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STUDIO: Severin Films
RATED: Not Rated
RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes
• Introduction by Fangoria’s Chris Alexander
• Return of the Living Dead – Interviews with stars
• The Sound of Psychomania – Interview with composer John Cameron
• Riding Free – Interview with singer Harvey Andrews
“The greatest zombie biker movie ever made.”
Nicky Henson, Beryl Reed, George Sanders
Director: Don Sharp
In this British cult classic, Tom Latham (Nicky Henson) is a rebellious upper-class youth who fronts a violent biker gang known as the “Living Dead.” But a life of running helpless citizens off the road and terrorizing the general public isn’t enough for Tom – he wants to blow more minds. Fortunately for Tom, his mother (Beryl Reid) and her shady butler, Shadwell (George Sanders), are practitioners of the occult. With their help Tom determines that he can become immortal and extra badass by committing suicide and willing himself back to life. Once he succeeds he’s now even more dangerous and wild than before. Encouraged by Tom’s leadership, the rest of the Living Dead follow suit. Only Tom’s girlfriend, Abby (Mary Larkin), sees the downside to the Living Dead literally living up to their name. Can she convince Tom to quit before the cops take him down, or will he convince Abby to become undead first?
Hey there ladies.
I love British genre films from the 60’s and 70’s. While they naturally cover a myriad of topics and time periods, they generally all share a characteristic tranquil eccentricity. Whereas, Asian genre cinema often feels obnoxiously belabored to me, like a hyper little kid trying too hard to impress, leave it to the Brits to be reserved even in their gonzo filmmaking. Admittedly it is an acquired taste – which can easily be labeled as boring by unwelcoming viewers – but the bizarre tone generated from this dichotomy is wholly unique and almost hypnotic when it works. While I don’t know that I’d call it a genre classic, Pyschomania is nonetheless a fab example of this signature quiet British strangeness at play.
The story is a goofy but completely straight-forward metaphor of teen rebellion, with Tom longing to become an all-powerful undead (these “zombies” don’t groan or rot or crave flesh), but basically just so the cops can’t get in his way while he pointlessly terrorizes regular people. He wants power so he has the freedom to act out like a punk. This simple shtick is then made completely batshit by its execution.
In the opening of the film, Tom ignores the sexy advances of Abby when he becomes fixated on catching a frog, which he then brings home and presents to Shadwell. From Shadwell’s dialogue we glean that this is a rare type of frog that possesses useful attributes in occult spells. Moments later we learn that Tom’s father had attempted to discover the secret of immortality by entering a dangerously magic room in the family home, but the room killed him. Despite his mother’s wishes, Tom decides to enter said room. A series of ambiguous nonsense happens in the deadly magic room, and when Tom exits, he proclaims he now knows the secret to return from the dead. Which, it turns out he truly does. When he commits suicide and is buried (in a scene that is an explosion of counter-culture embarrassment and good old fashioned absurdity), he soon rises from the grave as though nothing ever happened.
“I don’t want to harsh the mood, but, um, shouldn’t we have dug the grave deep enough so that Tom’s head isn’t poking out?”
What makes all this so truly weird is the complete lack of back-story or justification we get for anything and everything. Who are these people? Why do they practice the occult? Are they part of some secret British occult society? Why the fuck do they have this crazy magic room in their house? What exactly is the crazy magic room? Through a flashback later in the film we can gather that the reason Tom succeeded where his father failed was because his mother made some manner of pact with the Devil (or a similar entity) when Tom was born. Other than this bit of vagueness, we learn nothing. The character of Shadwell in particular remains a strange mystery to us even at the end of the film. Who is? Why does he work for the family? Is he evil or good?
Now, mind you, none of this is actually a complaint. Were I teaching a screenwriting class, I would certainly deride all of this, but here this is simply part of Psychomania’s ridiculous charm. It is the way the film glosses over all this, almost as if it were a cultural detail being lost to us through translation, that makes the film so crazy. You just have to go along with it. Oh, I guess Tom’s family are witches or something? Sure, okay. Oh, so simply thinking you’ll come back to life when you commit suicide will actually make you come back to life? Sure.
“Madam, that is a lovely poster. I had the very same one in my room at university.”
Fans of motorcycle stunts will find plenty to enjoy here, but for me the highlight of the film is a montage of the Living Dead members all gleefully killing themselves after Tom returns. The sequence is dark hilarity, much like the suicide montage from Groundhog’s Day, but grimmer and more punk, and with one truly amazing stunt where a member drops from an overpass in front of an oncoming truck.
John Cameron’s score deserves a definite nod too. A classic bit of atmospheric fuzz rock, it evokes the feeling of a somber and moody orchestral horror score, while staying fully (time period) contemporary. It’s a memorable sound, so it is not surprising that fans of the film are equally enamored with the soundtrack.
Tom, ultimately defeated by Mount Merapi.
What? Too soon?
Nicky Henson is great as Tom. He has an Ewan McGregor quality to him, but with a bit more of a manly edge. Present-day funzies can be found watching Harry Potter’s Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge (a much younger Robert Hardy) fumble around as the police detective trying to capture Tom and the rest of the gang. George Sanders (All About Eve, A Shot in the Dark, The Jungle Book) is a truly bizarre presence in the film – a real “what is he doing in this film” bit of casting. One of the all-time greatest bastards (or “cads” as he might have said) of cinema, only a handful of actors have possessed the effortless acid tongue of Sanders; I can only imagine Oscar Wilde heard a smooth, urbane voice like Sanders in his mind when he composed his best devilishly biting one-liners and barbs (it’s a shame Sanders only appeared in one Wilde work, 1945’s The Picture of Dorian Gray – which he owns like a muthafucka). Sanders looks unhealthy here, and his talents are completely wasted (and he’s phoning-in the hell out of his lines). Even if it weren’t a cult classic, Psychomania would have the minor distinction of seemingly being the film that drove Sanders to commit suicide – leaving behind an aptly Wildesque suicide note: “Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck.”
Maybe this film inspired Sanders to commit suicide in an attempt to become immortal.
The main selling point of this DVD, I think, is the great package Severin has put together. The negative for Pyschomania was lost long ago, so Severin compiled a transfer assembled from the best known prints and elements available. So while the picture isn’t going to knock your socks off, this is as good as it has looked in decades (and as good as its gonna look too). The sound is excellent, and the DVD is loaded with fun and enlightening features.
If you’ve never seen Psychomania, I recommend watching Fangoria editor Chris Alexander’s introduction before viewing the film, as it does a great job of pumping you up and succinctly laying out a lot of the reasons this oddball biker flick has avoided falling into unloved obscurity.
The interviews with the cast are wonderful, largely because only a handful of the actors seem to have fully come to terms with the fact that anyone actually likes the film. Nicky Henson (who now resembles a British William Shatner) in particular is a riot of unselfawareness, as he repeatedly insults the film and fanbase. Mostly everyone seems baffled by the film’s cult status. The height of this comes from singer/songwriter Harvey Andrews (who performed a song for the film), who makes no attempt to hide his giggles when discussing his views on the quality of the production.
7 out of 10
8.5 out of 10