Wednesday, October 13, 2010

This Sweet Cesspool: PSYCHOMANIA (1973)

This month, Severin releases the seminal entry in the once ubiquitous zombie biker genre, PSYCHOMANIA (1973), a British production in which director/writer Don Sharp made sure the cuts matched and the pacing didn't lag. Alas, he forgot other things, like where the negative was. It's lost, so we'll never get to see this in super duper high... def. On the other hand, who needs def-ness? The story of bikers who commit suicide and return as zombies (that look and act exactly like they did when they were alive), PSYCHOMANIA is a film best seen with your glasses off, the image refracted through rows of empty bottles, and one eye covered so you don't see double. I mean that in the best of all possible ways. It scored a cult following in spots where it played a lot on late night TV, I'm guessing in the UK, I certainly never saw it that way. But  I can imagine stumbling over it at three AM - after being out a rock club at, like 18 or 19, and getting that super giddy Columbus kinda feeling. Expecting a wild living dead vroom vroom kind of trip in advance though, big mistake, unless you're only idea of being bad comes from watching The Monkees or the Bay City Rollers (remember their TV show?)

What strikes me as super strange first off is the notion that a bunch of birds and laddies on motorbikes can ride through workaday British shoppers and harass the locals and only one bobby e'er shows up to stop 'em. Special note to bakery delivery guys carrying unrealistically tall stacks of cake boxes and bread: if you hear a roar of a passing motorbike gang, wait in the shop until they pass. And if you're up on a ladder in the middle of the lane, get down! Then again, reality is not high on the menu in PSYCHOMANIA. Instead it flatters the palate of the sugar-addicted adolescent, making up in vandalism and chipper death cult romance what it lacks in meat, fiber, and coherence. It's like some obliging DEATH RACE 2000 pin jockey has arranged these people in their path just to dramatize that this gang don't care, man, they're destructive.

And it still begs the question: if our pale redheaded heroine Abby is so worried about her leader of the pack late boyfriend being back from the grave and urging the gang to kill themselves so they can come back immortal and indestructible and all, why does she too participate in all the hooligan destruction? She's a 'good' girl... when it suits her. And since when do hippies terrorize locals and/or punk rockers sing like Donovan at the Renaissance Faire? Was British youth culture really so hodge podge slapdash that one size fit all? I mean, like how punk used to encompass everything from what today is known as Hardcore, Goth. Emo, and Indie, to alt-Country? Only the toad in the mirror knows..."ribbit."

"Lick me and see the world."
Anyway, it's through the unholy power of a 100-year old graveyard toad (plucked at the gang's Stonehenge-ish hang-out spot), the mojo of the family's Satanic butler (a post-stroke George Sanders) and Tom's being buried vertically astride his bike (as per his bequest) in the center of said Stonehenge-ish graveyard, that he's able to roar up from his grave, spewing dirt and exhaust and run down a passing pedestrian on his way to bigger slaughters. This is all beautifully rendered in bloodless offscreen violence. You would think after being covered in dirt and decaying for awhile, possibly even filled with formaldehyde (aye, many a toad's suffered that fate), his white scarf might at least be a weensy bit dirty, but wrong ye'd be, mate. Were the make-up man to e'er stir from his pint lunch slumbers, Tom's face might evince a ghastly pallor. But this isn't that kind of zombie movie. In fact, without everybody saying so, you'd have no idea Tom has been dead at all or anywhere but to his tailors to get his leather pants tightened.

Not only in this but countless other areas does Sharp's vision betray a semi-refreshing lack of familiarity with actual bikers, mods/rockers rivalry, Satanists, zombies, or hippies, whether in films, books, or real life. He does know solid BBC thriller pacing so there's competent camera movements around craftily posed but decidedly unmangled or overly bloody corpses, making PSYCHOMANIA kid-friendly, at least in this lone surviving print, if you don't mind your kids beholding super fake deaths, and you shouldn't.

That's another thing: a motorcycle, a relatively small one especially, is not a particularly good murder device. I doubt that the baby in the carriage about to get run "over" in the grocery store invasion (above) will do anything but scream in delight over being bumped around in his stroller. Any idiot with a little toreador experience can just step to the side, hold out the arm and smack these upstarts right into the milk section.

Then again, clear thinking has no place in the world of PSYCHOMANIA. It rides to its own destruction. No... wait, now it wants to go somewhere else. Brummm BrumMM!

