Dude, sometimes those stars align.
The conjunction of B&S Movies’ recent “Star Wars Week,” our current “Ape Week,” and our upcoming “Shark Week” colliding with the calendar fade in this year of our Lord of 2019 leaves this writer with a morbid disappointment: the Italian-predicted post-apocalypse never happened.
(Yes. Mr. Michael Sopkiw. This is your life. One more time.)
I should be reminiscing about last year’s Rollerball World Championship Game between Houston and New York—you know, the game where the league suspended the rules to force the world’s greatest sports hero, Jonathan E., to retire. I should be running in fear from the marauding motorcycle ‘n dune buggy hoards on a quest to control the last drops of fuel and water. I should be worried about being eaten by radioactive zombies. I should be swingin’ makeshift, nail-spiked bats at cannibal warlords.
New York hasn’t fallen to the Eurac Nation. Manhattan should have been turned into a walled prison by now. There’s no Arthur C. Clark-predicted spinning-wheel space station over the Earth. I still do not have my one-piece jumpsuit and it looks like I’ll die before I catch that flight on a Pan-Am space shuttle to the Moon. We’re not consuming each other by way of soylent wafers and law enforcement doesn’t control starving rioters with human-scooping, dump truck-bulldozer hybrids.
Yes, to the chagrin of the Italian film industry: we are still alive. And to my chagrin: the Italian post-apocalypse—the single greatest sci-fi film sub-genre to dominate the drive-ins and home video stores of my youth—is over.
Sure, Hollywood offered us their big-budgeted versions of our decimated future with Waterworld (1995), Escape from L.A (1996), 28 Days Later (2002), The Road (2006), I Am Legend (2007), The Book of Eli (2010), World War Z (2013), and Mad Max: Fury Road (2016), but it was the low-budgeted indie knock-offs coming out of Europe in the 1980s—spearheaded by the Italian film industry’s insatiable quest to ripoff proven American genre flicks—that revved our post-nuke engines.
Those mainstream Hollywood films were begat from Mad Max and The Road Warrior out of Australia and John Carpenter’s Escape from New York. And how can we forget Richard Connell’s and Robert Sheckley’s writings inspiring the “human death sports” craze with the likes of Rollerball, Death Race 2000, and Deathsport, Endgame, and Rome 2072.
No nostalgic waxing of the post-apocalypse is complete without honoring the influential “Big Three” starring Moses and Ben-Hur himself: Charlton Heston. His turn in Planet of the Apes ignited the post-apocalyptic sci-fi craze within the Hollywood mainstream studio system and led to Heston’s turns in The Omega Man and Soylent Green. And Heston’s “Big Three” beget the likes of Oliver Reed in Z.P.G, Yul Brynner in The Ultimate Warrior and Sean Connery in Zardoz, James Caan in Rollerball, Michael York in Logan’s Run (1976), George Peppard in Damnation Alley, and Richard Harris and Paul Newman in Ravagers and Quintet, respectively.
And while the directors and actors of the post-apocalypse have come and gone—and been forgotten by the many—we, the survivors of the celluloid cataclysm of our teenaged years have never forgotten the genre’s biggest and baddist star. And no: it’s not Kurt Russell or Mel Gibson.
Hey, Mr. Sopkiw. You had to know you weren’t ringing in 2020 without someone bringing up the most cherished of the only four films you shot in an all-too-brief, two year acting career.
Born in the U.S state of Connecticut in 1954, Michael Sopkiw (pronounced Sop-keev) began his show business career as a successful photo/runway model-turned-actor. As with the equally Euro-revered apocalyptic-action star Mark Gregory, Sopkiw starred in several Italian-produced films that, while not earning critical praises as result of their low-production values, garnered substantial financial returns in the U.S, European, and overseas home video markets.
Before he became a beloved Euro-action star during the ’80s home video boom, Sopkiw’s lifelong love of sailing earned him a job as a merchant sailor, which led to a job laying underwater cable in England’s North Sea in the seventies. Finding other employment opportunities as a yacht broker, and as a sailor on luxury yachts and commercial ships, he returned to his homeland to attended college at the University of Miami (Florida) to study mechanical engineering. For reasons lost to the test of time: Sopkiw’s oceanic navigation activities led him into the underground world of drug smuggling. The end result: he served one year on a two and a half year prison sentence for transporting cargos of marijuana.
As result of parole guidelines that restricted his return to sea, Sopkiw needed to choose a new career. As result of knowing someone active in the New York City theatre scene, he took up acting—seriously and full-time. In an interview with David Everitt in the pages of Fangoria, Sopkiw said that acting was merely a fantasy at the back of his mind that, for many years, he never took it seriously. When he was appearing in [high] school plays, he said, “I never thought you could do this sort of thing seriously. I thought it was chosen people who became stars.” And thanks to Sopkiw’s impressive physique, developed from his years of working at sea, he was “chosen” to work as a model with the world-renowned Ford Modeling Agency—and off Sopkiw went to work on the biggest magazines and runways in Europe.
