Death Machines is the kind of lovable cheese that we celebrate during Junesploitation. I watch a lot of exploitation and genre stuff, but I don’t think if I’ve ever seen a movie so stubbornly committed to fit in as many awesome elements from different styles into one single film. Most of the time, we can fit exploitation films neatly into distinct subgenres, but Death Machines is so schizophrenic that labeling it seems practically impossible.
It starts as science fiction during the credits as we see this huge, metallic monolith with faces bulging from its sides. The opening credits feel like they’re out of an unmade Pink Floyd concept film, but have absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the movie. Then it’s like we change the channel and switch to a Kung Fu film as sweaty martial arts guys battle to the death. We’re then introduced to an evil lady crime boss and her shadowy superior, a mastermind who has her inject three of her toughest warriors with a serum that makes them essentially immortal and unbeatable. When these three unstoppable “death machines” start carrying out assassinations and taking down rival mafia-type figures, the movie becomes a seventies crime movie, complete with tired detectives who thought they’d seen it all but have never seen anything quite like this. It goes on and on, switching genres on a dime and becoming a completely different movie every ten minutes or so.
In most movies, this would be high criticism. Here it’s almost a compliment. You know how in Pulp Fiction, Tarantino weaves a series of seemingly-unrelated vignettes into a tapestry of storytelling? You have the stuff with Vince and Jules in the car, you have Vince’s “date” with the boss’s wife, you have the boxer storyline, you have the two lovebird robbers, and the stories seem mostly unrelated until the credits roll. When you step back, you realize you’ve spent time with a bunch of interconnected characters and events that were all in the service of a bigger picture. This movie does something similar, but I think it gets there completely by accident.
Later, one of the juiced-up death machine assassins is fleeing from the cops in the middle of an urban area and all of the sudden finds himself in a rural gas station with a restaurant attached. The entire vibe of the movie changes yet again, and when a group of grizzled bikers wander into the gas station looking for trouble, we’re no longer in a world of urban crime and martial arts, but a redneck revenge story where Hell’s Angels hooligans terrorize good rural people and won’t leave THAT ONE GUY--the one who is being quiet and just wants to eat in peace-- alone until he’s forced to fight back. Again, our focus has switched from the characters we’re supposed to be watching to these bikers, who seem to have stepped out of their own movie into this one.
Read more of Heath Holland's writing at his blog Cereal at Midnight!