Movies & TV / Columns

The Gratuitous B-Movie Column: River of Death

December 6, 2019 | Posted by Bryan Kristopowitz
River of Death

The Gratuitous B-Movie Column Issue #534: River of Death

Dudikoff December: Week 1

Hello, everyone, and welcome once again to the internets movie review column that has never been a part of an expedition to find a lost city in the jungle or the mountains or, really, anywhere, The Gratuitous B-Movie Column, and I am your host Bryan Kristopowitz. In this issue, issue number five hundred and thirty-four, Dudikoff December begins with River of Death, which hit movie screens in very late September, 1989.

River of Death


River of Death, directed by the great Steve Carver and based on a novel by Alistair MacLean, is a sort of low budget Indiana Jones kind of thing. While it never reaches the same cinematic heights as Raiders of the Lost Ark, River of Death is chock full of action and adventure, and tries very hard to be a sort of modern version (modern for 1989) of an old fashioned adventure movie. For the most part, River of Death manages to be what it wants to be, a solid action adventure movie. It’s too bad Cannon Films, director Carver, and star Michael Dudikoff didn’t get to do another one.

Dudikoff stars as John Hamilton, a sort of badass professional explorer/tracker/adventurer who, after watching the daughter of a client get captured by psychotic natives in the Amazon jungle, decides to put together his own search party for the woman (Anna, as played by Sarah Maur Thorp). Anna’s father, Doc Blakesley (Victor Melleney), was killed in the jungle while researching a deadly disease that seems to only be attacking native populations, and Hamilton can’t bear to see Anna suffer the same fate. So Hamilton enlists the help of an old friend, Edie Hiller (the incomparable L.Q. Jones), one of the few people in the world Hamilton sort of trusts. Hiller isn’t all that interested in Hamilton’s scheme but eventually decides to get involved because the mission is set to be funded by rich guy Heinrich Spaatz (the Donald Pleasance), who also wants to personally participate in the rescue mission because Hamilton intends to go to a lost city that Spaatz has great interest in “discovering.” There might be treasure there in the lost city and, well, who doesn’t like to discover treasure?

Now, Spaatz’s interest in Hamilton’s trek into the jungle actually has little to do with discovering a lost city or treasure or any of that shit. Spaatz really wants Hamilton to direct him to a crazed Nazi doctor (Dr. Wolfgang Manteuffel, as played by the great Robert Vaughn) that Spaatz wants to destroy. See, Spaatz is also an old Nazi, having escaped Germany at the end of World War II but not before Manteuffel shot him and left him for dead. See, back before the fall of the Third Reich, Spaatz and Manteuffel planned on running away together to run some big hooha business that would make them both rich and allow Manteuffel to continue his weird research. Manteuffel didn’t want to share, though, and had Spaatz shot before flying away to the jungles of the Amazon. Spaatz didn’t die from his bullet wound, though. Instead of dying, Spaatz escaped on his own, built a gigantic international business, and vowed to find Manteuffel one day and kill him. And Manteuffel is in this lost city. Spaatz will finally be able to get his revenge.

Now, while all of that is going on, Hamilton also has to deal with local cop Colonel Ricardo Diaz (Herbert Lom), who is corrupt as hell and warns Hamilton that if he does find the lost city in the jungle, Colonel Diaz wants a cut of whatever Hamilton finds there. Colonel Diaz makes it sound as though he’s speaking for his government, that the jungle and its contents are technically government property, and that he’s a patriot. That’s all bullshit, though. Colonel Diaz wants treasure and money.

So Hamilton assembles his team (there are also two younger German people that come along but I don’t remember their names and, truthfully, they don’t really fit into the story anyway. They’re just sort of “in” the movie) and, immediately, Hamilton’s plan for the excursion goes to shit. They have helicopter issues (Hamilton and his team travel into the jungle via two helicopters) and Hamilton has to alter his big plan for entering the jungle. Hamilton’s team is attacked multiple times by various local entities (pirates, natives, etc.). The whole thing is a goddamn disaster.

When Hamilton and his depleted team (several members of the expedition get killed on their way into the jungle) finally reach the lost city, they are captured by the same natives that killed Doc Blakesley and captured Anna and a team of Nazis. A team of Nazis in the jungle? Dr. Manteuffel has to be there!

