Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Post-Apocalyptic Barbarians

In the bleakest possible future, mankind survives. Everything else is reduced to rubble, but mankind survives to fight against each other. Civilizations will crumble and everyone will resort to primitive violence to survive. Gangs will roam the Earth, ruling with an iron fist. You wouldn't want to live in that kind of a world, but fortunately that makes a somewhat interesting movie scenario. Cheap, too, as filmmakers don't need sets, just a desert or a gravel mount to shoot the picture. Indeed, since this subgenre's hayday was in the 80's, more money was used on hair styles to create authentic-looking punk rock mohawks.

Violent gang members, or Billy Idol concert goers circa 1982?
The other main player in these sort of films are the run-down cars, which have tin foil weapons mounted on them. When these two areas are in condition, one only needs to steal a generic western plot and we're good to go.

"Step right up to see the real Moon Mobile"
Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (Australia/USA 1981)
Director: George Miller

Several genre pictures from the late 70's and early 80's were so influential as to create a whole sub genre just to copy them. Miller's postapocalyptic western Mad Max, and especially its more well-known sequel are definitely among this very select group. But the fact of the matter is, this is not merely because Miller caught the zeitgeist, he was also ingenious enough to use several very worn-out parts to create something new (like the film's cars). Actually, this film's predecessor is a bit boring police/vigilantism flick, so I almost prefer to call this The Road Warrior as it was released in the United States. I would prefer that Mel Gibson's Max is a sort of Man With No Name -type of character, coming from nowhere and just manipulating the situation where he can find it for his own means, rather than a man who's lost everything who gets a chance to redeem his violent vagrant ways. So let's ignore the first film of the trilogy then.

So in Mad Max's post-Apocalyptic wasteland, fuel is more precious than gold (yet motorized vehicles are the only thing keeping the survivors moving in the scorching desert). Driving by, Max finds a "gyrocopter" in the desert, which is actually a trap devised by The Gyro Captain (Bruce Spence) to steal the gasoline from any curious passer-by. But Max's dog stops the scheme. To save his life, Gyro promises to show Max where there's plenty of more fuel. He leads him to a fortified oil refinery. As it happens, the refinery's occupants are under attack from a gang led by Lord Humungus (Kjell Nilson), The Ayatollah of Rock And Rollah. Among Humungus's gang there's also Max's old enemy Wez (Vernon Wells). The gang withdraws, but promises to strike back with all their force if the villagers don't surrender. The villagers then choose to turn to Max to device a plan to get them and their precious gas to safety.

Humungus DOES resemble Bane quite a bit. Also a more down-to-earth Darth Vader. And Jason.

Miller is an excellent action director and most of the film's cult reputation comes from its superb car chase scenes. They get bigger and bigger as the film goes along, with plenty of explosions and memorable stunts to go along with it. Miller also has a good dark sense of humor, and thus gives unexpected laughs from scenes such as man getting his fingers severed by trying to catch a metal boomerang. The characterizations are iconic as well, and some sort of variations of the movie's colorful cast of characters pop all the time in Italian rip offs.


Warriors of the Wasteland a.k.a. The New Barbarians (I nuovi barbari, Italy/USA, 1983)
Director: Enzo G. Castellari

Of course, the Italians weren't far behind to ride on the fad. Genre maestro Castellari had the bright idea to save money by shooting the whole film in a gravel pit, which looks about as postapocalyptic as you can guess. What there was of the budget was used to hire the blaxploitation star Fred Williamson to a minor part. The rest of the film was performed by amateurs or Italians or amateur Italians. 

This one goes one step further in western thematics by stealing the plot straight from A Fistful of Dollars, which, like any cinemahead worth his salt would tell you, stole it's plot from Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo. It's really kind of amazing of how many different variations one can make from the plot consisting of "A stranger plays two violent gangs against each other for personal profit". I know there's at least a gangster and a space version out there as well.

No, this still is still from the postapocalyptic one. This is the film's hero.
The Templars are evil, white-clad barbarians, driving out to the wasteland only for looting and polluting. A wandering desperado called Scorpion (Giancarlo Prete) runs into them, and barely survives with his life. He seeks refuge at the hands of the other striving gang, which tend to his wounds. Scorpion falls for the beautiful Alma (Anna Kanakis), and starts to plan on how to rid of the world of the Templars and their religious fanatics once and for all. But his plan happens to be the kind, that makes one question Scorpion's sexuality and think that he was just using Alma as a beard to get to dress in see-through plastic and ram burly, bearded guys from behind. With his car, of course.

