1978/1982, Shout! Factory, $14.93, 82m 26s/91m 24s, DVD-1
Reviewed by Kim Newman
The ‘Roger Corman’s Cult Classics Double Feature’ aptly bills a pair of post-apocalypse biker/car crash movies, in which lone heroes go up against bullying militarists in a future where society has collapsed and peaceful hippie-types who see hope in agragrian communes and are preyed upon by ranting, better-armed tyrants.
DEATHSPORT, intended as a follow-up to Paul Bartel’s DEATH RACE 2000, was also the last obligation in a five-picture deal star David Carradine had made with Corman’s New World Pictures. ‘There’s no doubt that this is a very bad film,’ admits co-director Allan Arkush in a candid, interesting commentary which shows how the project came off the rails. Writer-director Nicholas Niciphor (billed as ‘Henry Suso’) was hired on Corman’s ‘get some film student who’ll work cheap’ principle–which had previously paid off in early credits for Francis Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme and many others; Niciphor was less au fait with the demands of exploitation cinema than these canny, ambitious fellows and a troubled, chaotic shoot was complicated by friction between director and star (which extended to Carradine breaking Niciphor’s nose). Arkush, co-director of HOLLYWOOD BLVD. and responsible for second unit car crashes (ie: much of the film) on Ron Howard’s directorial debut GRAND THEFT AUTO, took supervised reshoots (talking his fee up from $300 to $450 a week) to salvage Niciphor’s footage, and DEATHSPORT is the result.
Missing is the satirical element which distinguishes Bartel’s vision of car carnage in the future, and the gladiatorial aspects of the storyline seem tacked onto a more traditional, sombre post-apocalypse samurai-cowboy set-up. In this world, the mystic martial caste are called ‘Ranger Guides’, a Jedi-ish sect which includes hero Kaz Oshay (Carradine), psychic heroine Deneer (GATOR BAIT’s Claudia Jennings) and villain Ankar Moor (GOD TOLD ME TO’s Richard Lynch). Their mission is to wield odd-looking glass swords against raiders who would harry pacifist survivors. In the backstory, Kaz is worried because he is unable to live upto the reputation of his heroic mother (a nice touch, typical of New World under Corman), who was killed by fallen Ranger Ankar Moor (this parallels what we understood the story of STAR WARS to be before THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK). Lord Zirpola (KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS’ David McLean), ailing boss of an evil city, gives orders to Ankar Moor to haul in some Guides to take part in the ‘Deathsport’ which involves pitting the legendary warriors against goons on ‘Death Machines’ (aka: slightly pimped-out trail bikes). The plot is the usual straggle of captivity, escapes, incidental menaces (‘mutants’ with Larry Buchanan-esque ping-pong ball eyes), long chases (one game of bike-tag inside a former missile base goes on forever), betrayals, sex scenes (mandatory) and a climactic face-off (which Arkush admits Niciphor staged reasonably well) between Kaz and Ankar Moor.
There are several disappointments here: the underuse of the short-lived Jennings (so fresh in THE GREAT TEXAS DYNAMITE CHASE, DEATHSPORT’s co-feature in UK release) as a regulation heroine, the waste of Carradine in yet another glum mystic warrior role after he’d shown he could do more (Arkush notes wryly that the five-film obligation brought him back to Corman after he’d starred for Hal Ashby and Ingmar Bergman–the irony being that there were a lot more credits like DEATHSPORT in his future than like BOUND FOR GLORY or THE SERPENT’S EGG). There are some disastrously inept elements, like those ridiculous mutants (played by another couple of film students, showing a willingness to do anything to get a foot in the door) and a truly terrible performance from Will Walker (‘Frozen Dog Miner’ in THE WHITE BUFFALO and ‘Jism Jim’ in HARDCORE) as the wimpy, long-haired liberal who is chief representative of the peaceful folks all this fighting is about. Not a major item, on anyone’s books, this comes to DVD in an okayish 1.85:1 transfer of a print which – like most included in the Shout! Factory Corman Collection – has sustained a fair amount of damage. It’s a surprise then that, after the hard slog of watching the film, the commentary (Arkush is usefully joined by editor Larry Bock) is so enlightening, covering the attenuated production with fresh anecdotes, notations of all the interesting principles (from cinematographer Gary Graver to guitarist Jerry Garcia) and an honest assessment of the film’s merits (Arkush properly notes how much Lynch’s underplaying brings to the villain role) and failings. Also: trailers, stills, TV spots.
