That the holy triptych of 1981's ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and THE ROAD WARRIOR and their influence, THE WARRIORS led to a spate of inspiredly looney-tunes Italian semi-rip-offs proved it wasn't just us Dungeons-and-Dragons playing pre-teens who were spiritually transfixed by these insta-classics. The charred landscape of the Italian genre cinemaniac psyche - circa 1982-1986- would be deeply informed and transformed by them. And unlike the American bigger budgeted versions, which seem stale and dated today, the stuff Antonio Marghereti, Sergio Martino, and Enzo G. Castellari cranked out holds up, especially now, thanks to anamorphic widescreen DVD, with digital color corrections and good prints courtesy the likes of Arrow, Scorpion, and Blue Underground, the likes of which one can now access easily on good old American Amazon Prime!
One of them you should check out that is not on Prime yet is Sergio Martino's 2019: AFTER THE FALL OF NEW YORK (1983) where A post-nuclear ("present day") Manhattan serves as ground zero for a stealthy battle between mutants, ape men acrobats, robots, and a Catholic-style death cult presided over by a whip-snapping hottie all in leather (Anna Kanakis). I saw it the same night as the 2019 RENT broadcast premiered on FOX. In case you don't know it, it's a musical about an idealized early 90s NYC art scene, where everyone knows your name and the landlord actually apologizes to his building's squatters for trying to get you to pay rent by threatening to turn off their free heating. No one in the film pays any rent. Just getting a job is considered a betrayal of one's art, even of one's art depends on, for example, an unlimited supply of 16mm film and a pipeline to all the major news outlets (that's never explained). It's a 90s fantasy that's really an idealistic imagining of what it must have been like around the time Martino made 2019, i.e. 1983! Dude, it's all connected. See them as I did on the same night, and the whole section of Martino's film occurring on a post-modern broken down, pop art theater state replete with homeless squatter urban dregs and skyscraper-painted curtains, becomes almost too good to be true.
Both are idealized, naive wish fulfillment but Sergio Martino's move is another kind of wish fulfillment, a kind that RENT--for all its Feral Kid-posturing--will never understand. Martino dares to hope that in 2019 Manhattan will be a war zone and not an overpriced ever-more-sterile collection of banks, haughty boutiques, and high-end coffee shops. It's not because he's a communist, or an artist, but because he's a filmmaker, and his screenwriter has a flair for the nihilistic.
It's not just because I love time warping Moebius strips of meta that I compare them. They're a lot alike: each idealized city (1983's 2019, and 2019's 1983) is rife with eccentric kooks and stars a hunky smoldering-eyed young brooder for whom self-deprecation is anathema, and for whom the idea of working for a living is worse than having to wear white, or death. But that's just the tip of their perfect intersection along the meta-draft!
|top to bottom: 2019: AFTER THE FALL OF NEW YORK; 2019's RENT|
At the time 2019 was made, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981) and THE WARRIORS (1978), NYC seemed one dangerous place to be, crime was at an all-time high. Then came CONAN, THE ROAD WARRIOR, helping us learn to drive, and hear da lamentations of der women. We could rent all four them all in one night and swirl them together with all the care of an LSD-soaked spider. If we were 13-15 year-olds, we could make super-8mm versions (ours had titles like SIMBA, SLAYER; ATOMIC NINJA and JOE NIGHTMARE DESCENDS.) If we were Italian filmmakers, we could make films with key words like "Warriors," "Barbarians", "Raiders", "Ark," (still a big hit) and "Escape" and "New York" (or its boroughs) sewn into their titles.
These films, all on Prime, represent the latter.
But even the big four or five influences I'm discussing weren't born in a vacuum: THE WARRIORS came out of a late-70s yen for 'Brooklyn street gang movies' which were ignited by the Fonze (ayyy!) and Travolta's Vinnie Barbarino/Saturday Night Fever/Grease hat trick, which merged with the waning late 60s biker gang subgenre (via THE WILD ANGELS) and the urban revenge film of the early 70s, (via DEATH WISH, TAXI DRIVER). The street gang archetype became more and more a fantasy about the cesspool that was 70s NYC, by then so crime-ridden and filthy they just put a wall around it and make the city itself the prison, i.e. ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK.
