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1990: Bronx Warriors

In recent years, pop culture fascination with the end of the world has resurfaced after years of dormancy during which we were all enjoying the good ol’ years of Bill Clinton, the dotcom industry, and a relatively peaceful time as long as you ignore that whole Balkan thing. Yeah, we might have used a giant asteroid to destroy Paris just for kicks from time to time, but when it comes down to ending the world, we pretty much became disinterested during the 1990s. The end of the Cold War seems to have dashed our post-apocalyptic fantasies. Gone were the days of an Evil Empire and a Red Scare. Gone were the days when middle school youths would organize themselves out in the woods to build a bomb shelter that would eventually evolve to resemble a foot deep hole covered by a sheet of warped plywood.

Having spent most of my teen years in the 1980s, I am fairly familiar with what went on then. The Reagan years. Ahh, the Reagan years. We were so young, so naive. The post-apocalyptic movie kicked off in a big way with the release of the Australian film Mad Max, but really exploded like a neutron bomb upon the release of the film’s sequel, The Road Warrior. Dozens upon dozens of fly-by-night trend-hoppers clamored over one another to get out to the desert and film a movie about guys in big shoulderpads driving around aimlessly. For the most part, there was never any real reason to put them out in the desert other than the facts that The Road Warrior did it, and it was generally pretty cheap to film in a desert. Stack some styrofoam packing crates up, string up a little bubble wrap, and you have an instant “desert town of the future.”

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A few films decided to stick to the cities however, most notably John Carpenter’s wonderful Escape From New York, which depicted a New York City so overrun with crime that the whole of Manhattan was simply shut down and turned into a giant prison. Who would have thought that the opposite would be true, that New York would have one of the lowest per capita crime rates in the country and it would become so expensive to live in the city that most of the bad elements would be forced out, leaving room only for Wall Street bros and parents with ridiculously large strollers? Well, weirdly enough, Italian director Enzo G. Castellari thought that, and the result is one of the more outlandish yet eerily “accurate” predictions of the near future, 1990 Bronx Warriors.

It’s easy to dismiss his film as a rip-off of Escape From New York mixed with The Warriors, but doing so would be short-sighted. Although it’s obvious even from the title of the film that Enzo, who also directed Road Warrior inspired post-apocalyptic films like New Barbarians as well as a bunch of my all-time favorite Eurocrime films, is taking elements from The Warriors and Escape From New York, it should also be noted that these films owe a debt of gratitude to Italian spaghetti westerns, which in turn owe a debt to Japanese samurai films, so on and so forth. It’s best not to worry about these sorts of things or assign rip-off status. Besides, there are enough weird original ideas in 1990 Bronx Warriors to keep it from being classifiable as a rip-off by any but the laziest film critics.

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There’s also a lot about this film to set it apart from the slew of other early 1980s end-of-the-world films. For one, the world hasn’t so much ended as it’s simply fallen apart, not unlike the sort of entropic future we glimpse in Mad Max. There’s been no nuclear holocaust, giant asteroid, war, or much of anything other than a widening of the economic gap between rich and poor resulting in much of the country simply breaking down. This was (and is) not an unrealistic view of things, especially in the era of Reaganomics, skyrocketing inflation and unemployment, and a growing American Rustbelt. The ranks of the impoverished and disillusioned were growing at a dizzying rate, and it seemed the rich overlords sitting at the top of the heap were less and less concerned with those beneath them. Thank God we solved that problem.

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Amid this climate of social and economic breakdown, New York City saw itself fragment into two parts. There was Manhattan, which had become so amazingly expensive that only the fabulously rich could afford to live there, and then there were the outer boroughs (primarily The Bronx), where the poor and undesirable elements of society had been pushed out and forgotten. That’s pretty much how New York City is, except that even the outer boroughs are becoming too expensive for the lower and middle class. Granted it wasn’t a Criswell-like feat of prediction for Enzo to craft this future for New York since it was pretty much on the road there even during the 1980s as it struggled to recover from the devastating 1970s that saw much of the city, especially The Bronx, become a violent no-man’s-land. The Bronx of this film are not at all unlike what The Bronx actually became at the time.

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You really have to feel bad for The Bronx. I mean, it’s not a bad place. Sure, you got some bad parts of town that you don’t want to visit, and you have some stinking cesspools, but all of New York has that, and pretty much every city or town of even moderate size has the same. It’s funny how the problems faced by The Bronx in the 1970s continue to define that borough in popular media. Some of it is actually quite nice. Van Cortland Park is lovely for a day hike. Having been there several times, I can say I have never once been assaulted by an AC Turnbull. Hell, just last week I saw Moon Runner right by a Van Cortland Ranger. Can you dig it?

