Wednesday, January 6, 2010


My recent viewing of The Road inspired me to crack open Shriek Show's Post-Apocalyptic Triple Feature box set and take a fresh look at how Italian genre directors imagined the collapse of civilization nearly thirty years ago. Enzo G. Castellari's action film is an early example of the Italian sub-genre, and reflects the influences available to him at the time. It's possible that Castellari could have seen Mad Max 2/The Road Warrior before filming this, but you can't really tell from the product. The Mad Max influence is arguably more apparent in The New Barbarians/Warriors of the Wasteland, also from 1982, but 1990 is more obviously influenced by more non-dystopian movies like The Warriors and the controversial Paul Newman cop film, Fort Apache, the Bronx.

For starters, Shriek Show's box cover lies brazenly when it describes 1990's setting as "Post-nuke New York City." There's no evidence of a nuclear attack, as all the landmark skyscrapers (including the World Trade Center towers, of course) are still standing, the better to lend epic scope to Castellari's location footage. Nor is 1990 about scarcity or the depletion of resources, as The Road Warrior is. There's no evidence of shortages and over in Manhattan civilization seems to be still puttering along quite nicely. The real problem, as a title card explains, is that government has lost the will to enforce the law and defend public safety in its worst neighborhoods. We may be meant to assume that New York can't afford to do so anymore, but it's just as dystopian to imagine a wealthy elite deciding to leave the rabble to their fate while shoring up their defenses in gated or otherwise segregated enclaves. We've seen this kind of dystopia as recently as George Romero's Land of the Dead, and we're likely to see it again.

1990 often leaves you wondering how post-apocalyptic things really are in a more-than-intact New York City (above) but if you want an explanation of societal breakdown, look no further than the malt liquor can on this stooge's desk (below).

By 1990, the script says, law and order in the Bronx has been left to the gangs. The situation is a little confusing, since the film portrays a gang leader played by Fred Williamson as the "King of the Bronx" who can allocate resources to different neighborhoods, while the title card claims that the real law in the benighted borough is the motorcycle gang known as the Riders. This is an utterly generic gang, as the name should have told you, lacking any kind of uniform compared to the pimpadelic Tigers (led by Williamson) and the hockey-fetishist Zombies (led by beloved Italo-brute George Eastman as "Golan," --which sounded like "Golem" to me). The Riders -- could they really not come up with a more intimidating name? -- look for leadership to a man named Trash, the hero of our film.

Trash is played by Mark Gregory, a Castellari discovery found in a gym. He's arguably the most post-apocalyptic thing about 1990, because -- I don't know, maybe it's just me -- he doesn't seem quite human. He looks misshapen, top-heavy. He walks in a very careful way, stiff-backed, chest out, and arms stiff at his sides, as if profoundly uncertain of what to do with his hands or concerned that if he didn't step just so the top half of him might topple forward and fall off. On the DVD, Castellari explains that he had to choreograph Gregory's movements very carefully; the result looks like a giant imbecile child's halting emulation of militant adulthood. Here is a man born (made??) to play Frankenstein's monster or a denizen of Goon Island in a Thimble Theater movie. His performance is riveting; watching him, you're in constant anxiety that he'll suddenly malfunction or come to a dead halt. And when he talks, from the mouth of this atavism comes a dese-dem-dose dubbed delivery that sounds about as futuristic as 1970: The Bronx Warriors, at the service of such dialogue as, "We were born dead. Life means nothing. Death walks with us....We carry its smell under our skin." Speak for yourself, Trash.

It's good to be the king, even of the Bronx, as Fred Williamson proves in this strangely interactive shot from 1990

Gregory isn't the only thing that's just sort of wrong with 1990. Frankly, the entire cosmic order is out of whack when Fred Williamson is in a movie and a character named Hammer is played by someone else. While Fred is assigned the role of "the Ogre," and attended by a tall blond whip-wielding "Witch," "Hammer" is the handle of the actual star of the film, Vic Morrow. Hammer is a Bronx-born mercenary (Trash: "He's an asshole who thinks he's God") who's under contract to the Manhattan Corporation, the firm responsible for 60% of world arms production. All that power comes into the hands of an heiress, Anne, on her eighteenth birthday, but she's run away to the no-mans-land of the Bronx, where she seems to be the only civilian apart from the occasional comical drunk. Assaulted by the rollerskating Zombies, she's rescued by Trash, whose consort she becomes. Hammer has to retrieve Anne and deliver her back to Manhattan despite her disinterest in warmongering. His plan includes provoking a general gang war, though I suspect the real reason to do that is so he can lead a flamethrowing cavalry into the Bronx to destroy them all.

