Iain Smith had no idea what he was about to watch. The only clue was a cryptic note scrawled in pen on the recordable DVD: "Turkish Star Trek."
Watching the DVD, Smith immediately recognized the film was indeed Star Trek... but not as we know it. The uniforms were pretty accurate, it was clearly based on actual episodes of the famous sci-fi show, and Spock even looked like Spock.
Little did Smith know when he watched that bootleg DVD 15 years ago that he'd discovered a familiar yet very strange new world. The world of Turkish Star Trek and Turkish Star Wars. Pakistani Dracula. Indonesian Rambo. Bollywood Nightmare on Elm Street. Aand Captain America you'll never see in Marvel's wildest multiverse fantasies.
Welcome to the world of remakesploitation.
Today, Iain Robert Smith is a film studies academic at Kings College in London. He's the author of the book The Hollywood Meme, which explores how countries around the world remake and remix familiar stories from Hollywood in B-movie exploitation flicks. He's been involved in restoring and retranslating some of these cult films and screens them at the Remakesploitation Film Club, a gathering of film fans keen to learn more about these little-seen but highly unusual international oddities.
I first encountered the soft-spoken Scot giving a lecture to the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies, illuminating horror history and culture with an increasingly bizarre array of clips from these weird and wonderful films.
Smith soon learned that the mysterious DVD marked "Turkish Star Trek" was in fact 1973 comedy Turist Ömer Uzay Yolunda, one of a series of comedy films featuring scruffy oaf Ömer the Tourist bumbling into various scrapes. A community of cinema fans swapped this and other bootleg VHS tapes and DVD-Rs of foreign remakes like Şeytan, a beat-for-beat Turkish retread of The Exorcist, or the Indonesian action movie Lady Terminator.
That's just scratching the surface: For decades Hollywood movies have been remade and reworked in India, Mexico, Brazil, Nigeria, Hong Kong -- pretty much anywhere with a thriving movie business. "The fact they exist in so many different industries around the world is fascinating," Smith says, "and tells us so much about how Hollywood cinema travels, adapts, mutates and evolves."
Then there's the really wacky stuff. The most extreme remakesploitation flicks unapologetically recycle familiar characters and even actual footage from US hits, creating bizarre movie mashups to make a copyright lawyer's head explode. In the Philippines, the Lone Ranger, Barbie and Batman made 100% unauthorized appearances -- a 1966 flick entitled James Batman managed to spoof both the caped crusader and superspy James Bond all in one go.
Another classic example is 3 Dev Adam (3 Giant Men) in which Captain America, Spider-Man and Mexican wrestling legend El Santo do battle. Except Captain America is a Turkish policeman. Spider-Man is a criminal gang boss. And neither the Marvel Avengers nor the iconic wrestler were authorized for use in this ludicrous, incoherent and yet bafflingly entertaining rip-off.
The ultimate instance of remakesploitation at its most outlandish is 1982's Dünyayı Kurtaran Adam, otherwise known as The Man Who Saves the World. Often described as "Turkish Star Wars," this absurd martial arts space opera steals a dizzying cornucopia of actual footage and music. It steals from Star Wars: A New Hope, Indiana Jones, Ben-Hur and other biblical epics, news footage of a real-life Soviet rocket launch, and oh so much more.
To be fair to director Çetin Inanç, he intended to make brand new special effects for the film. But a freak storm wiped out the expensive spaceship sets, so he resorted to bribing a security guard, stealing a print of Star Wars and projecting the space battles behind his actors. Problem solved!
Filmmakers weren't too worried about getting sued, however. In the 1970s, Turkey's film industry produced over 300 titles a year -- it was, in terms of sheer numbers, the third biggest in the world -- and according to Turkish film historian Ahmet Gurata, as much as 90% of that output was remakes and rip-offs. But it wasn't until Turkey got serious about joining the European Union in the 1990s that it moved toward a more Anglo-American attitude to intellectual property.
"Until that point," Smith says, "there was a much more open culture of reworking elements without any licensing. A huge proportion of Turkish popular cinema at that time used soundtracks from elsewhere -- if you had a record in your collection and you wanted to use it on the soundtrack of your film that was perfectly fine."
For all those years of gleeful plagiarism, Hollywood didn't sue -- because Hollywood most likely didn't notice. The Man Who Saves the World was a huge hit in Turkey but was unseen elsewhere. While the Italian film industry deliberately created anglicized spaghetti westerns and giallo horror movies for export, Turkey and other nations churned out remakes for domestic audiences with no thought of selling anywhere else.
