Death Machines (1976)

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The great thing about Ron Marchini’s movies is they’re never boring. They’re often incomprehensible, always terribly acted and not especially original, but boring? This trend started almost immediately (sadly, his first, 1974’s “Murder In The Orient” appears impossible to find, so this is the earliest movie of his available), through a career where…well, I was about to say that he’s a poor man’s Chuck Norris, but that’s not true at all. Norris’s movies are almost all garbage, and his status as an internet meme has somewhat clouded that fact in recent years. The only Norris movies  I could stand to watch nowadays would be “Invasion USA” or the first two “Missing In Action” efforts, whereas I’d be happy to pop on any Marchini movie. If I can find where he hangs out, or he starts using Twitter or something, I’ll try my hardest to get an interview.

 

Right from the beginning, I knew this was going to be a fun one. Check out that graphic above, the opening credits pans round it and even though I figured nothing quite that cool would actually appear in the movie, it’s still a good start. Now, the back-cover gives away the basic plot – the evil Madame Lee injects three martial arts fighters with a serum that turns them into zombie-like assassins, and she sends them out against her enemies; but this doesn’t reveal the full wonders that we have to behold. The first time we see the “death machines”, they’re all fighting in what turns out to be the final audition – but it seems Madame Lee is specific about her racial requirements, as the white guy (Marchini) fights another white guy, two Asians fight each other, and two black guys too. Marchini wins his fight in hilarious fashion – after a bit of kung fu on a bridge, he just pulls a gun from his waistband and shoots his opponent! She seems pleased at his thinking outside the box and he’s hired.

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Hired for being a drug-zombie killer? I guess? The employment process for this job is frustratingly opaque. Madame Lee has a boss, who remains entirely in the shadows (presumably so they could cast someone else in case of a sequel), and their entire plan is a bit confusing. It involves killing people who want to assassinate crime boss Mr Gioretti, then killing him? Honestly, none of it made a lick of sense, but it does give us some wonderful scenes where our three villains interrupt these potential assassins and just murder them. My favourite bit, pulling up maybe fifty feet away from a guy who really ought to be more observant, taking out a rocket launcher and blowing him to pieces, reinforces one of the prime ISCFC rules:

 

  • Movies featuring rocket launchers / bazookas are always awesome

 

For a group of automatons, they’re pretty inventive. And I like that! What I liked a little less was the other half of the story, which feels paced really weirdly, with the “hero” not showing up til half an hour in. So, the Machines are sent to a martial arts school to kill everyone there, and they almost manage it, just accidentally leaving one guy alive (albeit missing an arm). That guy is Frank (John Lowe) and I feel every other “useless main character” I’ve criticised on here can now take a step up the ladder. This guy is terrible! He complains constantly at the nurse, but she falls in love with him because…movies; then moans about his job until he gets his ass kicked by an old man; then does absolutely nothing to stop the Death Machines, relying on the cops turning up to save his bacon right at the end.

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Talking of the cops, there are also two cops who I guess you could also call the heroes of the piece, Lieutenant Clay Forrester and his partner Jerry. Clay, the old white guy, is the loose cannon, whereas Jerry, the young black guy, is super serious and by the book, begging Clay to go to the “Human Services” lecture. There’s an angry captain and a sleazy cop who hates Clay too, but they’re not strictly relevant to the story. The sheer number of mentions of doing their paperwork and attending sensitivity seminars indicates it was important to someone, but who and why are questions lost to time, sadly.

 

As you may have guessed from my bouncing around from one group to another, “Death Machines” feels a little disjointed, like three stories inexpertly welded together. If you think about it, they don’t even feel like part of the same movie – there’s a kung-fu assassins bit, then a buddy cop bit, then a whining one-armed miserable git bit. Perhaps someone was trying to make every sort of 70s movie at once and ran out of money, so just put them all into one. There’s even sub-sections, like how the kung-fu assassins bit briefly becomes a good ol’ boy barroom brawl bit, as Marchini is arrested, escapes, goes to a roadside diner and has a run-in with a rubbish looking biker gang.

 

That is, by and large, the plot, confusing and open-ended as it may be. If everything else were normal, it’d still be a lot of fun, but “Death Machines” makes a strong case for inclusion in the pantheon of “so bad it’s good” greatness. First up, acting. Ron Marchini, Michael Chong and Joshua Johnson (billed in the credits, brilliantly, as “White Death Machine”, “Black Death Machine” and “Asian Death Machine”) are very good mindless automatons, or just very bad actors. None of the three utters a single intelligible human sound throughout, which is sort of bold! We’ve already discussed what a wet waste of space Frank is, but lastly let’s talk Madame Lee. She’s so bad at acting I thought it was a prank, and her hair is frighteningly big, to the extent I thought she couldn’t act because she was busy concentrating on balancing that enormous thing on top of her head. A picture:

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Having spent a day puzzling it out, I’m still unsure about quite a few things. First up is why the Death Machines are virtually indestructible – they’re given a serum which I thought was to do with mind control, but it also makes them impervious to pretty much anything except a bullet to the head (and that only slows them down). But later on, a smack with a wooden chair lays Marchini out for ages? Then there’s how, during his escape, Marchini almost becomes a good guy, defending the people of the diner from the gang and being thanked afterwards, only to go back to murdering quite quickly. I like how Frank takes the nurse out for a coffee, but it’s at the bar he works at, during the time a stripper’s on stage! Or how the old guy (the one who beats Frank up quite easily) destroys the bar, for absolutely no reason. It defies you to make any sense of it.

 

For all these criticisms, and many many more, it’s an incredibly entertaining bad film. It rips along (the first half hour has as much fun and incident as most low-budget B movies have in their entire running time), and it’s fun to see another side of Ron Marchini. Plus, it’s got an absolutely incredible soundtrack, sort of an avant-garde take on sleazy 70s keyboard funk (although it’s probably more likely to be someone trying to make a funk soundtrack and failing miserably).

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Rating: thumbs up

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