The whole biker film genre has always ranked fairly low in my esteem, just above the bottom rung of women in prison films and 1980s sex comedies. I never understood the appeal of watching a bunch of motorcycles ride this way and that, hearing them make loud nosies as their riders set about harassing innocent beachgoers and raping housewives until Cameron Mitchell finally fights back. I got nothing against motorcycles other than they're too loud and remind me of my brother, Fred. That's his world; he's got it covered. I mean it would be different if these Living Dead lads were realistic bikers. Real bikers work on their bikes, like all the time, covered in motor oil stains and signs of hard living. These Living Dead yobs all have clean fingernails, maybe even manicures. They don't get soot on their white scarves from riding around without a windshield. Their little skull eye visors (at right) are cool but clearly a detriment to peripheral vision, something usually all important for self preservation, or spotting pedestrians to run over.

And where you gonna go with it? Most biker films end when the bikers all go 'too far' and someone is dead, and it's your fault, Society! The friend of the leader is usually shot by the cops or killed by the leader himself in a heroic last-minute switchblade flickering rejection of his gang's sadistic credo. Well, PSYCHOMANIA decides to go way past that marker, crashing through the black magic looking glass windshield into places only Jimmy Page, Aleister Crowley, and Kenneth Anger know of, and since none of these guys are in, or were involved with, the film, you could say that yes, it doesn't know where it's going. The body count is probably around sixty by the end but we don't see a single death, or moment of Zen maintenance.

Luckily there are more than a few saving grace elements at work here: Sanders' old butler makes the youth-age divide less a factor in who's cool vs. uncool, since even at 64--slurring from his debilitating stroke and deeply depressed--he's still twice the badass of any of these young 'Living Dead' louts. Sanders was so badass in fact he actually committed suicide a year after finishing the film. That's meta, baby, meta. And he left the second best note in all of Hollywood:
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.

Thanks George, we'll need it. And your last film seems to prefigure your sad end as it is all about suicide being painless, and considerable celluloid is unspooled happily detailing the methods of each member: One jumps out of a high rise window; another fails to link up his parachute; the annoying red-haired stepkid jumps off a bridge into oncoming highway traffic; Abby uses pills, and has the most psychedelic and scary of interludes after she's overdosed. The drugs kick in and things go weird: suddenly can't tell if the pills worked and she's dead, or dreaming, or has come back from the dead, or is awake or asleep. She watches as George raises a sacrificial knife over her heart, while she herself stands to the side. She's in two places at once! She's being replaced... by herself, William Wilson Style. Or will being killed while undead return her to the living? Or was it all a scam cooperated by the devil to steal her soul? Is she going to be buried alive with only a smiling George Sanders to know the undead Abby is not the real undead one? Dude, that's so Salvia!

So yeah, despite the dopey flaws there is some great legitimately trippy stuff at work here, including a nice if derivative rock score (70's cop show funk rumbling offset by sitar-tinged fairy folk revivalism) and Buffy-esque twists that tie the horror in with social anxiety, i.e. what if your suicide doesn't work and you get left behind by your gang of undead biker friends? In other words: suppose all your friends have jumped off a bridge... are you going to follow, or go home to mom and dad like a punter?

Tied to Kenneth Anger by Hollywood Babylon suicide, biker subculture, and black magic, PSYCHOMANIA would be good on a bill with both LUCIFER and SCORPIO RISING. An alchemical melting pot triple feature like that might get the mods, rockers, spacers, heads, kids, wankers, punters and snottabies together like only Cyrus (the one and only) could have if goddamned David Patrick Kelly hadn't shot him, and then blamed it on another cross-pollinated sub-cultural outfit, THE WARRIORS.  

The 'Living Dead' gang beats out the Warriors however as the most glaringly guilty of voting 'undecided' on its sub-cult policy, especially during Tom's wake, presided over by barefoot hippies and a barefoot minstrel warbling a little tune about a mighty hero who went too fast too soon for this uncaring world. Hippie-o, you freak, Tom was, on every level there is, a grade-A dickaholic, and now you sing his praises like he was James Dean?  Put down that guitar and pick up a meat cleaver! Run down some random pedestrians like a real zombie biker instead of just kind of brushing by the cliche'd establishment signifiers with your scooter and hoping they'll kindly pretend to fall over dead. What do I pay you kids for? Most of these actors aren't going to kill themselves! Chop! Chop! Vroom Vroom!


  1. an excellent review. My Dad was biker so I got him a copy of this years ago and we watched together. He didn't enjoy it that much, but loved the british bikes and told many amusing stories about wiring of all things. It was as close to a bonding experience as we could manage.

    Lazarus Lupin
    art and review

  2. That shot of the biker bearing down on the young mother in the supermarket - oh, man, would I ever love to do that to the foul-mouthed chavettes with their malnourished and crapulous offspring who clog up the aisles of my local Morrisons!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...