It's no secret that John Carpenter is a fan of westerns. More specifically, a fan of Howard Hawks westerns. One of his first writing gigs was for a student movie titled The Resurrection of Broncho Billy. He would later write El Diablo and Blood River for TV. But probably his greatest tribute to the western genre would have to be Assault On Precinct 13, Carpenters second feature film. A film about an L.A. gang descending upon an abandoned police precinct in the middle of nowheresville. Switch out badges and tattoos for cowboy hats and war paint and you've got yourself a regular western. There's no doubt it's written from the white-mans point of view. The gang members are a faceless menace without care or feeling. It's a very traditional and shortsighted take on the enemy and could easily be chalked up to pure homage to the genre. Looking at it again though different glasses though, Assault On Precinct 13 is not only a modern-day western, it's one hell of a zombie movie as well.
Early in the film, a frantic father kills a gang leader in retaliation for the death of his daughter and then retreats to the abandoned precinct to seek protection. The gang trails the father and declares that they will stop at nothing to get revenge. From here on out, we do not see faces, only shapes that scurry between cars and surround the precinct in an attempt to destroy any living human inside without discrimination. True, there is not the scary makeup, no flesh eating to speak of, but these killers are without emotion. Without fear. They are machines: one goes down and there's another climbing over the body to fill his place. Not unlike every other zombie movie ever created, the living are a mixed bag consisting of cops, a couple of secretaries and a few inmates. But unlike every other zombie movie the enemies are truly the gang members, not the survivors themselves. Staying true to the western genre, Carpenter is not interested in distention within the ranks. The internal squabbling is kept to a minimum as the group bands together to take a stand against the endless stream of enemies led by Ethan Bishop and Napoleon Wilson, Carpenter's version of two modern day John Waynes. One by the book and the other an outlaw.
The movie is not without its flaws. The dialogue is atrocious at times and the acting is mediocre at best, but Assault On Precinct 13 is not about its parts, but the idea itself. As a hint of things to come in his future films, Carpenter traps his characters in close quarters and asks them to scratch and claw their way out. When I first saw this film, it was terrifying to me that such a large mass of people could attack a structure without anyone noticing. The gang uses silencers and approaches the precinct behind abandoned cars that they use a stealthy shields. When an outsider comes by, everything is as it once was. The cars are back in place and no one is to be seen for miles. It speaks to the strength of Carpenter as a director that you can take away the scary makeup and the spooky lore of the undead, and he can still scare the bejesus out of you.