One of the things I love most about Italian exploitation cinema is how little they try to disguise the fact that they’re ripping something off. George Romero’s seminal zombie classic, Dawn of the Dead, was released in Italy under the title Zombi. A totally unrelated film, directed by Lucio Fulci, was called Zombi 2 to capitalize on the former’s success, despite the fact that the only thing that’s the same in the two films is the presence of zombies. It’s this kind of shamelessness that immediately drew me to Enzo G. Castellari’s 1982 film, 1990: The Bronx Warriors, a film that might get the gold medal for shoddy knockoffs. Clearly, Castellari and company had seen Walter Hill’s The Warriors in 1979 and John Carpenter’s Escape From New York in 1981 and said, “Hey, these two movies are pretty cool; Let’s combine them! But instead of being good and exciting, let’s make our movie boring and with horrible dialogue. That’s the ticket!” And, by the Italian version of Jove, that’s precisely what they did.
Enzo G. Castellari had made a bevy of low-budget action movies in the 70s, including the Peckinpah-inspired Western Keoma, and the Dirty Dozen-inspired The Inglorious Bastards, from which the Tarantino film gets its name and general concept. For this film, he decided to shoot in the actual Bronx, which offered some great scenery and some great traffic they couldn’t clear. He also had the balls to get the notorious biker gang the Hell’s Angels involved to perform some of the stunt work. Didn’t he see Gimme Shelter? It does pay off for him, though, as the stuff with the motorcycles is the best stuff in the movie. Sure, everything else is silly and makes no sense, but, boy, those motorcycle stunts sure do work well.
In the far-flung future of 1990, after some kind of vague apocalypse, the Bronx has turned into a No Man’s Land, a wretched hive of scum and villainy that’s home to a slew of incongruous street gangs. The chief gang for this story is the Riders, who are known for playing canasta. Oh, sorry no, they’re known for riding motorcycles. In the opening of the film, we see several Riders, lead by Trash (the bronzed and wooden Mark Gregory) beating seven bells out of some random other guys. They don’t just fight them; no, they impale them on spikes and stuff. Trash then finds a pretty 17 year old girl named Ann (Stefania Girolami, the director’s daughter), whom the other gang was brutalizing. She clearly does not belong in the Bronx, but does not want to leave. So, of course, Trash takes her with them.
This starts the somewhat convoluted plot: One of the Riders has been killed by Ogre (played by the great Fred Williamson), the King of the Bronx, because, apparently, he was wearing “a gizmo.” A gizmo is what they continually call a wristwatch that either is a communicator to the police in Manhattan or a tracker so they can find where the gangs are. At any rate, Ogre, leader of the Tigers (a group that doesn’t ride tigers, but instead drive 1930s automobiles) as well as being the King, kills the guy and heads back to his lair. This has sort of foiled the plan of Ice, the Riders’ resident “brainy” guy, and Hot Dog, a semi-truck driver, who were trying to get Trash and Ogre taken out so they could become the leaders.
As if THIS wasn’t enough plot, there’s also Ann’s storyline, in which she is the daughter of the president of the obliquely named “Manhattan Corporation,” and upon her 18th birthday, she will inherit the entire thing. She doesn’t want to do this because the company is morally questionable and it’d break her little heart. She decides to stay with Trash as his “woman.” This doesn’t sit well with the Manhattan Corporation, of course, who hires policeman/sadistic psychopathic mercenary Hammer (Vic Morrow) to get her back, killing any and all gang members in the process. When Ann is kidnapped by the Zombies (a gang with face paint, roller skates, and hockey equipment… just like zombies), Trash must travel deep into the Bronx to get aid from Ogre to get her back. To do this, he’ll have to cross through the territories of several other gangs, including one with sparkly hats and ballet moves. Hammer then gets the aid of Hot Dog and Ice to attempt to turn all the gangs against each other. It all ends in a massive gangs vs. gangs vs. cops showdown where nothing good happens.
I’d like to point out; this is just what I think the plot is. It’s very hard to tell. A lot of this comes from the script, which is laughably bad. If you’ve seen many Italian genre pictures, you’ll know that a lot of the time they can’t afford a really good translator who can turn a phrase. As a result, the English version of the script is often a literal translation of the Italian, and it’s safe to say the Italians don’t have as much subtext. But, come on! A lot of the actors in this movie are actually American, and certainly all the people who dubbed the movie spoke English; why on Earth couldn’t someone have said, “Hey, you know what? We don’t really talk like this. Maybe we could change it a little bit?” But no. Instead we get lines like this from Ice: “Since he’s hooked up with that Manhattan pussy, all his blood has rushed to his cock.” There lacks a certain subtlety. My favorite of these, though, has to be a line in which Trash is chastising a fellow gang member for believing an obvious rouse: “You fuck! It could just be a pile of shit out of someone’s asshole!” It’s like Shakespeare, isn’t it?
This, sadly, was actor Vic Morrow’s final completed film before his tragic death during the making of Twilight Zone: The Movie. He’d been in nearly 100 film and television projects, some great, some less than great, but this movie might be his crowning achievement. Well, “crowning” in that he’s the king of hammy overacting. He, of all people, should have fought harder for better lines. The end of the film sees Hammer and a cadre of riot police on horseback, machine gunning and flame-throwing anybody who happens to be in the vicinity. During all this carnage, Hammer stands on another floor, looking down and laughing uncontrollably, all the while yelling, “I’m Hammer! HAHAHA! I’m HAMMER!!!” It’s totally from nowhere. Up until this point, he’d been sort of a cool customer, but start killing people en masse and he’s a raving lunatic.
(Editor’s Note: How is Fred Williamson not “The Hammer” in this thing? That’s his nickname for real!)
1990: The Bronx Warriors is a movie that cannot help but make you laugh with its charming ineptitude. At one point there is an actual motorcycle wipeout during a fairly routine-looking riding scene. Instead of seeing if the guy was okay, going back to one, and starting again, Castellari kept the shot in the film and reworked the plot accordingly. That’s a free stunt! Sure, it looks like the guy killed himself face-planting on the pavement, but anything for art, right? The characters take leaps of logic that seem to come from nowhere, the alliances are tenuous one minute, then firm the next, and every utterance has zero motivation. It’s truly a wonderfully crappy movie. But, it must have done well because a sequel was made called Escape From the Bronx. I wonder where that title came from.