The Survivalist (1987)

Let’s not beat around the radioactive bush and go straight to the Def-Cons.

The Def-Con 3 caveat: Contrary to the VHS cover, the Russians do not “strike back.” Not by missiles. Not by a Red Dawn or Invasion USA invasion. It’s just Americans fighting Americans. There’s no Russian collusion; the enemy is within: his name is John Tillman.

The Def-Con 2 caveat: Don’t let the bogus post-apocalypse marketing and the multiple-alternate art works fool you. This isn’t a Mad Max swindle. This is a straight-up First Blood double-crosswith a pinch of Panic in the Year Zero (1962) and a love-triangle dash of The World, the Flesh, and the Devil (1958) because, well, you have to have a sex scene where a guy, whose wife’s dead body isn’t even coldand facing the end of the world—must shimmy-sham his best friend’s wife. (Way to elicit our sympathies, John Rambo, uh, I mean, John Tillman.)

The Def-Con 1 caveat: I grew up reading the long-running, best-selling pulp-paperback series Mack Bolan: The Executioner. I also read a few of Jerry Ahern’s entertaining knock-off, The Survivalist, which concerns John Rourke, an ex-CIA operative turned weapons and survival expert, in the aftermath of a nuclear war. This run-of-the-mill action-film swindle is a straight-up double-cross. It’s not an adaptation of The Survivalist books (issue #1), as the producers faux-lead us to believe—although the film tells the exact same book-story. This Sly Stallone and Jerry Ahern screw job couldn’t be a more blatant copyright infringement if it was The Running Man sticking it to novelist Robert Sheckley’s (The 10th Victim) The Prize of Peril.

So, in a non-budget that wouldn’t cover the day’s catering bill on First Bloodor finance a day’s shooting on a Cirio H. Santiago Rambo-knock offthis post-non-apocalypse has no choice but to be set in the present with the same ol’ cars, architecture, and weapons . . . and a red text-on-black screen opening title sequence, followed by more words-on-screen telling us where we are, followed by National Guard maneuvers stock footage spliced-in with mushroom cloud stock footage, backed by voice-over narration, followed by more-words-on-screen telling us where we are.

We know where we are: Rambo land sans Stallone to class up the joint—and no Mark Gregory to Trash up the Bronx.

Wait a minute. I’m acting like a dickhead doomsayer loading in cases of Bandit and Snowman-smuggled Coors (we’re in Texas, after all), powdered milk and porno-mags into a 50-megaton bunker. This is a B&S Movies’ movie. This is one of your movies.

The Survivalist has it all: Two actors from multiple Stallone movies. Yakity-yak stock footage atomic bombs. The awesome Steve Railsback. Beer-swilling redneck hoards. Pansy rioting hoards of twelve people. More rioting hoards of those same twelve people. Bogus hospital rooms. Motorcycle rapist wimps. Epic maintain-the-speed-limit car chases. The über-cool Cliff De Young. Non-vehicular mayhem. Motorcycles don’t so much as crash; they fall over. Rogue army officers more concerned with murder and rape than restoring social order. No National Guard hardware, i.e., jeeps, trucks, transports, or helicopters. Camouflage fatigues off the rack at Bass Pro Shops. TV dream queen Susan Blakely. A National Guardsman biker gang because the movie couldn’t afford jeeps. One unarmed helicopter. Lots of driving. Lots of fishing. Lots of looking up at that one helicopter. Campfire tales. Campfire love. Faux-Harold Faltermeier Beverly Hills Cop synthesizer doodling. And, most importantly: Marjoe Gortner.

Hell, yeah. It’s a schlock-cinema dream come true.

It’s all about a “nuclear device detonation” in Siberia and the USA is blamed. Cold War mob rule ensues; the U.S suspends the Constitution and declares martial law. Why one nuc-accident in Russia (it could have been a power plant failure?)—with no retaliatory strikes on U.S soil—causes flag burnings and government shut downs of travel, bank closures . . . I know, I know. I’m over thinking the plot, again.

