“Films such as The Bronx Warriors were the last gasp of our industry trying to survive.”
(Venerable Italian exploitation scribe Dardano Sacchetti… quoted above in a recent interview with Calum Waddell).
Bertrand Russell once made the ominous observation that “if the Third World War is fought with nuclear weapons, the Fourth will be fought with bows and arrows”. If he’d lived long enough to witness the early ‘80s cycle of Italian post-apocalypse movies, he would no doubt have extended his estimate of WWIV’s armoury to include dune buggies with drill attachments (as in The New Barbarians), talking motorbikes (Warrior Of The Lost World), and pterodactyl hang-gliders (Yor). Yep, those ever-resourceful spaghetti exploitation mavens figured that once they’d adopted the patently nonsensical basic premise of anyone actually surviving global thermo-nuclear war (admittedly, their movies would be somewhat lacking in “human interest” if nobody had!), they might as well be nuked for sheep as lambs and throw logic completely out of the window. Thus their post-apocalyptic landscapes are peopled by roving bands of gay, book-burning nihilists (The New Barbarians)… Hari-Krishna survivalists battling hordes of rampaging rodents (Rats – Night Of Terror)… self-propagating Popeye clones (She)… and any amount of other, equally wacky nonsense that not even Nostradamus could have predicted!
Prior to the 80’s, Hollywood had produced plenty of atom-angst movies: firstly, scores of cash-in SF monster-mash quickies such as Them! (1954), The Amazing Colossal Man (1957) and in the same year, at the other end of the mutation scale, Jack Arnold’s superior The Incredible Shrinking Man; later, more sophisticated dramas like On The Beach (1959), Fail Safe (1964) and of course Kubrick’s scorchingly satirical Dr Strangelove (also 1964). Unusually for an Italian film-cycle though, the Italian post-nukes series was not rooted directly in any American cinematic antecedents, rather in real geopolitical events that were taking place on the ground in Europe. Viewed from the perspective of today’s post-Cold War “New World Order” it all seems like a bad dream now, but back then NATO’s doctrine of “flexible response” against the supposed Warsaw Pact threat allowed for the fighting of “a limited nuclear war” in our continent and when the cruise missiles were installed at Greenham Common and elsewhere, many Europeans genuinely feared that Armageddon was just around the corner.
Under such pressures, a recently launched Italian sub-genre of societal breakdown mutated into the post-apocalypse genre proper. That fledgling subgenre, best represented by Enzo G. Castellari (aka Enzo Girolami)’s Bronx Warriors (1982), did have definite, easily discernible roots in Hollywood antecedents. Written by Castellari with prolific husband and wife scripting duo Dardano Sacchetti and Elisa Livia Briganti, Bronx Warriors is an inventive, hyperactive fusion of elements from John Carpenter’s Escape From New York (1981) and Walter Hill’s The Warriors (1979), with a dash of Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange (1971) and a touch of Norman Jewison’s Rollerball (1975) thrown in for good measure. Castellari’s film also adopts Carpenter’s penchant for daftly-named characters, with Trash (“Mark Gregory” / Marco De Gregorio), The Ogre (Fred Williamson), Golem (“George Eastman” / Luigi Montefiori) and Hot Dog (Christopher Connelly) and their respective gangs battling for turf in a Bronx that has previously been abandoned by civil society, whose representatives (in the person of Vic Morrow’s “Hammer”) have now chosen to claim it back via a programme of gentrificational genocide.
Bronx Warriors was such a hit in the U.S. market that a sequel (Escape From The Bronx aka Bronx Bronx Warriors 2: The Battle For Manhattan, 1983) was duly made, running on similar lines but with Henry Silva understandably substituting for Vic Morrow (decapitated in the Twilight Zone debacle) as Trash’s megalomaniacal opponent. The intruiging cast for this one featured, as well as Castellari’s omnipresent brother Enio Girolami (“Thomas Moore”) and one of Castellari’s own cameos, an appearance by Italian hard-core queen Moana Pozzi, who died of cancer shortly afterwards.
If his Bronx Warriors films primed the detonator, then it was Castellari’s The New Barbarians (also 1982) which ignited the mushroom cloud and shaped the fall-out of subsequent “post-nukes” efforts. Ironically so, because as Castellari himself readily admits: “It’s a joke… those silly futuristic cars… it’s a bad movie, very bad… a really poor effort!” His verdict is vindicated as early as the title sequence, where the impact of a nuclear explosion (once memorably – not to mention pants-shittingly – described as being like “a huge furnace door slamming shut in the bowels of Hell”) is rendered by what looks suspiciously like a child’s sparkler being waved over a leggo model of New York City. The balance of the picture comprises a succession of luke-warm retreads of moments from George Miller’s 1981 milestone Mad Max 2 aka The Road Warrior (whose influence over subsequent films has continued, e.g. in Kevin Costner’s bloated Waterworld, 1995) and an increasingly spaghetti western-esque ambience. “Timothy Brent” (Giancarlo Prete, a stalwart of Castellari’s own spagwests) is the hero with no name (or probably wishes he was, his character having been dubbed “Scorpio”), sore-assed and out to settle a score with Luigi Montefiori’s Templars, an avowedly and aggressively homosexual cult who like to, er, widen the circle of their friends (and indeed enemies) when they’re not torturing holocaust survivors and burning books (on the grounds that: “It was damn books that caused the Apocalypse!”) Unless you’re in the right frame of mind to watch total crap (I must confess, I frequently am), the sole saving grace of this movie is Claudio Simonetti’s driving, percussive score.
