When John Carpenter shot his landmark 1981 action film Escape from New York, starring Kurt Russell as renegade mercenary Snake Plissken, hired to break in to the island of Manhattan (now a walled-off maximum security prison) to rescue the President of the United States (Donald Pleasance), he had just one day of shooting scheduled in the city that gave his production its name. For a film whose poster would feature the decapitated head of the Statue of Liberty lying on the streets of Midtown beneath the looming shadow of another icon, the Empire State Building, Carpenter would have to make magic happen — namely, pass East St. Louis off as the biggest and most famous city in the world. With a deft, extended dolly shot filmed on Liberty Island beneath the good lady (her head still attached), culminating in a view of the lower Manhattan skyline, Carpenter elevates Escape from New York’s production value. Making the most out of a relatively modest budget, including shots of a downed Air Force One, Carpenter pulls it off through sheer force of will and his always confident direction.
It would be ironic, then, that the following year, Enzo G. Castellari’s European trash cinema exploitation ripoff, 1990: The Bronx Warriors (1990: I guerrieri del Bronx, 1982), overtly flaunted its New York locations as if to make up for its shameless borrowing of Carpenter’s evocative premise. The film cordons off an outer borough instead of Manhattan, picking up on The Bronx’s cultural perception in the late 1970s and early 1980s as the single area of New York City most beyond salvage, in a time when the country’s biggest metropolis was just exiting one of the most difficult periods of its history, marked by bankruptcy, high crime and depictions in films like Taxi Driver (1976) and Escape rom New York that presented it as a city on the brink, if not already lost. The Bronx, in particular, was plagued by arson, fires set by landlords eager to cash in on insurance payoffs and flee to Long Island, Staten Island or New Jersey — self-immolating white flight. One unjustly forgotten horror film, Wolfen (1981), a werewolf-adjacent thriller about a series of grisly murders, makes the ruined Bronx a hunting ground for its wolves, with the heat-vision subjective shots through their animal eyes racing through piles of brick and cracked concrete, twisted rebar and the debris of abandoned personal effects — children’s dolls, chairs, clothes. Castellari’s vision of the Bronx likewise revels in its devastation; his film borrows one piece of its premise from Escape from New York, but also, as its title reflects, draws upon 1979’s The Warriors in populating the borough with eccentrically dressed gangs battling for turf out of both the sight and mind of Manhattan’s elite intelligentsia. A number of the gangs, clad in post-apocalyptic black leather replete with metal spikes, also evoke George Miller’s Mad Max films, but specifically The Road Warrior, released just one year prior in 1981. Castellari, in the tradition of a number of Italian filmmakers working in the perceived “low genres,” carried a successful idea forward into more films loosely built around the same ideas, including a post-apocalyptic nightmare that follows more heavily in Miller’s footsteps, The New Barbarians (I nuovi barbari; also The Warriors of the Wasteland), and a return to New York in a more direct titular lift from Carpenter with Escape from the Bronx (Fuga dal Bronx, 1983). This trio of exploitation ripoffs, remixes of the wildly original films by Carpenter, Hill and Miller, speak to the long Italian genre cinema tradition of narrative theft that some critics call “filone” — films made in a generic tradition of preceding, influential works; at the same time, they exist entirely within their own unique world thanks to Castellari’s own outrageous vision.
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Castellari is likely most famous to contemporary American audiences as the director of the 1978 knockoff of The Dirty Dozen (1967), which he called The Inglorious Bastards. Thanks to Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2006), Castellari’s film received brief new life; Tarantino’s reputation as one of modern cinema’s great plagiarists (in the best sense of that word) actually aligns with Castellari, whose work borrows just as freely. A number of Italian crime thrillers, so-called “poliziesco,” also round out his filmography, each full of shocking violence, car chases and death-defying stunts, leaning fully into the action genre’s most sensational aspects. A closer examination of 1990: The Bronx Warriors, The New Barbarians and Escape from the Bronx demonstrates that Castellari’s work is also governed by a series of ideas tied to larger trends in Italian cinema, visible in the country’s genre cinema and its relationship to the works of other countries.
