Thursday, August 12, 2010

Obscure Oddities: Romano Scavolini's DOG TAGS (1988)

Vietnam got its second cinematic wind in the mid-80s. Be it the overblown heroics in RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD pt. II (1985) or the Oscar hog PLATOON (1986), the Ten Thousand Day War was big business and, naturally, it didn’t take the Italians long to jump on that bandwagon. They strapped on their full metal jackets and headed to the Philippines to crank out flicks like STRIKE COMMANDO (1987) and LEATHERNECKS (1988). None of these titles, however, could match the madness and all-around-weirdness of Romano Scavolini’s Vietnam entry DOG TAGS (1988).

The film unfolds like a play with titles interspersed throughout. Prologue: a NYC reporter heads to Vietnam to follow up on a wild story a radio operator told him about a downed helicopter and its unusual cargo. There he meets a man who tells him the story he witnessed as boy. Act One – The Facts: commandos Cecil (Clive Wood) and Jack (Peter Elich) rescue some P.O.W.s and head to the rendezvous point but are told the chopper won’t be coming and they have a second mission to locate the downed chopper 10 miles away. Quick aside, has anyone ever been picked up by a chopper at the scheduled time in a Vietnam flick?

Act Two – The Getaway: the men lose all of the prisoners they helped escape except one guy (Baird Stafford), who gets a serious leg injury. They locate the chopper and find the document containers, which actually house a stolen cache of gold. All three men decide to make a break for it and steal the gold (they must have seen KELLY’S HEROES) and kidnap an old man, his daughter and her son to help them make it. Act Three – The Chase: the renegade soldiers have been tracked by Capt. Newport (Mike Monty, contractually bound to be in all Italian ‘Nam flicks) and he hires some mercenaries at a titty bar to get the gold back. It all goes to hell in a huge firefight that sees everyone but our two leads die. They yank off their dog tags and throw them on the ground. Epilogue: the reporter is amazed at the story and the young man shows a small gold bar to prove his story is real.


Seems like pretty standard ‘Nam stuff, right? Well, don’t let my straightforward synopsis fool you. This is one weird flick. Scavolini got his rep from the notoriously sleazy slasher NIGHTMARE (aka NIGHTMARES IN A DAMAGED BRAIN; 1981) and brings the trash factor over to the Vietnam genre. The film is really bloody, featuring the horrific end result of some booby traps. Also, there is a graphic leg amputation scene where one of the guys doing the cutting has to stop as he vomits on the leg. After that, there is a scene where the now legless guy writhes in pain and the female hostage figures the best thing to do is give him a handjob. WHAT!?! It is truly a bizarre scene as she gets him off while her father sits crying and the son listens to one of the soldiers talk about a ghost house. Actually, that scene pretty much encapsulates the entire film as Scavolini wants to have his cake and eat it too. There are scenes where he is focusing on the horrors of war like when a guy has to kill a enemy woman or the black soldier (Italian staple Jim Gaines) who loses his mind, saluting everyone while going, “Yessssss, sirrrrrrr!” And then you get scenes like the abandoned fortress they seek refuge in blowing sky high (with some truly scary looking pyrotechnics). He truly can’t decide if he wants to make PLATOON or RAMBO, so he tries to make both.

Of course, exploitation aspirations can’t excuse the horrible narrative lapses Scavolini indulges in. First off, how did the kid know what happened before the soldiers took his family hostage? I guess one could excuse that by saying one of the leads told him. However, how the hell would he have knowledge of what happened after the soldiers left his family? The film is filled with this kind of bizarre logic. Another great bit is the commandoes being tracked. One would think they would be smart enough to remove the HUUUGE tracking device from their bag once they decided to split? “Maybe they didn’t know it was there,” you ask. Well, Scavolini actually dubs in a line of Cecil saying, “Damn, I forgot to take out that tracking device.” WHAT!?!

Regardless of these errors, the film is highly watchable and almost hypnotic. The cast is very good with special notice going to Stafford, who was the memorable psycho in NIGHTMARE. In addition, there are some amazing locations in the film and some nice production work. The helicopter in the waterfall is very cool looking and the leads have to use this scary looking bamboo bridge. In fact, there are tons of scary looking situations in this flick. The aforementioned exploding village is crazy with the actors appearing to really be scared of the huge explosions. Even the poor little kid is running around with huge fireballs nipping at his heels. The final firefight is also crazy and includes one shot where Monty doesn’t look too happy when a rocket explodes into the helicopter he is sitting in. Of course, would you expect any less from Italians doing low budget war flicks in the Philippines? Landis would be proud.

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