You know what I love? I love that “post apocalyptic rollerskating movie” isn’t a description of a movie, but instead of an entire genre. Granted it’s a genre created almost entirely by a single man, but when the man is dedicated and prolific enough, suddenly you have a whole section in the old time video store with sun-bleached VHS boxes on the shelves dedicated to movies where women on rollerskates gingerly navigate the rubble-strewn parking lots of post-apocalyptic Los Angeles, which is invariably going to be referred to as Lost Angeles, as it has been in so many of the crappy direct to video post-apoc films from the 1980s. It’s the DTV post-apocalypse equivalent of the DTV L.A. gang war movies, which inevitably go, “Los Angeles…City of the Angels.”
That genre-creating, film making machine was Donald G. Jackson, and it is thanks entirely to him that we have the post-apocalypse rollerskating genre comprised of films like Roller Blade, Roller Blade Warriors: Taken By Force, The Roller Blade 7 and its inexplicably large number of sequels, and something called Rollergator, which is probably a different movie than the one I write in my head when I hear the name Rollergator. Assisting Jackson in fleshing out this strange little genre were Rick King (Prayer of the Rollerboys) and Alan Johnson (Solarbabies), but while their entries are merely stupid, Jackson’s first contribution, the film that kicked off the genre, is so mind-bendingly strange and incompetent that it threatens to cease being a movie and become some entirely new and terrifying form of art that man was not meant to behold. Even after more viewings of Roller Blade than a grown man should admit to, the film still has the power to stun me in my tracks and leave me sitting in the corner, twitching uncontrollably and rocking back and forth with a trail of drool dangling from the corner of my mouth.
My inability to be anything other than struck dumb starts at the very first frame. The credits appear over an 80s style lens flare as, slowly, a teased-hair warrior from the future roller skates into view while being mirrored on the other side of the screen. It’s at this precise moment that I said to myself, “I wonder what Donald Jackson would have to say about this film.” So before I get too far into the film — remembering that wandering into this film could mean that you will never emerge — let’s travel back in time to the 1980s, a decade many of you are too young to remember as anything but a misrepresented decade on assorted VH1 specials where people born in 1990 reminisce fondly about 1984.
While I have memories of the 1970s, my formative years were spent in the neon-drenched, chrome-trimmed decade of the 1980s. One of the most popular ways to pass the time back then, especially in the days before I could drive and do cool punk rock stuff like stand around in a parking lot with a few other people, was to go to skating parties. There, at Champs Rollerdrome in historic Crestwood, Kentucky, you could strap on those tan rental skates with the orange laces and hit the giant wood oval while the DJ ran through a series of 80s skating hits like “Rockit,” “Thriller,” Van Halen’s “Jump,” and for the couples only skate, “Hold Me Now” by The Thompson Twins. In between, you could hang in the video arcade and show off your Centipede skills, flirt with girls at the concession stand, or find a carpeted bench in a dark corner of the expansive “drome” and make out. You could also purchase from vending machines stickers for your sticker album or a sequined Michael Jackson glove. “No re-entry” meant that would-be hoods couldn’t go out to the parking lot and have a smoke without having to pay again if they wanted to come back in.
Into this fray I entered, and while many writers would like to cast their childhood as a dark, abused period full of alcoholic parents, social alienation, and brutal bullies, the fact is I had a lot of fun as a kid, and I loved 7th grade skating parties. Being small in stature and possessed of decent agility honed I assume from years of climbing trees and haystacks, I was pretty good as skating. Not world class, but I could go forward, backward, slow, fast, and do a few tricks, like when you squat down and hold one leg out in front of you. For some reason, we thought that was pretty awesome. I couldn’t do the thing where you pulled someone behind you under your legs so they were suddenly in front of you, but no one was really doing that anyway. That was like a 70s thing or something.
In 7th grade, I had decent luck with the ladies, so there were plenty of opportunities for me to put the moves on, maybe buy a girl an Orange Whip or some fries at the concession stand, maybe impress her by convincing the DJ to play us a song he was probably going to play anyway. And then you hear the first little bit of “Hold Me Now,” ask the girl to skate, take her hand, and for the next three minutes or so you roll through a swirling snowstorm of colored lights and raging hormones that can only be assuaged by letting go of her hand as the song ends and “Play Guitar” by John Cougar Mellencamp comes on and affords you a chance to fast skate off some of that pent-up sexual energy — especially if the DJ is edgy and doesn’t blank out the “Forget all about that macho shit and learn how to play guitar” line (you had to come on a Friday night to hear that danger).
