Christopher George, fresh off his two-year run as leader of THE RAT PATROL, is perfectly cast as a low-budget Lee Marvin in this DIRTY DOZEN ripoff, though American International only had money for eight. Included in THE DEVIL’S 8’s screenwriting credits are John Milius (CONAN THE BARBARIAN), Willard Huyck (AMERICAN GRAFFITI), Lawrence Gordon (producer of DIE HARD and WATCHMEN), and James Gordon White (THE THING WITH TWO HEADS and THE INCREDIBLE 2-HEADED TRANSPLANT).
George plays Faulkner, an undercover Treasury agent who orchestrates the breakout of six prisoners from a Southern chain gang. Instead of dashing to freedom, however, Faulkner herds the hoods directly to a waiting helicopter, which flies them to their new camp in moonshine country. There the rugged Faulkner offers them a deal: either help the Feds bring down a murderous bootleg liquor organization run by boss Burl (Ralph Meeker) in exchange for a pardon, or return to prison to serve out their life sentences. Among Faulkner’s new partners are callow drunk Sonny (Fabian), bigoted mechanic Billy Joe (Tom Nardini), black Henry (Robert DoQui), violent Sam (Joe Turkel) and pacifist Chandler (Larry Bishop).
The first half of THE DEVIL’S 8 details the group’s training, as Faulkner plops them behind the wheels of some monstrous ‘50s cars to teach them the fine art of stunt driving. Of course, these convicted lifers brawl and bicker, but of course come to like and respect each other. You’d hardly know they were hardened killers.
Eventually, Faulkner’s men prove their readiness and sneak into Burl’s county, where they hijack the crook’s shipments and force him into a reluctant partnership. Faulkner’s ace in the hole is Frank Davis (Ross Hagen), a former employee of Burl’s who wants revenge for the murder of his brother. Since Frank knows Burl, but not the location of his stills, both sides engage in an uneasy rivalry until Faulkner is able to obtain enough evidence to make an arrest.
Aside from George, Burt Topper’s biggest weapon is stunt coordinator Chuck Bail (THE GUMBALL RALLY), who delivers a steady stream of car crashes, gun battles, explosions (with the help of special effects man extraordinare Roger George), and fight scenes. The violence isn’t graphic or gratuitious, but is enough to, along with some subtle nudity, earn THE DEVIL’S 8 an M rating.
George went on to a long career as a leading man in television and exploitation movies, setting the standard with his gravelly presence here, chewing nails and slapping faces to keep his boys in line. Meeker (KISS ME DEADLY) had few peers in portraying slimy heavies (he played virtually the same role in JOHNNY FIRECLOUD nearly a decade later), and it’s interesting to see him and George bounce off the supporting cast of familiar faces, which also includes Leslie Parrish, Cliff Osmond, Ron Rifkin, and Lynda Day George in an unbilled cameo.
The pace slacks somewhat in the middle, when director Burt Topper (who used Fabian again in SOUL HUSTLER) concentrates on expanding the character relationships. Jerry Styner and Michael Lloyd provide the repetitive rock score, but stay tuned for the hilarious closing theme, which relates the origin of The Devil’s 8 and was co-written by Mike Curb. The pine trees around Big Bear, California successfully fill in for the unnamed Southern state where the action is set. KILLERS THREE was its co-feature on AIP’s 1969 double bill.