Saturday, May 23, 2015

ROMA WARRIORS: ITALIAN POST-APOCALYPSE RIPS


The Italians know a good recipe when they see one. And how to exploit it quickly and shamelessly. First they took the '50s American western and gave it a twist of '60s spaghetti. Then they took classic '70s crime films like The French Connection and Dirty Harry, upped the violence, churned out a decade of poliziotteschi. In the '80s, they set their sights on the future following the surprise international success of Mad Max and, more specifically its sequel, The Road Warrior. Suddenly, all the poorly dubbed Italian actors running around the streets of Naples with revolvers were trolling the desert wastelands with laser guns and cardboard-armored Ford Falcons, pretending Almeria was in the Australian outback. They even took a few shots at our largest crime-ridden future city with rip-offs of Escape from New York and The Warriors. Mad Max, meet Matto Massimiliano. Snake Plissken, meet Il Serpente Plissini.


All this cinematic thievery, it's not necessarily a bad thing. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. And, if that's the case, then George Miller, John Carpenter and Walter Hill should be extremely flattered by the handful of Italian rips I watched this week. As with any project that involves diving into the grindhouse muck bin, you spend a lot of time alternately groaning and chuckling, mostly turning up fish bones. But every once in a while there's a surprising catch, a film almost as entertaining as the one its emulating, sometimes more. Here's how my week-long deep dive into the Italian/Australian wasteland panned out...

WARRIORS OF THE WASTELAND (aka THE NEW BARBARIANS) (1982) - Enzo Castellari


The Year: 2019. A nuclear blast has decimated civilization turning the world into an arid wasteland with occasional, unintentional patches of green grass. An evil gang called the Templars roams the plains in dune buggies slaughtering the remaining colonists for no discernible reason other than movie bad guy cruelty (they don't seem to give a lick about food or gas). Our Max, for better or worse, is named Scorpion (see curly mopped guy in top pic), a decent driver, uncharismatic actor and former Templar who's decided to help humanity. Though, in this case, humanity would probably be better off with his sidekick Nadir (grindhouse superstar Fred Williamson) who dresses flashier, is handier with a crossbow (and futuristic ladies) and, as one of the few Americans in the production, doesn't really need to be dubbed. 


Scorpion has a sort-of love interest (a former Miss Italy, of course) but tends to hang more with a boy mechanic (Giovanni Frezza, from many a Fulci flick), this film's version of The Feral Kid. The kid wields a slingshot instead of a boomerang, though he's a whiz at projectile throwing his tongue (see above). After many an obvious dummy is run over by dune buggy or shot by pistols that inexplicably sound like laser guns, Scorpion saves humanity or something on that order. Though in the process he unfortunately gets revenge-sodomized by the head Templar baddie (below, the one with more studs). Hey, you can't win 'em all.


Director Enzo Castellari is no stranger to exploitation racket. In fact, he made the very watchable The Big Racket, a very solid poliziotteschi thriller reviewed earlier on this blog. Here, the post-apocalypse (and the Road Warrior template specifically) doesn't serve him so well. Though Williamson seems to be having a blast as Nadir, the movie putters around on what looks like the weedy same abandoned lot and screams RUSH JOB more than the average exploitation effort. Just because you get there first (the Road Warrior Gold Rush) doesn't mean you get there best. Not to worry, Castellari will have a few more chances. We'll hear from him later when it comes to ripping off Snake Plissken.

2019, AFTER THE FALL OF NEW YORK (1983) - Sergio Martino


The Year: 2019 again (what is it with 2019? should I be worried? only four more years...). Another nuclear apocalypse has ravaged the land, though by the cute shoebox-sized miniature models of a standing New York at the beginning of the film you might not know that. A man plays saxophone over a terrific Oliver Onions synth score, and we soon learn that the city is controlled by a group of masked storm troopers called the Euracs (some acronym of the remaining European, Asian and African nations which I still have yet to figure out). The entire population is sterile...except for one woman hidden deep in the bowels and sewers of New York City. Of course.