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In the world of 1990 Bronx Warriors, the police are more or less owned by a giant corporation, and they’ve decided that The Bronx isn’t worth saving. As long as the gangs that control the borough stay in their own turf, The Man is happy to just let them wallow in their filth and have their fun. It’s not really exactly a good idea, as one has to drive through The Bronx to get to much of New England and other northern states. Given that Manhattan is a tiny little island, alienating the boroughs with all the bridges and interstates probably isn’t good business. But what the hell? I mean, seriously — does anyone actually want to go to Connecticut?

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Our movie opens with a young woman, Ann, fleeing Manhattan with a slew of not terribly high-tech looking security forces hot on her heels. She escapes into The Bronx, which is a anarchic pile of urban desolation controlled by crazy-ass gangs and populated by the poor, the drunk, the criminal, and the insane. So basically, it’s a ToM Waits song. Ann is quickly set upon by a rather silly gang of roller skating hockey goons known as The Zombies. Given that much of The Bronx is crumbling and broken up and littered with great piles of junk, roller skates don’t seem to be the best way to get around. There’s a reason why you don’t do things like hike and climb fences and fight in roller skates. Sure, it would hurt if you kicked someone in the face while wearing skates, but unless you’re Jackie Chan, there’s a good chance you’ll just end up flat on your ass getting the crap kicked out of you by some guy who had enough sense to wear a pair of steel-toed boots to the fight.

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Sure enough, guys in boots show up and beat the holy hell out of The Zombies. These guys, The Riders, not only wear boots, they also ride motorcycles, which is generally an all-around better set-up for cruising the urban decay of tomorrow. The Riders are basically an early 1980s muscle-metal band the likes of which would no doubt please even Jon Mikl-thor himself. Their leader is Trash, a somewhat lean and dancer-esque young dude who just missed out on being Jon Bon Jovi. Trash may be named Trash and lead one of the toughest gangs in The Bronx, but he also has the heart of a hero and the delicate features of a poet. He takes Ann under his wing and teaches her how to survive in the wasteland they call home. At some point, they also fall in love, which means she’ll probably die before this whole thing is over.

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The Riders are obviously metal through and through. Not the spandex and lipstick metal of glam, but the tougher leather wearing metal. About all that’s missing is a motorcycle riding montage set to “Steel Tormentor” by Helloween. The heavy metal hero is another oddity of the ’80s. You don’t see him too often these days, but back when Tipper was trying to slap parental warning labels on our music, the heavy metal hero was popping up all over the place. Lots of post-apocalypse movies had them, and there were plenty of metal heroes in action as well. These days, we get goth heroes or cheesy nu-metal heroes, which justa re not the same. Imagine how much cooler if, instead of gothy looking skinny people fighting to techno music, The Matrix had contained a lot of buff warrior metal types kicking ass to epic anthems from Blind Guardian or Manowar. There are no heroic goth fight themes like there are heroic metal anthems of power. As much as I love them, you simply cannot tame a land listening to Bauhaus, but you can weild a mighty battle ax if you’re blasting some Hammerfall.

Another quality staple of 80s warrior metal action was the reflective soul-searching scene, “the sensitive moment in a tough way.” Heroes these days are pretty boring and one-dimensional. The heavy metal heroes, on the other hand, were characters of depth and complexity. Sure, they’re tough as nails and curse a lot. Sure, they wear leather and those rawhide Geronimo boots. But they also have moments of great introspection and thought, like Conan the Barbarian. They’re just as likely to stare out at the ocean and contemplate the vileness of the world while “Heart of Steel” plays in the background as they are to just kick ass with a barbed wire baseball bat while blasting “Gates of Valhalla.” They are warrior-poets. And if you don’t buy that, then ask yourself this: in a fight, would you rather be on the team of Robert Smith and Peter Murphy, or would you rather be on the team with Lemmy and Jon Mikl-thor?

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You’ll also notice that today’s industrial/goth/techno hero relies pretty heavily on fire power and technology. Even in The Matrix, they could only fight because the computer told them they could, and most of the time they just relied on automatic weapons that fired eleven million rounds but seemed to hit no one. The heavy metal hero, however, favors the intimacy of hand-to-hand combat. He’d rather test his steel against you mano-y-mano than shoot at you from afar. He has burning in his heart the spirit of the ancient Viking or kungfu hero who considers guns beneath him. Given the choice, he’d rather look you in the eye, twist the knife in your belly, and say something wise like, “You piece of shit! I hope you go to hell and burn there like the shit you are!” This is partly because of honor, and mostly because Boris Valjello fantasy art looks cooler if it’s a dude with a sword.

