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.