Movies Till Dawn: Reagan-Era Nightmares – End of the World Edition

12 a.m. – “Escape from New York” – Action/Science Fiction

product_images_modal_EFNYBRCover72dpi__7B81196ebd-f595-e411-9d31-d4ae527c3b65_7D(1981, Shout Factory) John Carpenter’s future action thriller operates on a coal-black premise that would have undoubtedly amused the most hawkish members of the Reagan Administration: to combat a 400% rise in crime in the aftermath of World War III (which, according to the film’s timeframe, takes place sometime in the mid-1980s), the U.S. government turns the Manhattan into a inescapable maximum-security island prison. The arrangement keeps armies of criminals off the streets, but becomes a problem when the President (Donald Pleasance) winds up behind its walls with a top-secret weapon plan after terrorists hijack Air Force One. The solution: send in Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), a former soldier turned criminal, to retrieve POTUS in 24 hours. Carpenter and co-writer Tommy Lee Wallace’s pulpy, energetic script transforms the end of the world scenario from terminal cautionary tale into a sort of comic book Western – a notion underscored by Russell’s sotto voce delivery, which pays tongue-in-cheek tribute to Clint Eastwood’s whispery drawl, and the presence of genre vets Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine and Harry Dean Stanton in the cast (as well as Carpenter and Alan Howarth’s lonesome, mordant electronic score). While far from a positive spin on the collapse of civilization, “Escape” suggests that a stranger with the right amount of guts and firepower might not only outgun the bad guys – here, Isaac Hayes as the twitchy-eyed Duke of New York, and an army of goons in punk gear – but come out on top in a lawless land. This crowd-pleasing take has helped to mint “Escape” as a enduring cult favorite for more than three decades; more significantly, the film, along with George Miller’s “The Road Warrior” (1982), not only wielded enormous influence over the trajectory of science fiction and action films during the 1980s, but also generated a dizzying array of low-budget carbon dystopias from all points on the globe, each aping the two pictures’ post-nuclear cowboy aesthetic to varying degrees of success. Shout Factory’s Collector’s Edition Blu-ray – an essential get for fans of the film and Carpenter – offers a staggering amount of extras, including three commentary tracks (Carpenter with Russell, co-star Adrienne Barbeau with cinematographer Dean Cundey, and producer Debra Hill with production designer Joe Alves), interviews with Howarth and the visual effects team, the deleted alternate opening (how Plissken ended up in the hands of the law), and scores of trailers, photo galleries and promotional material.

1:30 a.m. – “Exterminators of the Year 3000” – Action/Science Fiction

product_images_modal_EOTY3000BRCover72dpi__7Ba0d8aed9-137c-e411-bef9-d4ae527c3b65_7D(1983, Shout Factory) Brooding, bearded loner Alien (model turned actor Robert Iannucci) is recruited by scrappy youngster Tommy (Luca Venantini) to guide a tanker truck of water – a precious commodity in the post-nuclear wasteland (played by Spain’s Tabernas Desert, a familiar sight to Eurocult fans) – to a hardy band of survivors. Opposing their efforts is the floridly verbose villain, Crazy Bull (Fernando Bilbao) and his band of gearhead barbarians. This Italian-Spanish production wears its admiration for “The Road Warrior” prominently on its tattered leather sleeves: Alien and Tommy are clearly modeled on Max and the Feral Kid (whose lethal boomerang is co-opted by Alien’s disco-shiny bolos), while Crazy Bull is a flabby composite of the chief villains, the Humongous and Wez. And while director Giuliano Carnimeo – a spaghetti Western vet whose penultimate film, the ghastly “Rat Man,” featured 2’2” Nelson de la Rosa as a mutant rodent – doesn’t quite have George Miller’s scope or energy, he clearly shares a love for blowing up lots of cars and motorcycles, which is the picture’s chief virtue. The English-language version of “Exterminators,” which is presented on Shout Factory’s Blu-ray, also boasts some wonderfully surreal dubbing (“Once more into the breach, you mother-grabbers! Let’s purloin that water!” sez Crazy Bull) – not the filmmakers’ fault, though Iannucci, who is featured in both an interview featurette and on a commentary track, suggests that the shooting script by husband-and-wife team Dardano Sacchetti and Elisa Briganti (who wrote for Bava, Argento, Fulci – and “Rat Man!”) also struggled to approximate American tough-guy talk. The original trailer and promotional material round out the disc.

3 a.m. – “The New Barbarians” – Action/Science Fiction

A1dk8ghQHtL._SL1500_(1983, Blue Underground) The new barbarians in director Enzo G. Castellari’s first pass at the post-nuke subgenre (known in the States as “Warriors of the Wasteland”) are not the fur-bearing punk/bondage fetishists of “Exterminators,” but rather a tech-savvy doomsday cult called the Templars, which seek to finish the job of the superpowers and wipe out the last traces of humanity. Opposing them is the magnificently coiffured Scorpion (Giancarlo Prete, billed as Thomas Moore), a former Templar who wages war with the (unsolicited) help of Nadir (football great and ‘70s action star Fred Williamson, who steals the movie) and his explosive-tipped arrows. The usual bugaboos hamper “Barbarians” – goofy costumes and hamfisted dubbing – but unlike “Exterminators” or many of the other budget apocalypse features of the period, the pace never flags (no aimless desert wandering) and the action set pieces are plentiful and at times, extremely violent, with lots of mannequins losing their heads or exploding in showers of offal. Castellari, who directed some of the more exciting Italian Westerns, war and crime pictures of the ’70s (the original “Inglorious Bastards,” “Keoma,” “Street Law”) deserves the majority of the credit for lending this modestly budgeted picture a lot of production value; as co-writer (under his real name Enzo Girolami), he’s also responsible for the film’s quirkier aspects, like the (quite shocking and left-field) punishment handed down to Scorpion by the Templars’ leader, One (king-sized George Eastman), which do help to cement the picture in one’s mind. Blue Underground’s Blu-ray/DVD set includes lively commentary by Castellari and his son, Andrea (who appears briefly as a survivor), as well as an interview with Castellari and producer Fabrizio De Angelis, who discuss some clever cost-cutting measures to expand the scope of the film. Williamson also gets his own interview segment, which covers his transition from the NFL and AFL to features in America and Italy, as well as his own experiences as a successful independent filmmaker. Trailers for “Barbarians” as well as “1990: The Bronx Warriors” and “Escape from the Bronx” (see reviews), and an extensive collection of posters, stills, ad mats and VHS covers are also included.

