Written and Directed by Ward Roberts
Featuring Amber Benson, Aaron Gaffey, Devin Barry, Travis Betz, Jeremiah Birkett
As a dumb kid, I spent considerable time camped out in front of cable TV. The programming I begrudgingly missed for school or basic hygiene, I captured with my VCR set to record the maximum hours allotted on a standard VHS tape.
Poorer quality, sure, but it was suitable for the six hours worth of garbage movies and random junk I recorded on a daily basis. I was, however, able to discover some pretty nifty shit during that wondrous time; films like The Zero Boys, Hunter's Blood, Neon Maniacs, Alligator, Quiet Cool, Waxwork, and Dudes remain staples of my diet to this day. Today, I'm a dumb grown-up, and at the risk of this sounding like an Abe Simpson rant, I feel sorry for kids growing up today. I really do. My growth didn't come from reality show douche bags or YouTube jackasses - they were found in the films graciously presented by Commander USA, Joe Bob Briggs, Chilly Billy, and Professor Winston Cinemax (a real professor).
I think Ward Roberts and I could have been great friends growing up. That is, if either of us got off our asses long enough to go outside and meet humans. He seems to have a similar palette when it comes to cult films. I'd be surprised if he didn't similarly log comparable hours in front of the boob tube, absorbing every film sub-genre imaginable. He dips from that knowledge and paints with very broad strokes the ultimate love letter to all those completely random, utterly bizarre genre-busting films I love so dearly: an exquisite B-movie painting called Dust Up. It’s a film that boasts bloody cannibalism, chaotic gunplay, copious handjobs, and even a Lizard Man.
Dust Up is the tale of stoic one-eyed ex-marine Jack (Aaron Gaffey), a man with a dark past and desire to right his historic wrongs. He meditates in the desert alongside his Native American pal Mo (Devin Barry), both opting for a peaceful life away from it all. Their relatively stress-free, unmaterialistic world is shaken up when they cross paths with Herman (Travis Betz), a hopeless crank addict, his wife Ella (Amber Benson), and their adorable baby daughter Lucy. Herman is indebted a few grand to Buzz (Jeremiah Birkett), the resident psychotic drug dealer, and Buzz intends to collect by any means necessary. Not only is Buzz a ruthless killer, but he fancies himself a messianic prophet of impending social collapse. His over-the-top proselytizing, murdering self is about to clash with the calm nerve of the steely Jack.
Dust Up is marketed as a "grindhouse neo-western". That term could turn off film nerds tired of boring indie films dressed up in faux grindhouse gimmickry like “missing” reels or poorly synced sound. Versed film buffs know that era (and NOT a film style) was populated with masterpieces to go along with the trash. Roberts and his team cast all doubt aside by honoring their forebears with a technically sound, gorgeous film. He pays homage with a polished film that can be admired by Sergio Leone fans as well as Ruggero Deodato aficionados. Perhaps “Midnight Movie” pastiche would be the more appropriate moniker here to describe Roberts‘ everything-including-the-kitchen-sink approach. The film exists on its own plane, but the homages are recognizable to those in the know.
Dust Up in a great example of committed storytelling. Wearing his influences on his sleeve, Roberts does not tone down any of the violence, sex, or outrageously offensive humor. He gives his audiences what they expect, and more. Had he held back, the film would have suffered without scenes like a choking death that ends with splooge across one vile character’s face. Nor would we be treated to a myriad of gouged eyes, dismembered limbs, and clever one-liners. We have Roberts to thank for relentless carnage and equal opportunity full frontal nudity. Yes, there are dicks, boobs, and an outrageous cameo by the director himself.
The greatest weapon wielded in the film is not the guns or machetes. It’s the characters. You’ll love every single one of them whether it’s the sweetly awkward Ella, the hulking Lizard Man, or the darling baby Lucy. Those who aren't easily entertained by offensive comedy or bloodletting can also enjoy a surprising undercurrent of sweetness shared between Benson's conflicted character and Gaffey's mutilated ex-soldier. The two share great chemistry, and it’s not a stretch to believe they can all be friends who’d die for one another. Once we hear Jack’s story behind his lost eye, it’s difficult not to tear up as Ella gently caresses his scars.
Anyone raised on a steady diet of the cult movies should find something to appreciate in Dust Up. For all it’s throw-it-out-and-see-what-sticks approach, it’s a focused film throughout. Usually a film like this wears out its welcome quickly once any gimmickry run dry, but Dust Up keeps the viewer engaged with constant invention and commitment to making an ass-kicking, high-octane, and most importantly, entertaining film. It’s the next best thing to sitting through a marathon of all my old VHS tapes and looks a hell of a lot nicer, too.