Theme Song: Aussie composer Brian May (not the one from Queen) did the music for the post-apocalyptic Steel Dawn. He also did the music for Mad Max and Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, which the makers of Steel Dawn brushed off as pure coincidence. Brain May must be an expert at post-apocalyptic atmospheric syth-slabs.
Interesting Dated References: The scarcity of water; an unnamed nuclear catastrophe that only preserves clothes, hairstyles, and consumer goods made prior to 1987; having a pail of water thrown in your face being a good way to sober up when you are super wasted.
Best Line: Said fairly seriously to a group of thugs by a nude Patrick Swayze — “What’s the matter, never seen a grown man naked?”
Social Context: Dirty Dancing was filmed in the fall of 1986, but not theatrically released until August of 1987. Somewhere in between, Patrick Swayze filmed Steel Dawn. Not yet a household name, Steel Dawn probably seemed like a good action-oriented choice for the actor. It was not.
Steel Dawn is very much by-the-numbers, mid-80s, post-apocalyptic, low-budget fare. Considering how far Swayze’s star rose in 1987, it’s strange this movie even shares the same year. It’s safe to assume Steel Dawn, while still in post-production limbo, was rushed on videocassette after Dirty Dancing blew the fuck up. I don’t even see that it had a U.S. theatrical run, but it did have an international release in November of 1987, the exact month Dirty Dancing made its international premiere.
Summary: Steel Dawn opens with Swayze standing on his head meditating in the middle of the desert, only to be attacked by mysterious sand creatures. These sand creatures are really just human actors wearing a bunch of sewn together rags and some type of electrical tubing hanging from their faces.
It seems the Steel Dawn budget was blown on the somewhat fancy swords and leather vest Swayze and his various nemeses brandish for much of the film. After defeating the sand creatures, Swayze (whose character has no name) wanders around the desert. Eventually he runs into his old teacher/sensai, Cord, who is on his way to mediate a conflict over water in the Meridian Valley.
While getting a drink at what passes for a tavern in the post apocalyptic desert land, Cord is attacked and killed by some leather-clad gang. The leader of said gang, Sho, looks like a guy you’d see at a Halloween party in 2010, running around saying, “Check me out, I’m an 80s rocker!,” because he found some old leather vest and bought a shitty mullet wig.
Since Cord is dead, Swayzdog decides to investigate the water conflict and heads to Meridian Valley. There he is met by Kasha (Lisa Niemi, Swayze’s real-life wife) and Tark (Brion James, RIP), who gets all overprotective of Kasha. Swayze acts like he’s a drifter looking for work, so she offers him a job as a farmhand.
Kasha has a son named Jux (multi-syllable names for the male gender did not survive the nuclear holocaust) who helps Swayzdog learn how to handle planting things. After getting assimilated at the farm, the whole clan goes to the market where Tark is attacked by bad guys. Swayze has to jump in to help, and instantly kicks everyone’s ass.
Doesn’t this all sound totally boring? It is. The pacing of Steel Dawn is fucking absurd. There’s no sustainable tension or mystery. As a whole, the script lacks character depth and the directing is too episodic, as if the movie was made-for-televison.
So Kasha and her crew have a hidden underground spring of fresh water they want to use for helping out the neighboring villages, but resident thug Damnil (Anthony Zerbe, Dog Boy from Cool Hand Luke) wants to seize the land and keep it for himself.
Steel Dawn is basically a post-apocalyptic version of Shane with really bad pacing and super-bad scenes that are all backlit by the sun.
Eventually Kasha realizes Swayze is a trained warrior and decides to make love to him. While that’s going on, Damnil and his henchmen destroy some shit at their farm. After some other boring stuff, Tark is killed by Sho and Jux is kidnapped. Swayze vows vengeance, so Kasha gives him his magical sword and he heads off to kill Damnil and free the boy. The enemy encampment is a bunch of scaffolding and items on fire.
Then he kills Damnil and frees the boy. The next morning, Swayze does long embraces and wincing stares and then drifts his ass out of town.
Overall, Steel Dawn seems to fall victim to its creators lack of experience. Director Lance Hoo, who had previously done a good job with Missing In Action 2, did not direct another feature film after this. For writer Doug Lefler, Steel Dawn remains his first and last feature length film writing credit. Swayze, still eager for action scripts and not able to be totally picky, probably let the thought of costarring with his wife shut out any discretion.
Poster and Box Art: The U.S. home video box art is rock solid. The movie had Swayze, and why not take advantage of it. A solid posterization, a good use of Serpentine and we’re in business. There was another version that zeroed in on the Dirty Dancing audience (left).
Foreign releases (right) got a little more mystical and, well, foreign: Throwing in weapons, outfits, and vehicles never seen in the movie.
Availability: Steel Dawn is available on most streaming services and DVD.