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Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Reel Bad Cinema: The Devil's Express (1976) review



Warhawk Tanzania (Luke Curtis), Larry Fleishman (Chris), Wilfredo Roldan (Rodan), Stephen DeFazio (Sam)

Directed by Barry Rosen

The Short Version: A bumper crop of bad movie madness, DEVIL'S EXPRESS goes off the rails right after leaving the station. There's Big Trouble in this little budget movie when a talisman is removed from the burial site of ancient Oriental demon Lo Pan. Later, a poorly choreographed gang war between The Blackjacks and The Red Dragons is blamed for mauled corpses in the NYC subway tunnels, but it's really our man, Lo Pan, a guy in sneakers and beat-up monster suit with matching skull mask. Non-existent production values, bargain bin gore effects, and even worse kung fu sequences ensue. If you can't appreciate the greasy spoons of cinema, you may want to avoid this train and take the bus instead. 

In 200 B.C. China, a band of monks bury a coffin in an underground cave containing a demon kept imprisoned by a magic amulet. Flash forward to 1970s New York, Luke and Rodan fly to Hong Kong for a martial arts tournament in China. Finding the cave, Rodan steals the talisman. The demon awakens and follows both men back to the States. Finding refuge from the sunlight in the New York subway system, the beast stalks victims nightly till a final showdown pits kung fu vs. 2,000 years of death!

Imaginative, yet impoverished exploitation flick has skid row production values and one of the most laughable plots ever devised. Tonally this train ride is comparable to the kung fu segment of the atrociously funny Joel Reed anthology BLOOD BATH (1975). It's made somewhat attractive in that this obscure howler was, whether intentionally or unintentionally, overhauled into the much healthier budgeted, but no less ludicrous BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986). The plots share similarities in their mixture of magic and martial arts; Lo Pan is the name of the villain in both movies; and you can ride for free on the Pork Chop Express.

Reportedly shot for somewhere in the ballpark of $100,000 in about 2 1/2 weeks, this 'shot fast and cheap' approach is evident from start to finish. Some scenes have no dialog. You see mouths moving but hear nothing but music laid over the soundtrack. Sometimes conversations begin or end in mid speech. Acting is hit or miss. Some scenes work pretty well, but are undone within moments by ineptness of gigantic proportions. The spots chosen for Far East locations fail to convince; not just because there are Asians with Afros in Communist China, but for the fact the same actors show up multiple times over playing different characters. Hariman State Park in upstate NY fills in for China; as does parks in Brooklyn during the hokey martial arts tournament.

Basically a kung fu master vs. an ancient demon in the NYC subways, this epically inadequate piece of schlock cinema is chock-full of jive ass acting, sloppy editing, perfunctory "kung fu" fights, and DIY gore effects. For instance, the effect of the Chinese guy infected by the demon stumbling around with the biggest bulging eyes this side of a Larry Buchanan monster movie had his eyelids painted white with black dots in the center. Talk about cut-rate! The monster suit, as tattered as it looks, is modestly successful till the camera pans down and you can see the guy in the costume is wearing sneakers.

The kung fu fights fare far worse. DEVIL'S EXPRESS has some of the absolute worst choreography ever conceived. The action sequences are so bad, they make DOLEMITE's kung fu battles look worthy of Bruce Lee. Everybody performs, and with majestically poor execution, in old school style like on Kung Fu Theater. See Snake Fist and Tiger Claw on the streets of Harlem! Combatants move like they're rehearsing and somebody filmed that instead. Oftentimes kicks and punches never come close to their targets. Since we're on that subject... 

Lead actor Warhawk Tanzania is the Don "No Soul" Simmons of (badly made) kung fu movies. In DEVIL'S EXPRESS, he  hits a guy then realizes he's missed his mark; then casually moves his fist or foot to where it's supposed to be. It's incredible. The exaggerated facial expressions, the constant posing, seeing the same extras over and over again, and Chinese (or Japanese) actors reading their live sound dialog in a fashion that sounds like it's been dubbed seeks only to make this knee-slapper a goldmine of mediocrity. 

Possessing about as much screen presence as a fire hydrant, Tanzania remains strangely fascinating because of his lacking charisma. Perhaps it's his hair? His alternating wardrobe of Chinese kung fu attire and gold lame overalls? Or that both he and his lady go to bed in their pajamas?! Yes, Luke (Tanzania) might use the Force against Lo Pan, but never stretches out with his feelings in the bedroom. Tanzania made one more funky and clunky fu flick, FORCE FOUR (1974) before seemingly vanishing from cinema forever.

The fights scenes are the handiwork of Master Frank Ruiz, a decorated war veteran and founder of Nisei Goju Ryu Karate. His film choreography period was between 1974 and 1977. As amazingly awful as the fight scenes are in this movie, some of the actors were indeed martial artists -- but you'd never know that from the woefully poor action. Wilfredo Roldan (who plays Rodan, a character named after a Japanese giant monster) is apparently now a Grand Master in Karate, and was a student of the late GM Frank Ruiz (The BLACK DRAGON himself, Ron Van Clief is among his students). The two of them appeared on the April 1972 cover of Official Karate.

If you remember that awful vampire movie, LAST RITES (1980), or the exploitation docs AMAZING MASTERS OF THE MARTIAL ARTS (1985) and FILM HOUSE FEVER (1986), the name Domonic Paris might ring a bell -- he was a camera assistant on this wacky flick. 

Let's face it, DEVIL'S EXPRESS is a mango-sized mess. Astonishingly, it took five writers to put this nonsense together. There are some genuinely good things here, though. Some of the scenes have a level of competency that make you wonder what the hell happened the rest of the time. Some of the dialog exchanges are right snappy; that old urban legend about alligators in the sewers is rolled out; and the decrepit, grimy look of 70s NYC are a time capsule to be appreciated by the 42nd Street faithful. Moreover, David Durston, director of slime classic I DRINK YOUR BLOOD (1970) is in here as one of Lo Pan's victims; and then there's a gleefully maniacal, showstopping monologue from famous rambler Brother Theodore!

This 'Phantom of the Subway' is the sort of movie you just don't see anymore. Some folks wouldn't want to see it, anyway. As bad as it is (and it's reeeaaally bad), there's a schlocky charm infecting all the defective fight scenes, awful editing, glaringly continuity errors, and shoddy makeup jobs that make this EXPRESS worth buying a ticket for. 

This review is representative of the Code Red DVD. 

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