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R.O.T.O.R. (1988)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

R.O.T.O.R. (1988)

Starring: Margaret Trigg, Richard Gesswein, Jayne Smith, James Cole, Michael Hunter

Written By: Budd Lewis, Cullen Blaine (story) Directed By: Cullen Blaine

The Short Version

R.O.T.O.R. is one of the most inexplicably fun yet utterly awful movies of the Video Store Era.

Dubbing, dubbing everywhere!

This dialogue sounds like it was written at a Denny’s at 3am.

Bad stop motion robot Tai Chi.  Aw, yeah.

If you get a chance to watch R.O.T.O.R., do it.  It’s a jaw-dropping experience.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?


Like R.O.T.O.R., it’s best appreciated after having first spent some time at a bar.  You’re also gonna want some fries with that.

Pairs Well With...


R.O.T.O.R. = P.B.R. me A.S.A.P.

“We scientists are like degreed science fiction writers.  We're all prognosticators of the future.  And since our particular purpose of vision belongs to the creed of law enforcement, we open inroads into tomorrow in ways and means of those who would serve and protect justice and order.”

Most artists I’ve known have longed to challenge themselves with some special project outside of their normal comfort zones; possessed by a dream to try something different, if only just once.

For Cullen Blaine, whose career has rested squarely in the realm of family friendly cartoons such as “Heathcliff,” “The Flintstone Kids,” and “Scooby-Doo,” that dream apparently involved the chance to make an unbelievably cheap knock-off of RoboCop with a little dash of The Terminator throw in.  The result?  R.O.T.O.R. – one of the most inane, ridiculous, and inexplicably entertaining hunks of cheese ever to come out of the Video Store Era.

Let’s be clear on one thing right from the start: by just about every critical standard one might care to think of, R.O.T.O.R. is a terrible movie.  But it’s terrible on a level that transcends its own inanity and comes out the other side; not “so bad it’s good” – nothing short of major intoxication can elevate it to that level – but rather “so bad that it becomes inexplicably entertaining to see just how often it can make one’s jaw hit the floor in disbelief, even after multiple viewings.”  To people like me who truly appreciate what Blockbuster Video used to call “Le Bad Cinema,” this makes R.O.T.O.R. a rare and special treat to be savored.

The premise behind R.O.T.O.R. (take your pick what that means, by the way; the movie marks it as both Robotic Officer Tactical Operation Research and Robotic Officer Tactical Operation Reserve) is, as noted, a cheap knock-off of the previous year’s box office smash, RoboCop.  Convinced that civilization is on the verge of destroying itself, a cowboy scientist with the Dallas Police Department named Coldyron (Richard Gesswein) convinces the Powers That Be to fund his project to develop a robotic police officer capable of facing down even the most dangerous criminals.  Thanks to an “unknown metal” discovered by a certain Dr. Steele (Jayne Smith), he’s created a nearly indestructible skeleton to house an electronic brain designed after his own.  And with a further nod to hilariously bad stop motion special effects, Coldyron is happy to demonstrate to a room full of admirers that this skeleton can do Tai Chi.  All that’s missing from the R.O.T.O.R. prototype now are a conscience, good judgment, and a couple hundred pounds of flesh to ease up on the effects budget.  The third item, it turns out, can be cooked up in a matter of hours, but the first two are at least a few years away…

Are you at all surprised to learn that R.O.T.O.R. isn’t going to wait that long before heading out into the city to blow away the first speed violator it finds, and then go all Terminator on the passenger who gets away?  Of course you’re not.  But the why of it… that just might blow your mind.  That, and just about everything else associated with the so-called plot of this movie.

Here are some things to look and listen for.

Look at that poster (or, more appropriately, that box art).  Can place it?  Look at the poster for Mad Max.  Originality abounds.

Listen to the dialogue with your mouth agape.  Though Internet memes were still quite a ways off when R.O.T.O.R. was made, there’s one that instantly comes to mind when I think of this movie.  “Denny’s: Your drunk ass is going to end up here eventually.”  Anyone who has been to a Denny’s or a Perkins or some other similar establishment in the dark hours after bar close can attest to the amazingly wacky conversations that happen in those places over strong cups of predawn coffee.  The dialogue in R.O.T.O.R. sounds exactly like those conversations.  Here’s a quick snort for you (and remember, a guy with a six inch belt buckle is lip synching it):

“Remember what I said at R.O.T.O.R.'s christening?  First prototype of a future battalion on the battlefield highways of the future.  He'll be the judge, jury, and executioner.  Now I've got to wonder: Were we playing God, breathing life into our artificial Adam?  Or have we lost sight of paradise?  What was it Milton said?  "Did I request thee, maker, from my clay to mold me man?  Did I solicit thee from darkness to promote me?"  Is it his fault he is what he is? Or is it ours?”