Enter Parsifal (ala Percival of Arthurian legend), our leather headbanded Mad Max motorpsycho who looks like a svelter Fabio, a guido desert desperado. Once captured, Parsifal is tasked by the Federation (the good guys) to infiltrate the city, find the Last Fertile Woman (ala The Holy Grail) and get her back to an off-planet hideaway where she can get down to the bizness of repopulatin' the Earth. Some laser gun battles ensue, a few surprisingly well-choreographed hand-to-hand fights, a few stomach-churning scenes with sewer rats and a very gory one involving an underworld lord named the Rat King (see what's left of him in pic below). There are cancerous carbuncles and mutations aplenty, a wise dwarf with a Bronx accent in place of the Feral Kid, a surprise cyborg reveal to rival the Ash revelation in Alien. There's even a nice wrinkle with Parsifal's lady warrior love interest, Giara, in that they are relative equals and that she's NOT the last fertile woman on Earth. Did I mention George Eastman as Big Ape? Yes, there's a guy who for some reason has mutated into a a seven foot ape.


Despite its cumbersome (and numbersome) title, 2019 is a ton of fun. This is one of those occasional surprises you find among the cinema trash heap. Though derivative to its core, it moves fast, throws in a few genre curve balls, knows how to entertain. Is it better than The Road Warrior? No, of course not. But I'd rather watch this again than Mad Max. Come to think of it, I might enjoy the Fall of New York better than the Escape.

EXTERMINATORS OF THE YEAR 3000 (1983) - Giuliano Carmineo


The Year...oh never mind, it's right there in the title. We're in the post-apocalyptic desert again (i.e. Spain), far into the future. Water is a precious commodity. And our Max this time is named Alien. He constantly runs afoul of a group of baddies named The Mother Grubbers in his pursuit of liquid gold. He has a devil may care attitude towards the survival of humanity, its precious H20 and will sell it to the highest bidder. As James Franco might have said in Spring Breakers, "Alien just don't give a fuck."


Until Alien meets Tommy. AKA a kid from the water-deprived Colony. AKA his conscience. AKA this movie's Feral Kid, except that he has a cybernetic arm in lieu of the boomerang. After drinking from his canteen, Alien can't help but help him save his family back at the colony, its dying greenery. They enlist the help of another lady desert warrior, Trash, and this old astronaut mechanic named Papillon (like the Steve McQueen movie, I assume).


Some decently staged desert chases ensue, though nothing on par with George Miller then or now. Despite the dubbing, the characters are stronger here than Warriors of the Wasteland. You almost care whether or not they (or the world) dies of thirst. For a moment, it looks like they're headed toward an uncharacteristically downbeat ending. And then, wouldn't you know it, the heavens open up and it begins to rain. Or at least I think it was rain. My pirated copy cut off just as the first drop hit the sand.


1990: THE BRONX WARRIORS (1982) - Enzo Castellari


The year is 1990. It's not far enough into the future for ripping off The Road Warrior, so we settle for a mash-up of The Warriors and Escape from New York. No nuclear bombs have been dropped, but you wouldn't know it by the state of NYC's black sheep borough, The Bronx. Crime is so out of control they've walled it off, deemed it a "No Man's Land." Motorcycle gangs run the show; even the cops don't go there. And the de facto president is the leader of The Riders, a guy named Trash (Mark Gregory, above). Why so many people are named "Trash" in the future, I haven't a clue. I guess it's like Jackson or Aiden or Brayden is today (at least in the "no man's land" of toddler-controlled Park Slope).


When the pretty blonde heiress to the rapacious real estate conglomerate Manhattan Corporation runs away to the Bronx, a mercenary named Hammer (Vic Morrow above, Jennifer Jason Leigh's dad) is tasked to infiltrate no man's land and get her back. Except the heiress has the Patty Hearst hots for Trash and Hammer is originally from the Bronx, so he has some old scores to settle with several of the warring gangs while he's there.


All this results in a fair share of gunplay and motorcycle stunts, of course. There are even a few rival gangs who show up to assist, most of them shameless copies of Walter Hill's gangland odyssey from three years prior. For instance, the gentlemen above who I'll refer to as "The Cabaret Furies" (instead of The Baseball Furies). They do a mean soft-shoe, carry tap dance batons in lieu of baseball bats. In a pinch hitter situation, if your copy of The Warriors happens to busted, sure, I guess this wildly derivative future rip will do.

