Michael Sopkiw had a brief acting career, appearing as the lead in a number of Italian genre movies in the mid-1980s before retiring from cinema to become a plant scientist. Though he didn’t appear in any films you’d call objectively good, he usually added a little something to the cheesy schlock that was his stock in trade, usually due to his knack for giving the impression of buying into the situation much more convincingly than his often rather lackadaisical co-stars.
I’ve previously covered his debut, 2019: After the Fall of New York. Another movie of his, Devil Fish, was the subject of a memorable Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode which kind of covered all you need to know about it. His other two, I’m going to review below, starting… now!
Ex-cop Jake “Tiger” Sharp (Sopkiw) is released from prison and is immediately picked up by his buddy Jerry (uncredited) – who gives him a car, a brand new sci-fi super-shotgun (basically a SPAS-12 with a futuristic scope on it and the ability to shoot a bewildering array of different types of ammo) and the opportunity to assassinate the corrupt lawyer who put him behind bars in the first place. Deciding getting revenge isn’t worth going straight back to jail, Tiger decides to take the car off to his Appalachian mountain cabin to get some peace and quiet to come to terms with the memories that haunt him – of the killings of his partner on the force and of his wife, and the jail term he served after taking down his wife’s killer (having killed the guy without finding evidence that he was actually responsible).
Unfortunately, the outside world won’t leave Tiger alone, and when a group of poachers encroaches on Tiger’s turf, it kicks off a feud which eventually escalates to murderous violence…
Apparently this was originally going to be another SF number, but they decided to ditch all the SF stuff except the special gun for budget reasons. The recent release of First Blood may have also had an influence here; the super-shotgun spends most of the movie stashed under the floorboards of Tiger’s cabin, so a good chunk of the movie consists of similar “manhunt in some American woodland”, with the twist that this time it’s an ex-cop chased by rednecks rather than an ex-soldier chased by cops.
An attempt is made to reinforce the southern-fried feel of the movie by way of the soundtrack by Fabio Frizzi – a mixture of generic disco-ish synthesiser tracks and bluegrass ranges from the generically inoffensive to the obnoxious. (Frizzi was credited here as Andrew Barrymore, so either he wanted to give this the Alan Smithee treatment or they wanted to limit the number of Italian names in the credits.)
The super-gun is only retrieved 10 minutes before the end of the movie, so buyer beware: this contains little in the way of actual blastfighting, but that doesn’t mean that the movie is entirely absent of action – this is literally one of those movies where a truck rolls a brief way down an incline, hits a tree, and explodes immediately.
Some of this action is outright inexplicable. Tiger’s strategy for avoiding being shot seems to be to do a lot of jumping forward rolls, like he’s Sonic the Hedgehog or something. There’s also the bit where a random woman (played by Valentina Forte) shows up at the cabin and sleeps over and Tiger wants nothing to do with her because she’s a random weird stranger so he decides to drive her into town, only someone’s cut his brakes and he’s going downhill down this steep mountain road – all very exciting, slightly spoiled by the sound of him very obviously using the accelerator on the soundtrack (which is extra crazy because the Italian movie industry has no qualms about dubbing), and why would you ever accelerate in such a situation?
Oh, and it turns out the woman is Tiger’s daughter Connie, but she was really weird about waiting around to say who she was.
That said, other parts of the movie are more effective. The segment where the poachers roll flaming barrels of oil downhill to attack the location where Connie (Valentina Forte), her boyfriend Pete (Michele Soavi), and Jerry have set up camp is genuinely terrifying, all darkness and flames and screaming. Likewise, Tiger and Connie’s desperate bid to escape from the poachers after Jerry and Pete have been killed is incredibly tense, especially the part where the two of them tentatively make their way across a raging waterfall on foot.
There’s also a George Eastman appearance – often the saving grace of what would otherwise have been utterly forgettable Italian genre movies. Eastman plays Tom, the local sawmill owner and therefore the big man in town, and a former childhood friend of Tiger’s. The only problem is that Tom is also the older brother of Wally (Stefano Mingando), the leader of the poachers, and regards the poaching as a nice little earner for the town, given the prices some of the animal parts are able to find in, say, the Traditional Chinese Medicine market.
Eastman and Sopkiw’s interactions were a highlight of After the Fall of New York, and they do a good job of conveying a somewhat more nuanced and realistic chemistry here. The characters clearly like each other, even though they disagree on some stuff, and in a rare instance in an action movie Tiger even at one point decides to cut a deal with Tom to just leave the area (which he has no major stake in anyway) for the sake of a quiet life in return for being left alone… unfortunately, this coincides with the poachers ambushing Tiger’s friends, with the result that the peace reached can’t last.
