Machete Maidens Unleashed

Today’s Internet-savvy movie promotions seem mighty tame compared with the publicity tricks (vials of “green blood,” upchuck cups, slitherama, etc.) that lured thrill-hungry young audiences to fare such as Women in Cages, Mad Doctor of Blood Island and Night of the Cobra Woman back in the late 1960s and 1970s.
Machete Maidens Unleashed!: The official trailer

Viewers probably had no idea the aforementioned B flicks were filmed in the Philippines, a hot spot – in more ways than one – of low-budget genre-filmmaking during the twilight of drive-in and grindhouse theatres in North America. This hidden chapter of, ahem, cinema history is now given full-frontal exposure in the fast-paced, hilarious and illuminating documentary Machete Maidens Unleashed!

Australian filmmaker Mark Hartley, who explored his own B-movie backyard in Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild Untold Story of Ozploitation!, was initially recruited to helm a doc about two-foot-nine Filipino action superstar Weng Weng, who starred in several spy spoofs. But Hartley soon discovered there was a much larger story lurking in the jungle.

Maidens focuses on the wave of foreign, primarily U.S., producers – including legendary B-movie kingpin Roger Corman – who started tapping into the Philippines’s prolific, yet unexported, domestic film industry four decades ago to save a few bucks. The exotic locale became the backdrop for women’s prison thrillers (a big fave), cheap torture horror and blaxploitation kung-fu flicks. Inexpensive (and often expendable) labour filled out cast and crew rosters. And lax health and safety rules kept the filmmaking on edge, as did the firearms packed by some local crew members.

In short, a whole lot of exploitation was going on.

Hartley gives generous screen time to local filmmakers such as Eddie Romero and Cirio H. Santiago, who put their own cultural spin on American schlock – movies that let them keep working after President Ferdinand Marcos declared media-stifling martial law in 1972. There are new interviews with Corman and alumni of his New World Pictures studio, such as cult film actor Sid Haig, among others.

And no doc exploring B-movie history is complete without some ranting from prominent eighties director and B-movie aficionado Jon Landis, who energetically rejects the notion that these films were – in a twisted way – reflecting revolutionary movements of the day, such as feminism.

Yet the film’s most revealing interviews are with the bevy of female actors who bared it all from the waist up, fought swamp monsters, mercenaries and often each other while working under less than luxurious conditions – such as a wet cave used as a dressing room that also doubled as the men’s latrine. The standout work of Pam Grier, star of classics Big Doll House and Black Mama White Mama, is highlighted. Several other black actresses explain why starring roles as gun-packing, karate-chopping heroines attracted them to the Philippines at a time when the only available work in Hollywood for them was bit parts as hookers.

Hartley chops up the new and archival interviews but maintains a steady if breakneck narrative flow, interweaving tons of clips – which is the best (and most fun) reason to see Machete Maidens Unleashed! After all, not everyone has the stomach, the sensibility or the patience to sit through Beast of the Yellow Night.