Monday, May 6, 2013

Cult Classics Revisited: 1990: THE BRONX WARRIORS (1982)

(Italy - 1982; US release 1983)

Directed by Enzo G. Castellari.  Written by Dardano Sacchetti, Elisa Livia Briganti, Enzo G. Castellari. Cast: Vic Morrow, Christopher Connelly, Fred Williamson, Mark Gregory, Stefania Girolami, Enio Girolami, George Eastman (Luigi Montefiori), John Sinclair, Betty Dessy, Rocco Lerro, Massimo Vanni, Angelo Ragusa, Enzo Girolami, Carla Brait. (R, 86 mins/92 mins)

Frequently and mistakenly lumped in with the onslaught of early 1980s Italian post-nuke ROAD WARRIOR ripoffs, Enzo G. Castellari's 1990: THE BRONX WARRIORS is more indebted to Walter Hill's THE WARRIORS, with a bit of John Carpenter's ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK.  In it, we have warring gangs making their way across gang-controlled territories of NYC, but with a "near-future" element of the Bronx being a desolate No Man's Land, a look that wasn't hard to achieve given its state in 1982.  Castellari, best known for his 1970s crime thrillers and 1978's THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS, captured the look of the decayed Bronx so effectively that the film, along with examples like WOLFEN and FORT APACHE THE BRONX from 1981, stands as a powerful visual document of its era.  Of course, any semblance of seriousness offered by 1990: THE BRONX WARRIORS ends there, especially considering that Castellari and the Italian crew couldn't get any of the streets in the Bronx shut down for their shoot, so in this uninhabitable "No Man's Land," you clearly see cars travelling in an orderly fashion (a crew member can be seen directing traffic in one shot) and area residents standing around, obviously watching some crazy Italians shoot a movie in their neighborhood.  The Bronx was so dangerous that a local Hells Angels chapter hired by producer Fabrizio De Angelis to play additional members of the main biker gang pulled double duty as security for the cast and crew during the Bronx portion of the shoot (the interiors were shot in the much safer confines of the De Paolis Studios in Rome).

I absolutely love 1990: THE BRONX WARRIORS.  It's one of the essential trashy Italian exploitation films of its era.  It's everything one looks for in such fare:  blatant ripoff of one or more American box office hits, gratuitous violence, nonsensical and illogical story, often hilarious dubbing, slumming American actors, a killer score (by Walter Rizzati),  and an eye for the grime of 1980s NYC that Hollywood films rarely captured, likely because the Italians were always shooting without permits and the city didn't step in first to clean it up and make it presentable for the cameras (a good example of this is seeing just how different the same stretch of Times Square porn palaces and sex shops look in Lucio Fulci's THE NEW YORK RIPPER and Ron Howard's NIGHT SHIFT; both films shot the same year, but NIGHT SHIFT manages to make it look safe and clean while you actually fear for the well-being of RIPPER's cameraman, especially with passersby looking right at him).  Low-budget American films like James Glickenhaus' THE EXTERMINATOR (1980), Romano Scavolini's NIGHTMARE (1981), and Abel Ferrara's FEAR CITY (1984) among others, were successful at this and there's an occasional TAXI DRIVER (1976) that didn't sugarcoat things, but if you want a really accurate look at 1970s and 1980s Times Square, Manhattan and the rundown areas of the surrounding boroughs in all their sleazy, decayed, and morally decrepit glory, no one captured this energy and imagery better than permitless Italian film crews.

