Judge Mike Rubino would like to take Roger Corman grocery shopping just to see how much money he'd save.
"Man is like a candle, he must radiate life by burning himself."
Roger Corman is, in many ways, the ultimate producer: he's willing to take chances (especially with new talent) but never risks wasting a buck. His prolific style produced some real winners, and about twice as many losers. This newest double feature from Shout! Factory has one of each.
Facts of the Case
Deathsport arrived on the scene in 1978 with hopes of capitalizing on Corman's highly successful satire Death Race 2000. Thrown together in just a handful of weeks, Deathsport follows a pair of nomadic rangers, Kaz Oshay (David Carradine, Kill Bill: Volume 1) and Deneer (Claudia Jennings, Gator Bait), as they try and escape certain doom in a post-apocalyptic gladiatorial sport with motorcycles. All the while, Kaz is being pursued by some old nemesis played by Richard Lynch (The Sword and the Sorcerer).
Battletruck, also known as Warlords of the Twenty-First Century, is about a post-apocalyptic gang of roughnecks who travel the wastelands in an armored 18-wheeler, looting whatever oil they can find and enslaving agrarian towns. The gang's leader, Col. Straker (James Wainwright, Killdozer…that's right, Killdozer) runs into trouble when he crosses paths with Hunter (Michael Beck, The Warriors), a loner with a motorcycle and a heart of gold. Hunter, along with Straker's defiant daughter Corlie (Anne McEnroe, Beetlejuice) and his old pal Rusty (John Ratzenberger, Cheers), decides to put an end to the battletruck once and for all.
On paper, a movie like Deathsport should be a surefire good time. Heck, it really does look good on paper: the poster looks like a killer Man-o-War album cover with a ripped, long-haired warrior blasting a laser into the sky whilst straddling a crazy looking motorcycle. Awesome, right? Well somewhere during the film's fever-paced production schedule something was lost in translation. What remains is a movie so awful, so confusing, and so poorly made that it turns the corner and becomes sadistically enjoyable. It's a classic example of Roger Corman's low-budget philosophies at their worst.
You can tell Deathsport stinks right from the get-go, those trippy (and lengthy) opening credits giving way to cheesed up narration about a war or mutants or something. Enter David Carradine looking like a frizzy-haired Geico caveman brandishing a plastic sword. He's fighting some dudes in silver jumpsuits, but then gets captured so that he can participate in Deathsport. Whatever that is—everyone talks about "Deathsport" but no one ever says what it is.
Describing the plot of the film is almost pointless, as the central story shifts in a number of directions: sometimes it's a film about a futuristic gladiatorial sport, then it's a movie about two psychic nomads and their search for a missing girl, then it's about a power struggle with a mad ruler bent on starting a war, then it's about revenge and dirt bikes. Between the awful special effects, the laughable dialogue, the inept direction (the original director, Henry Suso, was replaced with the more Corman-competent choice of Alan Arkush), and the painful inconsistencies, the movie becomes merely a string of moving pictures set to sound. Very loud sound.
Despite all of this, I find it hard to truly hate Deathsport. Instead, I just feel bad for it. Sure everyone involved was just trying to cash in on Death Race 2000, Corman included, but the film still has an underdog honesty about it. If you approach it like you would a ragged, old, sci-fi novel on the checkout rack at a pharmacy, you'll appreciate it for the awful, and enjoyable, film that it is.
Then there's Battletruck, idling calmly at the other end of the quality spectrum. If Deathsport is Corman's production values at their worst, then Battletruck are his philosophies at their best. Helmed by newcomer Harley Cokliss, the film is a low-budget hero's tale set in post-apocalyptic New Zealand. Filmed at almost the same time as Road Warrior, the film presents a sparse and believable "Post Oil War" world where diesel-hungry marauders pillage the land and the rest live in democratic, tin shed communes.
Unlike that other film in the set, Battletruck knows its boundaries and never overreaches. Instead, it focuses on telling a good story with believable characters. It still has its tacky moments (the two main characters are named Hunter and Col. Straker, after all), but it's also a very enjoyable twist on the classic American Western. Plus there's some sweet vehicular mayhem in the latter half of the movie.
Michael Beck, Annie McEnroe, and James Wainwright all do a solid job in the film, but the true star is the battletruck; it was a functioning behemoth fit with steel plates on top of a frame from a Canadian logging truck. From the opening shot, the thing is a menacing presence in the film—it reminded me of Romero's Dead Reckoning truck from Land of the Dead. Despite the film's tiny budget, Cokliss manages to give the truck plenty to destroy and even pits it against a Volkswagen Beetle-truck in a climactic standoff. If you're shocked by the awfulness of Deathsport, you'll be pleasantly surprised by how legitimately good Battletruck is.
On a technical level, Shout! Factory has done an admirable job with what must have been some pretty trashy film stock. Both films retain a ton of grain and scratches that actually enhance the viewing experience a la the Grindhouse movies. Deathsport does suffer from some unfortunate video inconsistencies, however, as the film was spliced together from a TV source and the original film negatives. It makes the R-rated scenes feel even creepier. The film also suffers from an unbalanced audio track, as the sound effects and synth often drown out the lame dialogue.
Both films are accompanied by truly entertaining commentary tracks—especially Deathsport. Arkush and film editor Larry Bock come together to trash their own film; the director begins the commentary admitting that Deathsport sucks. It's refreshing to hear them talk about why the film is so bad, and it ended up making me appreciate it even more. There are also still galleries for both films and some trailers and radio ads for Deathsport.
If you're looking for lots of motorcycles jumping over things and trucks plowing into buildings, then you will find no better DVD this year. Deathsport is a terrible movie worth seeing once, and then possibly again with the DVD's commentary track. Battletruck, however, is a solid sci-fi gem, worthy of any Corman fan's collection. If you dig Road Warrior or the Fallout series of videogames, you owe it to yourself to check this out.
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Perp Profile, Deathsport
Studio: Shout! Factory
Distinguishing Marks, Deathsport
Scales of Justice, Battletruck
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Studio: Shout! Factory
Distinguishing Marks, Battletruck
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