Have you noticed how every brilliant, well educated, pillar of the community type of person seems to have an idiot sibling with nine DUIs, and a collection of eviction notices from local trailer parks? These two people may look alike and be organ donor compatible, but that’s where the resemblance ends. Well, movies are kind of like that too—for every brilliant, groundbreaking film there’s a flock of imitators out to hustle your hard-earned ticket dollar. But every so often, when the moon is in the seventh house and Jupiter aligns with Mars a knockoff movie comes along that deserves its day in court … and not just for copyright infringement.
And please keep in mind that there’s a big difference between a knockoff and a mockbuster. A production company called The Asylum coined the term mockbuster, which I define as a cheap imitation with a sound alike title and copycat box art designed to trick you into watching it—purely mercenary bait and switch tactics. I think a good knockoff actually wants you to enjoy it, as opposed to a mockbuster that tricks you into watching by accident. I’ve also excluded films like Turkish Star Wars (1982) because they’re only entertaining for about ten minutes (aka – the length of a YouTube clip) and then become an endurance test.
So here’s a collection of knockoffs that won’t make you feel cheated. Most of these choices come from the seventies and eighties—the “Pirate Age” of theatrically released imitations.
01- Lady Terminator, 1989
It’s pretty easy to figure out what box office smash this film’s mimicking. Indonesian filmmaker H. Tjut Djalil had already proven his genius with 1981’s delirious Mystic in Bali (1981) but he almost topped himself with this unauthorized remake of The Terminator (1984). Though he shamelessly recreated shots and actual dialogue from James Cameron’s classic he managed to give his knockoff an Indonesian spin by turning the killer cyborg into a reincarnated evil spirit—and a sexy one at that! What makes this one worth watching? Whatever director Djalil lacked in originality he made up for in the mayhem department, giving us ninety minutes of car chases, bullet hits, castrations, explosions, breasts, inane dialogue, eyeball lasers and really bad mullets. There’s probably more gunfire and explosions in Lady Terminator than most John Woo movies and, being a low budget Indonesian film, you just know that actor safety was never a consideration. Australian dancer Barbara Anne Constable stars as the title character and given the number of stunts she’s does it’s a miracle she left Jakarta in one piece. Whether she’s blasting her way through a police station or digging her damaged eye out of the socket while topless, Constable just goes for it 110%—she’s incredible! You might be wondering why the makers of The Terminator didn’t take legal action against this unapologetic clone. Fortunately for Lady Terminator her male counterpart had already lost a plagiarism lawsuit to author Harlan Ellison, which made the filmmakers gun-shy about suing anyone themselves. Timing is everything.
02- The Last Hunter, 1980
In 1975, the tragic fall of Saigon finally closed the book on America’s involvement in Vietnam. Three years later The Deer Hunter (1978) and the following year Apocalypse Now turned the Vietnam War into big box office. Potentially expensive things like helicopters and explosions kept American low budget producers from jumping on the Vietnam bandwagon. But Italian filmmakers were right on point with director Antonio Margheriti leading the march. Margheriti was already such an old hand at shooting in Manila that Lucio Fulci had crowned him “Emperor of the Philippines”. Utilizing leftover sets from Apocalypse Now Margheriti merged the two American blockbusters’ plots while tossing aside their political commentaries. What makes this one worth watching? Margheriti’s breakneck pacing and terrific action scenes turn The Last Hunter into a one-of-a-kind nightmare cruise down the Mekong Delta. Thanks to his special effects expertise we’re treated to exploding trains, crashing helicopters, flamethrower assaults and plenty of ’80s Italian movie gore. Lead actor David Warbeck adds a touch of class as a less amoral version of Martin Sheen’s Apocalypse character. In some European markets The Last Hunter was actually released as Deer Hunter 2, until a platoon of lawyers got it pulled from theaters. I saw The Last Hunter in a Times Square grindhouse and can assure you the audience went hog wild—I don’t even think they noticed that Meryl Streep was MIA.
