Color, 1976, 93m.
Directed by Paul Kyriazi
Starring Ron Marchini, Michael Chong, Joshua Johnson, Mari Honjo, Ron Ackerman, John Lowe
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC), Code Red (DVD) (US R0 NTSC) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)
Crown International was a familiar name to drive-in patrons in the 1970s, and one of the more bizarre case studies in its exploitation film stable has to be Death Machines. This independent martial arts film was shot in Stockton, California as a vehicle for producer/actor Ron Marchini, a karate champ. However, with Logan's Run and Rollerball hot at the box office in '75, Crown asked that sci-fi elements be interjected into the story to transform its primary trio of killers into programmed murder machines. Pretty much every commercial element gets tossed in the mix here with topless women aplenty, over-the-top violence, and bonkers plot twists, all shuffled into a nonstop parade of action scenes that vault way past the point of absurdity.
You know you're in for a fun time when the opening scene features three one-on-one karate showdowns in a Japanese(ish) garden overseen by dragon lady Madame Lu (Honjo, sporting some phenomenal wigs), with Marchini ultimately whipping out a pistol to dispatch his opponent. From there it's one nutty highlight after another as we get a meter maid horrified by a bloody man plummeting onto a car, a park assassination via bazooka, and a guy in a phone booth dispatched by a speeding bulldozer. Oh yeah, and that's just in the first 12 minutes. Basically our three nameless, multicultural killers are sent off on missions by Madame Lu, who has something of a monopoly on the local hit market and doesn't take kindly to some gangster muscling in on her territory. However, she oversteps her bounds when she sends them in to wipe out an entire dojo, an incredibly fast and brutal scene reminiscent of The Return of Count Yorga, leaving only one good guy (Lowe) left alive with a severed hand for his trouble and a serious thirst for justice. In case you couldn't tell already, this movie is wild.
As with most Crown titles, Death Machines popped up as a standalone 2002 DVD from Rhino and later in one of those multi-title BCI/Eclipse box sets, brutally panned and scanned with the original Techniscope compositions rendered completely meaningless. The 2014 Code Red release marks the first widescreen edition in any format, and the difference is massive as the film can finally be enjoyed as the helter skelter, brainless action frenzy it really is. Some really goofy flaws inherent in the original elements still remain (such as a color timing and makeup snafu turning a character named Captain Green into something... well, green as the Incredible Hulk), and even those who found this off-putting in its brutalized full frame edition should give it another shot under these conditions. The main bonus here is a very informative and dense audio commentary with director Paul Kyriazi, who talks about making this as commercial as possible after his previous black-and-white scope samurai film, The Tournament, couldn't find a distributor. He covers just about everything you could want to know about the production (including pointing out some ridiculous padding with people walking around and getting out of cars) and reveals how this is connected to Trilogy of Terror, The Killer Elite, and Sanjuro, among others. Also included are the theatrical trailer (which really pushes the sci-fi angle way out of proportion) and bonus ones for Devil's Express, The Black Dragon, The Black Dragon Revenges the Death of Bruce Lee, Death Promise, and (brace yourselves!) Andy Milligan's Torture Dungeon and The Man with Two Heads.
Two years later, Vinegar Syndrome picked up the film as part of its Crown licensing deal for a greatly expanded special edition, dual-format Blu-ray and DVD set with a fresh new 4k scan from the original negative. The prior transfer was nothing to sneeze (or shoot) at, but this version offers a substantial upgrade with a lot of additional detail and texture as well as considerable additional info visible on the top, right, and especially left sides of the frame. (You can see comparison grabs from the Code Red disc here and here.) The DTS-HD MA English mono track (with optional English SDH subtitles) sounds excellent, as you'd expect, given the very low budget nature of the source. Kyriazi returns here for a new audio commentary with Vinegar Syndrome's Joe Rubin and needs very little prompting as he goes through the production of the film, hitting some of the same points as before but also offering a lot of new info. He covers his dissatisfaction with the film's marketing as a sci-fi film, the challenges of shooting in scope, the various edits and titles the film underwent in other countries (including a baffling tie-in with Murder on the Orient Express), the salvation of his later film Ninja Busters, and exclamations like "Look at this guy flippin' over backwards, he's not a stunt man, he's an actor!" (A director's intro is indicated on the packaging and menu when you play the film but doesn't appear to actually be included.) In addition to the baffling "futuristic" teaser and trailer, the release features a new 10-minute interview with Michael Chong, "the Asian Death Machine," about how Bruce Lee inspired him to jump into the action actor business, his martial arts training and teaching, the tough choreography of the karate school attack scene, and the joy of going to a Chinese restaurant covered in blood. Also included is a reel of 3 minutes of silent outtakes (including some great sword attacking) accompanied by score excerpts.
Updated review on November 22, 2016.