Troma is known for many things...it's probably more accurate to say that they are infamous for many things...not the least of which is unusual and irreverent titles for their films. Movies such as Blood Sisters of Lesbian Sin, A Nymphoid Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell, Fertilize the Blaspheming Bombshell, and Stuff Stephanie in the Incinerator have all been unleashed by Troma. So one has to wonder why Troma would take the 1988 film B.O.R.N. and change it's name to the very generic Merchants of Death. Granted, B.O.R.N. isn't much of a title either, but it gets your attention. I guess Troma knew that no matter what this movie was called, it's a stinker.
As Merchants of Death opens, three young women are kidnapped and thrown in the back of an ambulance. Their father, Buck (Ross Hagen), witnesses this and is actually struck by the ambulance as it makes its getaway. Undaunted (and apparently, uninjured), Buck seeks out his old friend, Charlie (Hoke Howell), an ex-policeman who now runs a bar. (Where he keeps his computer and printer on one of the bar tables.) Charlie promises to help Buck, and they enlist police detective Morrison (Rance Howard) for help. Meanwhile, we learn that Buck's daughters have been taken by an organization which abducts innocent victims and harvests their organs for sale on the black market. The sinister Liz (P.J. Soles) and her accomplice Dr. Farley (William Smith) runs this group and sell the body parts to the highest bidder. As Dr. Farley works on the girls, Buck and Charlie race to learn the truth and stop the transaction from taking place.
Anyone who pays attention to movies today knows that the availability of video cameras and the digital video revolution presented many aspiring movie-makers with the chance to bring their vision to an audience. However, those younger members of the audience may not remember a time when producers would scrape together the necessary capital and shoot an independent movie on film. The 70s and 80s saw hundreds of low-budget horror movies of this nature, and some became classics, but most were like Merchants of Death.
Lead actor Ross Hagen directed the movie and co-wrote it with co-star Hoke Howell, and they must get credit for coming up with a good idea. Ten years before Urban Legends hit theaters, Hagen and Howell made a film dealing with one of the more famous urban legends, that of the organ thieves. The story is like a urban legends take on Paul Schrader's Hardcore. The pair have also assembled a cast of recognizable faces with Clint Howard and Russ Tamblyn appearing in the movie along with P.J. Soles and Rance Howard.
But that's where the quality in Merchants of Death comes to a screeching halt. Once the main premise has been established, the movie ceases to have any real story and it soon devolves into scene after scene of Buck and Charlie arguing and following-up on leads. The pacing in the film is very slack and with the shots of characters driving to locations and walking to locations, there's enough padding here to outfit a football team. The "set" where the organs are obtained is clearly a warehouse packed with gurneys and assorted odds and ends. The acting is stale and P.J. Soles huge brunette wig simply scared me. The movie wants to be an exploitation film (I think), but it plays more like a hard-boiled crime piece and despite the subject matter, there is no gore. (There is a scene where Clint Howard mounts a sedated woman which would be considered gross most anywhere in the known world.) The movie reaches its low point when the police raid the lab and every employee -- doctors, nurses, women working on computers -- pulls out a gun to fight back. In short, Merchants of Death is a boring mess and if you watch this, you're going to wish that you'd donated your brain to science.
Merchants of Death has been brought to DVD by Troma Team Video. The film is presented in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. I do not know the original aspect ratio for the movie, but it was shot on 35mm film. Framing issues aside, the transfer looks surprisingly good for a movie of this caliber, but this DVD won't win any awards. The image is relatively free from grain and, given the circumstances, can be considered clear. The picture does look slightly washed-out though. There are some minor defects from the source material and the picture does "jump" during some cuts. The amount of detail in the image could have been better and there are some shimmering effects at times.
The DVD carries a Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo audio track. This track exhibits some mild hissing and "pops" at times, but the dialogue is generally clear and audible. The stereo effects are infrequent, but they are noticeable in some scenes. The music sounds tinny and flat, and overall the audio has no real presence.
There are no Special Features on this DVD related directly to Merchants of Death, but we do get the usual assortment of Troma goodies. There is "Make Your Own Damn Movie!" Lesson (2 minutes), as well as a commercial for this series. There are also trailers for The Children, Beg!, Parts of the Family, and Pure Blood.
I can remember wandering through the local mom 'n pop video store in the late 80s and seeing the video box for B.O.R.N. and wondering what it was. Now I'm certainly glad that I didn't spend my hard-earned video rental money on this title (and knowing me, I rented Night of the Demons 2...again). Despite the presence of some known actors, Merchants of Death is strictly bargain-basement filmmaking, with P.J. Soles hair being the only scary thing in the film.