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Droids & Directors: Dissecting ‘Death Machine’ (1994)

Horror and sci-fi filmmaking was in a fascinating place in the ‘90s. Although far from the barren wasteland those hopped up on the ‘70s and ‘80s would have you believe, horror-wise the decade was a fallow period. Intermittent critical and commercial hits such as The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and The Sixth Sense (1999) were lumped with the groan-inducing ‘elevated genre’ tag and pushed as thrillers by studios reluctant to embrace their lower-rent lineage. Established terror masters George Romero, Tobe Hooper, John Carpenter, and Wes Craven were still beavering away, deconstructing their own legacies as well as the genre at large with self-reflexive gems The Dark Half (1993), The Mangler (1995), In the Mouth of Madness (1995), and New Nightmare (1994). Sadly, their post-modern noodlings were met with indifference at best and contempt at worst – well, until Craven’s barnstorming Scream (1996), when intertextual swagger and a hot young cast became ‘the thing’.

Science fiction, meanwhile, was in the middle of a Ridley Scott, James Cameron, and Paul Verhoeven-fuelled hangover. Outliers like Twelve Monkeys (1995) and Dark City (1998) aside, ‘90s sci-fi became a byword for action; Scott’s Alien (1979), Cameron’s Aliens (1986), and Verhoeven’s Total Recall (1990) had blown off the doors already loosened by George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977) and transformed hi-tech speculative fantasia into a smorgasbord of special effects, bullets, and adrenaline-pumping set pieces. However, it was within the era’s fructiferous direct-to-video arena where Scott et al’s impact was felt the greatest. Their enduring classics Blade Runner (1982), The Terminator (1984), and RoboCop (1987) were wholly responsible for an entire cottage industry of scintillating robo-schlock, typified by the enterprising output of straight-to-tape demigods Phillip J. Roth, Albert Pyun, and John Eyres, who gifted us the likes of A.P.E.X. (1994), Nemesis (1992), and Project Shadowchaser (1992).

A Frankenstein’s monster of a film, Stephen Norrington’s action-sci-fi-horror hybrid Death Machine (1994) is everything mentioned above.

Death Machine : Cinema Quad Poster

Ostensibly Alien meets The Terminator (with a smattering of Jaws (1975), The Warriors (1979), and Die Hard (1988) thrown in for good measure), Death Machine is a knowing, mind-melting stockpile of a thousand things from a thousand other movies. But to call the London-born Norrington’s British-made yet distinctly un-British debut a mere cut n’ paste job is of tremendous disservice. For one, such a throwaway description fails to capture the then twenty-nine year old writer-director’s infectious sense of puckish swagger, which bursts from Death Machine‘s every frame. For another, this sort of lousy summation completely ignores the film’s alluring blend of – dare I say it – ‘elevated’ prescience and uncanny prediction, hurtling as it does along the seldom travelled road of topical reflection and eerie, career-based prophecy.

In regards to the former, Norrington’s tale of a psychotic inventor and his killer robot isn’t so much clichéd as it is a celebration of the robo-schlock subgenre’s many contrivances. Norrington uses familiarity like a swinger’s party uses baby oil, slathering it around to amplify the pleasure. There’s a wonderful ‘you want it, you got it’ vibe to Death Machine, this feeling that Norrington is hardwired to the kind of excitement us droid-lovin’ B-movie nuts crave. He’s one of us, a fan, and he’s giving us exactly what we want.

It’s there in the film’s snappy dialogue, which is filled with techno-babble and barb-laced interplay.

It’s there in Death Machine‘s raucous carnage, as Norrington’s kinetic camerawork tears through scene after scene of gunfire and bloodshed, the bulk of which was shot at Pinewood Studios.

