Were you to whisper the name "Steve Barkett" to the average moviegoer, a lengthy pause with near-audible chirping crickets in the background may follow. Say Barkett's name to an aficionado of low-budget sci-fi and horror movies from the days when people still shot independent movies on film, however, and you're entirely likely to get a different reaction. From a much more personal perspective, I actually met a former colleague of his at a coffee shop; an encounter which would later result in me inheriting several reels of film from two of Mr. Barkett's films. Well, let me rephrase that slightly to read "one of Mr. Barkett's two films" ‒ since that is all the low-budget filmmaker ever made (or at least, completed).
Of those two movies, Barkett's The Aftermath deserves the most attention. Depending on your point of view, that is. To some, the movie (which was released in the UK as Zombie Aftermath) will strike you as a really cheap genre mashup ripoff filmed on a shoestring budget. To others, however, the 1982 film is hailed as a major work of minor genius. Filmed in 1978, Barkett's story clearly owes a debt of gratitude to the very sci-fi and horror movies which inspired the filmmaker's imagination. Opening with what is perhaps best described as a take on Planet of the Apes, three astronauts ‒ lead by writer/producer/director/lead actor Steve Barkett himself ‒ return to Earth after an unspecified stint in space, only to find nobody's answering their calls back home.
But rather than crash landing far off in a simian-dominated future, Barkett's balding, mustached, '70s-haired hero Newman (it's OK to laugh at that, Seinfeld fans) finds a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles full of cannibalistic mutants, radioactive storms, matte paintings, and a savage gang led by none other than Sid Haig. Believe me, Haig's henchmen are a very vicious bunch: they kill most of the men and children they encounter in equal measure, keeping (generally) only the ladies around to rape repeatedly. Indeed, after seeing shots of such budget-conscious special effects as toy rockets being dropped into a pool, The Aftermath's many shocking scenes of sex and violence may come across as being rather shocking. But hey, this is a post-apocalyptic world gone wild, right?
Speaking of post-apocalyptic movies, one of the things people who have heard of The Aftermath tend to hail is the film's timing. Not in the on-screen editorial sense, that is: the film tends to drag on in a lot of places (though I never seem to mind once co-star Lynne Margulies gets nekkid or shows off her fripples). Rather, the 1978 timeframe during which The Aftermath was shot prominently predated the entire Post-Apocalyptic subgenre that would soon keep many Italian and Filipino filmmakers busy for nearly a decade. I don't know about you, but that makes a difference to me. The casting of stop-motion animator Jim Danforth as Newman's fellow astronaut and a touching cameo by Famous Monsters of Filmland creator Forrest J. Ackerman only adds to the (oft-weird) fun.
My Three Sons co-star Stanley Livingston (Smokey and the Hotwire Gang) co-wrote the story with Steve. Late B-movie icon Ted V. Mikels (The Corpse Grinders, Girl in Gold Boots) served as an uncredited producer. A host of effects artists ranging from visuals by Dennis and Robert Skotak (the same two men who provided the FX for James Cameron game-changers such as The Abyss, Aliens, Titanic, and Terminator 2: Judgment Day!), to lasers by Star Wars' John Wash, and models from Barkett's own young son, Christopher (who also co-stars as an orphaned child in an unforgiving wasteland whom Newman adopts). It's an interesting, varied list of pros and amateurs alike, all lending a hand to a crazy little adventure movie.
Also featuring a memorable voice-only cameo from the one and only Dick Miller, The Aftermath has seen several home video releases since its limited theatrical run in '82. Initially issued to VHS in the US by Prism Entertainment, the movie was banned as a "Video Nasty" in the UK! For years, the best way to see The Aftermath for many years was via a Roan Group Laserdisc. In 2014, VCI brought the cult classic to DVD, albeit as a Manufactured-On-Demand release. (Barkett's other film ‒ 1990's Empire of the Dark ‒ saw a home video debut that same year from VCI as a separate release.) Several years down the road, VCI has returned to The Aftermath once more, this time showing the increasingly forgotten award-winning cult classic a little more love with a new 2K Blu-ray presentation.
VCI Entertainment's new 1080p transfer of this mini cult masterpiece is undoubtedly the best presentation of the film we have ever seen. Alas, we still have to contend with the fact that it is a VCI Blu-ray, so certain flaws will be present to the eyes (and ears) of the more serious HD purist. Like their previous releases of Satan's Cheerleaders and Ruby, VCI advertises The Aftermath as being transferred from the original 35mm negative. Whether or not that is the case here is unknown (in the case of the two aforementioned films, it seemed highly unlikely), since the image quality of this transfer is above what I expected. The encode does exhibit a tiny share of issues, however, most noticeably some distracting telecine wobbling. Or maybe that was just how Barkett and Co. filmed it. I can't say.
Intentional gate weave or not, though, the biggest problem for me here was the English LPCM 2.0 mono audio, which was all over the map (at least, it was that way on the promotional copy of the finished release which I received). When I inserted the disc, the opening VCI logo was damn near deafening. After turning the volume down, I noticed the subsequent main menu and the beginning of the feature were practically silent. Halfway through the feature, the volume dropped once again. It's a good thing they included English (SDH) subtitles, right? Sadly, there always seems to be something odd about VCI's Blu-ray releases. The Aftermath is certainly no exception, and an uncredited (and slightly weird) introduction presents us with a photo of an international fantasy film award the movie had won, complete with a text crawl about the forgotten victory.
Additional special features for The Aftermath are a mixture of new and old elements alike. Ported over from the Roan Group Laserdisc are an audio commentary with Steve and Christopher Barkett, and a handful of vintage interviews. Sadly, the original unedited interviews were not available, so we get the same ol' condensed content in upscaled form. New bonus items (in HD) include the original theatrical trailer, John Morgan's soundtrack in LPCM 2.0 (cool!), and the two short features (with text crawls!). The first is an extended promo for Barkett's Empire of the Dark, and Night Crawler, Dan Gilbert's 1973 short film from writer Ray Bradbury, which inspired The Aftermath (Barkett stars in this one, too, essentially playing the same character). A bonus DVD is also included with this Region A release from VCI, and liner notes are printed on the reverse side of the artwork.
Although The Aftermath only fell deeper into obscurity since the waning days of analog, the film nevertheless deserves a look-see from gritty Post-Apocalyptic movie lovers and fans of heartfelt, low-budget genre picture tributes of the past. Barkett's flick most assuredly meets both of those requirements, and is one of the few American-made productions to hold its own against the numerous Post-Apocalyptic guilty pleasures foreign filmmakers cranked out in the early-to-mid '80s. And while the fluctuating audio on this release was annoying, this is still one of the better VCI Blu-rays I have seen in years, which is a reason to pick this title up right there. Providing your imagination hasn't been completely ruined by the excessive flashy visuals filmmakers overindulge in today, you just might be able to figure out why some of us fondly remember Steve Barkett and The Aftermath.