Meanwhile, gangs didn't really work in Sydney or Melbourne, but out in the Australian Outback, on the open road, biker gangs could still pack menace. In the Outback, the apocalypse could had come without anyone noticing the difference. The cops were gone, as were gas stations. SEARCHERS-style space western elements circled back, like the Comanche, after leading the men off on a posse into nowhere. In Australia, the interior of the entire continent was the inner city. Turn off the pumps and bounce the cop's paychecks and the roving gangs simply took over.
After THE ROAD WARRIOR, you didn't even need show a mushroom cloud in the prologue. Just show us dirt-covered vehicles manned by dudes in crazy punk rock eyeliner--the same wacky new wave punk monsters from the Escape/Warriors movies only now with cool killer cars-- and we knew the score. Maybe you will too? Start your engines, and may the best....
1. 1990: THE BRONX WARRIORS
(1982) Dir. Enzo G. Castellari
*** / Amazon Image - AIn this Castellari classic, 1990s NYC is still a cesspool; up in the Brox, especially, things have devolved into a kind of Escape from NY/Warriors wasteland, where all the outlaws and derelicts go to be free of the encroaching Disneyfication. The best the cops can do monitor he outskirts to make sure haves and haves not never meet. But naturally they are destined to do just that! Ann (Stefania Girolami), a rich heiress (to the "Manhattan Corporation," escapes her bodyguards (a bit like Sullivan in Sullivan's Travels), to find out how the other half lives, and soon she finds refuge from the endless onslaught of hockey playing thugs by falling into the arms of the charismatic Swan-style gang leader, Trash (Mark Gregory). If you've seen John Carpenter's 1995's Escape From LA, this is more or less the same plot, with the sympathies reversed. The Snake Plissken is played by Vic Morrow here - and named Hammer! The black icon, in this case Fred Williamson, is a good guy, named Ogre, Trash's opposite number in the farther uptown gang. Hammer tries to trick Trash and the Ogre into fighting by killing each other, but they're both too sly to fall for that, so they team up, By the end, Morrow has to call in the flame throwers.
| Where are you, Joe (Walsh)?|
If we'd have seen 1990: The Bronx Warriors maybe we'd have known how to fight back, perhaps futilely but oh so stylishly. The mix of The Warriors / Escape from NY iconography and Castellari's special brand of anti-corporate nihilism seems to smell Giuliani coming like some cheap knock-off cologne in the wind, and shudders.
Castellari used a lot of real bikers (supposedly Hell's Angels) as extras, giving the shots of Trash and Ann zipping around in front of a vast parade of bikers under an overpass extra oomph (top). Of the scattered gangs, the best is a bunch of Bob Fosse style fey dancers in steel bowler hats and metal rod canes. Their leader (Carla Brait) let's Trash pass because she's kind of turned on by his tight jeans. And I'm a fan of the gruff bond that forms between Trash and the Ogre. At the end, the Ogre and his mob throw Ann a birthday party with a big NYC skyline cake!With a walk like a Harryhausen cyclops, Gregory is partially doubt cast for his passing resemblance to both Warriors' Michael Beck and Kotter's Vinnie Barbarino, and maybe the wandering wolf-boy from the 1977-78 TV series Lucan. His lithe youthful beauty contrasts with growly Bronx-accented voice he's been dubbed in (Italian film fans will recognize the dubbing guy right off - he does all the 'gruff' Bud Spencer parts).
