Escape From New York is one of the greatest genre films ever made. It’s lean, it’s mean, and it has an absurd premise and setting that’s just begging for exploration. It’s a bona-fide John Carpenter classic. And much like Halloween before it, it inspired quite a few knockoffs. From Sergio Martino’s 2019: After the Fall of New York (1983) to Lockout (2012), Escape From New York has become a regular genre knockoff touchstone. But today, I want to focus on just two: Enzo. G Castarelli’s Bronx series.

The saga began in 1982 with 1990: The Bronx Warriors, Castellari’s attempt to blend Escape From New York, The Road Warrior, and The Warriors into one sci-fi actioner. The film is set in, well, the Bronx circa 1990, now a “no man’s land” where absurdly themed gangs run free and squabble over land without police interference. The skyline is intact, but the streets are positively dystopian—a place that practically gushes grime and where mutilated bodies wash up on the river of the Hudson. It’s hell, but it’s life.

But everything changes when a teenager arrives. She’s Anne (Stefania Girolami), the anti-war heiress to the Manhattan weapons manufacturing company who, hoping to escape the burden of managing the company that stands for everything she despises, flees into the only place her dad wouldn’t dare follow. Unfortunately, she instantly finds herself confronted by the city’s gangs, and there’s only one man who can help her: the young leader of The Riders, Trash (Mark Gregory).

What follows is a loosely plotted, hilariously violent romp through a series of encounters with different factions in the Bronx, all of which are increasingly ludicrous and feel incredibly out of place in the same universe. Outside of The Riders, you have The Tigers, a group of gangsters in candy-colored suits who ride around in ’30s-style cars led by Ogre (a delightful Fred Williamson) and the Zombies, bizarre knockoffs of The Warriors’ Baseball Furies who ride around on skates, hit people with hockey sticks, and hang out in a home base that resembles a McDonald’s PlayPlace. They also employ tap dancing warriors that look like A Clockwork Orange cosplayers.

This is to say nothing of the fascist vigilantes patrolling the street, nor of the film’s evil Snake Plissken clone, The Hammer (the last complete role of the late Vic Morrow). While the film’s gang-on-gang encounters are never subtle, the clashes against the vigilantes and The Hammer are when it really blows up. Morrow acts something like a precursor to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s run as the titular villain of The Terminator: a quiet, ruthless killing machine that blows apart stuntmen by the dozen, stealing every scene in the process.

To be honest, even a few hours after watching Escape from the Bronx, I couldn’t tell you in what order these action scenes occur. Sure, I remembered that Trash mows down two Zombies with a blade-equipped motorcycle at the start and Ogre gets into an insane chanbara-esque sword fight at the end, but every other fight in this movie could be basically reordered without losing anything—and considering the horrible translation and scattershot quality of the story, you could probably scramble them while still staying mostly coherent.

I know this reads like I’m incredibly down on the movie, but surprisingly enough, I think these very noticeable, glaring flaws help give 1990: The Bronx Warriors its own unique charms. With a little help from DP Sergio Salvati (The Beyond, Zombi 2), 1990: The Bronx Warriors becomes something of a trance movie. It’s less a movie you pay attention to and more a movie you zone out to, losing yourself in the gratuitous giblets and slow-mo.

Despite the weird, anachronistic clashes between the players, the action scenes are a joy to behold, with every silly weapon and concept meshing together into schlocky goodness. By the time the credits roll, there will have been enough decapitations, shootouts, and maimings to fill an entire trilogy of regular action movies—and likely twice as many instances of people being set on fire. If Keoma (1976) and Inglorious Bastards (1978) didn’t make it clear, 1990: The Bronx Warriors solidifies Castellari as a true B-action icon.

The very next year, Castellari went the extra mile with a direct sequel to The Bronx Warriors, Escape from the Bronx. Picking up sometime after the bloody gang war/corporate conflict of The Bronx Warriors, Escape from the Bronx features a Bronx teetering on the edge of destruction. General Construction—an eerily OCP-like company—wants to tear down the city and rebuild it into their own technocratic hellscape, and claim they are relocating the Bronx’s people to New Mexico. Of course, that’s a lie. In reality, they’re using the ominously named Disinfestation Annihilation Squad to round up and kill all the city’s residents so GC can bulldoze it without resistance.