Meanwhile, back in a small town in Texas, Jack Tillman (Steve Railsback), an ex-CIA operative turned survivalist, and his pacifist doctor-friend Vincent (Cliff De Young), debate on the proper course of action as the same two-dozen dippy looters run rampant in the streets for TV sets and two cowering omega-cops (not baseball caps with “Police” patches again . . . Omega Cop alert!) fail to maintain order.

Before Tillman can get his family the hell out of apoc-dodge to retrieve his son from a remote summer camp . . . (Oh, no. Here we go again: In typical apoc-fashion, the “Big One” drops and male hormones go into rape and murder mode; see the superior Ravagers and No Blade of Grass) . . . Tillman returns from getting cash n’ gas and finds his wife and daughter murdered. So he hits the road to rescue his son—in a beat-up, run-of-the-mill “Tillman Construction” pick-up truck with fishing poles (a guy’s gotta eat in an apocalypse!) and sans a machine gun turretwith Vincent and his nurse-wife Linda (Susan Blakely)which sets up the ‘50s-era end-of-the-world “love triangle.”

Then the First Blood starts to flow in the form of a National Guardsman dickhead (instead of a town sheriff), and former Tillman Vietnam nemesis, Lt. Youngman (Marjoe Gortner; cloning his dickhead-rapist National Guardsman role in the 1972 disaster epic, Earthquake; 1972’s Marjoe). During the rioting, Tillman humiliates Youngman in a backhoe vs. motorcycle mishap; Youngman goes into Brian Dennehy-mode and his sole prime directiveas society falls apartis to bring his arch-rival, Jack Tillman, to justice. The rest of society be damned and to hell with the Russians. Tillman must die. Call Troutman before someone gets hurt.

Overall, The Survivalist isn’t a bad movie; it’s not Survival 1990-inept. It’s just cheap and mediocre with a desperately needed injection of sadistic Mad Max craziness to elevate it beyond its flat TV movie-action trappings. You end up being pissed that the great Steve Railsbackas with Gary Lockwood in the somewhat similar Survival Zone—has to do these “films” to eat. Yep. Welcome to Blood City (1977), Keir Dullea.

(Did I just watch and review Survival 1990, Survival Zone, The Survivalist, and even Omega Cop, for the sake of B&S Movies? What’s wrong with me?)

Remember, you can also enjoy Steve Railsback in Lifeforce, Turkey Shoot, and Trick or Treats (all reviewed on B&S), Marjoe Gortner in Star Crash, Bobbie Jo and the Outlaw, Viva Knievel, and Mausoleum (all reviewed on B&S), and Cliff De Young in the video rental hits F/X (yes, Brian Dennehy!!), Flight of the Navigator, and Shock Treatment. And there’s Susan Blakely who, in addition to appearing in the ‘70s disaster hit, The Towering Inferno, worked with Sly Stallone three times: The Lords of Flatbush, Over the Top, and Capone.

The sad footnote to this film: It was the final film of the iconic David Wayne who, as always, brings his acting chops to the table in his cameo as a kind-curmudgeonly backwoods gas station owner. Wayne deserved better for his omega bow. The dude got his start alongside Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn in the hit comedy classic Adam’s Rib (1949), and the smart ‘70s sci-fi piece The Andromeda Strain, but is best known as the Mad Hatter on TV’s Batman.

Equally insulting: J. Kenneth Campbell, a great character actor and requisite TV heavy-dickhead (pick a series)—from the sci-fi hits The Abyss and Mars Attacks, and Sly Stallone’s Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot—is reduced to a perpetual television image (a pseudo voice-over narrator telling us what’s going on) as the White House Press Secretary.

The out-of-left-field projectile: The Survivalist was directed by Sig Shore, the producer of the Blaxploitation classic, Superfly (1972). He made his directing debut casting Harvey Keitel (?) as a record producer cavorting with Earth, Wind & Fire (?) in the 1975 disco-fucked musical, That’s the Way of the World (aka Shining Star). His fifth and final film was the nobody-asked-for-it-and-nobody-saw-it-sequel-because-it-didn’t-have-Ron O’Neal: The Return of Superfly (1990; because of the big studio Shaft reboot with Samuel L. Jackson).

