What more could you want from a low-budget Terminator rip-off from the mid-80s than a half-man, half-robot mandroid and some time travel nonsense? It’s a question you might find yourself asking throughout 1986’s Eliminators, which begins as straightforwardly and derivatively as you‘d expect: using cybernetic technology, the evil Dr. Abbot Reeves (Roy Dotrice) resurrects a dead pilot in the form of the aforementioned Mandroid (Patrick Reynolds) to use in a time travel experiment, sending him to collect artifacts from ancient Rome, represented by six or seven guys in cheap-looking Roman warrior costumes standing in the middle of a field.
After the Mandroid returns to the present, Reeves decides to destroy him for reasons that aren‘t quite explained. Dr. Takada (Tad Horino), Reeves’ assistant, takes pity on the Mandroid and helps him escape by hooking him up to his mobile unit, a small tank-like vehicle that’s sort of like a futuristic version of those Rascal scooters you see commercials for during The Price Is Right. Secure in his mobile unit, the Mandroid bumps down a flight of stairs, does battle with Reeves’ security force, which consists entirely of rednecks with prominent beer guts, and escapes from the lab. He leaves the mobile unit behind in order to track down Colonel Nora Hunter (Denise Crosby), who Takada said would help him. As it turns out, Colonel Hunter originally designed the Mandroid’s robotic body parts for a space platform droid.
“Reeves,” she explains, “stole my designs and bastardized them.”
She and the Mandroid decide to go seek their revenge on Dr. Reeves and stop whatever evil, ill-defined plan he is concocting. So far, so good. Eliminators has taken all the major elements of The Terminator and rearranged them in such a muddled, haphazard way you can’t quite accuse it of plagiarism. It’s almost as if the filmmakers hadn’t actually seen The Terminator themselves, but were basing their movie off of a friend’s drunken, half-remembered recounting of the plot. There’s even an awkward attempt at establishing a catchphrase along the lines of Schwarzenegger’s “I’ll be back.” A carjacker shows up at one point for no other reason than to pretend to be a mechanic and ask Colonel Hunter and the Mandroid if their car needs some bodywork.
“I don’t need no bodywork,” the Mandroid clumsily quips after pummeling the guy and leaving his body in the middle of the street.
From there the movie begins to veer off course. Colonel Hunter and the Mandroid meet up with Harry Fontana (Andrew Prine), a low-rent Indiana Jones-style adventurer, who they hire to take them down the river in his boat to Reeves’ lab. The movie then devotes itself almost exclusively to long, tedious scenes of Fontana and Hunter bickering, which is meant to imply the sort of simmering romantic tension between two forceful personalities—a la Bogart and Hepburn in The African Queen —but which just reinforces how petty and unpleasant they are. Meanwhile, the Mandroid silently sulks in the background, sweating much more than is probably safe for a cyborg, disappointed, it seems, to find himself a supporting character in his own movie.
Then Fontana’s overweight, extremely butch rival Bayou Betty shows up in her boat to cause trouble, along with her effeminate French side-kick Frenchy, who sports a pencil-thin John Waters mustache. Then a ninja shows up for no particular reason. Then a tribe of cavemen appear, presumably due to some glitch in the time travel machine, though trying to attach any logic to the movie at this point is futile.
It’s here that you might find yourself getting frustrated, wondering what, exactly, has happened to the simple Terminator knock-off you started forty-five minutes ago. Why, you might wonder, do so many B-movies like this keep piling on more characters when they can’t even develop the few characters they started out with? Why make your plot so ridiculously convoluted when all anybody is expecting is a cheap imitation? Terminator actually has a pretty straightforward sci-fi story, so why can’t Eliminators be content with emulating it? Did the filmmakers actually think they could somehow one-up such an iconic piece of cinema? Or were they overcompensating for their shortcomings?
When the ninja starts karate-chopping the cavemen you might be tempted to simply give up. But then stop and ask yourself this: where else am I ever going to see a ninja karate-chopping cavemen? Certainly not in The Terminator. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find another movie quite like Eliminators. Only when a movie is as low-budget and under the radar as this one, do you find such nonsensical characters and weird, pointless digressions. Efficient storytelling is great, but this can be fun too.
It feels like the studio wanted to make a quick cash-in like all the other cash-ins that lined the video store shelves in the ’80s—from Future War to Cyborg Cop to Lady Terminator —but the screenwriters wanted to make a movie about river bandits. Meanwhile, the director’s son had just started taking karate lessons, so he decided to throw a ninja in to make the kid happy. Then someone found some caveman costumes lying around. The result is as original, in some ways, as The Terminator. Eliminators is a dumb, beautiful, bastardized creation—like the Mandroid himself.