To try and convey the essence of Devil’s Express aka Gang Wars (1976) in any coherent form is not the easiest job in the world. It is one of those films that really remains to be seen and experienced rather than just talked about. The real juice is wrapped up in a vast ocean of crap that constitutes ‘the script’- that is if there was actually one- and extracting the relevant plot anchors to build a logically flowing discussion is quite a task. In fact I have been trying to write about this film for some months, but the highly contrived plot that meanders here, there and everywhere is where I usually give up, after failing to conjure the same enthusiasm I feel while watching this piece of late seventies prime trashola.
Warhawk Tanzania (and if this name doesn’t make you fly off to check this out now, then remove yourself from this website, you have no place here) plays martial arts master and general all round bad assed dude Luke. Luke reigns supreme in his hood over in Brooklyn. While he is apparently a guy with a strong moral compass and a bit of a community hero, weirdly his best friend and sparring partner is Latino drug merchant Rodan who comes with questionable values; this causes some problems for the two later on. Luke and Rodan take a break to go and bust out some serious Kung-fu moves and channel their inner chi over in China. Training with a Grasshopper type sensei genius, Luke is challenged to go off into the middle of nowhere, mediate and connect with his spiritual side; before coming back to camp to collect his super expertise level belt in whatever strange style of slo-mo martial arts he practices. So he goes off and takes the hot-headed Rodan with him- because that’s what I would do if I wanted some peace, take a chattering coke dealer with me into the wilds. While Luke is busy fighting his inner demons in the forest, Rodan gets a bit bored and accidently unleashes an ancient bloodthirsty demon that follows them back to the States.
Fear not for spoilers, for this is just the set-up. But the rest of the plot revolves around this demon which stalks the subways of New York killing people, Rodan and his drug wars, Luke and his developing romance and run in’s with the cops, the police investigation of aforementioned murders, triads, and a demon that is sometimes a zombie with weird eyes and at other times- when confronted for a big show down- spends most of the time morphing into familiar faces to confuse the attacker; or at least this is what I would like to believe and not that they just didn’t have any money for special effects and so had to recycle cast members in lieu of an actual demon. But as they say less is more, and so it kind of makes it extra special during the brief moments when we finally do get to see some demon.
Cast and Crew.
The director is a guy called Barry Rosen, who according to his IMDb profile was a lot more successful as a producer than he was at directing. Rosen produced quite a few numbers, including 22 episodes of that cheesy Highlander series than ran in the 90’s. His only other directing credit is for a film called The Yum Yum Girls which was made the same year as Devil’s Express.
Apart from the above (epically) named Warhawk Tanzania in the lead- who like Rosen was only associated with one other film in his capacity as an actor, Black Force (1975)– the rest of the cast is populated with general low-grade jobbing exploitation actors, who all act on varying levels of ineptness that just enhances the unadulterated trash factor of the piece.
Ah where to start. Well obviously there was no money here. There were in fact five scriptwriters, and everyone involved appeared to be writing for a different genre- Blaxploitation, exploitation, chop sockey, zombie- it’s all here in a glorious montage of popular seventies grindhouse subgenre favourites. No sex though, that is about the only factor they missed out on, but other than that you have to applaud the makers for bringing value for money when it comes to content. The reported budget is around 100K (US Dollars) which, when you consider the quite extensive cast involved, isn’t going to have gone a long way once you factor in all the other stuff involved. Although some of the ‘cast’ don’t appear to even know they are in a film, and during one of the drug scuffle scenes, the onlookers appear to be caught in a kind of candid camera situation.
From reading the above it would be easy to think Devil’s Express is such a mess it is a complete waste of time, and you would be wrong. Ok, the film might not have any production values to speak of; it is littered with terrible acting and diabolical scripting. But if we throw out the good/bad scale of judgement and move on a spectrum of ‘entertaining’ then the film pumps out a solid ten out of ten for not only being ‘when it’s so bad it’s good’, but transcending to ‘when it’s so bad, it’s genius.
It’s hard to say just quite why this is the case. Having seen the film several times, each new viewing I find something else to love. It might be the fight scenes that are so awfully choreographed the fighters actually appear to be fighting in slow motion. Or the crusty old zombie with his bulbous eyes- actually the initial zombie scene is quite an impressive set piece, not even in an awful way, but it does succeed to have a kind of tasty seventies zombie vibe that would be more at home in a Euro flick. Or it could be that when Luke goes to save the day he is decked out in funky yellow spandex dungarees and no shirt, and it definitely has a lot to do with the fact that the bulk of the film is shot in and around a grimy looking seventies New York which gives it that urban retro cool feel.
Then you have to applaud the entire brazen nature of the production. We already had a bit of Blaxploitation/horror in the seventies, Blacula being a particular high point, Sugar Hill (which we reviewed here) Blackenstein, Abby, Dr. Black and Mr. Hyde, but the makers of this weren’t happy with a bit of general horror among the jive talk, cool soundtrack and huge afros- no they wanted to bring in some kung fu too. It shouldn’t work and it should be a complete mess. But strangely, for reasons I can’t quite explain, it does. Perhaps it is because it fails at being very good at any of the things it wants to be, but in the process carves out its own little section in cult movie heaven all of its own.
Verdict: Think you have seen it all, try again. Seventies action orientated trash horror doesn’t come as fantastically contrived and ridiculous as this, and still get to win. But Devil’s Express does.