Robot Jox (1989) Retrospective

SUMMARY
Fifty years after a nuclear holocaust, mankind is decimated and the surviving nations—the western-influenced Market and the Russian-influenced Confederation—have agreed to outlaw traditional open war. In their place, disputes are settled with gladiator-style matches between giant robots operated by pilots called “robot jox” who are contracted to fight ten matches. The Confederation champion is Alexander (Paul Koslo), who has killed his last nine opponents thanks in part to a spy in the Market leaking information to the Confederation. The Market’s champion, Achilles (Gary Graham) has won nine fights and will fight his final match against Alexander for the territory of Alaska. Achilles is supported by robot designer “Doc” Matsumoto (Danny Kamekona) and strategist Tex Conway (Michael Alldredge), the only jox to win all ten of his contract fights.

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As Achilles gets the upper hand in the match, Alexander launches a rocket fist at him. The projectile goes out of control and heads toward the bleachers. Achilles intercepts the projectile but his robot takes the full force of the impact and is knocked into the crowd, killing over 300 people. The referees declare the match a draw and order a rematch, but Achilles, shaken by what happened, declares this was his contractual tenth match and announces his retirement. He goes to live with his brother Philip and his family, and finds he is publicly branded a traitor and a coward. Meanwhile, a new jox is chosen to face Alexander, a genetically engineered “gen jox” named Athena (Anne-Marie Johnson), who is the first female jox. Worried for Athena and attracted to her, Achilles returns to the Market and agrees to fight Alexander again, infuriating Athena.

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As Achilles’ robot is rebuilt, Matsumoto refuses to divulge any knowledge of its new weapons so it cannot be leaked by the spy, and Conway confides in Achilles he believes Matsumoto is the spy. Conway confronts Matsumoto in his office. Matsumoto reveals he has analyzed Conway’s final fight and deduced that the “lucky” laser hit Conway claims allowed him to defeat a clearly superior opponent was in fact deliberately aimed; Matsumoto accuses Conway of being a Confederation agent. Conway confesses and shoots Matsumoto, who secretly records the deed as part of the mission briefing. Conway informs the Market leadership that Matsumoto was the spy. On the day of the fight Athena drugs Achilles and steals his jox suit to commandeer the robot. Unable to stop the fight once she takes the field, the Market decides to support her. While watching Matsumoto’s briefing on the robot’s new weaponry, the footage of Conway killing Matsumoto is played and Conway jumps down the robot’s elevator shaft to his death.

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Alexander takes the field against Athena. Athena takes the early advantage, but Alexander overpowers her and incapacitates the robot. The fight is declared in Alexander’s favor and referees order him to stand down. Achilles arrives on the field and takes over the robot from Athena while Alexander smashes the referee hovercraft; the two jox stand to continue the fight. Both robots take to the air and a short space battle ensues. Alexander critically damages Achilles’ robot, forcing him to crash land and flee for cover to the arm of Alexander’s robot Athena sliced off earlier in the fight. Achilles hotwires the arm to launch its fist at Alexander, destroying his robot. Alexander emerges from the wreckage and the two battle with poles before Achilles finally convinces Alexander a match does not have to end with the death of a jock. Alexander throws down his weapon, and they salute each other with the jox’s traditional “crash and burn” fist bump.

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DEVELOPMENT
Gordon conceived Robot Jox while making Dolls in Rome. “I’m a big fan of the Japanese Transformer toys,” he explained from his office, which overlooks Sunset Boulevard. “While there have been animated cartoons based on these giant robots, no one has ever attempted a live-action feature about them. It struck me that it was a natural fantasy for the big screen-and a terrific opportunity to take advantage of the special effects that are available today.”

Steve Burg's 1986 concept art
Steve Burg’s 1986 concept art

Gordon approached science-fiction writer Joe Haldeman to write a screenplay based on Gordon’s original story itself based on the story of Achilles from Homer’s Iliad-having worked with him two years prior on an ambitious stage adaptation of Haldeman’s most celebrated book, The Forever War: Dennis Paoli (co-author of Gordon’s Re-Animator and From Beyond) put the final draft through various rewrites.