1990: The Bronx Warriors and its direct sequel Escape from the Bronx are both about the struggle for survival in an urban wasteland, given credence by on location shooting amid the destruction of burned out tenements and blighted neighborhoods gone bad; the cliché about such urban spaces, especially in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a time of high skepticism of cities in the United States (a trend seen in horror, science fiction and thrillers of the period), is that they looked like, and almost literally were, war zones. In lingering over the wrecked, hollowed-out apartment buildings of The Bronx, Castellari’s camera picks up on an impulse that guides the work of celebrated Italian auteur Michelangelo Antonioni, whose films follow drifting, alienated middle class Italian people surrendering to the oppressive intrusion of modern spaces, represented by imposing skyscrapers made of glass and steel. In Antonioni’s vision of the world, the city spaces human beings have created have distanced them from their own habitats, made all the more tragic because they have constructed the conditions of their own confinement. In American cinema of the 1970s, cities are often portrayed as rife with crime, sin and vice, places where moral people cannot survive and should not go. This idea shaped Hill’s The Warriors, as the eponymous band must fight its way from a mass gathering of all the New York City gangs that ends in the assassination of a major leader back to their home in Coney Island without getting killed; along the way, they do battle with a number of colorful maniacs who all dress alike, most memorably The Baseball Furies, bat-wielding, face-painted psychos who accost the heroes in Central Park. Castellari opens 1990: The Bronx Warriors with a sequence obviously indebted to Hill, as a gang of padded goons holding hockey sticks and wearing white plastic helmets surround and menace a runaway heiress, Ann (Stefania Girolami), before she is rescued by the film’s hero, Trash (Mark Gregory), the long-haired muscle-bound leader of a notorious but generally noble biker gang.
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These characters’ costumes do more than reference The Warriors and the apocalyptic armor of the Mad Max movies. The iconography of these films is often curious and confused. Cultural symbols merge with almost no deference paid to their larger significance, as if the social unmooring afflicting the residents of The Bronx has also divorced their icons from their past meanings. In a particularly alienating but throwaway moment in 1990, a black member of Trash’s biker gang can be seen wearing a black helmet emblazoned with a white swastika, as though its image as a symbol of hatred, white supremacy and brutal genocide meant nothing at all. In Escape from the Bronx, Trash wears a brown leather jacket with a Confederate flag on the shoulder, despite the vocal dubbing bearing an unmistakable attempt at a thick New York accent. The multi-cultural backgrounds of the collective residents of the Bronx renders racism and bigotry almost moot, as the poor struggle against the common enemy, a working coalition of state government officials and corporate raiders that recall the state-corporate alliance that dominated the fascist Italy of Benito Mussolini. Even a cursory survey of Italian cinema betrays its almost pathological preoccupation with fascism as a theme, from the accepted “high art” of filmmakers like Luchino Visconti to “low genre” work like Castellari’s. In 1969’s The Damned, Visconti, a Neorealist auteur par excellence, portrays the hedonism of a family of Nazi aristocrats that ultimately brings about their ruin. Visconti is not alone, as a number of other Neorealist icons, including Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica, would direct films that dealt either directly or indirectly with Italy’s history of fascism. Though making broad generalizations about the shared characteristics that define national cinemas can be fraught, it should come as no surprise that a number of Italian filmmakers are engaged in dialogue with fascism, especially in the decades following the collapse of the Mussolini regime, which was in power for 20 years before its dissolution in 1943. Italy entered a fascist period in the early 1920s, and exited at the same time as its greatest and most celebrated cinematic movement, Italian Neorealism, flourished; many Neorealist films were made in open defiance of the newly fallen fascist order and sought to chronicle oppressive life under state control or, in the case of De Sica, celebrate the ordinary Italian working class people who remained devoted to their families in films like Bicycle Thieves (1948). A number of Italian films and their broader movements must be seen in response to fascism; some are full-throated in their critiques, others seek to understand and still others are decidedly ambivalent, even verging on fascism-curious.
Despite the gangs’ sartorial adoption of symbols associated with fascism and bigotry, they are presented in both films as the heroes. The villains are the politicians and business leaders who rule New York from their skyscrapers in Manhattan, looking down both literally and figuratively on the destruction of the Bronx and the forgotten people who remain there. Actor Enio Girolami plays a wealthy industrialist in both films (called Samuel Fisher in 1990: The Bronx Warriors and Clark in Escape from the Bronx, but they seem to basically be the same character), a corporate titan with plans to destroy the gangs, level the blighted buildings and redevelop The Bronx by any means necessary. In order to execute his vision of a gentrified Bronx, Fisher/Clark employs violent men who do the dirty work on the ground and in the tunnels beneath the city. In 1990, actor Vic Morrow (who would be dead within the year after a terrible accident on the set of The Twilight Zone: The Movie that raised questions about segment director John Landis’ ethical and legal responsibility) plays The Hammer, a Bronx-born police detective who now works for the industrialists as a freelance killer with a reputation for brutality. The film’s climactic sequence, a uniformed police raid on the gang’s hideout, features The Hammer in full fascist blackshirt regalia, laughing maniacally from a lofty perch while his shock troops roast fleeing gang members with flamethrowers. The torches reappear in Escape from the Bronx, this time under the direction of the sadistic Wrangler (Henry Silva), whose armies of silver-clad spacemen wear them on their back and stalk from building to building, purging the borough of its residents. Their trucks bear the initials DAS, which stands for “Disinfestation Annihilation Squad”; the gang members and the other residents of the Bronx are consistently referred to as an infestation, an overt rhetorical device meant to dehumanize a population considered undesirable by the regime in power that lays the justificatory ground work for their removal and eventual extermination. Wrangler’s black uniform and captain’s hat make him a dead ringer for Mussolini, and his brutal methods draw criticism from the few oppositional journalists remaining in the city as genocidal — Wrangler scoffs and carries on.
