Once Quentin Tarantino gained an industry foothold as a new, unique voice in cinema, he set forth to pay tribute to his celluloid senseis—beyond the homage-plethoras within his own films—and the video store candy that served as his “film school” and shaped his cinematic philosophies. Courtesy of the enthusiastic backing of the Brothers Weinstein, Tarantino created the Miramax-distributed specialty imprint, Rolling Thunder. He named the newly-minted company after his favorite film (well, one of them) and one of the ‘70s hicksploitation cannons’ finest volleys: Rolling Thunder, penned by Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver) and directed by John Flynn (Brainscan).
The company’s edict: To create a new theatrical experience for films that fellow film buffs knew only through their VHS incarnations—or maybe not at all. The initial plan: Release four films a year; those plans were stymied when Miramax began taking on losses as the films released by Rolling Thunder were not generating enough critical or box office interest.
During their 1995 to 1998 existence, Rolling Thunder reissued six films: Lucio Fulci’s stomach churner, The Beyond, Wong Kar-wai’s introspective crime drama, Chunking Express, Arthur Mark’s Blaxploitation romp, Detroit 9000, the Shaw Brother’s King Kong rip, The Mighty Peking Man, Takeshi’s Kitano’s yakuza drama, Sonatine, and Jack Hill’s juvenile delinquent potboiler, Switchblade Sisters.
In addition to reissuing those favorites from his video store youth, Rolling Thunder branched into original works featuring scripts Tarantino felt had unique qualities and deserved to be seen: Hard Core Logo, a Spinal Tap-influenced, mock-docudrama concerning a once-popular Canadian punk band, and Curdled, about a female crime scene cleanup worker tracking a serial killer (starring Pittsburgh native Angela Jones, who played the same character in Pulp Fiction, but drove a cab with Bruce Willis in the back seat). Keeping with Tarantino’s kung-fu roots, Rolling Thunder also supported Jet Li’s 1994 remake of Bruce Lee’s 1972 classic, Fist of Fury, known as Fist of Legend.
So, for B&S Movies “Tarantino Week,” let’s take a look at the films Quentin jockeyed as a video clerk and emulated with his later films.
The Beyond—much cooler in its Italian-vernacular title of E Tu Vivrai Nel Terrore! L’aldilà (And You Will Live In Terror! The Afterlife)—is a 1981 supernatural horror film released in the U.S (and criminally edited) as 7 Doors of Death; the film serves as the second film in Lucio Fulci’s “Gates of Hell” trilogy and it’s bookended by City of the Living Dead and The House by the Cemetery. The 1995 reissue to the silver screen and DVD served as Rolling Thunder’s christening.
If you need a deeper explanation to this film’s insane craziness, as well Fulci’s eye-injury fetishism (Fulci likes eyes, Tarantino likes feet), then read the full B&S Movies’ review.
Chungking Express, while released in 1994 in its native Hong Kong, received a limited theatrical run in North America in 1996—courtesy of Rolling Thunder. The imprint’s subsequent DVD features bookmark-commentary vignettes by Tarantino discussing Wong Kar-wai’s body of work. Criterion Collection reissued the film to DVD in 2008, but the Tarantino accouterments are not included.
The story concerns the love and loss of two Hong Kong Policemen: “Cop 223” (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and “Cop 663” (Tony Leung). In the first tale, Kaneshiro’s obsession over his recent breakup leads to his romantic involvement with a drug smuggler. In the second tale, Leung deals with the breakup of his flight attendant girlfriend and he begins to travel the wrong path. Both are linked by their mutual relationship with Faye (played by the “Heavenly Queen” of Chinese/Canto-pop, Faye Wong) who works at the Midnight Express food stand.
Detroit 9000 is a 1973 blaxploitation response to the likes of the successful crime dramas Magnum Force and Bullit. The film stars the gravely-voiced Alex Rocco, best known for his portrayal of Moe Greene in The Godfather, who teams with an educated, yet streetwise black detective to investigate the half-million-dollar theft from a black candidate’s political fundraiser. Are there lots of car chases and shootouts? You bet—with a final, bullet-strewn confrontation in Detroit’s Elmwood Cemetery.
Rolling Thunder reissued the film to theatres in 1998, then to video in 1999. In 2013 the film was reissued by Lionsgate as part of their “Rolling Thunder Triple-Pack” tribute with Switchblade Sisters and The Mighty Peking Man.
The Mighty Peking Man is a 1977 monster film whose Mandarin title, Xingxing Wang, translates as “Gorilla King” in English. Yep, you guessed it: made to cash in on the 1976 King Kong remake. While Rolling Thunder reissued the film in 1998, it initially rolled out as a second-biller on the U.S Drive-In circuit in 1980. It’s the same old story featuring greedy explorers who exploit a very large Himalayan Yeti—with a twist: Peking Man raised a beautiful, Tarzaneque woman orphaned in a plane crash who pals around the jungle with a pet leopard. The climax: The Peking Man takes a header off Hong Kong’s Jardine Tower in a hail of helicopter gunfire and jet bombers.
In a production twist only a B&S Movies reader can love: Koichi Kawaktia, the film’s assistant director, later worked on Yonggary, the 1999 South Korean remake by Hyung-rae Shims of Yongary, Monster from the Deep (1967). The film’s co-scripter is Marty Poole, who wrote the 1997 Richard Lynch-fronted Rollerball homage, Ground Rules.
Sonatine is a 1993 Japanese yakuza gangster-noir written, directed, and edited by Takeshi Kitano and inspired by Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. Kitano stars as a burnt-out yakuza enforcer who discovers his newfound, lackadaisical attitude towards his profession has led to his bosses wanting to get rid of him.
The film found its way to U.S screens in 1998 and video in 2000 through Rolling Thunder.
Switchblade Sisters is a 1975 teen exploitation film concerning an all-female high school gang, the Dagger Debs; the film also made the rounds on video and television as The Jezebels. The usual street brawls and lesbian prison warden hijinks ensue.
How wild is this movie? According to the accompanying Rolling Thunder-issued commentary tracks, Jack Hill states William Shakespeare’s Othello served as the film’s framework and Patch, played by the eye-patched Monica Gaye (Nashville Girl; part of the ‘70s hicksploitation cycle), is modeled after the play’s main protagonist, Iago. Hill even incorporated elements of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead as narrative inspiration. So give Quentin’s Kill Bill another watch and you’ll see the analogous qualities between his Elle Driver and Beatrix Kiddo and Hill’s Patch and Maggie characters.
Sadly, Hill’s bad girls romp served as Rolling Thunder’s final reissue.
If not for the Miramax-Rolling Thunder fallout, who knows what films Tarantino would have released? Well, B&S Movies has a pretty good idea. Check out The 37 Films That Makeup Kill Bill. There’s not a doubt that more than one of these films would have ended up on the Rolling Thunder release schedule.
So, if Quentin holds true to his recent decree of not making any more films after his 10th film, you still have several years of “film archives” to enjoy—all thanks to a fellow movie dork behind the counter slingin’ the VHS at Video Archives in Manhattan Beach, California.
“If you like my stuff, you can look at it as, this is where mine came from.”