“Joe is part of an Air Force think tank to develop weaponry for the future,” explained Gordon, “so he was able to incorporate a lot of actual existing technology into the script and to hypothesize where it might all lead. Then we started storyboarding the film. The reaction to Dave’s footage was excellent, and Charlie was able to get the project rolling on a projected $10 million budget-a huge budget for an Empire film. I think Charlie saw it as Empire’s chance to move up into larger-budget films.”

“Haldeman did 11 drafts of the script,” the director recalls. “Joe’s experience in Vietnam was helpful here because the story’s about our future, 50 years after an atomic war. The world is basically broken down into two superpowers: The Market, which is like the Common Market except that Japan and the United States are part of it, and the Confederation, which is everybody else. Earth has vowed no war will ever take place again, so international disputes are settled by single combat between pilots of huge robots.” These pilots are called robot jockeys or robot jocks

The sequence, using robots designed by Kevin Altieri, was storyboarded by Altieri from the prologue to the script by science fiction writer Joe Haldeman, set in a snowscape where a heavy fog covers an apparent “elephants’ graveyard” of broken, battered robots, the fallen warriors of a robotic battlefield. Here and there among the shells, fires sputter near the latest casualties while a big, menacing robot stands over its victim.

“I thought it turned out very well,” said Allen of the test footage. “The style is quite different from anything else we did subsequently because it was all shot interior while everything else has been done exterior. It didn’t splice together perfectly because it depended upon live-action which hadn’t been shot.”

PRE-PRODUCTION
Six months passed while Empire continued efforts to raise financing for the film while at the same time revising the effects complexities of the script to bring them in line with budget realities, mostly by simplifying the robot action. During these delays designer Altieri left the production to accept work as a full-time director at DIC Animation Studios.

Gordon said he brought Cobb into the project “to bring a real sense of believable technology to the robots, so they could be something an audience could accept as a reality as opposed to a cartoon show. Cobb designs things that could actually work,” said Gordon. “What we ended up with was a look that was different from the look of the Japanese toys. It’s very utilitarian and it looks big, like it has the power to do what it has to do.”

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Cobb explained that when he was approached by Gordon to work on ROBOT JOX he was already committed to another project and could only work on weekends. “When I left, I told them they should make Steve Burg production designer or give him the clout of production designer because he was the only person that knew how the robots went together and was the only person that could police the construction,” said Cobb. “They just walked all over him. Eventually it was wrenched out of his hands. Everything went to pot when he left. The designs got really confused. The final shape and form of the film has obviously had problems, too.”

“I was most intrigued to design the cabs and how the interactive body motions were translated by waldos to the entire robot. I was trying to think of a reason for transformation. If it could translate into different modes of fighting, that might make sense. The idea really is silly, of course, but I wanted to keep it believable and then over and above it all, it’s humorous. It’s not a serious picture, and it isn’t meant to be.”

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Cobb was also asked to design robotic parts made of heavy-duty plastic (with metal armatures underneath) which special FX supervisor David Allen could reshape, using different models for different shots during the film’s major transformation sequences. Another Cobb-assisted movie is Stuart Gordon’s Robot Jox. “Again, that was in my conceptual design mode, so I basically opted to do all the key technology and moved on. Steve Burg was involved, and carried out many of my designs. We wanted a kind of non-Japanese version of a Transformer robot, which is very, very clever technologically speaking. We weren’t going to have them turn into semi-trucks or something, but we were going to have them break apart and operate in different functions and modes. I always liked the idea where the entire head became a little aircraft. I believe that has been changed-now the whole robot flies and changes.

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According to Allen, Cobb came up with a new look for Achilles and Alexander, the main robojock pilots, their robots, and a few sets, including a gantry and silo. When the project encountered more delays, Cobb too, departed. “I suspect that payments to Ron started to flag,” said Allen. “There was sort of a painless transition. Ron left Steve Burg in charge to do the refinements and subsequent modifications.”

Steve Bury was brought in to assist Cobb with the robot detailing, since Cobb had a limited amount of time to devote to the project. “We were constantly referring to Ron’s drawings, and Steve continued to report back to Ron to show him what he was doing and to get Ron’s approval. As a matter of fact, Ron and Steve hit it off so well that they’ve worked together ever since.”

