Shitty Movie Sundays: Death Machines

This shitty movie is so obscure that, as of this posting, it doesn’t have a Wikipedia page. That’s hard to believe. Usually if something exists, and more than a few dozen people know about it, it has a Wikipedia page. Far worse movies than this have Wikipedia pages. Far less hilarious shitty movies than this have Wikipedia pages. One of those free laborers they have slaving away over there should address this grievous oversight.

From 1976, Death Machines is the first film from Bay Area writer/director Paul Kyriazi. He was hired by martial artist Ronald L. Marchini, who was also the film’s producer, to make a karate flick, and that’s what he did. Although an audience member wouldn’t know this was a karate flick by the opening credits alone. They are a weird pastiche of synthesized music and mysterious, Terry Gilliam-like animations that suggest one is about to watch either a sci-fi movie or an Emerson, Lake & Palmer concert film — anything but a karate flick. It’s the only bit of futuristic whimsy in the entire film.

Marchini stars, alongside Michael Chong and Joshua Johnson, as the silent death machines of the title. Their characters have no names. In a fit of 1970s-ness, they are billed as the White death machine, Asian death machine, and Black death machine. They are karate experts who have been drugged and hypnotized by the evil Madame Lee (Mari Honjo, who so intrigued at least one fan that they became curious enough about Honjo’s whereabouts to make a creepy website). She wants mindless automatons to carry out assassinations on her order, whereby she will take control of the seedy underbelly of Stockton, California.

Her main rival for control of the Death Machines postercity is local mob boss Gioletti (Chuck Katzakian). Madame Lee’s game is to trick Gioletti into thinking she’s an ally, while at the same time working to take over his crime empire. One of the first targets in their false alliance is the owner of a karate dojo named Ho Lung (Eric Lee). It’s never explained why the sensei must die, but it does provide a convenient place for a big karate fight.

The three death machines burst into the dojo uninvited and lay waste to everyone inside, with the exception of Frank Thomas (John Lowe). He escapes with his life, and a hand missing. In one of the more shittier moments in the film, Frank has his hand chopped off by one of the death machines, only Kyriazi didn’t have a budget for proper effects, so Frank’s hand just kind of falls out of his sleeve. It’s a quick shot, so one will have to watch closely for its shittiness, but Kyriazi helpfully plays the scene back in flashback later in the movie for those viewers who might have missed it first time around.

This is the type of flick that just wallows in its shittiness. The incident with the hand is only one shitty moment in a film full of them. Honjo’s performance is one long, sustained, sublime piece of shitty acting. Part of it was her struggles with the English language, but one can only give Honjo so much leeway before deciding she’s just a bad actress. But, she’s perfect for the role. It would have been a disservice to this film to hand this role to anyone with a lick of talent. Marchini and Kyriazi should be praised for going all-in with Honjo.

Being a karate flick, there are lots and lots of fights. The choreography is exactly what one would expect from a film that was made for an estimated 70,000 bucks. A couple of the performers look like they know what they’re doing, but the rest look like star students from Machini’s dojo getting a chance to be in a movie. There’s no danger of any punch or kick actually landing, much less doing so with any sort of force.

Death Machines is a bit of a Hollywood fantasy from outside Hollywood. It appears Marchini wanted to get in on the ’70s craze for karate flicks, and he made it happen. He made it happen about a half dozen more times, too, before his career in film was over. The result is a really, really bad movie. This is another shitty movie that is objectively worse than Alien: Resurrection, but which I enjoyed watching more.