DEATH MACHINES (1976) – Balladeer’s Blog’s old friend Ron Marchini is back! Just two years after sharing the screen with the Wizard of Odd Leo Fong in Murder in the Orient, Marchini produced this film in which he, Michael Chong and Joshua Johnson portrayed lobotomized living thralls who kill on command.
Paul Kyriazi directed and co-wrote Death Machines, a movie which has decent production values and always looks as if it’s a professional project, but is hilariously let down by the acting, writing, fight choreography and special effects.
Our story begins with the villainous Madame Lee (Mari Honjo), the Asian field boss of a criminal empire, observing a demonstration of her outfit’s new martial arts assassins in action. Ron Marchini IS White Death Machine, Michael Chong brings to life Asian Death Machine and Joshua Johnson wows as Black Death Machine. That’s exactly how our title trio are listed in the credits, by the way.
Madame Lee has become one of my new favorite villains from bad movies. Her utterly ridiculous beehive wigs are only part of her appeal. The rest lies in the way she comes across like Madeline Kahn doing a comedic character plus the actress’s virtually incomprehensible pronunciation of her lines and the bizarre way that most of her face seems immobile.
It’s like Mari Honjo was a decades-early example of an actress who got way too much botox in her face, or was a stroke victim who couldn’t move an entire side of her mouth. Not surprisingly, this was Honjo’s final film role.
Madame Lee looks on with satisfaction as her three Death Machines face off against opponents in some of the most lamely choreographed martial arts fight scenes I’ve ever watched. Comically enough, Marchini’s White Death Machine at one point seems to feel “the hell with it” and just pulls a gun out of his ankle holster and shoots dead his adversary.
Pleased with the outcomes of these exhibition matches, Madame Lee sends the Death Machines out to muscle in on the Mafia Don of Stockton, CA – Mr Gioletti (Chuck Katzakian). They do this by bumping off three of Gioletti’s hit men just when they’re about to whack three enemies of the Don.
You’ll wonder why the Death Machines had to be proficient in martial arts when you see their less than subtle assassination techniques. They use an honest to God BAZOOKA to kill one of the hit men, throw another off the roof of a high building and literally drive construction vehicles and trucks into phone booths and through Italian restaurants to finish off other Gioletti operatives.
During a business dinner Madame Lee serves up to Mr Gioletti the head of one of his dead henchmen to punctuate her deadly seriousness. Gioletti quite reasonably reacts by shooting to death the waiter (?) and then agrees to pay Madame Lee from now on when he needs people killed.
Mari Honjo’s character isn’t the true head of the operation, however. She answers to a shadowy figure I like to call the Amish Don because of his very odd facial hair. Are his facial features intentionally obscured by darkness because he surprisingly turns out to be a character we meet later in the movie? Nope. It’s that kind of film.
Madame Lee has her unspeaking assassins carry out the hits that Gioletti paid her for and, as a fringe benefit, it turns out that Black Death Machine shows enough free will to pay a booty call on the villainess from time to time. He never speaks at all and she can barely be understood when she speaks yet they’re STILL a more appealing couple than Finn and Rose Tico. Go figure.
One of the targets that Gioletti wants dead is the owner of a martial arts dojo, so, with less than surgical precision, the Death Machines slaughter the owner and one of his entire classes one day. Well, not quite the entire class. Frank Thomas (John Lowe) gets his right hand sliced off but survives to describe the trio of assassins to the cops.
And what cops they are! Lieutenant Forrester (Ron Ackerman) and his partner are on the case. Forrester – don’t be shocked – plays by his own rules and though he leads the precinct in arrests AND convictions, his captain is always chewing him out about his paperwork and his poor attendance at mandatory public relations classes.
That superior is VERY appropriately named Captain Green. Hilariously enough, even though he’s black the filmmakers used very odd facial makeup that causes his face to look GREEN in a lot of scenes. I’m not joking. Sometimes that greenish makeup is caked on so thickly he looks like a woman from a decades-old sitcom wearing a green mudpack before getting her beauty sleep.
Frank, the sole survivor of the dojo massacre briefly seems like he will become the movie’s action hero. He gets a replacement for his missing hand and is so bitter and obsessed over what happened to him and his classmates that another flick would probably have replaced his hand with a nasty hook or blade and sent him on a revenge quest.
Instead, Frank whines and complains, especially to his nurse (Mary Carole Frederickson). Inexplicably, she falls in love with the annoying, embittered little prick and their shared scenes are even more boring than the entirety of The Other Side of the Mountain.
Just to make things even more insane, at one point Madame Lee has the daughter of a bank official kidnapped to force him to resign in favor of one of her own men. The bank official refuses, but not because of any principled stand. He doesn’t want to quit after the years it took him to reach his current position. And this is AFTER he’s been shown threatening photos of his abducted daughter.
(Fortunately, his office desk does not boast a “World’s Greatest Father” mug.)
In the end the banker is blown up by a few sticks of dynamite in one of the most unintentionally funny scenes in the movie. The guy has been bound to a heavy filing cabinet just out of reach of the explosives, and when the timer goes off, it at first seems like the explosive has malfunctioned. He sighs with relief.
Then suddenly most of the building blows up! The only thing missing was a Road Runneresque “Beep-Beep!” right before the explosion. As for what happened to the banker’s daughter after this scene, the filmmakers apparently neither know nor care.
At one point, Ron Marchini’s White Death Machine gets shot in the head by a cop and screams like a child suffering their very first injury. After a brief incarceration, Marchini escapes and has a joyously bizarre interlude at a cheap diner where he meets the Christian missionary owner and fights the weirdest biker gang to ever grace the big screen.
(The “Hey, I’m talkin’ to you!” scene has forever replaced Taxi Driver’s “You talkin’ to ME?” scene in my mind.)
Anyway, after Frank gets his butt kicked by an old man during a brawl at the bar where he works, he spots the Death Machines and follows them to their lair, where he gets his butt kicked by Madame Lee.
SPOILERS: Lt Forrester shows up in time to save Frank from getting killed by Madame Lee, but the Death Machines escape and book a flight at the airport. As they walk to board the plane the film ends on a freeze-frame with the trio prominently featured.
… And that freeze-frame inexplicably lingers for a few minutes. In a competently made movie the closing credits would roll over this freeze-frame, given how long it sticks around, but as you may have noticed, Death Machines is not a competently made movie. Eventually the freeze-frame is replaced by the words The End against a black background, and we fans of Death Machines wouldn’t have it any other way.
Ron Marchini went on to do many more B-list actioners, Michael Chong played the undercover FBI man who got accidentally shot by his own backup men in To Live and Die in L.A. Ron Ackerman appeared with Leo Fong in Low Blow while Chuck Katzakian was Wraith in Marchini’s post-apocalypse flick Omega Cop.
Words cannot truly convey how uproariously bad that Death Machines is. My fellow fans of genuinely bad films should make a point of watching it at least once.
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