Empire Robojox poster

LIVE ACTION PHOTOGRAPHY
Robot Jox began principal photography at Empire’s Rome facilities in January 1987, and wrapped in April. Gordon then turned over the post-production effects to Allen, who had selected El Mirage, a dry lake bed near the Mojave Desert, as the site for filming of the live-action robot skirmishes. (Some stop-motion work would be done at Allen’s Burbank studios; the live-action filming made use of the 5-foot, 50-pound cable-controlled models of Achilles and Alexander.)

“There wasn’t too much choice as far as shooting outdoors because Empire didn’t own a local stage we could work on,” Allen explained. “And even then it would have to have been huge; we would have had to hang and paint a cyclorama and then put tables out and light everything artificially. We would have been into a tremendous set rental situation over an extended period of time, which would have been a huge cash drain.”

El Mirage was chosen for its brilliant blue skies and unobstructed panorama, but the year of on-again, offagain shooting that transpired-Allen and his crew would make a total of three trips out to the desert location proved to be anything but smooth sailing. The weather was so temperamental Allen considered it a good day if he got two or three good shots in the can.

The heat wasn’t so bad, but as we were in a geothermally unstable area, we were at the mercy of the elements,” Allen said. “We had to contend daily with clouds, rain, dust storms and hellishly high winds-our outhouse got blown over constantly. Sometimes the dust was so bad you couldn’t see in front of you. When that happened, we’d go back to the motel or drive back to L.A. When it rained the lake bed would fill up and our cars were in danger of getting stuck.”

Numerous delays caused by the weather-and requests made by Gordon for additional effects-made location shooting more costly than Empire budgeted for. Still, Allen bristles at the suggestion that his unit work might have set the film back. The location shooting was probably more expensive than Empire expected, yeah. However the problem wasn’t that we were breaking the bank but that we weren’t getting money sent to us regularly enough. If by week four we didn’t have a check, we had to go back to L.A. Rain or shine I still had to put up 10 or 12 guys in a motel.”

David Allen
David Allen

SPECIAL EFFECTS PHOTOGRAPHY
With the designs set, the robots were finally transferred from the drawing table into three-dimensional models, constructed in two sizes: a stop motion size of about 20 inches tall and a larger cable-articulated miniature, closer to 50 inches high. Allen pointed out that the robot miniatures were particularly difficult to build because their joints had to be cosmetic as well as practical.“A robot doesn’t have implied’ joints like a foam rubber model,” said Allen. “It has actual working interstices: the hinges and swivels and all the hydraulics and the pistons have to be tracked. It isn’t like rubber that just mushes out of its own way. If you don’t design it right, the joints will all freeze up and lock. A robot can look good and be totally musclebound or joint bound.”

“The transformations sort of suffered due to the realities of the schedule and the budget,” said Burg. “The changes were generally not that extensive. The rocket mode, for example, had some wings pulled out and cockpits reoriented, but it was still recognizable as being the same thing, whereas with some of the TRANSFORMERS cartoons, it looks completely different. That would have been possible, but it would have taken an enormous amount of time to figure it out cleverly and would have taken a lot more resources to execute.”

Dennis Gordon, a long-time Allen associate, supervised the construction of the robot miniatures for Allen. Ron Thornton was brought in to head another construction team, and Mark Goldberg and Patrick Cox of the Local Motion Company were hired to build the cable-activated controls and armatures. Mark Rappaport built many of the robot’s weapons. Construction crews of up to twenty craftsmen worked for many months to complete the miniatures.

During this time, Allen was working full-time for ILM in San Rafael on BATTERIES NOT INCLUDED, a four month assignment he had accepted during one of the many production delays on ROBOT JOX. The ILM work stretched into a full year, keeping Allen away from his shop except for weekend visits to supervise the progress of building the ROBOT JOX miniatures. Allen compared overseeing the consortium of effects people at work to “managing D-Day.” During the weekend visits to his LA studio, Allen also completed stop-motion work for Gordon’s DOLLS.

