The Direct to Video Connoisseur

I'm a huge fan of action, horror, sci-fi, and comedy, especially of the Direct to Video variety. In this blog I review some of my favorites and not so favorites, and encourage people to comment and add to the discussion. For announcements and updates, don't forget to Follow us on Twitter and Like our Facebook page. If you're the director, producer, distributor, etc. of a low-budget feature length film and you'd like to send me a copy to review, you can contact me at dtvconnoisseur[at] I'd love to check out what you got. And check out my book, Chad in Accounting, over on Amazon.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

River of Death (1989)


I came across this really cheap on VHS, like a few bucks or so, and decided to just pull the trigger. I hadn't seen it in years, but I figured, even if it sucked, it would be cool to own a movie with Michael Dudikoff, Donald Pleasence, and Robert Vaughn. Wouldn't it?

River of Death is based on a book I haven't read, but it takes place in 1965, 20 years after a Nazi doctor, played by Robert Vaughn, who performed horrible experiments on people has escaped to the Amazon. Michael Dudikoff is a guide/adventurer down there, who takes another doctor and his daughter into the jungle for the source of a disease that is ravaging the tribes. The doctor is shot, and the daughter captured, and Dudikoff barely escapes with his life. Back at a nearby town, he's itching to recover and get back in the jungle to find her, and he discovers that other people, including millionaire/former Nazi that was kneecapped by Vaughn played by Donald Pleasence, want to go in with him. Who can Dudikoff trust? And will he escape the jungle alive?


This was a take off the Indiana Jones movies, but as Lucas himself discovered with the lackluster parts 2 and 4 of his own series, this isn't a paradigm that always works. It can go from fun and awesome to dull and drawn out in a heartbeat, and despite the great Cannon infused action quotient, and our man Dudikoff chewing up tons of scenery, its 107-minute runtime was its own downfall. It had plenty of great moments, where, as you'd expect from a quality Cannon picture, almost out of nowhere our characters are in a gunfight and using all the explosive ordinance at their disposal; but as we hit the 75-minute mark, it became excitement by repetition, and I was feeling like the wrap-it-up guy at the Oscar's, wanting to start the bumper music to cut to commercial. In the end, a fun time that stretched its luck just a little too long.

When we think DTV leading man, I'm not sure any have the range Dudikoff does. He goes effortlessly from highly trained ninja warrior, to Indian Jones style adventurer, to greenhorn Army Lieutenant in Vietnam. The movies around him don't always work, but it's not because of him if they don't. With this post, he becomes only the second actor, after Dolph Lundgren, with 30 tags here at the DTVC, which is no small feat. I loved him in River of Death as the adventurer. He was a little bit darker and angrier than Harrison Ford's iconic character, but you could tell he was still having fun with it. How can you not, though, when you have all that explosive ordinance at your disposal?


Two great villains, Donald Pleasence and Robert Vaughn. Pleasence did a better job affecting the bad German accent, i.e. Vaughn didn't really try, but they both worked as baddies. They were pitted against each other, because Vaughn kneecapped Pleasence earlier in the movie, which Donald wasn't too pleased about. In Maine, we have ads for a lawyer named Joe Bournstein, and Vaughn is his pitchman. I don't know if that guy does law in other states too, but it never gets old to see Vaughn in the ads, so hopefully people who live outside of Maine have seen them too.

You gotta love Cannon. One minute you're watching a group of people riding in a helicopter, the next they're in an enormous firefight on the ground, and the next after that someone's got a grenade launcher. The thing is, like every film that uses the Indiana Jones paradigm, it's just a series of mishaps, one after the other, and if it's not done well, it becomes excitement by repetition. That's why these kinds of things worked much better as serials, and to try and cram a bunch of episodes into one can be trickier than you'd think. This one would've had it, but they pushed their luck and went about 20-30 minutes too long.


I know there's a lot of nostalgia for VHS, a certain charm in finding one of these bad boys cheap, and popping it in the VCR and firing it up. Then there's this added nostalgia if it's a big box VHS, right? Damn, this one was just the cardboard box. As I was watching River of Death, and I was capturing images and fast forwarding around, I thought, nostalgia is great, but give me some DVDs. This isn't like vinyl records over CDs, where the vinyl actually sounds better; unless you get a bad transfer, these movies look worse on VHS, they don't have the special features, like interviews and commentary, and it's harder to skip through them to find certain moments. Hey, I'm all for nostalgia too, but let's not get carried away with nostalgia just for nostalgia's sake. What's next, people start using dial-up and AOL again because they're nostalgic for the sound of their modem?

This movie, oddly enough, can be bought new at Amazon on VHS. I'm not talking about from one of their sellers, I mean from them. It is on DVD, but not on Netflix, and to get it on DVD at Amazon will set you back in the neighborhood of $30, so VHS is the best you can hope for. If you're feeling nostalgic, you can always go to the local flea market, hope it's there, then try to haggle the price down with the guy behind the stand rocking the ponytail and wolf T-shirt. That'll be the next big thing-- it has to be a big box VHS bought, at a flea market off an old dude with a ponytail and wolf T-shirt, and you have to haggle him below $3.

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  1. Looks like a fun Dudikoff movie! Big fan of Pleasence and Vaughn too.

    Will look for a copy.

  2. This is one of those films I wish I would have rented years ago but never did. Good review.

  3. I think I saw this once at about 3 am on the USA network....
    That's probably where it belongs.

  4. It's best for the Dudikoff factor, and when you tack on Pleasence and Vaughn, it does make for a good bad movie night pick. The length hurts it though.