Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Ripoffs of the Wasteland: 2019: AFTER THE FALL OF NEW YORK (1983)

(Italy/France - 1983; US release 1984)

Directed by Martin Dolman (Sergio Martino). Written by Julian Berry (Ernesto Gastaldi), Martin Dolman (Sergio Martino) and Gabriel Rossini. Cast: Michael Sopkiw, Valentine Monnier, George Eastman (Luigi Montefiori), Anna Kanakis, Roman Geer (Romano Puppo), Edmund Purdom, Vincent Scalondro, Louis Ecclesia, Serge Feuillard, Haruhiko Yamanouchi, Jacques Stany, Tiziana Fibi, Siriana Hernandez, James Sampson, Angelo Ragusa, Giovanni Cianfriglia. (R, 96 mins)

While THE ROAD WARRIOR provided the chief template for the early '80s Italian post-nuke cycle, the influence of John Carpenter's ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK weaved its way in from time to time. This was certainly the case with Sergio Martino's 2019: AFTER THE FALL OF NEW YORK, which may very well be the best that the Italian post-apocalypse subgenre had to offer, not counting Enzo G. Castellari's 1990: THE BRONX WARRIORS, which isn't really a post-nuke but is almost always cited as one. Released in Italy in the summer of 1983 and in the US by Almi in December 1984 minus the "2019" portion of the title, 2019 is a case study in making the most of budgetary limitations. Even a major cue in the "Oliver Onions" (Guido & Maurizio De Angelis) score is recycled from their soundtrack for Antonio Margheriti's YOR: THE HUNTER FROM THE FUTURE (1983). What Martino's film lacks in gonzo car stunts and the ability to recreate a convincing NYC (even Carpenter had to let a declining East St. Louis, IL stand in for the ruins of the Big Apple), it makes up in imagination, perseverance, and old-school special effects techniques. Sure, the matte paintings, the miniatures of a bombed-out, radioactive Manhattan, and what looks like a half-melted souvenir model of the Statue of Liberty that appear to be set up on a workbench in Martino's basement will probably evoke derisive snickering upon a first glance, but after the opening skyline shot, he makes their appearances sparse enough that they're eerily effective when you do get fleeing glimpses of them later on. Martino's got very little to work with from a visual effects standpoint and knows just how much of it to show to keep the film from collapsing in on itself.

In 1999, the evil Eurac Monarchy ("the powerful Euro-Afro-Asian unity") initiated a nuclear holocaust that left the world a radioactive wasteland. Most of America is a desert, with only torched shells of skyscrapers remaining in major cities. It's been 15 years since a human child was born, and the US government, now called the Pan-American Confederacy, based in northernmost Alaska, and run by a sickly President (Edmund Purdom), gets word that one fertile female remains in the ruins of NYC. He orders nomadic warrior and former Pan-Am soldier Parsifal (Michael Sopkiw) to venture in with the help of two mercenaries, eye-patched strongman Ratchet (Romano Puppo) and Bronx (Vincent Scalondro), find the woman, and in exchange, they get three seats on the next shuttle to Alpha Centauri, where the Pan-American Confederacy is looking to rebuild itself beyond the boundaries of Earth.

If Parsifal reminds you of Kurt Russell's Snake Plissken and the President's offer vaguely recalls one presented to Plissken by Lee Van Cleef's Hauk, then you picked up on the not-very-subtle borrowing of elements from ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK. Parsifal, Ratchet, and Bronx eventually encounter a group of survivors, where they pick up Giada (Valentine Monnier) and dwarf Shorty (Louis Ecclesia) while being pursued by coldly ambitious Eurac soldier Ania (Anna Kanakis). Bronx takes an early exit in the form of a bullet to the head but not before he gouges out the eyes of the nefarious Eurac commander (Serge Feuillard). Eventually, the motley crew cross paths with a band of mutants led by the hirsute Big Ape (George Eastman)--or, as he was known in ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, "The Duke" (you can also conclude that Shorty is this film's "Cabbie")--who ends up tagging along just because he wants to be the one to plant his seed in the fertile woman, Melissa (Tiziana Fibi), when they find her.