ESCAPE FROM THE BRONX (1983) - Enzo Castellari


The sequel to Bronx Warriors. It's a few years later, I think (not sure they specify). Let's call it 1992 without the flannel and grunge. In an act of "deinfestation" (a nicer term for genocide), corporate goons in space suits with flamethrowers are tearing through the Bronx, burning it down, shipping its remaining residents to New Mexico so that they can put up shopping malls, perhaps an earlier version of Times Square's Disney Store. Trash is still hanging around, still poorly dubbed, and more pissed than ever because GC Corp has just french fried his parents.


The Deinfestors are commandeered by a nasty ex-prison warden (the perennially sneering Henry Silva, an Italian exploitation favorite). There's a feisty female reporter who slips in to document the horrors, a different mercenary from before ("Scorpion" from New Barbarians) and his scrappy son. They team up with Trash to kidnap the President of GC Corp (instead of the U.S. Pres ala Escape from New York). The Prez later falls into the hands of a larger underground gang run with hammy, scenery chewing delight by Dablone (Antonio Sabato). Lots and lots of spaghetti western style slo-mo gunshot deaths and flamethrowers sprayed directly into the lens ensue.


For sheer visceral grindhouse thrills, this sequel plays better than the original. By the end of the film, the Bronx has become a raging war zone and for a second it almost feels like you've stepped onto the Battle of Bloody Porch from The Wild Bunch fast-forwarded eighty years and lensed by a lesser director. It's a worthy enough Snake Plissken xerox and earns its plagiarized popcorn. But of all these Italian post-apocalypse rips your best bet--should you still be in the mood for more Max (and Snake) a week after Fury Road--is probably Martino's 2019. Here's a bit of that film's Oliver Onions score to put you in the futuristic mood.

Monday, May 18, 2015

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015) - George Miller


Though the series finale of Mad Men last night might have left me a little hollow inside, a little disappointed (the group hug, the solitary ohm, "I'd like to buy the world a Coke" and then finis), the newest iteration of the Mad Max franchise this weekend certainly did not. I'm sure I'll be thinking about Don Draper's seven season up-down-up life trajectory a lot longer than Max Rockatansky's two hour straight shot into the desert wasteland and back, but for what it was (great popcorn entertainment) Fury Road delivered the anticipated goods.

Basically, this movie is an extended two-hour chase scene...and I'm completely on board with that (or, at least, hanging onto the sideboard for dear life). It's as if Miller took everything he wanted to do in the last half hour of The Road Warrior but couldn't, either for budgetary reasons or the lack of computer-assisted imagery at the time, and crammed it into one film.

Mad Max: Fury Road is bursting at the seams with fresh visuals, outrageous vehicles, subtle shout-outs to the Max's of days past while starting over completely anew, wiping the slate clean. Everything in this film happens at such a frenetic clip, it might require a second viewing. But, for now, here's what stuck with me amid all the gloriously orchestrated chaos...

1. Max is "madder" than ever before. Sure, those random flashbacks and hallucinations are little more than excuses for injecting backstory (i.e., remorse over his dead wife and...uh, daughter?), plot strands that this movie doesn't have time for. But it gives me hope that in the inevitable sequel Max might finally go completely ape-shit, live up to his moniker.

2. Max as sidekick rather than centerpiece. If you've seen the film or read any of the reviews, you probably know by now that this is more Furiosa's movie (Charlize Theron) than Tom Hardy's. Max's name might be in the title, but really he's just a "blood bag" to keep the story pumping as he literally is for his captors at the beginning of the film. An interesting, bold move on Miller's part...ceding his prized, rebooted franchise to a new character right off the bat...with the added bonus of pissing off a bunch of doofus men's groups!!


3. More mutations than ever before! Giant cancerous leg carbuncles and tumors with smiley faces and first names!! One of the things that always bothered me in the earlier Max's and '80s post-apocalyptic movies in general...it's post-nuclear. Shouldn't the majority of the remaining populace have some form of cancer from all the radioactive isotopes in the air and water? A mild case of radiation sickness at least? The new Mad Max delivers on this more than any of the others. They're not just spikey punks this time. They also have lots of growths and lumps.

