I’m throwing down the gauntlet on this one: Rolling Vengeance is a dyed-in the-wool minor lost classic in annals of ‘80s exploitation. We’ve been denied other superlative Reagan-era efforts like Night of the Creeps on DVD for some time but the thing is, people are calling for their re-releases - there are websites, even petitions. Vengeance, on the other hand, seems to have slipped past even the most meticulous DTV aficionados. Produced (in Canada, no less) at the height of monster truck mania in the go-go ‘80s, the film is a straight shot of over-the-top car crunching action and cheesy hard-rock ballads, the likes of which must truly be seen to be believed.
Part of the hicksploitation sub-genre (exemplified by Road House, beholden to Deliverance) that rears its gap-toothed head every so often with little rhyme or reason, Vengeance won’t sweep any retroactive award races and doesn’t fly in the face of genre conventions. What it does do is play all the right notes to their hilt, something much easier said than done when it comes to balancing the polar elements that make for a memorable sleaze fest. Vengeance has the great advantage of a script completely in tune with its roots, actors unafraid to give their all in intentionally outsized performances, and an oh-so-80s vibe throughout that’s tough to resist.
Joey (Don Michael Paul –three first names!) loses his mother, younger sister and brother in a car accident instigated by the boozy sons of local sin impresario Tiny (Ned Beatty). After a retaliatory trashing of Tiny’s bar, Joey’s trucker father is run off the road and sent into a coma (in an impressively-staged jackknifing). In a montage spurred on by an amazing array of what can best be described as “hot guitar licks,” Joey transforms his monster truck into a more straight-forward killing machine, complete with a massive retractable drill bit / phallus. All manner of fatal road rage ensues, with Joey’s blind fury endangering himself and his girlfriend while local authorities scratch their heads and fail to notice the ginormous tire tracks leading to and from Joey’s barn.
A gleefully sadistic attitude toward its characters simmers beneath Vengeance’s surface throughout. Joey is really put through the ringer. Paul isn’t the strongest actor but he’s not bad in an under-scripted role (his transformation into an avenging angel happens in a snap; when things go too far, his only response it to push them further, not consider the consequences of what he’s done). In a bizarre side note, Paul would go on to direct a number of films himself, including the dreadful Steven Seagal opus Half Past Dead and the interesting religio-horror offering The Garden. Beatty has a blast as Tiny, lording over his five incompetent sons (each sired in a different marriage) and spewing vile, surprisingly pointed one-liners.
Director Steven H. Stern toiled in the MFTV ranks during much of the ‘70s and ‘80s and was the hand behind notables The Ghost of Flight 401 and Mazes and Monsters. There’s nothing particularly striking with the way Vengeance was shot or assembled, but the film features some exciting highway action and gobs of luridly staged violence. The script is relatively weak in structure but come on – it’s about a kid running down his enemies with a monster truck. Depth was never in the cards. What the writing does do is imbue the film with a quick, dark wit, likable characters, and bursts of creative violence.
I suspect Vengeance is, more than anything, a victim of circumstance. The torrent of low-budget exploitation unleashed on home video in the mid-to-late-80s ended up drowning itself, over-crowding shelves with so many entries it was inevitable some would be lost to time. In a lot of cases that’s just as well – but when a title like Vengeance ends up at the bottom of the barrel it’s a reminder not only are there still plenty of gems out there, it’s worth digging to find them.
Charter initially issued Rolling Vengeance on video. The film’s rights last sat with Orion, which was absorbed by MGM, which in turn was acquired by Sony (par for the course in Seldom Seen land). MGM still issues occasional volleys of classic exploitation so there’s hope the film will be given a chance find its second wind. After all - what distributor in their right mind wouldn’t want the definitive monster truck Death Wish variant in its active catalog? The world deserves Vengeance…