With immaculate timing, Shameless Screen Entertainment launch this three-disc extravaganza of jaw droppingly camp post-apocalyptic cheese by Italian 'Macaroni Combat' merchant, Enzo G. Castellari, just as the director's stock is on the definite up -- his name now likely to be familiar, at least in passing, to a fair proportion of the cinema-going public, thanks to his being the latest obscure artisan of '70s European exploitation to receive the patronage of publicity from latter-day director-genius and encyclopaedic uber-geek, Quentin Tarantino. Castellari, of course, directed the original "Inglorious Bastards": a 1978 Italian riff on the guys-on-a-mission genre, inspired by "The Dirty Dozen", which itself then prompted Tarantino to crank up his own tribute to the Italian film industry's shameless dedication to ripping-off all the most successful Hollywood films of the day, but always in its own inimitable style. The rugged Castellari was a specialist in this area: knocking out genre films -- Westerns, war films and police thrillers -- by the dozen but (and this is undoubtedly what attracts a dedicated film buff and undiscriminating student of both 'High' and 'Low' art like Tarantino to his work), at the same time always producing work that demonstrated impeccable craftsmanship; his genre films generally showcase the director's apparently innate talent for constructing an arresting, beautifully composed image or a viscerally dynamic action sequence, no matter how inane or ridiculous their subject matter.
There can be no better illustration of this tendency than the three films in this box set. By any normal standards, all of them could be considered to be absolutely bloody terrible: they are all marred by simplistic, highly derivative stories, laughably inept scripts, cripplingly bad acting and even worse English dubbing, not to mention their poverty row production values and dodgy, eighties 'Big Hair' fashion sense. And yet, at the same time, it would be hard work indeed to visualise another set of films that took a more deliriously cinematic approach to such derivative subject matter; few films could better these trashy, bottom-of-the-barrel rip-offs of the work of Walter Hill and John Carpenter for their bold visual flair, punchy, rapid-fire editing and gorgeous, sweeping camera work. These dystopian, apocalypse-on-a-shoestring Italian budget films may very well be completely daft; but while watching, the viewer is, frankly, too caught up in the sizzling energy and the corny but explosive madness of them -- just their sheer, unadorned chutzpah! -- to really give a damn!
"1990: Bronx Warriors" (1982) is a simple tale. And if you've seen "The Warriors" or "Escape from New York" you'll recognise most of it! In this version of the pre-millennial future, something called the Manhattan Corporation is both mighty international arms dealing conglomerate, and fascistic feudal governing force of the city of New York. Vital to the continuance of its power structure it seems, is the inheritance of its presidential title by prospective seventeen-year old heiress, Anne (Castellari's daughter, Stefania Girolami). She's not keen though. So morally distraught by the prospect is she, in fact, that she flees Manhattan into the un-policed 'no man's land' (as it has been declared by the Corporation) that is the Bronx. Here, there is no law. No nothing, in fact. Just a burned-out, fallen down wasteland, inhabited exclusively by a colourful patchwork of futuristic gangs, who defend their various rubble-strewn territories with gleeful violence. It's not long before Anne falls foul of one of these groups, but she is rescued by a Harley riding gang called The Riders, led by a doe-eyed, muscled-bound adonis with flowing curls known only by the name Trash (Mark Gregory). She takes a shine to him and becomes a member of the biker gang, riding alongside Trash and becoming his girl. Meanwhile, corporate bigwigs in the Corporation send in their number one hatchet man, Hammer (Vic Morrow), an ex Bronx boy turned vicious mercenary. He sets about concocting a plan to turn the gangs against each-other, planting evidence with the aid of a traitor in Trash's camp with the aim of sparking internecine warfare. When Anne is kidnapped by the ruthless gang known as the Zombies, Trash risks all to embark on a most dangerous trek through the ravaged districts of the Bronx, hoping to make peace with Ogre (Fred Williamson), the self-styled King of the Bronx and head of the gang known as the Tigers, in a bid to persuade him to join forces and confront the power of the mighty Corporation.