4. Favorite vehicle: The one that looked like the General Lee plopped atop a military tank. Or maybe the porcupine car borrowed from The Cars That Ate Paris.

5. Many of the stunts were practical, a few of the moody skylines seemed actual. Yes, there was more CGI than I had originally hoped. But when is there not? Beggars can't be choosers these days. At least Fury Road is less algorithm than Furious 7.

6. Immortan Joe is played by the original Toecutter! Will this somehow pay off further down the line in subsequent films? Toecutter seems unequivocally dead at the end of the'79 Mad Max after getting hit head-on by an 18-wheeler. But, hey, this is the post-apocalypse. The fallout could have revitalized his vital organs. Who knows.


7. Yes, the flaming guitar guy...of course, the flaming guitar guy! Who does not love the flaming guitar guy? He, quite literally, rocks the whole show.

8. Last but not least, Immortan Joe's smaller remaining son, Corpus Colossus. Looking at this guy, you can't help but get echoes of Thunderdome's diminutive Master. Though it seems Furiosa is primed to become president of the Citadel at movie's end, I'm hoping this guy sticks around, becomes Treasurer or V.P. The afterworld needs its tiny Joe Bidens after all.


Okay, that's more than enough madness and Mad Max's for one week. The post-apocalypse continues. Onto the Italian rip-off's...

MAD MAX: BEYOND THUNDERDOME (1985) -
George Miller & George Ogilvie


Revisiting Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, the third film in the original Mad Max trilogy, I wish it had been called Within Thunderdome or perhaps Inside Thunderdome. I would have been perfectly content never to leave Thunderdome at all, maybe watch a few more flying bungee chainsaw and giant mallet fights. Or at least stay within the City Limits of Barter Town, get the inside dope on that methane production outfit below ground. I asked myself at one point: Do we really need to see what's "beyond"? We've seen the wasteland before. Can't we just stick around town?


Because once Max beats and unmasks Blaster of Master-Blaster fame (above), does the bidding of Aunty Entity (Tina Turner) and is sent out to die in the desert, the movie, like the dying horse Max rides upon, kind of grinds to a halt. Though it's diverting to see how a community of children survivors fares in the wasteland, the stories they tell themselves about the Old World ("skyscrapers, v-v-v-videeos!") and make a martyr of the captain who piloted their downed plane, I got the feeling this time that it all served the purpose not of broadening the world of the wasteland so much as softening the character of Max. "We don't need another hero," Tina Turner croons on the soundtrack. But, by the end, a more blandly heroic Max (instead of the reluctant, laconic loner of The Road Warrior) is exactly what we get.


But Beyond Thunderdome, both inside and outside Barter Town's city limits, does have its share of charms. The Master-Blaster "brain and brute in one" dichotomy is a creative handling of what could have been just an everyday movie thug. And Turner is a fine frenemy for Max, one you root for and root against, if anything, at least for her superior fashion sense. In terms of excitement, the end chase is pales in comparison to the one in Road Warrior, as if someone remembered at the last second, "Oh shit, this is a Mad Max movie...there must be a chase!" All in all, Thunderdome provides a solid counterpoint to the previous two films. Whereas The Road Warrior could stand on its own outside the series, Thunderdome needs the previous film as a reference point (otherwise, Bruce Spence's helio-pilot character and his son don't make much sense). As Aunty Entity might say, "Ain't we a pair, Raggedy Man. Ain't we a pair."

MAD MAX 2: THE ROAD WARRIOR (1981) - George Miller


Without a doubt, still my favorite Max of the bunch (Fury Road included). Lean, mean, visual storytelling. Dialogue only when necessary. The last 30 minutes is pre-CGI breakneck action filmmaking at its best. The chase, the stunts, the editing, those trucks! The end sequence alone easily puts it in my top 100 films of all time.

Not to mention the character. The Max Rockatansky of The Road Warrior is a jaded, cynical soul, a self-preserving sort with a streak of grey in his hair and a shredded leather ensemb to match. He is the Man With No Name in a land that no longer exists. He doesn't care if civilization lives or dies, only that he has enough gas to make it through the next chase. He has the wasteland's best dog for a sidekick, a pup who will ably hold a gun on a hostage when his hands are busy on the wheel.


