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Cover Girl Models

Cover Girl Models(1975)

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By the mid-1970s, producer/director Roger Corman had fully adapated to the needs of drive-in audiences who had moved on from his beloved monster movies of the prior two decades. Greater screen allowances for nudity and violence had opened the floodgates for his successful women-in-prison cycle beginning with The Big Bird Cage in 1972, and even earlier he had discovered the magical formula for women's lib era exploitation: crafting an entire feature around the random exploits of a group of single, young professional women, who all happen to look like models and take their tops off every ten minutes or so. The first of these arrived in 1970 with The Student Nurses, directed by Corman's most notable female director disciple, Stephanie Rothman. Four more official films in the series followed, but Corman also found ways to inject the template into other projects as well. As a result, all of these films helped make his New World Pictures one of the most productive and memorable independent studios of the decade.

Lethal Ladies 2, a two-disc DVD release from Shout Factory, features three unusual offshoots containing elements of both the women's prison and working girl scenarios above. It's certainly a different beast from the previous collection, which combined a trio of straight-up action films (TNT Jackson, its virtual remake Firecracker, and the perverse Too Hot to Handle). This time the first disc is devoted entirely to The Arena, a Roman female gladiator quasi-epic from 1974. Today it's perhaps most notable as the directorial debut of Steve Carver, a Brooklyn-born filmmaker and photographer who became the proficient action specialist behind Big Bad Mama, Capone, Drum, and two of the best Chuck Norris vehicles, Lone Wolf McQuade and An Eye for an Eye. This film is atypical in many respects, as it was his only title shot in scope and his only one set prior to the 20th century.

Shot in Rome with a mostly Italian cast and crew (including cinematographer Aristide Massaccesi, soon to become infamous horror director Joe D'Amato, and Carver's future Lone wolf composer, Francesco De Masi), this film was given the green light by Corman when he decided to hand chief producer duties over to Mark Damon, his one-time leading man in Fall of the House of Usher and now an aspiring producer in Europe. Around this time, Damon was still acting in European horror films like The Devil's Wedding Night (opposite one of The Arena's most beautiful co-stars, Rosalba Neri) and Hannah, Queen of the Vampires. However, he soon became a still-busy fulltime producer with credits including The Neverending Story, The Lost Boys, and Short Circuit.

After some contention in the casting process, Damon and Corman settled on the two leading ladies for the film who became its primary promotional gimmick: Pam Grier and Margaret Markov, the racially diverse duo who became a popular team in the previous year's Black Mama, White Mama. Though Corman forbade dating on the set, Damon and Markov hit it off and were married soon after. Meanwhile Grier, a veteran of Corman's big three prison films, went on to become a cult icon in films like Foxy Brown and Coffy, then transitioning to mainstream success with Jackie Brown and TV's The L Word.

Here Grier and Markov are cast as Mamawi and Bodicia, two slaves whose abilities to get into fights with each other and their surrounding captors gives the powers that be a great idea: swap them out for the male gladiators in the ring and see what happens. At least that gives the women a break from all the chains and sexual assault, and soon they're dressed up for battle and waving spears at each other.

Originally released at 80 minutes in American theaters, The Arena was trimmed down to 72 minutes for its sole VHS release from Corman's New Horizons label under the title Naked Warriors. This was his common practice at the time to shove more trailers with the main feature onto a shorter (i.e., cheaper) videocassette, and unfortunately this unsightly, cropped, incomplete transfer was the only way anyone could see it for decades. Usable theatrical prints were also incredibly scarce, and when the time came for Shout Factory to revisit the title for a much-needed reissue, elements weren't as pristine as those for some of their prior Corman titles. Fortunately the results here are still pretty impressive considering the film's history; it's back to 80 minutes again, and it's all in scope with some minimal damage here and there (mainly a few scratches). Two scenes were missing from this source, so these are sourced in from a full frame master instead. As for extras, Carver chimes in with a feature-length track moderated by Katarina Leigh Waters, a WWE wrestler better known to video junkies as the horror hostess of Scorpion's ongoing series, "Katarina's Nightmare Theater." He talks about getting the job, his discomfort with shooting nude scenes, the Roman locations, and his visits on the set from Corman, among many other topics. Carver also returns for an 18-minute video featurette along with Corman and Markov, who talk in more depth about the genesis of the film, Corman's desire to make a T&A version of Spartacus, working with Grier, and the interesting careers and life changes of everyone during and after shooting. A theatrical trailer is also included.

Disc two is devoted to a pair of considerably lighter and more minor offerings, both directed by Filipino trash cinema veteran Cirio H. Santiago. Many of his films were released by Corman in the U.S., as the two men had originally teamed up when Santiago served as the local producer for Women in Cages and The Hot Box. Director Jonathan Demme got his start working on some of Santiago's projects as well, and it wasn't long before Santiago started directing American-friendly fare in the Corman vein for New World to release. The first of these is also feature number two in the set, 1973's Fly Me. The story here is an especially bizarre variation on the student nurses formula as three stewardesses catch a flight from Los Angeles to the exotic East, where they get involved in various separate hijinks mostly in Hong Kong and Japan. The new girl, Toby (Pat Anderson), almost causes a wreck on the way when she pops her top in the back seat for driver Dick Miller, and then tries to get a boyfriend after landing but keeps getting chased around by her Italian mother, who keeps saying "mama mia!" and harbors an unhealthy obsession with her daughter's virginity. Meanwhile Andrea (Lenore Kasdorf) supplies the martial arts portion of the film as she sharpens her skills and teams up with some high-kicking locals to bail out the third stewardess, Sherry (Lyllah Torena), who gets snatched by some white slave traders, raped, and shot up with drugs. It all climaxes in a ridiculous climactic kung fu/gunfight showdown in a go-go dinner club, as such things always must.

The third film, Cover Girl Models, is another three-girl Santiago romp from 1975 with Anderson jetting to pretty much the exact same locations as an aspiring model, joined by colleagues Mandy (Tara Strohmeier) and Claire (Lindsay Bloome). There they encounter a terrifying Mary Woronov, a dangerous roll of microfilm that tangles them with a nest of local spies, and a bossy photographer with a derriere exercise obsession who says things like "Your ass is a pain in my neck" and "I wanna hear your ass bumping good and hard on the floor!" Not surprisingly, both of these films also feature colorful bit appearances by Filipino '70s junk movie regular Vic Diaz (Wonder Women), who mostly sits at a desk and sweats.

Both films on the second disc look excellent overall, though Fly Me has some obvious damage during the first and last reels including some green emulsion scratches here and there. It's a pretty rare one though, so it's great to finally have it out on commercial DVD. Cover Girl Models was more commonly available since it was released on VHS from Nelson (which provided the source for a terrible bootleg DVD from Televista), but this is a far better transfer than it's ever had before; the film looks excellent from start to finish and, though it's the least substanital cinematic offering, it's the best preserved of the bunch. The only extra on the second disc is a fun fullscreen TV spot for Fly Me.

For more information about Lethal Ladies 2, visit Shout Factory!.

by Nathaniel Thompson