Near the start of "1990: Bronx Warriors", the street gang known as The Riders and their sharp-suited, vintage car-driving rivals, the 'Tigers', meet on neutral territory on the outskirts of the Bronx, for an inter-gang conference. During this scene (and a few others dotted throughout the movie) the viewer is confronted with the retrospectively ironic image of the Manhattan skyline, as it was in 1982, being shown in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic themed movie, where the twin towers are clearly still standing, gleaming and proud, in every scene! Italian filmmakers from this period liked to get their money's worth while on location, and were prone to filling the screen with as many iconic landmarks as possible. Such is the case here; which means that no futuristic sci-fi action epic could look more resolutely innocent, and of its time, if it tried. Elsewhere, Castellari didn't have to do too much work dressing the Bronx locations in order to present them as an abandoned, derelict wilderness of burned-out tenements and rubble. In 1982, that's exactly what they were. The place looks like a war zone! When, at the climax of the film (and all the way through its grittier and even more violent sequel) armoured Corporation goons led by a cackling leather-suited Hammer, turn flame throwers on the warring gangs, it's like a surreal symbol of the Bronx's violent, riotous past of arson attacks back in the '60s and '70s.
Castellari's means of suggesting this trad landscape is a futuristic one depends on filling the film with lots of bizarre characters and outrageous-looking gangs who end up only emphasising its period nature. The Riders are the most prosaic of the bunch, the luminous, skull-shaped headlights of their motorbikes being their most notable visual quirk. The roller-skating gang known as the zombies on the other hand are as camp as a row of tents: wielding hockey sticks as weapons and led by Golem -- a blacked-up George Eastman with a samurai hairpiece -- they seem to spend all their time 'training' in an underground gym bunker. The menagerie of crazy gangs soon helps to turn Italian exploitation veteran Dardano Sacchetti's screenplay into a library of reference to other classic films, not just the obvious "Escape from New York" and "The Warriors" influences: the underground-dwelling mud-men called the Scavengers bring to mind the Morlocks from H.G. Wells' "The Time Machine"; the odd tap-dancing gang who call themselves the Iron Men, dress like a cross between Alex's boot boy Droogs in "A Clockwork Orange" and the leg-warmer-clad kids from "Fame"; while The Tigers manage to incorporate sharp-suited cool black dudes in shades, led by Blaxsploitation supremo Fred Williamson, and New Romantic proto goths, the most notable of whom is the dominatrix known as Witch (Betty Dessy), who sports a whip, a silver cape and six-inch steel nails.
Common to both movies is leading man Mark Gregory (or rather Marco di Gregorio), supposedly discovered by Castellari working out in the director's gym! People who saw the films in their youth, tend to remember this rather unique-looking young actor. With his cascading brown curls, bronzed, well-toned physique and rock star good-looks it's obvious why he was cast in this lead role; his complete lack of acting skill is hardly a handicap in an industry that routinely re-dubbed its international casts as a matter of course. The dialogue is primitive in these two films anyway. What people tend to remember though is Gregory's rather unusual gait; he has a very peculiar walk which makes him look rather like a constipated emu (I would imagine)! Some wag overseeing the English dubbing of the sequel, "Escape from the Bronx", even appears to have included their own private joke on this issue: at one point in the film, you can hear a couple of soldiers commenting in the background, "look at the way he walks, the guy's a fag!"
The film is cheesy, mad, surreal-heavy weirdness all the way, with loads of slow-mo fight sequences in tribute to Castellari's cinematic hero, Sam Peckinpah. The underground trek through the Bronx also brings to mind "Beneath the Planet of the Apes": the ultimate dystopian future-shock film. With outstanding cinematography from Lucio Fulci regular Sergio Salvati, and one of those catchy Italian prog-rock cum operatic disco scores by Walter Rizzati ("The House by the Cemetery"), this is pure Italian exploitation gold of the type only the Italian film industry during the nineteen eighties could possibly have produced.
The sequel, "Escape from the Bronx" (1983) is a dirty, stripped-down action-fest with a grittier shoot-em-up policy eclipsing the rather more theatrical stylised fight sequences of the original. Like all these films, it was produced by Italian exploitation supremo, Fabrizio de Angelis, who was behind all of Lucio Fulci's golden period flicks, from "Zombie Flesh Eaters" to "New York Ripper", as well as Joe D' Amato's sordid Emmanuel films. In fact, think of almost any Italian exploitation flick from this period, and de Angelis' name will almost certainly be on the production credits.
