Wednesday, January 1, 2020

"Red Zone Cuba" Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love Coleman Francis

Carradine! Cardoza! And Coleman! Together for the first and only time in 1961-66's "Red Zone Cuba".

Greetings, movie lovers.

Ex-cons in need of cash. A tungsten mine. A Cuban invasion. A fellow named Cherokee Jack. John Carradine singing--yes, singing. What do these things have in common?

Absolutely nothing!

Well, that's not quite right.

Believe it or not, these seemingly incongruous elements were all cobbled together in order to form the celebrated celluloid hack-job "Red Zone Cuba"(shot in 1961, not released until 1966).

He stoops to conquer? Director Coleman Francis lays low.

Written, directed and starring Coleman Francis (with regulars Tony Cardoza and Harold Saunders in tow), "Red Zone Cuba" is the ne plus ultra of his three cinematic efforts. It features all of Francis' favorite things: anti- Communism, light planes, grainy photography, horrible acting, endless coffee drinking, cheap sets, constant smoking, jump cuts, continuity errors and a shoot out finale. It also has violence against women, but the MST3K version (which I own on VHS and DVD) thankfully edits that out. Unlike "The Beast of Yucca Flats", the actors in "Red Zone Cuba" do talk on camera, but that also means they must deliver Coleman's signature wacky dialog. Viewers will have to decide for themselves if having sound actually improves the picture.

And what is "Red Zone Cuba" about? It appears to be an anti-Commie polemic/revenge fantasy/buddy picture/adventure story/prison break/heist film/war movie about a secret covert government  operation to invade a foreign take back a sugar mill...and then a race to get back home to search for a tungsten mine and avoid the cops. I think. Look, I've watched this flick countless times and I doubt even Coleman Francis knew what was going on.

One thing is crystal clear, though: "Red Zone Cuba" stinks. Big time. Like a crappy diaper left to rot in 100 degree heat. And I mean that from the bottom of my heart.

However, before we begin the Herculean task of unraveling the plot, lets meet our cast of characters:

Landis (Tony Cardoza, left) and Cook (Harold Saunders, right) dine al fresco.

First up is Griffin (Francis), a rough, tough, gruff, tubby prison escapee who is the love child of Dick Cheney, Curly from the Three Stooges and Satan.

Next we have Cook (Harold Saunders) and Landis ( producer Tony Cardoza), a pair of loser ex-cons who "follow the harvest" and unwittingly link-up with Griffin.

Then there is a fellow named Chastain (Tom Hanson), who is heading an invasion into Cuba to liberate the sugar mill Fidel Castro's government snatched from his grandparents. "I figure they have a right to it," Chastain explains. He's by far the film's most likable character (and the best looking).

Last but not least is Cherokee Jack (George Prince), a pilot who ferries men to fight in the Cuban invasion AND by the magic of a big fake mustache appears later as one of Fidel's inner circle.

That done, we can now move on to the film. Please follow carefully and try to keep up.

John Carradine can't explain why he was chosen to sing "Red Zone Cuba"s title theme "Night Train to Mundo Fine".

"Red Zone Cuba" unfolds on a gray, grainy day. A young reporter is at the depot, digging for information on "the desperadoes" who came through town in '61. His only contact is Mr. Wilson (John Carradine), a long drink of water in bib overalls.

Unfortunately, Mr. Wilson vaguely remembers "the desperadoes" and only one of them in particular: Griffin, who "ran all the way to hell"--and took the audience with him (rim shot).

That's the cue for the credit sequence to unspool, treating viewers to shots of Griffin chugging around the barren landscape, ducking under bushes, trying to evade the police posse on his heels. At the same time, Carradine is warbling "Night Train to Mundo Fine'" as unrelated scenes of co-stars Cardoza and Saunders attempt to change a tire are added to the mix. When Cook and Landis aren't looking, Griffin hops into the back of their pick-up as they drive away and settles down for a nap.