And it’s there in the vividly realised world that Norrington presents us with. A William Gibson-esque realm of cutting edge technology, civil unrest, and ruthless conglomerates, it’s the same phobic, meticulously crafted vision the helmer would invoke in his later, better known projects Blade (2001) and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003). Here though, in Death Machine, it’s the ultra-shady Chaank Corporation rather than vampires or Victorian terrorists that dominate this capitalist cesspit.

Chaank make Omni Consumer Products look like Help the Aged. Exhibiting all the worst aspects of corporate profiteering, they’re a greedy shower of bastards, represented on screen by a pair of a-hole executives: Richard Brake’s shouty yuppie Scott Ridley (wink) and William Hootkins’ smarmy John Carpenter (wink, wink). Attempting to cover-up Chaank’s disastrous super soldier program, Ridley and Carpenter’s questionable ties to the program’s lead scientist, Jack Dante (Brad Dourif), are brought into question by the company’s newly employed chief, Hayden Cale (model turned actress Ely Pouget). Quickly attracting the attentions of the creepy Dante, soon Cale is forced to team with a trio of freedom fighters (led by The Machinist’s (2004) John Sharian, who plays a socially conscious hero called – wait for it – Sam Raimi) when Dante sets his eponymous mechanical monster loose in Chaank’s towering HQ…

While Dourif’s actual performance isn’t anything special (it’s the default crazy mode the Child’s Play (1988) star would use in Exorcist III (1990) and the last third of Spontaneous Combustion (1990)), Dante’s place within Death Machine is irresistibly compelling. He’s beyond just another character Norrington christens with an homage-soaked name (alongside the nods to Scott, Carpenter, Raimi, and the beloved Gremlins (1984) maestro, there’s also a ‘Weyland’ and ‘Yutani’).

He’s beyond being just the film’s bad guy.

Jack Dante is the meeting point between society at large and Stephen Norrington himself.

Few artistic mediums reflect our collective anxieties as well as genre films do. They’re a chronicle. They absorb the concerns and mood of the moment; sometimes purposefully, often unavoidably so. Death Machine is no exception. Alongside Return of the Living Dead 3 (1993) and Project Metalbeast (1995), Death Machine is part of a small streak of sci-fi horror movies to drip with Gulf War overflow.

Throughout the Persian Gulf conflict’s duration between August 1990 and February 1991, footage of briefings and missile strikes were broadcast on a loop across news stations. Keen to avoid the kind of shift in public support that met Vietnam, when horrific images of napalm attacks and the My Lai Massacre obliterated whatever notion of heroism they had tried to foster, the footage from the Gulf War was heavily controlled by the U.S. military, who were as equally keen to showcase their array of top of the range weaponry. With warmongering and the artillery created by Dante integral to Death Machine’s plot (as they were in the aforementioned ROTLD 3 and Project Metalbeast), the parallels are obvious. Despite its brevity, the war’s fallout was still in the public’s consciousness, and Death Machine soaks it up. Of course, eking deeper, more profound commentary from Death Machine is troubling at best. After all, it’s tough to be overly damning of the industrial-military complex when your film’s pretty much weapon porn.

That said, Norrington not fetishistically focusing on every whirring component of Dante’s hulking War Beast would be a catastrophic misstep. There’s nothing worse than a robo-schlocker that pulls its punches, shying away from the cyber goods. Part shark, part Xenomorph, the titular death machine, with its sharp metal teeth and razor-lined fingers, is phenomenal to behold and given an ample amount of screen time. A remote controlled mass of cables, gears, and flailing steel limbs, the War Beast is among the coolest toys in genredom; a Meccano or Traxxas gone haywire. Moreover, it’s the ultimate embodiment of Death Machine‘s meta duality.

Indeed, for as brilliantly they hold up a mirror to what’s around us, genre filmmaking is more so ripe for personal expression. A cursory look at the resume of any auteur director reveals a wealth of personal idiosyncrasy; the output of every vision-heavy genre hawk is rich with autobiographical flourishes, from James Whale and James Wan in horror, to Sam Peckinpah and Roel Reiné in action. Consider David Lynch, who channeled his apprehension of fatherhood into Eraserhead (1977); or the late Tony Scott, a real-life adrenaline junkie whose lust for excitement seeped into all of his bombastic offerings.    