The heroes of 1990: The Bronx Warriors fight mercenaries, "Zombies" and all ... that ... jazz!

So Hammer wanders around the Bronx assassinating folks and planting gang spoor to sow distrust, despite Trash's judicious skepticism ("You fuck," he answers one hothead, "it could be a pile of shit out of someone's asshole."). When the Zombies finally succeed in snatching Anne and all too easily laying out Trash, Hammer tries to buy her from Golan (I still like "Golem" better) while an all too rapidly recovered Trash goes on an anabasis to the Tigers, fending off subhuman Scavengers and Fosse-ite dancing fighters along the way, to recruit Ogre and Witch for a rescue operation. But Anne's rescue by Trash and the Tigers is only the prelude to Hammer's blitzkrieg, codenamed Operation Burnt Earth, the nearest thing to an apocalypse we'll get from this movie and, actually, a genuinely inspired gonzo gotterdammerung presided over by a transfigured, barking mad Morrow, for whom only The Twilight Zone was left after this. It turns out that Trash was right about this Hammer person, who we last see howling, "HAMMER! HAMMER IS GOD!" before being proven wrong.

Hammer commands! The horsemen of the post-apocalypse obey!

The final ten minutes of 1990 have an exhilarating and sometimes hilarious intensity that exposes just how halfhearted and misconceived most of the movie was. Castellari seems uncertain of the tone he wants to set and clearly had a hard time taking much of the story seriously. There are moments when he apparently wanted to impose a kind of musicality on the film, editing to the beat of a drummer who just happened to turn up at his location during a gang summit and opening the film with an almost glamorous montage of gang weapons, makeup and fashion. You could believe that the film he really wanted to make was Streets of Fire. As it is, there's an obvious artistry to 1990, which is really a meticulously art-directed picture thanks to Sergio Salvati's cinematography and Massimo Lentini's production design. It's pictorially ambitious in a way that later genuine post-apocalypse films wouldn't be. But as far as the genre goes, Castellari's New Barbarians (which I've seen only in its grungy American form) is a more aggressively imagined and more viscerally disturbing film than this one. I intend to watch the better version from the Shriek Show box set soon. Until then, I'll restrict my recommendation of 1990 to those looking for a lark through the slums of the post-Seventies collective consciousness on a purely tourist basis.

Here's an English language trailer (with Dutch subtitles), uploaded to YouTube by aylmer666:

And here's a sample of Mark Gregory walking and talking, sort of, uploaded by grumblenonymusbosch. Anne is played by the director's own little girl, Stefania Girolami:


Professor Brian O'Blivion said...

I've got a lovely little award for for your efforts. Come claim it whenever you get the chance.

Tenebrous Kate said...

Simply put: I LOVE THIS MOVIE. From George Eastman's stick-on ponytail to Fred Williamson's portrayal of The Orgre, which always sounds like "Yogurt" when he says those words--a fact that led to no small measure of confusion when I watched this with pals--this is a movie that delivers pretty much nonstop knock-off joy. It was probably early exposure to "The Warriors" that warped my brain, but ye gods I am a sucker for Theme Gangs. Great write-up--you make me want to dig out my copy of "Bronx Warriors" and watch it tonight!

The Vicar of VHS said...

I've been meaning to get on a 70s post-apocalypti-kick for a while now, and this great piece is pushing me even further in that direction. So much madness out there, so little time!

wiec? said...

this is one of about a dozen movies that i'd put on when people came over and hang out in our student housing flat back when i went to school. I's usually have the TV on mute and play records but there would always be someone who would sit on the couch and ignore what was going on around them and not take their eyes off of the TV. whoever that person happened to be 9 out of 10 times they'd point and say "that guy walks funny."

a fair assessment of a fairly amusing pic. well done.

