In 1975, exploitation film master Roger Corman produced one of his very best films. Combining a wicked sense of campy humor, a healthy dose of violence, and an angry satirical edge, Death Race 2000, directed by Paul Bartel, was the best things to bear Corman’s name (as producer) since Corman himself was directing cool horror films based on Edgar Allan Poe stories for AIP. Always keen to make a buck, Corman immediately set about creating another vehicle-based futuristic fling, albeit one with a lot less of a budget — even for a Corman flick — and a much less talented writer and director. Corman would do his best to make people think it was related in some way to Death Race 2000 by calling the new film Deathsport and casting David Carradine in the lead. But the similarities end there, and while Death Race 2000 is a genuinely good, enjoyable, and even smart film, Deathsport is an incompetent piece of junk with almost nothing to offer humanity. Predictably, I do not own Death Race 2000 and have only seen it once. I do, however, own Deathsport in two different formats now and have watched it at least half a dozen times.
We find ourselves in “the future,” something like a thousand years from now, after the wars have turned the world into a vast tract of scrubland and desert. The remnants of the human race live in fortress style city-states and are called statesmen, leaving the majority of the blighted world to be the domain of mutant cannibals and a race of mystic wanderers known as range guides. Machines are rare, used only by the “statesmen” — people who live in the cities. So, wait. Didn’t you just tell us that pretty much everyone lives in the city and is a statesman? Now I haven’t been good at math or logic since sixth grade, but I’m pretty sure that if almost everyone is a statesmen, and only statesmen use machines, then almost everyone uses machines. So I don’t see what’s so special about it.
The mad leader of Helix City, Lord Zirpola (David McClean), wants to attack a neighboring city for no real reason we can understand other than he is mad and evil. To accomplish this act of war, he has invented the future’s ultimate weapon: a motorcycle with some aluminum attached to the front end, and two lasers on the side that are of the same power as lasers people carry and fire by hand, only the lasers on the so-called “death machines” are more awesome because they are a hell of a lot harder to aim. Zirpola wants to prove to his people that the death machines are super bad-ass, so he decides to capture some range guides and showcase their obliteration by death machine in the city’s gladiatorial “deathsport.” This will convince the population that an unjustified war with the other city will be fun and easy, so long as everyone is riding a death machine.
The future as projected by the cheap sci-fi films of the 70s and 80s is jam packed with incredibly lame ultimate weapons. The death machines are pretty high up on the list, though they will pale in comparison to some of the other ultimate weapons we’ll be seeing later in this series of reviews. The death machines may be stupid and unwieldy as weapons, but at least they are still motorcycles. At the very least, you can ride them around and have fun up until Barry Bostwick shows up on his own futuristic motorcycle with crap attached to the front end and brags about how his can also fly. But still, when we first see the death machines in action, a couple female range guides, one of whom is the late Gator Bait herself, Claudia Jennings, take them out with no real problem. Range guide Kaz Oshay (Carradine) will also take a few out all by himself — and range guides are armed with nothing but clear plastic swords that whistle when you swing them around. I’m pretty sure I had a toy that did the same thing. That’s all it takes to make a death machine explode? At no point, though, does the army of Helix City think that the death machines are a stupid idea, let alone an especially stupid idea in a world with lots of tall, steep rock formations people have no problem scurrying up to escape the death machines. Oh if only Lord Zirpola has listened to Barry Bostwick and put rocket wings on the motorcycles!
Eventually Carradine’s Kaz and Jenning’s Deneer are captured, though that has less to do with the death machines than it does sheer force of numbers. They come face to face with the leader of Helix City’s army, the black-clad Richard Lynch. Yes, his character has a name (Ankar Moor), but anyone who knows Richard Lynch knows that he plays the same evil guy character in every movie, so we might as well just call him Richard Lynch. I guess the same could be said of David Carradine as well. Lynch has the sinister air of a young Rutger Hauer crossbred with the condescending sneer of William Atherton and the hair of Gladiator Malibu from the 80s version of American Gladiators. Can even David Carradine stand up to such a foe?
It turns out that not only is Richard Lynch evil, but he’s also a former range guide who betrayed The Code and killed the most powerful of all range guides, who just happens to be Kaz Oshay’s mom. Deneer and Kaz don’t take too kindly to being caged like animals. While Kaz kicks the wall a lot and yells “I am my only master,” Deneer is made to wander around nude in a room full of neon tubes that shake around, howl, and electrocute people. Don’t ask me, man. I didn’t write it. Eventually, the two guides are forced to compete against the death machines in deathsport, an event that takes up about ten minutes of the film’s running time and has almost no real bearing on the plot, but is never the less the source of the title. Earlier in the film, Zirpola was angry that Ankor Moor lost a couple death machines whilst pursuing Claudia Jennings, yet here he seems unfazed by the fact that the two captive rangers take out like a dozen of the infernal contraptions. Maybe if he’d put trained soldiers on the machines instead of chumps he just picked out of jail, his little dog and pony show would have gone better. The two rangers escape along with a couple hangers on, thus ending the deathsport portion of Deathsport. All that’s left now is for the bad guys to chase the good guys across the barren wasteland until we get a final showdown between Kaz Oshay and Ankor Moor. All in all, Zirpola’s death machine coming out party went over about as well as one of those corporate seminars where the presenter has all his stuff stored online and then can’t get an internet connection (possibly because the internet has become sentient and is too preoccupied with cataloging its vast store of Naruto slashfic).
