Dead Man Walking (1988): Flesh for Fantasy

Matty muscles in on the Gregory Dark worship with a look at the esteemed XXX auteur’s first ‘legitimate’ movie. 

“After New Wave Hookers (1985), I was not interested in porn. I didn’t want to make shitloads of it,” said Gregory Dark in a frank chat with Psychotronic Video [1] — so he and his longtime creative partner, Walter Gernert, decided to go straight. They struck a distribution deal with Shapiro Glickenhaus Entertainment and funnelled a chunk of the profits from their most recent hardcore epic, The Devil in Miss Jones 3 and 4 (1986), into DEAD MAN WALKING (1988): a post-apocalyptic sci-fi free of their Dark Bros. branding. However, despite using their real names (Dark readopted birth name Gregory Brown and Gernert dropped ‘Walter Dark’) and operating under the guise of Metropolis Productions, a few keen-eyed Los Angeles Times readers were quick to draw attention to Dark and Gernert’s XXX background when they clocked Dead Man Walking among the paper’s list of upcoming movies.

How it happened exactly is anyone’s guess. Presumably a few porn-savvy armchair sleuths noticed that the Brown and Gernert of Dead Man Walking were the same director/producer combo who’d previously unleashed In Search of the Perfect 10 (1986). An amusing T&A comedy, In Search of the Perfect 10 was released on cassette by Magnum Entertainment: a home video outfit Gernert was in charge of, and one that had sprung from his lucrative partnership with grot baron Russ Hampshire. In 1978, Gernert and Hampshire founded VCA Pictures and Magnum was established with the money Hampshire used to buy out Gernert when he sold up his stock. Naturally, VCA — the iconic adult shingle responsible for such fine fuck-fare as the Dead Man Walking-adjacent sci-fi shag-a-thon Café Flesh (1982) — were frequent peddlers of Dark Bros. material. 

“When we called, a Metropolis rep at first denied that Brown and Gernert (not really brothers) were also the Dark Bros.,” reported Pat H. Broeske. “When Gernert finally got back to us, he wasn’t thrilled to be grilled: ‘We would like to leave our past behind us. We’re no longer doing pornography. We’ve spent the last eighteen months developing three non-pornographic films that we have high hopes for.’” [2]

Though Gernert expressed concern that he and Dark being outed would hinder both the film and their chance to pursue ‘legitimate’ moviemaking careers, the mogul’s fears were swiftly allayed when, upon completion, Dead Man Walking was acquired by Republic Pictures. The company issued Dead Man Walking on U.S. tape on 8th June 1988 [3]. By then, Dark and Gernert were already deep in development on their next ‘mainstream’ projects, fellow sci-fi item Street Asylum (1990), and the picture that’d alter their trajectory for good, erotic thriller Carnal Crimes (1991).

In retrospect, the subterfuge was pointless anyway. Even those with only passing knowledge of Dark and Gernert’s lascivious oeuvre would be hard pressed to not recognise Dead Man Walking as a Dark Bros. flick (just without the bonking, obviously). The entire film betrays Dark’s obsessions with aesthetic, surrealism, and disturbing yet blackly comic incidentals.

Calling to mind the wild, style-driven introductions given to his and Gernert’s bump n’ grind talent (see: the near-messianic appearances of Ginger Lynn, Amber Lynn, Lois Ayres, Vanessa del Rio, and the inimitable Jack Baker every time they pop up), Dark heralds the arrival of Dead Man Walking star Wings Hauser — in a role originally intended for Tim Thomerson until Shapiro Glickenhaus vetoed him for the “more bankable” Vice Squad (1982) favourite — with a novel spin on Russian roulette. As sweaty and as tense as any of Dark’s ferociously choreographed scenes of thrusting and grunting, the intro’s mischievous and orgiastic sense of spectacle is intensified by the expected revolver being replaced by, of all things, a chainsaw. Alas, unlike Black Throat (1985) et al, where the fluids spat by a wholly different type of vein cascade like a flash flood, the pop shot here, when the ‘saw roars into life and tears into Hauser’s opponent’s neck, feels annoyingly truncated. Still, as disappointingly bloodless as the kiss-off is, it’s heady and imaginative stuff, and Dark sinks his teeth into the laconic nihilism that litters the rest of Dead Man Walking’s western-tipping screenplay (by John Weidner and Rick Marx — the former a future PM Entertainment contributor, the latter a Cannon alum) with the kind of raucous, provocative swagger that characterises his best bursts of orifice destroying wham-bang-banging. 

Taking a page from John Carpenter’s Escape From New York (1981), Dead Man Walking unfolds in the futuristic landscape of 1997, enabling Dark — a self-professed student of an assortment of esoteric practices, from martial arts and psychology to the occult and the supernatural — to indulge his passion for prediction and prophecy. A particularly unnerving moment, delivered in one of Dead Man Walking’s many satirical newsbreaks — sequences whose flagrant nods to Paul Verhoeven are furthered by the fact they’re co-presented by Mario Machado, the real-life anchor that the kooky Dutch auteur hired for similar segments in RoboCop (1987) — details how an ex member of the Hitler Youth is now supervising the research into the super plague that, per Weidner and Marx’s story, has massacred the planet. Post COVID, in an age when the far right are continually painting themselves as heroes and patriots, this crass, near throwaway gag is a lot more pertinent — and, artistically, it seems as forward-thinking as Dark effectively inventing the alt-porn subgenre with New Wave Hookers, and prefiguring porn’s rawer, gonzo strain with the anally fixated likes of Between the Cheeks (1985) and White Bunbusters (1985)

Lensed over four weeks in summer ‘87 in and around Long Beach Oil Fields, Dark makes excellent use of the ruinous locations, industrial backdrops, and sprawling desert expanses. Such scuzzy, steely, and dusty environs are established tropes in post-apocalyptic cinema, especially in its poverty row subdivision. Dark has a strong grasp on visuals, atmosphere, shape and texture that suits Dead Man Walking and, indeed, the form at large. An unflinching quality. A hypnotic savageness. Bolstered by Dark’s patented punk fixations — in manner and in look — the film bubbles with piss and vinegar. The sort of lurid animalistic menace that fizzes beneath the helmer’s utterly filthy pork-a-paloozas. The attitude is embodied by Brion James’ anarchic portrayal of Dead Man Walking’s big bad: a disease-addled psychopath who Hauser’s dying, vaguely Eastwoodian mercenary is hired to track (by a twitchy Jeffrey Combs) across the wasteland when the gurning fiend kidnaps a property magnate’s daughter [4].

While the invasive and immersive technique that Dark honed on his pornos and that he utilises here would settle into a more formal — if nonetheless showy and experimental — approach in his later erotic thrillers and copious music videos, if Dead Man Walking and the equally captivating Street Asylum are anything to go by, there’s every chance that he and Gernert could have been as vital to VHS-era sci-fi as Albert Pyun, John Eyres, and Phillip J. Roth if they’d stayed on that path.

I’m glad they didn’t — but it’s an intriguing what-if. 

[1] Gregory Hippolyte (aka Brown/Dark) by Anthony Petkovich, Psychotronic Video #26, 1997.
[2] Dark Secret by Pat H. Broeske, Los Angeles Times, 28th June 1987.
[3] In the U.K. Dead Man Walking hit video via Mauve, a short-lived offshoot of Cineplex and their parent company, Parkfield Entertainment.
[4] Hauser and James came to Dead Man Walking a fortnight after wrapping Nico Mastorakis’ Nightmare at Noon (1988).

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