New York, New York. A hell of a town. The Bronx is up, but the Battery’s down. And it’s a great backdrop for movies, horror or otherwise. Even when that movie is as surreal and fantastical as The Warriors.
The Warriors is about a street gang, of course called The Warriors, from Coney Island who travel to the Bronx for a conclave at which another gang’s leader, a charismatic figure named Cyrus (Roger Hill from “One Life to Live”), reveals a plan for the gangs of the city to take over New York. During his inspiring speech, Cyrus is shot by a rival gang member named Luther (David Patrick Kelly from Dreamscape and John Wick). Luther frames The Warriors for the murder, and they are forced to fight – or bop – their way back to Coney Island while every gang in the city – as well as the police – are trying to hunt them down.
Adapted from the 1965 Sol Yurick novel of the same name, The Warriors was directed by Walter Hill (Streets of Fire, Crossroads) from a screenplay he wrote with David Shaber (Nighthawks). It’s more of an action movie than a horror flick, but the world that Hill creates is terrifying in the same way as that of The Purge or Class of 1984, a violent battlefield upon which anything can – and often does – happen. The desperate world and memorable characters have helped turn The Warriors into a bona-fide cult movie hit, lodging itself firmly into the pop culture vernacular with instantly quotable lines like Cyrus’ battle cry of “can you dig it?” and Luther’s ominous pleading of “warriors, come out to pla-ay!”
Although it was made in 1979, The Warriors takes place in a strange dystopian version of New York City. There’s no real indication of it being set in a futuristic world, there are no lasers or flying cars or anything like that, but there’s a distinct science fiction vibe of dread and despair to the movie. The action occurs over the course of one (long) night, so the streets and subways are all but deserted, making the city look almost like a war zone. Not exactly an accurate depiction of the Big Apple, but one that makes a great backdrop for some stunning imagery and compelling fight scenes.
And those fight scenes star some of the coolest gangs ever committed to film. Like the representation of New York, the gangs in the film are not at all authentic. The gang members are flamboyant and colorful, wearing surreal costumes and facepaint that make them look more like circus performers than threatening criminals. There’s a deeper mythology to the story that is only hinted at in the movie, with The Warriors only having significant run-ins with about a half dozen of the over a hundred gangs that are represented at the conclave. Some gangs are only onscreen for a few seconds (or even frames), yet all of them have deep and complex backstories. While The Warriors are battling the Baseball Furies, the Turnbull ACs, and the Grammercy Riffs, gangs like the Van Cortlandt Rangers, the Moonrunners, and the Electric Eliminators are all searching fruitlessly for them out of sight, but never out of mind.
There are no real household name stars in The Warriors, but there are a bunch of familiar faces who went on to bigger (but not necessarily better) things. Michael Beck (Madman, Xanadu) is a standout as Swan, the de-facto leader of the disoriented Warriors. James Remar (who was in The Blackcoat’s Daughter and Django Unchained, but is probably best known as Dexter’s dad on “Dexter”) plays the rough and tough Ajax, a gang soldier who constantly challenges Swan’s authority from within the group. Dorsey Wright (Hair), David Harris (James White), Terry Michos (The Great Skycopter Rescue), and Thomas G. Waites (The Thing) all portray members of the titular gang. And, because every movie needs a female lead, Deborah Van Valkenburgh (The Devil’s Rejects, “Too Close for Comfort”) struts her stuff as a hanger-on that the Warriors pick up in another gang’s territory. Again, no huge stars, but plenty of recognizable faces are all over The Warriors.
No discussion of The Warriors can be complete without mentioning the music. The score, composed by Barry De Vorzon (Night of the Creeps, The Ninth Configuration), is a groovy mesh of electronic moog synthesizer stabs and seventies rock music, and it perfectly communicates the desperate confidence of the characters in the desolation of the burnt-out streets of New York. It’s a hard rocking precursor to the keyboard-oriented horror scores of the eighties, sort of a haunting take on progressive rock and roll in the same ballpark as a less-driving Goblin score. In a show of typical seventies synergy, De Vorzon also co-wrote the theme song “In the City” with James Gang/Eagles guitarist Joe Walsh, who performs the memorable tune. And, to top it off, all of the less-cinematic, pop-song musical pieces are seamlessly strung together by the smooth voice of a faceless DJ who uses the music to summon the “armies of the night.” The music to The Warriors is almost as legendary as the movie itself, if not more so.
So, The Warriors may not be an accurate representation of New York, but it’s a fun one. And that’s what movies like The Warriors are all about – more fun than realism.