Rome 2033: The Fighter Centurion (aka, Warriors of the Year 2072) (aka, The New Gladiators) (Lucio Fulci, 1984)
“Go to hell, Cortez!” –heroically righteous gladiator Drake (Jared Martin)
“I would… if I thought it would raise my ratings” – slime-oozing WBS chief of programming Cortez (Claudio Cassinelli)
Seeing as I’ve been buzzing around the Fulci section of my shelves these days – with the additions of the latest bluray releases from Severin, as well as from Blue Underground (those amazing lenticular covers!), adding even more fresh nectar to the scent – I figured what a perfect time to pull out the legendary Italo-exploitation maven’s Rome 2033 (or whatever title you wanna run with), as not only would it satisfy my Fulci-yearnings, but also allow me to check another off the list of my on-going peeks at a particular subset of (mostly) 80’s post-apocalyptic action films, in which a slew of greedily enterprising producers (mostly Italian, naturally), ‘inspired’ by the wild box office successes of both George Miller’s Aussie-set crazy futuristic cop/biker film Mad Max (which I just happened to recently finish showing the entire epic four-film franchise to ex-wifey and daughter… write-up for the fourth film, Fury Road, to follow) and John Carpenter’s extraordinarily resourceful classic of colorful futuristic wonkiness, Escape from New York (with a helping of Walter Hill’s costume-crazy The Warriors thrown in as well) created a virtual cavalcade of entertaining rip-offs; strange low-brow hybrids which, at their best, disguised their usually (way) underbudgeted productions with lots of inspiration and energetic filmmaking and, at their worst, at least made for some bizarre film viewings.
With its centerpiece set-pieces of deadly gladiator-like games for spectacle (with the final death match between 15-armored studded pawns actually set – both in the story, and production-wise — in the Roman Coliseum itself, bringing it all back home!), starring a reluctant hero (Jared Martin) that the greedy network television bigwigs – driven by their sociopathic gambit for ratings, as that pull-no-punches amusingly on-the-nose dialogue above makes clear (though I’d argue, it could be said verbatim in another more ‘serious’ film made by some noted intellectual director, and not an eyelash would have been batted out how bludgeon-heavy it is) — despise and wanna get rid of (in consecutively more deadly matches that, natch, our hero, keeps winning), Rome 2033 jumps back for inspiration a few years to 1975, taking its main cues from the James Caan-scifi/action vehicle, Rollerball (Martin even sports a similar curly-reddish quaff on his pate to Caan… though, let’s be clear, he doesn’t come across anywhere near as tough), only primarily on motorcycles with spike-studded tires rather than roller-derby skates – and it was a good idea I say!
Maybe it was just the film caught me at the right time, or that the Fulci film I had set my eyes on previously was the dreadfully depressing Zombie 3, which found the Italo-maestro at his most uninspired, ill and working with inferior collaborators, or whatever the reason… but, with its fast-moving, camera swerving (from zooms to lots of close-ups on eyes) maneuverings, plentiful action sequences (imperfectly executed ones, true, but with a feeling of – as with the entire film – a lot of commitment) and relentlessly gaudy pastiche-like set-pieces (with, for instance, the brutal murder of Drake’s wife – carried out clandestinely by the evil corporation is played out in a quasi-futuristic home that’s a ringer for the love nest of Caan’s Jonathan and his bird in Rollerball, with the stylishness of the bloody murder reminiscent of Dario Argento’s vibrantly blood-stained Tenebrae), Rome 2033 ends up a kind of text-book example on how, through exciting shooting, inspired moment-by-moment cinematic diversions and overall chutzpah, a woeful budget can be overcome.
Miniature of the Rome Colisseum
From the execution of the ‘hate simulator’ (projecting holographic images that start with an unaccountable — and smeary — glob of red down the screen), with Drake forced to face the taunting images of the all-white-wearing, New Wave rock group-esque killers who took out his wife, in order to get him to get in touch with his ‘true hate’ in preparation for the games, to the obvious miniatures that the space vehicles glides over (in an attempt, a la, Blade Runner to define the futuristic urban landscape, only with that catchy, if relentless, heroic Riz Ortolani score in place of the somber mood drones of the Ridley Scott masterpiece) – it all just keeps moving confidently and energetically forward, on to the next absurd scene or bit, determined to never allow a breath to realize just how absurd (and under budgeted) the whole thing is.
There’s a nice assortment of Italian genre character actors plying their trade (including the inimitable Al Cliver – who gets a particularly nasty, spittle-spewing electrocution scene, Fred Williamson – who is granted a quick moment of cackling mania, directly into the camera that, if you don’t miss it because it is so fleeting, might be one of the most effective things he’s ever done on screen – and the villainous Howard Ross, perfect as the sadistic lead guard Raven), but unlike in Rollerball, as colorful as they are, the characters are somewhat backgrounded, figures in a world defined by exciting editing, inspired shooting, fun action, and attempts in each scene to create a vibrant space (either through avoiding the surroundings as much as possible by using lots of effective close ups or just going for it, like with the obvious miniatures)… Fulci even gets to throw in a few trademark juicy gore bits (fun things like faces melting away from acid, heads lopped off mid-battle) and while they may come across as a bit underwhelmingly executed on their own – as with the entirety of the strangely paradoxically cheap and inspired world they exist within – they end up working.
Rome 2033, Warriors 2072, or even The New Gladiators (as Lloyd Kaufman called it, when his Troma picked it up for distribution), whatever or whoever you really are (and whatever year you really come from)… call me a fan. And thanks, Maestro Fulci. Sure, it’s not one of your masterpieces, but I’d say it stands out as unique within the genre (when contrasted against, say, Enzo Castellari’s straightforwardly muscular approach to these films, Fulci’s entry practically plays like a drugged-out experimental film) and it gives a nice reminder of just how much fun this fleeting (if, as usual, wildly Italo-prolific) period of post-apocalyptic scifi rip-offs was when revving up high on its low-end cylinders. It’s not a film whose pleasures derive from, say, overriding narrative suspense (which Fulci has proven elsewhere – on good days — of being capable of crafting, mind you), but from an immensely enjoyable sense of low-rent cinematic inventiveness and showmanship in the face of obvious production limitations.