For his part, Eastman does a great job of playing Tom as a somewhat conflicted villain. On the one hand, he’s clearly exasperated with Wally’s boneheaded aggression and regrets the feud it’s caused; on the other hand, like many big brothers he feels protective of his younger sibling, and Tiger is trying to fuck up the local gravy train. Between them, Eastman and Sopkiw manage to carve out something interesting in the midst of all this nonsense.
And believe me, this is mostly nonsense, replete the sort of clumsiness that director Lamberto Bava would also bring to his other 1984 collaboration with Sopkiw, Devil Fish. In particular, the whole “corrupt lawyer” thing – which was made out to be a crucial motivator at the start of the movie – literally never comes up again after the opening scenes except in flashbacks, of which there are a bunch. It’s like they started to make a completely different movie with a different plot, changed their minds, and used what they’d shot so far for the flashbacks.
Massacre In Dinosaur Valley
In a sleepy backwater Brazilian town a quirky selection of characters take a charter plane flown by Josè (Joffre Soares). Professor Pedro Ibañez (Leonidas Bayer) and his daughter Eva (Suzane Carvalho) arranged the flight, and maverick archaeological bone-hunter Kevin Hall (Sopkiw) managed to get a spot by flattering the Professor’s academic credentials. Also along for the ride is washed-up retired Green Beret Captain John Heinz (Milton Rodriguez) and his wife Betty (Marta Anderson) who constantly belittles him, and “fashion” (maybe porn) photographer Robbie (Roberto Roney, looking astonishingly like Freddie Mercury) and his two models Monica (Maria Reis) and Belinda (Susan Hahn).
Enroute to their final destination, they plan on making a stopover at the Valley of the Dinosaurs – the Professor having persuaded Josè to make this mild diversion in order to seek fossils. Unfortunately, the plane crashes in the vicinity of the valley, killing Josè and Monica on impact and mortally wounding the Professor, who bleeds out within minutes. Worse yet, the valley is very remote, being in the middle of a reservation for the Amazonian tribes – the local one having a particularly fearsome reputation. There’s no local help to be expected, the radio is broken, and because they are not strictly meant to be here, they didn’t tell the authorities about their planned diversion – meaning that even when the authorities realise the plane is missing, they won’t search in the right place.
There is nothing for it: to survive, the remaining passengers must journey through the rainforest on foot. At first Captain Heinz takes charge, though it soon becomes apparent that Kevin is no slouch when it comes to jungle survival either. And that’s good, because they’ll not only have to tangle with the local cannibals and natural hazards, but the tyrannical China (Carlos Imperial), the brutal boss of a gemstone mining operation; China’s mine makes extensive use of slave labour (perhaps contributing to the indigenous locals’ hostility), and he sees the party as yet more free labour…
This was Sopkiw’s career swansong. He did a small cameo role decades later, but he gave up on making a go of acting after this. I can see why; this is not something anyone can be particularly proud of being in. This is evident from early on, in the comedy bar brawl scene at the beginning after Hall tries to help out the models when a drunk local bothers them.
In a general movie of this type, the harassment would involve nasty talk and possibly a bit of grabbing; here director Michele Massimo Tarantini has no qualms about having a random dude just yank down Monica’s top to get a good look at her boobs. Then later, we have a bit where Hall leers at Eva without her knowledge when she’s in the bath. Then we have a bit where Captain Heinz isn’t shy about leching on Eva and Belinda after they get their tops wet in a river and their boobs are highly visible.
Yes, of all the movies associated with the Italian “cannibal movie” cycle, this is the Porky‘s of the bunch, replete with an utterly juvenile sense of sexuality which a horny 13 year old might find transgressive but which just seems tawdry and empty. It keeps resorting to cheap titillation bordering on softcore porn, right down to Belinda letting China’s aggressive lesbian assistant Myara (Gloria Cristal) bang her in return for a chance at escape. China’s rape of Eva late in the movie is particularly violent and nasty.
When it isn’t being unnecessarily and incongruously horny, Massacre In Dinosaur Valley is ripping off other jungle adventure material; for instance, there’s a scene where they literally just do the “chopping the heel off the shoe” bit from Romancing the Stone. As the Amazonians kill Captain Heinz he yells about “gooks”, which I think happens because lots of Vietnam movies have characters using that slurt a lot. Sopkiw’s character is basically a sort of Indiana Jones/Jack Colton type, with a slight emphasis on the latter because Romancing the Stone came out the previous year and, if you hadn’t guessed from the shoe thing, this movie is not shy about ripping it off.
What it doesn’t rip off, despite the title, is any movie featuring dinosaurs. Yes, to avoid anyone being disappointed, let the record show that there are no dinosaur attacks in this movie, making it an utter waste of a title. The most you get is a shaman in a triceratops skull who uses a glove with dinosaur claws on it to rake the flesh of Belinda. Perhaps we are meant to believe that the tribe encountered dinosaurs back in the day and are doing these rites in recollection of that, but the idea isn’t developed at all before Kevin just starts tossing grenades into the ritual and blasting tribespeople with a shotgun.
