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Sybil Danning, B-Action Queen of the 1980's - A Biography

by Mike Haberfelner

March 2008

Films starring Sybil Danning on (re)Search my Trash


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With 1980's action- and B-movie fans, actress Sybil Danning has already reached cult status. Nobody in the 80's could play the tough-as-nails bitch quite as good as this statuesque, long-legged and very sexy blonde, and it didn't even matter that Danning wasn't the greatest of actresses, because she had something the competition didn's have: Charisma.

She was able to steal almost every scene she was in, she was able to leave a lasting impression regardless of the movie she was in (and over the years, she has been in quite a few turkeys), and she could improve every film she was in by her mere presence (again, she was in quite a few turkeys).

Plus, with Sybil, it didn't even matter if she played a good guy (well, girl would be more appropriate) or a baddie (actually, I always prefer her as a villainess), she would always get her point across. And despite her revealing outfits, despite her many nude scenes, despite everything, she simply was the female action star of the 1980's every feminist should/could have been proud of !



Early Life, Early Career


Sybil Danning was born Sybille Johanna Danninger in 1952 (other sources claim 1947) in Ried im Innkreis (other sources claim Wels), Austria to an Austrian mother and an US American father who had to leave for the USA before she was even born. Her mother later married an US-army major, and the family moved to the USA, where her father was relocated several times to various army bases and where Sybil also learned the English language to perfection.


However, when Sybil was 14, her (step-)father was relocated to Japan, and her mother, refusing to accompany him, moved the family back to Austria.


Sybil quit school at that time to support her family, working first as a dental assistant, then in several jobs related to dentistry in one way or another. However, dentistry wasn't something she was really into, so after a while, she enrolled in the Buchner School of Cosmetology in Salzburg and ultimately received her diploma in facial treatment, decorative make-up, pedicure, manicure, and body massage, with the goal of opening her own beauty salon - but was denied a permit to do so by the city. However, she was asked by the Buchner Institute to work for them as a cosmetician ... but her beauty, Nordic in type, soon granted her a place in front of the camera, and before you know it she had become a sought after model.


It was now the late 1960's, and the world was just waking up to erotic cinema, so for a beauty like Sybil Danning, who wasn't shy to shed her cloths either, there was always some room on the big screen ...



German Erotica


Sybil Danning gave her film debut in 1968 in the film Komm nur, mein liebstes Vögelein/Come Now, my Dear Little Bird (Rolf Thiele), a West German-Italian episodic sex comedy, in which she merely had a small role - but her appearance as naked Lorelei sitting on a bare rock and luring sailors to their doom by songs sure left a lasting impression ... possibly the only lasting impression the film left at all.


This film pretty much set the tone for all the films she made over the next few years, cheap and cheesy German sexmovies, often anthologies (following the success of the Schoolgirl Report-series, the Germans had a soft spot for sex antohologies it would seem) in which she was cast mainly for her looks and her willingness to undress in front of the camera.


Among these films were Liebesmarkt in Dänemark/Golden Bananas (1970, Benno Bellenbaum, Günter Vaessen), Das Ehrliche Interview - Die Sexuellen Wünsche der Frau von Heute/The Honest Interview (1971, Werner M.Lenz), Hausfrauen-Report 1: Unglaublich aber wahr/Housewives Report/On the Side (1971, Eberhard Schröder), Ehemänner Report/Freedom for Love/Married Men Report (1971, Harald Philipp), Paragraph 218 - Wir haben abgetrieben, Herr Staatsanwalt/In Trouble (1971, Rob Houwer, Eberhard Schröder), Urlaubsreport - Worüber Reiseleiter nicht sprechen dürfen/Holidays Report/What Tour Guides can't Tell You (1971, Ernst Hofbauer), Das Mädchen mit der heissen Masche/Loves of a French Pussycat (1972, Hans Billian), Gelobt sei, was hart macht/Sex Olympics/Praised be what Hardens You (1972, Rolf Thiele) - a sex comedy about the Olympics in Ancient Greece to coincide with the 1972 Olympics in Munich - and Blutjung und Liebeshungrig/Die Liebestollen Apothekerstöchter/Naughty Nymphs/Don't Tell Daddy/Passion Pill Swingers (1972, Franz Antel).