|Mark Gregory as Trash - center - walking to the left, straight as a streetpole|
2. ESCAPE FROM THE BRONX
(1983) Dir. Enzo G. Castellari
*** / Amazon Image - AMark Gregory returns as the stiff-postured Swann/Vinnie-esque gang leader Trash for this napalm-drenched sequel, even more flagrantly cynical and anti-capitalist in that uniquely Italian way than even the first film. Picking up where 1990: The Bronx Warriors left off (see them on a lazy Saturday double feature for maximum yield), the 'Manhattan Corporation' now has the green light to raze the Bronx and evict (i.e. incinerate) its denizens. Cops in flame-thrower gear slowly 'cleanse' the area, burning out the resistance, including Trash's oblivious Bronx-dwelling parents. Trash ain't leaving and he ain't hiding and now you better believe he's going to get even. But--while his long black hair still flutters as a banner of freedom--most everyone from the last film are dead. The survivors of the last film's climactic battle are now hiding out underground under the rule of earring-wearing Diablone (Antonio Sabato). He's cool and fun but no Fred Williamson. Luckily, scene-stealing Carla Brait--the Iron Man leader from the previous film--is also a survivor, and as refreshingly coy as ever, with her one line of dialogue.
Meanwhile, above ground, an intrepid journalist named Moon Grey (Valeria D'abici) gets ejected from a Manhattan Corp. press conference about plans for the high-rise-bedecked 'new' Bronx. She sneaks into the Bronx to tell Trash that if he wants to really get anyone to listen to the truth about where the older Bronx residents are being "relocated" to, he'll need to kidnap the president of Manhattan Corp. Enter master thief Strike (Giancarlo Prete) and his young son Alessandro, whose innocent glee planting bombs evokes Brigitte Bardot in Viva Maria (1965). As they work their kidnapping plan, a ruthless efficiency expert (Henry Silva) is sent into the Bronx to kill Trash. Like Morrow in the last film, Silva achieves that rare balance between menace and fun, giving the sense that--as in the previous film--hunter and prey don't mind changing roles as long as they get to kill each other. Naturally he 'rescues' the president with a lethal smile and then shakes hands with the slimy successor (Paolo Malco, sans House by the Cemetery facial hair).
Whatever one thinks of Italian trash cinema, there's no denying Castellari gets interesting performances from his actors and he's so antiauthority he makes John Carpenter seem like a Reaganite. I haven't read any interviews about what it was like on set, but the vibe on the screen is wryly jacked-up without ever tumbling into camp. The dubbing is flawless, the vibe of the music is propulsive. The climax is an all-out bloodbath of massive explosions (cars erupt into fireballs from a single shot) and lots of guys in hazmat suits with flamethrowers die in cool falls and window crashes.Great stuff! There's also exploding hostages, lots of other explosions. And more shit getting blown up. Some more explosions after that, lots of gunfire, and blasting. And explosions. And people setting each other on fire with flamethrowers. Castellari as usual gets great mileage out of the ancient tunnels and ruins of, presumably, Rome. (Some exteriors are from Manhattan and the Bronx though, as usual - this being back when NYC was an urban jungle). The servicable synth score is by Francesco De Masi. The death count hits triple digits if you're counting. And what else is there to do?
3. WARRIORS OF THE WASTELAND
(aka 'The New Barbarians')
(1983 Dir. Enzo G. Castellari
*** / Amazon Image - B+
The Old Testament gets rewritten in high Road Warrior style in this loose-unrelated third film in Castellari's trilogy. Now we're outside the city in a desert wilderness of souped up goofball vehicles and religious cults. Straggling religious pilgrims travel the wasteland in search of the holy land, recruiting Nadir (Fred Williamson-- wearing outrageous black leather and gold trim armor) and 'Scorpion' (Giancarlo Prete - whose car is futuristic due to a green plastic dome roof) as guides/guardians. Both would rather just roam around trying to mind their own business but this world must be awfully small as they keep crossing paths and bailing each other out of jams. If you've seen a lot of Italian westerns you know these kind of strange male friendships occur frequently, perhaps because of Clint and Lee in A Few Dollars More. Or maybe it's just a thing Italian guys do for/to each other...
Most Road Warrior knock-offs are shit, but Castellari has no interest in wasting our time with a lot of static talk and/or driving scenes; he just wants to keep the fireballs coming, the heads lobbing, and the screen buzzing with tricked-out futuristic vehicles. In fact, all the vehicles here look like normal, dinged-up, dirty cars with a few (suspiciously clean) sci-fi additions affixed, evoking Death Race 2000 as much as they do The Road Warrior, helping us wonder just how much of this Castellari intended as sociological deadpan satire. Either way, it's awesome, full of crazy phallic symbols, weird sex talk, bizarro religious allegory, and action action action!
