If you were a genre fan in the ‘70s, you had so many to choose from: Horror, Blaxploitation, Kung-Fu, Action – you name it, it was probably done, and without shame. Along the way some bright bulb (or someone way too ambitious) decided to try and combine them all into one film, and the result is Devil’s Express (1976), a jaw dropping stew that’s hard to classify but easy to love.
Filmed as The Phantom of the Subway, Devil’s Express was released in early September by Howard Mahler Films (Death Promise) to drive-ins and grindhouses across the U.S. Made for $100,000, it was trotted out again in ’79 and renamed Gang Wars to capitalize on the success of The Warriors. (Spoiler alert: it didn’t match that film’s grosses.) Made for everyone so therefore ultimately no one, it wears its schizophrenia like a cello case covered in Black Flag stickers. In other words, it’s very entertaining.
We start off in 200 B.C. China, as a group of monks are performing a ceremony in the forest; an amulet is placed in a box and then lowered into a cave, after which the head monk ceremoniously offs his fellow monks and then turns the blade on himself. It’s credits time, as the funky soundtrack blares throughout a tracking shot of New York’s Chinatown, which then switches to the subway below for some ominous strings and synthesized bleeps, foreshadowing the cinematic whiplash that’s about to occur. Once the credits are over we meet Luke (played by the best named actor of all time, War Hawk Tanzania), a martial arts instructor giving a lesson to friend and local cop Cris (Larry Fleischman – Circle of Fear), who tries to convince him to join the force. But Luke is a loner, see, plus he doesn’t trust the honky pigs whatsoever (a situation that has since rectified itself in society, thank goodness); a sentiment shared by his student Rodan (Wilfredo Roldan – Black Force), a gang banger with the Black Spades.
Luke and Rodan head off to China, where Luke will finally become a Master; while there Rodan happens to come across the amulet and sneak it back to New York. This awakens the ancient demon contained in the cave, which follows them back through the body of an Asian man (whose possession is achieved visually by painting eyeballs with black dots over his eyelids). Speaking of Asians, Rodan and the Spades are in the middle of a drug fueled gang war with the Red Dragons; when bodies start showing up less than alive, Cris assumes it’s gang retribution and focuses his investigation that way. However, as the decapitations pile up he starts to worry it’s something worse, and calls in Luke with his superior kick-assery to handle the demon roaming the underground; can he send it back to whence it came, or is everyone on the fast rail to hell?
Devil’s Express ends up getting so much wrong that it ends up this side of right; which is to say that somehow this ungodly mixture of procedural, monsters, and martial arts adds up to more than the sum of its parts – a case of a lot of negatives making a positive. It shouldn’t work and it really doesn’t gel; kung fu bumps up against cop shop talk which bangs into stumbling subterranean monsters filtered through an admittedly authentic New York aesthetic. But the cumulative effect is one of charm rather than confusion; the gym class chop socky is enthusiastic, the creature design (when you can see it) isn’t too bad, and Fleishman tries to keep his frazzled cop somewhat grounded in reality.
Try is the key word here, as director Barry Rosen (The Yum Yum Girls) and his – holy shit – four co-writers (Niki Patton, Pascual Vaquer, CeOtis Robinson, and Bobbi Sapperstein) throw nothing but love at the screen; while it may seem like the exploitation angle is amplified with each genre take, there’s a sincerity at play – the fights may not be first rate, but they are energetic and entertaining, and while not super gory, blood does flow in copious amounts – that adds up to endearing.
You have to make it through the first act though; everything is set up in the opening 30 minutes, and more prudent editing could have trimmed that down to 15 to prevent the film from almost lurching to a stop before it ever really gets going. Once it does, however, the viewer is assaulted with Run Run Shaw sound effects (arm flails sound like bed sheets flapping in a tornado), humorous jive talk that teeters on the brink of satire, and a casual approach to the horror that suggests nothing as much as Kolchak Goes to Harlem (which I would watch yesterday, natch). All you have to do is avail yourself to its anything goes attitude to appreciate it.
As for our hero, War Hawk Tanzania mostly grimaces, yells, and occasionally smiles (when spending time with his beautiful lady in a montage straight out of a Massengill commercial) in a role surely modeled after superstar Jim Kelly; and while he doesn’t possess Kelly’s skills or charisma, he rocks the hell out of gold lame overalls during the finale that would make Elton John envious. Sometimes clothes do make the man.
Devil’s Express is a lot of things; it’s messy, cheap, and borderline incoherent. What it is not is dull, insincere, or cynical in its scattergun approach to the grindhouse. And if you’re still unsure about grabbing a ticket and heading in, let me just add that Brother Theodore plays a street preacher. If that doesn’t convince you to lay your money down, you may want to hit up a different theatre.
Devil’s Express is available on Blu-ray from Code Red.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: CRAWLSPACE (1986)