After reports of vandalism and violence, Paramount temporarily halted their advertising campaign and released theatre owners from their obligation to show the film. Despite its initially negative reception, The Warriors has since become a cult film, and it has spawned multiple spinoffs, including video games and a comic book series.
Cyrus, leader of the Gramercy Riffs, the most powerful gang in New York City, calls a midnight summit of all New York area gangs, requesting them to send nine unarmed delegates to Van Cortlandt Park. The Warriors, from Coney Island, attend the summit. Cyrus proposes to the assembled crowd a permanent citywide truce and alliance that would allow the gangs to control the city since they outnumber the police by five to one. Most of the gangs applaud his idea, but Luther, leader of the Rogues, shoots Cyrus dead. In the resulting chaos, Luther frames the Warriors' leader Cleon for the murder, and Cleon is beaten down and most likely killed by the Riffs. Meanwhile, the other Warriors have escaped, unaware that they've been implicated in Cyrus' murder. The Riffs put out a hit on the Warriors through a radio DJ. Swan, the Warriors' "war chief", takes charge of the group as they try to make it back home.
Almost immediately the Warriors are spotted by the Turnbull ACs who attempt to run them down with their bus, but the Warriors manage to escape and board the subway. On the ride to Coney Island, the train is stopped by a fire on the tracks, stranding the Warriors in Tremont, in the Bronx. Setting out on foot, they come across a group called the Orphans who were not invited to Cyrus' meeting and who are insecure and belligerent about their low status in the city gang hierarchy. Swan makes peace with the Orphans' leader, Sully, who agrees to let the Warriors pass through their territory unharmed. However, a young woman named Mercy mocks Sully as a "chicken" and instigates a confrontation. Mercy's goading convinces Sully to demand that the Warriors take off their colors and go as civilians before walking through their neighborhood. Swan and the Warriors flatly refuse Sully's demand, and the Orphans challenge them to a fight. Outnumbered and unarmed, Swan and the Warriors throw a Molotov cocktail at a car, blowing it up and using the opportunity to escape to the train station. Impressed, and desperate to escape her depressed neighborhood, Mercy follows the Warriors.
When they arrive at the 96th Street and Broadway station in Manhattan, they are chased by police and separated. Three of them, Vermin, Cochise, and Rembrandt, make the train to Union Square, while Fox, struggling with a police officer, falls onto the tracks and is run over by a train as Mercy escapes. Swan and the remaining three Warriors, Ajax, Snow, and Cowboy, are chased by the Baseball Furies into Riverside Park, where a brawl ensues in which the Warriors easily defeat the Baseball Furies. After the fight, Ajax notices a lone woman in the park, becomes sexually aggressive and is arrested when the woman turns out to be an undercover police officer. Arriving at Union Square, Vermin, Cochise, and Rembrandt are seduced by an all-female gang called the Lizzies and invited into their hideout. The trio manages to escape the Lizzies' subsequent attack, learning in the process that everyone believes they murdered Cyrus.
Having scouted ahead on his own, Swan returns to the 96th Street station and finds Mercy there. More police show up and Swan and Mercy flee into the tunnel. They have an argument and Swan continues to Union Square where he reunites with the other Warriors. A fistfight ensues with the Punks in a public restroom which the Warriors win. Meanwhile, the Riffs are visited by a gang member who attended the earlier gathering and saw Luther shoot Cyrus.
The Warriors finally arrive at Coney Island at dawn, only to find the Rogues are waiting for them. During the confrontation, Swan says "When we see the ocean, we figure we're home." When Swan asks why Luther shot Cyrus, Luther says it was for "no reason" and "I like doing things like that." Swan then challenges Luther to a one-on-one fight, but the Rogue leader pulls his gun instead. Swan throws a knife into Luther's wrist, disarming him. The Riffs then arrive in force and apprehend the Rogues, but not before acknowledging the Warriors' courage and skill. As the Warriors leave, Luther screams in anguish as the entire Riffs gang descends upon the Rogues.
The radio DJ then announces that the big alert has been called off and salutes the Warriors with a song, "In the City". Swan, Mercy, and the rest of the gang walk down the beach, illuminated by the rising sun.
Film rights to Sol Yurick's novel The Warriors were bought in 1969 by American International Pictures but no film resulted.