These films, many of them produced by TV13 Filmproduktion, a company specialised in softcore erotica, were all cheaply made sexfilms that did not have any artistic aspirations but were put out to make a quick buck or two - and the reason that at least some of them are re-issued on DVD these days is not so much because of their quality but because of their unintentionally funny cheesiness and camp appeal ... which makes at least some of these films irresistible to trashfilm fans like me.


Of all her German sex movies of the early 1970's, only Siegfried und das Sagenhafte Liebesleben der Nibelungen/The Long Swift Sword of Siegfried/The Lustful Barbarian/Maiden Quest (1971, Adrian Hoven) might be of special interest, not so much because it's a good film (it isn't), but because it's a sex-take on the German national epic of the Nibelungs - which despite all the sex thrown in stays relatively true to its source. Sybil Danning plays Kriemhild in this one, a role that has previously been played by Margarete Schön in Fritz Lang's two-part adaptation of the legend from 1924 and by Maria Marlow in Harald Reinl's [Harald Reinl bio - click here] 1966/67 version, which also came in two episodes. Compared to the dead-seriousness of either Lang's or Reinl's interpretation of the story, Hoven's version is almost enjoyably silly.

(Adrian Hoven, by the way, in the late 1960's/early 1970's desperately tried to shake his image as the nation's favourite son-in-law - an image he has earned himself by acting in too many Heimat- and kitschfilms in the 1950's and early 1960's - by directing/producing sex and exploitation films.)



Going International


By 1972, Sybil Danning has earned herself quite some recognition as a sex starlet (and she certainly had the looks and body to go with it), but she had higher aspirations, aspirations to become a real actress, and to that end she studied with renowned German acting coach Annemarie Hantschke for three years in Munich, until she was finally given the chance to play in something other than sex flicks. Initially though she was only cast in supporting roles in a handful of Italian flicks like L'Amante dell'Orsa Maggiore/Die Geliebte der Grossen Bärin/The Smugglers (1972, Valentino Orsini) starring Giuliano Gemma and Sophia Loren and the gialli (giallo = a specifically Italian version of the murder mystery with horror undercurrents often featuring serialkillers and madmen) L'Occhio nel Labirinto/Eye of the Labyrinth/Blood (1972, Mario Caiano) - this one was again co-produced by TV13 Filmproduktion - and Dama Rossa uccide Sette Volte/The Red Queen Kills Seven Times/Cry of a Prostitute: Love Kills/Blood Feast/The Corpse which didn't Want to Die/Horror House (1972, Emilio Miraglia), but finally, the film Bluebeard (1972, Edward Dmytryk, Luciano Sacripanti) starring Richard Burton, Raquel Welch, Virna Lisi, Nathalie Delon and trashmovie regular (and later porn actress) Karin Schubert presented her to a wider, international audience - even if her role of a prostitute whom Richard Burton in the title role disposes of by dropping a chandelier on her head wasn't all that big.


Even bigger than Bluebeard was The Three Musketeers (1973, Richard Lester) - like Bluebeard produced by Alexander and Ilya Salkind -, the famous all-star swashbuckler starring Michael York as D'Artagnan, Oliver Reed, Richard Chamberlain and Frank Finlay as the Three Musketeers, Raquel Welch, Christopher Lee as Rochefort, Jean-Pierre Cassel as Louis XIII, Geraldine Chaplin as Anna of Austria, Faye Dunaway as Lady de Winter, Charlton Heston as Cardinal Richelieu, and Spike Milligan. Compared to all these international heavyweights, Sybil's role as Queen Anna's lady in waiting is comparatively small, but the film became a smash hit and was in 1974 followed by a sequel (The Four Musketeers [Richard Lester]), featuring almost exactly the same cast, including Sybil Danning.

