Wednesday, July 3, 2019

A Tribute to USHRA Monster Wars!

What better way to celebrate America’s birthday than with a Saturday morning TV show that tried to turn monster truckin’ into pro wrestling?


By: Jimbo X

I ain’t gonna’ lie to you people, I had a hard time coming up with something thematically appropriate to write about this Fourth of July. But then, I went down one of those YouTube rabbit holes as I’m so prone to and realized the perfect essay topic for Independence Day 2019 — motherfuckin’ USHRA Monster Wars.

Don’t have any idea what I’m talking about? Well, to be fair, it’s a pretty obscure property, even by our standards. Long story short, it was this one monster truck program that aired for a single season back in ‘93, which came up with a downright brilliant strategy to turn more kids onto the art of humongous pick-ups running over old cars and shit — essentially, they tried to turn it into professional wrestling.

I’m pretty sure everybody back in the day discovered the program the way I did. I’m sitting there, on a Saturday morning, bored of the old X-Men and Eek! The Cat reruns, so I flip it on over the Prevue Channel. So the thing starts scrolling by at about half a millimeter an hour when it tells me something called Monster Wars is on opposite Garfield and Friends. Naturally, my curiosity was piqued, so I grabbed the remote and gave it the old look-see.

Now, had I known the show would be a glorified grabbag of discounted, repackaged monster truck footage, I never would’ve given it the time of day. But instead of being assailed by huge ass trucks driven by guys with mustaches and mullets named Pete, I was instead confronted by some dude wearing a purple spandex leotard and rocking a Skeletor mask talking about how much ass he was gonna’ kick on the track, and from there, I was instantly hooked.

That’s right — buffered in-between the actual monster trucking, Monster Wars featured a cavalcade of promos and vignettes starring these crazy costumed characters tangentially related to the names of the trucks themselves. For example, representing a truck called Predator was this half-man, half-cat goth, The Crow-looking homosexual, while the physical manifestation of a truck called Carolina Crusher was a construction worker who looked like former UFC fighter Tank Abbott who threatened to symbolically jackhammer the competition. It was such an ingenious concept that I’m kinda’ surprised more kid-baiting properties throughout the ‘90s didn’t try to take the same route — but then again, considering Monster Wars made it for just ONE season, I reckon the majority of juvenile America, circa 1994, didn’t foster quite the same fondness I had for the concept.

Folks, I was downright FLABBERGASTED that not only is there more than one full-length episode of Monster Wars circulating around on the YouTubes, there’s even one channel that has about eight or nine of them uploaded. I’m not entirely sure how many episodes of the series were ultimately aired (I want to say the sum is pretty close to 20 or so, but I’m no expert), so the fact that we have that many surviving episodes intact and readily viewable is nothing short of a modern multimedia miracle.

Of course, since most of these episodes are straight rips of old-ass VHS tapes, the quality fluctuates quite a bit. Still, it’s better than nothing, and I genuinely can’t think of anything more intrinsically American to do on our nation’s birthday than kicking back in an air-conditioned house the bank technically owns, stealing the neighbor’s Wi-Fi and binge watching a couple of episodes of a 25-year-old children’s program about monster trucking … preferably while drinking copious amounts of corn-syrup-imbued soft drinks, ensuring you will indeed get fat as fuck in the process.

The material doesn’t exactly lend itself to straight-up play-by-play like most of the “obscure media” we profile around these parts, so instead, I suppose the best way to share the gift of Monster Wars with the masses is through a quick and anything-but-thorough recap of the TV show’s extended cast. So how about we meet our zany assortment of trash-talking spokes-monsters and get this ultra-American show on the road, why don’t we?

GRAVE DIGGER!


You know, I’m still not sure how the producers of those show evaded a lawsuit from Mattel. Not only does the Grave Digger stand-in bear an uncanny resemblance to Skeletor of Masters of the Universe fame, they even had the audacity to place him in front of a matte painting with a poor man’s Castle Greyskull depicted on it whenever he cut his promos. Even better, he had a digitally-altered voice that made him sound like something out of the Night of the Demons movies, talking mad shit about how he was going to send all his opponents to The Netherworld. Over the course of the show, however, the character developed more of an Oderus Urungus from GWAR inflection, and in a particularly memorable episode he decided to take up golf as a hobby — naturally, lots of wacky hijinks ensued. Considering this was right around the same time the WWF was doing that whole Undertaker vs. Undertaker shtick, the characters was just tailor-made for the elementary schooler pro ‘rasslin fan set. I don’t recall ever meeting many people back in the day that watched the show, but among those who did, this was the consensus pick for everybody’s favorite … and really, for glaringly obvious reasons.

CAROLINA CRUSHER!


