DRUM: A Sleazy Second Helping, With Diminishing Returns

Mandingo is one of the most controversial cult films of the 1970’s but it has a small cult of defenders willing to make a case for its artistic value.  You’d be hard-pressed to find a similar group willing to defend its sequel, Drum.  It shares the noteworthy cast and lavish production values of its predecessor but that is where the similarities end.  This is trash for trash’s sake – and an unusually chaotic version of the form, to boot.

The opening section takes place at a New Orleans brothel, and plays like a recycled highlights reel from Mandingo, complete with an extended bare-knuckle fight that repeats one of its predecessor’s standout sequences.  Ken Norton plays the title character, a slave who doesn’t know the madam (Isela Vega) he works for is his mother or that he is descended from African royalty.  It also introduces an absurdly campy villain in DeMarigny (John Colicos), perhaps the ultimate example of the “predatory homosexual” stereotype.  Drum barely escapes his clutches before being sold by his boss/mother.

The film then shifts to Falconhurst for a midsection that plays like a twisted bedroom farce spiced up with good ol’ boy humor.  Hammond Maxwell, now played by Warren Oates, has taken the place over and is Drum’s new master.  He and his daughter Sophie (exploitation starlet Rainbeaux Smith) try to better themselves with the help of Augusta (Fiona Lewis), a psuedo-governess who wants to become Mrs. Maxwell.

Augusta has to cope with the fact that Hammond is still addicted to his “bed wenches,” namely the lovely Regine (a wasted Pam Grier) , while Sophie just can’t stop trying to bed the male slaves. Meanwhile, Drum struggles through a friendship with rebellious slave Blaise (Yaphet Kotto), who become radicalized by his experiences there.  All the players are reunited for the finale, where a society ball at Falconhurst is interrupted by a brutal slave rebellion.

Thus, Drum obviously has plenty to work with but it’s a disaster.  The novel it adapts had a complex plot with a large ensemble of characters and events that spanned several decades.  The finished script, penned by Norman Wexler and an uncredited Richard Sale, plays like a demented Cliff’s Notes take on the material, taking a headlong plunge through a chaotically-abridged plot while piling on the sex and violence.  It also shoehorns in a bunch of absurd, smutty humor (sample comic dialogue: “You knows I like big titties”).  Along with the gay-bashing conceit of its villain, the low comedy short-circuits Drum‘s attempts at an anti-slavery message.

The performances are all over the map. Oates seems to know he is in a stinker and plays his role for broad comedy (he and Smith actually make a funny team in a Hee Haw-sort of way).  Norton is asked to carry more dramatic weight and reveals he just doesn’t have the chops to do it.  Yaphet Kotto fumes in a proper method-actor style but his work is wasted here.  Towering over all the other actors is Colicos, whose steals the show with his outrageously hammy performance.  Some actors chew on the scenery but Colicos devours it like a rabid Pac-Man.

The last nail in the coffin is Steve Carver’s haphazard direction.  In fairness to Carver, he was pulled in at the last minute to replace to Burt Kennedy.  However, this doesn’t excuse his erratic sense of tone, his inability to reign in his over-acting cast members and his dull, non-kinetic approach to mise en scene.  Carver does well when there is action to concentrate on (his best work is the climactic slave revolt) but the occasional flash of energy doesn’t disguise the lack of inspiration behind the camera.

In short, Drum is the pure exploitation flick that Mandingo is often accused of being – yet it is nowhere near as disgracefully amusing as that description suggests.  Any movie this overstuffed with sleaze should be much more exciting and entertaining.  Drum just kind of flops around the screen until the credits roll.  Even Dino De Laurentiis didn’t want his name on the finished product.  Coming from the guy that produced Lipstick and Amityville II: The Possession, that says a lot.

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