It has been said frequently on this blog but it bears repeating: Roger Corman’s New World Pictures was the best of all the indie outfits cranking out b-movies during the 1970’s. Corman’s smarts ensured that his product had energy and entertainment value even when it aesthetically fell short of the mark.
Deathsport is a good example of a New World programmer that manages to entertain despite some serious failings. The plotting is boilerplate future-schlock set in a world where people either live as “statesmen” in protected kingdom-like cities or an outland area filled with mutants and free-roaming Conan types known as “range guides.” Kaz Oshay (David Carradine) and Deneer (Claudia Jennings) are two such guides, who both get kidnapped by the silver-jumpsuited minions of Lord Zirpola (David McLean), a city ruler who has gone insane due to brain cancer.
Zirpola forces Kaz and Deneer into participating in the title activity, a gladiators-with-zapguns-on-motorbikes sport that entertains the citizens while also keeping them in line (troublesome citizens often end up in the game). Of course, Kaz and Deneer have no intention of living out their lives in the Deathsport so they make a daring escape during a game with fellow team members Doctor Karl (William Smithers) and Markus (Will Walker). They are chased deep into the outlands by Ankar Moor (Richard Lynch), a traitorous guide-turned-statesman determined to kill Kaz, and an endless array of silver-jumpsuit dudes on cycles.
This assemblage of elements might sound like the basis for a tidy sci-fi schlocker but Deathsport unravels before the viewer’s eyes like an unholy, godless mess. The plot is full of dead ends, the dialogue is lethally bad pseudo-poetry, the title sport makes no sense, every futuristic element looks poverty-row cheap (even by Corman standards) and it’s shamelessly padded despite an 81-minute running time. To top it all off, the film also boasts one of the worst, least listenable electronic scores ever recorded.
Many of these problems are due to the film’s troubled production history: initial director “Henry Suso” (alias Nick Niciphor) was a film-school grad who didn’t understand Corman-style filmmaking and turned in a bad art movie that lacked action or nudity. Corman hired Allan Arkush to do 8 days of reshoots designed to pump it up with chases, explosions and plenty of nudity from Jennings. The end result is absolutely schizoid: one minute it plays like Ed Wood directing an Ingmar Bergman film, the next minute it’s blowing up dummies on cheap junker-motorcycles.
Despite this tortured backstory (and the end result’s incoherence), Deathsport is actually fun to watch if you’re the right, low-brow frame of mind. It moves very fast (kudos to editor Larry Bock) and veteran b-movie cinematographer Gary Graver gets a surprising amount of atmosphere from the California desert locations. Carradine and Jennings overcome their nothing characterizations via pure b-movie charisma and Richard Lynch applies maximum gravitas to his villain role, giving the film’s best performance.
There are some dull stretches in the second half but Deathsport always manages to pick itself up by throwing out something trashy and/or unintentionally funny at you every five minutes: highlights include a torture device where naked women are shocked with colored lights and bad synth music, the least scary mutants in film history, the “language” of the guides (which sounds like a mix of fortune-cookie aphorisms and encounter-group jargon) and the uproariously artsy finale, in which Lynch and Carradine spew bad lines before fighting samurai style with silly-looking plastic swords. Also, there’s a fire stunt where the intended human torch accidentally sets an off-camera crew member on fire.
In short, Deathsport is a godawful mess but it’s loveably godawful mess. Like the best bad movies, it packs many different kinds of trashy content into its short running time and does so with a perversely misguided yet fascinating style. You’ve got to hand it to Roger Corman: even his bottom-of-the-barrel junk was better than everyone else’s bottom-of-the-barrel junk.