The story for this sequel could be seen as almost a test run for Paul Verhoeven's "RoboCop". The Bronx is now even more run-down and dilapidated than it was in the previous film, if that's possible. The semi destitute population who live in the burned-out remains of the tenements are being forced out by silver-suited 'disinfestation' squads employed by a redevelopment company called the GC Corporation. President Clarke (Enio Girolami) assures the press that everyone is simply being relocated to New Mexico, no-one is able to verify this though, because a fake epidemic has been invented so that a 'forced' quarantine can be imposed on the whole area! Only one campaigning journalist, Moon Grey (Valerie Dobson), knows the truth: that the corporation have employed a former prison warden called Floyd Wangler (Henry Silva) -- expelled from his position for torture and murder -- to dispose of the remaining population, exterminating them if necessary!
Meanwhile, Trash (Mark Gregory) is living alone in the Bronx, forging a living of sorts supplying ammunition to the remnants of the former street gangs who now live together as a community, underground. Their leader, Dablone (Antonio Sabato) cannot be persuaded to fight the genocide that is taking place above -- that is, until Moon Grey (rescued by Trash after her scouting mission to expose Wangler's crimes goes wrong) informs him that the Corporation plan to target his underground community next. She and Trash concoct a plan to kidnap president Clarke at a Demolition Ceremony that is to take place on the East Island, in order to force the Corporation to put a stop to their redevelopment programme. They locate a dynamite expert called Strike (Timothy Brent) who lives in the bowels of the sewer system with his young son, and join forces with him (and his explosives expert son) on a crazy mission to abduct Clarke via the Bronx sewers. However, Wangler and the vice-president (Paolo Malco) have plans of their own, that will surely result in even more ultra-violence.
From its opening scenes depicting vagrants and street rabble being set alight by silver suited solders with flame throwers as Francesco de Masi's ("The New York Ripper") terrific action theme pounds away in the background, "Escape from the Bronx" proves itself a much more in-your-face prospect than its often rather camp predecessor. The arch surrealism that dominated that film is less evident; instead Castellari concentrates on the violence and the action; bodies are flying about everywhere all the way through (included amongst the madness, a crazy scene where Trash shoots down a helicopter with just a hand gun, sending a limp dummy occupant flying as the helicopter blows up!). By the end of it all, only a few characters remain alive! Machine gun battles and constant explosions now replace the hand-to-hand fight scenes of the former film -- and this may be why the film fell foul of the BBFC back in the early eighties. All the previously cut scenes of solders being smashed in the face with baseball bats, people rigged with explosives being blown up, etc., have now been reinstated under a 18 certificate. This often plays more like a guerilla war film than a sci-fi flick! Rare shots of the child, little Strike, lobbing hand grenades and merrily gunning down soldiers with a revolver have also been reinstated in this definitive version of the film, although they've had to be sourced from a grainy, inferior video version. The direction has a less stylised feel to it than the first film, but director of photography Blasco Giurato presides over some extremely inventive shots, with a striking depth of field very evident in the intelligently choreographed action sequences. Of the two films, this is probably the better: the action is non-stop; the music, catchy, pounding Italian prog-rock at its best; and the locations look much grungier and more authentic than they did in the first outing.
Coming between these two Bronx Warrior movies is another post-apocalyptic film by Enzo. "The New Barbarians" (1982) is a "Mad Max" sandwich filling a space between two slices of "Escape from New York", and was shot in the same year as "1990: Bronx Warriors". The success of that film, according to Castellari, made things a little tricky for the director, since it led producer de Angelis to shave much of its allotted budget, reassigning it to a prospective Bronx Warriors sequel instead! "The New Barbarians" looks mega cheap, although not as cheap as it actually was, since Castellari uses lots of editing tricks to make his meagre cast of extras look more numerous than they actually are. The film is basically a Western catapulted into a 'futuristic' setting and given a space opera makeover. The year is 2019 and civilisation has been reduced to rubble after a nuclear holocaust. Only small bands of humans remain alive, each isolated from the others in a flat, cold, dustbowl landscape. The film starts with one small band of survivors, a caravan of religious believers trekking through the wilderness, hoping to find some remnant of civilisation with whom they can rebuild human society. There is one group of humans, though, who's only mission in life is to wipe out the rest of humanity once and for all: nihilists who call themselves the Templars; High Priest of Death and ruthless killers, they will not stop until all human hope is lost.