This is kind of indicative of the movie’s problem: occasionally it will step on an interesting concept, like a culture who has an oral tradition of long-ago encounters with dinosaurs or a slave labour-driven mining operation that the survivors of a plane crash have to contend with, but none of them have the space to be properly explored because it’s trying to cram in more stuff than they are really capable of doing justice to.
Then again, the cast and crew don’t seem to be good when it comes to thinking through the details, because when they do they make some utterly wild mistakes. Robbie gets his leg nommed down to the bone by piranhas; Kevin just stands about in the exact same body of water watching what is going on, and then Kevin and Captain Heinz fall in the water as they have a fight about it (Heinz killed Robbie to stop his screams attracting trouble, Kevin thinks, not unreasonably, it is a bit harsh). The piranhas don’t bite again. This is astonishingly weird; even if we were to assume that the piranhas were sated with just a little leg meat and weren’t interested in the others, the fact that Kevin just dawdles around in the water when he knows there’s piranhas in it is absurd. Wouldn’t you immediately get good and clear of the water as soon as you saw that happened?
The depiction of the Amazonian tribe is a mashup of crappy colonial adventure fiction tropes and stuff which might be a bit more authentic but, frankly, I don’t trust Italian genre movies in general to get this right. The “cannibal” sequence involves a lot of undressing of the female leads and many boob shots and not much in the way of actual cannibalism, which didn’t stop the movie being marketed by some as Cannibal Ferox II, but in general the indigenous folk are a red herring – despite being talked up a lot in the earlier parts of the movie, they’re largely a secondary threat, a roadbump on the way to the main antagonists – China and his cronies. Rather than tossing their spears in a manner which would actually be dangerous, the Amazonians just sort of chuck them sideways uselessly. The group would be in real trouble if they ever ran into a tribe that actually wanted to kill them.
The mining camp sequence is perhaps the most frustrating bit, because it combines some of the sleaziest and nastiest material in the movie (Belinda getting raped by Myara, Eva getting raped by China) with some actually interesting stuff arising from the fact that the people running the camp are actual characters rather than utter ciphers.
I particularly liked the wonderfully melodramatic villain-sidekick moment where Myara pretends to be giving Belinda her promised chance to escape – but in fact just set her up to get shot in the back by China, and it’s pretty evident that this is a form of fun for them. With so many Megatron-Starscream type pairings in villain organisations in genre fiction, where the big boss can’t trust their sidekick, there’s a certain fun in seeing an abusive organisation where it’s like that not just because the main person in charge likes it that way, but because the leadership in general are assholes and the sidekick supports the boss because the boss lets the sidekick get what they want.
Then again, even the mining camp bit falls apart under the weight of a bunch of stuff that doesn’t make sense. “China”‘s name is pronounced “Cheena” but on the soundtrack it keeps sounding like he’s being called “Cheetah” or, at some points, “Cheeto”. Kevin frees all the slaves, only for them to run into China’s supervisors, who then kill them all. It’s in aid of setting a trap for the supervisors, but it feels like it’d have come out better if Kevin had let Eva and the slaves in on his plan.
Eva forgets she’s been raped by China, and then fired at by shotguns by China’s goons due to Kevin leaving her in the cage in the mining camp, awfully easily. In the end of the movie she and Kevin are all smiles and quips because they got away with a bunch of emeralds – apparently forgetting that a) this wasn’t Romancing the Stone, emerald acquisition wasn’t the point of this exercise and b) they have just been through astonishing trauma and Eva’s had her dad die in her arms, watched several other people get killed, and been violently raped.
Then there’s the animal stuff. Kevin escapes from the pig pen because one of the friendly piggies decides to gnaw at the rope on his wrists enough to break it, but doesn’t gnaw on him, despite these being the sort of piggies human beings get fed to when murderers want to get rid of evidence. Thank you, piggy! Kevin beats China by throwing a bag with a rattlesnake in at him, forcing China to waste his last shot not shooting Kevin, but the rattlesnake… which… which China could just walk away from. Seriously, the rattler isn’t aggressively coming at him, it’s just sat on a rock going “hss hss I just got hella thrown around in a bag and I’m mad about it hss”.
Massacre In Dinosaur Valley will disappoint everyone. I got my copy because I got in on the 88 Films Indiegogo campaign to restore a clutch of Italian genre movies of the era, including Aenigma and Absurd. This means my name is in the credits of the restoration, because they tacked on a continuation of the credits to thank the contributors. I’m sorry, folks – I didn’t know this movie existed before the campaign, I wish I didn’t know now, and I backed the campaign with the intent of getting access to some rare Fulci rather than looking into Massacre itself. It’s my fault, gang. This one’s on me.