In Death Machine, Dante is Norrington. It’s teased by a bit of expository bumf spat by Chaank’s super computer which states that Dante is “a prime example of acute violent psychosis allied to extreme technical virtuosity”. Norrington’s not a deranged criminal, admittedly – he’s certainly never mangled a child with a homemade bear trap as per Dante’s backstory, that’s for sure. But the evidence suggesting Dante and Norrington are one and the same is plentiful. Even the top-billed Dourif agreed, remarking in Fangoria #163 that the similarities between them had “not gone unnoticed”*.

Both sport a penchant for rave-punk fashion.

Both mistrust authority.

And both are painfully awkward when interacting with other people.

A twitchy man-child whose lab/residence is closer to an adolescent lad’s private wank-pit than a working or living area, covered as it is with toys and porn, Dante’s unease with his fellow humans is compounded by his voracious appetite for junk culture. He’s as assembled as the War Beast or Death Machine itself; a fleshy husk stuffed with bits and pieces lifted from a diet of mass media, desperately trying to be normal but never quite succeeding. Likewise, Norrington doesn’t mix well with others. Notoriously difficult, the mercurial director has alienated several collaborators due his prickly nature, most famously Sir. Sean Connery, who effectively quit acting after nearly coming to blows with Norrington on the tense set of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. He’s a producer’s nightmare.

But more than anything, Dante and Norrington are creators who live and die by their innovations. Both, for instance, designed the War Beast, Dante in the film and Norrington for it. A special FX wiz by trade, Norrington cut his teeth as a teen in the make-up departments of Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan (1984) and Gremlins. Stints on Lifeforce (1985) and Aliens would follow before he graduated from wunderkind latex and prosthetics slinger to full-blown creature designer, becoming a prominent part of Jim Henson’s team on cult TV series The Storyteller (1987-89). His subsequent creature work effectively paved the way for Death Machine: a robotics technician gig on Richard Stanley’s cyberpunk masterpiece Hardware (1990 – another sublime ’90s robo-schlocker that also features William Hootkins being mauled by a robot) refined Norrington’s ability to craft a functional prop droid of his own, and the Giger-aping demon he rendered for the ace, Rutger Hauer-starring Split Second (1992) left so much of an impression on the film’s backers that Split Second’s producer, Laura Gregory, initially voiced interest in the script for Death Machine (although she later stepped aside for Dominic Anciano, who’d produced The Krays (1991) and The Reflecting Skin (1991)).    

With nary much retooling – and give or take a murder and rape or two – you could easily twist Dante’s prodigious creative talents into an identical narrative. In spite of their eccentricities, Dante and Norrington’s skill is what birthed Death Machine in each of its forms, the War Beast and the film. What a shame, then, that after the universal drubbing of the actually-not-that-bad League of Extraordinary Gentlemen that Norrington’s directorial career seems as doomed as Dante is at Death Machine‘s close, bolted up in the dark, and surrounded by a slew of half-finished inventions – or, more accurately, projects that fell apart like his live action adaptation of Akira or his mooted remake of The Crow (1994).

I just hope that, unlike Dante, who it is hinted at, is ripped to shreds by the War Beast as Death Machine’s credits roll, Norrington hasn’t been devoured yet.  

About Matty Budrewicz

Matty Budrewicz has written online and in print for Zombie Hamster, Delirium and Scream Magazine. He's also co-penned a bunch of booklets for 88 Films (with his ink-slingin' partner in crime Dave Wain) and was part of the writing team of 'It Came From the Video Aisle: Inside Charles Band's Full Moon Entertainment Studio', contributing chapters on the Killjoy, Evil Bong, and Gingerdead Man series'.

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