To enumerate the various points at which the plot doesn’t make any sense would be to wandering into a Minotaur’s labyrinth from which there is no real hope of emerging alive. The death machines having already been covered as being idiotic, we could turn to how much is made of Carradine’s ability to sense the coming of dangerous weather, which leads to him predicting the coming of dangerous weather, which leads to a scene of people going “The dangerous weather is coming,” which then leads immediately to a scene of people coming out of a cave and going, “Whew, I sure am glad that dangerous weather is over.” Cannibal mutants kidnap a little girl, and one assumes that the reason cannibal mutants would kidnap a little girl is to eat her. But weeks later, when Kaz and Deneer finally show up to rescue her, she’s still there. I guess they wanted to soften up the meat. The cannibal mutants had her in a little cage, after all, so I reckon that the world may have collapsed but our love of veal has not. There are also multiple scenes were someone who is supposed to get killed stands right in front of a death machine, but instead of shooting the person with the lasers, the guy on the death machine just does a little wheelie or jumps over a convenient dirt pile next to the person. And then usually the death machine explodes. You may not have realized that hitting a motorcycle with a clear plastic sword would make it explode, but that’s why you’re not a range guide.
And then there’s the matter of Lord Zirpola’s neon tube torture forest. Seriously, just what the hell? I mean, I can understand having a chamber where people dance naked for you. And I can understand that in the future, poledancer poles will need to be more futuristic, and thus making them transparent tubes filled with flashing neon lights is inevitable. But what kind of torture is it to then make them shake all around and howl? That’s not torture; that’s just ugly windchimes, and you can get those all over the place down South. Still, at least the movie does right by us and has not one but two gratuitous scenes of nude dancing in the neon tube forest, one of which goes on for a while and features a woman (Valerie Rae Clark, star of…ummm…Breast Orgy and Breast Orgy 2) we’ve never seen before and will never see again but, for some reason, apart from dancing nude, also gets to kill Lord Zirpola by…umm…offering her hand to him while he’s busy making the tubes shock her or whatever it is they do. Zirpola also has a torture tunnel where he straps you down and flashes lights at you, causing you to scream. This requires Claudia Jennings to be nude for the torture to work. Luckily, it does not require the same of David Carradine.
So let me address this right here. David Carradine in his youth — not really a bad looking guy. In pretty good shape. But the loincloth simply does not become him. It becomes very few men, especially when they are shot from such awkward angles, like leaping spread legged through the air or rolling around on their back with their legs stuck up. It’s just not a good angle. That’s why you don’t see male strippers constantly jumping all spread eagle off the backs of chairs and stuff. They know that it looks goofy. They’ll straddle a chair, but they’ll never jump awkwardly off it. And when it comes to rolling around on their backs in a crouching position, they’re going to skip that and fill the time with a little trick I like to call “around the world.” So while we get to see plenty of David Carradine flesh, most of it is unwelcome because it just ends up looking so goofy. Still, I suppose we should be happy he wasn’t forced to do full frontal nude dancing in the forest of shaking, howling neon tubes.
Probably my favorite part of the movie is when Kaz Oshay leads Ankor and his minions on a motorcycle race through a fuel depot which has no reason to exist out in the middle of the desert. The depot is full of gasoline barrels stacked apparently at random throughout the facility, sometimes in front of ramps so that people can jump their motorcycles through flames once the barrels have inevitably exploded. In classic Corman fashion, scenes of jumping motorcycles are recycled a few times to increase the number of times we get to watch a guy jump a motorcycle over some candy cane colored barrels. This fuel depot was apparently built by the same people who were doing the construction on the building where Jackie Chan has his final fight scene in Mr. Nice Guy. If you don’t recall or never saw the film, that building features a framed-up but not entirely drywalled floor that was apparently comprised of nothing but hundreds of 5×5 rooms with doors in every wall. It was fun for a fight scene, but really, what the hell were they building?