While in Rome, Sopkiw met noted Italian Giallo director Sergio Martino (All the Colors of the Dark, The Case of the Scorpion’s Tale—just to name a few) who, ready to jump on the Escape from New York and The Road Warrior-inspired, post-apocalypse bandwagon, was on a national talent search for a film regarded as the best of the Italian-made wasteland ripoffs: 2019: After the Fall of New York (1983). Martino, taking note of Sopkiw’s readymade, action-film physique—and his facial similarities to John Carpenter’s Snake Plissken character portrayed by Kurt Russell—cast him as the hero-reluctant, Parsifal (yes, based on Wolfram von Eschenbach 13th century Arthurian hero, Parzival), Sopkiw, like British actor Oliver Reed before him, scored a leading man role in his first-ever casting/acting job—and was signed to a four-picture deal.
In a 1999 interview with filmologist Fred Anderson, Sopkiw gave his thoughts on his film debut in After the Fall of New York:
“[I am glad everyone likes the film, but] I’m not sure it was supposed to be a comedy, but at least it turns out to be a redeeming feature [of the film].”
“[As for the ‘ripoff quality’ of the film, in comparison to its inspiration, John Carpenter’s Escape from New York], I think everyone should do his best work or not bother working [at all]. We call this genre of ‘ripoffs’—exploitation films. Not sexually of course, in this case, but exploiting concepts and ideas that have already been shown to attract interest—and therefore money. Generally speaking, I don’t find this a very attractive or noble motivation. If this is the best work these people can do, then I thank them for their efforts, thank them for allowing me to be a part of it, and hope they are not just into it for the money. I also hope for them that they can do better in the future.”
In a 2009 interview with the online publication Icons of Fright, when asked which film was his favorite of the four he made—he cited . . . After the Fall of New York:
“They were all [four of my films] a blast to work on. I suppose, overall, After the Fall of New York would top the list as a fave film. I think it has the most memorable lines like, ‘Cleaned up & disinfected she might be all right.’ I also think it has the best caliber of actors overall with Gigi, Vince, Romano, Gigetto, Valentine, et al. There were really some good performances there I think and some serious actors.”
In the pages of Fangoria (Issue # 44; reposted alongside a plethora of film stills, posters, video box covers, and articles about After the Fall of New York and Sopkiw’s “boss,” Almi Pictures, by the online publication, The Tell Tale Mind), Sopkiw had this to say about being a leading man in his first acting job—ever:
“[It] was a little overwhelming at first. A kind of instant, minor stardom. I can remember the first day I walked into the studio: You go through the gates set in these big concrete walls, and inside there’s one set after another, each one a different world. And then I went to my dressing room and there it was—with my name on it. It felt really great. While I was getting dressed, I opened up my window and there was eight or ten guys from the movie down below, dressed up like Darth Vader, all on white horses. And I said, ‘Jesus! I think I’m where I Iike to be.’”
After working in Rome and the U.S state of Arizona (for ATFONY’s desert car-chase-duel and his tooling across the desert on a future-cool three-wheeled cycle), Lamberto Bava, the son of famed Giallo director, Mario Bava, recruited Sopkiw for two films shot in the U.S: the Georgia-shot Blastfighter and the Florida-shot Monster Shark—the second utilized his past sea-faring skills.
In working with Lamberto Bava, Sopkiw had this to say in the Icons of Fright interview:
“Almost nothing but praises for Lamberto. He’s a very compassionate guy; pretty much to be expected being Italian. That was my experience with most Italians. But he shows it in his everyday consideration and caring for both actors and crew. And he sure knew how to make a lot with a little. He was always quite accessible and gentle but seems to have had a bit of a penchant for blood. You noticed? I would love to speak with him now to find out a little bit more of what drove him.”
As with the spaghetti-cloning of Kurt Russell’s and Mel Gibson’s apocalyptic romps with his Parsifal character in After the Fall of New York, Blastfighter borrowed from Sylvester Stallone’s vision for Sopkiw’s next film as Jake “Tiger” Sharp: a Rambo-inspired, take-no-prisoners ex-cop with a supersonic sci-fi rifle out for revenge against a gang of backwoods rednecks.
As the title of Sopkiw’s third film implies, Monster Shark (aka Devil Fish, Monster Fish, Monster from the Red Ocean, Apocalypse in the Red Ocean, Devouring Waves, and Shark: Red in the Ocean) was Italy’s (and one of many) reimaging of Steven Spielberg’s 1975 don’t-go-in-the-water classic, Jaws, in which Sopkiw starred as a dashing, sea-faring shark fighter.