Nigel M said...

I think that Mark Gregory's acting and weird walk had improved a million percent b the sequel. Then again his acting that great in the first place so the million times improvement is probably not that noticeable.

I know that I maybe shot by cult movie fans for saying this but I prefer the sequel.

Sam Juliano said...

"It's Good to be the King."

Mel Brooks's HISTORY OF THE WORLD, PART I, right? LOL.

Well Samuel, you have imparted your typical perspicacious gifts with this seemingly obscure title (though others here apparently know it well) that spurs me to conduct an overview of the genre. I'm thinking first of CHILDREN OF MEN, and even the second PLANET OF THE APES film set under an apolyptic NYC, but this film is obviously a different animal, and a staple in its own sub-genre. I'll have to add this right now to my netflix queue, as I've never owned it in any capacity.

You mention poor Mr. Morrow there. Yeah, TWILIGHT ZONE ended his life sadly, and will always be the film he's most closely associated with.

Samuel Wilson said...

Every response is rewarding to me, but the Professor's is extra special and I acknowledge it in a separate post.

Kate: To me it sounded like some characters were calling the King of the Bronx "Yoga." Either way is good, I guess.

Vicar and Sam J: your post-apocalypse genre overviews are overdue. These films are fun and teach you something, too.

wiec?: That sounds like an experiment that can be reproduced elsewhere for the good of science. Given all that goes on in 1990, Gregory may well have figured out a foolproof way to keep people's eyes on him.

Nigel: I can't shoot you until I see Escape From the Bronx, which is not in the Shriek Show box set. Until then, I'll implore others not to shoot you while I grant you the benefit of the doubt.

Nigel M said...

to give them a little plug- it is in the shameless box set though!!! Having said that I wont be buying this one as I got the 3 titles already (the vipco releases)but its shameless screens first box set so there you go.

sambson said...

Just finished watching this for the first time. WOW! The only DVD I've ever purchased that has NO menu. The film is either playing; or you get a blank grey screen. Here's a few immediate thoughts: 'Yogurt' having his own theme music, might have inspired Kennan Wayans in I'M GONNA GIT YOU SUCKA. I also loved that there were times when the overdubbing to English is so out of time with their lips it's just stupid. Everyone mentions Trash's walk, which is so erect his shoulders are actually behind his hips. When he tries to strut, it makes his arms flail about unnaturally. I wonder if he didn't adopt this posture in the gym he was discovered at? It kinda looks like he has his ass clenched as tight as possible...that's classic hetero iron pumping etiquette. Favorite character awards are shared between Hot Dog and The Witch (who apparently gave up acting after this single film). Joshua Sinclair (writer of the SHAKA ZULU trilogy) was one of the better actors here, but the best acting award should go to the drunk who's always talking to the 'Postman'. Best death scene is when Trash's second in command (played by a Freddie Mercury look-a-like) dies in his arms. The romantic death music they used just pushes it WAY over the top. Undoubtedly one of the most unintentionally homoerotic death scenes EVAR! Then there's the worst beat-down award for the scene when The Zombies beat up Trash, which looks more like they girl-slapped him to the ground (must be hard to put your weight behind a punch when yr on rollerskates). Worst 'pantomiming at a piano' goes to the actress playing Ann (which must be why she moved on to a more successful career as an assistant director). But the most Outstanding B-movie element goes to...The Scavengers! Yes, their portrayal as the illegitimate offspring of the Kipper Kids is hands-down the most ludicrous aspect of this production. Add an ending featuring the hero slaying the villain wherein an entire police force conveniently disappears...and you've got B-movie GOLD! Can't wait to order the sequel.

The Horror! Addiction! said...

Lol sambson, it's "the orge" not "yoghurt" haha. Now I'm thinking of Spaceballs!

And I agree with Nigel (as do most, I think) that Bronx Warriors 2/Escape from the Bronx/Fuga del the better film by far. More action, more spectacle, more grungyness!

sambson said...

I kept hearing "Yoghurt". ;-) :-D