And he is. Anna is there, too. She isn’t in very good shape. Dr. Manteuffel poisoned her with his research. The Nazi doctor is also responsible for creating the deadly disease that Anna’s father was researching. This lost city is the home of pure evil. It must be destroyed.

My God, there’s a lot of plot going on in River of Death. It all flows well but, man, when you write it out there’s just way too much. How the hell did director Carver cram all of that into 100 minutes? It seems impossible, but he did it. And it works.

The action is well done and generally exciting. There are plenty of gun battles and explosions and chase sequences. The jungle areas are beautiful and become dangerous when the natives show up. It’s interesting how the lighting or camera angles don’t change when the natives appear. Everything looks exactly the same as always, but with the natives in the frame the danger level increases exponentially. The natives, especially the ones with white paint on their bodies (they sort of look like skeletons while wearing that body paint), are terrifying. The natives aren’t monsters, but they are definitely a threat that Hamilton and his team have to deal with.

The only aspect of the action that I found disappointing was the lack of hand-to-hand fighting. It just seems odd that Hamilton doesn’t know martial arts. You would think that an adventurer that, presumably, has been around the world a time or two would have picked up some skills. And when Michael Dudikoff, the American Ninja, is the star, Hamilton’s lack of martial arts seems like a missed opportunity.

Initially, I wasn’t impressed with Dr. Manteuffel’s lab in the lost city. I thought it should have been bigger and more elaborate. But then I thought about it and the lab’s lack of size makes sense. It doesn’t need to be a gleaming dungeon of beakers and machines and whatnot. It’s fine being a modest area. The nasty shit that Manteuffel is creating in there is what’s important.

The main cast is exceptional. Dudikoff does a great job as adventurer John Hamilton. Dudikoff gives the character a world weariness that you don’t necessarily expect because Hamilton seems young. Should a young man be this cynical? You would hope not, but considering what he’s done in his life and what he’s been through as a professional adventurer that weariness makes sense. His constant voiceover is probably overdone, but Dudikoff makes is work. Again, I don’t get why Hamilton isn’t proficient in martial arts, but Dudikoff does a good job with the action sequences he’s given to do.

Donald Pleasance is a hoot as Heinrich Spaatz. You expect that, because he’s Donald goddamn Pleasance, that he’s going to have some epic meltdown scene where he chews the scenery like a motherfucker, but he keeps Spaatz fairly subdued throughout. He does get to do a bit of the crazy thing at the end of the movie, but it isn’t overdone. There’s a quiet creepiness to Spaatz that’s both unsettling and shockingly watchable. You just can’t take your eyes off of him. And check out the scene where he chews on the fingers of his young lover/secretary Maria (Cynthia Erland). You will be skeeved the fuck out.

Robert Vaughn does a decent job as Nazi doctor Dr. Wolfgang Manteuffel. He just oozes a quiet evil that is terrifying, especially when you realize that creating a deadly disease is all this guy does. He isn’t a product of lazy screenwriting, he’s meant to be one dimensional because the disease is the only thing that matters to him. It’s also scary as heel to think that, twenty years after the fall of Hitler and the Third Reich, Manteuffel is still proudly displaying the Nazi swastika in his lab. This man has to be stopped. Good stuff.

L.Q. Jones, as usual, kicks ass as Eddie Hiller, Hamilton’s one sort of friend in the world. He’s a total sleazebag that’s all about the money, but he also has a quiet competence that makes him a guy you can rely on, even if you don’t totally trust him. Yes, I know that last sentence doesn’t make any sense, but if you watch the movie you’ll see what I’m talking about. Has L.Q. Jones ever given a bad performance in anything?

Herbert Lom does a fine job as the sleazy, corrupt local cop Colonel Ricardo Diaz. The character isn’t anything we haven’t seen before a million times in movies and in TV shows, but Lom makes the character his own and he’s incredibly watchable. Since watching River of Death I’ve been wondering how many off shore accounts Colonel Diaz has, or, really, how much money he has stashed somewhere. Because you know he’s got something stashed somewhere. He’s that kind of corrupt cop.

And then there’s Ian Yule as Long John Silver, the Australian (maybe) chopper pilot that has a history with Hamilton. Yule is awesome and funny as hell as Silver, and it’s a damn shame that he ends up getting killed. He could have been a great recurring character in a John Hamilton series.

