Doomsday Reels
Deathsport (1978)



Allan Arkush/Nicholas Niciphor (as Henry Suso)

David Carradine (Kaz Oshay), Claudia Jennings (Deneer), Richard Lynch (Ankar Moor), David McLean (Lord Zirpola), William Smithers (Dr. Karl),

Nuclear War/Totalitarian Government

“A thousand years from tomorrow after the great neutron wars, the world consists of desert wastes and isolated city states.  A few machines remain as a reminder of the past but only the city-dwelling statemen use them.  Between the cities roam the dreaded cannibal mutants and the Range Guides.  Guides are legendary warriors leading an independent nomadic life, owning allegiance only to their code.” – Opening narration.

Deathsport is terrible, let’s just get that out of the way right now.  Deathsport is a disjointed, cheap-looking, dull slog of a mess.  It’s a parade of bad acting, lame sword fights, strobe lights, and Claudia Jennings’ breasts.  75% of this movie is motorcycle crashes, less than 5% is plot.  I had to watch this in three installments because I kept falling asleep. There’s no cult appeal here, it takes itself far too seriously to get a “so bad it’s good” cult going and it’s too inept to gain any genuine fandom.  This is an irredeemable film.  But I’m not here to talk to you about how bad Deathsport is, I’m here to tell you whyDeathsport is a dogshit movie but it’s a trainwreck disaster that is fascinating to read about.

So shortly after Death Race 2000 became a drive-in classic, Roger Corman decided that he wanted more of that, please.  So he commissioned a poster (seen above) and sold his distributors on the idea and commissioned a script.  So, red flag number one: the movie is based on a poster.  After getting the go ahead on the film, Roger Corman shopped the film around to every director at the studio and nobody wanted it.  Red flag number two.  So finally Corman found a patsy in Nicholas Niciphor, a first-time director (red flag number three) who had not seen Death Race 2000 (number four), had not seen a Roger Corman film (number five), nor even a b-movie (number six.)  Niciphor had grown up on art films.

For those not aware, part of the reason that many of Corman’s productions worked back in the day with their shoestring budgets was because every single aspect of the film was meticulously planned out before principal photography began, sometimes these planning meetings would take entire days.  Niciphor had two weeks to write (biiig number seven) and plan out the entire film before it began shooting (number eight.)  To top this off he and David Carradine did not get along at all (number nine), Carradine only had about three weeks to do all of his shots (number ten), and he smoked an absurd amount of high-quality weed the entire time (number eleven.)

Deathsport - 01

With no plan, a rushed nonsensical script that was being rewritten constantly, and a primadonna star that didn’t like him or the script, Niciphor predictably crashed and burned and was well behind schedule almost immediately.  Corman called in director Allan Arkush to re-shoot and fix the movie, promising to make Rock ‘n Roll High School and pay him what he considered to be an exorbitant amount (about $450 a week) if he would do it.

Arkush came into a mess.  The motorcycles for the film were Yamaha street dirt bikes with giant razor-sharp aluminum frontplates that weighed a ton and made stunt work with them nigh-impossible.  The sets were few (most of the movie was shot in the desert), the plot still made no sense, the mutants were production assistants in camouflage netting with ping pong balls taped over their eyes and a mixture of Alka Seltzer and egg whites foaming from their mouths, the main characters’ weapons were big goofy clear-plastic swords that fell apart if they were swung too fast meaning that every sword fight had to be done in slow motion and sped up in post-production, and the time limit was infinitesimal.  Says Arkush, “mostly we just blew up motorcycles, lots of them.

The plot, as much as it exists, involves three factions:  the Statemen, who live in the last bastions of civilization; the Cannibal Mutants, self-explanatory; and the Range Guides, a group of nomadic samurai loners.  Nicholas Niciphor envisioned the film as an Akira Kurosawa tribute.  The Statesmen have “Death Machines” which are futuristic motorcycles with “blasters” (actually flashbulbs that vaporize people with a cheap composite-shot effect.)

To help keep the plebs under his thumb, the Statesman king (who is dying of a brain disease which is driving him insane) decides to show that his Death Machines are so powerful that even the revered Range Guides cannot defeat them.  So the king’s henchman Ankar Moor (Richard Lynch) hunts down two of the most formidable Range Guides to compete in Deathsport.  What is Deathsport?  Nobody really knows.  Sure post-apocalyptic movies about future sports rarely explain the rules of their games, I have no idea how to play Jugger from The Blood of Heroes or how a game of Quintet is meant to work, but I at least feel like the people who made those movies know how they work.  Allan Arkush has no idea how Deathsport works nor even what it really is, the best he can reckon is it’s somehow like jousting but some people are on foot.

Deathsport - 02

The Guides, Kaz (David Carradine) and Deneer (Claudia Jennings) escape using the Death Machines and go out into the wasteland to catch a young girl who was kidnapped by cannibal mutants earlier in the film.  Meanwhile Ankar Moor pursues Kaz to kill him.  And that’s the plot folks, so spare that you can see its ribs yet somehow ridiculously complicated.  We have a long opening featuring endless torture scenes that consist of Jennings and Carradine convulsing to strobe lights.  Then we get a big bloated midsection of exploding motorcycles accompanied to the same four stock sound effects of “Old-timey western gunshot”, “Howie scream“,”R2-D2 screaming”, and “Chainsaw fart” every time one of the cycles makes its way through the shot.  Finally the movie putters to a finish: the king dies in a random scene involving a naked woman dancing around a dark room full of glass cylinders filled with Christmas lights, Lynch and Carradine have a fairly decent clear-plastic sword fight wherein Carradine wins by making Lynch drop his cheap plastic replica of his own severed head, and the movie mercifully ends.

Claudia Jennings does a pretty capable job in this film, as does David Carradine, but the real standout is Richard Lynch.  It never ceases to amaze me how a man with such an incredibly whiny nasally voice (look up any interview with him) could continuously play these imposing gravel-voiced badasses that he did in many awful awful movies (and a few good ones.)

While technically a mess and all but unwatchable, there is a really interesting layer beneath the movie.  I have zero interest in the plot but I’m endlessly fascinated by the details of the world and want to make an anthropological study of the fictional universe in which it takes place.  Obviously the reasons for the bizarre details are just shit being thrown at a wall but, as was the case with similar duds Parasite and Steel Dawn, I’m obsessed with trying to make some sense of them.  This isn’t a good movie but I highly recommend buying the Shout! Factory DVD just for the commentary with Allan Arkush and editor Larry Bock where they discuss the mess that was the production.  Plus you get Battletruck as part of the deal, I have no idea if it’s any good but it’s called Battletruck!  How can you turn that down?

Deathsport - 03

Now I know that this movie has nothing to do with Death Race 2000 but it is considered to be a spiritual sequel of sorts and Roger Corman even paid Ib Melchior royalties on it despite the author stating that it had nothing to do with his story.  So thus ends Death Race month here at CHUD.  Hopefully you’ve learned something; I certainly haven’t.

Deathsport is available on DVD as a double-feature with Battletruck and on Amazon Instant.

“You don’t have to trust me…” *raises shotgun* “Just trust this.”

Deathsport - 04

Discuss this and other Doomsday Reels columns in the forum.