This is the basic plot of the film then, and it’s as basic as you can get (not surprising, as the script was written in two weeks!): Good versus Evil. The religious communities represent 'hope', since they still believe there might be a reason to save humanity. The Templars don't believe there is any hope left, and so have resorted to the only other option available to them, which is to kill as many people as possible. They turn up on motorcycles and in souped-up cars and set about doing exactly that when they encounter the previously mentioned wanderers, who are no match for their futuristic silver vehicles with decapitating blades and phallic stabbing spears fitted to them. These caravans of religious survivors on a journey are an obvious biblical reference; but just in case there are any thickies in the audience who didn't catch it, the leader of one of them (who comes into the film later on) is given the name Father Moses!
The hero of the hour (the lone stranger who is to help one of these communities survive the onslaught of the Templars) is an ex templar himself: Scorpion (Timothy Brent). He teams up with a big-haired female called Alma (Anna Kanakis, ex missus of Claudio Simonetti, who also provides the score) whom he rescues from a couple of rogue Templars, and a cheeky child car mechanic expert (the ubiquitous annoying child actor of eighties Italian cinema, Giovanni Frezza). Together, they run into butch but camp leather-suited Fred Williamson, who plays Nadir: a bowman who's arrows are tipped with explosives (a precursor of Rambo). The leader of the Templars, One (George Eastman), is determined to make Scorpion pay for his interference, and after Scorpion and his friends join up with another caravan of religious wanderers the requisite showdown between the two men is guaranteed.
"The New Barbarians" is bargain basement sci-fi, and looks like it's getting by on little more than the budget of a 1979 episode of "Blake's 7". Preposterous costumes with bits cut out in odd places, weapons that are clearly toy guns with prop add-ons to try and make them look futuristic, and classic '80s ray-gun sound effects dubbed in on the soundtrack; vehicles that are clearly just ordinary cars or buggies with bits of piping or perspex added on by the props department and villains who look like they still have access, in a post-apocalyptic desert-scape, to a full range of hair-styling products and make-up -- the film is always amusing to look at, and of course, is laughably dated now. What keeps the whole thing afloat, as usual, is Castellari's action dynamics. He fills the screen with propulsive explosions, cartoon gore (decapitations, spearings and bodies literally exploding), car crashes and bike stunts punctuated by Simonetti's classic eighties synth-rock score (which sounds like a close cousin to Goblin's work on Argento's "Tenebrea"). There's one mad scene involving Scorpion being ritually sodomised by George Eastman's character while disco lights start flashing and Simonetti's score goes bonkers! Later, Scorpion pays him back in symbolic kind by spearing him with a phallic looking corkscrew blade attachment on the front of his car.
Weird guys, these Italians!
This three-disc set comes packaged in a limited edition special collector's tin (nice to see these coming back into style again!) and includes the usual Shameless reversible sleeves for each individual title. Castellari has filmed an introduction which automatically plays before the menu comes up on each disc. Disc one features an all-new 20 minute interview with the director, in which he talks about the making of each film and about his new friendship with Tarantino. In addition, each disc features trailers, alternative credit sequences and a 'Shameless Fact Track' written by Paul Alaoui which plays while the film is running. Each of these is filled with actor biographies and filmographies, trivia and production info for each film. They aren't as humorous as some of the other fact tracks in the Shameless' catalogue, but each one certainly helps to place the films in their proper context and are well worth a look.
I enjoyed looking at these films, although I've never been much of a fan of the Italian post-apocalyptic genre before now. Castellari and his editor Gianfranco Amicucci have managed to turn rather cheap and silly fare into a master class in low budget film making and anyone interested in Italian exploitation of the '80s, or in low budget film making in general, will find them engrossing viewing.