Color, 1977, 95 mins. 21 secs.
Directed by Robert Warmflash
Starring Charles Bonet, Speedy Leacock, Thompson Kao Kang, Bill Louie, Abe Hendy, Vincent Van Lynn, Thom Kenadll, Bob O'Connell, Tony Liu
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), Code Red (DVD) (US R0 NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)
The martial arts movie craze that dominated screens in the 1970s unleashed some spectacularly strange films, and among the American-made offerings, few can compete with the insane giddiness of Death Promise. Obviously made by people who thought it would be great to cross two popular films, Death Wish and Enter the Dragon, it somehow includes every single cliche from kung fu films of the era but still manages to be surprising (often unintentionally) thanks to the fact that no one apparently had the slightest idea how to craft a traditional motion picture.
In a rough neighborhood in New York, the downtrodden residents of a tenement building are being driven out by a dummy corporation called Iguana Realty, ruled by corrupt landlord fat cats. The water's getting turned off, lights are switched off, and rats are dumped in the hallway, all of which provokes the ire of hot-tempered karate student Charley Roman (Don't Go in the House's Bonet). Meanwhile Charley's boxer dad (O'Connell), a fellow resident, insists Charley and his buddy Speedy (Leacock) release the lowlifes responsible each time they're caught and beaten up since they don't know who they're working for. (Yes, really.)
Of course it isn't long before Charley's dad ends up dead on the kitchen floor, and at the dead man's behest, Charley's instructor, Shibata (Kang), packs him off to go to a barn in upstate New York to study under mysterious kung fu master Ying (Bruce Lee costar and Shaw Brothers regular Liu, with really terrible gray streaks in his hair). There he goes through an absurd training process to strike more menacing poses, just in time to head back to town and kill off the corrupt men responsible for turning his home into a war zone.
The number of cockeyed delights in this film are too numerous to mention, but chief among them are the infectious disco theme song (by "Opus"), the huge boom mic shadow roving around in the center of several shots, the arbitrary voiceovers assigned to different characters with little rhyme or reason, the astonishing dubbed shriek Charley makes off screen when he finds his dead father, and of course, the astonishing fight scenes. Every five minutes or so people are throwing fake kicks and punches with deafening sound effects, and throwing stars and rats get put to grisly use in just two violent highlights. The archery gag is pretty fantastic, too, and there's even a reprise of the old poison on a string gag from You Only Live Twice, plus the obligatory sex scene featuring the one token bad black guy and a woman with the most unusual breasts you'll ever see. On top of that the film tosses in a twist ending, too, which makes absolutely no sense at all if you think about it for more than two seconds.
Death Promise turned out to be one of the last theatrical ventures for Howard Mahler Films, the folks responsible for the Americanized version of Deep Red and, not surprisingly, the wonderful Devil's Express. It managed to find a fairly healthy life on VHS around the world, most notably from Paragon with the bizarre poster art reproduced for everyone to enjoy. A horrendous bootleg DVD from Apprehensive snuck out yanked from that same tape, but a much more respectable option was the 2014 Code Red DVD featuring a fresh, drastically improved anamorphic transfer. The source print is in great shape apart from some fleeting minor damage, and the colors are a massive improvement from start to finish. Sure, it still looks like a cheap New York '70s action movie, but the quality upgrade here is tremendous. The one really relevant extra here is the great theatrical trailer (done almost entirely in split screen), but also tossed in are bonus trailers for The King of Kung Fu, Devil's Express, The Black Dragon, The Black Dragon Revenges the Death of Bruce Lee, Death Machines, Cut-Throats Nine, and The Undertaker. You won't know what hit you.
In 2021, Vinegar Syndrome bowed the film on region-free Blu-ray, as usual with a limited slipcase edition of 4,000 units featuring a design by Earl Kess. Featuring a new 2K scan from the camera negative, it looks even better than the already good DVD with better white balance, stronger detail, and more natural colors; the framing varies a bit by comparison, sometimes showing a sliver more info depending on the reel. The DTS-HD MA English 2.0 mono track is also crisp and pristine, or at least as much as the original mix will allow (with optional English SDH subtitles provided). The one substantial new extra here is "9,000 feet in 90 minutes" (16m6s), an interview with editor Jim Markovic who chats about his start in TV commercials, the editorial issues with the martial arts blocking, the challenges of shooting in New York due to unions, and the months-long process of putting the film together on a limited schedule. Also included are the original trailer (in a nice fresh HD scan) and an image gallery (1m55s) with lots of fun newspaper ads and production photos from the collections of producer Serafim Karalexis and Martin Brooks.
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray)
Code Red (DVD)
Updated review on April 9, 2021.