In 1990, the Bronx is declared a no-man's-land (a crawl explains that all "attemps" at law and order have been abandoned) and is ruled by warring biker gangs who know to keep to their own turf.  The main gang is The Riders, led by Trash (Mark Gregory).  Complications ensue when rich teenager Anne (Stefania Girolami, Castellari's daughter), who can't stomach being the heiress to the powerful Manhattan Corporation, which handles 60% of the world's arms manufacturing, flees Manhattan and heads to the Bronx.  She's immediately attacked by a gang of hockey stick-wielding idiots known as The Zombies, but is rescued by Trash and welcomed into The Riders.  Meanwhile, Manhattan Corporation honcho Fisher (Enio Girolami, Castellari's brother) sends in renegade cop Hammer (Vic Morrow) to find Anne and bring her back home.  Hammer has other plans:  born in the Bronx and sporting a huge chip on his shoulder about it, the self-loathing Hammer detests his origins and wants the Bronx to burn, and instead of doing his job and rescuing Anne, decides to plant evidence that he hopes will start a war between The Riders and The Tigers, the other major gang led by The Ogre (Fred Williamson).  Hammer assumes that Trash and his old-school bikers and Ogre and his pimped-out henchmen will destroy each other and the Bronx in the process.  He even gets help from Ice (John Sinclair), Trash's duplicitous second-in-command who has his eyes set on leading The Riders and needs Trash out of the way, resenting the influence Anne has on him ("Since he's hooked up with that Manhattan pussy, all the blood's rushed to his cock").  Hammer, fueled by rage and hubris and assisted by untrustworthy trucker Hot Dog (Christopher Connelly), gets sloppy and it doesn't take long for the not-very-brightTrash to figure out that they're being played. He's forced to journey across dangerous territory and face other rival gangs (including one called The Scavengers, who inexplicably grunt and dress like prehistoric cavemen) to get to The Ogre and convince him to band together to take on the insane Hammer, who's bringing along an army of cops for the subtly-named "Operation Burnt Earth."

Hammer's curious hatred of his home turf is about as close to psychological drama as the script by Castellari, Dardano Sacchetti, and Elisa Livia Briganti gets.  The primary focus is on action and, thanks to the work of the dubbing crew, hilarious dialogue.  Whether it's the background chatter of The Riders ("Yeah!  Ya gotta fight to live!") or the colorful metaphors (thinking they're being set up by Hammer, Trash doesn't simply say something like "This is a bunch of crap!" but instead goes with "It could be a pile of shit outta somebody's asshole!"), something bizarre is uttered in seemingly every scene.  Even Connelly, dubbing himself, gets into the act, calling Ice "fagface" and Trash "pisshead" in odd insults that were improvised by the actor himself.  In his later Italian B-movie excursions, Connelly used similar strange terms, including "suckfish" in at least three different movies.  The silliness continues with a random riverside drum solo, and a complete disregard for NYC geography, with scenes in "the Bronx" obviously shot in Brooklyn (including one looking at the Brooklyn Bridge and the Twin Towers), and the exterior of The Ogre's "Bronx" headquarters actually being the abandoned insane asylum on Roosevelt Island between Manhattan and Queens.  But perhaps the film's biggest laugh comes from Sinclair badly wiping out on his bike in one shot and breaking several ribs...and Castellari leaving it in the movie.

Connelly and Williamson were no strangers to B-movies during this time and both would continue to work in the Italian exploitation scene, reuniting a few years later on 1987's Williamson-directed THE MESSENGER.  Always employed but with his BLACKBOARD JUNGLE and COMBAT days long behind him, Morrow failed to get much of a career bump from co-starring as the rival coach in the 1976 blockbuster THE BAD NEWS BEARS, and was mainly doing TV guest spots and drive-in flicks like 1979's THE EVICTORS and 1980's HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP.   He starred in the 1978 Japanese STAR WARS ripoff MESSAGE FROM SPACE and had already worked with Castellari on the Italian JAWS ripoff GREAT WHITE, released in the US in the spring of 1982 and quickly withdrawn from circulation.  He co-starred with a then-unknown Michelle Pfeiffer on the short-lived 1980 ABC cop show B.A.D. CATS, but it was cancelled after six episodes.  Estranged from his two daughters (including actress Jennifer Jason Leigh) from his first wife and in the midst of a divorce from his second, Morrow's professional and personal lives weren't at their pinnacle by the time he agreed to star in 1990: THE BRONX WARRIORS, and on the BRONX WARRIORS DVD commentary, Castellari tells a story of Morrow breaking down on the flight to Rome after seeing the warm father-daughter affection between the director and daughter Stefania, saying he wished he had that kind of relationship with his daughters.  According to Castellari, it was while Morrow was working on 1990: THE BRONX WARRIORS that he learned he got a major role in the John Landis segment of the big-budget, Steven Spielberg-produced TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE, and that he was due to begin work on it when he was finished working on the Castellari film.  Morrow's spirits picked up tremendously, and he told Castellari that he believed things were finally looking brighter for him and that he was going to try to repair the fractured relationship with his daughters.