And as with Fred Williamson's other work for Castellari (see above), he seems to enjoy himself immensely here, especially when he hooks up with a smoky-eyed creature in a tie-dyed dress named Vinya (Iris Peynado - above). Fred's eyes light up when he first catches sight of her, and when they begin to hook up, Fred's eyes carry such a complicated range of emotions--from caution to tenderness to tough blaxploitation studliness to shyness and back again--that he once again transcends his weird dialogue (he seems to have been written as a kind of Muslim warrior/friend in the Parsifal myth) to become the gravitas core of the lunacy around him. If you've lived the joy of an out-of-the-blue hookup with a knock-out girl in her bedroom while in a strange town after being forever on the road (say, as a musician), you'll feel it all come rushing back, even if it's cloaked in enough weird 'code' to fool the kids and make Joe Breen's head explode.
The rest of the time we can't tell if Fred's having a blast, just clowning around because he doesn't give a shit, or is just slowly going insane. Either way, we'll take it.
4. RAIDERS OF ATLANTIS
(Aka Atlantis Interceptors)
(1983) Dir. Ruggero Deodato
**** (Amazon Image - B-)
I reviewed this in an earlier Prime round-up, but it's become one of my favorite go-tos when afflicted with that Goblin-scored, aurora grotesk-credit-fonted 70s-80s Italian horror/action/sci-fi hybrid itch, which is very specific and very--if you can find the right salve--rewarding. Raiders is one of the best such salves, right up there with Nightmare City and Contamination as far as recently-discovered Italian psychotronica I can return to again and again when the never-ending film marathon of my life runs dry of viable programming options. I've already seen Raiders at least four times since discovering it in 2017. There are so many reasons it rocks: I love that the central relationship is between two men: Italian cinema mainstay Christopher Connelly and Tony King as a pair of mercs who own a boat together and do all sorts of dangerous work outside the jurisdiction of the US military (?) ala The Expendables. They have great banter/rapport and the film is nonstop cool, with Hawksian attention paid to cigarettes, alcohol, and manly camaraderie (they also have a helicopter pilot buddy played by Ivan Rassimov). Giola Scol is the Hawksian girl, also a professional, whose skill at deciphering ancient text on a plaque found down on the ocean floor by a sunken Russian submarine triggers the rising of a domed Atlantis. Then there's that strange reaction in a certain percentage of the population, turning them all into marauding savages on a nearby island (maybe the world, who knows?) driving around in their pimped out bikes and ride slaughtering everyone who's not infected with their strange madness. Decked out like a glam Humongous (Bruce Baron) in a translucent skull bubble helmet (above), their leader calls his gang 'The Interceptors' and announces the return of the Atlanteans and that all others "but one" must die. Time to get the molotov cocktails lined up, and--luckily--find a warehouse full of guns and ammo.
Naturally with the word Raiders in the alternate title one expects a certain amount of loot grabbing (a lot of films in the 1982-3 era had to have ancient treasures laying on altars deep within booby-trap filled tombs and pyramids), but that's towards the end, during the big super-weird climax. Mostly there's a lot of molotov cocktails being thrown and great real time stunts, like people jumping out of a helicopter onto a speeding bus, or vice versa. The whole thing leaps around giddily from one scrape to the next, but we can always figure out what's going on but never what's going to happen next, making it 90 minutes of action packed awesomeness to file next to Ghost of Mars, The Expendables 2, and Nightmare City in your goofy dream cue.