Anyway, point is, I liked roller skating. When I went again in college at the behest of a group of Cuban gang girls from Miami (you do what they say, and you like it), I found that it isn’t really a skill you can pick right up again after not doing it for the past ten years. But while I still liked the idea of roller skating (though not as much as I liked Cuba gang girls), even I recognized the fundamental stupidity of using it as a means of locomotion across a post-apocalyptic wasteland (or PAW). Hell, it’s not even that convenient now is a world that is only marginally strewn with the rubble of bygone eras. In a future full of ultimate weapon motorcycles and dudes in dune buggies, woe be unto the person that shows up for the fight wearing rollerskates.
Luckily, rollerskating futurist Donald Jackson didn’t let my skepticism stand in the way, and so he delivers this tale of a world pushed past the brink, crumbling and decaying, where the only hope for humanity is an order of rollerskating nuns in various combinations of red and blue robes and hoods, black panties, black spandex bodystockings, and nudity. Using the power of a blinking light-up smiley face button, the nuns battle the guy from the cover of Quiet Riot’s Metal Health album and his ugly rubber puppet. Oh yeah, the nuns also possess the secret of the future’s ultimate weapon: the butterfly knife, known in future parlance as the roller blade. When combined with the skill of rollerskating, the flipping of a butterfly knife is the deadliest art since gymkata.
Let that plot synopsis roll over you for a second. It’s a good one, isn’t it? And in the hands of someone less committed to the vision of a future in which we all roller skate, even on the beach, even when the streets are choked with rubble and uneven surfaces, this probably would have ended up looking like some jokey, desperate “see, it’s bad on purpose!” type of film like you get from Troma. But Jackson handles this insane scenario with all the gravitas of a man making a film about the Iran hostage crisis. At no point does he flirt with self-awareness or irony. At no point is he telling you anything other than the single greatest story ever told. And that is the saving grace of this and all films this terrible. When they try to excuse themselves after the fact by layering on the, “See? We get it! It’s bad on purpose!” nonsense, they lose me.
I just don’t appreciate that sort of lack of commitment, especially since more times than not, it’s used to excuse laziness. That’s why Troma films, though they have their audience, have never worked for me. But Jackson isn’t here to joke around or poke fun at himself, and he’s nothing if not dedicated to his vision of the film. Jackson wrote, directed, and produced the film. He did the cinematography, the set design, and the costuming. He was involved in the special effects and make-up. If there had been a way for him to be his own second unit director, or if he had even been able to afford a second unit, he probably would have done that, too. What you are seeing when you pop in your ratty old Roller Blade VHS tape is the purest presentation of Donald Jackson’s vision of the future as could be achieved. To laugh at it is easy. To understand it is more challenging, perhaps less rewarding, and probably requires that you have been at least a teenager or a half-nude rollerskating nun with a knife during the 1980s.
See, not only did we love rollerskating, but we were also pretty confident that the world was going to get blown up as a result of a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. That’s what we called Russia before it was called Russia but after it was called Russia. As kids, we knew this destruction was inevitable, and all we could do was rest assured that we, at the very least, would survive the nuclear apocalypse, along with all our friends and whatever girls we might have had crushes on at the time. But it would be a savage world into which we would emerge from the protection of our homemade nuclear bomb and fallout shelter — which for my group of friends was a foot deep hole and a cave we covered with a piece of warped plywood and stocked with a first aid kit and some tins of Dinty Moore beef stew which, to the best of my knowledge, are still stashed in the cave waiting for the day we will need them.
Such a world is the one envisioned by Roller Blade. The war has happened. Society has crumbled. Amid the chaos and the mayhem we find the Holy Order of the Roller Blade, a society of nuns who love to wear black panties, bathe each other in the hot tub, and hone their butterfly knife skills with less dedication and fewer results than one might expect from a hood hanging out in the parking lot trying to impress the people who might catch a glimpse of him flippin’ around his butterfly knife and thus think him dark and dangerous. The nuns are lorded over by wheelchair bound Mother Speed (Katina Garner, who you probably know from Cannibal Hookers, The Tomb, or A Polish Vampire in Burbank — right?), and Sister Sharon Cross (Suzanne Solari — a Donald Jackson regular, if you can accept that such a thing exists) seems to be the star nun, or acolyte, or whatever the ranks are in this crazy future. Sharon is plagued by a nightmare about an ugly monster in some goo or bubbling water lit with green neon or something, and this results in her frequently stripping down to just her big red KKK hood and a black thong to pray to their image of God: a light-up smiley face button.
