Severin Films // 1972 // 90 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Ike Oden (Retired) // October 22nd, 2010
"The grooviest zombie biker movie of them all!"
In his praise-singing introduction to Psychomania, Fangoria Editor-In-Chief Chris Alexander pontificates the importance of the film, explaining: "There was never a picture before Psychomania like it and there was nothing like Psychomania to come after it."
He isn't overstating it. Psychomania is a one-of-a-kind, gonzo treat; an anarchic dark comedy disguised as a biker-horror-exploitation quickie. It is frequently brilliant, funny, surreal, haunting, evocative, and utterly fearless. If you're a fan of cult cinema, it deserves your attention.
Angsty, satanic teenage biker Tom Latham (Nicky Henson, Witchfinder General) has had it with our world. While investigating the suicide of his father, he uncovers what happened: his father wanted to return from the grave with all the power of the undead, only he botched it by doubting himself at the last minute. At the protest of his mother (Beryl Reid, Beast in the Cellar) and the aid of servant, Shadwell (George Sanders, All About Eve), Tom succeeds in beating death. He is quick to convert his motorcycle gang, ironically dubbed The Living Dead, slowly building an army of invincible zombie bikers to ravage the British countryside. When Tom's girlfriend, Abby (Mary Larkin, The Razor's Edge) decides she isn't as keen on death as her cohorts, she incurs the wrath of Psychomania!
British zombie bikers. Is there a more pleasing combination of words in the human language? Keep in mind, these aren't zombies in the Romero-style that you and I have grown accustomed to -- the bikers of Psychomania are zombified in the loosest sense of the term. Sure, they're invincible and undead, but they don't crave flesh, blood, or brains. In fact, when they do kill anyone, it's usually by choking them out offscreen or by running into them with their motorcycle. They do, however, wear awesome, skull-shaped helmets that vaguely resemble red-and-black 3D glasses of old.
If you're a horror fan, that compromise probably sounds perfectly weak sauce, but this isn't really a movie designed for hardcore horror drones. If you're looking for blood, guts, gore, and nudity, look elsewhere, because there is little to find in Pscyhomania. The film is without a real audience beyond a pre-determined cult following established from over thirty years of occupying midnight movie time slots and VHS delete bins. Here, horror fans unexpectedly stumbled upon a kitchen sink biker film with one toe penetrating the waters of horror and about five other limbs spread across action, black comedy, melodrama, and teens-gone-bad genres.
The mix comes off as an utter mess on the written page, but it comes as close to perfection as a film like Psychomania can. It helps that the film refuses to take itself seriously. The Living Dead bikers terrorize the countryside by performing...motorcycle stunts? Tom wants to commit suicide and return from the grave because he's...bored? The Living Dead reacts to Tom's newfound zombiedom...by saying, "Well what are we waiting for?!"
The film represents the final produced work of American-expat writers Julian Zimet & Arnaud d'Usseau (The Horror Express), and what a work to go out on. Zimet and d'Usseau (by this time blacklisted communist sympathizers) construct their screenplay as a gonzo satire of the nihilism of youth-gone-wrong and the stupidity of the mentally-zombified establishment.
Australian director Don Post brings a sense of pace and energy to the film that is at once lethargic and break-neck; events of the narrative seem to happen in a kind of dream-like unspooling, interconnected by consistently awesome, cheesy sequences of motorcycle stunt work.
The stunt work in the movie ranges from spectacularly cheesy to awe-inspiring. There are motorcycles driven off of bridges, motorcycles driven through brick walls, motorcycles driven through supermarkets, motorcycles running over baby carriages, and, my personal favorite, a motorcycle driven -- no, scratch that -- BLASTING out of a shallow grave. Couple that with some eighteen-wheeler exploding and skydiving suicide shenanigans, and you have enough low-budget, old school stunt foolery to make Evel Knievel squeal in jealousy.
In between the action set pieces, the film weaves a schizophrenic tapestry of style and tones, riffing from gothic horror in its opening (motorcycles ripping through a fog drenched cemetery) to trippy sequences of Tom discovering the origins of his father's death (in a hidden room that exposes secrets with images of giant frogs?), to slapstick humor of the bikers terrorizing the town -- the film is all over the place and revels in its weirdness spectacularly. No writing about the film could possibly describe the strangeness of Psychomania's narrative jaunts -- it must be seen to be believed.
It helps that the film's acting is uniformly solid, especially for a D-list movie of this sort. As Tom, Nicky Henson brings a spritely charisma that recalls the brash confidence of Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange. Henson never quite reaches the perfect strokes of Alex DeLarge, but remains magnetic throughout in a performance that, like his character, never quite takes the world around him seriously.