Apart from these prestige films, Danning's output in the mid 1970's was an incredibly (and enjoyably) mixed bag of goodies, including comedies - the high sea adventure comedy Arrivano Joe e Margherito/Run, Run, Joe ! (1974, Giuseppe Colizzi) starring Keith Carradine and Tom Skerritt, the Adriano Celentano-starrer L'Emigrante/Little Funny Guy (1974, Pasquale Festa Campanile), and the World War II-comedy Opération Lady Marlène (1975, Robert Lamoureux) -, an adaptation of a book by German writer Heinz G.Konsalik - Der Geheimnisträger (1975, Franz Josef Gottlieb [Franz Josef Gottlieb bio - click here]) -, a German crime TV - Derrick - Zeichen der Gewalt (1975, Theodor Grädler) -, a (late) spaghetti Western - Diamante Lobo/God's Gun (1976, Gianfranco Parolini) starring Lee Van Cleef and Jack Palance - and even a film by Claude Chabrol - Folies Bourgeoises/The Twist (1976) starring Bruce Dern, Stéphane Audran, Sydne Rome, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Ann-Margret, Maria Schell, and in small roles Charles Aznavour, Tomas Milian and Curd Jürgens.


Among the films Sybil made during that time, one movie is definitely worth a mention: Der Flüsternde Tod/Whispering Death/Albino (1975, Jürgen Goslar) - not so much because of the film's quality or even the importance of Danning's role in it (she plays a rape victim who only has a few scenes), but because the film, a West German/South African co-production starring Christopher Lee and Trevor Howard, ably demonstrates how much even exploitation cinema has changed since the 1970's - as this film, an exploitation flick by all means, features quite a few racist tendencies reminiscent of cowboys-vs-Indians films of the 1950's.

(Of course, none of this can be blamed on Sybil Danning, who was then still a starlet with an uncertain future.)



Being so far mainly cast in (pan-)European productions (apart from the Musketeer-films), Sybil Danning went more and more international in the latter part of the 1970's. She had parts in such films as the Mark Twain-adaptation Crossed Swords/The Prince and the Pauper (1977, Richard Fleischer) starring Oliver Reed, Raquel Welch, Mark Lester, Ernest Borgnine, George C. Scott, Rex Harrison, David Hemmings, Charlton Heston and Lalla Ward - which was incidently produced by Musketeer-producer Ilya Salkind -, the Israeli film Mivtsa Yonatan/Entebbe: Operation Thunderbolt (1977, Menahem Golan), a film about the real life Entebbe airplane hijacking drama that pits Danning against Klaus Kinski and that was an early collaboration of later Cannon-masterminds Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, the forgettable American thriller Cat in the Cage (1978, Tony Zaraindast), the tired all-star desaster movie The Concorde ... Airport '79 (1979, David Lowell Rich) starring Alain Delon, Sylvia Kristel, Robert Wagner, George Kennedy, Eddie Albert, Bibi Andersson, David Warner and Mercedes McCambridge, and the all-star sci-fi desaster movie Meteor (1979, Ronald Neame) featuring Sean Connery, Natalie Wood, Karl Malden, Brian Keith, Martin Landau, Trevor Howard and Henry Fonda.


The weirdest of Danning's film in the late 1970's though might be The Swap (1979, John C. Broderick, John Shade), a murder mystery using large portions of a film called Sam's Song from 1969 starring a very young, pre-star Robert De Niro, but creating a whole new movie around the old footage that doesn't necessarily have much to do with the older film. Danning plays an older version of actress Jennifer Warren (not to be confused with the singer of the same name) in the film, despite the fact that the two actresses look nothing alike. The result is pretty much as ridiculous as I make it sound to be ...



Action Icon of the 1980's


In the latter part of the 1970's, Danning's appearances were still split between A- and B-movie fare, her roles varied considerably in size and importance, and her career by and large lacked direction. By the early 1980's however she seems to have found a home in B action movies.


In the early 1980's, Danning's role in action films were still rather small, like in the thriller Cuba Crossing/Kill Castro/Sweet Dirty Tony (1980, Chuck Workman) starring Stuart Whitman, Robert Vaughn and Woody Strode, and in the comedy How to Beat the High Cost of Living (1980, Robert Scheerer) starring Susan Saint James and Jane Curtin (both still being a few years away from co-starring in Kate and Allie), and Jessica Lange.


