There are some films that are completely a product of a small slice of time. They're so rooted in the sensibilities undying them that they wouldn't have worked any other way. It's in the solid of the late 90's Neo-swing revival that Six-String Samurai managed to spring up and make it's cult pop contribution. In that roughly five year return to sanity the country remembered what cool meant, breaking out wingtip shoes, bowling shirts, rockabilly, and slick do's. With that, an added wistfulness toward 50's music and style became the water to nourish this wicked little indie flick. And yet it's entirely possible that you've never heard of it, despite it even getting a referential nod in the very popular RPG Fallout: New Vegas in the form of the "New Vegas Samurai" achievement (awarded for dishing out 10k points of damage with melee weapons), replete with a pip boy parody of the movie's poster.
If you're not hip to this alternate history heavy plot, dig this: in 1957 the Russians launched a nuclear attack, bringing America to its knees. The last bastion of freedom in the resultant wasteland is Lost Vegas, which is ruled over by the King, Elvis Presley, for forty years. Upon his death, a call goes out via disc jockey Wolfman (voice by a Wolfman Jack impersonator) for all those who believe they're worthy to travel to Vegas and compete for the vacated crown. This won't be an easy journey, as our hero Buddy (directly patterned on Buddy Holly) is confronted at every turn by fellow musicians seeking the crown, and is hounded by death, who is killing every guitar player in the land.
The wasteland itself offers plenty of perils, from a 50's Leave it to Beaver style family of cannibals, a killer gang of astronauts (wind people), mutated cavemen, bowling hitmen (the pinheads), rockabilly band The Red Elvises (playing themselves and providing most of the soundtrack), to the remnants of the Russian Army. If you've been playing the home game, then it's pretty obvious by now that this isn't a film planning to tickle you serious. Six-String Samurai plays it camp all the way, in a style familiar to long time fans of the Fallout video game series. The first two Fallout games, which came out in the two years before this film, share an enormous number of aesthetic and pop culture sensibilities, and the modern games certainly take a few stylistic elements from it (an enthusiastic, crazy character DJ broadcasting classic tunes over the wasteland airwaves, anyone?).
If describing this as a post apocalyptic, rock and roll, samurai, sword fighting, cult classic flick isn't enough to ensnare your medulla oblongata, you may be dead inside. Perhaps you aren't camp to the core or hip to this particular flavor of soda pop. Even so, Six-String Samurai strives to be a deeper film that it's surface silliness let's on. Death, you see, takes the form of Slash of Guns N' Roses fame. He embodies heavy metal, killing off other forms of guitar music in his bid for dominance. It's true. In the course of the film he takes down someone reminiscent of Jerry Lee Lewis, a country western singer, rockabilly band The Red Elvises, and a mariachi band. There's a pervading theme of hope at the end of the film, hope that Rock and roll can always come back, though it appears to be gone. The film also takes heavy inspiration from The Wizard of Oz, insinuating that the road Buddy travels is the yellow brick road, visualizing Vegas in a strikingly similar way to the Emerald City. It's similar in another very important way, but I don't want to spoil it for you. You'll know exactly what I mean.
On an incredibly modest budget of only two million dollars, Six-String Samurai generates massive bang for it's cinematic buck. Winning both the excellence in editing and best cinematography awards at 1998's Slamdance Film Festival should give you a hint as to how it managed to pull off such a kinetic visual feel, but that's only half of the formula. The real nuclear reactor powering this film is star Jeffrey Falcon, who not only cowrote the story, but was also the action director, costume designer, and production designer. Having cut his teeth in Honk Kong action cinema, this was supposed to be his breakout film. His experience shines through in the amazing, balletic katana play on display here. Rhythm, pacing, and beauty strike a balance in time with the rockabilly tunes of the soundtrack.
Sadly, this was not destined to become the massive hit it deserved to be. The likely snag came in it's release at the tail end of the new cool; Neo Swing was already Lindy hopping it's way out. That wasn't the only coffin nail, as a limited theatrical release didn't get this to the eyeballs that would have eaten it up like so much hair gel. With a massive helping of cool, a killer soundtrack, kitsch sense of satire, and action to spare, this is the rare kind of film which you can't help bragging that you've seen to all of your friends. It only received one DVD release back in 1999, but as luck would have it Amazon has just under twenty copies remaining. I hope to see it sold out by the week's end, Maniacs. I promise you'll thank me.
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Chuck Francisco is a columnist and critic for Mania, writing Saturday's Shock-O-Rama, the weekly look into classic cult, horror and sci-fi. He is a co-curator of several repertoire film series at the world famousColonial Theatre in Phoenixville, PA. You can hear him drop nerd knowledge on weekly podcast You've Got Geek or think him a fool of a Took on Twitter.