Comedian Rudy Ray Moore’s notorious first film, Dolemite (1975), which he produced, wrote, and starred in, has recently been given the treatment it so richly deserves by cult label Vinegar Syndrome. While I’ve primarily associated the company with obscure sexploitation releases like The Lost Films of Herschell Gordon Lewis, The Telephone Book (1971), and Bijou (1972), they’ve also given some attention to forgotten horror titles like Runaway Nightmare (1982) and Night Train to Terror (1985). However, their release of Dolemite — which includes both a Blu-ray disc and a DVD — has really gone above and beyond, sporting a brand new transfer and a solid lineup of special features.
After being framed by the gangster Willie Green (D’Urville Martin, also the film’s director), Dolemite (Rudy Ray Moore) has spent a few years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. He’s released in order to help the authorities capture Green and he teams up with the madam Queen Bee (Lady Reed), who runs his whorehouse. She’s been busy while Dolemite has been in prison, informing him, “When you were doing your time, I put your girls through karate school.” Thanks to their training and Dolemite’s repossession of his nightclub, The Total Experience, Dolemite will soon be ready to take on Green and his silent partner, the corrupt Mayor Daley (Hy Pyke).
Grindhouse at its finest, Dolemite is one of those films with a level of appeal that probably shouldn’t make sense, but is somehow undeniable. Moore, ever a comedian, basically made one of the greatest blaxploitation films of all time that also happens to be a successful spoof of the genre. It would be easy to dismiss Dolemite as half-assed — replete with low production values, ridiculously jumpy editing, questionable acting, and hilarious dialogue — but you would be a fool to do so, because this is surely one of the most enjoyable films of the ‘70s. As one of Dolemite’s girls quips, “Look for yourself motherfucker.”
Blaxploitation is one of those genres that I love with a genuine sense of devotion, but don’t write about as much as I should, perhaps because it’s a little difficult to explain in today’s culture of social justice warriors and hysterical trigger warnings. If you’re offended by profanity, racism, or any sort of non-PC language, rest assured that Dolemite himself is an equal opportunity offender. A corrupt cop — who happens to have cocaine smeared on his upper lip — says to him, “You’ve got all them black bitches working for you.” Dolemite responds, “You forgot about the white ones.” And sure, he’s a pimp, but his girls can defend themselves with lethal force, and he’s clearly both a lover and a fighter. He finds out his former girlfriend has turned on him — which would warrant at minimum a slap across the face if not a beating or even a death sentence in many other exploitation titles — but he simply tells her, “I’m going to give you a fucking you’ll never forget,” a promise on which he then delivers.
Dolemite has a number of batshit elements, almost too many to list. Of course there is a fair amount of nudity and the requisite sex scenes, but don’t miss blaxploitation’s most horrific butt massage, kung fu, dance scenes, someone shooting up heroin, prison sequences, and some of the wildest outfits in American cinema. There are also plenty of instances where Dolemite does nothing more than wax poetic (often rhyming), which was actually part of Moore’s early standup as the character. I have an inexplicable love for any movie that has its own theme song — for instance, you haven’t lived until you’ve seen The Mutilator (1984), a film that really does not even deserve its own song — and this one has a predictably enjoyable score from Arthur Wright, also of Savage! (1973) and The Human Tornado (1976).
The dialogue is the crown jewel of the film. Dolemite’s most famous and frequently quoted line is “Can you dig it?” but this is really only scraping the bottom of the barrel of verbal gold that Dolemite has to offer. My favorite line is his motto (“Dolemite is my name and fucking up motherfuckers is my game”), but he comments on everything from fashion (“I don’t want to get in my car with this shit on”) to spirituality (“If you ever see a ghost, cut the motherfucker”) and even comes up with some great nicknames, exclaiming, “Well, if it isn’t the hamburger pimp,” when he sees an old friend. It’s Moore’s sheer charisma that propels this movie forward and, almost more than Shaft (1971) or Foxy Brown (1974), or even my favorite blaxploitation western, Boss Nigger (1975), this might just be the coolest movie ever made.
Vinegar Syndrome has really delivered with the Dolemite special features and if I haven’t already given you enough reasons to pick up this release, they are definitely the icing on the cake. In addition to the aforementioned two discs and a great-looking new transfer, you can choose from two framing options. One of which is a more conventional presentation and the other, original ratio allows you to see boom mics and other things that don’t necessarily belong in the frame, but add to the charm. Also included is an informative, entertaining audio commentary from Rudy Ray Moore’s biographer, Mark Jason Murray, as well as a roughly 20-minute documentary, ”I, Dolemite,” on Moore with input from Murray.
There are also two featurettes, “Locations: Then and Now” and “Lady Reed Uncut,” the latter of which looks at Moore’s primary female collaborator, as well as trailers and some spectacular reversible cover art. Vinegar Syndrome will also be remastering and releasing Dolemite’s sequel, The Human Tornado (1976) — due out in a few weeks — and allegedly other Moore titles like Petey Wheatstraw (1977) and Disco Godfather (1979). If the Dolemite Blu-ray is any indication, these will collectively be some of the best releases of the year. If you disagree, all I can say is, “What the shit is this,” a line that Dolemite delivers more like a statement than a question.