The internet was in mourning a couple of weeks ago over the death of a talented-yet-underappreciated character actor named Tony Burton. Burton was most recognizable for his role as Duke, Apollo Creed’s corner man who would become Rocky’s corner man, in all of the Rocky movies up until Rocky Balboa. However, in 1976, the same year that the original Rocky was released, Burton had a small-but-pivotal role as a prisoner in an influential horror classic: Assault on Precinct 13.
Assault on Precinct 13 is actually a few different stories that all intersect at the same decommissioned police station in Anderson, California (which a title card helpfully tells us is “a Los Angeles ghetto”). A recently promoted CHP officer named Lieutenant Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker from Horror High and Battle for the Planet of the Apes) has been assigned to watch over the skeleton crew staff. While overseeing a prisoner transfer that includes a notorious killer named Napoleon Wilson (Eraserhead’s Darwin Joston) and two other inmates (one of whom is played by Burton), a federal officer named Starker (Charles Cyphers from Escape from New York) is forced to seek refuge at the station as one of his prisoners gets seriously ill.
Meanwhile, a street gang that had several of its members killed in a police ambush swears a blood oath of revenge against the police and hits the streets to stir up trouble in an effort to attract the attention of law enforcement. A father named Lawson (Martin West from Family Plot) and his little girl, Kathy (The Car’s Kim Richards), run afoul of the gang and Kathy is killed. Lawson kills one of the gang members in a fit of madness-induced vengeance, then flees to the police station – leading the gang right to the defenseless building. After an initial siege that kills all of the other officers, Bishop is forced to free the convicts so that they can fight the gang alongside him until help can arrive.
Assault on Precinct 13 is significant for a way bigger reason than simply the presence of Tony Burton. It was an early film by the master of horror himself, John Carpenter, the man who made everything from Halloween, through They Live, and right up to The Ward. As the title implies, it is a siege movie, with Carpenter drawing heavy influence from two other siege movies, Howard Hawks’ jailhouse western Rio Bravo and George Romero’s zombie classic Night of the Living Dead. It’s also a tribute of sorts to grindhouse exploitation films, with lovingly cheesy spoken lines and over-the-top scenes of ultra-violence peppered throughout. Assault on Precinct 13 is not a typical horror movie, but Carpenter mixes horrifying plot implications with terrifying visual aesthetics to create a movie that is, well, a cinematic assault.
John Carpenter has always been a proponent of the anti-hero, and his movies also seem to frequently question the motives of authority figures such as police officers and politicians. Still, even by Carpenter’s standards, Assault on Precinct 13 really blurs the lines between good and evil. The opening scene shows police snipers ruthlessly gunning down gang members, illustrating to the viewer right from the get-go that there’s no clear-cut antagonist in this fight. The motley crew that finds itself defending the police station (which, interestingly enough, is not actually Precinct 13, but Precinct 9 in Division 13) is made up of both policemen and convicts, two polar opposites who are forced to trust each other in order to survive. Even the gang is treated sympathetically, with their vengeful actions given motive and reason instead of just being treated as senseless acts of violence.
The gang is an interesting aspect of Assault on Precinct 13. It’s not just a typical Los Angeles street gang. Instead, it’s a multi-racial outfit, including members who are of Black, White, and Hispanic descent, making them seem more like one of the gangs from Walter Hill’s The Warriors than something out of Colors or Boyz n The Hood. The gang seems to have a code of ethics as well. After swearing their blood oath of revenge, they drive around their neighborhood, lining up the poor and downtrodden residents in their crosshairs without firing. They save up their angst and ire for their enemy, and unfortunately for the father and little girl, Lawson and Kathy are the first outsiders they find.
Which brings up the next big observation about Assault on Precinct 13. In his second feature film, John Carpenter manages to commit the cardinal sin of filmmaking; he shows the killing of a child onscreen. To be fair, little Kathy is not the actual intended target of the gang – the innocent and naïve child just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time – but her death is shocking and disturbing. This helps to villainize the gang which, as mentioned earlier, seemed almost reasonable up until that point. Kathy’s death is also the catalyst which sets the siege part of the film in motion, as Lawson leads the gang right to the police station. With a filmmaker like John Carpenter, nothing is left to chance, so it’s certain that he had his reasons for killing the girl off, even if it is simply to provide the most upsetting moment in the film.
As with most of John Carpenter’s movies, the score for Assault on Precinct 13 was composed by the director himself. The music is exclusively electronic, an awesomely dirty mix of hard synthesizer lines and driving drum machine percussion. Carpenter leans heavily on only three or four different motifs, but the lack of variety is forgivable because the themes are all catchy and memorable. Carpenter’s sunglasses-at-night-cool soundtrack for Assault on Precinct 13 paved the way for the mechanical musical scores of the eighties – not just in horror, but in action and suspense movies, too.
This retrospective on Assault on Precinct 13 didn’t end up talking about Tony Burton very much, because let’s face it, his role in the movie is pretty small. He does a marvelous job with his limited screen time as one of the convicts-turned-heroes who are forced to fight off the anonymous revenge-seeking gang, but who are we kidding here? Burton will always be Duke, and that’s the best way for him to be remembered. Assault on Precinct 13 is but a footnote in his career – but it’s a very cool footnote nevertheless.