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John Carpenter is almost as famous for his zombie movies as George A. Romero. I know what you're thinking—John Carpenter hasn't done any zombie movies—but I beg to differ. Almost all of his movies feature legions of unstoppable, mindless bad guys that are zombie-like in everything but name. The Fog turned people into zombies, a bunch of relentless marauders did the Assault on Precinct 13 and even his recent lacklustre Ghosts of Mars was populated with ghosts that behaved more like zombies. There's definitely a theme to Carpenter movies regarding overwhelming enemies, and the same is the case with his seminal Escape from New York.

Escape from New York


It's 1997 (yes, back in the early eighties this was futuristic) and the US is at war with both Russia and China. The crime rate has risen some 400% and so Manhattan has been isolated from the rest of New York and made into one big prison, where those convicted are sent for life. And not 20-30 years like 'life' sentences are these days—here life means forever. These convicts are never allowed off the island: if they try to escape, they are shot or blown out of the water.

In a situation somewhat foretelling of 9-11, a Jumbo Jet is taken over by terrorists trying to 'free the oppressed' and subsequently crashed into a building on Manhattan Island. Given the state it is in, that would not be much of a problem, were it not for the fact that the plane is none other than Air Force One. Worse still, the President was on his way to making a critical speech that could mean the difference between peace and further conflict between the States and its enemies, so they cannot merely replace him—they have to get him back alive.

Special Forces Commander Bob Hauk tries to mount a rescue but his attempts are thwarted by the inhabitants of the island, who threaten to kill the President if anybody tries to take him back. Hauk is left with no other choice but to get Snake Plissken out of jail and back into the field. A decorated war hero convicted of robbing the Federal Reserve, he is offered a complete pardon in exchange for returning the President safe and in time for his speech. To that end Plissken is given an incentive to be successful in his operation by being implanted with an explosive that will go off within twenty four hours (after which the peace conference will be unsalvageable). And so our reluctant hero is dispatched to Manhattan Island, worried not only about how to recover the President but also about how he is going to get back; how he is going to escape from New York.

Escape from New York
John Carpenter's first bout with his enigmatic one-eyed antihero Snake is a superior action-thriller, with his standard zombie-horror overtones (after all, the inmates of Manhattan Island have become barbarian scavengers, living underground and springing up through the floorboards of houses to pull fresh victims into their self-made hell). Snake has his work cut out for him so it is lucky that he is so damn good at killing people.

I don't think many people could have pulled off this role (with his sardonic wisecracks and his eye-patch—I mean, doesn't he need depth perception to fly and shoot so well?) but Kurt Russell is simply perfect as Snake. In fact, his Carpenter films represent the highlight of his career, with this and future collaboration on the excellent horror, The Thing, and the hilarious action-comedy Big Trouble in Little China also marking high points for the director. As Snake, Russell is a superb tough guy, exuding equal parts cool and machismo, and it is a shame to see him fall on such hard times, with few recent hits to his name and even the solid Dark Blue failing to rouse audiences whose appetites for corrupt cop dramas had already been satiated by the likes of Narc and Training Day. I just hope he still has a little Snake left in him to surprise us with in the future.

Along for the ride, the cast is populated with recognisable faces in myriad roles, from Lee Van Cleef (who had proved his worth in countless Westerns, alongside the Crichton-novel-based Westworld) as Commander Hauk to Airwolf's Ernest Borgnine as a taxicab driving Manhattan resident who helps Snake on his quest. Harry Dean Stanton (who has had bit parts in everything from Alien to Seagal's Fire Down Below) pops up as a sneaky double-crosser, Harold and we even get the great Isaac Hayes (most famous for doing the theme to the original Shaft, but also still the voice of Chef in South Park) as the new leader of the rebels on Manhattan Island, 'The Duke of New York', who comes complete with his own hydraulics-laden pimp-mobile.

Adrienne Barbeau (who has recently proved to be a surprising love interest in Carnivale) provides some gun-toting femme fatale action as Maggie, another one of Snake's potentially dubious helpers. The President himself is played by Carpenter favourite, Donald Pleasance, an actor who is probably best known for his corrupt genius roles. Escape from New York is a lesson in dark, action-packed and thrilling filmmaking on a relatively small budget, with able direction from the horror master Carpenter, superb heroics by Kurt Russell, solid support from a colourful entourage of well-known actors and a decent script and story for them all to work with.

Escape from New York


Escape from New York is presented in a beautiful, broad 2.40:1 aspect ratio anamorphically enhanced widescreen transfer. It is probably the best that this twenty-five year old film has ever looked, with reasonably good detail throughout, negligible softness, some edge enhancement and a little light grain. The colour scheme is fairly restricted by the environment, which is simply bathed in shadow and darkness and the blacks are solid and deep, allowing for decent shadowing. The transfer itself exhibits none of the print damage that you would associate with a movie as old as this and overall it is a stellar presentation.