Good actors are essential in selling special effects, making them seem believable, and Gordon said he felt that his cast was very good at “being able to create that sense of combat, one-on-one, which depends on the actors involved to be able to react with each other and play off of each other. The feeling that we were going for was something like ROCKY,” said Gordon. “There are real ups and downs in these battles and real emotional reactions to things that are going on. The robots are basically tools and weapons that are carrying out the war of these men.

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David Allen began post-production work on the carefully storyboarded robot battles, filming stop-motion at his studio and taking a crew out to a dry lake bed in El Mirage, near the Mojave desert, to film the large cable-activated robots live. Allen executed the stop-motion work with Paul Jessel, who animated the Achilles robot after Athena takes control.

Said Allen about working with Gordon, “Stuart is a person who showed himself to be quite decided about things, but he doesn’t dig in his heels. He accepts realities when .he’s satisfied that what he wants is impractical or not possible. I had a pretty free hand considering what I imagine Stuart is like on a set where he would usually be expecting to control his movies—that’s what any director expects to do. He was pretty good about letting us work in a loose kind of way. Of course, the [story]boards are very important. I don’t deviate from them too much unless I have to or I feel I can improve them or in some cases I just feel they are not very filmic. My changes have usually been appreciated rather than resented. I think we have a good relationship compared to the horror stories I often hear about with other directors.”

“Conceptually, filming there was a wonderful idea but, in reality, it turned into a huge ordeal for Dave’s crew because they were shooting out there for almost a year, completely at the mercy of the desert. When they came back, they all looked like Lawrence of Arabia.”

Additional robot weaponry includes cannons, machine guns and a Smart missile, on which is mounted a video camera for point of-view shots. For hand-to-hand combat, there are saws, drills and a magnesium flare which can suddenly blind an opponent.

But, says Gordon, “the human story must be the center of it all. No matter how great your FX are, if the audience doesn’t care about the people, then there’s no movie. That’s why I was drawn to the story of Achilles, the warrior who doesn’t want to fight anymore but is forced back into it because of his lover’s death. That’s the center of ours as well, though we’ve put it into science-fiction terms.”

Along with some stop-motion FX added later, Allen and his crew shot on location in the Mojave Desert utilizing large models for these mechanical effects; others were used for pyrotechnic explosions, while some doubled as “stunt robots” for shots in which they couldn’t destroy their carefully detailed models.

“By shooting in Death Valley, David was able to do extensive foreground miniature work, as opposed to doing it optically in post-production,” explains the director. “So most of the effects work was done in the camera, which gives it a very realistic, seamless look, because you’re seeing real mountains, sky and sunlight behind these robots.” This technique also offered the filmmakers a tremendous depth of field, keeping both the foreground and background in focus.

The live location shooting of the big miniature robots at El Mirage proved to be the biggest headache for Allen. When the location work cost Empire more than expected, Allen’s crew had to pack up and leave until more funds became available. All in all, Allen and his crew made three extended trips out into the desert. “I think if you took all the periods and added them up, we were out there for at least six or seven months,” said Allen. “That’s a long time to have a second unit crew on location. We made a very large commitment to that decision. It was a decision dictated by my recommendation, but also by practicalities.” The alternative would have been to shoot in an enormous warehouse or hanger with cycloramas, which would have been an even more expensive proposition for Empire, according to Allen.

“It takes a certain daring to shoot outdoors,” said Allen about the decision. “That’s why movies were made indoors for thirty years, because of the pressures of the industry to force predictability and control on the product. There were a lot of problems in El Mirage. We underestimated those problems.”

According to Gordon, one of the reasons the effects are taking so long is that Allen is shooting in sunlight out in the desert to incorporate real mountains and skies as a backdrop. The vastness of the desert is being used to combine the miniature robots with vast cheering throngs of spectators by shooting the cable-controlled models up close with a stadium set far in the background.

Allen is also shooting background plates for stop-motion work to be completed at his own studio. “I think the effects are really going to blow people’s minds,” said Gordon. “Although this is Empire’s largest budget, anyone else attempting this picture would want to budget three times as much.”