Now the first thing that leaps to mind is that Jackson is making a clever comment on how, in a cultural vacuum and divorced of their original benign and shallow meaning, even the most commonplace of items can be mistakenly infused with some sort of sacred importance and meaning. When I go to the Egyptian wing of The Met and look at all those little figurines accompanied by a placard explaining their religious significance, am I really looking at religious icons, or am I looking at some ancient Egyptian nine-year-old’s collection of action figures? When the nuns of this blighted future gather to pray and soap up each other’s lithesome, nude bodies in front of the glowing smiley face, is it really any different than praying to any other icon, especially within the reference frame of the 1980s, when consumer culture was elevated to a religion?
Well, yes, it is different, because it features naked nuns with gigantic teased hair fondling each other, and I don’t know about you, but I never got to see that in the few times I went to a Methodist church. But from what I know about Catholicism — and what I know I learned from sleazy Italian nun sexploitation films, so I know what I’m talking about — this isn’t all that unusual. Although doing it while wearing roller skates might be unique. And it doesn’t matter anyway, because the sheer absurdity of this movie undercuts any attempt Jackson might have been making to comment about religion or consumerism. It comes across instead more like the sort of “I’m gonna write an awesome dystopian scifi story” you’d get from a sixteen-year-old who just finished reading Brave New World and wants to basically rip that off while blending it with 80s pop apocalypse and clumsy punk rock references. In other words, it’s about as stupid as something I wrote in 1987, only no one gave me $5,000 and actresses willing to do full frontal in order to realize my dream.
But again, I genuinely admire that the film takes itself so seriously, that Jackson was writing this and thinking it was awesome and deep, or so I assume. I also assume that it was written in an acid-induced haze as Jackson drank bottle after bottle of cheap tequila while holed up in a Juarez fleapit hotel room with a plump Mexican whore, doing his best to stay one step ahead of a murderous pimp to whom he owed $5,000 that was stolen to make Roller Blade. Unfortunately, we’ll never know for sure.
The nuns are aided in whatever their quest is by the roller rangers, or something like that. Basically, it’s a black guy and white dude in a cowboy hat who insists on speaking like someone who might have read part of a Shakespeare play at some point, with lots of “thou” and “verily.” Oddly, not the first or last time that post-apocalyptic scifi would assume that one of the side-effects of nuclear fallout was that it makes you speak like you’re in a high school production of Richard III. Also, these guys use guns, which would seem like a better weapon than a butterfly knife, but what do I know? I don’t even understand why you’d keep your skates on while engaging in a fight that involves ladders and narrow catwalks.
Opposing the nuns is Saticoy, a mad warlord accompanied by his rubber hand puppet which may or may not be sentient (was it supposed to be a mutation or something? Or was he just wearing a hand puppet?). They dream of stealing the secret of the roller blade’s power and using it to power a rocket car over the wall into Mecca Co., where they will pilfer an armory and…well, I don’t know. Kill the nuns or something. I don’t think Saticoy thought much about the plan beyond that point. To realize his nefarious scheme, Saticoy employs a legion of end-of-the-world street punks he culled from the local BMX stores and wherever Suicidal Tendencies was playing.
Also working for Saticoy is a freelance killer named Hunter, clad in spandex and played by Shaun Michelle. You probably know her as the star of films like Watch My Lips, Erotic Aerobics, and Flesh Pond, among many other titles of an adult nature. Shaun trades her deadly skills with a butterfly knife for batteries to power her cassette tape walkman. Oh, how cheap is life in this hellish future that it can be traded for a handful of AA’s? I assume she listens to Duran Duran’s “Wild Boys” on a loop, and I know from experience that doing that all day will burn through batteries pretty quickly. Saticoy wants her to infiltrate the Holy Order and steal the power crystal for him. He also arranges to kidnap righteous Marshall Goodman’s son, though exactly what the point of this was is never entirely clear. Hunter gets herself beat up a little so the nuns will take her in, but she also gets to kick the asses of some “spikers,” which she does with both hands tied behind her back and while wearing roller skates.