Rights were then obtained by producer Lawrence Gordon who commissioned David Shaber to write a script. Gordon had made Hard Times (1975) and The Driver (1978) with Walter Hill; he sent the script to Hill with a copy of Sol Yurick's novel. Hill recalls, "I said 'Larry, I would love to do this, but nobody will let us do it.' It was going to be too extreme and too weird."
Gordon and Hill were originally going to make a western but when the financing on the project failed to materialize, they took The Warriors to Paramount Pictures because they were interested in youth films at the time and succeeded in getting the project financed. Hill remembers "it came together very quickly. Larry had a special relationship with Paramount and we promised to make the movie very cheaply, which we did. So it came together within a matter of weeks. I think we got the green light in April or May of 1978 and we were in theaters in February of 1979. So it was a very accelerated process."
Hill was drawn to the "extreme narrative simplicity and stripped down quality of the script". The script, as written, was a realistic take on street gangs but the director was a huge fan of comic books and wanted to divide the film into chapters and then have each chapter "come to life starting with a splash panel". The director was finally able to include this type of scene transition in the Ultimate Director's Cut released for home video in 2005.
The filmmakers did extensive casting in New York City. Hill had screened an independent film called Madman for Sigourney Weaver to cast her in Alien and it also featured Michael Beck as the male lead. The director was impressed with Beck's performance and cast him in The Warriors. Hill initially wanted a Puerto Rican actress for the role of Mercy, but Deborah Van Valkenburgh's agent convinced the film's casting directors to see her and she was eventually cast. The filmmakers wanted to cast Tony Danza in the role of Vermin but he was cast in the sitcom Taxi and Terry Michos was cast instead. While there were white characters in Yurick's book, none of the central characters or protagonists were white: according to Hill, Paramount did not want an all-black cast for "commercial reasons".
Stunt coordinator Craig R. Baxley put the cast through stunt school because Hill wanted realistic fights depicted in the film. In preparation for his role, James Remar hung out at Coney Island to find a model for his character. The entire film was shot on the streets in New York City with some interior scenes done at Astoria Studios. They would shoot from sundown to sunrise. The film quickly fell behind schedule and went over budget. While they shot in the Bronx, bricks were tossed at the crew. Actor Joel Weiss remembers that filming of his scene at Avenue A was canceled because there was a double homicide nearby. For the big meeting at the beginning of the film, Hill wanted real gang members in the scene with off duty police officers also in the crowd so that there would be no trouble.
The studio would not allow Baxley to bring any stunt men from Hollywood and he needed someone to double for the character of Cyrus so he did the stunt himself dressed as the character. Actual gang members wanted to challenge some of the cast members but were dealt with by production security. The actors playing The Warriors bonded early in the shoot, on and off the set. Originally, the character of Fox was supposed to end up with Mercy, while Swan was captured by a rival, homosexual gang known as the Dingos, only to escape later: however, Hill watched the dailies and realized that Beck and Van Valkenburgh had great chemistry; the script was rewritten so that their characters ended up together. This resulted in actor Thomas G. Waites arguing with Hill and being difficult on the set, and so Waites was fired eight weeks into principal photography.
The Rogues' car in the Coney Island confrontation was a 1955 Cadillac hearse. Originally, at the Coney Island confrontation at the end of the film, actor David Patrick Kelly wanted to use two dead pigeons but Hill did not think that would work. Instead, Kelly improvised by clinking three bottles in his right hand and ad-libbing his famous line, "Waaaaarriors, come out to plaaaay". Kelly was influenced by a man he knew in downtown New York who would make fun of him. Hill wanted Orson Welles to do a narrated introduction about Greek themes but the studio did not like this idea and refused to pay for it. However, this sequence was finally included in the 2005 Ultimate Director's Cut, with Hill providing the narration himself.
Hill was working on a low budget and a tight post-production schedule because of a fixed release date as the studio wanted to release The Warriors before a rival gang picture called The Wanderers. As a result, Hill was unable to realize this comic book look until the making of the Ultimate Director's Cut in 2005.
