John “Bud” Cardos’ underrated eco-ghoul film still packs a punch

The dawn of the 1980’s saw more than its share of eco-minded, human monster movies, a sub-genre spawned most likely by the one-two-punch of George A. Romero’s ghoul virus 1978 masterpiece DAWN OF THE DEAD and James Bridges shattering and successful 1979 thriller THE CHINA SYNDROME. Films like director Graham Baker’s Meg Tilly and Tim Matheson vs. Freudian-zombie vehicle IMPULSE (itself somewhat reminiscent of David Cronenberg’s 1975 breakthrough exploitation film SHIVERS) and Hal Barwood’s underrated 1985 toxic-zombie chiller WARNING SIGN; movies that mixed corporate cover-ups with sacrificial small-town paranoia, usually dealing with some sort of spill that mutates average people, causing them to do terrible things to any non-infected person within biting distance.

One of the best of this lot is KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS helmer John Bud Cardos’ lean and mean horror gem NIGHT SHADOWS, widely released on home video and cable in the 1980’s as MUTANT, a title it retains to this day.

It’s a shame its distributor decided to slap that moniker on such an eerie, urgent and earthy horror film; MUTANT is the alternate title for Roger Corman’s ALIEN ripoff FORBIDDEN WORLD and the packaging for Cardos’ film had that handle displayed, widely-spaced letters a la ALIEN and even featured a Giger-like fanged face on the front. In some European markets it was even released as MUTANT II.

Those looking for a deep-space shocker in line with Ridley Scott, were bound to be bummed.

MUTANT does have a dose of science-fiction at its core, but it’s the maddest kind of science, spawned by man, not the stars. Rather, the movie is an atmospheric, unpretentious down-home horror flick that, more often than not, feels like Meth-fueled remake of Tobe Hooper’s 1979 TV movie adaptation of Stephen King’s SALEM’S LOT.

In it, Wings Hauser (fresh of his turn as the psychotic pimp Ramrod in Gary Sherman’s brutal 1982 shocker VICE SQUAD) and Lee Montgomery (so terrifying as “Bobby” in the Dan Curtis anthology DEAD OF NIGHT and equally good in the Curtis classic BURNT OFFERINGS) as brothers driving cross-country, big bro trying to help little bro get over a broken heart and a love lost. As the two banter and the audience begins to warm to them (great casting in that not only do Hauser and Montgomery have genuine chemistry, they also kind of look alike), a truck load of cackling local yokel rednecks taunt them and run them into a ditch. Their car wrecked, the pair hitch a ride with an equally inbred, but considerably kinder hick named Mel (Stuart Culpepper) who offers to drive them into town so they can call a tow-truck and get back to the business of road-tripping.

Shame then, that the town in question seems to be in the mid-stage grip of some sort of malevolent viral outbreak. After tangling with the same shit-faced goons that kaiboshed their car, the brothers check into a seemingly cozy inn for a much needed nights sleep. But when Montgomery goes missing, Hauser goes into overdrive to find his kin. What he finds instead is a shadowy conspiracy, a drunken but kindly Sheriff (TENTACLES’ Bo Hopkins, who later re-teamed with Hauser for Nico Mastorakis’ similarly themed NIGHTMARE AT NOON), a comely and confused schoolteacher (Jody Medford) and a bloodthirsty horde of chemically-induced zombie-vampires whose very touch spreads disease.

The people they kill, get up and kill.

You get it.

MUTANT is often slapped with the dreaded and cowardly “guilty pleasure” label, but I have no idea why anyone would or should feel sheepish about loving it. It’s positively loaded with fog-drenched atmosphere, quality prosthetic make-up FX (the ghouls drink blood from puss-dripping, vaginal openings in their hands, an affectation that recalls yet another early Cronenberg bio-horror, that of 1977’s RABID), a brisk pace, fine acting by Hauser and Hopkins, an unpredictable and often shocking streak of nihilism (yes, kids die screaming!) and, perhaps most importantly, an absolutely first rate, full-bodied and full-blooded symphonic score by Richard Band, one of his few non-Empire or Full Moon projects.

Director Cardos was no fool either. He was an eccentric and always inserted wry humor into his horror films. Look at 1969’s deft and little-discussed Cameron Mitchell melodrama NIGHTMARE IN WAX, a lurid film with a deranged strain of wit. And KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS delights in not only dousing Arizona in spider-webs but also spreading a colorful array of oddball characters across the screen. He works the same magic here and much of MUTANT’s power lies in the charming, meandering way he lets his actors play with their roles and simply sit around and have conversations; almost every relationship in the movie takes time to flesh itself out, an invaluable asset when making the many scenes of horror work. When our heroes are menaced by the shrieking, bladder-bloated and blue-faced undead, we fear for them, even when – as in one seen where the local doctor casually talks to her assistant while he mutates, mimicking the symptoms she’s speaking of – we’re stifling a giggle.

The movie was produced by distributor Edward L. Montoro, who with his now defunct imprint Film Ventures International released such quality crap as William Girdler’s DAY OF THE ANIMALS and GRIZZLY; he also produced the 1979 Cardos vehicle THE DARK, whose modest success likely led to the hiring of the director here. However, MUTANT cost far more than it earned and its failure caused Montoro to literally flee to Mexico, never to be heard from again.

The fugitive producer should have stayed home, faced the music and defended his baby because MUTANT needs more love. It really does feel like an unwanted child, abandoned and troubled, cast out and abandoned. So sad…

But like so many unwanted children, MUTANT has, over time, brushed itself off and survived, standing tall among the more successful, but now utterly forgettable, films it competed against in its prime.

MUTANT is ready for its close up. Won’t you let it into your heart?

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