I’d like to see the return of the heavy metal hero, but then, I’d also like to see the return of those heavy metal videos that feature an outraged Board of Censors screaming at the band in exaggerated pantomime, or even better, videos where a disillusioned youth from a bad home is led on a mystical journey by his heavy metal mentors, who would no doubt step out of a poster or something and offer him their hand. Of course, best of all would be a return to the days of videos that featured and uptight school marm with tight pulled-back hair and horn-rimmed glasses getting blasted by a dose of metal energy and instantly turning into a gyrating libertine in fishnets and a torn-up t-shirt.

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Ahh, OK. Where were we? Oh yeah. The Riders may be tough and all, but the biggest, most powerful gang in the borough is a multi-ethnic gang run by a guy called The Ogre. His gang tools around in hot rods with flame paint jobs, lowriders, and other cool-ass cars. They all dress like something between a Renaissance Festival harlequin and a 1970s pimp. But just when you thought that gang couldn’t get any weirder, out steps The Ogre, and it’s Fred Williamson, possibly the baddest ass man on the planet. Fred can kick someone’s ass just by blowing smoke in their face, and even though he’s wearing some silly red silk shirt, who the hell is going to walk up to Fred Williamson and go, “Hey man, that’s a poofy shirt you’re wearing.”

Ogre and Trash have a truce going on, though it’s strained when Trash finds a member of The Riders impaled on some flotsam down by the river. The Ogre shows up to explain to Trash that the guy was an informant working the Manhattan Corporation, the multinational company that owns most of Manhattan, the police force, and various other things. Why they would want to be spying on The Riders is unknown, at least until Ann confesses to her man that she is the daughter of the current Manhattan Corporation president and will one day inherit the company and become a pawn for the Board of Directors. That’s why she fled Manhattan, though I can think of better places to flee than Future Bronx. She could try, say, Maine or maybe Florida, somewhere that isn’t a crumbling cesspool of criminals, violence, and danger.

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Meanwhile, a mercenary named Hammer (Vic Morrow) enters The Bronx to retrieve the wayward girl and make trouble for the locals. Hammer should not be confused with Fred Williamson, who played a guy named Hammer in a different movie, called Hammer. Whatever the case may be, you can bet Fred Williamson won’t be too pleased when he learns someone else is calling themselves Hammer. Hammer enlists the aide of a grumpy truck driver who doesn’t really drive his truck anywhere. He just sort of tools around the block. Together, they tempt a member of The Riders to help them get Ann. In return, Hammer will make sure he offs Trash, leaving this other guy in control. It’s all so Shakespearean!

Ann, distressed that her presence is causing so much trouble for everyone, decides to run away, completely forgetting the moving speech Trash gave her earlier as he stood atop a heap of garbage, staring at the river. After Hammer raids The Riders’ headquarters and murders a couple people, Ann takes off, hoping trouble will follow her instead of stick around to harass Trash and his gang. Unfortunately, she takes the exact same route she took the first time she entered The Bronx, and is soon set upon by The Zombies again. This time they capture her and send word to Hammer that they are willing to deal.

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Trash is no dummy, and suspects there is a Judas among them. When he learns that Hammer is about to lead an all-out police assault on The Bronx, he knows the only thing that will save them all is if The Riders and The Ogre fight together. If that happens, all the other gangs will fall in line. To get to The Ogre, though, The Riders have to fight their way across The Bronx and through the turf of several other outlandish gangs. That’s The Warriors rip-off portion, but it doesn’t last too long. Imagine, if you can, gangs that are like ten times wackier than the ones in The Warriors, even the Baseball Furies.

Trash takes a couple loyal soldiers with him and sets off to find The Ogre. The first gang they have to face is the Dancin’ Show Tune gang. Oh yeah, you read that correctly. They all dress like the cast from Cabaret and use a fighting style involving lots of tap dancing and the use of razor sharp canes. You may think that a gang of overly made-up drama club people in gold sequined waist coats and fishnets is not very scary, but try to imagine if you were walking down a desolate city street late one night and saw that coming at you. Yeah, not so non-threatening now is it?

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Trash and his boys are hopelessly outnumbered by the toe-tappin’ musical theater boppers, but luck holds out as the leader of the gang is a cool lady who has a crush on Trash. When she hears of his mission, she agrees to let him pass provided he gives her a little play some time in the near future. Weirdly enough, when I’ve been cornered by angry sword-wielding actresses dressed like Little Nell, my plea of “let me go and you can have sex with me” never seems to work out, but maybe that’s because I’m not wearing a leather vest, making pouty lips, and adorned with a head full of luscious auburn locks.