Watching Deathsport is mind-bending enough on its own right, but where the film really shines is in the backstage drama. The movie was written by Nicholas Niciphor. Though he had no experience as a director, Niciphor was also hired to direct — presumably because the vision for Deathsport was so grand and amazing that only the film’s writer could hope to fully realize it, or something. Now, who you believe about what has a lot to do with sorting out what happened, but I’m going mostly with David Carradine’s version. According to Carradine, Niciphor was not only inexperienced, he was also unstable. He was so clueless about directing that he didn’t even now what it meant to set up a camera. He was prone to freak out, especially at Claudia Jennings or whenever anyone had trouble maneuvering the awkward death machines. According to Niciphor, this was often because the cast was drunk, stoned, and unruly, especially Jennings. I don’t really doubt it. Carradine himself admits that there was a bit of partying going on. Former Playboy Playmate Claudia Jennings was well known as a wild child anyway. But then, you’re making Deathsport. What the hell is there to be so serious about? Niciphor, however, was deadly serious about his film, and if the cast was clowning around, it only served to push him further over the edge. If things didn’t go right on the first take, he would throw a fit and throw out the entire scene and brood about it.
Things came to a head when he tore into Jennings over her inability to effectively handle the clunky death machines. Everyone was having problems with the front-heavy contraptions, but Jennings in particular irked him. It got so heated that Niciphor allegedly struck Jennings, though David Carradine says he can’t verify this since he was down at the other end of a gully waiting to do a take. Jennings was ready to quit the movie, and it was only after speaking with the producer who then spoke to Roger Corman that she was convinced to stay on. Niciphor was eventually phased out, spending most of his time skulking in the background, and Alan Arkush was brought in to complete the film — but not before Niciphor got his nose broken by David Carradine when he walked too close to a fight scene rehearsal in progress. Niciphor claims it might not have been an accident. But that’s nothing, since apparently the temperamental (or perhaps just mental) writer-director also berated Jennings and Carradine to the point where David actually just hauled off and kicked the guy’s ass.
Niciphor refutes many of the claims without actually refuting them. According to his side of things, the altercation between he and Claudia Jennings happened because Jennings was coked out while trying to operate the death machine, and that’s why she was having a hard time. I don’t think that’s outside the realm of possibility. Jenning’s cocaine addiction was well known. Niciphor further claims that Carradine was smoking hashish the whole time. Again, I don’t think this is outside the realm of believability — especially when you witness how stoned Carradine looks for most of the movie. But none of this really counters any of what Carradine said, either. The entire thing sounds like a snobs versus slobs teen sex comedy, with Carradine and Jennings cast and the lovable freewheelin’ slobs and Niciphor as the stuffy dean who hates fun. Assuming that the truth is to be found in some mix of all sides of the story, the final verdict is that the the making of Deathsport would probably be a much better film than Deathsport itself.
Things like that are why I like movies like this so much — apart from the fact that this movie is just plain weird. It’s handled with such seriousness, with such earnestness. You can feel that poor Nicholas Niciphor really believed in every line, really wanted this film to have meaning and depth. Does a film this lousy really deserve that much behind the scenes drama? I would love for the DVD to have had some commentary attached to it, either by Carradine or Niciphor — or hell, put ‘em both in the room and let them duke it out. This was the first and last time poor Nick directed a film, though he did go on to work as a writer for a few more films, including Alejandro Jodorowski’s Tusk. Beyond that, he’s been relegated to the realm of writing irate letters to Psychotronic magazine, complaining about David Carradine’s doobie habits in 1978.
Carradine, of course, needs no real introduction here. A dancer who sprung into the American consciousness courtesy of the show Kung-Fu, Carradine went on to become one of the mainstays of exploitation cinema, especially when it was produced by Roger Corman. Carradine could be quite good in a role, and when he was bad, he mostly seemed harmlessly sleepy and stoned. That’s how he plays it here, meandering through Niciphor’s ponderous faux-mystic dialogue with the laid back style of a dude who was eating a lot of pot brownies. His fight scenes are awkward, but that’s more the fault of the movie itself. What can you do when you’re forced to swing around a huge plastic sword? His nemesis in Richard Lynch is…well, Lynch is actually understated compared to some of his other performances, but it’s still the exact same performance you expect and always want from Lynch. I can’t say much more than that.
Claudia Jennings is another well known, albeit far more tragic, figure in B-Movie history. Jennings became one of the most recognizable faces in exploitation cinema when she appeared in the film Gator Bait, which is well known not so much because the movie is worth being well known, but more because every single video store in the universe seemed to have a sun bleached copy of the VHS tape sitting on the shelf. Jennings isn’t a great actress, and she has a sort of sleepy eyed beauty that makes her seem like she was stoned the entire time — which she apparently was. Between her and Carradine, the munchies-related catering bill must have eaten up half the film’s budget. She had her moments of glory in film, though. Unholy Rollers, for example, and Moonshine County Express. Deathsport really isn’t one of those moments, though she does get to wander naked through that neon tube room. This film comes at the end of her career, when she was heavy into drug and alcohol abuse and had a tumultuous relationship with some real estate guy (though rumors have her connected to Deathsport co-star Jesse Vint, and someone — Niciphor I think — also claimed she was attached to David Carradine, a claim that Carradine laughs off as preposterous). She cleaned up her act shortly thereafter, but amid a breakup with the realtor, fell asleep at the wheel of her car and was killed in the ensuing wreck.