03- Starcrash, 1978
As the first in the biblical scale flood of Star Wars imitations Starcrash holds a special place in the hearts of bad movie buffs. Part of its charm stems from director Luigi Cozi being a proto fan boy who packed his movie with homages to classics like Invaders From Mars (1953) and Jason and the Argonauts (1963). Unfortunately, devotion doesn’t always equal talent, so while it’s great that he emulated Ray Harryhausen’s stop motion animation, that animation is still terrible. So what makes this one worthwhile? It’s like watching a little league team that never wins—sure, they’re terrible, but those ragamuffins try so darn hard you just got to love ’em! Cozi and company really wanted to make a cool space movie, but they just kept dropping the ball. On the plus side there are some great sets like Stella Star’s retro spaceship interior, which I kind of want to live in. Unfortunately, the ambitious miniature spaceships are charmingly laughable—and why is one of them named Murray? Despite its million flaws Caroline Munroe’s space faring wardrobe, consisting of a vinyl bikini and high-heeled leather boots, still deserves an honorary Academy Award. It’s right up there with Barbarella (1968) and Princess Leia’s gold bikini in the lexicon of sexy science fiction. And speaking of Academy Awards, Caroline Munroe is actually dubbed by Oscar nominee Candy Clark (Best Supporting Actress- American Graffiti 1973) and the bouncy score is by five time Oscar winner John Barry, best known for the Bond movies. Starcrash is the consummate hangover movie—it will ease your pain; though, to quote the script, “Your brain may be thoroughly destroyed,” in the process.
Whenever a blockbuster movie hit the screen Roger Corman’s low budget version wasn’t far behind. His Star Wars clone Battle Beyond the Stars was actually a double knockoff because it’s really Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) set in space. Why is this one worth watching? First and foremost, a gallery of cinema greats cut their teeth on this film. John Sayles’ screenplay is smart and surprisingly witty for low budget science fiction. James Horner’s Star Wars influenced score stands as a stirring debut from this great composer. The special effects by Robert and Dennis Skotak (Aliens, Tremors, T2) are excellent for their era and budget. These novice effects artists actually rigged up their own motion control system to create the complex space battles. And of course there’s a little known guy named James Cameron who started his career as the film’s art director. As for the cast, Richard Thomas is perfect as the naïve Luke Skywalker type while Robert Vaughn, George Peppard and John Saxon all have a blast as space mercenaries. And lets not forget Sybil Danning who almost bursts out of the screen and her wardrobe as the Amazon warrior woman.
05- Forbidden World, 1982
Roger Corman’s back and this time he’s got Ridley Scott’s Alien in his low budget sights! Forbidden World moves Alien’s action from a spaceship to an underground laboratory on an isolated planet … the titular Forbidden World. The film rehashes Alien (1979), reuses spaceship footage from Battle Beyond the Stars (1980) and cannibalizes leftover sets from Galaxy of Terror (1981). So what makes this cinematic recycling bin worth watching? Well, Forbidden World is just plain bananas, amping up the Corman mandated gore and nudity quotient to an almost absurd degree. There’s melting, gooey dead people, a vomiting monster, improvised abdominal surgery and more gratuitous shower scenes than a women in prison movie. It also has Jesse Vint—an underrated actor (and chess champion!) who, at the very least, should have gone on to be every action hero’s faithful sidekick. Director and editor Alan Holzman does a solid job, embracing most of the script’s built-in clichés while concealing that the sets are all made of fast food hamburger containers. He was apparently heartbroken when Corman ordered all the film’s dry humor to be removed. That alternate cut is available in work print form on the DVD. In 1991, Corman actually remade his own knockoff as Dead Space with Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) in a supporting role.
06- 2019- After the Fall of New York, 1983
Escape From New York and Mad Max 2 were 1981’s biggest hits in Europe, inspiring Italian filmmakers to get their post apocalyptic groove on. Giallo director Sergio Martino (Torso, 1973, All the Colors of the Dark, 1972) shamelessly borrowed elements from both films for his tale of a mercenary assigned to hunt down the world’s last fertile woman. So why is it worth your subway fare? Somehow, this hodge-podge of plundered plot points gelled into a fun, slam bang action film with a genuine comic book sensibility. Though lead actor Michael Sopkiw is pretty flat, George Eastman is charismatic as Big Ape and little person Louis Ecclesia has some touching moments as Shorty. The action scenes are well paced and shot, particularly the running battle in a yard full of abandoned buses. The colony of little people was a nice touch AND we get flamethrower shooting soldiers on horseback… How absurdly cool is that? Overall, it’s a solidly made funfest with a side order of cheese in the miniatures and futuristic car departments. During its theatrical release this gem actually got a rave review from the legendarily snobby Village Voice.
I know I was dismissive of The Asylum’s output of mockbusters, but hey, even a busted clock’s right twice a day. When Honest Abe finds out that zombies are lurking in Georgia, he and a team of experts go behind enemy lines to save the day. So what makes this worth four score and ten minutes of your time? I’ve seen the big budget inspiration Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter (2012) and honestly can’t remember a single thing about it, but for some reason this micro budget knockoff stuck with me. Its greatest strength is Bill Oberst’s heartfelt performance as Lincoln, including a stirring rendition of the Gettysburg Address. I think the effects team was auditioning some new ideas for the upcoming Z-Nation Television series, so there are some surprisingly slick zombie decapitations. Writer and director Richard Schenkman keeps the story cracking along with some clever plot twists. The only real disappointment is Stonewall Jackson’s dime store beard—it’s literally the only thing you see during his scenes. Ironically, this mockbuster managed to get released a few weeks before its big budget inspiration.