Sybil's first action film of real interest regarding her role might be action auteur Enzo G.Castellari's [Enzo G.Castellari bio - click here] Il Giorno Del Cobra/Day of the Cobra (1980) starring Franco Nero [Franco Nero bio - click here]. Admittedly, for the most part of the film, Danning seems to be serving little more than decorative purposes (which she does very well of course), only to in the end turn out to be one of the persons behind a plot against Nero, and suddenly the sweet girl she has played throughout most of the movie turns into a cunning and ruthless bitch who only loses her life because Nero turns out to be even more cunning and ruthless.

(Apart from having a good role, it of course also has to be mentioned that Day of the Cobra is wonderfully directed action fare with many breathtaking setpieces, a speciality of director Castellari.)


The film that is credited by many with being Danning's breakthrough film as an action star though is the Roger Corman-production Battle Beyond the Stars (1980, Jimmy T.Murakami) [Roger Corman bio - click here], a film clearly inspired by George Lucas' original Star Wars-series of films but more based on Shichinin no Samurai/The Seven Samurai (1954, Akira Kurosawa) and its Western remake The Magnificent Seven (1960, John Sturges) - some of the dialogue of the latter re-appears in Battle Beyond the Stars - and starring Robert Vaughn (of Magnificent Seven-fame), John Saxon [John Saxon bio - click here], George Peppard, Richard Thomas as a rather pale lead, and of course Sybil Danning as a starfighter of few words, a role that she allegedly based on Clint Eastwood.

With Battle Beyond the Stars, Sybil Danning's larger-than-life action bitch (bitch not necessarily in a bad way) character was born, a character she would return to many times over the years, but not before she played a few more supporting roles in films like the horror film Nightkill (1980, Ted Post) starring Robert Mitchum and Jaclyn Smith, the misguided crime comedy The Man with Bogart's Face (1980, Robert Day) starring Humphrey Bogart lookalike Robert Sacchi, Franco Nero, Olivia Hussey, Herbert Lom, plus veterans Victor Buono, Richard Bakalyan, Yvonne De Carlo, Victor Sen Yung and even George Raft, or  the political thriller The Salamander (1981, Peter Zinner), yet again starring Franco Nero, plus Anthony Quinn, Martin Balsam, Christopher Lee, John Steiner, Claudia Cardinale and Eli Wallach.


However, Danning was her action self once again in I Sette Magnifici Gladiatori/The Seven Magnificent Gladiators (1983, Bruno Mattei [Bruno Mattei bio - click here]), interestingly like Battle Beyond the Stars inspired by The Seven Samurai, only this time around the story is set in ancient Rome and obviously made to jump the Conan the Barbarian (1982, John Milius) bandwagon. The film starred former Mister Universe Lou Ferrigno (with whom Danning reportedly didn't get along too well) [Lou Ferrigno bio - click here], and former Hercules actors Brad Harris [Brad Harris bio - click here] and Dan Vadis, and it's pretty much cheap trash as trash can but not without entertainment value.


Somehow, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus of Cannon, the producers of The Seven Magnificent Gladiators, must have been quite pleased with this film because they the very same year cast Lou Ferrigno and Sybil Danning plus Brad Harris in Hercules (1983, Lewis Coates = Luigi Cozzi), this time pitting Ferrigno (as the title character) against Danning who is in this one at her bitchy best wearing one of these campy outfits only very few women other than Danning could wear with dignity.

While The Seven Magnificent Gladiators though was only slightly amusing, Hercules was a laugh riot, and most probably intentionally so, filled with silly dialogue, trippy colours and wonderfully out-of-place special effects - and for some reason the film was successful enough to spawn a sequel too, Le Avventure dell'Incredibile Ercole/The Adventures Of Hercules (1985, Lewis Coates = Luigi Cozzi), though unfortunately without the participation of Ms Danning.


It's not that Sybil Danning could have complained about lack of work during the mid-1980's, regarding genres she was at that time almot literally all over the place:

She starred with Anthony Franciosa in the shocker Julie Darling/Daughter of Death (1983, Paul Nicholas, Maurice Smith), the story of a girl (Isabelle Mejias) obsessed by her own father.

In S.A.S. à San Salvador/S.A.S. San Salvador/Exterminate with Extreme Prejudice (1983, Raoul Coutard) she unfortunately leaves most of the action to Miles O'Keeffe as a womanizing and elegant secret agent - the film co-stars Dagmar Lassander, Anton Diffring and Raimund Harmstorf.