Sometimes, simplicity is the best course of action to take, and few characters prove that as well as Carolina Crusher. Essentially, the character is just a construction worker, but he’s a badass construction worker who looks like he probably does crystal meth and says the “n-word” a lot. As it turns out, the guy who portrayed Carolina Crusher on the show was indeed a real actor by the name of Rick Zumwalt, who is probably best known for playing Bull Hurley in that mid-80s’ Sly Stallone arm-rasslin’ vehicle Over the Top. Of course, around THESE parts, we recognized Mr. Zumwalt as the guy who played Joshua in Penitentiary III, which I think we can all agree is the single greatest boxing movie ever made in which at least one character gets raped to death by The Haitian Kid while he’s high on crack cocaine. Man, that movie fuckin’ ruled, ya’ll.

EQUALIZER!


I’m still not entirely sure how to describe what Equalizer was supposed to be. Obviously, he had a very comic-booky, Captain America vibe going on, but at the same time he also had more than a passing resemblance to Evel Knieval. Even weirder, they kept superimposing this glitching graphic over him, so I think he may have been some sort of rogue A.I., too. Long story short, this was kind of a pastiche of your goody-two-shoes pro wrestling face, who was always talking about how important it was to fight fair and play by the rules. Perhaps an oblique nod to the Superman mythos, his backdrop was this icy fortress in a vast, arctic wasteland, complete with icicles and shit all over everything. Also of note: the fact that the character design is literally the bastard amalgamation of Japanese anime hero Casshan with Major Glory from The Justice Friends.

FIRST BLOOD!


First Blood, obviously, was supposed to be a vampire, only instead of being a traditional Bela Lugoisi-vampire, he was a fucking jacked-up, roided-up vampire who looked more like that dude who played Nuclear Man in Superman IV than Christopher Lee. Of course, the guy’s costume was goddamn ridiculous — we’re talking an orange tanktop with a bat on it, a cape with metal studs on it and some mime-like corpsepaint that I guess everybody thought was intimidating but in reality, it just makes him look like a emo-goth twink. That said, the actor who played him almost certainly had to have been a real professional wrestler, since his promos had way more mouth-frothing, batshit insanity to them than anybody else’s. Fuck subtlety, this guy would come right out and say his plan was to kill his opponents, which I guess gives him some points for simplicity. Also, let’s all pretend that his background screen ISN’T supposed to be a stand-in for literal Hell, complete with its boiling pools of lava and towering brimstone pyres. 

INVADER!


On the track, Invader was B-leaguer who always ended up jobbing to Grave Digger and Bear Foot. But his personification on the show, at least, was pretty cool — if not a little eerie. Long story short, fuckin’ Invader WAS Master Chief a good six and seven years before Halo was an actual thing, and the resemblance is so on the nose that it kinda’ makes you wonder why Bungie never got sued by these fuckers. Ultimately, though, Invader was your rank-and-file Stormtrooper wannabe, complete with a penchant for dropping a whole buncha’ space puns during promos. That said, his costume — basically, just a lot of black with some hot purple overtones and a ray gun he never used on anybody — was pretty spiffy, and there’s no denying that his pink and blue Martian landscape backdrop isn’t the most sythwave as fuck thing ever.

PREDATOR!


In some ways, Predator was both the coolest and gayest character on the show. For starters, his backdrop was a slummy ghetto back alley, with lightning constantly crashing in the background — easily the show’s least cringey character screensaver. Secondly, Predator came equipped with these two huge-assed, bladed gauntlets and had the ability to transform into a panther at will — all in all, some pretty neat aesthetics. The problem with Predator is two-fold: the costume and the actor playing him. The dude’s uniform is basically just a black spandex ensemble with a really, really unintimidating cartoon cat face on it, and his face makeup — a buncha’ red crap around the eyes and some “please make out with me, I’m depressed” black lipstick — made him look like the kind of guy who’d try to blow you behind Costco for $20. Even worse, the guy was rocking the WORST hair metal wig of all-time, and his taunts basically boiled down to him licking his lips like a chi-mo at Build-A-Bear  and making these weird purring noises. Basically, if you liked Predator, we just went on ahead and assumed you were a homosexual, and we probably weren’t wrong, either.

TAURUS!


