NOTE: This article originally appeared in print in the April 2020 edition of Drive-In Asylum.
Fireball Jungle is like one of the once popular annual localized coupon books that offered an abundance of “entertainment” options that you never knew existed and wondered if you dare take – even for buy one, get one half-off margaritas. But the Jungle’s Throne Room has bar stools that are actual toilets, they have a singing poodle act, and the bartender looks like Cat Woman, so why the hell not try it out?
And I’m way underselling all the action at the ‘ol Throne Room, which is but one of many entertainment options to be found in 1968’s Fireball Jungle.
The movie immerses us in the action (“in thundering color”) around a couple of South Florida racetracks and the deadly relationship between a gangster, a junk man, and a group of young adults who live to race, love, and kill. “Cat Eye” Meares (Alan Mixon) is the wild-eyed bad boy who’s tearing up the local tracks, but his recklessness is suspected of causing accidents and even two deaths. Racing officials are worried that “senseless track accidents are increasing alarmingly,” so they bring in Cat Eye and make him say his full name (Ronald Elwood Meares) but administer no additional punishment.
We soon learn of Cat Eye’s connection with “Uncle Nero,” aka Nero Solitarius (John Russell), a local gangster who is betting on the races and wants to expand his criminal activities around the track. We also meet new driver Steve Miller, really Steve Cullen (Randy Kirby), the brother of slain racer Buzzy Cullen, one of Cat Eye’s victims. Steve’s going undercover because Buzzy hinted about speedway shenanigans to him before his fiery death. Cat Eye introduces himself to “the new guy who wants to be a smart guy” by slapping him around, putting his cigarette out on his neck, and nearly drowning him.
Steve recovers quickly – motivated equally by avenging his brother’s death and courting the dreamy Ann Tracey (Nancy Donohue) – and gets back on the track and the case to uncover corruption. Steve breaks briefly to heal and take in the groovy sounds of Mercy, who perform their real life hit “Love (Can Make You Happy)” under the moniker the LSD Lunch Bunch at a place called the Have a Joint Café. Cat Eye, meanwhile, is up to no good at a local junkyard run by Sammy (Lon Chaney Jr.), who has trained his dog to bring him beers.
Cat Eye is causing trouble for Uncle Nero, who gives him a taste of his own medicine by nearly drowning Cat Eye in his swimming pool and then drying off calmly with a towel from one of his honeys and thanking him for the workout. Cat Eye hatches a plan while stewing in the previously mentioned Throne Room as a lady with fake eyes painted on her real eyelids looks on. Hoping to get back to winning on the track and wanting to show Uncle Nero that he’s more than a rotten kid, as well as looking to soothe his Ann ache, Cat Eye tricks Steve into attempting to steal a car for Uncle Nero, but it’s really a set up.
Steve slips the heat, but a junkyard showdown ensues that lands him in the hospital and leaves Sammy dead despite just moments earlier pledging to turn his life around thanks to a passionate speech from Steve. Cat Eye finds himself on the run from the cops, and after a ridiculously lengthy fistfight with a local convenience store owner, a bloody Cat Eye returns to where it all started for the young lad – the racetrack – and I bet you can guess what the last word of the movie is.
Since its release, there has been confusion about who directed Fireball Jungle (Americana Productions). In the main titles, Joseph P. Mawra is credited as director and José Prieto is listed as an assistant director, but Prieto was soon after given credit by producers as director. There was speculation over the years that Prieto and Mawra were perhaps the same person. In a 2016 interview with the Rialto Report, Mawra, who seemed to have disappeared in the 1970s, explained that producers of the movie took his name off Fireball Jungle and added Prieto and also made unwanted changes to the movie by inserting stock footage and newsreel of stock car races. Mawra gives them “credit” also for the singing poodle. Most famous for the Olga movies set in New York City, Mawra also directed Shanty Tramp and Savages From Hell during the same period in Florida. He depicts the gritty action and violence in Fireball Jungle with fun and sleaze.
With a Carl Perkins meets Eddie Haskell take on Cat Eye, Mixon is a blast. He struts around, smirks, refers to himself in the third person, pours motor oil on a would-be wooer, and threatens violence by promising to “think of something fancy.” Mixon, who died in 1997, went on to appear in a handful of television roles and turned up as Paulina Porizkova’s father in Her Alibi. Kirby, who came to Fireball Jungle after having a recurring role on The Girl From U.N.C.L.E., is quite good as the clean-cut Steve, less so while being slapped around and more so during his tender scene with Chaney. Chaney handles pitiful well as Sammy, a man who looks to his dog to affirm facts during his conversations with people. The other big name, John “Lawman” Russell, seems to have fun in his role as Nero, who “gets rich by being smart” and says, “It’s still my time, punk, and don’t you forget it.”
A 1993 article in Ecco describes the work of make-up artist Doug Hobart on Fireball Jungle and the friendship that bloomed between Hobart and Chaney. It was Hobart who came up with the idea of painting a nude woman’s body and face with checkerboard paint during the Throne Room scene, and he also devised the simulation of the memorable scene where Chaney’s character is burned to death in his junkyard shack. Hobart also worked on The Gila Man, The Hooked Generation, The Weird World of LSD and other noted exploitation movies of lore.
Mercy went to No. 2 on the Billboard Top 40 in 1969 with “Love (Can Make You Happy).” Their appearance in Fireball Jungle had no effect on success for either them or the movie. In addition to “Love,” Mercy’s instrumental B-side “Fire Ball” is heard during a memorable beach party scene where the loser of a fight between two girls is tied to a motorcycle and dragged behind it. R&B singer Tiny Kennedy sings the title track and performs in the movie. Both Mercy and Tiny Kennedy would go on to appear in Fireball producer George Morgan’s 1978 movie The Amazing Mr. No Legs with Richard Jaeckel and John Agar.
Interestingly, in the Billboard Book of One-Hit Wonders, in the entry about Mercy’s big hit, Fireball Jungle is mentioned, but the book says incorrectly that the movie was never released, which was repeated in other publications. Its non-existence would likely come as a surprise to any still living attendees of the Judy Drive-In in Walton, Kentucky on July 4, 1971, where Fireball Jungle was part of a quadruple-feature “from dusk to wee hours” with I Walk The Line (with Gregory Peck and Tuesday Weld), Take a Girl Like You, and The Vampire Lovers.