Then on the other hand there's Chained Heat (1983, Paul Nicholas), one of the key films at this stage of Danning's career. Basically the film is a sleazy women-in-prison flick in which Sybil plays the white queen bee of the penitentiary to Linda Blair's innocent inmate - and she's just perfect playing a mean bitch, so much so that it's almost surprising she didn't play in all that many women-in-prison films. 

Tamara Dobson of Cleopatra Jones-fame is also in Chained Heat by the way, playing the black counterpiece to Danning's white bitch. Former Russ Meyer-muse (and wife) Edy Williams, later one-time Emmanuelle Monique Gabrielle, and veterans John Vernon and Henry Silva round out the cast.


In 1983, Sybil Danning was also considered for the female lead in the James Bond flick Octopussy (John Glen), a role that ultimately went to Maud Adams, but even while losing the prestigious (but not always terribly flattering) role of a Bond girl, her career went from strength to strength back then, as in '83 she also did a much acclaimed photoshoot for Playboy magazine (August 1983 edition), which had her on the title page, dedicated 10 pages exclusively to her, and christened her Queen of the Action Flicks.


In 1984, Panther Squad (Pierre Chevalier) took Sybil back to Europe to star in this dirt-cheap Eurociné co-produced action flick opposite veteran Jack Taylor, later porn star Karin Schubert, Analía Ivars, Donald O'Brien and Antonio Mayans. The action in this film is really close to pathetic and a leather clad Sybil Danning is by far the most appealing thing the film has to offer - which is exactly the reason why bad movie lovers will want to see this movie anyways. For some reasons, Sybil had her hands in producing this one

They're Playing with Fire (1984, Howard Avedis) takes Sybil back to her roots in erotic cinema, as in this one she plays an English teacher who seduces one of her students (Eric Brown) in an attempt to frame him for a murder - but is she deceiving him or is she the one who's double crossed ? Of course this movie is not to be taken entirely seriously (though it was meant that way) but as a typical piece of 1980's sexploitation trash to be enjoyed.

Over the next few years, Sybil Danning did return to the erotic genre every now and again, with films like Private Passions (1985, Kikuo Kawasaki), Young Lady Chatterly II (1985, Alan Roberts) - in which Danning only played a supporting role (the title role was reserved for Harlee McBride, who also played the role in the first part from 1977), and which was mainly carried by Adam West, who gave the film a comic edge -, and Talking Walls (1987, Stephen Verona).


Apart from that, Sybil also made two shockers in the latter part of the 1980's:

Howling II (1985, Philippe Mora) is what you would call a pretty bad werewolf film, but it's also amazingly (if unintentionally) funny - just try to watch the sex scene during which Sybil, playing the queen of the werewolves, and her friends turn into wolves without chuckling. Christopher Lee and Ferdy Maine are also in this one.

And then there's Fred Olen Ray's The Tomb (1986), a mummy flick that is among the director's better films, actually. In this one, we can see Michelle Bauer as a (surprisingly sexy) mummy out for revenge, Cameron Mitchell, John Carradine [John Carradine bio - click here], and former Russ Meyer actress Kitten Natividad doing a striptease routine (that has nothing to do with the rest of the movie).


In 1986, Sybil Danning returned to women's prison, but this time as a warden - a role cut out for her - in Reform School Girls (Tom DeSimone). Unfortunately though, she is given too little screentime in this film to really play out her talents.


By and large though, Danning has become a bona fide action star by the mid-1980's, appearing in such films as Euer Weg führt durch die Hölle/Jungle Warriors (1984, Ernst R.von Theumer) - in which she plays a baddie opposite a gang of models (no joke) -, Malibu Express (1985, Andy Sidaris) - a film that once again exploits her sex appeal as most of the action is handled by Darby Hinton -, the sword and sandal pic Warrior Queen (1987, Chuck Vincent) - a silly mix of action and erotica set in ancient Pompeii that for some reason also stars Donald Pleasence [Donald Pleasence bio - click here] -, and L.A. Bounty (1989, Worth Keeter) - a film which she also co-wrote and co-produced and that features Wings Hauser as the main villain.