4:30 a.m. “1990: The Bronx Warriors” – Action/Science Fiction

A1MNKV+Q75L._SL1500_(1982, Blue Underground) Castellari’s take on “Escape from New York” also folds in elements of Walter Hill’s “The Warriors” by closing off the Bronx and turning it over to gangs in outlandish themed costumes – roller bladers with hockey sticks, Harlem dandies, even mud-daubed cavemen. The most fearsome of the lot is the Ogre, played by a rakish Fred Williamson in a sort of nod to Isaac Hayes’ Duke of New York, while the ersatz Snake Plissken is Trash (the androgynous Mark Gregory, nee Marco DiGrigorio), leader of the leather-clad Riders. There’s even a political figure in need of rescue: Ann (Castellari’s daughter, Stefania Girolami), the scion of a major corporation whose executives (played by Castellari and his brother, Ennio Girolami) fear she’ll reveal their nefarious schemes. Their solution: send in a cold-blooded fixer, Hammer (Vic Morrow), to murder a few gang members and place the blame on Trash and his crew. As with “Barbarians” and “Escape from the Bronx,” there are some good ideas at play – the notion that Manhattan Corporation manipulated crime rate figures to force out the population and take control of the borough reads like a page from the Reagan/Giuliani playbook for urban renewal – and some silly ones, too (a gang tricked out like a male chorus line, complete with high kicks and steel derbies), as well a wealth of brawls, shootouts, sword battles and other mayhem, much of which is photographed in Castellari’s trademark slow motion. In short, “The Bronx Warriors” is a satisfying plate of escapist movie with a palatable dash of content and an enjoyable side of camp. Blue Underground’s Blu-ray/DVD combo offers an array of extras similar to those on “Barbarians” and “Escape”: Castellari and producer Fabrizio De Angelis discuss the challenges of shooting on location in the Bronx (which in 1982, didn’t need much set dressing to look like a war zone) and the protection offered by the Hell’s Angels, many of whom play the Riders, while the director and his son Andrea again provide a commentary track. There’s also an interview with actor/stuntman Massimo Vanni and a visit to the prop house that provided the film’s many weapons, as well as a wealth of trailers and promotional material.

6 a.m. – “Escape from the Bronx” – Action/Science Fiction

A1wE+yb0ogL._SL1500_(1983, Blue Underground) The slightest of Castellari’s three urban apocalypse movies – it’s more of a reprisal of “Bronx Warriors” than a sequel – “Escape from the Bronx” still delivers enough gunfights, explosions, swaggering performances and outrageous costumes to keep Eurocult fans pleased. Mark Gregory returns as Trash, now selling guns to the remaining gangs in the Bronx, which is poised to undergo a complete transformation into an upscale urban center at the hands of a billionaire developer (Ennio Girolami again). The plan is, of course, a total ruse: Girolami’s real goal is to wipe out the residents of the Bronx with the help of hired killer Henry Silva and his band of flamethrower-toting goons. So it’s again up to Trash to unite the gangs – here represented by Giancarlo Prete from “New Barbarians,” his real-life son Alessandro as a grade-school demolition expert, and Antonio Sabato (not the soap opera star, but his prolific father) as the loopy Dablone – and fight back. It goes without saying that if you’ve seen “Bronx Warriors,” you’ve also seen “Escape from the Bronx,” since it recycles so much from its predecessor, from plot points to costumes and props. But it has its moments, most notably in the highly caffeinated performances by Silva and Sabato; Gregory, too, seems more comfortable in his leading role (only 17 years old at the time of “Bronx Warriors,” he would go on to enjoy a brief run as an actor star in Italy before apparently disappearing from public view) and handles the physical requirements of the role with greater confidence. The action set-pieces are again well-handled, with a few reaching “did-you-see-that” status (Trash firing a .38 at a helicopter, which erupts into a ball of flame and floppy mannequins), and as with “Bronx,” there’s a soupcon of commentary in between explosions; big city audiences in 1983 surely noted a connection between Girolami’s scorched earth initiative and similar “urban renewal” projects tearing down the old and building up the new across America. Blue Underground’s Blu-ray/DVD offers the last installment of Castellari’s conversation with Fabrizio De Angelis, as well as another commentary track with the director and his son and a barrage of trailers, posters and stills from various international markets. There’s also a very amusing featurette concerning “Bronx” fan Lance Manley’s Herculean efforts to track down Mark Gregory, who appears adamant to remain unfound. 

About Paul Gaita

Paul Gaita lives in Sherman Oaks, California with his lovely wife and daughter. He has written for The Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Variety and The Fix, among many other publications, and was a home video reviewer for Amazon.com from 1998 to 2014. He has interviewed countless entertainment figures from both the A and Z lists, but his favorites remain Elmore Leonard, Ray Bradbury and George Newall, who created both Schoolhouse Rock and the Hai Karate aftershave commercials. He once shared a Thanksgiving dinner with celebrity astrologer Joyce Jillson, and regrettably, still owes the late character actor Charles Napier a dollar.
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