FemalePrisonerScorpionFemale Prisoner Scorpion: The Complete Collection (Arrow, Blu-ray+DVD) presents four films starring Meiko Kaji as Nami Matsushima, aka Scorpion, a woman framed for a crime she didn’t commit and tossed into a brutal prison with sadistic guards, a warden determined to break her, and inmates vying for control. Kaji had become a star in the Stray Cat Rock series of girl gang exploitation films for Nikkatsu but this series elevated her even higher.

In Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion (1972) she’s the girlfriend of an undercover narcotics cop who turns out to be a corrupt, conniving opportunist who drafts her in his scheme and then frames her for dealing while he takes a cut of the action. Kaji gives a near silent performance as the smoldering heroine, an innocent who refuses to break under torture (and there is plenty as she is systematically abused and humiliated) and plots to escape to take her revenge on the lover who betrayed her. She defies the sadistic, vengeful warden (watch him lose an eye in this one) and the scheming inmates with silent stares and sudden strikes (thus the nickname “Scorpion”), and she has an almost superhuman ability to endure abuse and patiently wait for her revenge. Shunya Itô directs this with colorful flamboyance and takes on the next two in the series as well.

In Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (1972), she escapes with a chain gang and leads the cops on a violent chase through the countryside. The doomed “7 Sinful Women” are systematically cut down by the trigger-happy posse, but not before they take a few with them. Itô pushes the exploitation spectacle into outrageous extreme and directs the prison escape thriller like an avant-garde drive-in movie with an existential doom. The imagery is bright, bold, and striking.

Meiko Kaji is Nami Matsushima, aka Scorpion

Meiko Kaji is Nami Matsushima, aka Scorpion

She escapes once more in Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable (1973), where she is branded public enemy number 1 and goes into hiding, only to battle a brutal gang preying upon the women who have hidden her. In the final film, Female Prisoner Scorpion: #701’s Grudge Song (1973), she teams up with a political radical suffering from the emotional and mental scars of police abuse. These are grindhouse films with gratuitous nudity, sadistic torture, extreme violence, and a perverse irony to the vengeance.

The eight-disc set includes DVD and Blu-ray editions of each film, in Japanese with English subtitles, plus new and archival interviews with the filmmakers and film historians and a visual essay on the series.

takingpelhamThe original 1974 The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (Kino, Blu-ray) hasn’t the credentials of Dog Day Afternoon or The French Connection but this ingenious crime caper / hostage drama is one of the great New York crime films of the 1970s. Walter Matthau is the everyman head of the transit police who takes charge of the official response after a subway car is hijacked and the passengers held hostage in the transit tunnels by an armed gang led by soldier of fortune and heist mastermind Robert Shaw, who runs his team like a Special Forces platoon. This is era before cell phones, Wi-Fi, and the public Internet, so all communications go through Matthau, who has a direct line to the kidnappers through the subway communications system. He’s also the most level-headed official, negotiating with both the gang and the city to get the ransom money delivered before the deadline, after which the hostages will be executed one by one. With his practical experience as both a veteran detective and a longtime transit officer, he knows how things work and is the one man in a position to figure out Shaw’s endgame while everyone else responds to his demands and distractions.

The film has the precision and intricacy of a Mission: Impossible assignment and director Joseph Sargent meets the challenge with a style that connects multiple locations through phone calls, radio signals, and subway communications lines with an impressive clarity. Even the chaos is wrangled effectively. When a police sniper fires at the subway car without orders, it results in the first hostage execution. Matthau remarks that we may never find out who fired the shot, and sure enough we never do. Just as important, he makes New York City a character in its own right in his use of location shooting, street crowds, and a diverse cast. While the lead roles are all played by white actors, the cast (including the hostages) is filled with black, Puerto Rican, and Jewish actors and characters that both embrace and challenge stereotypes. This is a precision ransom thriller in the simmering melting pot New York City and the volatile nature of the city adds atmosphere and character to the film. Martin Balsam and Hector Elizondo co-star as members of the gang, Jerry Stiller and Doris Roberts have small but distinctive roles, and the imposing Julius Harris (of Live and Let Die and a number of seventies blaxploitation films) is a police inspector.