Yes, in a pinch Max will drive your tanker of "guzzoline" for you, play decoy in a convoy, but only because he wants his goddamn car back. He doesn't have time for hope or friendship or female companionship (see Warrior Woman above, the "pre-Furiosa"). If you're lucky, he'll toss you a quarter can of his Dinky Doo Meat and Veggies dog food...but only after he's gotten his fill.


Max's feeling on kids? If they're scrappy and feral and good with a boomerang, he'll humor them, maybe tinkle out a few tunes for their amusement on an old windup music box. That said, he has absolutely no compunction about sending them onto the roof of a speeding oil tanker to retrieve the very last shotgun shell.


The Max of Road Warrior...he will always and forever be the Max I grew up with. The maddest, baddest of them all (the actor who played him notwithstanding). Though the film takes place in the Aussie post-apocalypse, I will always think of it as a classic Western and the Road Warrior as the wasteland's Wyatt Earp. I read somewhere George Miller credited Shane as a major influence. I guess I need to watch Shane, get myself an Aussie Cattle Dog and a pair of scuffed leather chaps.

MAD MAX (1979) - George Miller


The original 1979 Mad Max was one of my first reviews on this humble blog nearly a decade ago. I may have been a little harsh back then, but watching it again last week in prep for Fury Road my feelings have generally remained the same. Max (as played by a fresh-faced Mel Gibson) is not a very compelling character for most of the movie. He is not yet "Mad." As with many a revenge flick, only when his wife and child are murdered by a gang of biker baddies does he become driven, haunted and somewhat interesting to watch. Problem is, this doesn't happen until the last 20 minutes of the film.


Prior to that, Max is mostly boilerplate: good cop in a bad, bad land with above average driving skills. The land is bad but not yet ROAD WARRIOR BAD. The car he drives arguably has more personality. And that leather outfit of his...it's just too damn clean! Watching it again, I was more interested in Max's partner, Goose, who comes across as a savvier cop-cum-raconteur, sort of a Han Solo to Gibson's Skywalker. The film even departs Max's storyline to follow Goose for a stretch in the middle, as if the movie itself grew bored of a Max-Not-Yet-Mad.


Goose soon gets cooked in a suspenseful fiery car blaze, giving Max more reasons for vengeance. It's here, in the final stretch, Mad Max finally picks up speed. The scene where Max's young son runs onto a highway zipping with muscle cars is truly terrifying, sure to send any parent's stomach straight into their throats. It's also a sign of things to come for the series, the fact that director George Miller has no qualms about putting children in mortal danger (see The Feral Kid in Road Warrior, see plane-crash kids in Thunderdome).


As for the baddies, Toecutter and his gang of biker trash? Other than being Aussie, they're not too far removed from your average '70s AIP/Roger Corman "bad biker gang." Serviceable catalysts for mayhem. Great at hissing into the camera. Very dependable roadkill when you need to mow someone down with a Mac truck.

Friday, May 15, 2015

THE MADDEST WEEKEND OF THE YEAR...



...is finally here! The end of Mad Men, the beginning of the furious new era of Mad Max. I've been binge watching the old Max's all this week. Will weigh in by weekend's end with posts on each and the new one. From what I read, it's getting stellar reviews. And from what I've seen of Mad Men this season, the finale is sure to be confounding (but hopefully not disappointing). It might require multiple viewings.

All this madness...I may need to take a sick day Monday.

ZARDOZ (1974) - John Boorman


Zardoz, where have you been all my life? I mean, besides hiding out under the last letter of the alphabet in my DVD flipbook? More to the point, where were you during my collegiate years? How is this the first time we've met? Why did we never smoke herb together. Or, at the very least, get stoned on one of The Vortex's green baguettes (see emerald dough below)?


Enough circa 1993. The year 2293 is, apparently, where it's at. I watched this post-apocalypse flick (really more of a dystopian future film, the "apocalypse" never quite being explained) almost a week ago, and I'm still rendered speechless by this wonderful-horrible beast of a film. Brutals, Eternals, Apathetics. The Vortex, The Tabernacle. A religion centered around a giant floating stone head, in which the rallying cry is "The gun is good, the penis is evil!" And all of it built upon a god who is an anagram of the Wizard of Oz. My first reaction after hitting Stop was a long, sustained and completely non-ironic "Grooooovy." Nearly a week later, my layman's review stays the same. This is the movie you get when you give a director carte blanche after the success of Deliverance. This is the movie you get when your lead actor wants to veer 180 degrees away from James Bond.