That meant filmmakers could get hyperlocal, tickling audiences with familiar American icons popping up in their neighborhood. Back in the 1950s, Turkey produced Drakula İstanbul'da, Tarzan İstanbul'da and Görünmeyen Adam İstanbul'da -- literally, Dracula, Tarzan, and the Invisible Man in Istanbul. Fun fact: Drakula İstanbul'da was the first film to give the bloodsucking villain fangs. And it was the first movie to connect Dracula with the real-life Vlad the Impaler, a detail now absorbed back into the Hollywood version.
These cheap copies were more than just a sign of "Coca-colonization," American cultural imperialism brainwashing us with action movies and fast food. They didn't just copy American tropes and styles. Nor did they explicitly rebel against Hollywood homogenization. Instead, they frequently twisted Hollywood ideas into something unique.
Rewind to 1973, when horror smash The Exorcist terrified filmgoers around the world. Turkish producers decided to cash in on the controversial American film with their own version, titled Şeytan. It's pretty much a shot-for-shot remake -- but Islamic iconography replaces the original film's Catholic elements, highlighting the tension between Turkey's traditional religious values and its increasingly secular westernized side. "Even a film that attempts on some level to be the same takes on different resonances," Smith says, "just by virtue of being within a different national context."
Here's a clip so you can see how Şeytan compares with the horrifying original (be warned, it's very bloody):
Then there's the version of Dracula seen in 1967 Pakistani film Zinda Laash. Dreamed up in Britain and immortalized by Hollywood, the parasitic vampire is often portrayed as a sinister outsider from the East threatening Western culture. Zinda Laash flips it round and presents the Dracula character as a secular, Westernized figure at odds with Pakistani culture and values. One crucial twist reveals his vampirism is not supernatural, but comes from meddling with science.
"It's useful to take yourself out of a Western way of looking at the world and world cinema," Smith suggests. Exploring how the same stories are told in different countries highlights culturally specific aspects, reminding us that what we assume to be universal is often merely a quirk of our own culture. Hollywood movies are so culturally dominant it's easy to forget they're only one country's tradition.
A familiar plot can be a handy reference point when you're looking to sample cinema from another country. If you're curious about India's vibrant Bollywood cinema, your entry point could be Ghajini, a smash hit Indian remake of Christopher Nolan's Memento. For a taste of something different, look beyond Netflix to streaming services and DVD marketplaces like Mubi, Eros, Induna and Rakuten Viki. YouTube is also a goldmine for fans of esoteric cinema, even if it isn't quite as dramatic as a DVD with a cryptic label.
It has to be said though, the effects, performances and comically imprecise subtitles of these low-budget oddities often seem clumsy to Western eyes.
"There is a danger these circulate as weird, funny clips," says Smith, who treats the films with academic rigor as well as involving organizations like the Turkish culture Institute to ensure accurate translations. At Remakesploitation Film Club screenings -- set to resume in London in April 2021 with a screening of documentary Remake Remix Rip-Off if the allows -- academics and filmmakers from the relevant country answer questions and provide context.
"We love popular cinema, we love trashy fun B-movies," Smith says, "but we're conscious to make sure it's about informing the audience and not just a bunch of people in London laughing at these weird films."
Sadly, few of these remakes achieved critical or commercial success and were quickly forgotten, until some were rediscovered by a new generation of cult film fans in the VHS era. Rushed low-budget production clearly isn't ideal for creating a cinematic masterpiece -- but who says you can't enjoy them anyway.
"In many ways, The Man Who Saves the World is a great film," Smith insists of the ludicrously plagiarism-riddled Turkish Star Wars. "I acknowledge it's great in a so-bad-it's-good way," he adds carefully, "but it's just relentlessly entertaining. It doesn't rework Star Wars, it goes in a completely different direction and every single scene is designed to explode on the screen in front of you."
Perhaps ironically, The Man Who Saves the World recycles bits of Battlestar Galactica, Moonraker and Flash Gordon -- Hollywood productions that were themselves blatant Star Wars cash-ins. As Smith points out about the industry that gave us remakes like The Magnificent Seven, Three Men and a Baby, Some Like it Hot and The Departed: "It's not as if all Hollywood films are entirely original."