Harley Cokliss’s BATTLETRUCK (which bears its onscreen US title, WARLORDS OF THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY) takes place a few years after ‘the Oil Wars’ in the dramatic scenery of New Zealand, though the country where the action is laid isn’t specified. The eponymous vehicle, an armoured articulated lorry, is commanded by General Straker (KILLDOZER’s James Wainwright), whose name often comes out as ‘Stryker’ when spoken by the Kiwi supporting cast. Straker is a former army officer whose rag-tag bunch of verminous raiders treat the peaceful commune of Clearwater the way the bandits treat the farmers in any given version of SEVEN SAMURAI. The plot is complicated by Corlie (SNOWBEAST’s Annie McEnroe), a runaway from Straker’s band who (it is hinted long before it’s confirmed) is the General’s rebellious daughter. In the hills, brewing motor-cycle fuel from the methane in pig manure (as in MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME) is the archetypally-named Hunter (THE WARRIORS’ Michael Beck), who reluctantly gets drawn into the battle and sides with the Clearwater folk against the General. Things are complicated by simmering, crossbow-wielding traitor (CLASS REUNION’s Randy Powell) who doesn’t love peace as much as his comrades, and tries to curry favour with the General by assassinating Hunter and delivering Corlie. As befits a film built around vehicles, the finale is a spectacular stunt (echoing the end of DUEL) in which the truck plunges off a cliff and explodes, taking the villain with it, and setting up a rides-off-into-the-sunset tagline out of MY DARLING CLEMENTINE.
Cokliss is joined on a commentary track by Jonathan Rigby, and gives an enthusiastic account of the film, taking care to point out that it was made at the same time as George Miller’s MAD MAX 2 (with which it competed for antipodean crew members) rather than in imitation of that influential movie. He cites the oil crisis and the size of trucks in America in the mid-1970s as the inspirations, but not film precedents like DAMNATION ALLEY, RAVAGERS, THE ULTIMATE WARRIOR or even DEATHSPORT. The commentary covers all the bases, from the replacement of the original cinematographer by Chris Menges, the high quality stunt-work of Buddy Joe Hooper (which still doesn’t match MAD MAX 2) and the work in minor capacities of future luminaries like Lee Tamahori (boom operator) and characters actor John Ratzenberger (cast just pre-Cheers) and Bruno Lawrence (whose kilt is echoed in the recent retro apocalypse action film DOOMSDAY). The film’s quirks include one black comic execution staged in a poised long shot against spectacular desert and a tiny, interesting bit of friction between the villain and his driver (John Bach, Madril in the LORD OF THE RINGS films) as the mechanic shows flashes of proprietorial pride in the truck. Cokliss cites Corman’s influence in ways which ring familiar to followers of these special editions: withdrawing a portion of the budget just before shooting (forcing some script trims) and then suggesting key cuts to bring down the running time which the director at first resisted but soon saw were a help to the film. The nice-looking standard frame transfer is either from a print in better shape than DEATHSPORT or demonstrates the lasting effects of hiring a future Oscar winner to do camerawork–though, the square frame was an odd choice when Australian and Italian movies tend to use a wider screen to convey post-apocalypse desolation.
Though Beck–still reeling from the career-killer of XANADU–is a little too inexpressive even for the role of a silent loner and the plot offers little new, BATTLETRUCK holds up as a decent genre entry. However, it wasn’t the game-changer MAD MAX 2(released in the US as THE ROAD WARRIOR) was, and that perhaps signalled a Changing of the Guard in Exploitation. In the 1970s, Corman set trends; in the ‘80s, he would follow them.