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River of Death Reviews

The time is WW II; the place is a concentration camp laboratory, an evil playground for Wolfgang Manteuifil (Robert Vaughn), a Nazi fiend who enjoys playing God. Unmoved by a Nazi officer's demand that he abandon his inhuman experimentation, the mad scientist murders the officer while the officer's small daughter, Maria (Gail McQuillun), hides under a table and witnesses the slaying. When another SS bigwig, Heinrich Spaatz (Donald Pleasence), arrives, he and Manteuifil discuss the imminent collapse of the Third Reich, their booming sideline in art smuggling, and their possible escape to South America. Later, while waiting in a getaway plane, Manteuifil cunningly shoots Spaatz in the knee so that he can't flee with him; then Manteuifil flies to South America to continue his medical depravity. Twenty years later, John (Michael Dudikoff), a rugged jungle guide, accompanies a doctor and his daughter, Anna (Sarah Maur Thorp), on a mission to save natives by discovering the source of a fatal disease. Hundreds of miles from civilization, the party is attacked by natives who shoot the doctor and kidnap Anna; only John escapes. Guilt-stricken, John regains his health at a jungle outpost on the Amazon and vows to rescue the girl he left behind. When John reveals his expedition plans to local authorities, police chief Diaz (Herbert Lom) tries to discourage John from making the trip and warns that he doesn't want any native treasures disappearing (in reality, Diaz is an agent for the Nazis and neo-Nazis hiding in the jungle.) Accompanied by his mercenary partner, Hiller (L.Q. Jones), John commences his journey only to find that his expedition has attracted a representative of Diaz, two Nazi hunters, the duplicitous Spaatz, his mistress, and a henchman. Posing as a politically neutral tycoon, Spaatz actually wants to locate Manteuifil for revenge; what he doesn't realize is that his lovely girl friend, Maria (now played by Cynthia Erland), is the young German girl who witnessed Manteuifil's brutal killing of her father. Double-crossed by a pilot who lands their helicopter directly in the path of river pirates and then takes off alone, the explorers fight for their lives during a gun battle, sabotage the pirates' headquarters, and maneuver their way out of a river ambush by natives. Another copter pilot, known as Long John Silver (Ian Yule), a friend of John's, was supposed to meet the jungle travellers, but he is discovered dead. After Spaatz kills one mutineer who is wary of the increasingly dangerous trip, John orders Hiller to remain with Long John's copter. While guarding it, Hiller is shot by Diaz, who hesitates to finish the job only when he realizes he needs a pilot. After the remaining adventurers are captured by flesh-eating natives who kill three of them, Diaz and Hiller show up and rescue Spaatz, John, and Maria. In the Lost City of the Nazis, John re-encounters Anna, who has contracted the deadly disease perpetuated by Manteuifil. Although Spaatz exacts revenge from Manteuifil, an accident occurs when Maria tries to kill Manteuifil. Mortally wounded, she fires her gun, precipitating an explosion that engulfs Spaatz and Manteuifil in flames. Knowing he has helped rid the world of assorted Nazis, John gets out alive. Although based on an Alistair MacLean thriller, RIVER OF DEATH is a convoluted journey burdened with too many plot twists and too much exposition. How much mileage do suspense moviemakers believe they can still coax from the Nazi menace? Even though the subplot about John's initial mercy mission strengthens his character's motivation for returning to the jungle, the film could have handled this entire excursion as a flashback or with an interior monolog. Rather than whet our appetite for thrills with disparate plot strands, the film fails to tie everything together and instead stumbles over its too-complicated heart-of-darkness story line. Since it's quite easy to figure out that Diaz is a Nazi aide and that Maria is the little girl we saw traumatized by her father's murder, the film ruins two more opportunities for mining suspense. RIVER OF DEATH is also xenophobic and racist in its attitudes, delivering a wide variety of brown-skinned menaces willing to kill at the drop of a poisoned spear; it's as if we're back on the set of Johnny Weissmuller's Tarzan flicks. Brutal and viscerally frightening, the attacks by these savages do have an undeniable impact, but this movie is too realistic in its intentions and tone for us to excuse its unflattering portrait of the South American Indians as an exercise in good old-fashioned Kiplingesque storytelling. Amoung the actors, Dudikoff makes an attractive hero, but none of the other actors matches his performance. Pleasence continues to pick up paychecks for walking through underwritten roles; Vaughn hams it up as if he were auditioning for the life of Vincent Price in his Dr. Phibes period. A sluggish jungle adventure complete with plagues, ritual sacrifices, and retrograde Nazis, RIVER OF DEATH simply fails to make the grade as a suspense thriller. Nonetheless, it may contain sufficient excitement to satisfy adventure genre fans who don't quibble about weak story structuring. (Violence, profanity, substance abuse, adult situations.)