Color, 1976, 83m.
Directed by Barry Rosen
Starring Warhawk Tanzania, Larry Fleischman, Thomas D. Anglin, Wilfredo Rodan
Code Red (DVD) (US R0 NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)
Now here's a movie that would have a far larger audience if everyone knew exactly how insane it really is. Originally unleashed in theaters in 1976, this indescribable blend of martial arts, demonic horror, and blaxploitation action was stuck onto countless double bills around the turn of the decade under the title Gang Wars, cashing in on the success of Walter Hill's The Warriors (with which this bears a few striking editorial similarities during its opening and closing passages). In between, however, this is something completely different and a surefire party movie if there ever was one.
In the soft focus prologue, some Chinese monks "in 200 B.C." have a mission: to dispose of an evil medallion in the woods, which look an awful lot like upstate New York. They manage to ditch the cursed relic in a hole, where it remains until the '70s when martial arts teacher and unstoppable force of nature Luke Curtis (the unforgettably named Warhawk Tanzania) and his dimwitted, hairy, and not very trustworthy sidekick, Rodan (Roldan), decide to take a spiritual trip to the same location. Luke is understandably put off by the menacing vibes around the medallion, but Rodan swipes it anyway because it's so pretty and shiny.
Back in New York, a demonic guardian follows them by possessing a Chinese guy in a suit and tie (now with eyeballs straight out of Sugar Hill ) and shuffling through the city streets, wreaking havoc wherever it goes. The violence inadvertently ignites a feud between two local black and Asian gangs, with violent alley skirmishes breaking out all over while the cops try to sort out the mess. When the demon chooses the nearby subway as its primary hideout and feeding ground, it's up to Luke to track it down for a final showdown unlike anything else ever captured on film.
Featuring a fantastic funk soundtrack trying its damnedest to ape Lalo Schifrin, outrageous fashion choices (including a brilliant gold lamé outfit for Tanzania during the climax), a complete dearth of acting ability all around, and a nutty cameo by Brother Theodore as a priest, this is as entertaining as '70s cinematic junk food gets. This proved to be the big screen swan song for Tanzania after just one other film (the previous year's Black Force, also featuring Roldan), but honestly, where could you possibly go after this? Likewise, director Barry Rosen called it quits for features after this and The Yum Yum Girls, moving to producing TV shows instead.
Devil's Express was one of the last theatrical releases from Howard Mahler Films, who specialized in horror, action, and sexploitation including Velvet Smooth, Laura's Toys, Corpse Eaters, and most famously, the initial American bow of Dario Argento's Deep Red. Eventually the film fell into other hands for that aforementioned rebranding as Gang Wars, popping up under that title for a scarce VHS release in the early '80s from Sun Video alongside their more infamous edition of Last House on Dead End Street. After that it essentially fell into oblivion, though Amazon UK hilariously attributed its credits to a very different Burt Young film of the same title in the 2000s. Even more strangely, the title Devil's Express was slapped onto a Hong Kong horror movie, 1981's The Devil, as part of the third volume of 2005's Tales of Voodoo, causing even more confusion.
Thankfully, the wait for the genuine article is finally over courtesy of the 2013 DVD release from Code Red, which has been in the works for years with this film's trailer popping up on discs dating back at least to 2009. It was all worth it, though; this movie is utterly stupefying and must be experienced to be believed. Surviving prints of this one are tough to track down, but the source here is pretty solid with very minimal wear. Colors are on the drab side, not surprisingly, but it pops where it counts (mainly when that gold fabric shows up). The mono audio is fine, highlighting some shaky ADR work at times and that infectious score, which really deserves its own release one of these days. The film's original trailer is included along with the reissue Gang Wars one, which completely eliminates the horror angle and probably led to more than a few confused audience members. Rounding out the disc are bonus trailers for Death Promise, The Black Dragon Revenges the Death of Bruce Lee (complete with Italian title cards), This Is a Hijack!, Shakma, and Running Scared (the Ken Wahl one).
Note: thanks to the great Frank Henenlotter for pointing out that the businessman who gets killed going to the voice for help on the subway tracks is David Durston, the writer/director of I Drink Your Blood and Stigma.
Reviewed on January 11, 2014.