The next encounter isn’t so easy, as it’s with a bunch of crazies who dress like future gangs called The Crazies or The Scavengers always dress: lots of rags and robes and cloaks and hunched over walking. The battle is rough, but Trash manages to survive, finally making it to The Ogre’s turf. Okay, so he didn’t have to fight his way across the entire Bronx, just a little bit, but you get the general idea. Of course, nothing is easy, and the rat fink Rider has already led Hammer to Ogre’s lair, where they intend to frame Trash for the murder of one of The Ogre’s men. The Ogre himself is busy organizing a food and clothing drive for the poor and homeless of The Bronx (which is just about everyone), making you realize that Fred Williamson is just as likely to save your ass as he is to kick it.

The Ogre falls for Hammer’s trick for about ten seconds before he slaps Trash on the shoulder and agrees to go kick some serious ass. However, rather than leading a force of united gangs against The Man, The Ogre thinks it would be better to just rescue Ann. Okay, whatever. It’s not like they aren’t going to have to fight Hammer and the cops eventually. Maybe Fred just figured it wasn’t all that useful to have allies like that show tune gang. Trash, The Ogre, and Ogre’s woman — a whip-wielding bad-ass named Poison or Witch or something — set off to save Ann from The Zombies before Hammer gets to her. It’s got to really ruin your day if someone comes up to you and tells you a group of people named Trash, The Ogre, and Witch are after your ass. It gets even worse if they explain that The Ogre is actually Fred Williamson. Pissing off Fred Williamson is probably one of the stupidest things anyone could do, way up there with things like challenging a Shaolin monk to a duel or killing a vengeful ninja’s only son.

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Of course our mini-gang is successful in their bid to free Ann, mostly because The Zombies suck, but just when the party starts and Ogre and The Riders get together for some drinkin’, here comes Hammer with a full battalion of future cops, all of whom wear silver jumpsuits and helmets and are armed not with guns, but with flame throwers! I don’t know what the tactical advantage of a flame thrower is other than it looks cool. Sure, a flame thrower is pretty handy if your opponent is a few feet away menacing you with a stone club, but it’s not exactly the most practical urban assault weapon. For one, they’re heavy and awkward, what with the giant tank of flammable liquid you have to strap to your back. Two, that tank of liquid makes a great target. But more than any of that, you’d think the big failure of the flame thrower in a scenario such as storming the turf of The Ogre and The Riders in a future Bronx gone mad is that people could just sit up in the third or fourth story of their buildings and shoot at you or throw rocks at your head. When it comes down to a guy with a flame thrower marching down the middle of the street versus a guy with a gun hiding inside a building at the end of the block and shooting at you through a hole in the wall, I know who my money is on. I guess the cops were depending pretty heavily on that whole “code of the heavy metal hero” thing that requires them to fight you face-to-face, but still, not everyone is a heavy metal hero with a heart of steel.

There are cops-a-plenty to be killed, and they barbecue more than a few gang members in the completely wild finale that features The Hammer just sort of standing around and hooting, just waiting for someone to ram something through his gut. Since this is a downbeat future, you know just about everyone is going to die. Fred Williamson gets to go out like a bad-ass, of course, after killing about a bajillion people, and Trash manages to survive the police advance, though there’s not much left for him to go home to. The police, annoyed by just about everything, pretty much shatter the gang system that was holding The Bronx together, sending the entire thing crashing down in a ball of flame. The common man falls at the feet of the corporate goons, but not before spearing a few people.

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It’s easy to dismiss films like this, but truth be told, I love 1990 Bronx Warriors. It’s action-packed, over-the-top, and violent, but it also maintains some sense of realism. The film was shot on location in Brooklyn and The Bronx, so the total urban decay you see onscreen is the real thing. Kinda makes you realize what a shithole much of New York City was back then. Given the actual appearance of much of outer New York City at the time (and even today, though it’s much better, it’s still not winning any beauty awards), it wasn’t so difficult for Enzo to create a thoroughly believable future full of decay. It was already there for him. Enzo uses the blighted New York cityscape to great effect, exploiting a limited number of locations to create the image of a sprawling urban hell.

As a New Yorker, I’ve never understood why so many other New Yorkers just leave shit around to rot. I mean, we have to live here, people! Clean the damn place up! It baffles me to watch someone, often some well-dressed business type, stand on the street right next to a garbage can (there are several on every block) and throw hishalf-eaten McDonalds or candy wrapper on the ground. If The Ogre caught you doing that, he’d pound you good!

