Electric Sheep: Cyberzone (1995)

Matty has always loved Fred Olen Ray’s brooding Blade Runner homage, and reckons its deeper themes become more and more relevant year after year.

The first film in a two picture deal between Roger Corman’s New Horizons and Andrew Stevens’ Royal Oaks, whereby Corman would take domestic distribution rights while Stevens bagged international, CYBERZONE, like its production partner Invisible Mom (1996), ranks among the best work of its helmer, the mighty Fred Olen Ray — on the rung below standouts Cyclone (1987), Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers (1988), Haunting Fear (1990), and The Shooter (1997), but certainly equal to Armed Response (1986), Over the Wire (1996), and several of his recent Lifetime projects a la Deadly Shores (2018)

Extremely well paced and meticulously assembled, Cyberzone benefits from a muscular sense of poise and atmosphere; traits, alas, that Corman ignored on the film’s video packaging. Instead, the wily exploitation maven chose to tout it as a simple-minded bullet-ballet with sci-fi overtones per the renting trends of the period. Guns sell; surprisingly thoughtful speculative fiction doesn’t. He also, for reasons known only to him, elected to trim it. As Ray told me when I interviewed him about his snake shocker Venomous (2001) last year:

“Roger would insist that a movie be 93 minutes long. Everything we did for Roger was 93. And then he’d go in and cut ten minutes out for release in the U.S.! And Cyberzone, when it came out here, he’d cut the opening scene, which was my favourite scene in the whole movie. The scene where this guy has chopped another guy’s head off and he has it in a bowling bag and he walks down the alleyway and he sees this little girl, and he does this little magic trick for her and gives her a coin. She doesn’t speak, she just runs away. And that was my favourite scene — and then I see the movie and it’s gone! Roger would just get some student from USC or something, and he would just have them arbitrarily cut a chunk out of your movie [laughs]. The overseas version, which you guys got, was always the full version. But now, on Amazon here, you can see the 93 minute version for the first time in the U.S. They’ve restored it, I guess is what they’d say.” 

Curiously, the years since have found Cyberzone’s scripter, William C. Martell, following suit and sidestepping the film’s accomplishments, too. Having penned it in a nine day frenzy, on the occasions he mentions Cyberzone in interviews, Martell seems loathe to talk about what the film is really about and what it actually achieves, downplaying it and describing it as no more than a cheap Star Wars (1977) homage with a Lucas nod in every scene (Robert Quarry’s character, for instance, was intended to be the story’s Jabba the Hutt). And that’s a shame truth be told. Because despite the veteran DTV scribe’s assertions that Cyberzone is “a goof” and “a guilty pleasure-type movie”, there’s a succulent, serious heart to it that Ray’s considered direction embellishes. There’s nothing guilty pleasure-y to it: Cyberzone is devilishly entertaining,  yes, but it isn’t the sort of easygoing eye bubblegum you can idly veg to. It demands concentration and engagement, and if you’re expecting a campy space opera you’re going to be in for a rude awakening. Sure, it isn’t without flutters of broad humour (few Ray joints are) — but, by and large, this laconic Blade Runner (1982) riff is a smart and elegiac offering buoyed by a strong social conscience as Ray explores the divide between the haves and have nots.   

Harking back to the gritty detective flicks of the ‘40s, Marc Singer submits an effectively cynical turn as Jack Ford [1]: a weary, rapidly burning out bounty hunter who — of course — earns a crust putting creepy and illegal cyborgs out of action. Pulled from the flooded, future-shock slums of a ravaged West Coast, Ford is recruited by the affluent — and decidedly shifty — Mr. Reginald (Cal Bartlett [2]) to track down a cache of sex bots; four robotic hookers [3] that’ve been lifted by Matthias Hues’ smuggler. A lovable rogue, the charismatic Hues’ role is, undoubtedly, the Han Solo of the piece if you jive with Martell’s Star Wars ribbing. 

As with his trendsetting erotic thriller Inner Sanctum (1991), the appeal of Cyberzone is Ray’s compelling use of flawed characters and ambiguity — though as a director who always favours a definitive, nicely rounded ending, he does make it very clear who the real bad guy is by the film’s close. Conceptually, Ray’s barbed pokes at the idea of power and the nature of those who abuse it strike an eerily prescient chord post #MeToo, and Rochelle Swanson’s sign off, her cotton wool-wrapped ingenue’s eyes opened to how those lower down the economic totem pole than she really live, hits home in the age of austerity.

Tech-wise, cinematographer Howard Wexler and production designer Candi Gutterres deserve major kudos for creating a shadowy and textured world on a shoestring; a place where every set and every location feels either authentically grubby or ludicrously showy depending on the status of each character that Singer encounters on his quest. Said supporting cast provide the B-movie colour, with the ensemble almost entirely composed of Ray’s rep players. There’s Hoke Howell; Ross Hagen; Peter Spellos; a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him Richard Gabai; Brinke Stevens as the sexiest cat/human hybrid ever committed to celluloid; and the aforementioned Quarry. All are terrific.

Possessing numerous alternative titles, Cyberzone is also known as ‘Droid Runner’ and ‘Droid Gunner’, and was issued on British cassette by Guild as ‘Phoenix II’ in summer 1997. Guild had experienced decent financial success when they’d released the original Phoenix (1995) on tape eighteen months prior, making rebranding another cyborg-based movie a sequel a canny marketing move, regardless of it being completely unrelated.

USA ● 1995 ● Sci-Fi ● 86mins

Marc Singer, Rochelle Swanson, Matthias Hues, Cal Bartlett ● Dir. Fred Olen Ray Wri. William C. Martell

[1] Jack Ryan in Clear and Present Danger (1994)… Essayed by Harrison Ford… The star of Blade Runner. Ya dig?
[2] The bulk of Bartlett’s scenes in the up world were shot at the Donald C. Tillman Water Reclamation Plant in Van Nuys; an oft-used spot visible in Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991), Bio-Dome (1996), Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997), and the Corman-produced Brain Dead (1990).
[3] One of whom is played by the stunning Lorissa McComas. McComas died in tragic and potentially murderous circumstances at the criminally young age of 38 in 2009. Officially ruled as suicide by the Waverly, Virginia, Police Department, there’s been longstanding attempts by the model/actress’ friends and family to reopen the case, with the starlet’s abusive ex-husband frequently mentioned as a prime suspect.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s