A remote desert town becomes a Petri dish for a sadistic scientist working on a chemical weapon in this chiller which borrows liberally from George Romero’s “The Crazies” as well as westerns.
The film begins with an eerie scene that takes place just outside the town of Canyonland (actually Moab, Utah). An albino scientist fiddles with his computer inside a dark van while a cadre of mercenaries stand at attention. The scientist then places a vial of green serum inside a bulky pistol and aims at the town’s reservoir.
Before he can take aim, a pickup truck approaches and everything stops. The truck’s driver turns out to be an amiable fellow who shouts “howdy” and inquires if they are making a movie before the mercenaries fill him with so much lead that Superman couldn’t see through him. They calmly roll his truck into the water as the scientist proceeds to infect the town’s water supply by discharging his awkward pistol’s contents into the drink.
In the next shot it’s morning and we meet three outsiders who have picked the worst day to stop in Canyonland. The group consists of an obnoxious entertainment attorney named Ken, his trophy blonde wife Cheri and hitchhiker (and disgraced cop) Riley. They stop for a hot breakfast and are treated to a bizarre floor show when a customer named Charlie succumbs to the poisoned water and proceeds to nail his waiter’s hand to the counter with a hunting knife.
Despite the fact that Charlie isn’t as young as he used to be, he makes a meal out of Ken, Riley and responding deputy Julie until Riley hobbles him with a bullet in the knee. While the trio recount their story to Sheriff Hanks (Julie’s dad), Charlie crawls into the front of a cruiser and continues his rampage. After Charlie is brought to bear (with a well-placed head shot courtesy of Hanks), everyone compares notes.
The group establishes that similar things are happening all over town and that the attackers appear to have enhanced strength, a reckless disregard for life and spurt green goo when shot. The source of the contamination becomes clear when Cheri goes bonkers and it is established that she was the only one to drink the water at the restaurant. Hanks keeps his mouth shut when asked if he had any water, but the audience knows he helped himself to a pot of fresh brew before leaving the house.
The sheriff decides to take immediate action and assigns the men to searching one-half of town while he takes the other. He wisely instructs Julie to cruise through town and use her unit’s PA system to warn everyone to stay away from the water. He then visits the hospital and has the staff there restrain anyone suffering and pump them full of tranquilizers.
Unfortunately, a few people have already lost it and it’s down to Julie and the new guys to restore order as the citizens of Canyonland try to take each other out. This leads to a tense montage of shootings, stabbings and really awful road rage (don’t drive angry folks). The trio rein everything in and then decide to bunker down and wait for whoever is behind the mess to come down and check the results.
It’s not a long wait as a black van cruises into town shortly after nightfall to start incinerating everything in sight. Sheriff Hanks continues to use his head (what’s left of it, that is) and opts to lead the van into a local drive-in, where they can spotlight the bad guys and shoot them like ducks in a barrel.
Once again the plan works well until the sheriff loses it and charges out into the fray. He is lit up like a Roman candle, but he does manage to hurl his burning body into the villain’s van, which then explodes as if on cue.
Deputy Julie hands Reilly her dad’s star and the film becomes an homage to every western, as he leads them on horseback into the hills to find what’s left of the bad guys. Several dust kicking shootouts ensue as this hurtles towards an old-fashioned duel between the new sheriff and the albino (that’s how’s he’s named in the credits). It’s a good showdown that is enhanced by a second showdown between the mercenaries’ chopper and an Army transport that arrives in the nick of time.
Mixing genres doesn’t always work but director Niko Mastorakis manages to infuse the paranoia of a Romero thriller with the righteous gunslinging of a John Ford western and make it work. He also doesn’t fool around when it comes to casting and fills this movie with of the best B-movie stalwarts that were working in 1987. George Kennedy tops the list as Sheriff Hanks and once again injects a realistic portrayal into the middle of a ridiculous story (as he did in all the “Airport” movies).
Wings Hauser also does well as the arrogant yet humorous Ken. It’s nowhere near the level of work he did as Ramrod (the brutal pimp in “Vice Squad”), but he manages to make Ken the kind of snob you can put up with for a protracted period before giving in to the urge to spread his nose all over his face.
Bo Hopkins does a fair job as Riley, though his minimalist acting techniques work better when he’s around scene stealers like the cast of “The Wild Bunch” or Steve McQueen in “The Getaway.”
You also have to give credit to veteran bad guy Brion James (Leon in “Blade Runner”) as the albino. He manages to be sinister and a formidable bad guy despite the fact that he’s never given any dialogue, sinister or otherwise.
This one also sports some impressive photography and scenes of utter chaos as the townies succumb to the toxin in their water.
If you like western sensibilities and hardcore horror, then you might want to check out this blend which delivers on the light entertainment front.
Best line: “People in this town don’t go around using each other for target practice.”
1987, rated R.