AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY: NOW, from ARROW VIDEO
RUNNING TIME: 88 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Three astronauts orbiting Earth watch helplessly as World War III erupts. After making an emergency crash landing when their spaceship’s guidance system is mysteriously reprogrammed, Jordan is rendered unconscious while Walker is dragged from the ship and eaten by savages. However, Howe escapes and finds that the area has become a wasteland inhabited by post apocalyptic loons ruled over by a snotty nosed rich kid named Gideon.…
Def-Con 4 was one of those titles that I always used to see on video shop shelves, but which I never ended up renting even though I did pick it up quite a few times. For one happy period we had five video shops in the town in live in, and each one almost always seemed to have a copy of Def-Con 4 sitting there, replete with its cover art that bore no similarity to anything in the film. Now I’ve finally seen it – well, all I can think is that word got around that it wasn’t much good. Of course it’s harder [well, for me anyway] to trash a film that’s been clearly made on a small budget then one that’s been made on a large one, and this one does have its plus points, notably a rather impressive first half an hour, and a rather convincing and believable depiction of how people might be reduced to living after a nuclear war, but it then proceeds to go progressively down hill as it never satisfactorily develops any of its story elements or situations, making it clear that writer/director Paul Donovan clearly hasn’t thought things through. This means that, for the most part, we end up with a picture as ramshackle as the makeshift dwellings and life styles that some of its characters have constructed to live in and live, though I can’t help but have some liking for a film which in terms of post-apocalyptic movies seem to be inspired more by the terrific A Boy And His Dog than any others.
With little production information quickly accessible until you get to the Blu-ray special features, we have no choice but to go into the review proper, though don’t expect a lengthy extra paragraph to compensate, because I have the feeling that I’m going to struggle to find interesting things to say about this movie, a movie that isn’t as interesting as my synopsis might suggest. I will though repeat that the first half hour impresses. After text has informed us about “the ultimate nuclear defense system” and that “global conflict is now unthinkable”, we cut to outer space and some rather good special effects for a cheapie ‘80s production – in fact I’ll go as far to say that they don’t look too bad even when compared with what you tend to get now, with very fine model work, convincing backdrops and only the occasional slightly wavy line. I don’t know how they quite achieved this with such a lack of funds but praise where praise is due. We meet Howe receiving a video message from his wife who’s not long had a baby, then Jordan and Walter. Through reports on screens, they and we learn that a nuclear war begins, triggered by “accident” after Lybians hijack a shipment of cruise missiles and shoot one into Russia. It doesn’t detonate but manages to push east/west tensions to the breaking point. Our trio argue over whether or not to launch the missiles their satellite carries. Things get worse on Earth as the prevailing nightmare of the Cold War becomes a reality. There’s one really heartbreaking bit where Howe’s wife is on the radio and describes how radiation is killing people left, right and centre, how she and her sister are quarantined, how her and Howe’s baby has been shot, and how she has bleeding lips. It’s really quite horrific, and a good example of where not actually showing stuff and letting our imaginations do the visualising can really work. Our crew now debate whether or not to return to Earth, and where, and as I watched I wondered if in the right hands this scenario would make for a good movie – nerve sweating and tragic.
Unfortunately this is only Def-Con 4’s first act, though things are still decent for a short while as the satellite’s computer is hijacked by an unseen entity who prompts an impromptu landing somewhere near the coast of Canada. One astronaut is knocked out, then some knocking on the door causes the other two to investigate and one to be dragged off and eaten, a freshly severed hand then being thrown through the window. This means that we’re now left with Tom Choate who’s clearly the weakest actor out of the ones we’ve so far seen. Howe then doesn’t attempt to leave the craft until night fall, when he walks slap-bang into some cannibals eating someone – possibly Walker – though after that runs into a trap laid out by survivalist Vinny – and you never see the cannibals again, which is darn near disappointing if you ask me, though I was more bothered at us being asked to believe that it only takes two months for survivors of a nuclear holocaust to turn into cannibalistic savages. However, we do now get Maury Chaykin giving probably the best performance of the film, making Vinny menacing yet calm with just a tinge of humour in many of his line deliveries. Mind you, one is clearly invited to laugh when Vinny takes the slop that Howe refuses to eat and tosses it down through a trapdoor through which a faint voice replies “Thank you”. It’s never made clear why this man keeps a woman in the basement, though one moment suggests that it’s for sexual reasons. If this is so, then it’s odd that Vinny soon after becomes a character that we’re clearly invited to like, another good example of the confusion that pervades the screenplay for this film. Anyway, Howe, Vinny and Jordan the woman are soon in turn kidnapped by Gideon, the bratty Ivy League-school son of a prominent politician who, along with daddy’s armed henchman, survived a helicopter crash on his way to a government survival station and is desperate for information as to any remaining ones that are still operable and safe.
