“Can you dig it?”
-Cyrus, The Warriors (1979)
“She bop he bop-a-we bop / I bop you bop-a-they bop”
-Cyndi Lauper, She Bop
Cult classics are a peculiar breed. For a while I thought this subgenre of film was exclusive to institutions like The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), and that cult classics were just an excuse for male theatre majors to wear lingerie without impunity. Not my scene. To this day I don’t see the appeal of Rocky Horror. I know that it has something to do with The Perks of Being a Wallflower and that I should be down with these things if I intend to bag a 12-point manic pixie dream girl. It doesn’t matter. If you follow me on Twitter or read last week’s piece, you know that I feel we should celebrate the things we like because they are an integral part of who we are as individuals. So, to my dudes in theatre departments all around this country: Let there be lips.
I’m not sure how and when a film becomes a “cult” hit. However, when it does, that film –through its fanbase – takes on a life of its own and undergoes a kind of organic evolution process. It’s almost as if the auteurship of the filmmaker is co-opted and assimilated into the hive conscious of something bigger. For example, The Big Lebowski (1998) has sparked its own religion. While this takes the idea of a cult classic a bit too far, a lot of other interesting things come out of cult film culture; namely the reinterpretation of the original work. The idea that Donny (Steve Buschemi) is imaginary and can only be seen by Walter (John Goodman) is the product of intense fandom debate. Reinterpretations of our favorite films allow us to rediscover our love for a story that we can already recite word-for-word with pride.
Last weekend, I tweeted that the DJ from The Warriors (1979) was the mastermind behind all teenage gang violence in the 1970s. While typed in jest, the idea has since taken out a sublet in my brainpan. It won’t leave. It hogs all the hot water, drinks my orange juice and keeps me up at night with its incessant bottle clinking. No number of passive aggressive post-its about “pitching in” and “respecting the common area” will make it go away. What if the mysterious DJ figure really was manipulating all the characters in this movie? I caved and decided to watch The Warriors (1979) every night this week in the name of research and to see if my theory holds water. What I uncovered shook me to my very core and I now fear for my life because the movie’s cast members are all currently either stern ghost-dads or possible vampires. I’ve been eating garlic by the fistful and washing it down with Ecto Cooler. I have considered seeking professional help.
For the uninitiated, The Warriors (1979) is a film inspired by a Sol Yurick’s novel of the same name and loosely based on the Greek tale Anabasis by Xenophon. The film takes place in a fictional 1970s New York City, and follows nine members of a street gang (aptly named The Warriors) from Coney Island. During a gang summit in the Bronx, The Warriors are framed for murdering Cyrus, the leader of the most powerful gang in the city, and they must try and make it back to Coney Island while every gang in the 5 boroughs is out to get them. There’s a lot of violence and little substance but it’s good fun all the same. Like anything, it’s a product of its time and can be appreciated almost solely for that reason.
So, it goes like this. After Cyrus’ murder, the Gramercy Riffs “send the word” and call out a hit for the warriors dead OR alive. This is important because right after this scene, we meet The DJ, a faceless mouth talking into a microphone. She says the following:
Now, because this scene immediately follows the one where the hit is called out by The Riffs, we are lead to believe that they are in contact with The DJ. Indeed, The DJ even says “I’ve been asked to relay a message from the Gramercy Riffs.” The thing that stands out form her broadcast is that she does not specify dead or alive. The result is a lot of street soldiers murdering each other.
How do we know that the gang members are supposed to be kids? First, the characters in the novel are teenagers. Second, The Warriors refer to having a youth worker. This was something most gangs were assigned in the 50s, 60s and 70s to help keep gang members out of trouble and manage truancy issues. You have to understand that New York City was not the wood-fired skinny jean Xanadu it is today. The Warriors not knowing their way around Manhattan and the Bronx suggests the inexperience of youth. Lastly, Cyrus sort of plays a father figure/cult leader role; in a portion of his speech at the summit (which was deleted) he talks about how the school systems have failed everyone.
Luther, the would-be antagonist of the film is a strange character. He is Cyrus’ real killer and is sort of written off as a kooky nihilist type leading his band of muir cap-wearing weirdos around the city in a clown car. There’s no way it didn’t smell intensely foul in that thing. Aside from his erratic and violent behavior, the strangest thing he does in the movie (and debatably the strangest part of the movie as a whole) are the two phone calls he has with an unnamed individual. Some people think he was working for the cops and using the situation to his advantage to take out The Warriors, their rivals on Coney Island. Others think it could be a parent (suggesting a weird duality and all sorts of thematic connotations. Boring.). You could just as easily say he was talking to The DJ. We know from her segments that she talks in innuendos so it’s possible his vague phone calls were to her. Is it not impossible that The DJ arranged for Luther to assassinate Cyrus and that his phone calls were collusion with The DJ to spark more gang violence.
The motive is there. Cyrus wanted to unite the gangs and put an end to petty turf wars. If this happened, it would give purpose and direction to street violence and this theoretical new united gang would take over the city. This would be bad for “The Man” and a lot of innocent people would get hurt. So, The DJ taps Luther to take out Cyrus. Luther then blames it on a rival gang.
This suggests that Cyrus was right; that the system is actually rigged against the disenfranchised. Cyrus was a threat to the Status Quo, so he was taken out. Remember this film was made during the Carter Administration, and Reagan was just around the corner. During The DJs last segment she nonchalantly says “I guess the only thing we can do is play you a song.” The use of “we” here is peculiar. It suggests she was working with other people (the police, the government, etc.). Her relaxed, almost satisfied tone suggest she is happy with a job well done; a few key gang leaders have been removed, countless hoodlums have been taken off the streets and put into comas– and Status Quo’s hands couldn’t be cleaner. Ladies and gentleman, New York’s very own Operation Hummingbird.
Can you dig it?
 A reusable, eco-friendly bag to be sure.
 Check out the PBS Idea Channel’s take on Jacques Derrida and auteurship/authorship.
 Give it a try. It’s amazing. 10/10 #WouldRecommendToAFriend
 A cursory Google/Wiki search will fill you in. I don’t want to regurgitate information.
 The dramatic slow motion deus-ex-throwingknife was still novel back then. How quaint!
 Check out Fist Stick Knife Gun by Geoffrey Canada. It’s really good. Listen to a segment read by the author on This American Life ep. 81. Guns
 1977-1981. Massive inflation. Energy crisis. Creation of US Department of Education.
One thought on “[Citation Needed]: The Warriors and Reinterpreting Cult Classics.”
Damn you I just happened to rewatch Warriors the other night and this idea makes sooooo much sense. But it’s just…there for us to discover, it’s not a layer of complexity the movie needs but it’s there if you want to dig deeper.