Resistance like Trash, who now helps lead a unified Bronx defense force consisting of survivors of the previous film’s gang wars. With an unstoppable army at his gates and his parents dead at their hands, he turns to the help of gang boss Dablone (Antonio Sabato), a pacifist reporter (Valerie Dobson), and paranoid mercenary Strike (Timothy Brent) to kidnap General Construction’s president and save the residents of No Man’s Land.

While the premise is a pretty clear reworking of the general structure of Escape From New York, it gives it a baseline level of coherency that 1990: The Bronx Warriors lacked, allowing the viewer to easily keep track of our hero’s journey while still giving us a trip through the wild underbelly of the dystopian ’90s. Sure, it’s not a particularly nuanced plot, and all of our heroes (sans Strike) are a bore, but it’s something.

Keeping in tradition with the first Bronx film, the place where the characters really stand out are in the deliciously evil villains. This time around, the star is Floyd Wrangler (Poliziotteschi icon Henry Silva), the corrupt, bloodthirsty captain of DAS who believes in nothing but pure capital. He is, without a doubt, the single most entertaining character in the entire series—a black hole of amorality that sucks everyone near him into an early grave. Silva is completely in his element playing this type of bastard enforcer, and as far as I’m concerned, every frame with him is a winner. Simple as that.

Of course, with villains like him and his DAS around, it’s only a matter of time before things get violent. Where the action lacks in whacky weaponry (I’m afraid to say most of the silly gimmick attacks of the original are gone) it makes up for in stylization, utilizing more slow-mo, hyper-close-ups, and explosions than ever before. It seems Escape from the Bronx can’t go ten seconds in a fight without some sort of flourish popping in. It’s the sort of touch that could really take a viewer out of the action, but for someone who can never get enough of insert shots of gun receivers slamming in slow-mo (like, say, me), it’s a real visual treat.

Unfortunately, Escape from the Bronx doesn’t quite have the budget that 1990: The Bronx Warriors did, and it shows. Miniatures look horrendously out of place, the gore lacks the zany excess of the first film’s carnage, and the final battle just sort of concludes without much ceremony. It wouldn’t be too much of an issue if Escape from the Bronx wasn’t so dead-set on leaving out so much of the camp that defined 1990, where the cheapness of the effects would’ve just added to the charms. In the dour future of Escape from the Bronx, all it does is distract.

Yet despite the fact that everything looks so cheap, Escape from the Bronx is, like the film before it, patched together by how shockingly good the cinematography is. This time, Blasco Giurato is working as the director of photography—a full five years before he’d go on to shoot Cinema Paradiso. Yes, that Cinema Paradiso. Action is framed to perfection, with loads of wonderful shots that manage to be stylistically interesting without distracting from the blood-pumping shootouts. A perfect example comes in the opening, with a lengthy tracking shot showing DAS officers patrolling the Bronx, rounding up people and raiding buildings while signs and an automated message deliver all the exposition necessary.

It’s touches like that that show what Escape from the Bronx is all about. It’s a lean, mean, sci-fi action delivery machine that’s less interested in exploring the political subtext of its premise than it is in using it as an excuse to cram as much violence on screen as possible. Is that a good thing? I honestly have no idea—but if one thing’s for sure, it means that Castellari was sticking to his strengths.

Despite being released one year apart and being written and directed by the same person (Castellari was partial to penning his movies), the two films’ tones really couldn’t be more different. One is a freewheeling, colorful film lost in a haze of loaded plot and glorious silliness. The other is a tighter, more focused shoot ’em up that lacks the other’s creativity, but makes up for it in clarity. It’s an odd case where the films don’t play well together, but as isolated gems, each work on their own, weird magic. Because even when they stumble, it’s hard to deny that Castellari’s Bronx films are a hell of a time.

Next: Crypt of Curiosities: The DRACULA Movies of 1931