There are two main six-speaker surround sound audio tracks, a Dolby Digital 5.1 effort and a DTS track. Both of them are simply superb—two of the best remixes I have come across (i.e. for movies that were not originally recorded in 5.1), presenting the dialogue predominantly from the frontal array but also giving it a surprising amount of directionality. The score is spread across the surrounds, and despite the fact that it sounds quite good you can still tell that most of it has been done using classic Carpenter synthesiser methods. The Duke's theme has a little more beat to it and the score does offer up a little bass. We get yet more directionality from the effects (despite the fact that most of the gunshots sound muffled), including plenty of helicopters flying overhead and cars smashing through road-blocks. The DTS offers up little improvement on the Dolby 5.1 track (perhaps because they are both remixes), although that does not really matter because they are both great.


First up we get a feature commentary with director John Carpenter and star Kurt Russell (recorded ten years ago). Carpenter tends to lead the way, talking about how his story resonated at the time because of the then hostage crisis in Iran and discussing how it was a low budget movie (5 million)—and pointing out how you can tell as well. He talks about the lack of digital effects and how all of the 'computer graphics' had to be drawn, along with the matte painting backgrounds and the model helicopters. After a while Carpenter's detailed discussions get a little too revealing—almost spoiling the fun of the movie (and ruining your ability to suspend disbelief). Russell is merely along for the ride, just chipping in from now and then about how audiences responded to the first screenings and how he had to get in shape for the movie. They discuss the various cast members and their corresponding characters, from Lee Van Cleef to Donald Pleasance, with Carpenter relating his ideas to Night of the Living Dead but more often than not mentioning locations and camera angles etc. which just makes the whole experience too dry. If not for Russell, ever at the ready to bring Carpenter back to Earth, it would be too technical to stomach. As is, it is quite a nice and informative track to dip in and out of.

Escape from New York
The second commentary is with producer Debra Hill and production designer Joe Alves. They also talk about the budgetary restraints, the special effects and the problems they encountered during the production. Much of the same ground is covered and, if anything, it is even drier, consisting of non-stop technical trivia. Sometimes this can be quite interesting (like the Hitchcock tricks employed) but after a while it can get overwhelming in terms of micro management detailing. Overall this is clearly the lesser of the two commentaries and it is a shame that nothing was recorded recently enough to relate the opening sequence to 9-11 and offer up a new angle into the significance of the movie.

'Return to Escape from New York' is an all-new making-of documentary that runs at twenty-three minutes, featuring interviews with John Carpenter, actors Kurt Russell, Isaac Hayes and Harry Dean Stanton, actress Adrienne Barbeau and producer Debra Hill, talking about the movie, how the original script was written in the early seventies, how it was eventually put into action, creating the anti-hero character of Snake, adding the humour and so forth. There are a few clips from the final movie, along with some nice black and white stills from the production. Russell admits that it was his favourite role, they all talk about the various other cast members and overall it is an extremely interesting featurette that crams an awful lot of valuable information into a relatively short running time. Compared to the commentaries, this is definitely superior and well worth your time.

The 'Original Bank Robbery Opening Sequence' is the best deleted scene that I have come across recently. Running at ten minutes in length, it was the original opening to the movie, seeing how Snake got himself into trouble in the first place, and you can understand why they wanted to cut it—it does unnecessarily complicate the start of the movie. That said, it is simply great to see it here, especially since it not only features Russell in action as Snake but also has all the markings of classic Carpenter (as it should since it very nearly made it into one of his best films). This is an absolute gem that will be loved by any fan of the movie.

There are also three trailers—the theatrical trailer, the shorter promo trailer and a rather odd trailer entitled 'Snake Bites', which basically sums up the entire movie in four minutes, playing all of the best bits sequentially to tell the story. It is highly recommended that you avoid this if you have not seen the main movie.

Escape from New York


Escape from New York is a true classic, a thrilling action-movie with horror overtones, clever set-pieces and even a light political commentary. It marks a point in film history when both director John Carpenter and star Kurt Russell were at the top of their game and is packed with a cast of recognisable faces, who work well together to flesh out a superior script and story. The DVD is adorned with a superb transfer, two powerful audio tracks and a wealth of extras—all major selling-point for many fans. If you haven't got this movie in your collection then this edition is a definitive must-have and for those looking to upgrade, even ignoring the superior presentation, it is worth getting for the ten-minute alternate opening sequence alone. Highly recommended.