George Saunders, in his much-fawned-over last role, delivers his lines amicably; he adds a touch of bored sophistication to the film, but isn't exactly operating on All About Eve cylinders or anything.
Beryl Reid casts a mysterious and sympathetic performance as Tom's clairvoyant, sympathetic mother who can't seem to say no to Tom. Together, Reid and Henson make the most interesting relationship in the movie; to spoil the tension would give away too much here.
As the glue that holds the strange mishmash of a film together, John Cameron's excellent prog-rock score must be mentioned. The weird, droning guitars and percussion makes the score of Psychomania even better than the movie itself. The song that accompanies the movie, "Born Free" a piece of folk wankery sung by Harvey Andrews, nicely counterbalances the accomplished score as the worst song ever written for a movie. Cameron has nothing to do with "Riding Free," thank God.
Severin gives Psychomania the red carpet treatment in its official DVD debut. Long relegated to bad VHS-dubbed DVD bootlegs, Severin's new transfer is a revelation considering the age of the film. Edges are sharp, colors are bright and vibrant, and beyond the expected nicks and scratches typical of obscure cult film prints from 1972, Psychomania looks great. The mono audio mix is clear and utilitarian, boasting strong details in its motorcycle revving and that kickass John Cameron soundtrack.
Severin has also treated fans by collaborating with acclaimed DVD producer David Gregory (The Joe Spinell Story) on a series of retrospective featurettes chronicling the making of Psychmania.
First up is Return of the Living Dead, comprised of interviews with Nicky Henson, Mary Larkin, Roy Holder (who plays second in command in the movie), and stuntman/actor Dennis Gilmore. These interviews are beyond the sort of fluff that usually propagates these retrospectives, with subjects who look back fondly on the film but with a little bewilderment at the cult that has emerged around it. Henson in particular offers some hilarious insights into the mindset of a blue-collar actor, while Larkin offers mild embarrassment at the film's cheeky tone. Holder and Gilmore seem most pleased with their work on the film, regarding it as a fun film that continues to entertain all these years later. The doc, while ostensibly just a collection of talking heads, is well put together, detailed, and a lot of fun for fans new and old.
The Sound of Psychomania and Riding Free interview John Cameron and Harvey Andrews on the making of the score and the horrid single in a brief, albeit thorough fashion. These are a little less anecdotal and scattershot than their predecessor, but still just as fascinating from a creative standpoint.
The aforementioned Introduction by Fangoria big cheese and long time horror pundit Chris Alexander is also included. Of all the features, this one is by far my favorite on the set. Alexander has been my favorite film critic since around 2005, not only because of his skills as a journalist, but because the man has a gift of gab and charisma that excels far beyond your typical genre journalist; here he weaves the story of how he discovered the film in question and why it is a benchmark horror film. It is brief and shot-on-video by Alexander himself in what appears to be his Toronto office, but is a captivating testament to the impact of Psychomania on one horror fan. Check it out if you don't believe me, and Chris, if you're reading this; please participate in future DVD special features.
Finally, an amazingly well-cut, vintage trailer finalizes this release as the definitive Psychomania DVD, now and forever.
To nitpick the film's low-budget shortcomings would be like taking The Bible to task for a fragmented narrative. While the film doesn't always achieve its ambitious scope, it is consistently entertaining in its execution.
If there is a pertinent flaw of the film, it comes with its female lead, Abby, played to grating perfection by Mary Larkin.
The conflict of the film relies less on The Living Dead eluding the bumbling British coppers, but within the politics of the group as its weakest member -- Abby -- finds herself turning on the group's philosophy of terror. That she sells the group out to the police and refutes the Living Dead's anarchic superpowers seems noble, but dig deeper into the context of the film and you'll her find her protagonist an unsympathetic symbol of inaction in a world dominate by half-assed, fascist police and punk-ass zombie bikers.
Her actions in the film do little to effect the overall twists and turns of the storyline; she is a grating, passive protagonist the screenwriters lazily attempt to spin off as the film's moral conscious and is the weakest point in an overall ballsy, way ahead-of-its-time black comedy.
Also, for a movie called Psychomania, there are no psychotics and very little mania at work here. Just sayin'.
If you're like me and take a great deal of pleasure in discovering immaculately weird films far off the beaten path, you're sure to get a great a deal out Psychomania. Buy it or rent it and I have no doubt you'll return from the grave having cherished your time with it this October.
Suicide isn't necessary. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Severin Films
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Release Year: 1972
MPAA Rating: Not Rated