Gordon also pegged the film’s delay to the time-consuming special effects techniques being used to bring the story’s giant, transforming, fighting robots to life. The work, supervised by Oscar nominee David Allen, is said to be spectacular by those who viewed a product reel of footage shown by Empire at the American Film Market earlier this year. To realize the film’s complex effects action inexpensively, Allen wedded today’s sophisticated puppet technology to the low-budget effects techniques used by Howard and Theodore Lydecker on the Republic serials of the ’40s, filming the robots live against real backdrops.

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“It’s an approach that I don’t think anyone would attempt unless they were looking at this as we were—from a very low budget,” said Gordon about reviving the Lydecker approach. “Rather than light a miniature on a stage, they would take the miniature outdoors and light it with sunlight, using real sky and real clouds. It gives the miniature work greater realism. The effect is seamless because it is done in the camera.”

Gordon thinks audiences will be able to notice the difference from the blue screen optical compositing techniques that have become commonplace in effects films. “I think audiences are starting to get wise to those techniques and are able to spot them and know exactly what you’re doing,” he said. “By going back to these older techniques, our effects have a freshness about them.”

Allen and his crew spent over a year in the desert shooting the film’s robot scenes using natural sunlight, painstakingly matching the variable lighting conditions for sequences filmed over a prolonged period of time. At the mercy of the elements, the crew endured wind, rain and sandstorms which often made the shooting a waiting game. Beside the weather, the financial climate at Empire resulted in its own delays. “At one point they had to shut down production and pull Allen and his crew out of the desert until the cash flow improved,” said Gordon.

Allen accomplished most of the scenes of robot warfare live, using cable-controlled models, although stop-motion is used for some scenes. He has a second set of robots that are in a smaller scale which he uses for stop-motion,” said Gordon. “When he’s not able to get the large ones to do it, he uses stop-motion. One of the things that I am amazed at is that he’s able to meld the two in terms of being able to go from a stop motion shot to a puppeted shot. I don’t think the audience will be able to tell the difference in most of the cases. It’s a wonderful blend.”

Allen was pleased with the realism provided by the natural lighting and backdrops, but using a natural sky meant that the sky was always changing, making it sometimes difficult to match shots. And the sky at El Mirage was like Mark Twain’s comment about the Hawaiian Islands: “If you don’t like the weather, wait a few minutes and it’ll change.” Noted Allen dryly, the weather almost always seemed to get worse on any given day rather than better.

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Allen’s right-hand man on the shoot was associate effects director Paul Gentry. Ray Goode served as effects crew foreman and pryotechnician Joe Viskocil handled the fire and explosions. Winds proved especially bedeviling for the numerous shots requiring pyro effects, blowing the fire and smoke hysterically, giving away the small scale of the miniatures. The wind also blew sand off the elevated tables that the miniatures were filmed on and into the faces of the cable operators and camera crew. The difficult shoot was exhausting to everyone on the crew. Seemingly simple sequences would take hours to get on film because the process by which the robots were manipulated had to be hidden and their movements painstakingly detailed and adjusted. But Allen is very pleased with the results that were achieved.

“A major studio could not have afforded to put up a second unit working in the conditions under which we produced these shots,” said Allen. “A lot of days we simply couldn’t do anything and had to sit it out. It would be ruinously expensive to work that way for a major studio. For them, it would have been cheaper to work indoors. But for Empire it would have been much more expensive because they were not committed to the union way of doing things. To put a second unit out under those conditions, you would have to have a lunch wagon and a guard and all the facilities and amenities. We had my old R.V. and we were like a bunch of ragtag Eagle Scouters practically.”

Looking back on the years of work on ROBOT JOX, Allen remembered with some irony his first conversation with Empire chief Charles Band about ROBOT JOX, indicating the naivete with which Empire entered into the complex effects project.

Joe Haldeman
Joe Haldeman

Interview with screenwriter Joe Haldeman
What kind of working relationship did you have with Stuart Gordon?
Joe Haldeman: I enjoy working with Stuart because he’s one of the best administrators I’ve ever seen in the arts. He and I had many pretty good-natured arguments over what the movie was going to be about, and about what science fiction was supposed to do. He usually won, being the director. We identified the problem without actually solving it-I was trying to make an adult movie that children would enjoy, and he was trying to make a children’s movie that adults would enjoy. Those are two really different kinds of movies, and I guess we never did resolve them.

