[We're celebrating some of the most memorable horror and sci-fi movies of 1989 this month in Daily Dead's Class of 89 retrospective series! Check back on Daily Dead throughout the rest of August for more special features celebrating the 30th anniversaries of a wide range of horror and sci-fi films!]
If you are old enough, I’m sure you miss the video store days. Those wonderful Friday nights at the local movie rental palace, with row after row of potential mind-expanding, mind-exploding cinema. From the experimental to the exploitive and even the exalted works in beautiful genre-identified, alphabetized sections with a recommendation wall where Godard’s Pierrot le fou could live comfortably next to Gordon’s From Beyond. It was an exceptional time and place for a cinephile to wander, sometimes aimlessly, into an interesting Friday night movie.
In my neighborhood, we had all the rental chains and a few “mom and pop” shops, but the best place in my neck of the woods to find the strangest cataloging of movies was at this local grocery store that had the videos right next to the bakery. The grouping of movies ranged from “Clint Eastwood Westerns” to “Non-Clint Eastwood Westerns,” “Scary Movies” where you would find Fatal Attraction next to Fright Night, and a special row for every single action star of the ’80s and early ’90s, including the lesser-known stars like Don “The Dragon” Wilson” to Cynthia Rothrock. It was on this wall of action films where my discovery of “The Muscles from Brussels,” Jean-Claude Van Damme, first happened, with a film called Bloodsport. Though, amongst all those films Van Damme films in that strange video section, the movie that became a lifelong fascination for me was the 1989 cyberpunk, dystopian future, martial arts/science fiction mashup Cyborg.
A mysterious plague has ravaged a post-apocalyptic world. The innocent are forced to live on the run, evading a deadly gang of murderous marauders who kill for dominance in the burnt remains of the world. But there is hope. A cure is being developed in Atlanta and the final critical information is stored inside a cyborg named Pearl Prophet (Dayle Haddon). However, Pearl must escape New York City and the closing grasp of Fender Tremolo (Vincent Klyn), the leader of a group of slaughterers who wants the cure to solidify himself as the deity who saved the new world. Pearl, on the run, finds hired support from a lone gunman named Gibson Rickenbacker (Jean-Claude Van Damme). Gibson is a skilled fighter who has been hunting Fender for massacring his entire family.
Director Albert Pyun, a maverick American filmmaker known for films like Viscious Lips, Nemesis, and Dollman, composes a strangely fascinating world filled with a grimy science fiction atmosphere similar to Mad Max, however with a far more overwhelmingly sinister tone. Cyborg lingers on the fringe of becoming a straightforward horror film; in the first few moments of the movie, burnt bodies are seen impaled on stakes, a head is decapitated, and skeletal remains are thrown throughout the streets. It’s the festering hell left in the wake of demons devouring the world.
It’s within this hell that Pyun composes the most captivating theme the moment the hero, breaking through a door with a white light shining behind his shadowy figure, arrives to bring a glimmer of hope with a swinging sword and a spinning kick.
The theme of “heaven and hell” composes a large piece of the atmosphere seen throughout Cyborg. From the obvious, and surprisingly most memorable, crucifixion scene where the hero is strung up for a slow death and left for the entire world to witness, to the design of the atmosphere which is rich with heavenly hazy blue and soft white flashbacks, to the deep dreary black and murky gray reality of the burnt world, the contrast between good and evil is painted into the color structure of the film.
But there are also not-so-obvious moments where this theme takes interesting effect; during flashbacks into Gibson’s almost heaven-like past, we see a peaceful life overtaken by evil, which includes a disturbing scenario involving little children being forced to save the lives of their parents. In another scene, Gibson is being hunted in a sewer-like cavern, leading to an image of Gibson exalted (of course in the only way JCVD could be portrayed in this type of scene… doing the splits) with a weapon above an unknowing bad guy wading through muddy waters below. Purposeful or not, the thematic imagery and contrasting design elements give the film a peculiar quality, one that feels ominous and uncertain throughout.
Adding to the quality of horror found in pieces throughout the film is one of the best bad guys of the ’80s: Vincent Klyn as Fender. Director Albert Pyun was slated to direct the sequel to the live-action Masters of the Universe film, but the deal fell through even though the sets, costumes, and actors were already established. Pyun took those materials, including many of the actors, and developed them for Cyborg. Taking the place of Dolph Lundgren as He-Man in the sequel was supposed to be pro-surfer Laird Hamilton, who had a surfer buddy named Vincent Klyn that Pyun took a liking to.
Klyn is such a perfect fit for the role—his stature and surfer bod made him an intimidating foe to stand opposite Van Damme. The finale of the film, shot in what looks like an abandoned car junkyard in the pouring rain, has Klyn so intimidating—screaming, flexing, and thumping his chest after every attack. At one point in the fight it feels legitimately like the hero is going to lose, primarily because of Vincent Klyn’s completely threatening performance.
Still, Cyborg, with its near-horror themes of ravaged living hell and a surfer punk monster is nothing without Jean-Claude Van Damme, whose boot blade, jumping spin kicks, Gatling-esque rifle, and guttural screams of “Fenderrrrrrrr” provide the film with a hero that is easy to cheer for. What JCVD lacks for in terms of dramatic performance, he completely makes up for with screen style and swagger. There is a reason this actor would move into the ’90s chasing, almost grasping, the coat tails of action movie counterparts like Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Cyborg is one of those films that we all remember on the shelves of video stores, that film that traveled into the used VHS bins of media stores and was showcased at midnight on cable television. While people remember JCVD’s career for other films, I will always remember the joy of the dystopian world found in Cyborg.
Check here throughout the rest of August for more special features celebrating the Class of 89!