a Primal Root written review
There are certain perks one encounters when working at a video store. Free rentals, free coffee, cute girls asking about Friday the 13th movies, etc. But one of my favorite things is when a customer walks in and starts talking about some movie I’ve never even heard of. Just last week a young guy by the name of Alex came in singing the praises of a 1979 period film called ‘The Wanderers’. Now, I was certain he meant ‘The Warriors’ until he began describing this flick to me.
‘The Wanderers’ takes place in New York City in 1963 and is the coming of age story centering on three twenty-something high school boys who happen to be in the Italian. golden jacket clad greaser gang, The Wanderers. There’s Richie (Ken Wahl- ‘Fort Apache, The Bronx’.) who is kind of the unofficial leader of the gang and happens to be courting the young daughter of a prominent mafia kingpin. We get to to witness Richie giving her the wiggle stick before the credits roll! What a treat.
Our other lead is a wormy king named Joey ( John Friedrich – ‘The Final Terror’) who is secretly an incredible artist, lives with his alcoholic, physically abusive, gigantic Father and dreams o a better life while acting like Lenny and Squiggy’s missing brother. At first his shtick is a little annoying but by the end of the film I ended up really liking the character despite myself.
And then there’s Perry ( Tony Ganios – Meat from the ‘Porky’s’ Trilogy) whose the new kid in town, stands at least 6’7″, has shoulders broader than a barn door and plays the voice of reason as soon as he arrives and saves a select group of The Wanderers from being crushed into Wanderer Jelly Preserves by about a dozen members of The Baldies…
The Baldies are bat shit crazy. They will kill you without thinking twice, will allow any race or gender to join as long as they shave their head and are up for crushing skulls at a moments notice. They are led by a monstrous psychopath who goes by the name of Terror ( The late, great, Erland van Lidth). Terror’s a complete asshole but he does have a great sense of humor and a flare for excellent penis-centric practical jokes. The Baldies also have a mascot in the form of Terror’s girlfriend, Peewee ( Linda Manz – ‘Gummo’) who is either remarkably short of is just dwarfed by all the members of The Baldies. She’s got greasy hair, a leather jacket and strikes like a cobra. But hidden underneath that tough exterior is the heart of a romantic. Quite a cool supporting character. I honestly wish there were more of her in the story.
The film itself is an adaptation of the novel by Richard Price which drew much of it’s inspiration from his life experience . ‘The Wanderers’ focuses on a rivalry that grows between The Wanderers and another gang called the Del Bombers who are all black. It’s feud they plan to settle and they do…on the football field. That’s right, the story leads us to a football game of glory that leads to a final confrontation that will either push these gangs apart even further or finally bring them together.
However, as the movie unfolds we are introduced to much more real life drama going on behind the scenes as each of these young men deal with family issues, troubles with women and even problems that develop in their friendships. Hell, even a pre-Raiders of the Lost Ark Karen Allen shows up as a character named Nina to add some fuel to afew fires in the film. And let me tell you, she plays one heck of a plot device. She shows up, causes havoc, and is only seen once more. Her part is small, but pivitoal and surprisingly memorable. Karen looks GORGEOUS in this flick, by the way…especially during that strip poker game.
But as much chaos as Nina and The Baldies cause they all look like Quakers when compares to Ducky’s Boys. Holy shit, I have no idea who these guys are but their numbers reach up to at least several hundred, they are creepy as hell, blood thirst as sharks and the only character study we get of them is the fact that they are devote Catholics ( As if that’s not scary enough!). We are never sure what their motivations are or what their end game is. The never utter a single word. They simply smile at you like the Cheshire cat and the swiftly jam their switch blade into your loser neck. These guys are definitely the ultimate villains of the piece, and like any good bogeyman, they are made far more frightening by their lack of explanation.
‘The Wanderers’ certainly shows it’s age. Then again, I watched an old VHS copy in a giant turtle case…Either way, it’s a damned good, entertaining coming of age gang movie. One of the better ones I’ve seen and would make an excellent double feature with that other 1979 gang flick with the ridiculously similar title ‘The Warriors’. It plays like American Graffiti with switch blades, extreme profanity, violence and gang warfare.
This is some forgotten Trash Cinema well worth tracking down. ‘The Wanderers’ delivers the goods and then some. Sure, it’s got it’s technical flaws (oh man, don’t get me started on the editing) but overall, Phillip Kaufman’s (Quills, The Right Stuff) tale of growing up in a blood soaked, and insanely tense environment holds some very human moments that strike right to the heart of everyone whose tried to escape the hand life’s dealt them. Or those who have done battle with Catholics.
-The Primal Root