Before too long Sister Sharon has taken the young woman under her wing and dubbed her Sister Fortune. Hunter/Fortune accomplishes her mission, but while she was under the protection of the nuns…is it possible…just maybe…that she learned a little something about respect and friendship? Only time and a procession of nude rollerskate catfights can tell. Throw in roller samurai, more nude rituals, and a dude who looks like Ted Nugent after being bitten by a radioactive Alice Cooper, and you have…umm…well, you have Roller Blade. Oh yeah, also, the butterfly knives can heal the sick, wounded, and even the partially beheaded.
Wait, did I mention that even though Mother Speed is wheelchair-bound, she still wears roller skates? And did I mention how the awkward fitting costumes look like they were put together by a particularly challenged 6th grade home ec class? No? Well, I probably didn’t need to, did I?
Oh wait, I never got to the henchman in the checkerboard Cheap Trick painter’s cap. Can you believe we made painter’s caps a trend in the 80s? That’s about as believable as the scene where the ugly rubber puppet fondles a nude woman who has random parts of her body wrapped for some reason in aluminum foil.
At some point, Marshall Goodman (played by Jeff Hutchinson, who was almost as involved behind the camera as was Donald Jackson himself), catches his son playing outside and chastises the lad — not for wandering off into a post-nuke hell populated by sneering, murderous DRI fans, but for wandering off into a post-nuke hell populated by sneering, murderous DRI fans while not wearing his rollerskates. When the central conceit of your film is entirely nonsensical and idiotic, complaining that everything else in the film doesn’t make a lick of sense seems petty.
Exactly why everyone decided to wear rollerskates all the time is never explained, and I dare say it couldn’t be explained. Most of the time, the roller skates are an obvious detriment to the person wearing them. Hey, backwards skating may be fun, but rollerskates are not exactly the world’s most versatile form of transportation. A few people switch it up and have skateboards, but no matter what skate punks tell you, that’s really not much better, though with all the rubble lying around after the fall of society, I bet there are plenty of places to do some sweet grinds and acid drops. Mostly, though, it’s roller skates — and keep in mind that these are classic 80s style roller skates, and the “roller blade” of the title is not the brand of inline skates that would debut shortly after the release of this film.
If it sounds like Jackson and his crew were just making shit up as they went along, that’s because they were. Jackson and his friends Scott Shaw called what they did Zen Filmmaking, which translates to the Western mind as “making shit up as they went.” No scripts, only the vaguest of scenarios, and then off you go. Who can you hire that day? What new idea presents itself? Why tie yourself to the outdated concept of planning everything out on paper ahead of time, man? Why restrict your creativity to such a high degree? Just let it flow, man, and do whatever comes to mind. And what came to Jackson’s mind was futuristic sex nuns on rollerskates. I gotta say, as much as I might poke fun at this movie, that’s probably not too far off from what I would have come up with. Describing the end result as bizarre hardly does justice to Roller Blade.
Believe me when I say I have seen some weird stuff. I don’t mean standard, run of the mill weird stuff. I mean “Ho hum, is it Salo: 120 Days of Sodom and Nekromantik again? How dull and mainstream” weird stuff. Although independent filmmakers have always existed, the 80s represent a major boom in the accessibility of filmmaking to any and damn near everyone. And because you didn’t have to do something like send reels of film away to be developed by some stranger who would sit in judgment of your amateur super 8 porn, you could be a lot more liberal with what you were willing to shoot. So every bizarre fetish, every dark recess of the mind, every warped idea born from being locked in a closet as a child and force fed LSD and rat droppings became grist for the video mill. And I have seen a lot of them. Hell, I’ve even seen my fair share of rollerskate-based porno from the 70s (what Donald Jackson is to the post-apocalypse rollerskating movie, Ray Dennis Steckler was to 70s rollerskating themed porn). And even within that larger world of low/no budget madness resembling a Lovecraftian ancient horror, I have to say that Roller Blade is pretty goddamn weird. It’s a perfect storm of crackpot ideas, lack of talent, meandering weirdness, strange synthesizer doodling, and women willing to get naked and wrestle in their rollerskates. That it is is all presented with such solemn determination makes it beautiful.