It’s here where things really dovetail considerably despite the very believable town made of junk, with poorly staged and edited action, and no attempt to answer such questions as to why the survivors rally behind a college punk like Gideon in the first place, why they’re bound to him since he keeps his scarce food supply only for himself and his second-in-command; yes, the two of them are armed with guns, but we’re shown near the end that plentiful other firearms are also clearly accessible. And you’d think that people wouldn’t care about financial status any more in a world destroyed by nuclear missiles, but apparently they do. Kevin King is nicely arrogant and smirking as Gideon in scenes like where, just after he’s ordered the execution of four people, he tries justifying his tyranny with “You think I’m ruthless because I want to be. It’s the only way to administer limited resources in an unstable situation”. But he doesn’t project enough of an air of cruelty, which makes scenes like when he tortures a starving person by cooking, burning then kicking into the mud a steak not come off as well as they should. In a film mostly devoid of tension after its first third [even something which almost always works, a deadly weapon that could be fired, is botched], we do get an uncomfortable moment when our four main prisoners are about to be hung but one is allowed to go free if he or she can be the one to kill the others. But there’s little sense of conviction, and a supposedly exciting finale on a boat is terribly handled with some shoddy editing [even though it’s by the usually excellent Tod Ramsey], while final text seems to tell us that Gideon was the ruler of all of Earth, not just this small area!
Potentially great scenes tend to be ruined by something or other. Choate’s ‘all over the place’ performing severely weakens a stand-off set piece where this is the first time that Howe has wielded a gun. At least the film is brave enough to be grim and dark in places, and it has an eye for quirky detail, such as a booby trap which has as its trigger a Canadian social insurance card, though I noticed the Canadian flag turning up in some other places as well. This has got to be one of the dirtiest looking movies I’ve seen in some time, but it’s kind of appropriate, while the doom-laden gray skies also add to the mood. But Paul Donovan’s direction, if slightly better than his script, is thoroughly pedestrian and TV movie-like, and it’s only really an early score by Christopher Young that provides any pace or urgency, with some very dramatic pieces and interesting use of percussion. Some of the music turned up in Godzilla 1985, the American re-cut of Godzilla 1984 aka The Return Of Godzilla.
It seems that Def-Con 4 has a very poor reputation with the majority, but that it most certainly also has a cult following which is no doubt why Arrow, who by now must know their market, have seen fit to unleash it on Blu-ray. It’s not really as bad all that – everyone now and again there’s some unpredictability like when one tough character suddenly drops onto his hands and knees and pleads for his life, it does feel that we are where we’re supposed to be [though many other films have shown that you don’t really need much money at all to reasonably depict a post-apocalyptic world], and that first section, which seems to be where most of the money went, really is pretty good. But the thing also falls far short of its potential, and needed a serious rewrite before it ever hit the screen.
Def-Con 4 has only previously been available on Blu-ray from Germany, and Arrow seem to undertaken a totally new restoration. I would imagine that this film, with its grimy look and particular emphasis on brown, never looked much good on DVD, but they seem to have done the very best to make it appear decent on Blu-ray. The occasional bits set amidst greenery stand out nicely and despite the deliberately muggy look there’s lots of nice and sometimes interesting detail to pick up on. Flesh tones, something I think Blu-rays sometimes get a bit wrong, look mostly natural, and grain seems evenly managed apart from a few times where a part of the screen is dark. I can’t imagine this particular film ever looking better.
In terms of special features, this isn’t nearly as packed as some of Arrow’s other releases, with more emphasis on the distributing company New World Pictures [which was set up by Roger Corman to cheaply produce and release films] as a whole, but I still recommend you watch what is there because you’ll find more of interest than you might think. Brave New World has Michael Spence, who was the one who re-edited Godzilla 1985 which is the only Godzilla film where I prefer the American version, discussing his early work cutting Sunn Classics films then trailers for New World films, before telling us something that I certainly had no idea of – Def-Con 4 was one of several cheaply obtained Canadian picture that he re-cut, though he doesn’t remember what he changed. I’m assuming when he refers to Tony it’s Tony Randell, who supervised these re-cuts and shot new footage for the Godzilla film.
Nemesis Descending has composer Christopher Young talk about his start and time at New World, though he disappointingly doesn’t go into the score much. He mentions how a composer had it made at New World if he’d written a score that could be re-used! And best of all we have Chris Poggiali giving us a potted history of New World, from their early days where they alternated making exploitation movies [god, imagine the fuss many would make if cycles of soft core films about nurses, teachers and women’s prisons came out today] for the drive-ins with releasing foreign films [even of the ‘arty’ kind] in the winter, to their later struggle having films like Space Raiders in screens right next to ones playing Return Of The Jedi and finding a second lease of life on video. Corman’s changing role is mentioned also, as is a law suit. Def-Con 4 is certainly placed in context but through these three short featurettes you also get a good impression of a company who produced some really good films [Hellraiser, Death Race 2000], and some very influential ones alongside lots of what they would probably have admitted was trash.
I couldn’t really see much of the value in Def-Con 4 that its fans can except in a few spots, but if you are indeed a fan then you just have to pick up this release which I can’t see being bettered, while I’ve certainly seen many far worse films of its type. Recommended for fans, not so much for others, recommended with caution as a whole.
SPECIAL EDITION CONTENTS
*Brand new 2K restoration from the original 35mm interpositive
*High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation
*Original lossless mono soundtrack
*Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
*Brave New World, a new video interview with New World Pictures editor Michael Spence [10 mins]
*Nemesis Descending, a new video interview with composer Christopher Young [11 mins]
*New video interview with author Chris Poggiali on the history and legacy of New World Pictures [16 mins]
*Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Gary Pullin
FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Neil Mitchell