fanatical preacher (Frank Wilson) and his psychotic disciples — the standout of whom is the striking Michele Chiponski as the gorgeous and terrifying Baalca.

The pleasure of Empire of Ash, though, is in its delivery. Directed at a sprightly clip by Michael Mazo and Lloyd A. Simandl, there’s an indefatigable charm to their copious scenes of ‘talent’ (do note the use of parentheses) fannying about in the forest, everyone dressed like a member of Judas Priest, firing prop guns and blowing shit up. It’s not sophisticated by any means, but it doesn’t need to be: Empire of Ash is a film of snotty punk energy, as exemplified by the frantic ‘grab the camera and shoot’ style of Nathaniel Massey’s herky-jerky cinematography. For instance, you can tell that a vast majority of Empire of Ash’s shots were achieved simply by strapping some poor operator to the side of a vehicle as it hurtled down a country road or by having them point the camera right at whichever stuntman’s turn it was to boulder towards them full pelt, giving these moments a convincing sense of peril and in-yer-face excitement. It’s kamikaze stuff, and several ludicrously dangerous-seeming gags will leave you fretting over the safety of those involved — but, my word, does it make for fun viewing. 

The same can be said for the film’s 1989 sequel — quite literally because it’s the same bloody film. Produced by Simandl and John A. Curtis’ Canadian B-movie outfit, North American Pictures, Empire of Ash proved so successful that, amazingly, the pair of them re-released it a year later as ‘Empire of Ash II’. Whether people were fooled by this bizarre ruse is anyone’s guess, but Simandl and Curtis’ bogus ‘follow-up’ did result in North American slinging together a legitimate sequel, the similarly enjoyable Empire of Ash III (1989), with the participation of British video-era maverick, John Eyres. To compound the confusion, both Empire of Ash and Empire of Ash III were distributed on tape stateside by David A. Prior’s Action International Pictures, who retitled them ‘Maniac Warriors’ and ‘Last of the Warriors’, respectively. Here in the UK, we only ever got a physical release of the first film, which hit cassette under its original moniker via Mogul in winter 1989, and was last spotted in DVD bargain bins c. 2006 time courtesy of Manchester’s premier short-lived bootleg label, 23rd Century. Well, sort of: despite 23rd Century packaging it as Empire numero uno, right down to appropriating Mogul’s striking cover art (see below), the disc’s contents were, in fact, Empire of Ash III. And as if to ice this convoluted cake, Empire of Ash III is currently the sole Empire chapter available to rent on Amazon Prime… As ‘Empire of Ash 2’. 

Canada ● 1988/9 ● Action, Sci-Fi ● 96mins

Melanie Kilgour, Thom Schioler, Frank Wilson, Michele Chiponski (as ‘Misha Lachat’) ● Dir. Michael Mazo & Lloyd A. Simandl Wri. Saul Urbonas, Michael Mazo, John Ogis, from a story by Lloyd A. Simandl

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