But even if Jennings and Carradine were whooping it up, smoking pot, drinking whiskey, and arranging huge Deathsport orgies, nothing in their performance can come close to being as awkward or awful as that of young Will Walker, who plays one of the guys who breaks out of the deathsport competition with the range guides. This is one of those performances that is so weird and horrible that it deserves far more attention than it receives. He looks kind of like Miles O’Keefe in Sword of the Valiant, with the blond page boy haircut and the same dazed thousand yard stare. But Miles is a much better actor than Walker, believe it or not. Walker’s character of Marcus spends most of his time yelling “Kaz! Help me!” in a bland monotone. If the film has an humor at all, it’s to be found in Kaz’s flashes of annoyance at having to carry this load around on his awesome adventure with Claudia Jennings. She was totally willing to go all the way, but then Marcus kept showing up and ruining the mood.
Post apocalyptic cinema from the 1970s was often slow and ponderous, not to mention incredibly self-important and pretentious. Sometimes the results are pretty great, sometimes they were ridiculous, and often they were just dull. Deathsport is sort of a missing link between the post apocalyptic films of the 70s and those that would come in the wake of Mad Max and, more importantly, its sequel, The Road Warrior. Those films featured much less cornball philosophizing and much more high octane action. Or at least attempts at high octane action. Deathsport has plenty of the corny mysticism and dime store attempts at Zen koans that one expects from 1970s sci-fi, but it also has lots of exploding motorcycles and…well…it has lots of exploding motorcycles. And it is one of the first post-apocalypse films to save itself some cash by predicting that, in the future, the world would mostly look like scrubland dotted with matte paintings of distant cities. It’s pretty fair to draw the line from this movie directly to Mad Max, Road Warrior, and from there you quickly find yourself in the domain of Warriors of the Lost World and Warlords of the 21st Century — movies that, many years after Deathsport, manage to be just as cheap and goofy as it was, but not nearly as much fun. I mean, those later movies have practically no David Carradine crotch at all!
Deathsport presents us with a loopy sort of myticism not unlike The Force as presented in Star Wars and before George Lucas turned it into some sort of genetic disease, but more accurately, it reflects the same sort of New Age filtered half understanding of Buddhism and spirituality that you find in a movie like Circle of Iron (also featuring David Carradine in a loin cloth) or in pretty much any pow wow held by some white dude claiming to be enlightened. Our range guides speak in monotone a lot about consciousness and spiritual union, and we know they are wise because they do not use contractions, but it all sounds pretty much like what a high schooler might come up with. Circle of Iron covers much of the same ground but in a more effective way and with a greater grounding in actual Zen philosophy rather than Zen as filtered through some hippie who read a couple pamphlets and then set himself up with an American ashram. But we’ll come to that movie in good time, and if nothing else, it’s probably safe to say that as many hashish brownies went into its making as went into the making of Deathsport. Star Wars must also have had some effect on this film, though, because the foley artist thought enough of it to take the TIE fighter sound effect and use them whenever David Carradine drives his motorcycle through a tunnel.
Deathsport is a pretty clumsy film, full of bad writing, plot points that make no sense, ominous talk about things that end up never happening, and a titular event that ends up being, at best, a footnote in the film’s action. The acting is lazy, the writing is ridiculous, and the props are laughable. And it’s all worth seeing, just for the sheer spectacle of it. Ill advised motorcycles as ultimate weapons movies wouldn’t have it this good again until Megaforce rolled off the assembly line. The fact that a movie this bad generated so much behind the scenes drama fills me with a sick sense of giddiness, as does the thought that Carradine and Jennings were toking up while an uptight German guy yelled at them to take his film more seriously. I don’t even know if Nick was German. I just like imagining him that way, possibly dressed in the monocle and jodhpurs get up all good directors wear. It may not be a shining example of 70s scifi, or even a shining example of a middling Roger Corman production, but it is pretty entertaining. Plus, neon disco windchime nude dancing, and so many David Carradine buffalo shots per minute that to merely gaze upon them is enough to drive sane men mad.
Perhaps that’s what happened to poor old Lord Zirpola.
Release Year: 1978 | Country: United States | Starring: David Carradine, Claudia Jennings, Richard Lynch, William Smithers, Will Walker, David McLean, Jesse Vint | Writer: Nicholas Niciphor, Donald Stewart | Director: Nicholas Niciphor | Cinematographer: Gary Graver | Music: Andy Stein | Producer: Roger Corman