And that’s why a VHS fringe-freak like me watched The Survivalist: I love ‘70s blaxploitation and music films—and Sig made one of each. So he gets a pass on wasting an hour thirty minutes of my life . . . and Sam the Bossman’s (but spare Becca, the “B” of it all). And yours.

So, you still don’t believe this one has it all?

Well, see for yourself: a VHS rip is uploaded on You Tube. And that’s the only way to see it, since it’s out of print, the VHS is ultra-rare, and it’s not available on DVD. And, even though the film has nothing to do Ahern’s The Survivalist pulp series, you can check out this listing of all 33 titles and, yikes, Wikipedia has the 4-1-1 on all of the books, and then some.

Or, may we suggest you can pass this Rambo 40.0 . . . and visit with the original Rambo, now back in theatres with Rambo: Last Blood?

Uh, oh. Are these alternate titles and artwork? Nope.

Not to be confused with . . .

Or with . . .

Our two-part apoc blow out!

March 2020 Update: Sad news to report. Thanks to McSmith and his site The Books That Time Forgot, we’ve come to learn than Bob Anderson, the main writer for the revived series of The Survivalist books, passed away this January at the age of 72. McSmith loves his Ahern books, he reviews them all, HERE.

Godspeed, Mr. Anderson. Thanks for the cool reads!

December 2022 Update: B&S About Movies’ reader Mark Brett, who is part of the Shore family tree, provided us with some additional insights to the film:

“Sig’s son Michael was married to my sister, so I’d met Sig several times. He actually gave me a VHS copy of Jack Tillman: The Survivalist and a movie poster of it, along with a [press kit promo] poster from Sudden Death [1985; stars Denise Coward from the U.S. daytime TV drama The Edge of Night, as well as Brett Piper’s Galaxy Destroyer].

“Sig’s sons played the rapists in the movie; his son Michael was the guy who killed Cliff DeYoung, and Michael Shore is listed incorrectly as “Michael Mayfield” on IMDb. As far as the other credits: Barbara Shore, Sig’s wife, helped with a lot of the writing and manners obviously were changed so it didn’t just look like a SHORE-fest on the credits.”Sig’s sons played the rapists in the movie; his son Michael was the guy who killed Cliff DeYoung, and Michael Shore is listed incorrectly as “Michael Mayfield” on IMDb. As far as the other credits: Barbara Shore, Sig’s wife, helped with a lot of the writing and manners obviously were changed so it didn’t just look like a SHORE-fest on the credits.

“The actual vehicle Steve Railsback was driving [the Tillman Construction” truck we called out] was an Isuzu Trooper. Michael said, if I remember correctly, he picked it up from a California dealer and drove it about 4 hours to the set. He also said Marjoe was a good guy on the set.

“That said, as far as the “writing” goes: they pretty much made up everything while watching TV in bed on the last few films, according to my sister Lisa. Sig was putting a movie together called Tommy and the Ghost—a really horrible movie. I was asked to be the stunt guy for the kid on the dirtbike who races Tommy. They wanted a few jumps; Sig just asked what some of the types of jumps are called, and he threw them into this movie—without actual showing what they were supposedly doing. I only saw the movie once on my sister’s VHS copy. It was BAD!

“Michael Shore used to do sound editing years ago. I just wish I could’ve discussed movies more with Sig and Michael. I believe Steven Shore was in the film industry for a while, as well.

“All this said: I watch all these horrible movies for the same reasons [you do]. So, I figured I’d share some minor insights on Jack Tillman: The Survivalist.”

Our thanks to McSmith and Mr. Brett for their kindness; for using social media and blogging/comment platforms in a positive light to express their joy of books and film. We appreciate your positive reinforcement of our efforts to preserve films such as The Survivalist for others to discover. Hey, someone has to coddle lost and forgotten films like UFO Target Earth and The Spirits of Jupiter. Working together, we can make it happen!

About the Author: You can read the music and film reviews of R.D Francis on Medium and learn more about his work on Facebook. He also writes for B&S About Movies.