And so it goes in Italian cinema: once you ripoff Spielberg, George Lucas is fair game. Thankfully, Sopkiw didn’t appear in one of Italy’s many Star Wars celluloid swindles (. . . that’s an article unto itself!*). Sopkiw did, however, appear as an Indiana Jones-inspired adventurer in Massacre in Dinosaur Valley (Prisoner of the Valley of Dinosaurs), a bizarre, little action movie that borrowed from Italy’s cannibal sub-genre of zombie films, had no dinosaurs—and mixed it with comedy!
It was while filming these four films (which completed his “contract”) and residing in Switzerland that Sopkiw, looking for a greater purpose in life beyond a career making low-budgeted ripoffs of better made films, he took up the study of metaphysics. Those disciplines and philosophies led to him developing natural healing remedies based on sun energy—which required a special glass to maintain the vitality of organic plant molecules. Through his studies in medical plant and herbal sciences, Sopkiw founded the California-based Miron Violettglas to achieve his ultimate goal: encourage people to get back to natural Earth-born remedies in an over-drugged, pharmaceutical-oriented society. The ancient Egyptian-inspired glass craft was also adapted for wine-bottle importing.
When the post-apocalypse came-a-callin’, Italian Giallo purveyor Sergio Martino answered the call with a tale about a world war erupting between the African-European-Asian united Eurax (Eurac, whatever!) nation and the U.S-led Pan-American Confederacy. The Darth Vader-cum-samurai clad Eurax won the war and began experimenting on the survivors to find a cure for the post-war, now twenty-year sterility of man that’s resulted in no children being born.
The Pan-Americans’ “supercomputer” has discovered there’s one fertile woman left on the Earth. And the (unseen; you know how it goes it non-budget land) sentient being has also determined that only one man—a disgruntled ex-Pan Am soldier by the name of Snake Pliss . . ., I mean, Parsifal—is the only man for the man for the job. Well, Parsifal and an “uncover” cyborg dude named Rachet who dispatches enemies with some Chinese meridian balls on wires he tosses around, and the robotic, claw-hand Bronx whose “mind” is a virtual map of New York.
Parisfal is the king of the punk rock-football pad-goth wearing hoards haunting the Arizona wastelands as the champion player of some Mad Max-inspired game with cars who wants no part of what the Pan-Americans are cooking. So they kidnap him. And they offer him a deal: get the last fertile woman out of New York and they’ll give him a seat on the rocket they’re launching to Alpha Centuri to start a new world. Oh, and if he doesn’t along with the plan, he’s gonna get his ass Bob Hauk’d out of the world.
Oh, did we forget to mention that, in addition to Escape from New York, Mad Max, and Star Wars, this delicious plate of radiated Italian post-apocalypse pasta also clips Planet of the Apes, courtesy of the always welcomed George Eastman as “Big Ape,” who leads a merry band of hairy men and helps our not-so-magnificent three in their suicide mission? Hey, nothing like the ubiquitous, post-apoc professor’s hot, egg-fresh daughter inspiring a little cooperation.
“Hey, wait a minute . . . holy post-apoc dé·jà vu, Parisfal!”
Yeah, we know, you’re saying, “This sounds like that major studio, single-shot sequence jerkfest that was 2006’s Children of Men.
Yeah, we know. That’s why the crew at B&S Movies watched Children of Men only once . . . and we’ve watched Sergio Martino’s future world with Star Wars-like repeat viewings. Clive Owen vs. Micheal Sopkiw? Really? As if there’s a “choice” in the matter?
If you do not always err to the side of Michael Sopkiw, then you need to surf for your video fringe fixes somewhere else. B&S Movies don’t be associatin’ with folk like ya’ll. Give us Michael Sopkiw or give us death!
Happy New York!, uh, New Year, Michael. We dig ya, brother! Ring in the New Year with Sergio and Mike and watch After the Fall of New York for free on You Tube.
Author’s Note: Sam previously reviewed 2019: After the Fall of New York — our all-time favorite apoc flick — as part of B&S Movies’ 2017 “Fucked Up Futures” week of apoc-films. And be sure to visit us the week of January 5 for “Shark Week” as we dive into Michael’s ’80s shark flick, Monster Shark, for a second look.
Do you need MORE on Micheal Sopkiw and Mark Gregory? Be sure to check out my Medium feature article: “Warriors of the Pasta-Apocalypse: Michael Sopkiw and Mark Gregory Kicking Ass in the ’80s Italian Wastelands.”
*Hey, we did write an article about it: two, in fact! Check out “Ten Star Wars Ripoffs” and “Attack of the Clones.”
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 Movies.