08- Return of the Vampire, 1943
It’s time to hop into the “Wayback Machine” for a trip back to the first golden age of horror. Actor Bela Lugosi became synonymous with Dracula, despite only playing the character in Dracula (1931) and Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). Unfortunately, after Dracula’s success Universal Pictures couldn’t figure out what to do with Lugosi, so his roles steadily diminished. By 1943 Universal was in their “mash up” period, teaming up their array of classic monsters in lower budget chillers like Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943), which reduced Lugosi to playing the mute Frankenstein monster. Meanwhile, rival studio Columbia Pictures decided to get in on the horror fun (and profit) with Return of the Vampire, hiring Lugosi to play a character that’s really Dracula by another name with a script that borrows heavily from Bram Stoker’s novel. Why is this one worth seeing? It’s an opportunity to see a still vibrant Bela Lugosi outshining his original Dracula performance as the regal vampire Armand Tesla—who’s really Dracula anyway. Lugosi’s surrounded by a solid cast (including a female Van Helsing!), big studio production values AND he even gets a werewolf sidekick. Within two years Lugosi would be slogging through low rent productions for Monogram and PRC, but Return of the Vampire was his final moment to bask in the full moon, and he’s so damn good it’s scary.
09- The Mighty Peking Man (aka Goliathon), 1977
In 1976, the Dino De Laurentiis produced remake of King Kong (1933) hit theaters, becoming a respectable if not earth-shattering hit. It starred a much ballyhooed but malfunctioning full size Kong robot and an uncredited Rick Baker in a gorilla suit. Due to budgetary concerns it didn’t inspire many American imitators, but Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers Studios decided to take a shot at it. So why watch this Hong Kong retread of an Italian remake of an American classic? Because The Mighty Peking Man is a hundred times more entertaining than De Laurentiis’ bloated extravaganza. The Mighty Peking Man marked a rare Shaw Brothers foray into giant monsters, which is surprising considering their previous effort, Super Inframan (1975), was amazing. Shaw’s film plunders King Kong’s premise but adds a female Tarzan to the mix. Samantha the Jungle Girl is played by the beautiful Evelyne Kraft, who wrestles tigers, rides elephants and swings through trees. But Kraft isn’t the only visual treat because the Shaws throw in tons of Toho worthy miniature effects. It’s a fast paced film with great production values, lots of Evelyne Kraft, a jaw droppingly grim finale and lots more Evelyne Kraft. What more could you want?
10- Pulgasari, 1985
Roger Corman may have admired George Lucas’ work but I bet he never contemplated kidnapping Lucas and forcing him to direct a film. That’s just what the late North Korean dictator/film buff Kim-Jong-il did back in 1978 when he hijacked esteemed South Korean film director Shin-Sang-Ok and dragged him off to Pyongyang. Being a big fan of Japanese Kaiju films Kim-Jong decided to make his own version of The Return of Godzilla (1984) with his hostage director at the helm. He also tricked Toho effects artists into working for him by claiming they were going to China and then shanghaiing them to North Korea. Though the script morphed into a weird tale set in feudal Korea, Pulgasari still qualifies as a knockoff because … well, Kim-Jung-il literally stole the people who made the film! Why should cowering imperialist running dogs like us watch it? Because it’s insane on every level—the production was insane, the storyline is insane AND the executive producer was truly mad—it’s the only monster movie made by an actual monster! The Toho supervised effects are delightfully horrendous, proving that people don’t always work harder with a gun at their back for a bowl of rice a day (thank you Jell-O Biafra) and the script is packed with more ham-fisted propaganda than a Joseph Stalin film festival. Isn’t it ironic that this monster movie is the only North Korean bomb that won’t give you nightmares?
That was my list of knockoffs. Some runners-up might include Grizzly (1976) because it’s a lot of fun and Piranha (1978), which is a minor classic. Also a quick shout out to those folks that scam children with falsely titled animated films like Chop Kick Panda (2011) and Frozen Land (2013)— come on, tricking children and overworked parents to make a few bucks? How do you sleep at night?
Please feel free to comment because if there’s another great piece of cinematic counterfeiting out there I’ve got to see it.