Donald, Donald, Donald. Taken too soon from us. How did your career…well, how did it happen? And when it did, how did it go so strange so quickly? For years, Jackson was laboring unsuccessfully in an auto factory, trying to jump start a movie making career. He finally managed to score a couple modestly successful (or infamous, depending on your understanding of the English language) films in Demon Lover and the pro wrestling documentary I Like to Hurt People. He used that money to move to L.A., and the next thing you know, the dude has made Hell Comes to Frogtown and Roller Blade. Have you seen Hell Comes to Frogtown? That’s not a bad movie, and he managed to hire Rowdy Roddy Piper when Piper was actually a bankable commodity. How that film was made by the same guy at pretty much the same time as Roller Blade isn’t exactly a mystery as much as it is an interesting study in what happens when a man is given free reign over a budget of $5,000 and told “You have Michelle Bauer for an hour; try to make her wrestle nude in rollerskates.” Mission accomplished!
Hell Comes to Frogtown isn’t entirely dissimilar to Roller Blade; it’s simply a lot more competent. It still possesses the same fanfic level of post-apocalyptic scenario creation, but because of the humor in the film, it isn’t nearly as clumsy. But then, the absolute warped, freeform nature of Roller Blade makes it such a puzzle, such a stunning piece of…is it art?…that in the end, I know a lot more about it than I do Frogtown. Both concepts (post-nuke rollerskating nuns and post-nuke wasteland populated by frog guys) pretty much defined the remainder of Jackson’s career, though in 1998 he did find time to make a movie called Lingerie Kickboxer, which I probably need to see as part of my quest to become an expert on all movies that feature naked kickboxing. In 2003, Jackson died of Leukemia, leaving behind a legacy of films that can best be described as, “what the fuck was that?” I really would have loved to hear him talk about these movies, but sadly that will never come to pass. Left to carry on the tradition of zen filmmaking and movies about rollerskating nuns in thongs was Jackson’s frequent collaborator, Scott Shaw.
The acting in the movie isn’t even worth discussing. It was shot without sound anyway, so most of the performances were looped in during post-production, with the voice work being handled by two or three people. Judging from the blank faces on most of the cast though, it’s no stretch to guess the caliber of acting we would have enjoyed had Jackson been able to afford to record sound. Shaun does have a wicked bad girl sneer, though. Billy Idol would be impressed. When your only real actor is Michelle Bauer, you’re in trouble. When your only real actor is Michelle Bauer and she’s only in one scene and she doesn’t speak, you’re in even bigger trouble. But when your only real actor is Michelle Bauer and she’s only in one scene and she doesn’t speak, but she does do nude lesbian wrestling while wearing rollerskates, then there is at least a glimmer of hope that the world is gonna be OK. After Bauer, the next most famous person in this movie is only famous because he’s the child of Fred Olen Ray, the infamous producer/director of more direct to video scifi/fantasy T&A films than I can count, though I don’t seem to have much trouble purchasing them.
Of all the crappy old VHS tapes I own, this is one of my most cherished. As of this writing, this movie and its even more elusive sequel, Roller Blade Warriors: Taken By Force, remain unrepresented in the DVD market. How is this possible? This movie spawned too many other movies to be so ignored, from Return of the Rollerblade 7 to that scene in Hackers where they all rollerblade around. Where is the justice in this world? Looking back on this film, it’s hard to believe just how insanely weird it was. Actually, watching it in 1987 or so when I first saw it, it was just as hard to believe how insanely weird it was.
In the end, offering up any sort of criticism of this film seems moot. Pointless. Nigh impossible. It’s like trying to write sensibly about Alejandro Jodoworsky at his most insane. This is the rare film that is so poorly made, so absolutely weird, that it becomes a form of outsider art. Centuries from now, future generations will discover this VHS tape as they mine old landfills for relics of the past, and they will not need to ask themselves any further why 21st century man faded from this realm. This film has a hypnotic effect on me. Like some ancient Stygian evil, it terrifies me beyond the capacity for rational thought, and in doing so it makes it impossible for me to turn away. Rest assured that when those future archaeologists excavate Roller Blade, they will find whatever skeletal remnant of my hand that remains still clutching it dearly.
Release Year: 1986 | Country: United States | Starring: Suzanne Solari, Jeff Hutchinson, Shaun Michelle, Katina Garner, Sam Mann, Robby Taylor, Christopher Douglas-Olen Ray, Erin Michael, Michael Cofield, Pat McClung | Writer: Donald Jackson | Director: Donald Jackson | Cinematographer: Donald Jackson | Music: Robert Garrett | Producer: Donald Jackson