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The New Barbarians broadens its apocalyptic vision to the hinterlands, its remote settings a product of its post-nuclear annihilation inciting incident, which plays out in miniatures over the opening credits. While the iconography of the Mad Max films only loosely influenced the costuming of Castellari’s Bronx movies, he leans hard into Miller’s leather-bound automotive vision in The New Barbarians. The film’s Mad Max stand-in is Scorpion (Giancarlo Prete), a professional gunslinger and itinerant, black roadster-driving anti-hero. He spends much of the film doing battle with a gang of white-jumpsuited zealots who call themselves The Templars, led by One (George Eastman), whose very name suggests his fascist ideology and belief in his own supremacy. As usual, Castellari’s action sequences receive most of the filmmaker’s attention, as his camera furiously captures violent Templar assaults on innocent caravans of hardscrabble post-apocalyptic survivors trying to make it to their next meal, reveling in the melees of violence he has staged and executed. The weaponry fuses Mad Max style barbarity with advanced-society science fiction; the rifles and pistols fire bolts matched by high-pitched laser sound effects, while other characters have gone back to the stone age, using slingshots or axes. Scoprion’s nomadic sidekick, Nadir (Fred Williamson), has outfitted a bow-and-arrow with explosive tips, which he shoots with surgical precision, often landing their points directly in the necks and torsos of hapless Templars, only a precursor to the bodily explosions that then follow.
Castellari’s vision of a future annihilated by nuclear devastation matches his approach to the survivors’ bodies — he takes great pleasure in destroying them, gleefully swapping out actors for mannequins to maximize the amount of squib-driven destruction he can capture on film. In one moment, a pair of Templars ride down a fleeing victim in their car; an arm extends from the passenger side, a spinning blade right at torso level. The victim stumbles and hits the ground, just in time for the blade to sever his head. Castellari cuts to a wide shot, and the actor playing the decapitated man stumbles to his knees, the prop head he wears on his shoulders tipping forward to reveal the facsimile of a bloody neck as the blade swipes by; the actor hits the dirt and twitches his legs. Though the effect is, to some viewers, laughably cheap, it also functions as a fascinating cinematic quotation of one of film’s most famous stunts, the horse leap performed by Yakima Cannutt in John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939). Cannutt, playing an Apache warrior assaulting the titular conveyance and its occupants, leaps from his own horse onto the pack of horses towing the coach and falls beneath it, while the coach rolls over him. Ford holds the shot after the coach has left the frame, and Cannutt briefly stands up before falling again, demonstrating to an audience trained to believe in illusion that they have just seen a real stunt from beginning to end — it was a real man, not a dummy, who fell beneath the coach’s path and the horses’ pounding hooves. Castellari’s work obviously draws upon other Westerns, as well, leaning heavily on the use of slow-motion and fragmented cutting that bears the influence of Sam Peckinpah, whose film The Wild Bunch (1968) changed action films forever. Castellari’s low-rent approach to action maximizes mayhem at the expense of finely tuned craft — some of this dynamic can be attributed to his relatively modest budgets, but not all of it. Curiously, the cuts between shots of actors and the dummies are never really cryptic — Castellari almost never hides the ball, but brazenly surrenders to the obvious artificiality of the effect, trading illusion for bald-faced honesty. There is something admirable about his refusal to mask the film’s seams, as though the very nature of the design deliberately draws attention to the heightened circumstances under which the film operates; it is not difficult to see a parallel between Castellari’s comfort with his film’s rough edges and the larger Italian production practice of post-synchronizing all sound, even dialogue; though the ostentatious dubbing occasionally draws guffaws from condescending audiences of Italian genre cinema of all stripes, there is something undeniable about Castellari’s freedom with the camera — untethered from the technical requirements of microphones, it can literally go anywhere, and often does, walking in the footsteps of silent filmmakers who painted with images.
