This edition of MZNJ’s Saturday Night Double Feature has an apocalyptic theme, with two of MZNJ’s all-time favorite apocalyptic features!…
ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981)
Escape From New York is one of my all-time favorite B movies and a bonafide film classic. I instantly fell in love with this film upon seeing it opening night at the legendary Oritani Theater in Hackensack, N.J. and John Carpenter solidified himself as one of my favorite directors.
An outrageously original idea has New York City in a war torn, crime filled, future turned into a maximum-security prison, and legendary director Carpenter makes it work by taking his subject matter just seriously enough to make the audience buy it. Add to that a colorful cast of characters, including one of the greatest, and sadly underused, film anti-heros of all time, Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), and you have the recipe for a B movie classic.
The story is simple, war hero turned outlaw, Snake Plissken has been captured and is about to be sentenced to life imprisonment in New York City Penitentiary. Fate intervenes and the President’s (Donald Pleasence) plane is hijacked on the way to a crucial peace summit and crashed inside the city. Former special forces soldier Plissken is the only man skilled enough to sneak in quietly and get him out alive, and Snake now has a chance at a full pardon for all his crimes if he takes the job. A vicious gang leader called The Duke Of New York (Isaac Hayes) has other ideas for both The President and Snake, who has less then 24 hours to complete his mission, or the world goes back to war and the micro explosives implanted in his neck to keep him compliant, will go off.
Director and co-writer (with Nick Castle) Carpenter creates some nice tension and suspense, and his visual eye is great at creating a gloomy hellhole out of the world’s greatest city. Dean Cundey’s cinematography is absolutely beautiful as it captures the world inside New York, which is very effectively portrayed on a small budget. Carpenter moves the film along well, although not as fast paced as today’s audience are used to, and there is plenty of action and chases to keep one entertained. Despite being released in 1981, this film may be the last film to have a real 70s feel to it before the Lethal Weapons and Die Hards changed action films forever. Another film that inspired many and was imitated many times and another great Carpenter film score to add to the atmosphere.
As for the cast… Kurt Russell does his best Clint Eastwood as Snake and it’s only natural then to pair him up with Eastwood co-star Lee Van Cleef as Police Commissioner, Bob Hauk. Rounding out the cast is Halloween vet Donald Pleasence as the President, Harry Dean Stanton as Brain, Carpenter’s then wife, Adrienne Barbeau as Maggie, Ernest Borgnine as Cabbie and legendary soul man Isaac Hayes as The Duke of New York. Not to forget, there is also genre favorite Tom Atkins as Hauk’s right-hand man, Rehme and frequent Carpenter collaborator Charles Cyphers as the Secretary of State. A simply classic B-movie sci-fi/action flick and one of my all-time favorites!
MONSTERZERO NJ EXTRA TRIVIA: The studio wanted Charles Bronson as Snake, but Carpenter fought for his choice of former Disney child actor, Russell and the rest is history. Also, the SPFX were done in part by a then unknown James Cameron, who went on to direct Terminator and Titanic. And despite its setting, most of the film was lensed in St. Louis and L.A. with only one-night actual shooting in NYC at the Statue of Liberty.
One of the greatest B-movies of all time!
Rated a classic 4 (out of 4) Snakes
THE ROAD WARRIOR aka MAD MAX 2 (1981)
Road Warrior is simply an action classic and one of my all-time favorite movies. It still holds up today even after over 40 years and is still better than most of the CGI filled action flicks that get churned out today. I was stunned upon leaving the theater after first seeing it at the Stanley Warner in Paramus, N.J. in 1981 and the film still has its magic when I watch it all these years later.
The film is set years after the events of 1979’s Mad Max and takes place after an apocalyptic collapse of society triggered by the drying up of fuel sources and the resulting panic. It follows ex-cop Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson), who we last saw avenging the murder of his wife and child against a savage biker gang, and now wanders the wasteland fighting to survive amidst the scavengers, a once loving family man transformed into a ruthless survivor who looks out only for himself. Max stumbles across a small desert community that is manufacturing fuel but is also battling a large gang of thugs who want to take the gas and slaughter all those inside. Max’s need for fuel leads him to align himself with the embattled village but is it something more that makes him risk his life as the villagers make a desperate attempt to escape the ‘vermin on machines’ and find a better place to start a new life.
The Road Warrior is simply a great movie. One of the greatest action films ever made, the film that turned Gibson into a star and launched dozens of cheap imitations and still inspires filmmakers today (I recommend Neil Marshall’s outrageously fun homage Doomsday). George Miller creates a world that is an apocalyptic Sergio Leone western in S & M gear and features some of the most furious action/chase scenes ever committed to film. He populates this world with a cast of eccentric characters from the bizarre and whimsical Gyro Captain (Bruce Spence) to the equally surreal gang leader Lord Humungus (Kjell Nilsson) and his mohawked henchman Wes (Vernon Wells). Beneath all the leather and carnage, the film also has a heart and a soul and that’s what sets it apart. Ultimately it is about clinging to and regaining one’s humanity in the face of adversity. Not only is Max rediscovering he has a heart underneath the bodies of all those he has killed and all that he has lost but civilization as well is struggling to regain what’s been lost against those who would take advantage of its ruin. Amidst the bone-crushing action and blood-spattering violence there is a message of hope and that is really what makes this film so special and gives it so much substance. Director Miller mixes in his message perfectly with the action, offsetting the brutality with a quirky sense of humor, so the bleak nature of the film never wears you down. A perfect blend of elements if there ever was one. Miller also gives the film a look that would make Leone and Kurosawa proud and Dean Selmer’s cinematography brings it to life along with Norma Moriceau’s inventive costume design and, of course, all the amazing stunt work and action choreography. Wrap that up in Brian May’s pulse pounding score and you have a cinematic experience that is just as effective today as it was over 40 years ago. Miller co-wrote the script with Terry Hayes and Brian Hannant and the film was produced by Miller’s friend and Mad Max producer Byron Kennedy, who would tragically be killed 2 years later in a helicopter crash.
The cast really are perfect, especially for bringing such colorful and strange characters to life. Gibson is both samurai and gunslinger as the iconic Max, portraying a man who is deadly, cunning but still has a heart buried deep down that enables him to become a hero when there are those in need. His actions may seem selfish at first, but the cop and family man are still in there needing a good reason to re-emerge. Bruce Spence is a delight as the goofy Gyro Captain, a bizarre individual who flies a gyro copter over the vicious inhabitants of the wasteland and survives by his wits and the help of his pet snakes. A truly endearing and memorable character. Nilsson and Wells create formidable villains becoming the signature template for all the bad guys in practically every post-apocalyptic action rip-off that arose after this became a sensation. They are both oddballs and nut jobs but very lethal characters with Wells’ Wes practically stealing the show as the loose cannon, psychotic henchman. We also have Michael Preston who is a noble leader as the in-over-his-head Pappagallo, a man who believes civilization is not lost and plans to start again. Young Emil Minty is a hoot as the Feral Child, a stray dog of a little boy who communicates in growls and is quite resourceful and scrappy in a fight, and Virginia Hey is noble and strong as the simply named Warrior Woman, who fights just as hard as any man. There are many other supporting players and they all do well in establishing personalities for their offbeat characters. An almost perfect cast for a film masterpiece.
What else can I say. This film is a masterpiece of action and storytelling and is one of the most influential films of its time. It is one of my all-time favorites and a film that is just as effective today as it was in 1981. It is a clear example that action movies can have a story and a soul and still deliver mind blowing sequences without a lick of CGI. Often imitated but never equaled. A classic in every sense of the word.
Rated 4 (out of 4) warriors of the wasteland!