Never let it be said Italian trashmeister Joe D’Amato (a.k.a. Aristide Massaccesi) did not know how to kick off an exploitation movie. Over the opening credits of 2020 Texas Gladiators some guy gets an axe in his head as an outlaw gang set to raping-and-a-murdering a group of nuns for maximum tastelessness. It is the year 2020 (natch) where, following an unspecified apocalypse, Texas has gone to hell in a handbasket. Our bare-chested heroes are the Rangers, including Nexus (Al Cliver), Halakron (Peter Hooten), mute ninja Red Wolfe (Al Yamanouchi) and crazy-haired clown Jab (Harrison Muller Jr.) who exact violent retribution upon the outlaws. When Nexus catches rogue ranger Catch Dog (Daniel Stephen) trying to molest beautiful Maida (Sabrina Siani), he expels him from the group.
Years later, the now happily married Nexus and Maida live with their young daughter as part of a peaceful commune attempting to fashion a new energy source, when who should happen along but their old pal Catch Dog with his punk rock biker gang. At first the homesteaders hold their own but then Catch Dog’s boss, crazed dictator Black One (Donald O’Brien) rolls out his army of stormtroopers with hi-tech firepower and bulletproof shields.
The global success of The Road Warrior (1981) and Escape from New York (1981) might be responsible for kicking off the Italian post-apocalypse action film boom, but the genre as a whole has its roots in the western. Among the more likeable genre entries, 2020 Texas Gladiators extends its western motifs further than most, envisioning a lone star state catapulted back to the mythic west of bar room brawls, rural communities, roaming outlaws, wandering cowboys upholding justice and even Native Americans living out in the forest rather than running casinos. It is a throwback to old-fashioned horse operas only, y’know, with more ultra-violence, neo-Nazis and gang rape. So, not like your average Roy Rogers film, then...
Although D’Amato received sole directorial credit, a significant portion of the film was actually helmed by his regular collaborator, actor-screenwriter George Eastman (a.ka. Luigi Montefiori). Opinions differ as to whether D’Amato stepped in to beef up an Eastman project somewhat lacking in action or whether the latter came on board to improvise new scenes bolstering the anaemic drama. Its patchwork production history is apparent from the sloppy storytelling that takes great leaps forward in time, drops promising plot strands, casually kills off major characters with the impatience of a child afflicted with attention deficit disorder, and generally implies D’Amato and Eastman were making the whole thing up as they went along. Compared with Endgame (1983), the duo’s inventive earlier post-apocalypse science fiction adventure, this is a lesser work yet on its own crackpot terms proves thematically consistent, developing from Maida’s early statement that an eye for an eye is no way to rebuild a civilisation, though it remains foremost a dumb action movie.
D’Amato reduces the plot to a series of extended sieges and stand-offs with solid motorcycle stunts and punch-ups. Amidst all the depravity (forced fellatio, gay rape, piss jokes) and lunacy (bullets can’t pierce the evildoers’ hi-tech shields, but arrows do?!), the film retains a mildly philosophical bent that is almost endearing. All the players are stalwarts of Italian exploitation. Top-billed Al Cliver takes a surprisingly early exit, leaving Peter Hooten as goofy but likeably earnest hero alongside sword and sorcery regular Sabrina Siani who smoulders sexily in her buckskin minidress, blasting bad guys. The very definition of a guilty pleasure.