The anticipation was visceral–electric, even. HBO had been running the trailer for months. And then finally, on some weeknight in December of 1981, they premiered Escape from New York. I was young–I hadn’t been allowed to see it in the theater despite howling for the privilege like a coyote with his leg in a trap, but by the time it hit cable, these painfully restrictive parental attitudes had softened. So I watched it, eagerly, like Christmas had come early that year.
Its impact was immediate. I walked into school the next morning and announced to my homeroom classmates that I was no longer to be called by my Christian name but rather by my new name, Snake, instead. No one paid me a bit of mind–I would continue to be addressed as “Mike”, “Dick”, or “Idiot” for the next 5 years or so, but that’s not the point. The point was that Snake Plissken was the coolest anti-hero I had ever seen. The previous holder of this title–Kelly Leak from The Bad News Bears–duly genuflected and took the next seat over.
What did this guy look like? An eyepatch, some seriously feathered hair, a sleeveless shirt woven from a material the labs of Under Armour and their competitors still can’t replicate, form-fitting camouflage pants, motorcycle boots and a tattooed cobra uncoiling out of his waistband. Someone in wardrobe was obviously familiar with the work of Tom of Finland, but that is merely hindsight. Escape From New York was science fiction, it was fantasy, it was a dystopian cautionary tale, it was the psychiatrist from Halloween tearing apart self-appointed Manhattan royalty with an M16. It was the fate of the entire human race hinging on which Maxell XLII-S got pushed into the government’s tape deck.
I’m using up my quota of words, but if you’ve seen it, you love it. Any other reaction is impossible. 35 years later, the one-word character names can still bring up images as vivid as Seurat’s riverbank pointillism: Cabbie. Brain. Maggie. (The) Duke. Hauk. Snake. And most indelible of all–Romero, with his demonic hiss and shock of white hair and handful of Presidential finger.
15 years later John Carpenter and Co. would move the whole shebang to the west coast, but I still haven’t even watched that one. Why try to outdo perfection??