Enzo G. Castellari’s, 1990: The Bronx Warriors was released in 1982, a year after John Carpenter’s, Escape from New York, and the two films bear more than a passing resemblance. Indeed a number of major Hollywood films released on the cusp of the 80’s (Fort Apache the Bronx and Blade Runner amongst the most notable) return to cinema’s enduring fascination, and horror, of the city. In these films the city is often divided, hostile and under siege, its inhabitants beyond the rule of law.
If, in retrospect, this seems to correlate to a high watermark of inner city blight then it is surely no coincidence. Slum clearances were underway and future urban renewal would come at the price of zero tolerance. It is interesting to note that in many of these films the drama of civilisational collapse (and its post-apocalyptic corollariesi) where often played out as fantasy, with the corporate forces of control and authority always the melodramatic villain, a cinematic fantasy acting as an inverted mirror of socio-economic forces.
Speaking later of permissions to close the streets, Castellari said, “We did not need the permission because the local people of the Bronx help us out during the filming. The Police was present and fully armed. They stayed all day in police cars. They came out only to get the lunch boxes”ii.
Castellari’s vision is perhaps more opportunistic than dystopian, a triumph of production design over sanity. The Bronx Warriors was shot between Rome and New York and the consequent fizz of Cinecitta production values and American eschatology was aiming for, and achieved, box office gold. Nonetheless, the vistas of public housing torn down on the scale of war that serve as a setting for the film sometimes look like a Wagnerian backdrop to an amateur restaging of West Side Story.
Billed as a “A Heavy Metal Journey Into An Urban Hell Where Everything Was Done Wrong!” Castelleri’s film seemed to push all the right buttons, reframing urban anxiety (and class warfare) as a princess in distress fairy story. The following year it spawned a sequel (Escape From The Bronx) and it remained at the top of the American Billboard charts for 6 weeks. In 1983 it was amongst the highest grossing movies of the year. 1 Later, in the weird magnetic half-life of VHS, it was to again become a hit.
Castellari himself plays the vice-president of an arms manufacturing giant bent on retrieving its runaway heiress, played by his daughter Stefania Girolami Goodwin. On the wrong side of town, she falls into the willing arms of Trash, the leader of The Riders, a bike gang. Romance and Kung Fu ensues as Trash must save her from a progressively more ridiculous series of gangs as well as the psychotic Hammer (Vic Morrow in his last performance), who Daddy has sent to track down his little girl.
The lead is given to Mark Gregory, a shy 17 year old side of beef that the director found in a gym. Preternaturally tall, with a comic book physique and a Tom of Finland wardrobe, it was perhaps no surprise that Gregory was heckled by the Hell’s Angels Castellari had recruited as extras. This was to be his one and only movieiii.
More happily, Massimo Lentini’s exuberant costumes also give us Fred Williamson in pimptastic purple satin as the king of this underworld, not to mention The Zombies, a roller-hockey snatch squad in lurex, as well as a terrifying gang of Droogs who apparently practice the ancient and deadly marshal art of jazzercise, when not painting butterflies on their faces.
If the picture looks backwards to the blaxploitation movies of the 70’s for its visual cues it also makes reference to more “realist” fare like Walter Hill’s Warriors (1979) as well as to the high gothic kitsch of Kubrick’s, Clockwork Orange. The fantasy motifs of Trash’s quest are reinforced by frequent inexplicable sword fights in leopard skin and spandex and the film is funkily scored by Walter Rizzati.
For all that it might occasionally seem no more than a grab bag of cinematic cliché all dressed up and nowhere particular to go except to collect the box office receipts, The Bronx Warriors is not without its surprises. The lone drummer that summons the gangs to meet at the river’s edge is a wonderful moment of Godard trouvé, the director apparently claiming that no one new who the kid was, he just turned up and they kept the camera rollingiv.
Williamson, a frequent collaborator of Castellari’s who had also worked on the director’s Inglorious Bastards (1978), here steels the show with his Richard Roundtree impersonation, the roguish charm cranked up way past 11. Morrow, who had also worked on Castellari’s The Last Shark (1981), a Jaws clone, is suitably implacable as the psycho cop turned executioner charged with the heroine’s recapture. Joshua Sinclair, the film’s co-writer, who the year previously had worked on Lilli Marlene for Fassbinder, also takes a none too shabby turn as Ice, the treacherous henchman.
Ultimately The Bronx Warriors’ only plausible character is the city itself. A ruined labyrinth revealed with a helicopter shot and described in the tagline for the film as having been, “officially declared No Man's Land.v” The city, broken and divided against itself, forms a stoic and monumental setting for the absurd and garish pantomime of territory and desire being acted out in its streets.
Ray Mortenson’s photographs of the South Bronx in the 1980’s at the NYT
iSee for example, Mad Max as Myth: The Savior as Salvager
ii Enzo G. Castellari, October 2003
iii IMDB offers an alternative account, “Once a worker at a local shoe store, he actually beat out two thousand other contestants for the role of Trash when his fiancée pranked him by sending his photo to Fluvia Film” (a story later disavowed by Castellari )
After a long international career exhibiting video installation and photography, David Selden renounced the art world in favor of the far less superficial drag scene and became intimately involved with a number of notorious London fetish clubs. ‘Retiring’ to Berlin in 2007 having run out of pseudonyms, he has written about music for Dorfdisco and about art for Whitehot Magazine as well as contributing numerous catalogue essays and translations for a variety of publications and websites. His misadventures in the world of anti-music can be endured at affeprotokoll.tumblr.com