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Darwin Joston in the 1976 movie 'Assault on Precinct 13'

A convict (Darwin Joston) is restrained by guards in Assault on Precinct 13. (American Genre Film Archive)

John Carpenter’s 1976 Crime Thriller Movie Assault on Precinct 13 Gets 4K Digital Restoration, Re-Release

By Greg Beaubien

By GREG BEAUBIEN    Jan. 19, 2023


THE 1970s LAID DOWN A FEAST of great films and low-budget drive-in movies that were fun to watch and often inventive.

In the drive-in category is Assault on Precinct 13, John Carpenter’s second feature, from 1976. Carpenter wrote, directed, edited and scored this story of a California Highway Patrolman who joins forces with two Death Row killers to defend an abandoned police station from a gang attack.

Now, 47 years after the picture’s original release, the American Genre Film Archive has performed a 4K digital restoration of Assault on Precinct 13. To produce a clear, sharp picture, each frame of Carpenter’s Panavision film was digitally scanned into a high-resolution format of 4,000 horizontal pixels.

Appearing two years before his 1978 breakthrough Halloween, Assault on Precinct 13 was Carpenter’s update on director Howard Hawks’ 1959 movie Rio Bravo. In Hawks’ film, John Wayne is an Old West sheriff who takes a stand to defend his jailhouse against a prisoner’s brother, who has promised to break him out by force. The sheriff enlists a drunk, a cripple and a young cowboy, the only other people at hand, in the fight.

In Carpenter’s script for Assault on Precinct 13, patrolman Ethan Bishop (played by Austin Stoker) has been assigned to guard a police station in a desolate area of South Central Los Angeles, on its last night before being decommissioned. With the precinct scheduled to close in the morning, its phones and electricity go dead. The nearest houses are also abandoned. No one will hear the shots.

Two criminal situations collide by chance for an explosive mix. After the street gang steals a cache of military-style rifles, several of its members are shotgunned to death during a three a.m. police ambush. The surviving gang members take a blood oath against the police and the world. They ritualistically cut themselves with switchblades and combine their blood in a bowl.

Meanwhile, Death Row inmate Napoleon Wilson (played by Darwin Joston) is being transported by bus with other convicts to a new prison. One of the prisoners falls ill, with a six-hour drive ahead. A special agent aboard the bus makes the decision to take the convicts to the nearest police station—the one that’s closing.

Austin Stoker in 1976 crime thriller 'Assault on Precinct 13'

A California Highway Patrolman (Austin Stoker) is given an ill-fated assignment. (American Genre Film Archive)

That afternoon, armed with high-powered rifles and silencers, the gang members cruise the deserted streets of South Central in a black sedan, scoping potential targets.

A man who’s not from the neighborhood is driving through with his young daughter, lost. When he stops at a pay phone the girl runs to an ice cream truck parked nearby, unaware that the ice cream man has a revolver hidden under his dash and has been nervously watching the gang members circle the block.

The scene that follows remains as disturbing now as it must have been in 1976. A reminder that audiences don’t like to see violence against children. When the girl’s father retrieves the ice cream man’s gun and chases the gang members, eventually killing the one who shot his daughter, the gang pursues him back to Precinct 13 and the assault begins.

Assault on Precinct 13

Gang members look for revenge in John Carpenter’s 1976 Assault on Precinct 13. (American Genre Film Archive)

George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) set the template for waves of zombies—or in this case, mute, anonymous gang members—trying to break in through the doors and windows.

Inside the station, where a Coke machine offers cold bottles for 10 cents, Leigh, a police department secretary (Laurie Zimmer) picks up a gun and joins the trooper and Death Row convicts to fight the invading gang.

The movie’s loud, thumping synthesizer score blared from hundreds of car-window speakers at drive-in theaters on summer nights in ’76. Carpenter’s score also includes jazzy phrases on Fender Rhodes electric piano, similar to Lalo Schifrin’s in Dirty Harry (1971).

Even as its story and style compel, Assault on Precinct 13’s dialogue and acting sometimes draw snickers. “This is a siege,” Stoker’s Bishop shouts. “It’s a goddamned siege!

Just as an unlikely alliance is forged between cops and killers, a romantic attraction develops between Wilson and the secretary. We learn early in the movie that the Death Row convict is a romantic at heart, perhaps expressing the sentiments of 1970s movie lovers when he says: “When you’re in my position, days are like women. Each one is so goddamned precious that it ends up leaving you.”


Mid-January through mid-March 2023, the nonprofit American Genre Film Archive is re-releasing its 4K digital restoration of Assault on Precinct 13 in theaters across the United States, including a run at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre beginning Jan. 20.

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