John Carpenter: Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) | featured image
Still from Assault on Precinct 13 courtesy of NYFF59, via CKK Corporation

NYFF: Assault on Precinct 13’s Message Is Trite in Our Times

The ’70s were politically charged when Assault on Precinct 13 was released. Our perception of the film’s message is the only thing that has changed since.

Assault on Precinct 13
John Carpenter
September 2021 (NYFF59)

“Why would anybody shoot at a police station?

—Julie (Nancy Loomis)

For the 59th iteration of the New York Film Festival, audiences were treated to a Revivals Program, which showcased “important works from renowned filmmakers that have been digitally remastered, restored, and preserved.” Alongside films by Lynne Ramsay, the recently deceased Melvin Van Peebles, and Mira Nair, was a 4K restoration of John Carpenter’s devilishly entertaining yet politically devoid 1976 film, Assault on Precinct 13.

The plot is simple: A rookie cop, played with aplomb by Austin Stoker, is assigned to caretake a soon-to-be-defunct police precinct in a South-Central Los Angeles neighborhood. The precinct is being moved, the old station is all but empty and needs a babysitter. By way of coincidence, in the afternoon, a prison transport has to stop at the precinct (referred to erroneously as Precinct 9, Division 13 by a police officer on the radio). By nightfall, it is descended upon by a street gang.

Early on, I was left with one of the most harrowing images I’ve ever seen in a film, and what I believe is a filmic eulogy for post-Vietnam America. As a girl returns to the ice cream truck that mistakenly gave her a vanilla cone instead of a vanilla swirl cone, she is shot dead in the chest by a member of Street Thunder.

Her father, a half-block down in a phonebooth, rushes over to his daughter’s body. He looks to the other side of the vehicle, seeing the ice cream man in his last moments, uttering to him, “Gun…in the trunk, under the dash.” The father drapes his coat over his dead daughter, an embodiment of innocence lost, grabs the gun and pursues Street Thunder. The scene, by far the most profound in the film, encapsulates the idea of a world devoid of morality and heroism, where language is spoken via bullets.

However, this promise is immediately lost in what becomes a static shootout for the next hour.

Within the arena of its 91-minute runtime and its cascade of bullets, Precinct 13 is reticent to provide its audience with any answers. The aforementioned street gang, Street Thunder, suffer heavy losses at the hands of faceless police officers in the opening scene. These opening moments feature one of several haunting images found throughout the film, as a member of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) cocks his shotgun against a foggy moonlit Los Angeles sky, having just killed six fleeing suspects.

Later, four core surviving members of Street Thunder take a blood pact and swear revenge for their fallen comrades, as they utter the only line given to them, “For the six.” Whereas Carpenter could have shone a light on Street Thunder, humanizing them as a multi-racial group of inner-city youth in constant conflict against the LAPD, he chooses instead to portray them, almost literally, like zombies.

George A. Romero’s 1968 classic zombie film-cum-consumerist critique Night of the Living Dead has been oft-cited by Carpenter as an influence on Precinct 13. The influence, at least on the surface, isn’t difficult to find: When the eponymous assault on the neutered police station begins, Street Thunder’s foot soldiers, framed within shadows in-between streetlights, move glacially and quietly, lifeless in their derision—every few minutes finds them metastasizing.

Without the proper societal context of economic disparity, racism, classism, and gun culture in America – the forces that give rise to real gangs – this film furthers the notion of inner-city crime as an illness, a disease, a cancer to be radically excised, as if it is separate from the body that created it. The film’s ignorance of the tropes it perpetuates is embodied by Julie (Nancy Loomis), a secretary, who desperately asks, “why would anybody shoot at a police department?”

Carpenter’s film was released in 1976, in the years after Vietnam, Watergate, and the FBI’s COINTELPRO (Counter-Intelligence Program) had decimated revolutionary organizations struggling for freedom, perhaps most notably the Black Panthers. From the viewpoint of inner-city youth, who have seen families shipped off to Vietnam and community leaders assassinated by police or FBI, there are plenty of reasons as to why somebody would want to shoot at a police station.

At a time as politically charged as 1976, and as a spectator watching the film during a similarly politically charged moment, and only a year-and-a-half removed from the “assault” and burning of the Third Precinct in Minneapolis in response to the murder of George Floyd, Assault on Precinct 13 rings hollow.

Source Cited

Marsh, Calum. “It Turns Out that John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 Is Actually a Zombie Film.” MTV, 2013.