5. EXTERMINATORS OF THE YEAR 3000
(1983) Dir. Giuliano Carnimeo
** - (Amazon Image - B-)
I shy off films where a kid is in the lead (too sentimental) but this kid has literal tricks up his sleeve and he drinks a beer! Once again we're in the wasteland, but instead of petrol being the number one commodity it's water. There hasn't been any rainfall in years. The result is terrible 80s-style curly hair (with headband) on hunky antihero "Alien" (Robert Ianucci) who drives around in a tricked-up (stolen) car, being pursued by its rightful owner, a bald maniac. The kid goes along on a mission to get water for his thirsty colony of ragtag survivors, but the driver of the truck is slaughtered and he's the only survivor, so he recruits Alien to help him. Alicia Munroe is a sexier, nicer road wanderer, and her hair has a nice post-Farrah blonde Meg Ryan kind of feathering (above) that puts her far ahead of most action babes of the year 1983. There may not be water, but damn there must be dry shampoo.
Actually, the coolest character doesn't have hair at all. Fernando Bilbao as the main bad guy (ala Wes in ROAD WARRIOR- below) eagerly pursuing Alien --who stole his car (it's got a TV camera so you don't have to look through the windshield -which is all we know, a terrible burden) We're supposed to root for Alien even though it's rightfully Bilbao's car. Talk about shallow. BOOOM!
Those Italians... You can call this a derivative piece of shit but you miss the point: it moves zippily and never wastes time with dull conversations. Like the best Italian imitations, it reeks of the joy of on-the-fly creativity and momentum. Just look at that crazy car design up there! Those alterations are totally superfluous, just bits of nutty madness zipping by so fast you barely clock them before Boom! Up in flames. Surely I can forgive the presence of tacky curly hair in the lead and the presence of a child and the scenes of thirsty settlers passively watching their plants die of dehydration; when this many cars explode one must be charitable. Some debits: why does Alien think he can sell out the settlers to "make a fortune" with the purloined water. What kind of fortune even exists in the wasteland? What, are you going to fill a bucket and drive to the city? Money is only as good as long as the country that issues it has a viable economy, "Alien." But you can't think twice about those kind of plot inconsistencies unless you're really obsessive. Better to ponder the question of whether Alien and the girl show any kind of honor by bringing the water to the passive settlers, considering they got it by killing its previous owners. The answer? Since the original reservoir-minders are ugly and wear strange suits, they must die (nowhere is there the idea the settlers should move where the water is - the aquifer must be blown up and the water currently stored must be looted - that's what heroes do.) Such is morality: the cleanest haired rovers and meekest of benefactors are always in the right when they steal from grungier thieves.
Filipino Bonus: WHEELS OF FIRE
(1985) Dir Crio Santiago
** / Amazon Image - B
Crio Santiago directed with an international cast and set in an Outback-style wasteland (really a quarry that's the Filipino equivalent of Bronson Canyon). One should point out there are key differences between Trace and Mad Max. The most obvious being Trace has a super cool flamethrower. He has one for his car, too. Lots of guys wind up on fire as a result (3). There are lots of guys on fire, actually, in all the movies on this list. And they did name it Wheels of Fire - well, honey that's truth in advertising. As Cool-Ass Cinema notes "WHEELS are constantly spinning; and rarely does the FIRE diminish."
The other key difference: Trace can't wander as freely as the original Max because he has a sexually precocious kid sister, Arlie (Playboy playmate Linda Weismeir, above), wild, ill-bred and liable to run off with the first pit fighter who flashes his beady eyes her way. Meanwhile, a band of skuzzy outlaws led by Scourge (Joe Mari Avellana - one of the cast's few native Filipino leads) runs around killing, siphoning, and abducting women for much lurid abuse. Naturally, the sister winds up in their hands and that's why the film gets a low rating, as --despire her acting tough, spitting and clawing--seeing Arlie spread eagled and topless bouncing around on the dirty hood of Scourge's car, etc, that's not fun, or cool. We admire her resilience and toughness, and that her breasts are natural, but then the nights pass and Santiago rubs our noses in the whole gang bang / punked-out whore thing, as Arlie is thrown to the crew after Scourge is 'finished with her' and winds up housed in a dirty tent and all the dirty ass dudes take their turns, snickering etc. We're spared the seeing of it (we just hear about it, Santiago wants us to know for sure what's going on) but her continued subjugation sits uneasily over the rest of the film. Though she does get a mildly satisfying revenge, it still leaves a skuzzy residue, like the dirt-caked oil that flecks the tanned skin of the cast, giving an extra grubby, oily sheen to everyone's make-up.
