Who doesn’t love a shitty Mad Max ripoff? Well, probably all those people out there who, for some reason or another, don’t like substandard cinema. They will never understand the joy to be had in seeing an entire cast costumed in black leather and random bits of spray painted athletic gear. They will never appreciate the sublime rumble of vehicle chases through the desert featuring junk heap muscle cars with all sorts of doodads welded to them. Maybe, just maybe, they will find the inevitable anti-hero of the films a sympathetic character, but only because it’s a conceit that was part of film long before Max Rockatansky ever peeled away in the Pursuit Special.
My favorite Mad Max ripoffs are Italian, from filmmakers like Enzo G. Castellari or Lucio Fulci. Wheels of Fire, though, comes to viewers from the Philippines. Produced and directed by Cirio H. Santiago (Roger Corman was an uncredited executive producer), Wheels of Fire follows Max Rockatansky analogue Trace (Gary Watkins) as he navigates a post-apocalyptic wasteland of roving gangs, warlords, space cults, cannibal dwarves, psychic chicks, self righteous armies, and lots and lots of rape.
Trace has all the Mad Max bona fides. He’s a loner, just like Max. He wears black leather pants, just like Max. He drives a muscle car, just like Max (Trace drives a ’69 Mustang fastback that has seen better days, but, in 1985, when this film was released, those cars weren’t nearly as precious as they are today.). Most importantly for the plot, and so audiences won’t turn on him, Trace has an uncontrollable urge to help people, often to his own detriment, just like Max.
Trace’s nemesis in this film is evil warlord Scourge (Joe Mari Avellana), who leads a gang of highwaymen that lay in ambush on the roads or raids settlements of nice people for supplies. Trace would like nothing to do with these folks, but they went and kidnapped his sister, Arlie (Lynda Wiesmeier), stole her car (a bitchin’ 1970 Ford Torino GT), and killed her boyfriend.
Wiesmeier had the most difficult role in the film. Just about all she does is get raped by bandits. The rape is all implied, thank goodness, but Lynda spends a huge amount of time in this flick with her breasts flapping about, whether she’s running from bad guys, trying to fend off bad guys, or being strapped to the hood of a moving car by bad guys. Wiesmeier has the highest topless per frames appeared average for a main cast member one will see outside of porn. Trust me, that’s a legit next gen shitty movie stat. I salute Wiesmeier for being game for an awful role.
Trace gets an ally in fellow wasteland wanderer Stinger (Laura Banks). Together they rescue the aforementioned psychic chick (Linda Grovenor) from the aforementioned cannibal dwarves, get in a bunch of rad car chases, shoot many guns, fry bad guys with flamethrowers, and eventually piss off Scourge enough for there to be an explosive finale.
The film has little plot, instead relying on set piece action. It hammers the viewer with action scenes over and over again, all filmed in a seemingly endless stream of played out Filipino strip mines, and an old Spanish colonial fort. There’s a car chase, followed by a gunfight, then a motorcycle chase, a hand-to-hand fight scene, another car chase and gunfight, some explosions, an interlude with some more rape, then rinse, and repeat. The pace is relentless, and welcome when compared to other Mad Max ripoffs.
The scale and ambition of Santiago’s film is what impresses. Despite this being a low-budget b-movie, he knew what he was doing. Who knew what he could have accomplished had he ever been given an opportunity at the big time in Hollywood? What I, and viewers of this film, know, is that this shitty movie is a raucous journey. It ain’t all that good, but it sure is fun. Wheels of Fire jumps into the top 100 of the Shitty Movie Sundays Watchability Index, displacing Halloween II at #74. It’s shitty gold.