"I wanted to take it into a fantasy element, but at the same time add some contemporary flash," said Hill. "Those were some of the hard ideas we had to get the studio to understand. But we did not get along very well with our parent company. After the movie came out and it did well, everybody was sort of friends. But up until then there was a lot of misunderstanding. They thought it was going to be Saturday Night Fever or something."
The Warriors opened on February 9, 1979, in 670 theatres without advance screenings or a decent promotional campaign and grossed USD $3.5 million on its opening weekend.
The following weekend the film was linked to sporadic outbreaks of vandalism and three killings — two in Southern California and one in Boston — involving moviegoers on their way to or from showings.
This prompted Paramount to remove advertisements from radio and television completely and display ads in the press were reduced to the film's title, rating and participating theatres. In reaction, 200 theatres across the country added security personnel. Due to safety concerns, theatre owners were relieved of their contractual obligations if they did not want to show the film, and Paramount offered to pay costs for additional security and damages due to vandalism.
Hill later reflected, "I think the reason why there were some violent incidents is really very simple: The movie was very popular with the street gangs, especially young men, a lot of whom had very strong feelings about each other. And suddenly they all went to the movies together! They looked across the aisle and there were the guys they didn't like, so there were a lot of incidents. And also, the movie itself is rambunctious — I would certainly say that."
After two weeks free of incidents, the studio expanded the display ads to take advantage of reviews from reputable critics including Pauline Kael of The New Yorker. She wrote, "The Warriors is a real moviemaker's movie: it has in visual terms the kind of impact that 'Rock Around the Clock' did behind the titles of Blackboard Jungle. The Warriors is like visual rock". In its sixth week, The Warriors had grossed $16.4 million, well above its estimated $4 million to $7 million budget.
Hill later reflected:
What made it a success with young people... is that for the first time somebody made a film within Hollywood, big distribution, that took the gang situation and did not present it as a social problem. Presented them as a neutral or positive aspect of their lives. As soon as you said in the old days gang movies it was how do we cure the pestilence and how do we fix the social waste. We want to take these kids, make sure they go to college... This was just a movie that conceptually was different. Accepted the idea of the gang, didn't question it, that was their lives, they functioned within that context. And the social problem wasn't were they going to college, but were they going to survive. It's the great Hawksian dictum, where is the drama? Will he live or die? That's the drama.
"Hollywood forgives a lot when you have a hit," he added. "I don't know what to say about it, other than the fact that it was just a gift in terms of getting it. The studio hated it, and didn't even want to release it. There was a lot of friction with management at the time. Some of it might have been my fault."
The Warriors received negative reviews from contemporary critics, who derided its lack of realism and found its dialogue stilted. In his review for the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert gave it two out of four stars and said that, despite Hill's cinematic skill, the film is implausible in a mannerist style that deprives the characters of depth and spontaneity: "No matter what impression the ads give, this isn't even remotely intended as an action film. It's a set piece. It's a ballet of stylized male violence." However, Ebert later said during a review of Hill's film Southern Comfort that he felt he overlooked some positive qualities in The Warriors out of his dislike for Hill's general approach to broad characterizations. Gary Arnold of The Washington Post wrote, "None of Hill's dynamism will save The Warriors from impressing most neutral observers as a ghastly folly". In his review for Newsweek, David Ansen wrote, "Another problem arises when the gang members open their mouths: their banal dialogue is jarringly at odds with Hill's hyperbolic visual scheme". Time magazine's Frank Rich said that, "unfortunately, sheer visual zip is not enough to carry the film; it drags from one scuffle to the next ... The Warriors is not lively enough to be cheap fun or thoughtful enough to be serious". Yurick expressed his disappointment and speculated that it scared some people because "it appeals to the fear of a demonic uprising by lumpen youth", appealing to many teenagers because it "hits a series of collective fantasies". President Ronald Reagan was a fan of the film, even calling the film's lead actor, Michael Beck, to tell him he had screened it at Camp David and enjoyed it.
The Warriors has become a popular cult film, and some film critics have since re-examined it. As of March 2, 2016, the film has garnered a 89% approval rating at review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes based on 42 reviews. At Seattle's Grand Illusion Cinema, programmer Zack Carlson remembers, "people were squeezed in, lying on the floor, cheering". Entertainment Weekly named The Warriors the 16th-greatest cult film on their "Top 50 Greatest Cult Films" list. The magazine also ranked it 14th in the list of the "25 Most Controversial Movies Ever".
