Director: Enzo G. Castellari
Writer: Elisa Livia Briganti, Dardano Sacchetti
Producer: Fabrizio de Angelis
Cast: Mark Gregory, Fred Williamson, Vic Morrow, Christopher Connelly, “Betty” Elisabetta Dessy, Stefania Girolami
Running Time: 86 min.
By 1981, the Italian film industry was already showing signs that the bottom was about to fall out. Giallos, crime films, and spaghetti Westerns – once Italy’s filmic bread ‘n butter – had run their course with the public. Instead of innovating within their industry or looking to American companies to help finance their films, Italian producers decided to do what many foreign countries do when they’re desperate for a hit: rip off Hollywood.
Thus, the country that had once produced genre films that ran laps around their American counterparts (Suspiria, anyone?) gave way to a string of low-budget films that aped successful Hollywood trends. There were barbarian movies in the vein of Conan or The Beastmaster; cannibal-themed movies, always a sleazy favorite, were still easy to make a profit on so the decade saw a whole slew of them too.
And since movies like Mad Max and Escape From New York were popular with audiences, Italian directors began pilfering their iconography in a series of post-apocalyptic movies made during the early 80’s. Enzo G. Castellari, a director responsible for some of the best action movies of the 70’s (The Big Racket, The Heroin Busters) and the film that is considered the last great spaghetti Western (1976’s Keoma), made no one less than three post-apocalyptic films during the decade. First on his plate was 1990: The Bronx Warriors, filmed in 1981 and released a year later. The movie is a ridiculous mash-up of Escape From New York and The Warriors, arguably more influenced by the latter. Castellari was the kind of filmmaker who almost seemed to make great movies despite himself. With all the cheesy costumes, over-acting, and silly chopsocky fighting go on, Bronx Warriors should have been a disaster. In Castellari’s hands, somehow it’s just plain ‘ol good, dumb fun.
The film takes place in the year 1990 in an alternate reality where Nirvana didn’t make it big, and instead the US Government cordoned off the Bronx from the rest of the country, declaring it too crime-ridden to save. Now the Bronx is lorded over by various gang factions, the most powerful of which is the Riders – basically a few Italian actors on motorcycles with glowing Halloween decorations fitted on the handlebars, with some New York chapter Hell’s Angels as extras. But the true leader of the wasteland is Fred Williamson, the King of the Bronx, and his clan The Tigers. There’s an uneasy alliance among the gangs but all that changes when a rich young girl, heiress to the powerful arms manufacturer the Manhattan Corporation, runs away to the Bronx and falls in love with the leader of the Riders, named Trash. As the movie starts, the Bronx is set to explode.
Trash is played by Mark Gregory, who was only 17 years-old at the time. Enzo G. Castellari spotted Gregory at an Italian gym and offered to turn him into an actor. Gregory was a tall, long-haired bodybuilder with a babyface, who needed extensive coaching on how to walk without sashaying his hips. Even in the movie, his rooster strut looks quite silly. Gregory dubbed his own dialogue in English but had no idea what his character was saying so his line readings come across as flat and unemotional. I can’t disagree with anyone who finds Gregory’s screen presence or acting skills to be lacking, but I liked him in the movie. Somehow he just fits the whole post-apocalyptic setting. Gregory would go on to find further success with the Thunder Warrior series, Italy’s rip-off of Rambo with a Native American theme, and then disappear from acting altogether.
When Trash’s new beau is kidnapped, Trash decides to appeal to Fred Williamson’s character for help. Together they have to make it through rival gang territory in one piece. The gangs are all colorfully costumed and themed, whether it’s the Scavengers, who live in the sewers with mud-smeared faces; the Zombies, who prance around in hockeypads and roller-skates; or the other gang who was cut entirely from the original American release of the film since all they do is dance instead of fight. You can see how this flick takes liberal inspiration from The Warriors. But, hey, it’s fun to watch – and pretty damn violent at parts.
Of course, the President of the Manhattan Corporation isn’t going to stand by while his daughter runs off with some punks from the Bronx. He dispatches The Hammer, an ex-cop turned mercenary who was born and raised in the Bronx. The Hammer is played by Vic Morrow in what would be his final role before his tragic death on the set of The Twilight Zone: The Movie. Vic is outstanding in this movie, particularly the scene where he sneaks into the Riders’ headquarters dressed as a mailman and blows away two unsuspecting gangmembers with a shotgun stashed in a package. He’s almost like the Terminator. At the climax of the film, he dresses in his old police uniform and starts goose-stepping around like a Nazi, ranting maniacally while his men blast flamethrowers at Trash and his crew. The scenery must have tasted particularly delicious that day.
If I have one knock against this film, it’s the fact that it’s low-budget means you barely get a post-apocalyptic vibe from the film, if at all. Several exteriors were shot in New York while interiors were shot in Rome. During outdoor scenes when the Manhattan skyline is visible in the distance, you can clearly see that traffic is proceeding in the usual and orderly fashion. In Escape From New York, John Carpenter made use of matte paintings to create a striking vision of a ruined New York; there’s nothing in The Bronx Warriors that remotely compares. I mean, the filmmakers weren’t even allowed to close off traffic on one city block while they were shooting the film’s motorcycle chase scene. For a story that’s supposed to take place in the “far future” of 1990, when the Bronx has been cordoned off from the rest of society, the scenery looks way too…normal. Imagine Mad Max trying to sell you on the desolation of its world if you could still see working stiffs going about their day in the background of shots!
Track down Media Blaster’s DVD of 1990: The Bronx Warriors and you’ll be treated to a special feature that’s arguably better than the movie itself: a 45 minute interview with Fred “The Hammer” Williamson. Fred may be a little too into himself for his own good but the interview is full of valuable insight into the world of Italian cinema during the 70’s and 80’s. Williamson details why he loved making movies in Europe during this era; the rise and fall of Italy’s homegrown film market; and what it was like working with some of Italy’s biggest directors of the time, including the legendary Lucio Fulci (The Beyond, Zombie). Williamson doesn’t talk at great length about Castellari but seems to respect the man and how he was able to accomplish a great deal onscreen with such low-budgets.
1990: The Bronx Warriors is not a quality movie, or even one of Cestellari’s best, but it’s an entertaining post-apocalyptic flick from a time when Italian exploitation films were starting to run on fumes. It succeeds against all odds or perhaps because, unlike many low-budget hacks, Castellari intrinsically knew how to make a crowd-pleasing movie. His films may not always be spectacular but I have yet to see one from him that I didn’t enjoy on some level. In 1982, he would release another post-apocalyptic movie, The New Barbarians, also starring Fred Williamson. In 1983 came the Bronx Warriors sequel, Escape From the Bronx, which is increasingly difficult to find on DVD. For fans of trash cinema (no pun intended), they’re all probably worth tracking down.
HKFanatic’s Rating: 6.5/10