The gangs, of course, are mostly ludicrous, but at least they aren’t as ludicrous as some New York City gangs that have made it onto the big screen. The Broadway musical gang is actually more believable than the utterly ridiculous gang from Rumble in the Bronx that rode around on Yamaha dirt bikes and neon dune buggies covered in Christmas lights. I men, at least a show tune gang is thematically appropriate for New York. The Riders are actually fairly believable and look like people you might encounter — at least at a Krokus or Dokken concert (okay, maybe these days you wouldn’t encounter anybody at a Krokus concert…). Since I don’t really look for realism in the end of the world, I’m not complaining. They gave us realism in The Day After, and you know what we learned? That the end of the world was going to be really boring and full of farmers going, “We need to figure out what’s going on.” Give me tap-dancing vaudeville gangs any day!

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The acting is okay. Typically dry and over-the-top with the usual ridiculously vulgar cursing that makes precious little sense. You may find this difficult to believe, but I am no opponent of salty language. Sometimes, however, it’s just silly, and whoever dubbed this tends to just string eight or nine dirty words together for no real reason. Instead of saying, “He might be lying,” characters in this movie say stuff like “Maybe it’s a stinking pile of shit from his asshole.” Vic Morrow as Hammer is hilariously gruff and hateful of everything. Trash, played by then seventeen-year-old Mark Gregory, is a pretty cool anti-hero. Complaints have been filed that he is too delicate and fey to make a believable thug, but I don’t agree. He is a bit on the pretty side, but so was Pretty Boy Floyd. And of course Fred Williamson shines as always. Williamson worked with director Enzo Castellari several times, including New Barbarians, and was no stranger to on-the-cheap Italian sci-fi productions, having also appeared in Lucio Fulci’s Rome 2072 AD, among others.

Of course, it’s the action that we came to see, and this movie is much more of an urban action film than it is a science fiction film. About the only sci-fi is that it’s set in what was then the future and the cops wear shiny jumpsuits. The action is plentiful and brutal, just the way it should be. Castellari uses lots of Sam Peckinpah-ish slow motion, and there’s plenty of punching and kung-fuing. In many ways, this film reminds me of the low-budget action wonder Deadbeat at Dawn both in look and feel. The big difference is that while Deadbeat at Dawn is relentlessly grim in its depiction of ultra-violent dead-end gangs, 1990 Bronx Warriors is much more comic bookish, which has to be expected when one of your gangs is the tap dancin’ sequin crew. The promos for this movie called it “A HEAVY METAL JOURNEY INTO AN URBAN HELL WHERE EVERYTHING HAS GONE WRONG!” and that pretty much sums it up. This movie is like listening to a Manowar song about warriors and struggles and strength. When the end of the world comes, we’re going to have guys like Trash and The Riders on our side while you are stuck with the show tune gang.

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My favorite thing about 1990 Bronx Warriors besides all the violence and gangs of Broadway actors, is that it’s a difficult film to classify. It’s got sci-fi elements, what with being set in what was, at the time, the near future, and features some sci-fi elements like the evil corporation that controls the city, but it takes those elements and grounds them in a very 1970s action film sort of world. In many ways, 1990 Bronx Warriors is far less of a rip-off than it is a futuristic sequel (albeit unofficial) to The Warriors. It shares some ideas and situations, but it also has quite a few original ideas. The Riders are very much like an updated version of The Warriors, and the New York of the future is not much different from the New York of the 1970s The Warriors fought their way through. It gives the whole thing a really weird feel, but I like it.

Partly due to budget, Enzo Castellari doesn’t go over the top with future crap, and the result was that he crafted one of the more accurate visions of the near future, since it turned out (to the disappointment of many) that the future looked a lot like things had for the previous couple decades. No flying cars or shiny disco jumpsuits (except for cops and at Studio 54). No space stations or aliens from outer space. No nuclear war. Just regular people, not much different from how they were decades before, wallowing in the filth they created. 1990 Bronx Warriors conjures up every sci-fi fan’s greatest fear: the future will basically be the same — but at least it will have Fred Williamson in it.

Release Year: 1982 | Country: Italy | Starring: Mark Gregory, Stefania Girolami, Fred Williamson, Vic Morrow, John Sinclair, Christopher Connelly, George Eastman, Ennio Girolami, Massimo Vanni, Betty Dessy | Screenplay: Elisa Briganti, Enzo Castellari | Director: Enzo Castellari | Cinematography: Sergio Salvati | Music: Walter Rizzati | Producer: Fabrizio De Angelis | Original Title: 1990: I guerrieri del Bronx | Availability: DVD (Amazon)