Hill reflected in 2016:
I love the fact that people still enjoy something I did what, 37 years ago? It makes an old man happy. I'm surprised by it. But I loved working with my cameraman Andy Laszlo in shooting it, and I loved working with my cast, who were incredibly trusting of this crazy old fucker that was making the movie. They didn't get it, I don't think — costumed gangs running around New York? — but they just went with it.
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:2005: AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes:
Luther: "Warriors, come out to play!" – Nominated
The movie was first released on DVD in 2001 containing the theatrical cut un-restored, this release has since fallen out of print. Then, in 2005, Paramount Home Video released the "Ultimate Director's Cut" DVD of The Warriors. Aside from a remastered picture quality and a new 5.1 surround remixed soundtrack, the film has been re-edited with a new introduction and comic book-style sequences between scenes. In July 2007 the "Ultimate Director's Cut" was released onto Blu-ray.
The film's soundtrack, featuring music by Barry De Vorzon, Joe Walsh and others, was released on the A&M label in March 1979, the same year as the film. While The Warriors was adapted from a novel (itself adapted from the Ancient Greek text Anabasis by Xenophon), the film has been adapted as well. In 2005, Mezco Toyz released Warriors action figures, including Swan, Cleon, Cochise, Ajax, Luther, and a Baseball Fury.
The Warriors video game, based on the movie, was released by Rockstar Games on October 17, 2005. Levels 1 through 13 act as a prequel to the film, creating backstory and elaborating on the characters from the film. Levels 14 through 18 recreate much of the film's events. In addition, there are extra levels explaining how each main character joined the gang. Several of the actors from the movie returned to perform the voices for their original characters.
Warner Bros. Entertainment released a downloadable title for the Xbox 360 titled The Warriors: Street Brawl. The game plays differently from the Rockstar Games version, being a side-scrolling brawler. In 2009, Dabel Brothers Productions began a five issue comic book adaption of the film. Following that was a four issue mini series entitled The Warriors: Jailbreak which takes place several months after the film's events.
Tony Scott had planned a remake of the film. In an interview in 2005, Scott said that the remake would be set in modern-day New York City; gangs such as the Baseball Furies and Hi-Hats would not be included in the remake. After the death of Scott, Mark Neveldine has been confirmed to take over the making of the remake.
In 2016, Joe and Anthony Russo announced they were working with Paramount Television and Hulu for a re-imagined Warriors TV series; Frank Baldwin was signed on to write the series.The band The Outfield got their name from "The Baseball Furies" gang in the film. Guitarist John Spinks originally adopted the name "The Baseball Boys" after seeing the film before they changed their name to The Outfield based on the advice of their American manager.
On September 13, 2015, there was a "Last Subway Ride Reunion" festival in Coney Island celebrating the film organized by Eric Nyenhuis. Many of the cast members attended, the schedule included Michael Beck, Dorsey Wright, David Harris, Bryan Tyler, Thomas G. Waites, Terry Michos, David Kopland, Furies gang actors Jery Hewitt, Eddie Hatch, Bill Anagnos, Harry Madsen, Leon Delaney, and Rob Ryder, as well as Apache Ramos, Konrad Sheehan, and Ginny Ortiz. The promotional website indicated that Deborah Van Valkenburgh and David Patrick Kelly could not attend due to scheduling conflicts. Scheduled events included a cosplay contest, an autograph session and photo opportunities, panel discussion, a screening of the film, and musical performances by Gotham City Mashers and Sick of It All. A premium "Warchief" pass included a replica of the vests worn by the Warriors in the film as well as VIP seating and express lines for autographs.
The film is referenced in the 2014 The Simpsons episode "The Winter of His Content".
The film is referenced in the 2012 Bob's Burgers episode "Full Bars".
The 2014 Black Dynamite episode "Warriors Come Out (or The Mean Queens of Halloween)" is an homage to the film.
The title track of the 1985 album Come Out and Play by heavy metal band Twisted Sister features Dee Snider clicking bottles together as he recites "Twisted Sister, come out and play..." in reference to Luther's chant during the finale.
Luther's chant is quoted by Diamondback in the eighth episode of the 2016 Netflix series Luke Cage.