If you merged the Lone Ranger, WWF gimmick character the Repo Man and a methamphetamine junkie who’s been arrested for stealing air conditioners at least five times, you’ve more or less got Taurus. Your archetypical cowboy trope, the character came adorned with a black hat, a Zorro mask and a weird orange spandex unitard that appeared to have an unauthorized Texas Longhorns logo on it. He also had a fondness for shaking a whip and a six-shooter at the audience whilst walking around a desert-like matte painting. In a stark contrast to acceptable standards and practices in today’s children-oriented programming, one of Taurus’ signature taunts was telling his foes he had “a bullet with their name on it” and that when they raced, he aimed to kill — something that probably wouldn’t fly in our post-Parkland gun-grabbers utopian society. According to the IMDB, the character was portrayed by a dude named Scott James, a Z-level actor who also had some bit parts in The Bikini Carwash Company and Murder, She Wrote; today, he runs some kinda’ e-commerce firm in L.A. and probably doesn’t like it when people ask him “Hey, didn’t you use to play that rapist cowboy that threatented to kill everybody  on that monster truckin’ show for kids back in the ‘90s?” And by all means, employees of Webscale Networks —if you haven’t yet, please ask him that question at some point.
LUANN LEE!


And whilst she was never kayfabed into a monster truck driver, I guess it would be a disservice to you all if I didn’t say a thing and two about our hostess, Luann Lee, which was also the name of this one girl who lived in a trailer park behind my house who once sucked a dude off for a pack of Marlboro Lights once — naturally, whenever I think about one, I have to think about the other. Pretty much the only thing you need to know about this Luann is that she was blonde, had some tig old bitties and was NOT afraid to show those yam-yams off, even if the target demographic for the show was like, seven year olds. Apparently, somebody picked up on that, since her wardrobe gets increasingly conservative throughout the episodes — no doubt the end-dividend of many a station manager getting irked calls from parents wondering why little Johnny was ogling some pristine titolas at 10 in the morning. Not that it would really surprise anybody, but Lee was indeed a former Playboy Playmate of the Month whose IMDB resume includes a couple of softcore skin flicks … you know, the body of work that just screams “primo candidate for a children’s program,” naturally.
You know, one of the weirdest things about Monster Wars is that — for whatever inexplicable reason — they DIDN’T create a character revolving around the program’s most decorated monster trucker, Bear Foot, a distant cousin of Bigfoot that seemed to win a good 75% of the races on the show. And there were a couple of other trucks shown on the program — Kodiak, Tropical Thunder, Liquidator, Monster Patrol, etc. — that didn’t get the physical embodiment treatment, either, which is a crying shame. I mean, I can’t be the only one out there wondering how in the hell they would’ve created an action figurable concept out of something called Liquidator, am I?

By the way, the Wikipedia tells me there was one more monster truck with an avatar — U.F.O., whose representation was supposedly an alien of some kind. While evidence that the monster truck did indeed exist is readily available, I couldn’t find any images or videos of this mythical U.F.O. mascot, and if they’re out there, be prepared to look long and hard for ‘em.

Oh, and speaking of action figures, Monster Wars did indeed inspire quite a number of consumer products, including a line of model trucks which included two-inch tall simulacrums of the TV show characters themselves … and, uh, instant tattoo prints, which doesn’t seem as cool in hindsight.

And if you were wondering whether or not one season was long enough for Monster Wars to net its own video games, apparently such a tenure was long enough to earn it cartridges on both the Game Boy and Game Gear, although a planned licensed game on the SNES and Genesis never made it to fruition. In case you’re wondering, yes, I have played both of the portable Monster Wars games, and yes, they did indeed suck — a shocker, I know.

In today’s pussified cultural climate, it’s hard to imagine a show like Monster Wars getting the greenlight today. Monster trucks themselves are just too Southern, too working class and too masculine to coexist alongside Paw Patrol and Peppa Pig, and I’m sure some dildo or dildette over at Vox of The Atlantic would find a way to bemoan a hypothetical Monster Wars 2.0 as being “too white” and accusing the producers of being racist because one of the avatars isn’t a transexual Puerto Rican and something.

And in that, Monster Wars serves as a reminder of simpler times, times less obsessed with identitarianism and political correctness and bitching and moaning and crying and bellyaching about “muh representation.” In hindsight, the show probably isn’t something you can binge watch, but it’s certainly the kind of oddball ‘90s ephemera that will get you hankering for the heyday of super-depressed alt rock and the Sega Game Gear.

And on this, our nation’s birthday, I reckon you OWE it to both yourself and your country to screen at least one episode of Monster Wars, just to see how wayward the U.S.A. has gone in just 25 years. I mean, what’s more patriotic — and thus, counter-cultural — than cranking up the A.C., pouring you a foamy, carbonated soft drink or seven, eating eight bratwursts in a row and just groovin’ on a kids show from two and a half decades ago featuring a glorified stripper and skeleton warriors getting hyped over fat dudes with mustaches crushing old-ass cars in their jacked-up pick-ups?

I mean, next to kicking England’s ass again, I can’t dare fathom a more American way to spend the Fourth, can you?

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