There’s a scene about an hour into the 1988 cult classic “Hell Comes to Frogtown” in which professional wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, playing roguish wandering wasteland warrior Sam Hell, bursts through a set of double-doors clutching a shotgun in either hand.
“Eat lead froggies,” he yells, then unloads both barrels on the pair of mutant frogpeople holding Sandahl Bergman, portraying the movie’s love interest and heroine, Spangle, hostage.
Seeing his hench-toads defeated, the villainous Commander Toty — and even larger frogperson — squeals and hops away. Piper runs to the girl. Sentimental music swells.
“Are you OK?” he asks. She grimaces.
“Yeah. Help me up.”
He lifts her, and for a moment, it seems as if they might kiss. Instead, Piper brandishes a rakish grin.
“Let’s boogie,” he says.
It’s the kind of scene that could be a snapshot of the late filmmaker Donald G. Jackson’s entire career: a heartfelt mix of goofball wackiness, superhero bombast, exploitation trash and science fiction nonsense. In a 1988 interview with Fangoria magazine, from the set of his post-apocalyptic, rollerskating warrior nun movie “Roller Blade Warriors,” Jackson described “Hell Comes to Frogtown” as a combination of “Mad Max” and “Planet of the Apes.” Which would be sort of accurate if both those movies were also wacky sex comedies.
Although Jackson spent most of his childhood in Michigan, the writer/director/cinematographer of “Demon Lover,” “Guns of El Chupacabra” and “The Roller Blade Seven” was born in Tremont. His name and filmography are likely unfamiliar to most in his hometown … or, frankly, anywhere. But Jackson’s gained a somewhat infamous reputation as one of the world’s finest “bad” filmmakers. He’s No. 15 on Paste magazine’s 2014 list of “The Best of the Bad: The 15 Greatest B-Movie Directors” (Roger Corman, for whom Jackson once worked, tops that list). His children’s movie “Rollergator” was even recently lampooned by Rifftrax, a comedy troupe made up of the former stars of “Mystery Science Theater 3000.”
Jackson’s got a reputation, although it’s likely not the one he would have liked.
“He would hate it,” multi-faceted artist Scott Shaw wrote of Jackson in an email interview. Shaw worked with Jackson on numerous films, both on and off screen, and was considered by Jackson to be his closest friend. Before his death in 2003, Jackson entrusted Shaw with every piece of footage he’d ever shot.
Shaw, who has frequently written about his friendship with Jackson and the movies they made together, said Jackson wouldn’t appreciate the reputation his movies have gained over the years.
“He was one of those people who really became upset with bad reviews and negative comments,” Shaw said. “Like so many artists throughout the ages, he was one of those people that the masses never really understood during their lifetime.”
Few, Shaw said, have taken the time to understand what Jackson was trying to say with his movies.
To even begin to understand Jackson’s work, it’s important to recognize his influences. Jackson’s movies are a hodgepodge of pop culture, referencing everything from cyberpunk to wrestling, from “Doll Man” to Akria Kurosawa.
“Don was an avid fan of comic books and the films and television series that were inspired by them,” Shaw said. “Don drew influence from the grand feats the characters in those genres were able to perform. Don was also an avid fan of Japanese Samurai Cinema. These two factors formed the inspiration for much of his work.”
Those influences certainly play out in his movies, which often feature lone warriors with seemingly superhuman abilities, mutants, monsters and samurai swords.
Jackson first started experimenting with film as a teen in the 1950s. The owner of a photo shop asked him to shoot high school football games with a 16 mm Bolex camera. Jackson said he loved the freedom of being behind the camera, of capturing the players and action in any way he could. He felt there were no limits to what he could do.
But it wasn’t until he saw Tobe Hooper’s 1974 horror classic, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” that Jackson felt he could make it as a “no-rules” filmmaker. Hooper’s movie had a filthy, documentary-style unique to American cinema. Despite lacking any form of studio polish, the movie was a massive hit. Jackson thought, I could do that.
“Basically, it allowed me to understand that as a filmmaker, I could make whatever style of movie I wanted and there would be an audience to see it,” Jackson told French indie rag Trash Times in 2003.
In 1976, Jackson financed his first movie, the horror flick “Demon Lover,” by taking out loans on his house and car. The movie, and Jackson by extension, gained a bit of notoriety when a rumor circulated that Jackson had paid for the film by shooting off his own fingers and claiming the insurance settlement.
The rumor was mostly untrue.
Career high and low
It wasn’t until the early 1980s that Jackson’s career hit its stride. He sold the rights to his second film, the wrestling documentary “I Like to Hurt People,” which allowed him to move to Los Angeles. He landed a job for famed B-movie producer/director Roger Corman and worked as the assistant camera operator for the special effects photography on “Galaxy of Terror.” That’s when he met budding filmmaker James Cameron, who later hired Jackson to shoot several scenes for his upcoming sci-fi action flick, “The Terminator.”
In 1986, Jackson directed “Roller Blade,” which was a surprise hit. The movie grossed more than a $1-million on a budget of just a few thousand. Its success allowed Jackson to make what would be his best known movie, and only true studio-financed picture, “Hell Comes to Frogtown.”
Produced by New World Pictures on a budget of $7-million, “Hell Comes to Frogtown” would be the biggest film of Jackson’s career. It was also one of his worst experiences in filmmaking.
“The problem is, the minute you let the devil in the door, the devil is going to take control over you,” he told Trash Times. “And that is what happened with New World and ‘Hell Comes to Frogtown.’”
As the production continued, the budget grew and so too did New World’s worry that Jackson couldn’t handle the pressures of a making a studio film. Jackson told Trash Times that New World pushed everything from actors to story beats. As someone who valued, above all else, creative freedom, he wasn’t happy.