Of course, everyone knows that Morrow never finished shooting TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE.  He and two children were killed in the early morning hours of July 23, 1982 when, amidst explosions and pyrotechnics, a hovering helicopter crashed on top of them, crushing one of the children, with the blade decapitating the other child and 53-year-old Morrow.  The actor had expressed concern over such a dangerous stunt while carrying two young children, but this was his most high-profile role in years and he wanted the scene to be perfect and didn't want to be seen as "difficult."  Morrow was dead just three months after GREAT WHITE appeared in US theaters, and with the Italian practice of not shooting with live sound and instead dubbing the dialogue later on, Morrow didn't live long enough to voice his performance in 1990: THE BRONX WARRIORS, so he was dubbed by veteran voice actor Ed Mannix, whose gruff tones can be heard in countless Italian exploitation films from that era.  Cut by six minutes (eliminating a couple bits of gore, the Hells Angels onscreen credit, and the appearance of a campy gang of tap-dancers, all restored on the 2004 Media Blasters DVD), 1990: THE BRONX WARRIORS was released in the US in April 1983 by United Film Distribution, nine months after Morrow's death, with TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE hitting theaters two months later, with Landis' segment with Morrow as a loudmouthed bigot who gets the tables turned on him included but slightly restructured and understandably feeling incomplete.  The film was a modest box office hit and had its moments (most notably, John Lithgow's performance in George Miller's segment), but the resulting lawsuits and settlements dragged on for years as the tragic and completely avoidable deaths of Morrow and the children has, to this day, left a dark cloud hovering over the entire project.

1990: THE BRONX WARRIORS also introduced the world to the enigmatic and elusive Mark Gregory.  Just 17 years old at the time of filming, young Marco di Gregorio was discovered working out at a Rome gym that Castellari frequented.  Rechristened "Mark Gregory," the novice actor's screen presence is, in a word, awkward.  His strange, halting posture and his pulled-too-high jeans are a sight to behold, and, well, there's no really delicate way to put this:  he's got a chick's ass.  This, and his apparent orientation (Williamson said in the DVD's accompanying interview, "Let's just say he didn't leave any footprints in the snow") weren't lost on the Hells Angels playing his fellow Riders, who, according to Castellari, openly razzed and insulted the actor, who didn't speak or understand much English.  Gregory seems to be phonetically mouthing English, and was dubbed by the very Noo Yawk-sounding Steven Luotto.  Gregory would eventually bulk up a bit more and gain some more confidence in his screen presence, never again looking quite as silly as he does here.  Following 1990: THE BRONX WARRIORS, Gregory reprised his role as Trash in Castellari's inferior sequel ESCAPE FROM THE BRONX.  Shot in 1983 and released in the US by New Line Cinema in 1985, ESCAPE is unremarkable except for Henry Silva's over-the-top, coffee-spitting performance as a psycho sent in by the Manhattan Corporation to once again exterminate Trash and the denizens of the Bronx.  ESCAPE FROM THE BRONX was skewered on MST3K under its alternate title ESCAPE 2000, which is not be confused with Brian Trenchard-Smith's ESCAPE 2000, aka TURKEY SHOOT.

Gregory also starred in the FIRST BLOOD knockoff THUNDER WARRIOR and its two sequels, and he appeared in several other Italian exploitation outings, such as 1983's ADAM AND EVE VS. CANNIBALS, aka BLUE PARADISE and 1987's DELTA FORCE COMMANDO (playing the villain opposite Williamson), and left the movie industry after 1989's AFGANISTAN: THE LAST WAR BUS, aka WAR BUS COMMANDO.  For years, rumors circulated that he was serving time in prison on a murder charge or that he was working in a Rome pizza joint, and even Castellari and his son appeared in a video on YouTube asking for information from anyone that knew Gregory's whereabouts.  A BRONX WARRIORS "Hunt for Trash" fan site found someone who claimed he knew a guy claiming to be Gregory, but the photos were unconvincing, to say the least, and the guy seemed entirely too young to be Gregory.  I even briefly--well, for a day or so--teamed with none other than Stefania Girolami herself to investigate a "Marco di Gregorio" on Facebook who looked very similar to Gregory.  She contacted him and he said he wasn't the guy, but even Girolami said the resemblance was pretty strong.  It's interesting to think that in this day and age, with fan conventions and all the technology and the social media and all the ways to internet-stalk someone, the obviously off-the-grid Mark Gregory has successfully transformed himself into the J.D. Salinger of Eurotrash cinema.

Where are you, Mark Gregory?  You have a huge fan base.  Tell us your story!

YouTube montage created by a Mark Gregory superfan

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