The film is also oddly gay, a reminder that there was a period, especially in English-language but non-U.S. sci-fi, when writers liked toying with this relatively new thing that was the publicly, visibly gay subculture but weren’t quite ready to make the good guy characters gay and thus had a lot of decadent gay villains (there’s a lot of this in Michael Moorcock as well, even though he, too, is no doubt very pro-gay). Most striking in this regard may be the moment when the hockey-masked, superhumanly-bemuscled evil leader called Humongous physically restrains his gay, mohawked henchman after the henchman’s boyish companion is slain, murmuring reassurances.
All that went over my head when I was twelve, but the film affected my psyche in one important way: It helped me delusionally ignore the constant threat of nuclear annihilation in the waning years of the Cold War. Dad always assured me, with no noticeable alarm, that we in Norwich, CT would be among the first incinerated due to our proximity to the Groton sub-building facilities (prominent in Dad’s mind, as an ex-Navy man).
But should we survive, maybe things would look just a little like Road Warrior — and would that be so bad? My friend Ali Kokmen still fantasizes about living as an archer at times, and Scott Nybakken and I, just a few years ago, jokingly agreed that if civilization in New York ever collapses, all we really need is, as I said, “a crossbow, a go-cart covered with spikes,” and, as Scott added, “a star to steer by.”
Even with all the doomsday stuff, films like this were conservative in another important way: After the cultural disaster that was the 1970s, they were essentially saying “We’re not going to take the collapse of civilization lying down — if it comes to it, we’re prepared to fight back, with guns, against the criminals and the mutants,” which is all I really ask of Americans. Films like this were the sci-fi equivalent of Dirty Harry, really — no-nonsense cynicism combined with rugged individualism. You know, the way sane people are.
And it ends with what is still, for my money, the best car chase in film history.
Around the same time, the world got a glimpse of barbarous apocalypse already upon us, in the form of New York City at its most crime-filled, in the movie The Warriors, which girlfriend Helen (she’s back, but more about that in two weeks — sorry about all the drama) and I saw recently at Coney Island, where the film concludes and where it’s now being shown annually, after being part of the nationwide Netflix series of film screenings a few years ago that showed movies in the cities where they took place (I saw Clerks in Red Bank, NJ, with Kevin Smith answering questions and lamenting that the then-recent Superman Returns was even lamer than the aborted 1990s Superman film he was involved with).
Combine Road Warrior and Warriors, and you basically get another film from about the same time: Escape from New York. But here’s the ugly, apocalyptic truth: It was filmed not in decrepit circa-1980 Manhattan but in permanently-awful East St. Louis.
Fun facts about East St. Louis from Wiki.:
•has lost half its population since 1950
•has approx. the highest crime rate in America (with something like 1 in a 1,000 residents murdered in 2006)
•and has had the following impact on film, quoth Wiki.:
In the 1981 science fiction/action film Escape from New York, director John Carpenter used East St. Louis to represent a decaying, semi-destroyed future version of New York City. At that time, East St. Louis had entire neighborhoods burned out in 1976 during a massive urban fire, which suited the director’s vision of a Manhattan Island that has been turned into a maximum security prison.
In the 1983 comedy National Lampoon’s Vacation, the Griswolds accidentally drive through East St. Louis and get their car stripped while asking for directions.
And speaking of people who were in Vacation, maybe a little East St. Louis criminality rubbed off on Randy Quaid, recently arrested along with his wife for skipping out on a $10,000 hotel bill — money that he could perhaps have put into the charitable medical causes for which he’s often pleading. Ah, well, he’ll have whole hotels to himself after the Great Conflagration leaves behind only him, the mutants, and a few thousand of the rest of us. Man, it’s gonna be awesome.