The film is based on a number of bad ideas from ridiculous fashion sense, to ludicrous amounts of homoeroticism, to a super-annoying presence of a 8-year-old mechanic boy, who kills grown barbarians with his slingshot. While Williamson's character is one tough motherfucker, shooting explosive arrows and wooing the ladies, he's in the film far too shortly. The worst thing (or best, if you are hungry your camp humor) is that while the film is violent enough, the toy cars, the nonexistent sets and the badly directed car chases mean there's not really any excitement in this whatsoever.

Even the villains are bored.
It's not even clear just to whom was Castellari aiming this thing for. Perhaps he wanted to make a fashion statement about the overuse of synthetic material in clothing, and emphasized it by making everyone's wardrobe straight from plastic. That still doesn't explain the film's odd sexual stance and at the very least the very suspectful choice Scorpion makes for his life partner at the very end of the film.

★ or ★★★★★

2019 – After The Fall of New York (2019 – Dopo la caduta di New York, Italy/France 1983)
Director: Sergio Martino

The Road Warrior wasn't the only film Italian schlock-makers were drawing from when creating their masterpieces to fill out rising VHS markets. Other important models for success were the more urban flicks like Escape From New York (1981) and The Warriors (1979). These films drew a lot of the rising insecurity and turmoil at New York's streets at the time, and brought them to the conclusion that violent gangs would take over the town altogether. Martino's film isn't even close of being as subtle about this. It's a sort of a child's idea that that's how New York actually is, and essentially the film's story is partly a yarn about knights (the main character is named Parsifal) or cowboys (numerous references to the western Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid). But what Italians knew better than genre film makers from various other countries was to also be influenced by the long comic book / pulp novel tradition of the country, which makes Martino's film a much more colorful postapocalyptic story than, say, Castellari's gravel pit neo-western.

This could easily be a Nintendo game cartridge. Or a comic book cover.
After a nuclear holocaust, the survivors in America have all lost their fertility. There is, however, one last fertile woman hidden deep within New York City, which the hero is chosen to escort out from the violent battle zone (sound familiar to any Children of Men fans?). Things are complicated by the fact that most New Yorkers have mutated into hostile, bloodthirsty monsters. Parsifal (Michael Sopkiw) is a notably good Death Race driver, resourceful, skillful and ruthless, which is why he's chosen for the mission by the Pan-American Federation. The Federation must also fight against the evil Euracs, European-Asian-African invaders who want to reach fertility by cruel scientific tests and wiping out all mutant kind they can reach. Thus, most of NYC's inhabitants live underground in the sewer systems and such.

The film's look defies expectations in that it actually has several quite striking sets and even miniature shots. The film's multiple gangs are well-wardrobed and look striking. The only gravel-pit scene is in the very beginning, after which most of the film seems to be shot at studio sets. Maybe they auctioned some old sci-fi sets off, and redecorated them to look brand new for the film? Perhaps all the money they saved for not featuring any Hollywood actors was used to enhance the visual sense? In any case, Martino manages to make the production look far bigger than it is. Pity he doesn't have the skills to be a director of epic proportions. The whole film is shot, and staged to be shown on video, rather than on a big screen, which is a shame.

The ruling class, pictured.
As you probably noticed, the film is packed to the rafters with content. It's goofy story extends back and fort with plenty of minute details, which doesn't make much sense anyway. But sometimes the kind of approach where crazy amounts of stuff is cannoned to the wall to see what sticks, works. There's not a single boring moment throughout this oddball cheesefest, and the plot manages to take few very surprising turns. At the core there's still a very similar rescue mission to John Carpenter's Escape, and Parsifal is a dead ringer to Snake Plissken. Like Plissken, he manages to collect a colorful team of riff-raff to help him through the city. In a way, he thusly also manages to unite the feuding races, mutants and gang members alike. So, we have a robot, a claw-hand, a midget, an ape-man and a rat-eating blonde. One of whom is a traitor. If this film wasn't as confusing at times, and as shameless theft of more well-done films, then, folks, we could've found what would have been the next Star Wars. Come to think of it, this kind of films should be just as popular.

★★★ 1/2

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