And why the heck didn’t we get a John Hamilton movie series? I can’t find any box office info on River of Death, so I’m just going to assume that the movie wasn’t a hit in movie theatres, but I’d imagine that it was some sort of hit on home video and TV. Dudikoff was still a decent sized action star in the late 1980’s so the movie must have made some money via those two avenues. So why didn’t we get at least one more John Hamilton movie? I seriously doubt he would have stopped being a professional adventurer after the events of River of Death. The man definitely went on several more adventures. He must have.

River of Death is a solid, well-made action-adventure movie. It isn’t necessarily special, but it does what it needs to do and doesn’t try to be anything other than a solid, well-made action-adventure movie. It’s definitely worth checking out.

See River of Death. See it, see it, see it.

So what do we have here?

Dead bodies: At least 30.

Explosions: Several, both big and small.

Nudity?: None.

Doobage: A cool opening theme, a burned up body, attempted childhood protection, bullet to the head, mild but understood sort of homoeroticism, bullet to the leg, a snake, ants, scorpions, people walking through the jungle, a weird disease, attempted tent sex, limb cutting, arrow to the knee, fire setting, a chase through the jungle, kidnaping, cliff diving, machine gun hooey, food eating, spear throwing, dart shooting, a walking through the rainy jungle montage, team assembling, vehicular assault, mugging, a swanky night club, police corruption, a hot babe, creepy as fuck finger kissing, gut punching, a very white cop, ass slapping, two choppers, unexpected chopper malfunction, more machine gun hooey, rocket shooting, night time rafting, dynamite hooey, knife to the throat, even more machine gun hooey, exploding headquarters, shaving, snare hooey, multiple boat attacks, double arrow to the chest, mortar hooey, snare cutting, hooey, a big lie, another bullet to the head, more boat attacks, a flaming catapult, multiple flaming arrows, exploding boat, multiple knee problems, a shootout, bloody human skulls on poles, a native ceremony, a full on public beating, Nazis, a secret lab, multiple experiment victims, yet more machine gun hooey, a hilarious grenade sequence, kneecapping, flare gun hooey, a giant fire, and the promise of a sequel that will never happen.

Kim Richards?: None.

Gratuitous: A black and white opening, Germany 1945, Robert Vaughn, Robert Vaughn as a nutjob Nazi scientist, Donald Pleasance, the Amazon jungle, Michael Dudikoff, Michael Dudikoff as a badass professional adventurer, a native ceremony, Michael Dudikoff voiceover narration, a native attack, Michael Dudikoff setting a fire using eyeglasses and the sun, Michael Dudikoff eating, Hebert Lom, two people using their phone at the same time, underground midget boxing, L.Q. Jones, a skeleton smoking a cigarette, a creepy lounge singer, Donald Pleasance wearing a really bad toupee, people with German names, an Australian chopper pilot and mechanic, L.Q. Jones smoking a pipe, Donald Pleasance lying his fucking ass off, a native picking up a grenade and the grenade explodes in his face, cannibals, Donald Pleasance looking disturbed, a native that may not be infected with the disease, knife inside of a cane, a big twist, and the promise of a sequel that’s never going to happen.

Best lines: “Heinrich, what are you doing here?,” “Don’t do that! Don’t call me mad!,” “I’ll find you! I shall be the devil on your back!,” “He’s got it. Just like the others,” “Anna!,” “I don’t like the feeling of this. Maybe I should have told the doc I’ve never been up this way before,” “The disease could be spreading from here,” “He’s dead!,” “And you think the killer is a white man? That’s quite a story,” “Well, John Hamilton, the old American boy,” “You’re really going back there, aren’t ya?,” “You really are crazy,” “Sounds like a bunch of shit to me,” “You’re fucking with the golden goose, John/ And you’re fucking with me, Eddie!,” “Keep in touch. Our discussion is not finished,” “This is the happiest moment… of my life,” “What kind of maps are those?,” “I don’t remember talking to you about my Indians,” “You’re a real holy terror, Cerano,” “Hey, Hamilton. Thanks back there,” “Why are you so cold blooded?,” “Nobody goes back! Except you, you sniveling prick!,” “You are a spy,” “Hamilton, do we have a use for this?,” “So where is this secret government outpost?,” “All right, Hamilton, throw down your weapon,” “Who is this guy? He! He!,” “Welcome to our little corner of the world,” “Asshole!,” “My father was wrong. It isn’t only Indians that can get the disease,” “You speak English,” “Wolfy wanted to be Fuhrer. Wolfy wanted to be king,” and “Easy with that flare gun. You could blow the whole place up.”