The sad sacks are enjoying an al fresco meal of beans and coffee when Griffin, gun in hand, suddenly pops out and joins them. Because they've "been up the river" too, Cook and Landis aren't put off by such behavior. While enjoying an after-dinner smoke, Griffin growls, "That kind of money is worth join' up for." Cook agrees: "They give you a $1,000 bucks to join and a $1,000 bucks when it's over." (That's $8,340.64, adjusted for inflation, in 2019 dollars, in case you're interested.) Landis has reservations, though. "What if it's not over?" he asks.

What the hell are these guys talking about? My guess is our trio is discussing a "secret covert government operation" to invade Cuba. This may or not be the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion of lore, largely because of these discrepancies: 

"The Dirty Half-A-Dozen".

#1--The headquarters for this "secret covert government operation" is a leafy suburb in an add-on, over-the-garage apartment.

#2--The troops are being paid by check.

#3--A shifty fellow named Cherokee Jack is secretly flying (for a fee) men over to the "base" where the "forces" are being "trained" in order to partake in this "secret covert government operation" to invade Cuba.

#4--The "training" these men undergo involves jumping off hills, scaling bunny cliffs and practicing a bit of Judo.

#5--At some point, Chastain implies that he's paying for this mission out of his own pocket (Castro took his grandparent's sugar mill, remember).

He's Cherokee Jack.

#6--We are never told how Griffin, Cook and Landis found out about this "secret covert government operation", but they join anyway. Later on, Griffin is stewed because the forces are being paid by check, not cash up front. He blames Cherokee for not telling him this, but that wasn't Cherokee's responsibility--maybe Coleman should have investigated the job offer more fully?

Although, to be fair, waiting to pay the troops until the mission is over makes good business sense. I mean, if the troops were paid first, what would prevent them from skipping out the first chance they got? Griffin obviously intended to do just that and he's mad somebody out-foxed him. Guys like Coleman don't like to admit anything is their fault.

Anywhooo, as you can imagine, when a "secret covert government operation" to invade Cuba consists of about seven guys, Fidel Castro has no need to worry. In fact, our trio have no sooner "stormed the beach in Havana" than they are caught and marched into a garden shed to await  execution. Joining them in the shed is a peasant grave digger and a fellow captive who looks just like one of the guards back at the base! He's given Last Rites and allowed to kiss a painting of the Madonna and Child before he's shot...and reappears 10 minutes later as one of Castro's guards! This makes Griffin so mad he strangles the guy, but that's later on.

Oh, yes, I can't forget to mention that poor Chastain has been captured, too. He also sports a nasty wound that Griffin proclaims has been infected with "gangrene." While Griffin, Cook and Landis plot their escape, the sweaty Chastain begs them to let him come,too. He even sweetens the deal by saying he has a tungsten mine on his property and he'll share the spoils with them. Griffin is unmoved, figuring that Chastain's near death and will only slow them down.

Now, like so many things in this flick, the revelation that Chastain has a tungsten mine comes out of nowhere. If this is true, what is he doing screwing around in Cuba? Why is he attempting to "liberate" a sugar mill when he could be excavating his own mine? I agree Castro had no business taking his grandparents' personal property, but wouldn't it have been smarter and safer for Chastain to help his grandparents emigrate from Cuba, share in the tungsten mine output and let the sugar mill go? I'm just saying...

Griffin plots how to escape from his Cuban garden shed.

Back to the action.

As mentioned earlier, Griffin strangles their guard and our trio quickly out run the entire Cuban army. They head to the airport, where they easily swipe a plane and fly safely back to the U. S. of A. The guys then ditch their plane and tramp around until they stumble upon a restaurant. This establishment is facing hard times despite the fact that frog legs are their house specialty. The owner of the place is a very tall fellow with a very long nose. He also has a depressing air and an annoying, droning voice. As he serves the guys coffee, he begins to go on and on and on and on about his many misfortunes. No doubt his greatest misfortune is his daughter, who "went blind" after her husband died in the Korean War. Now the poor dear just sits at the piano all day mindlessly playing and singing.

