Deadly Dancer (1990): Do the Hustle

Dave takes in some jammin’ dance moves courtesy of AIP, with first-hand memories provided by actor Walter Cox.

For the most part, we’re getting better at celebrating diversity within filmmaking, and removing the barriers that fortified what were previously regarded as traditional gender roles. What we’re not so good at is looking back and honouring the trailblazers; the pioneers who moved into male dominated genres when it was virtually unheard of – especially in the world of direct-to-video.

Gale Anne Hurd and Penelope Spheeris made it big after starting out with Roger Corman and have rightly been granted column inches praising their success within a sexist environment. That’s not necessarily the case though for those that didn’t evolve into bona fide A-listers: Corman also gave opportunities to Katt Shea (Stripped to Kill (1987)) and Kristine Peterson (Deadly Dreams (1988)) but neither are afforded the respect they deserve.

It’s a similar situation with Kimberley Casey – although being a player in Action International Pictures, she found herself even further down the pecking order of recognition. While Corman pictures muster a grumble of appreciation, anything produced by David Winters and David A. Prior tends to get no further than a groan of derision. It’s a callow hierarchy of prestige, but alas, those who know, know.

Casey was only part of AIP for a little over three years, but if you translate that into a low-budget rate turnaround, her involvement covers somewhere in the region of twenty movies. Beginning as a PA on the likes of Death Chase (1988) before graduating to a production coordinator on Night Wars (1988), and then an assistant director on Jungle Assault (1989), it was a stratospheric rise for the filmmaker. Her first directing gig came with the riotously entertaining Born Killer (1989), but it’s DEADLY DANCER (1990) that sits at the peak of this brief spell.

“Kimberley was a young, ambitious woman,” remembers Walter Cox, who acted in the film. “She was looking to earn some directing credits and AIP gave her the opportunity which I applauded. She seemed like she knew what she wanted and I was excited to have a good part in the film. We shot at a cool club in Rubidoux, just outside Riverside. I believe it was called Club Metro. It was a wild place when it was open, and we filmed during their closed hours.”

Cox is indeed correct, and Club Metro is billed as L.A.’s hottest nightclub! There’s a pinch of Shea’s iconic film to Deadly Dancer, albeit minus the stripping. This primo venue is a couples bar, you see, with the dancing talent sticking to just that. No poles, no nipple tassels, and only the merest glimpse of a thong. That may well cause the deviants among you to stop reading, but what Casey’s film does have is superbly staged dance numbers and a lead actor who’s dubbed inappropriately to within an inch of his life.

Detective Jack Alden (Jeff Horbick, voiced by J. Paul Deloy) and his partner, Mike Fulton (Walter Cox), are regular patrons at the Metro – but when the talent start showing up dead, they become embroiled in a race against time to find the black-gloved killer. Chief among the suspects is the club’s owner, Tony Penter (Shabba Doo from Breakin’ (1984)), and Kaycha – the dynamite star of the joint (Smith Wordes) and Jack’s new girlfriend.

Casey’s primary challenge with the film lays with Horbick, as Cox explains:

“They were butting heads about the long hours and the use of weapons. There was a scene where Jeff was being attacked by someone with a nail gun, and they were using a REAL nail gun! He was a bit freaked out at how close the shots were and Kimberley basically called him a pussy and that was the beginning of the war! He was super difficult after that and eventually, when we went back to L.A. locations, he basically quit the production. I think they had a couple of shots left with him and they used a body double.”

“She was always nice to me, so I don’t have anything bad to say about her. She was doing the best she could with what she had to work with. No food budget; long hours; sharing rooms at a cheap motel. It was crazy. I was loving it, especially as I was a new father and I could actually sleep through the night for a week [laughs].”

Falling some way short of being a lost classic, Deadly Dancer is nevertheless an engaging discovery. In terms of narrative, there’s a handful of nonsensical turns, and Deloy’s ill-fitting tones have the propensity to be a distraction. Still, the cinematography from Marshall Adams and Vojislav Mikulic – who both went on to serve time in Hollywood – shows a degree of style during the well-lit routines, and they’re backed by a foot-tapping roster of mullet-headed AOR on the soundtrack. The final third thrills with some genuine intrigue and a handful of competently staged stunt sequences by the legendary Bob Ivy, which certainly go a long way masking the budgetary constraints that hamper most of the AIP catalogue.

They cranked them out monthly of course,” adds Cox. “I’m sure they made a fortune! As you know, it was a company founded by David Winters from the original West Side Story (1961). Winters was extremely overweight by this time. He was the classic Hollywood producer type. A mustard coloured Rolls Royce, a bimbo on his arm at all times, and a fat cigar in his mouth. Classic! [laughs]”

Shot in 1988 and released on VHS in September 1990, chances are that Deadly Dancer was held back to capitalise on Shabba Doo headlining Yoram Globus’ Lambada (1990). The hip-hop pioneer gets top billing here; in reality it’s more of an extended cameo. Certainly AIP felt there was a few quid to be had from the fleeting cinematic dance trend, which is probably more notable for ex-Cannon head Menahem Golan facing off against his former colleague with Lambada: The Forbidden Dance (1990), which landed in the multiplex on the same day as Globus’ namesake. Lawsuits ensued – and, ironically, Deadly Dancer wound up the more profitable of the three.

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