Meanwhile, Trace runs across a girl road warrior named Stinger (Laura Banks, above), who demonstrates that - 1) the Pat Benatar look must have still been big in 1985 and 2) now matter how dire things get, a girl can still find cheap 80s eye shadow. Luckily, the rather weather-beaten Stinger has other assets, like a hawk who acts as her eyes and ears and can signal danger (like when Stinger is abducted by underground mutants in the dead of night). Stinger and Trace rescue other Scourge survivors too, like a cute civilian with psychic powers named Spike (Linda Grovenor) whose make-up is way less oily and garish; and a spunky little person in a Civl War uniform.
Many stunts, crashes, explosions, big sets (some old guns placements left behind by the Japanese, maybe?) and a vast underground cave system for mutant burning follow. The whole thing becomes a war movie at the end, with the late plot addition of a big outfit of 'good guy' civilization proponents that Trace used to be a member of (now he tells us - where have they been all this time?). There are climactic raids, a group of civilians building a rocket out of sheet metal and gumption, and a final battle with Arlie as a kind of hot mess Gunga Din. The final shootouts as all the mean jerks from Scourge's outfit die painful deaths are very nicely gratifying.
Other strong points: Christopher Young's sweeping score, which taps into the Brian May-style pumping Road Warrior original, adding orchestral grandeur like what might happen if the Jaws theme was widened and Wagner climbed down in between the notes like a spelunker on too many Pervatin. As with most Santiago films, it may be shitty but it's never dull. The Amazon Print is fairly good, not quite at the level of Warriors of the Wastelend, but probably looking as good as it ever did on the drive-in screen.
Cool-Ass Cinema also points out that Wheels was one of the films caught in the tussle when Corman sold New World and the new owners betrayed him by ignoring his drive-in fare in favor of their own bigger releases. So Santiago's film wound up being one of the first releases of Corman's own new distribution company Concorde, instead. Alas, just as he gave up directing when he left AIP to form New World, Corman gave up producing, for the most part, when he left New World to form Concorde. It being the dawn of the drive-in's demise in favor of the endless made-for-VHS sloggery-doggery, sexual imbecility began to reign. Until that is, the arrival of DEATH RACE 2050.
And that's about it for part 4 of Acidemic's Drive-in on Prime series. Next time will be the concluding entry, the post-CONAN sword and sorcery kick of the 1981-88 era. That's not to say this amazing and endless series will stop, because someone has to keep track of the wild, never-ending flow of great shit floating amidst the ocean of dross that is Prime. Now that these films are safely preserved, we must preserve the sanity of their future viewers. (PS - if you know of any other great weird underseen movies from the drive-in era on Prime, let me know!)
And don't forget these other Drive-in on Prime Roundups:
Drive-in on Prime 3: New World's Rebel Girls (1971-79): THE BIG DOLL HOUSE, COFFY, DARKTOWN STRUTTERS, THE ARENA, BIG BAD MAMA, TNT JACKSON, THE LADY IN RED,)
Drive-in on Prime 2: Post-JAWS Gems (1978-80): UP FROM THE DEPTHS, PIRANHA, CREEPERS (AKA Island of the Fishmen) THE GREAT ALLIGATOR, HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP, AVALANCHE
Drive-in on Prime 1: Post-STAR WARS Nugs (1978-87): STARCRASH, BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS, SPACEHUNTER, SPACE BALLS, SATURN 3, GALAXY OF TERROR
1. some sharp-eyed fellow critics have pointed out it's war footage borrowed from another Santiago film, Equalizer 3000)
2. Not accusing JC of plagiarism, if anything it would be a homage, as much as it is to Howard Hawks.
3. Stuntmen must love to fall off ledges while on fire. Think about it: ultimately guys on fire is not the kind of thing anyone cares about, yet time and again they burn and scream and burn, maybe because they know how to do it without getting hurt, so it's like skydiving or crowdsurfing for them. For us, it's like the cole slaw garnish