How did you get involved?
Joe Haldeman: Stuart called me. He’d had two successes with From Beyond and ReAnimator, and the producer gave him more or less carte blanche. He wanted to do a hard SF movie, so he called me up and he said, “I don’t have much money, but how would you like to write a movie that actually gets made?”

And I said, “Yeah!” So, he said, “What I want to do is a science-fiction version of The Iliad.” I said, “Great,” and he said, “I’ll send you a couple-page outline.” So, I get this outline, it’s pretty much like The Iliad, except it has a love interest, and people walk around in great big robots. I worked up a proposal to pitch it to the producers. They sent us out to Los Angeles and I pitched it, and they bought it. I wrote it and rewrote it-all six drafts of it.

Did you meet with the actors?
Joe Haldeman: Yeah, I loved the actors. That happened because I did six drafts, and then another draft written by somebody else came in the mail. It was just awful! I wrote Stuart a long letter detailing why he shouldn’t use that script. I didn’t hear from him for months, and I thought, “Well, that’s it.” Then, they called me in December and said, “We read your criticism, you’re completely right and we want you to write the final version. Can you be in Rome tomorrow?” You can imagine how weird that was. I said, “It’s nearly Christmas, I can’t come to Rome tomorrow. Don’t be ridiculous. I’ve got a family.” I said I would be in Rome by the first week of the New Year. They said, “OK.”

They put us up in a really grand hotel on the Via Veneto in Rome. I sat there with my little manual typewriter and rewrote the script word-for-word. It was a whole new script because I got to talk to the actors, the male and female leads. We hashed out the main characters together so that they were comfortable with them. I would get up about 2:00 a.m. and write until 7:00, when the actors were going out. I would go down and copy the pages for them, and they would get in the limo and go out to the studio to act ’em out. It was a really vibrant and exciting way to live. When you’re going through something like that, you realize, “God, this is changing my life forever!” I really loved working on that project, loved being a team player rather than being the only guy responsible for the whole product.

I’m eternally grateful to Stuart for choosing me for that. He could have chosen many people who are more tractable. I think he got a good movie out of it. You can’t tell until all the various elements come together. We got good actors, we got one hell of a good writer (Smiles), we got one of the best directors around.

And the special FX?
Joe Haldeman: The special FX were great. They took us out to the studios at the largest soundstages in Europe. The story involved robots 500 feet high, and they had actually build one up to the knees inside of that huge soundstage. I don’t know what I had expected, but there were futuristic automobiles, and the interiors of futuristic homes, military training stuff. I walked into the wardrobe room, and there were 200 costumes that were made for people who before had only inhabited a universe in my mind. All of this stuff, millions of dollars and hundreds of people working thousands of hours, were all there to make solid the things that I just imagined the way I imagined a novel. That was a mind-blower! It should only happen to every science-fiction writer.


Robot Jox (1989) Frédéric Talgorn
Frédéric Talgorn, who had previously composed the music for the 1989 horror film Edge of Sanity, wrote the orchestral film score for Robot Jox, which was performed by the Paris Philharmonic Orchestra. Since Prometheus Records reissued the soundtrack in 1993, it has received generally high acclaim. An editorial review by Filmtracks.com stated that “Talgorn’s usual strong development of thematic ideas is well utilized in rather simplistic fashion in this film, perfect for the contrasting characters and their underdeveloped dimensions.”

CAST/CREW
Directed
Stuart Gordon

Produced
Charles Band

Screenplay
Joe Haldeman

Story
Stuart Gordon

Music
Frédéric Talgorn

Gary Graham – Achilles
Anne-Marie Johnson – Athena
Paul Koslo – Alexander
Robert Sampson – Commissioner Jameson [sic]
Danny Kamekona – Dr. “Doc” Matsumoto
Hilary Mason – Professor Laplace
Michael Alldredge – Tex Conway
Jeffrey Combs – Spectator/Prole #1

CREDITS/REFERENCES/SOURCES/BIBLIOGRAPHY
Cinefantastique v17n01
Cinefantastique v18n04
Cinefantastique v19n01-02
Horrorfan#02
Starlog#145
Starlog#158

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