The film scholars who have long touted neorealism as Italian cinema’s golden age are nothing more than the perpetrators of a lie. The masterminds behind a grand deceit meant to distract you from the true golden age of Italian cinema: the age of the rip-off. From roughly the late 1960s through the 1980s, a shameless wave of sleaze-coated copycats splattered the silver screen.
For Conan the Barbarian fans, please allow me to (not) recommend Ator, the Fighting Eagle. Did Jaws make you afraid of the water? Well, Cruel Jaws will make you afraid of ever watching Cruel Jaws again. The late, anti-great Bruno Mattei — agent of chaos that he was — once directed an Aliens knock-off and called it Terminator 2.
It was mass hysteria.
A hysteria that further spread when Escape from New York and The Road Warrior brought their unique visions of dystopia to Rome’s nicotine-stained theaters. Unique, individual visions that the Italians managed to meld into a single fever dream. A dream that depicted barren, apocalyptic landscapes where seemingly the only city left standing was New York.
It was almost always New York — except for in Raiders of Atlantis, where it was Miami and Atlantis was rising just off the coast. A New York where the streets were ruled by guys with names like Big Ape. A New York that was probably as inspired by John Carpenter’s classic as it was by correspondence from frightened and confused relatives who had immigrated to the fabled city.
And at the core of this toxic mythology was the Bronx.
Yes, the Bronx. No other part of this vast and varied world of ours has inspired as many flights of fancy among Italian genre filmmakers as the Bronx. Characters speak of it as if it were the domain of some Cthulhu-esque god; tinfoil cyborgs wander down its garbage-strewn streets. And it’s where it all began, back in 1982, when director Enzo G. Castellari gave us a glimpse of the future. The future of 1990: The Bronx Warriors.
In 1990, the Bronx is officially declared “No Man’s Land.” I think mostly due to the crime, but it’s also vaguely apocalyptic…it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that the president of the Manhattan Corporation’s daughter, Anne, has escaped to the Bronx. Being the “wealthiest and most affluent girl in the world” isn’t the life Anne wants. The life she wants is to be terrorized by guys on yellow roller skates, and saved by Trash — the prettiest boy in all the No Man’s Land.
Feared and respected by all — with his extremely upright posture, and jeans wedged tight into his butt crack — Trash is the leader of The Riders. Within one scene he and Anne are an item, and she’s embroiled in all things Bronx. Embedded deep in a world where people call each other “piss-head,” and where a drummer keeps the beat next to an impaled corpse. And then there’s The Ogre (not really an ogre, but blaxploitation star Fred Williamson), who killed one of Trash’s men for “wearing a gizmo.” Because of this, a mutiny is brewing among the ranks of The Riders. There’s also a gang called The Zombies, and a dude named Hot Dog who drives a Mack truck.
It’s all very complicated, but the main thing you need to know is that Anne’s father has sent in Hammer (a disinterested Vic Morrow) to get her back. Hammer, you see, is originally from the Bronx, which makes him akin to a deity in this universe. At one point, he himself even states “Hammer is God.” When Hammer first arrives — disguised as a mailman — a homeless gentleman informs him that his privates, unlikely as it may seem, are expecting a love letter. Surprisingly, Hammer doesn’t murder him. But he does stage a one-man assault on The Riders’ HQ, shotgunning a couple having sex in a filthy stairwell.
After a few bits that don’t quite add up, Anne is kidnapped by The Zombies, and we’re then treated to a bonus rip-off of The Warriors. Trash decides that the only way to get her back is to ask The Ogre for help. This’ll require him to navigate his way across the treacherous terrain of the Bronx, facing off with the other gangs in the process.
Which takes all of about ten minutes since there are only three other gangs, and the treacherous terrain between Trash and The Ogre appears to consist of a single warehouse. Trash doesn’t even have to fight the first gang he encounters, since they really only care about their dance routine. Trash and his men then proceed to beat up guys in white face paint, and talk about pooping their pants.
Once they arrive at The Ogre’s hideout, it’s all about bongos, piano ballads, fog machines, and scented candles. In fact, it’s around here that I began to realize this whole gang thing is just an excuse to wear makeup, glitter, and fancy capes. It’s around here that I realized the film is secretly a tragedy.
One about a group who aren’t free to express themselves outside of a lawless, bombed-out No Man’s Land. Their only “crime,” it appears, is a passion for the performing arts. The Ogre even reveals himself to be a gifted baker when he presents an elaborate cake in the likeness of Manhattan. He looks positively delighted to unveil it, too, as he should be — it’s stunning, and I’d be deeply touched if someone took the time to make me such a cake. It’s almost enough to break your heart when Hammer returns with flamethrower-wielding men on horseback.
Shameless, garish, crass, tragic — 1990: The Bronx Warriors is all these things. But we won’t cast it into the No Man’s Land, no, we’ll welcome it home, right here with us, in the Midnight Void.