The great American vacation gone horribly, horribly wrong.
PROLOGUE: Scientists in anti-radiation suits check a barren desert area for radiation levels and are promptly murdered, after which their corpses are dragged away behind a pickup truck, for purposes unknown...
The Carter family — uber-Republican ex-cop and manly man "Big" Bob (Ted Levine, best known as Buffalo Bill in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS), his religious wife Ethel (Kathleen Quinlan), eldest daughter Lynn (Vinessa Shaw), teenagers Brenda (Emilie de Ravin) and Bobby (Dan Byrd), Ethel's baby Catherine (Maisie Camilleri Preziosi) and Ethel's milquetoast cellphone salesman husband and lone Democrat, Doug Bukowsi (Aaron Stanford) — are driving through New Mexico en route to San Diego to celebrate Bob and Ethel's silver anniversary. They stop at a remote gas station run by scurvy redneck Jeb (Tom Bower), who advises them of a shortcut through the local hills that he says will shave several hours off of their journey. What the Carters do not know is that Jeb has been the reluctant ally of a clan of inbred mutants, a group descended from miners who were thought dead after the government destroyed their homes in an area designated for nuclear testing, and when Jeb thinks that Lynn has seen his satchel full of loot stolen from previous waylaid travelers, he directs them into the clutches of the mutants in order to protect his own ass. The Carters drive for a while and their tires are punctured by concealed spikes, which leaves them and their towed camper stranded in the middle of nowhere, with no mobile phone signal and little likelihood of rescue. Thus it is decided that Big Bob and the much-put-upon "pussy" Doug will go off in search of help, with Bob heading back to the gas station and Doug continuing along the alleged shortcut road in search of a hoped-for town.
The family's German Shepherds, Beauty and Beast, twig early to the fact that they are not alone, and when Beauty escapes from the camper in pursuit of the interlopers, she is killed and eviscerated, with her corpse displaying all the signs of it having been done by a knife-wielding human and not some desert predator. Young Bobby gives chase and finds the poor dog, but stumbles and falls, which knocks him out for a few hours, during which time he is observed by the shy and terrified Ruby (Laura Ortiz), a sympathetic member of the mutant clan. Bobby eventually comes to and makes his way back to the camper but does not tell the women about the fate of Beauty. As night falls, Bob arrives at the gas station and falls into the hands of the mutants, while Doug returns to the camper and tells the family that he has found an abandoned town in the middle of a huge crater — which was obviously where a nuclear test had been detonated — and the place is crowded with vehicles that we, the audience, realize once belonged to other unlucky travelers. So, with everyone on edge and now aware of what Bobby witnessed, the family settles in and attempts to sleep. And then the mutants arrive, handing out a home invasion marked by immolation, shootings, rape, forced suckling at Lynn's milk-bearing breast, and the kidnapping of the baby for food. Those of the family who survive ready for a private little war, fortifying the trailer should the mutants return, and Doug, the worm having turned, taking Beast into the mutants' town to retrieve wee Catherine.
Home is where the heart is...forcibly ripped from your chest and saved for dinner.
This update of the 1977 grindhouse classic is one of the rare handful of remakes that's actually an improvement over the original, bringing to the mix a solid budget, far better direction and cinematography, tight acting from all involved, and no padding to fill out the running time (one of the original's biggest flaws), while retaining most of the plot highlights that made the 1977 so shocking and memorable for its era. As for the DVD's unrated content, I didn't think there was anything egregious enough to warrant anything stronger than an "R." Yes, there is plenty of graphic violence and gore, and the infamous rape scene is re-staged, but it's done tastefully and without even a glimpse of nudity, so why this had to be edited down for theatrical release is beyond me. Anyway, the result is gripping and plays like a particularly nasty cautionary tale told around a campfire. Watch this version and you just might trade in your copy of the 1977 version at a used DVD store (like I did the other day).
Cover image for the DVD release.