Rating: 8.5/10.0




The Gratuitous B-Movie Column The Facebook Page!

Please check out and “like” The Gratuitous B-Movie Column Facebook page, which is here.


The Gratuitous B-Movie Column Facebook page! Yeah!


Things to Watch Out For


Ready or Not: I missed this horror comedy when it was in theatres this past summer, which I’m bummed about because, from the rave reviews the movie received, I have a feeling I missed something. It’s apparently about a young woman who ends up having to participate in some sort of insane “game” as a result of her marrying into a, well, insane family. The great Andie McDowell is also apparently in it, so that’s cool, too. So who saw this in the theatre? Was it worth it? Is it as good as the reviews claim it to be?


Battle of Leningrad: I saw and reviewed this Russian World War II movie a few weeks ago when it was titled Saving Leningrad (check out my review here). I’m not sure I agree with the title change, but then it isn’t my movie. I will say that the movie, while it will likely have greater meaning for a Russian audience since it deals with a specific event in Russian history, it’s still worth seeing, mostly to see World War II from a different perspective. The movie’s battle scenes are also well done. So, if you’re a World War II movie buff, be sure to check out Battle of Leningrad. It’s worth seeing.


Big Trouble in Little China Collector’s Edition: The fine folks at Shout! Factory/Scream Factory are behind this mega release of director John Carpenter’s epic homage to kung fu movies and westerns and his fourth collaboration with star Kurt Russell and it is an absolute must own. Yes, the previous special edition DVD and Blu-ray were great, with their deleted scenes and commentary track and whatnot, but this Scream Factory edition is easily the most comprehensive home video version of Big Trouble in Little China. Easily. Just go ahead and check out what sort of special features you get with this Blu-ray. And on top of that, getting the movie at its best looking, this, again, is an absolute must own. I know I want to get it. Why has it taken this long to get a mega special collector’s edition of this movie? Isn’t this the kind of movie special features were invented for?

And how about this: Big Trouble in Little China and Vampires in the same year? This is the year of John Carpenter on Blu-ray, isn’t it?


Next Issue: Dudikoff December continues with Virtual Assassin!


Check out my Widow’s Point set visit!

Read it here!



Most Recent Interviews

Steve Latshaw
Rick Hurst
Douglas Burke
Jeff Farley
Fred “The Hammer” Williamson
Nico Sentner
Everett Ray Aponte
Max Martini
Tom Huckabee
Jason Kellerman
David Tarleton
Roxy Shih
Jesse V. Johnson
Tamas Nadas (2)
Jesse Thomas Cook
Adam Seybold
Liv Collins
Bryan C. Winn
Jeffrey Combs
Ezra Tsegaye
Alexander Nevsky(4)
Sebastian Wolf
Dana Gould
Janet Varney
Richard Brake
Steven Lambert
Rolfe Kanefsky
Robert Donavan
Lukas Hassel
Jessica Morris
Daniel Roebuck (2)


Follow me on Twitter!


Well, I think that’ll be about it for now. Don’t forget to sign up with disqus if you want to comment on this article and any other 411 article. You know you want to, so just go do it.

B-movies rule. Always remember that.

River of Death

Michael Dudikoff– John Hamilton
Robert Vaughn– Dr. Wolfgang Manteuffel
Donald Pleasance– Heinrich Spaatz
Herbert Lom– Colonel Ricardo Diaz
L.Q. Jones– Eddie Hiller
Sarah Maur Thorp– Anna Blakesley
Cynthia Erland– Maria
Victor Melleney– Doc Blakesley
Ian Yule– Long John Silver

(check out the rest of the cast here)

Directed by Steve Carver
Screenplay by Andrew Deutsch and Edward Simpson, based on a novel by Alistair MacLean

Distributed by Cannon Film Distributors, Cannon Home Video, Unicorn Video, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, MGM/UA Home Entertainment, and Kino Lorber

Rated R for language and violence
Runtime– 107 minutes

Buy it here