Mill Creek Sci-Fi Invasion: Death Machines (1976)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Herbert P. Caine is the pseudonym of a frustrated academic and genre movie fan in Pennsylvania.

Before beginning this review, I should warn readers: Nothing that happens in the film Death Machines is remotely as cool as the film’s poster, which features an ominous metal pyramid with evil-looking faces glaring out of it. The poster suggests an epic science-fiction / action film. While Death Machines is a lot of fun, it nowhere near that memorable.

The film revolves around a multi-racial team of martial artists who have been drugged/brainwashed into becoming nigh-invincible assassins. (The film never makes it entirely clear how this process took place, or why it renders them all but immune to bullets.) The evil Madame Lee, played by Japanese actress Mari Honjo even though Lee is usually a Chinese or Korean name, uses her dangerous slaves to take over the underworld. The result is lots of gangsters dying in at times creative ways.

Death Machines’ biggest selling point is its frequent action scenes, which keep the viewer’s interest through an often-predictable plot. In one particular standout, the Death Machines take on an entire karate school, massacring the hapless students with fists, feet, swords, and electrocution. Other killings have an amusing element, particularly as the gangsters they target seem oblivious to their obviously impending dooms. Not one, but two mafiosos fail to notice vehicles rushing towards them, even as other people scramble out of the way. The film could easily have been subtitled “A Parable on Situational Awareness.”

The movie suffers from very basic filmmaking flaws, some of which suggest a troubled production. For example, in the film’s prologue, a bearded man is introduced as the creator and true controller of the Death Machines, with the implication that he may clash with Madame Lee. He never appears again. Furthermore, the film never settles on a protagonist. Some might carp that this is a silly consideration for a genre film, but to really get invested in a story, you need to care about at least one character. First, it looks like it will be the paperwork-averse police detective investigating the killings, but he fades into the background two-thirds of the way through the film, with the focus shifting to the sole survivor of the karate school massacre, who want revenge for the Death Machines amputating his hand. The Death Machines themselves might be considered villain protagonists, but they have so little characterization that IMDB lists them by their race. (They even dress alike through most of the film.) The constant shifting of focus and outright vanishing of certain characters lead one to wonder whether the production ran out of funds to pay actors. 

The acting is passable, with Ron Ackerman, who plays the detective, being the most charismatic. However, Mari Honjo gives a weak performance hampered by her strong accent and apparent poor knowledge of English. At some points, her dialogue is difficult to follow, and at times she even seems to be working out her lines phonetically. This immediately takes you out of the story.

Even so, Death Machines is an effective time-waster for a boring Saturday afternoon. The action sequences come often enough to keep your attention, and there’s enough unintentional humor for a few chuckles. It’s not worth going out and buying, but can easily be found on Tubi and YouTube. The YouTube version is a higher quality print, but has been slightly edited for violence and nudity.

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