This after the very same character called R.O.T.O.R. “a chainsaw set on frappe.”  Dude.  I’m gonna need some fries with that.

Look at the characters when they talk.  With very few exceptions – most notably the damsel in distress played by Maragret Trigg – their voices don’t match their bodies and their mouths don’t synch up with what’s being said.  That’s because just about every significant character in R.O.T.O.R. – most notably out hero, Coldyron – is dubbed, and dubbed badly.  Indeed, I remember wondering if this flick was a European import the first time I saw it, but no; it really was made in and around Dallas, Texas, USA.  Why’d they do it?  Your guess is as good as mine.  Maybe the idea came up during a conversation at Denny’s.

Listen to a soundtrack that even has the decade that spawned it turning around to do a double take.  The cheesy synth score is par for the 80s low budget action course, but the special treats come from the songs that play during the montage sequences, starting with an awful country tune (I use the word “tune” loosely) that gives one whiplash after all the synthesizer stuff, and then moving on to more standard fare that sounds like it was rounded up from the bars one might crawl through on the way to the aforementioned Denny’s.  The house band?  “Larry’s Dad.”  Angels weep when this music plays.  You figure out why.

Look at the title rogue robot cop in awe.  R.O.T.O.R. starts out as a bad stop motion effect for one scene, but there’s no budget to keep that kind of thing up, so without any preamble explaining how it’s possible, the dastardly machine drains all of the batteries in the building where it’s kept to generate some human flesh that allows him to be played by three different actors.  (Based on the results, I’m guessing that the battery drain resulted in the production of a massive number of donuts, which were then converted to flesh through the standard process, only faster.)  And hey, how about that super power that allows R.O.T.O.R. to see into the past just by taking off its oversized sunglasses?

I’m still gonna need some fries with that.

But hey, while we’re on the subject of fashion police, check out our two heroes.  Coldyron’s belt buckle looks big enough to surf with, and the extreme effort made to turn him into a ranch-dwellin’ cowboy (primacord lasso to blow up stumps; yee-ha!) goes so far overboard that it’s impossible to imagine him as a police captain turned scientist who just happens to have developed the world’s first autonomous robot brain.  As for Dr. Steele – Get it? Coldyron and Steele?  Ha! – holy roid rage, Batman.  Dig the 80s hair, but damn.

Listen to some of the dumbest pick up dialogue ever as an allegedly Navajo janitor named Shoeboogie tries to slime talk a phone number out of a blonde lab assistant by telling her that “once you go red, you never get out of bed.”  But only after he explains the method of killing called “the blood eagle,” of course.  Bonus: look on with disbelief as R.O.T.O.R. is brought to life as a direct result of Shoeboogie’s careless handling of his Walkman.  I think that one teeters right on the fine line that divides “the dumbest catalyst in the history of movies” and “pure genius.”

Look at the price of gas in this movie: 69 cents a gallon (or 71 cents for unleaded).  On second thought, nevermind; that’s just depressing.  Feel free to be distracted by Coldyron’s clear cut racial profiling instead (Latinos at a gas station in Texas? Must be up to no good!), and then shake your head at what happens next.

I could go on for a lot longer – trust me, this isn’t even a third of the highlight reel – but I’m pretty sure you’ve got a good feel for things by now, right?  Besides, I’ve got to leave some surprises for you to discover when you watch R.O.T.O.R. for yourself.

And yes, I am suggesting that you have a look at R.O.T.O.R. should the opportunity ever come your way, both despite and because of all of the jaw-dropping badness described above, among other things.  Sure, it’s at least somewhat self-aware – there’s dialogue comparing the action at hand to a low budget science fiction movie – but there’s a magic to this movie that goes beyond that hint of self-awareness and reaches for a place one just can’t get to on purpose.  Somewhere between a script that makes no sense at all (Coldyron’s convoluted “bait” plan, for example) and the sequences that switch from night to day to night to day and back again depending on the frame, R.O.T.O.R. finds the sweet spot and gets to that special place: that place on the video shelf marked “Ridiculously Bad But Inexplicably Compelling.”

Bottom line, R.O.T.O.R. is a terrible movie, but I love it anyway.  Give it a shot… though for best results, you should probably have some drinks at the ready.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, January, 2014

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