I won't bore you (or spoil it for you) with a blow by blow description of Zardoz's WTF world-building plot. If the images below interest don't pique your interest, then it's probably not your bag. Maybe read the Plot section of its Wikipedia page, see how far you get before your mind melts. I've heard that the John Boorman DVD commentary for Zardoz is even more entertaining than the film itself. I'm not sure how that's possible. But I might have to give it a listen and report back. Until then, savor these risible images straight from the Vortex...


The proper position in which to watch Zardoz (i.e., loinclothed, very man-spread)


"You may now kiss the bride...and avoid the 'stache."


Vortex Sex Ed


Vortex Dental Exam


Vortex Mammogram (Apathetics Need Only Apply)


"Breaking the Fourth Wall" (Or smudging it, at least)


Then Shooting the Fourth Wall (Because...Fuck It)


Yay! Put on your snazziest orange speedo! Into the Vortex!!!

Thursday, May 07, 2015

THE BED-SITTING ROOM (1969) - Richard Lester


The apocalypse as ripe source of surrealist sight gags? Richard Lester's The Bed-Sitting Room has (mostly) got you covered.

After a two-minute nuclear war leaves England a wasteland, lots of British folk tool around the desert generally behaving as if nothing that bad has happened. BBC announcers continue to broadcast half-clothed through the shells of burnt-out TV screens. Government bureaucrats sally about attempting to impose order, collect tariffs. Metro riders ride an Underground to nowhere, above ground. An old military captain (Ralph Richardson) frets he will mutate from a man into a "bed-sitting room" and, later, does just that.


A true product of the swinging '60s (Lester directed the two most famous Beatles films), The Bed-Sitting Room has some great anarchic moments and some lovely absurdist framings. I would say it plays like a middling Monty Python sketch if that famous comedy troupe hadn't only gotten their start that same year. So, if anything, Lester, Spike Milligan, Dudley Moore and Co. probably influenced them. Pre-Python, post-nuclear...whatever. It's all rather silly and just a wee bit clever.

THE WORLD, THE FLESH AND THE DEVIL (1959) -
Ranald MacDougall


There's not much good spin you can put on the apocalypse. But one would hope that with the End of the World would at least come to end of racial tensions as well. According to 1950's post-nuke drama The World, The Flesh and The Devil, such is not the case. Harry Belafonte plays a mine inspector trapped beneath the sewers when the big blast hits. For a while, he roams the empty streets of NYC and seems to be the only survivor other than a few eerie looking store mannequins. He eventually sets up house in an old radio station where he frequently serenades department store dummies and sends out worthless S.O.S transmissions. For the last man on earth (no, the other one), he doesn't seem too depressed. At least until white debutante Inger Stevens shows up to spoil his good time.


You would think the appearance of a female (any female!) would be cause for Belafonte's celebration. As it turns out, it's mostly a cause of anxiety. But here's the interesting part...it's not Stevens but Belafonte who puts on the brakes.

Ever heard the phrase "Not if you were the last man on earth..."? Well, amend that to "You're the last woman on Earth and it's too bad you're white." You get the feeling he might rather have stuck it out with the lady mannequin just to save himself the grief. Though they do rapidly develop a trusting companionship, Belafonte's Ralph can't seem to shake the worries of the old world, let himself become too intimate. "People will talk," he argues when she asks if she can move in. "What people?" the modern viewer asks. "Get it on already!" we say to our widescreen TV, though the 1950s viewer probably understands. In the meantime, the two have a lot of pretend lavish meals with salvaged champagne and Belafonte gives Stevens what may be the most angst-ridden haircut ever captured on film.


Eventually, another "people" does show up in the form of white sailor Mel Ferrer, and here an otherwise interesting meditation on interracial relationships ripped from societal norms turns into something more commonplace. The two men fight over the woman, of course, and eventually guns are drawn. The ending is more upbeat than you might expect though. I still think Ralph would have been happier with the store dummy.