Having successfully ripped off Escape From New York, Mad Max 2 and so on, Castellari proceeded to churn out countless other characteristically energetic, imitative (and generally lucrative) cash-ins on Hollywood hits, leaving the post-nukes wasteland open to his pasta exploitation peers. Sure enough, the likes of Lucio Fulci, Ruggero Deodato, Sergio Martino and Antonio Margheriti would all now throw their hats into the radioactive ring.
Margheriti’s entry, Yor (a 1984, Italo-Turkish co-production boiled down from a TV series) is an ultra-trashy reworking of the central premise to Roger Corman’s 1958 effort Teenage Caveman (in which adolescent Australopithecus Robert Vaughan ultimately discovers that the Flintstone-like world he inhabits is the result of an earlier generation’s nuclear war), as is rather given away by the sub-title sometimes appended to it: Hunter From The Future. But how did nukes revive the pterodactyl which muscle-brained Reb Brown (to the accompaniment of his truly brain-frying hard-rock theme song) uses as a hang-glider… Margheriti must have recently screened a Rodan movie! It’s little short of astonishing that this jumbled Jurassic lark is just about the most commercially successful item on Margheriti’s lengthy, variable but oft-prestigious CV, and I remember him having a hearty belly-laugh on this score when I raised the subject with him during the mid-90s.
Underlining the continuity between Italian apocalypsoes and the Peplum genre, Yor’s cast features an alumnus of the sword and sandal school, ever-scowling Gordon Mitchell, who’s also in Tonino Ricci’s Rush, Joe D’Amato’s Endgame and Avi Nesher’s She. The latter (begun in 1983 as a [relatively] straight H. Rider-Haggard adaptation, stalled and only appearing in 1985, having been rejigged to include radioactive mutants in the interim) is every bit as bizarre but nowhere near as entertaining as the Margheriti flick. The above-mentioned regenerating Popeye clones are the only thing that stick in my memory from this fiasco (whose soundtrack contributors include Rick Wakeman, Justin Hayward, Motorhead, and a band rejoicing in the name of “Bastard”!), but if you think I’m in any hurry to watch it again, you’ve got another think coming, buster!
Warrior Of The Lost World, an 1983 Italian-American co-production written and directed by David Worth (=?) is a similarly gimmicky vehicle, which tosses a talking motor-bike into its derivative mix of plot-points. No David Hasselhoff, thank fuck, but the film’s surprisingly starry cast of exploitation mainstays does include Donald Pleasance, Fred “The Hammer” Williamson, Robert Ginty and Persis Khambatta.
Sergio Martino (as “Martin Dolman) filled his 2019: After The Fall Of New York with knowing Wagnerian references (e.g. the mandatory silly character names include “Parsifal”) for those members of his audience who were culturally astute enough to pick them up. Those who weren’t could content themselves with enjoying the schlocky action, as hunky Michael Sopkiw searches for the world’s last fertile woman, whom the good guys want to whisk off to another, unspoiled planet, which they plan to populate with a new human race. Although Martino is inarguably an intelligent director, such arch touches can’t really disguise the basic formulaic nature of the proceedings here, though there is one amusing final gag (similar to the conclusion of Bob Fuest’s The Final Programme), as it’s revealed that Sleeping Beauty has been impregnated by “The Big Ape” a love-struck simian mutant played by “George Eastman” / Luigi Montefiori (just think of the make-up costs they saved by casting him in this role!)
Another veteran spaghetti exploiter, Ruggero Deodato (posing as “Roger Franklin”) made a tangential entry into the post-Apocalypse stakes with Atlantis Interceptors (1983), in which various unspecified eco-unfriendly activities by the human race predictably lead to the lost continent of Atlantis popping up on the Florida coast-line, and its rampaging inhabitants (led by Ivan Rassimov) driving around the state in a souped-up battle-truck, terrorising terrans. Christopher Connelly, spagwest veteran George Hilton, superspade Tony King, gorgeous Gioia Maria Scola (whose subsequent off screen antics proved most colourful) and one “Michael Soavi” become urban guerrillas to dispatch the invaders’ asses back to Davey Jones’s locker in this amusing effort.