New World eventually brought in a co-director, R.J. Kitzer, much to Jackson’s ire. According to Jackson, he was booted from his own movie, although the movie’s writer, Randal Frakes, told Slash Film in 2016 that Jackson was still able to shoot scenes. Either way, creative control had been largely wrested from him.
Jackson never worked with New World Pictures again, or any other large production company for that matter. For Jackson, working for a studio was like trying to fit a square peg through a round hole — or in his case, a square peg through a hole with no predetermined shape.
The years after “Hell Comes to Frogtown,” saw Jackson working on dozens of low-budget, straight-to-video movies. Working with smaller budgets with less oversight seemed to suit Jackson. Unlike his studio experience, Jackson had far more creative control over the movies he made from the late 1980s on.
This freedom proved to be both the Jackson’s blessing and curse. Describing his filmmaking style is nearly impossible, even for those who knew him best. Jackson was an off-the-cuff kind of guy, the type to do whatever struck him at a particular moment.
“It’s just whatever I feel at the time,” Jackson told Fangoria in 1988. “It’s easy, because I don’t have to argue with the cameraman, since I photograph and direct it myself. I consider myself a filmmaker as opposed to a director or cinematographer.”
In his interview with Trash Times, Jackson described his brief stint working for notorious low-budget film company Troma as being too restrictive. He is likely both the first and last person to refer to Troma’s movies as “too story-driven.”
“I like to make more abstract movies that allows the different members of the audience to draw their own conclusion as to what is the true meaning of the film and the storyline,” he said.
Jackson bucked the rules of traditional filmmaking whenever he could. Many of the staples of filmmaking — scripts for instance — were deemed too restrictive to his creative process.
“We study our cast and location like an empty canvas which we want to create a painting upon,” Jackson told Trash Times. “We sense the energy and then move forward, guiding the actors to say the right things and do the right actions — which ultimately construct a form of cinematic art.”
Shaw, who starred in, wrote and/or produced many of Jackson’s films, said the filmmaker went where his muse carried him, for good or bad.
When asked how he’d describe his friend’s filmmaking style, Shaw was of two minds.
“If I were to be kind, I would use the word, ‘artistic.’ Knowing him as I did, however, the one word I would use is, ‘manic,’” Shaw said. “Don had a million ideas and created as many of them as he could. Filmmaking, particularly filmmaking in the era where Don produced most of his movies, was an expensive process. Thus, not all of his ideas found their way to finalization. The ones that did where either based upon the financial input of a production company, desiring a specific product, or based upon his personal desire to see a specific production find its way to completion. The more formalized of his films were financially instigated by a production company. The more abstract films, those were the ones solely coming from the creative mind of Donald G. Jackson.”
Together, Jackson and Shaw utilized a style they dubbed “Zen Filmmaking,” a kind of go-with-the-flow form of movie-making in which creativity reigned. The results were movies that some would fairly argue push the limits of filmmaking in all the wrong directions, structureless creations that could difficult to follow.
In 1993 review, U.K. horror mag The Dark Side described Jackson’s “The Roller Blade Seven” (in which Shaw starred) as “unwatchable.”
“A great cast of ‘B’ movie favorites is wasted in this excruciating slice of post-apocalyptic kitsch,” the author wrote. “Don’t waste your time watching it.”
Of course, as the saying goes, one man’s trash is another man’s “Casablanca.”
The legacy of a B-movie artist
Shaw said he’s uncertain of Donald G. Jackson’s legacy. Although a handful of Jackson’s movies are popular in cult film circles, Shaw questions how much impact his work has had.
“Once upon a time, his films were shown on late night TV. This solidified him as a filmmaker and allowed his work to continually be exposed to a new audience,” Shaw said. “As the internet has taken over the world, I have watched as fewer and fewer people seek out his work, with the exception of a few standout pieces like ‘The Roller Blade Seven,’ ‘Hell Comes to Frogtown,’ ‘Max Hell Frog Warrior,’ and ‘Rollergator.’”
When Leukemia took Jackson’s life in 2003, the filmmaker left behind a legacy of bizarre, arguably incomprehensible films. And yet, for all their faults, many of Jackson’s movies were perfect encapsulations of their creator, 90-minute amalgamations of his influences.
There was never a time when Jackson didn’t think of himself as anything less than an artist, a man creating for the love of expression, defining himself through his work. In his 1988 Fangoria interview, he described his desire to make movies that, despite their obvious influences, are wholly unique.
“I didn’t want to make another low budget horror movie, another science-fiction film,” he said of “Roller Blade.” “I wanted to make a subject that would have to be judged on its own. You go to the video store and ‘Roller Blade’ is the only futuristic rollerskating rebel nun movie. And now, this movie is the only sequel to a futuristic rollerskating rebel nun movie.”
It’s as near-perfect a quote from Donald G. Jackson about Donald G. Jackson as anyone could ask for. There may never be another filmmaker quite like him.
“I do not know what his final legacy will be,” Shaw said of his friend. “He was one of those people that if you did not personally know him, you could never really fathom why he created what he created. He was a complex, very troubled individual. But, I guess that is what made him the artist that he was.”
In his 2003 interview with Trash Times, conducted just months before he died, Jackson called for his fellow filmmakers to make the kinds of movies he made — not in tone or genre, but in spirit.
“Do what you love,” he said. “Don’t make a movie just because the subject matter is popular. Go out and make a film that you have passion about. Even if the film is not received well, you will still be able to be proud of it and you will have begun to define yourself as a filmmaker, with a specific style and point of view.”
It’s hard to argue that Jackson didn’t do just that. Maybe that will be his legacy: The story of a rogue filmmaker making the movies he wanted to make in the way he wanted to make them.
Whether or not Jackson was a good filmmaker is debatable. Whether or not he was an artist isn’t.