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The nightmare world of The New Barbarians, set in 2019, seems like an obvious descendant of the one Castellari depicts in The Bronx movies, set in 1990. With 1990: The Bronx Warriors, Castellari attempts to beat Carpenter’s Escape from New York to the punch — it was ostensibly set in 1997 — suggesting The Bronx films as a kind of prequel pair to Carpenter’s more celebrated work. Subsequently, The New Barbarians imagines a distant future in which destruction and terror are the only guarantees. One’s Templars have no real goal, and neither does Scorpion; the future has foreclosed on hope, replacing it with the immediate concerns of survival, like many post-apocalyptic narratives, more in vogue today than perhaps ever before. Castellari’s world is disturbingly tactile and cheap — there is no twisted beauty to the cars and motorcycles outfitted with blades and saws, as there is in Miller’s Mad Max films. His characters’ (many anonymous) bodies are profoundly vulnerable to destruction and violation. The Templar leader One, in a surreal and disturbing sequence, dominates the captive Scorpion by raping him in front of the other cult members; Scorpion later returns the favor by ramming One’s car from behind with a massive drill, which extends out of the front of the hero’s roadster and comes to rest in the small of the villain’s back. One shares other Castellari villains’ predilection for megalomaniacal sadism, a fascist leader in a future where fascist leadership has a distinct allure. Though 40 years removed from the fall of Mussolini’s regime, the ghosts of Italy’s past still linger. After embracing the repressive, cult-of-personality pull of a fascist leader, exorcising those demons cannot be easy — the genre cinema efforts of Castellari and others demonstrate that the sins of the past leave a bitter legacy that cannot so easily be undone.
It is easy to dismiss these exploitation films as artless cash-ins on more accomplished films by celebrated directors; certainly their often shambolic production values open them up to derision, especially by audiences conditioned through years of ironic viewing of so-called cult films and midnight movies like Tommy Wiseau’s The Room (2003) to grant themselves a lofty position above the film, from which they can condescend. But beyond the dubbing, the stilted or melodramatic performances, and the occasional lapse in cinematic professionalism, these films demonstrate that the deeply engaged filmmakers behind and in front of the camera who, despite the limitations of their budgets and the overtly borrowed premises, nonetheless have ideas worth exploring. The films’ criticisms of corrupt relationships between business leaders and political figures in 1990: The Bronx Warriors and Escape from the Bronx make them an indictment of not only the historically relevant structure of Italian fascism, but also the then-contemporary power structure of the city of New York that privileged development over people; this argument still rages today as gentrification of Brooklyn displaces low-income New Yorkers, many of them people of color. The New Barbarians imagines a future shaped by the sins of history; its roving gangs of survivors reconstitute old divisions, use sex and violence as a means of control and accumulate power for its own sake. Together, these three films borrow heavily from the finest examples of auteur-driven, then-contemporary American genre cinema to wrestle with the legacy of Italy’s fascist period, making them much more than simple exploitation films.
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And still, there is the narrative and stylistic theft that renders these films exploitative. Italian genre cinema has long operated under the assumption that popular stories are ripe for the taking. Spaghetti Westerns both uphold and subvert the genre conventions of popular American Westerns. The giallo films draw upon Alfred Hitchcock and gothic fiction by writers like Edgar Allan Poe. The polizieschi restage American police and vigilante thrillers and fuse them with renewed interest in the Italian Mafia in the wake of the popularity of The Godfather (1972). In all these examples, Italian filmmakers borrow from the influential American film and literary culture that spreads the world over; however, each of these genres also contains a remarkable amount of self-plagiarism, as filmmakers continually repeat a story’s formula until it has nothing left to say. Sergio Leone, the great Spaghetti Western pioneer, said goodbye to the genre he more or less created by serving as writer and uncredited director on 1973’s My Name Is Nobody (Dir. Tonino Valerii), an goofy parody of the narrative and stylistic conventions that made him an artist. Dario Argento’s 2009 thriller Giallo casts Adrien Brody as a detective investigating a series of murders committed by a killer, also played by Brody, literally named “Giallo,” in a self-reflexive reconsideration of the genre’s perhaps limiting impact on Argento’s own career. A number of polizieschi recycle plots, character types and actors in service of delivering genre thrills to audiences. In Italian genre cinema, narrative originality is a secondary value. A country like Italy, with the tremendous weight of its long history stretching back to Ancient Rome, has too many cultural traditions and art movements to aspire to any pretensions about completely new narratives. Exploitation filmmakers like Castellari treat other films like air just waiting to be breathed in. Theft, plagiarism, remix, citation, reference — to these exploiters, they are all the same thing. Everything, these films suggest, belongs to all of us.
Brian Brems (@BrianBrems) is an Assistant Professor of English and Film at the College of DuPage, a large two-year institution located in the western Chicago suburbs. He has a Master’s Degree from Northern Illinois University in English with a Film & Literature concentration. He has a wife, Genna, and two dogs, Bowie and Iggy.