The more "Michael Sopkiw is almost
Kurt Russell" poster design.
2019 is consistently engrossing but really takes off with a wild climax that has its ragtag group of heroes and a hibernating Melissa packed into a steel-reinforced station wagon and driving through mined, obstacle course tunnels under NYC, during which Big Ape hurls his sword and decapitates about ten Eurac soldiers at once in one of the finest moments in all of Italian post-nuke. Again, Martino doesn't have the luxury of shooting a big action sequence in NYC, so he circumvents that hassle by taking the ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK 69th Street Bridge sequence underground in the same tunnel sets used in virtually all of the Italian post-nukes. Martino does have a couple of scenes early on that were shot in Arizona, prior to Parsifal being taken to Alaska (which looks almost exactly like the futuristic Mount Olympus set in Luigi Cozzi's HERCULES), but virtually the entire film was shot at De Paolis Studios in Rome. Martino (using his occasional "Martin Dolman" pseudonym) co-wrote the script with veteran screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi (credited as "Julian Berry") and Gabriel Rossini, and they spend a bit more time on characterization than you usually see in ripoffs of this sort. Much like the team of oddballs helping Plissken on his mission, the crew surrounding Parsifal exhibit much in the way of character and personality, even when their actions (why would they leave Giada and Melissa alone with Big Ape?) don't make much sense. The writers don't play favorites with who lives or who dies and there's a genuine unpredictability and ambition to the way the plot builds and unfolds. It's been brought up online before (by Video Junkie's William Wilson and EUROCRIME co-producer Michael Martinez to name two) but it's worth repeating again: there's some interesting coincidences between 2019 and if not P.D. James' 1992 novel Children of Men, then at least Alfonso Cuaron's loosely adapted 2006 film version.  Both are set in a dystopian, barren future where one fertile woman has been found (in James' novel, the men are infertile); both have a lone wolf hero being charged with finding her and getting her to where she needs to go to keep the human race from dying out; and both have upper-class characters (Feuillard's commander in 2019 and Danny Huston's Nigel in CHILDREN OF MEN) with Picasso's Guernica displayed on their wall. It's entirely possible that both Martino & Gastaldi and Cuaron came up with the notion of using Guernica, since it's regarded as a symbol of humanity's suffering in war. Just like it's entirely possible that Cuaron or one of CHILDREN OF MEN's four other screenwriters caught AFTER THE FALL OF NEW YORK on VHS or during one of its late-night cable airings in the '80s and it stuck with them enough to work it into another, much more higher-profile movie with a similar central conceit, albeit with different circumstances and metaphors.

Greatest credit ever?

2019: AFTER THE FALL OF NEW YORK marked the debut of Sopkiw, an American model whose acting career lasted three years and four films. Born in Connecticut in 1954, Sopkiw was a wandering sort in his youth, with stints in merchant sailing and the maritime shipping industry, during which time he served a year in prison for transporting marijuana. He briefly studied acting in NYC and fell into modeling in Europe, which got him the 2019 gig (he's still dubbed by someone else--this was one of the few Italian genre films of the era not handled by the usual crew of American and British dubbers working in Rome, but by SPEED RACER voice actor Peter Fernandez's crew in NYC). In 1984, Sopkiw made two films with director Lamberto Bava: the entertaining DELIVERANCE/FIRST BLOOD hybrid BLASTFIGHTER, which reteamed him with Eastman, and the future MST3K-favorite DEVIL FISH, which again paired him with Monnier. In 1985, he starred in Michele Massimo Tarantini's MASSACRE IN DINOSAUR VALLEY, a belated entry in the post-CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST gut-muncher craze, and that was it. Sopkiw went back into modeling in NYC before pursuing his interest in medicinal plant science, and went on to run the Los Angeles-based American importing office of the Dutch glass company Miron Violettglas. As 2019's cult grew over the years, so did the interest in the elusive Sopkiw, who emerged from obscurity to be more or less a bystander on a controversial, kamikaze commentary by a "post-nuke expert" on Shriek Show's 2003 DVD release of the film. The DVD was quickly withdrawn and re-released without the commentary, which found the moderator in question more or less using the opportunity to take cheap shots and settle scores with various figures and discussion forums in Eurocult's online community. The DVD's anamorphic transfer holds up well, but with the re-released version out of print for several years now, the film is long overdue for a Blu-ray upgrade. In recent years, Sopkiw has maintained a low profile but periodically appears at fan conventions, usually when there's a panel on '80s Italian cult movies.

The veteran journeyman Martino's only direct contribution to the Italian post-nuke movement (though you could argue that 1986's HANDS OF STEEL, with its arm-wrestling cyborg hero and John Saxon hoisting an over-the-shoulder laser bazooka, belongs under the umbrella as well), 2019: AFTER THE FALL OF NEW YORK featured several Eurocult mainstays in its cast, such as Eastman, Puppo (billed as "Roman Geer"), Purdom, Jacques Stany as a Eurac flunky, and Hal Yamanouchi in a small role as the leader of a band of radiated mutant goons who gets his head split open in a memorable shot. The other noteworthy cast member was 20-year-old Kanakis as the ambitious Ania. Kanakis made headlines five years earlier when she was named Miss Italy 1977 only to be disqualified from the eventual Miss World competition when the organization discovered that she was only 15 years old. She claimed that the Miss Italy people never told her that the minimum age requirement was 17 (1977's Miss Malta, also 15, was given the boot as well), but she soon ended up with an acting career, with 2019 her second post-nuke in quick succession, following Enzo G. Castellari's THE NEW BARBARIANS (1983), released in the US in early 1984 as WARRIORS OF THE WASTELAND. Kanakis, who was married to Goblin leader Claudio Simonetti from 1981-1984, remained sporadically busy over the next 20 years, primarily on Italian television. Her last acting appearance to date was a starring role in the 2007 Italian TV mini-series LA TERZA VERITA.

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