Lucio Fulci’s Rome 2033: Fighter Centurions (1983, aka Ben Hur Vs Spartacus in The States, as if to emphasise once again those Peplum connections) is another marginal effort, a portrayal of a dystopian future with no actual mention of there having been a nuclear holocaust. In this one the corrupt ruling classes keep the masses happy with bread and circuses, the latter comprising gladiatorial motorbike competitions in which Jared Martin (a poor man’s David Warbeck, who later starred in Dallas) excels. The film is an investigation of the ethics of presenting violence as mass entertainment, a theme Fulci would expand on, to quite astonishing effect, in his later Nightmare Concert / A Cat In The Brain (1990). Admittedly Fighter Centurions owes a certain amount to Rollerball, but it was itself extensively ripped off by Paul Michael Glaser’s nominal Stephen King adaptation, The Running Man (1987), as was Joe D’Amato’s Endgame (1983).
Incredible as it may seem, given his track-record (and D’Amato had during the previous year turned in a mediocre “post-nukes” outing, 2020: Freedom Fighters aka 2020: Texas Gladiators, after his protégé Luigi Montefiori abdicated the reins on what was supposed to be his directorial debut), D’Amato’s Endgame is one of the best pictures to emerge from this cycle, adding surprisingly subtle touches (such as Laura Gemser – giving one of the best performances in her career – as one of a mutant race of telepaths who must refrain from violence because they would participate psychically in the pain of their victims) to the bare bones of its “Luigi Monefiori vs Al Cliver (aka Pier Luigi Conti) in televised grudge match” storyline.
Less impressive efforts include Exterminators Of The Year 3000 (1983), an Italo-Spanish production directed by “Jules Harrison” (Giuliano Carnimeo) and a brace by “Anthony Richmond” (Tonino Ricci), Rush The Assassin (1983) and its semi-sequel Rage (1984, aka Rush 2). The first picture stars “Conrad Nichols” (Luigi Mezzabotte) as Rush, resistance leader of a bunch of post-nuke proles forced to labour in sterile plastic greenhouses because all the vegetation outside has supposedly been destroyed by radiation. Less astute critics complained that “the entire last third of the film takes place in an Italian forest”, but they’ve missed the whole goddamn point (one pinched from Philip K. Dick’s novel The Penultimate Truth), namely that the whole dying eco-system story was a scam, perpetrated to keep the toiling masses – quite literally – in their place. Rage contains one of Allan Bryce’s all-time favourite lines of dialogue, i.e. “It won’t be easy, building up a new world… but there’s no harm in trying!”
Nice to close on an unintentionally hilarious one-liner, but if you want the end of your world served up with some giggles instead of a bang, you’ll find the motherlode in Bruno Mattei’s totally ludicrous Rats – Night Of Terror (1984). Mattei, who would give the world a pedantically eco-conscious undead D.J. in Zombi 3 (1988), and had already turned his Zombie Creeping Flesh (1981) into a doomsday scenario featuring the first (and hopefully last) zombie rat in screen history, here depicts mankind’s last stand against hordes of radioactively mutated (and totally unscary) rodents. Although you can see it coming a country mile away, this picture’s hilarious “twist” ending is (like the rest of the film) so ineptly rendered as to be worth its weight in fool’s gold.
The genre Enzo Castellari had inaugurated with The New Barbarians petered out in the likes of Urban Warriors (1987, directed by “Joseph Warren” / Giuseppe Vari and scripted by superannuated spaghetti hack Pietro Regnoli) and The Final Executioner (1984) and Bronx Executioners (1989), a brace directed (appropriately enough) by Enzo’s uncle Romolo Girolami, under the guises “Romolo Guerrieri” and “Bob Collins” respectively. The former is actually rather good, and certainly the clearest statement yet of the affinities between this sub-genre and the spaghetti western: William Mang restores order to a town where survivalist yuppies have been preying on the dregs of radiation-scarred humanity, with spagwest icon Woody Strode along for the ride. Strode also stars in Bronx Executioners (alongside Zombie Creeping Flesh victim Margit Evelyn Newton).
These efforts were nothing more than stragglers, a belated coda to a genre whose commercial half-life had long expired in the trend-conscious Italian industry. Indeed, internationally post-apocalypse offerings tailed off dramatically in the run up to the fall of Communism, Steve De Jarnatt’s splendid Miracle Mile (1988) effectively burying the sub-genre. You can’t keep a good bomb down though, and a slew of subsequent offerings such as True Lies (1994), the Under Siege movies (1992-95) and The Sum Of All Fears (2002) have had audiences reaching for their brown trousers again as they contemplate the dreadful prospect of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of rogue regimes, terrorists or millennial religious loonies… which wouldn’t necessarily be the end of the world, but could still mean several hundred thousand people suffering a real crimp in their day!