John Carpenter’s original Assault on Precinct 13 is one of the greatest zombie movies of all time, and there’s not a single zombie in it. The elements are all there: The chilling synth score, a cast of randoms thrown together by chance, an isolated siege site, the narrow escapes and eerie moments before all hell breaks loose, the characters dropping like flies and battling an overwhelming numbers of enemies, the scenes where our heroes hopelessly try to block off the entrances, and the scenes where the bad guys finally break through. But instead of actually making a zombie movie —something that barely existed in 1976, when the movie came out— Carpenter used those zombie movie techniques to tell a story about wayward gang youth, a pretty mundane subject in the hands of just about any other director.
The gang kids in Assault don’t have names. They don’t have characters or motivations beyond “kill everyone.” They don’t ever talk. They scuttle around in silence, hiding in shadows and smashing through windows without worrying about the people with guns behind those windows. When they get shot, or get their balls kicked or their arms broken, they don’t cry out. In the rare occasions that we see their faces, they’re cold and blank. These are basically children, but Carpenter treats them like they’re a supernatural force. They seem less like human beings and more like Invasion of the Body Snatchers pod people, or like mind-control victims from a comic book. It’s unsettling as hell, and it creates this crazy dreamworld feeling. Minutes into the movie, you pretty much have to accept that the movie’s world bears just about no relation to your own.
The only time the gang kids seem even remotely human is a short scene at the very beginning of the movie. A bunch of them are fleeing through the night, and a police-loudspeaker voice booms in to tell them to drop their weapons and surrender. As they run, a horde of police opens fire on them. (We never see the cops’ faces; they’re just disembodied hands pumping away at shotguns.) For that one scene, then, the cops are just as much a malevolent supernatural force as the kids will become. In the next scene, a news announcer calls the massacre a shootout, even though no gang kids got shots off, and the mayor blames the whole thing on juvenile delinquency. That gives some context to the rampage that follows, though it stops way short of making the gang members sympathetic characters.
I love the way the movie treats the awesomely named Street Thunder gang. The first time we see them, it’s four kids in a dilapidated living room staging some occult-looking blood ritual. Then they’re driving around silently, armed with sniper rifles and silencers, looking for random people to shoot. The gang, like gangs in movies like The Warriors and Death Wish 3, is made up of kids of every race. But unlike those other movies, Assault at least acknowledges how weird that is, with a radio announcer commenting on the “unusual” multiracial makeup. And the only time the kids make any attempt to communicate with the outside world comes when they lay a we’re-going-to-kill-everyone message at the steps of the police station they’ve surrounded.
About that police station: The whole movie takes place on its last night in operation. It’s got a skeleton crew because just about everyone has already moved over to the brand-new station that’s about to open. Lights and phone are about to be cut off, so when they shut down, the people inside get a few minutes of thinking that people at the phone and power companies just cut them off early. It’s a classic horror-movie setup. And when people do start riddling the walls with bullets, the movie honestly loses a little bit of steam. Carpenter was making this whole thing on a tiny budget, with elementary action-movie chops, though there are a few great jail-cell fistfights. But what really makes the movie is the growing sense of unease, the idea that horrible things could start happening at every moment. And in one of the most disturbing and fucked-up scenes you’re likely to see in any movie, they do happen: A gang member silently and remorselessly murders a cute little pigtailed girl when she walks up to him at the wrong moment. The kid’s father shoots the killer and then, catatonic with grief-rage, looks for shelter in that police station... which is why the gang is attacking in the first place. As if they needed a reason.
The movie doesn’t entirely treat criminals without sympathy, though. In fact, its best character is a legendary crook, the awesomely named Napoleon Wilson. He’s a hardbitten, sarcastic convict on his way to death row after killing some people for some unspecified reason. (At one point, he says that a preacher had once told him that he’s got “a stench of death about you,” and that’s all the explanation we get.) He’s at the police station because a prisoner got sick on the bus that’s taking him to death row, so his guard had to find a place to stop. But the gang members don’t care who’s a cop and who’s a criminal —they kill convicts just as easily as they kill cops— so everyone inside is on the same team. Wilson has an easy badass chemistry with Ethan Bishop, the cop in charge. We don’t get any tedious drawn-out arguments where the convicts argue that someone should give them a gun. They ask for guns, and people give them guns. There’s nothing obligatory about this movie; Carpenter tells the story with as few words as possible. It’s the right approach.
Carpenter acknowledged the influence of Night of the Living Dead, the only real modern zombie movie that existed at that point, in the way he filmed the gang. (And Living Dead director George Romero loved Assault.) But Carpenter wasn’t trying to make a zombie movie as much as he was making an homage to Howard Hawks westerns. Honestly, Assault probably would’ve been a western if Carpenter had been able to raise more than $100,000 in financing. Still, the stylized coldness and the absolute tension of the movie is something that probably left as deep an imprint on horror as it did on action movies.
This was only Carpenter’s second feature, after the deeply trippy sci-fi flick Dark Star, and it’s impressive how cheap and harsh it is. As Napoleon Wilson, Darwin Joston radiates leathery authority, but he never got another big movie role after this one. In fact, other than maybe a few people who became bit-part regulars in Carpenter movies, the only actor you’ll recognize is Tony Burton, who played Apollo Creed’s trainer Duke in the Rocky movies and who plays another convict here. Carpenter films chases and fights and shootouts with economical grace, partly because he knew what he was doing but also probably partly so he wouldn’t have to spend much money. That’s also why he did the music himself, and that worked out great. The synth score is chilling and memorable and iconic, and it’s popped up in sampled form all over the place.
Carpenter’s next movie was Halloween, which he got to make after Assault got some European-festival love and blew up overseas. And while of Halloween, and the movies that came immediately after, have made Carpenter known as one of the great B-movie directors of all time, his instincts were absolutely there in Assault. It still holds up as a tense and badass and legit shocking movie. In 2005, the French director Jean-François Richet directed a remake, and it had Ethan Hawke and Laurence Fishburne and Ja Rule and a goofy police-conspiracy subplot. I’m pretty sure it’s the last example in history of the movie where the end-credits rap song just retells the plot of the movie you just watched. (KRS-One, in this case, stands for Knowledge of everything you just saw Reigns Supreme Over Nearly Everyone.) It’s pretty good! But in this case, as with so many other action-movie remakes, there’s no substitute for the original.
Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum; he’s written for Pitchfork, the Village Voice, GQ, Grantland, and the Classical. He lives in Charlottesville, Va. He is tall, and on Twitter.
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