PLOT: A New York City martial artist and his protégé travel to China for a retreat that will sharpen their skills and minds. When the student lifts a shiny souvenir from a mysterious cave, the unleashed bad juju threatens to destroy them all.
Director: Barry Rosen
Writers: Barry Rosen, Niki Patton, Pascual Vaquer, CeOtis Robinson, Bobbi Sapperstein
Cast: Warhawk Tanzania, Wilfredo Roldan, Larry Fleischman, Aki Aleong
No pairing of city and era was as versatile and evocative for a genre movie filming location than New York City in the 1970s. Its dilapidated tenements were perfect for a post-apocalyptic near-future. Need a seedy area to situate your drug-dealing and prostitution morality play? Times Square is your place. If the mise-en-scène for your crime-thriller needs to suggest the hidden dangers of traveling alone, pick any subway platform or public park on the map. Alleys, basketball courts, and dodgy underpasses: the list goes on. Director Barry Rosen got plenty of mileage out of NYC for 1976’s Devil’s Express -- originally released as Gang Wars but known as Death Express in the UK and referred to as Phantom of the Subway during production -- where it somehow doubles as both ancient China and modern-day Hong Kong. Young filmmakers, take note: access to an urban botanical garden goes a long way in your storytelling.
In ancient China, a group of holy men are out picking berries in the forest or something when they realize they’d totally forgotten about the sacred blood ritual scheduled that day. They place an amulet on the heavy wooden crate they’ve been lugging around before setting it below the ground in a spooky cavern. While their lower backs might be thanking them, their arteries are not. The lead holy man strikes down his friends before offing himself and following all of THAT, a cryptic title card announces to the audience that yes, Devil’s Express is a Phantom Production. You’re goddamn right it is!
Fast-forward several hundred years later to modern-day New York City, where a martial arts master named Luke (Tanzania) is training a friend from the police force. Don’t be getting any funny ideas though -- Luke is a righteous dude who trusts the police as much as he trusts gangs or undershirts (i.e. not very much). When his hot-headed student, Rodan (Roldan) starts talking vengeance after his crew’s latest gang rumble, Luke tries to chill him out -- the pair is scheduled to travel to Hong Kong for advanced training in both meditation and combat. The body and mind won’t work well if the spirit is in conflict.
Unfortunately, Rodan’s stress carries over into Hong Kong and Luke picks up on it and chides his student for the unnecessary distraction. Rodan gets his ass handed to him during sparring, and is jumping out of his skin during an isolated meditation session. Channeling his inner whiny teenager, he takes off into the woods and stumbles upon a spooky cavern. As Luke is deep in meditation, his student is stumbling around in the cavern’s darkness before finding the ancient amulet. He pockets it and gets defensive with Luke before they return home via transition airplane insert shot. Unfortunately for them (and the greater NYC area) whatever is inside the crate is adept enough to hitchhike on a cargo ship to follow them. Before too long, the bodies begin to pile up below the subway, and Luke might be the only one who can stop the force that his student has foolishly unleashed.
Call your immediate family members. Send your friends a text message filled with the happiest emojis. Send an updated meeting agenda for your annual performance review to your employers. Because you all need to have a conversation about Warhawk Tanzania. Your grandparents will fall in love with Warhawk’s deliberately enunciated dialogue about righteous behavior. Every one of your ex-lovers will go apeshit for the skin-tight gold-lamé overalls he wears for the final act of the film. All of your afro enthusiast friends will take careful notes. He’s no Jim Kelly on the charisma scale, but he should have been in so many more blaxploitation films with a martial arts bend. It’s kind of a shame so little is known about him. (Was his birth name really Warhawk? Is he still alive? What’s his favorite omelette? These are the top three questions in my Excel file full of them). Sure, he’s not a great actor, but every second of this film when he wasn’t on-screen, I felt like screaming into a loaf of rye bread shaped like a pillow. Warhawk Tanzania gets me pretty emotional, you guys.
Do you long for the days when gangs could rumble in alleys and public parks while attracting nary a glance from law enforcement or civilians? This film captures New Yorkers, young and old alike, at record-high levels of DGAF as stunt players and martial artists rough each other up in various city locations. Throughout it all, there are random daytime passerbys pounding the pavement in the background of just about every shot the filmmakers captured. I’d imagine that the 1970s NYC population was pretty numb to the presence of film crews at this point, but the solid fight choreography here should have undone their indifference.
For such a low-budget film, the fight scenes are quite solid, highlighted by a steady rough-and-tumble quality in different settings. We get loads of alley fights, a fight in a bar between a female bartender and a male gang member, and a fairly entertaining man vs. monster climax that will have you doing double-takes from the choppy editing and supernatural overtones. It appears that Barry Rosen, whose only directorial credits were this film and 1976’s non-action movie The Yum Yum Girls, wisely turned things over to his on-set martial artists. Many of them appear to be students of various skill level, but there’s some observable technique and combinations at work.
If you can believe it, Devil’s Express was the brain-child of at least five different screenwriters. I have no idea how they collaborated, but I’d like to think that the genre influences were delegated one per writer; one person injected the scary stuff, another handled the martial arts, and so on. Five different people each throwing a delicious homemade recipe at the same wall to see what sticks. Usually, films with this many cooks in the kitchen are a goddamn mess. Does that make any of those dishes any less delicious? Even when eaten off of a wall? Of course not! If the food slides off the wall and onto the floor, we’re having a different conversation, but all of the cinematic elements work fine individually and become suitably wacky when combined. People are out there eating Mountain Dew & Doritos donuts for fuck’s sake. There are bigger problems in the world than a blaxploitation-chopsocky-gang-war-whodunit-monster movie.
If you’re a fan of trashy genre hybrids like Raw Force and can tolerate a flimsy plot and a lack of technical polish -- and if you’re here, you clearly can -- Devil’s Express is up your spooky, poorly-lit alley. The great thing about films like these is the madcap pastiche: martial arts, blaxploitation, gang warfare, police procedural, and man-in-a-suit monster movie tropes all live comfortably side by side for a tidy 82 minutes. The end result is a bouillabaisse of 1970s independent exploitation filmmaking that will have you hunting down a pair of gold-lame overalls faster that you can say “Warhawk Tanzania!” A recommended if uneven curiosity.
This one is available on YouTube under one of its many titles (I’ll leave it to you to find your way) but I’d advise you to track down the Code Red DVD release. Their high-definition release made use of the original negative and the film looks miles better than what you’re likely to find on any streaming service or grey market copy.
4.5 / 7