Previously available on Blu-ray, this new edition is remastered for its “42nd Anniversary” (someone has a sense of humor) and features commentary by actor/filmmaker Pat Healy and film programmer/historian Jim Healy, new interviews with co-star Hector Elizondo, composer David Shire, and editor Jerry Greenberg, the “Trailers From Hell” short featuring Josh Olson, and an animated montage of stills and posters, plus the trailer.

BuckarooBanzaiThe Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension: Collector’s Edition (Shout! Factory, Blu-ray+DVD) – Remember, no matter where you go, there you are. Peter Weller is the brain surgeon and rock star who, with The Hong Kong Cavaliers (his loyal band of heroes), saves the world in his spare time. John Lithgow puts the mad back into mad scientist as the alien genius out to conquer the monkey-boys of planet earth, and Jeff Goldblum dons chaps and a Roy Rogers shirt to play the band’s newest recruit. Why? Because this movie lives in its own universe of pulp hero references: Imagine a new wave version of Doc Savage melded with Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” and bar band rock and roll. Wonderfully weird and obscure, this low key bit of 1984 funky cool never caught on to a general audience (and thus the promised sequel remains only a dream) but has been a cult favorite among a small group of true believers in the years since.

It makes its American Blu-ray debut on Shout! Factory’s new “Shout Select” series with an all-new two hour-plus documentary, “Into the 8th Dimension,” featuring new and archival interviews with director W.D. Richter, most of the cast, and members of the production team. It’s on the Blu-ray disc along with archival commentary by Richter and writer Earl Mac Rauch and new (as far as I can tell) commentary by designers Michael and Dennis Okuda. The DVD offers supplements carried over from the 2002 DVD release: the 22-minute “Buckaroo Banzai Declassified,” the original prologue scene starring Jamie Lee Curtis (it was cut before release), additional deleted scenes, and trailers.

ReturnLivingDeadThe Return of the Living Dead (Shout! Factory, Blu-ray) – “The events in this film are real…” These are not the lumbering, shuffling zombies of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. This freaky and funny 1985 reworking salutes that classic in some hilarious scenes but goes its own way with the lithe, feral, and cunning undead creatures, anticipating the “fast” zombies of 28 Days Later and other subsequent takes on the genre, and sets their antics to the beat of a pounding rock score. They even master the art of home delivery: “Send more cops,” croaks a corpse into a patrol car radio. Director Dan O’Bannon even takes pains to explain their motivation between the tributes to the granddaddy of zombie horrors (“Well, it worked in the movie!” screams James Karen when a pick-ax to the skull hardly phases a lively cadaver), but you can take the explanations and motivations for the zombie rampage for what they’re worth: just an excuse for a rotting pack of gamey corpses to claw out of the cemetery and into the skulls of a human smorgasbord. “Do ya wanna party?”

The film is remastered from a new 2K scan of the interpositive and Shout! Factory has so many supplements it had to break out the edition into a two-disc set. New to the set are two commentary tracks (one with actors Thom Mathews and John Philbin and make-up effects artist Tony Gardner, the other with Gary Smart, co-author of “The Complete History of The Return of the Living Dead“) and three featurettes: the half-hour “The FX of The Living Dead,” the half-hour “Party Time: The Music Of The Return Of The Living Dead,” and “Horror’s Hallowed Grounds.” Carried over from previous disc editions are two additional commentary tracks (one with director Dan O’Bannon and production designer William Stout, the other with actors Don Calfa, Linnea Quigley, Brian Peck, Beverly Randolph, and Allan Trautman, and members of the crew), a longer workprint version of the film, the two-documentary “More Brains: A Return To The Living Dead,” and archival interviews with O’Bannon and members of the case and crew.