Griffin and company eventually get fed up with the owner's endlessly gloomy chatter and attack him. They chase him outside, tackle him, drag him to what appears to be an abandoned mine shaft or well and toss him in. Boo! Next, they steal his car and drive off. The blind daughter, oblivious to these events, continues to play and sing as if nothing is amiss.

Finally, Griffin, Cook and Landis reach Chastain's house. They are greeted by his sad-eyed wife Ruby (Lanell Cado). She invites them in, cooks them dinner and, yes, serves them lots of coffee. She's heart-broken her husband has died, but "he had ideals" and she couldn't stop him. Griffin brings up the subject of the tungsten mine and Ruby agrees to share the spoils, if there are any. The group decides to visit the mine first thing in the morning, so everybody settles down and goes to sleep.

Little do Griffin, Cook and Landis know, the FBI or the CIA or the ATF or the Secret Service or the Neighborhood Watch or a fedora-wearing troop of Boy Scouts, I don't know, are in hot pursuit. Is it because the guys parked a Cuban airplane in a restricted zone? Is it because they attacked an innocent (if droning) restaurateur and stole his car? Is it because they hopped a freight train? Is it because they participated in a "secret covert government operation" to invade Cuba and forgot to ask permission? We're never told, but, hey, if Coleman Francis isn't stressing about these minor details, why should we?

 What's a nice person like her doing in a movie like this? Chastain's wife Ruby (Lanell Cado).

Our band of happy travelers finally reach the hill where the tungsten mine is supposedly located. Nobody knows what to do, so they just stand around. Then the sounds of helicopters fill the air and a flock of "federal agents" appear. Landis and Cook make a run for it, but are promptly caught. Griffin, in a fit of pique, shoots Ruby (boo!) and attempts to flee also. Unfortunately, the sharp shooters in the choppers have Griffin in their sights and they fire away. Thus, the big lug crashes to the ground with a thud. In the flick's final voice-over, Coleman declares, "Griffin ran all the way to hell...with a penny and a broken cigarette."


"Red Zone Cuba" reminds me of "Manos: The Hands of Fate" in that it's so relentlessly wretched, you expect it to turn into a snuff film. That is due entirely due to Coleman Francis himself. I often ask myself, "Which is worse? Coleman's writing and direction or his acting?" Anybody who uses jump cuts as much as Francis and has his actors say stuff like, "If you need any help, my friend here can fly. He'll spell, ya" is obviously a talent-less hack. Yet Coleman's acting is really awful, too. Big and flabby, with pocked marked skin and an ultra crew-cut, Francis walks through this film with a hundred-miles stare, mumbling his lines in a low, menacing growl. Whether he is storming the beach in Cuba, strangling a guard or dispensing medical advice, Coleman's performance never varies. He's the stuff of nightmares--or loan shark enforcers. No wonder the only director to give him a leading role was himself.

Mr. Francis and his trio of turgid tripe languished in (justifiable) obscurity until MST3K spotlighted them in the 1990's. Since then, a small but vocal group of bad film lovers have insisted that Coleman Francis, not Ed Wood, is really the worst director of all time.

I'm a Wood partisan myself, but I have to admit that Francis comes awfully close to challenging Ed's supremacy--more so than even William "One Shot" Beaudine or Renny Harlin, for example. However, the coldness of Francis' approach and the underlying meanness of his perspective have always put me off. If it wasn't for Mike and the 'bots riffing away, Coleman's films would be unwatchable. And one of the cardinal rules of Junk Cinema is that a film must be loathsome and lovable; you want to watch them again and again.

He's Cherokee Jack: George Prince and his 'stache support Castro.

Furthermore, I believe the success Coleman has experienced since his MST3K exposure is more a testament to the talents of the MST3K gang than to the untalents of Francis. Ed Wood's films, on the other hand, can stand alone.

So movie lovers, we arrive at the end of the post. Coleman Francis died as he lived, alone, unheralded, making ugly black and white flicks that only Junk Cinema lovers (and MST3K fans) 30 years in the future would appreciate. That may not seem like a lot in the larger scheme of things, but maybe, just maybe, in the end, it was enough.


The lighter side of Coleman Francis? Nope, it's Curly Howard.