If you were an Italian genre filmmaker who could get a production going in the first half of the ’80s, chances were you’d end up making a post-apocalyptic action quickie at some point. Between Escape From New York and The Road Warrior, there was a demand in the international film marketplace for such productions – and with their limited production design requirements and reliance on action, you didn’t need a lot of funding to produce one.
Even Aristide Massaccesi, a.k.a. “Joe D’Amato,” got in on the hijinks. He was better known for horror and sexploitation material as a director but he knocked out a few of these post-apoc actioners when the market was hot for them. His best work in this arena is Endgame, an engaging potboiler penned by star and regular D’Amato collaborator “George Eastman”/Luigi Montefiori. It was one of the cheaper-budgeted entries in this cycle, even by Italian quickie standards, but it’s also bursting with ideas and energy.
The plot setup for Endgame anticipates the film version of The Running Man, presenting the viewer with a post-nuclear war future where the survivors all watch a government-sponsored reality show competition where gladiator-style competitors fight to the death. The current champion of the show is Ron Shannon (Al Cliver), who must defend his life in the latest edition from all competitors, including top rival Kurt Karnak (Eastman).
However, Ron finds a new challenge when he crosses paths with Lilith (Laura Gemser), a telepathic mutant whose very existence is outlawed by the government. She seeks safe passage for herself and her fellow mutants to a land beyond the government’s reach and is willing to pay. Unfortunately, getting there requires traveling through a wasteland full of killer outlaws. Ron takes the gig, venturing into the outlands with the mutants and a hand-picked team of fighters. The road ahead is full of killers and the government forces at are hot on their trail, not to mention Karnak…
The story of Italian genre film, particularly the horror and sci-fi varieties, is about being crafty enough to do a lot with a little. That’s exactly what D’Amato and Eastman achieve with Endgame. The reliance on crumbling old buildings and the great outdoors for scenery let you know the budget was slim but D’Amato, who earned his stripes as a cinematographer, knows how to light and frame his landscapes to achieve plenty of atmosphere, aided by a synthy, occasionally Vangelis-ish score by Carlo Maria Cordio. His action isn’t choreographed with the precision you get from an Enzo Castellari flick but D’Amato piles it on steadily, gradually building to epic scenes involving bikers and soldiers.
Better yet, D’Amato has a script full of ideas to work with. In most films like this, the ahead-of-its-time ‘lethal game show’ conceit would be the entire scenario of the film. In Endgame, it’s just the first act. Eastman continues from there with a fun, episodic storyline that is paced by plenty of action: Schlockmania’s favorite example is when the caravan has a run in with a group of blind psychopathic monks who utilize a telepathic mutant prisoner as their “eyes.” Eastman also embroiders the between-action beats with endearingly quirky ideas: for example, we learn that radiation has caused positive mutations like Lilith and her telepathic friends but it has also caused a kind of de-evolutionary mutation in outlanders who are reverting from humanity back to animal predecessors like apes and fish (represented by cheap but cheerful prosthetics).
The final touch is a well-chosen cast of Italo-exploitation stalwarts to populate the film’s comic book scenario. Cliver might seem odd casting at first blush but he does a subtly effective work as a man who has survived in a post-nuclear world because he can bluff his way through with an emotional remoteness. Eastman makes a lively rival, delivering his usual darkly charismatic presence in a role that is more complex than it might first seem.
The supporting ensemble is full of familiar faces for Italian genre fans: Black Emanuelle star and regular D’Amato collaborator Gemser is the most notable, enjoying a dramatic role with less nudity than usual, but you also get Gabriele Tinti as one of Ron’s hired fighters, ex-peplum star Gordon Mitchell as the leader of the military fascists, Demons star Bobby Rhodes as one of the game show fighters and Hal Yamanouchi, a regular in Italian post-apoc epics, as the badass silent fighter of the mutant transport team.
In short, Endgame offsets its tight budget with plenty of inventiveness in the script and behind the camera. The result dishes up sci-fi pulp fun by the pound, delivered with the kind of ’80s retro-futuristic flair that fans of Italian genre fare revel in. If you’re doing a tour of Italian post-apocalyptic flicks, this needs to be on your list.
Blu-Ray Notes: the title was missing in action for a few decades in the U.S. after the VHS era but has made its American high-def debut via a new blu-ray from Severin. The results are impressive for anyone who grew up on the fuzzy VHS version of this title, showing off D’Amato’s moody visuals with a clarity that shows the care in their photography. There’s also a fun interview with the typically irreverent Eastman – and if you hunt down the limited edition, it also includes a CD of the Cordio score.