Even Dannings occasional TV-appearences from that time spelled action, series like the Lee Majors-vehicle The Fall Guy (1984), Street Hawk (1985), Superboy (1989) and the alien invasion series V (1984).

And if all that wasn't enough yet to cement her image as top action girl, in the mid-1980's she also hosted a series of action videos called Sybil Danning's Adventure Video (in which she introduced the films pretty much in Elvira-mode), formed her own production company, Adventuress Productions in 1989, and got her own comicbook, Black Diamond, published by AC Comics. She also took this new turn of her career very seriously, as she started to work out extensively from the mid-1980's onwards and got a bit of training in karate and judo.


However, desaster struck in 1989: When rehearsing a stunt, Sybil was seriously injured and forced to take a two months resting period. Unfortunately though, her condition was misdiagnosed as either a strained muscle or a damaged nerve, and during her rest, her pain only worsened until a specialist found out that she was actually suffering from two severely herniated discs. This condition left her hospitalized for over a year, especially since she was at first aversed to any kind of surgery (which she later had to undergo all the same), and somehow it put a rather tragic end to her career as an action star.

(On a friendlier note though, also in 1989, Sybil married German businessman Horst Lasse, to whom she is still married as of 2008.)


Danning's best two movies from the final years of her action career might not be those who saw her as a mere action star though but those that exploited her iconic status in a comic way: On one hand there is Amazon Women of the Moon (1987, John Landis, Joe Dante, Peter Horton, Robert K.Weiss, Carl Gottlieb), an episodic walk through TV-wonderland in which she plays the alien queen in the actual Amazon Women of the Moon-segment (directed by Robert K.Weiss), which also featured fellow female action star Lana Clarkson [Lana Clarkson bio - click here], on the other hand there is Fred Olen Ray's intentionally silly and usually underrated The Phantom Empire (1986), a film starring Ross Hagen, Jeffrey Combs, Robert Quarry, Michelle Bauer and Russ Tamblyn, but that also features Robby the Robot and dinosaurs (lifted from the film Planet of the Dinosaurs [1978, James K.Shea]). In this one, Sybil actually once again plays an alien queen, and in a very kinky outfit, too ...



It's not Over Yet


Her injury brought Sybil Danning's career as action star to a dramatic and aprupt end, and for the 1990's she pretty much vanished from the screens big and small, apart from a guest starring role in an episode (Der Onkel aus Amerika [1993, Franz Antel]) of the German TV-series Almenrausch und Pulverschnee produced by Lisa Film [Lisa Film history - click here].


But still, Sybil proved anything but a quitter when she in the early 2000's re-entered the limelight: She (allegedly) executive produced the film To End all Wars (2001, David L.Cunningham) starring Robert Carlyle and Kiefer Sutherland, she finally started visiting genre conventions - to great fan acclaim -, and she launched a perfume, Sybil's Secret Scent.


However, Sybil didn't make a real comeback on the big screen until 2006, with Jump (Joshua Sinclair), the true story of the patricide trial of  future celebrity photographer Philippe Halsman (Ben Silverstone) in Austria, 1928, a film that also featured Patrick Swayze.


Then, in 2007, she starred in a mock trailer featured in the B-movie parody Grindhouse (Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino), Werewolf Women of the SS, with her sequence directed by Rob Zombie, one of the movie's many guest directors. Her role as an SS-officer dressed in leather is an obvious hommage to her many iconic B-movie roles in the 1980's, and truth to be told, despite her advanced age, she still looks better in that outfit of hers than most women half her age. Udo Kier is also in her sequence by the way.

Obviously, Rob Zombie was content with Sybil's performance in his Grindhouse-sequence because he cast her again for his Halloween-remake (also 2007) - even if her role in this one is rather small and required only one day of shooting, but in the film she proves that she can live up to great veteran actor Malcolm McDowell, and that she's still a force to be reckoned with ...


... which is of course a fine note to end this article, an article about a woman who has usurped the B-action throne in the 1980's and who despite the bad cards that fate has dealt her, is eager to reclaim her fame - and any self-respecting B-movie fan hopes she will, too.


© by Mike Haberfelner

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