Director: Don Sharp
Starring: George Sanders, Beryl Reid, Nicky Henson, Mary Larkin, Roy Holder, Robert Hardy .UK. 1h 35m
AKA Death Wheelers
Sadly this is the only hippy occult psychotropic suicidal biker gang musical cult horror that Beryl Reid ever made, a movie that was the final nail in the coffin for George Sanders and one which most of the actors hated making but one of the first British cult motorcycle horrors that lives in the hearts of many fans.
Australian-born British film director, Don Sharp, is best known for his deeply atmospheric Hammer movies, in the 1960s, his titles included The Kiss of the Vampire (1962) and Rasputin, the Mad Monk (1966). In his early days he often appeared in B rated movies, this lead to him being adept at making the most of any meager budget, something which he demonstrated with his 17th Century based movie Witchcraft (1964) elegantly shot in monochrome and it’s follow up Curse of the Fly (1965) but his strangest picture is Psychomania. Successfully managing to combine the Hippy agenda of freedom and peace with a dark frog worshiping satanic cult, Sharp blends all of this with a tongue in cheek humor but without much of a plan as to the hows and whys of immortality and untapped power, the film wasn’t made to make sense but as a feast for the senses.
Opening with biker gang leader Tom Latham (Henson) returning home after terrorising his hometown, his home life is very unusual, his mother, Mrs Latham (Reid) reclines in a lavish mansion filled with secret rooms, black candles, but looking stunning in her red flowing gowns and tended to by a dutiful butler Shadwell (Sanders) there’s a hint of Denis Wheatly in the design.
Eventually Tom gains access to the Locked Room where he discovers his father’s NHS specs and has a vision of his mother making a pact with the devil, and a mystical fog shrouded in mist. This is the occult gateway to haphazard narrative as he gains the knowledge of immortality but first he has to want to die to come back from the dead and live forever, because you can only die once! Immediately Tom hatches a secret plan to take his gang to the edge and kill himself in the process.
Some of the antics they come up with are pretty lame by today’s terrifying standards, the gang are more nuciences than threatening or dangerous but once Tom has had his bizarre request honoured, he’s buried at a strange monolithic site, upright, fully dressed and on his motorbike, and I can only assume he’s not been embalmed and has full conservation consent? Pretty soon he’s up and riding around only now he’s totally invincible and desires that his gang follows suit so the Living Dead Biker gang can finally live up to their name, but they aren’t crazy enough to want to die… or are they?
The film takes a random switch in pace and style as all 8 members of the gang attempt to commit suicide with the desire to want to die, otherwise the magic doesn’t work, then they just prat about on their bikes.This is not the first Don Sharp film to feature frogs in cemeteries, pacts with the devil, mysterious suicides, and the living dead. These are also motifs in his earlier film Witchcraft (1964), but their significance isn’t revealed until Tom’s mom decides that he son has gone too far and she must do something about his actions.
Seven Suicides – and they roared back as The Living Dead.
Toms long suffering girlfriend Abby (Larkin) is the only person in the gang with a conscience and a bit of tenderness in her soul, his mother takes to the girl as she’s “nice” and not what she was expecting her son to bring home I suppose, Larkin does approach the role disguised as a lost school girl and not really the kind of person who would get on a bike and smash up the town centre, she’s the only person in the gang who asks sensible questions but sadly they are never answered and we’ll never know what the big plan was supposed to be!? The most striking woman in the film Ann Michelle, she plays a more vibrant, clad in red much like Tom’s mom, is there a colour theme for women who are turned on by the Devil and Death? She’s way more ambitious, trying to take over the gang at one point, and with a taste for the wild and acts out my favourite part in the movie, turning up hanging in a nose for fun, what a kidder!!
With the help of a kicking soundtrack and some daring stunts, a few seasoned actors and the ability to work magic with what you have to hand, Sharp manages to cobble together one of the best worst movies of all time. Sadly no one really enjoyed making the film, the cast though it was “a bit shit” and George Sanders killed himself shortly after completing the film, so depressed on where his career has ended up, RIP fella, hopefully if you’re looking down from some white cloud somewhere you’ll see that people are still enjoying the film and your final performance.
It all comes together with it’s vivacity and acid rock, I suppose we don’t really need to know what the gang planned to do with their new found freedom from the bonds of death, usually there’s some sort of price to pay but there’s not a lot of mechanical thinking like that in this thrilling adventure, it’s more of a sort of splatter less horror masked as an occult thriller, it’s certainly missing the blood and a huge dramatic showdown of some sort, maybe with the devil or the church, but it’s not lacking in imagination, just maybe due to the budget the fight is more fought on the moral battleground.
I can see why the cast probably were a little down on the film, but it’s clash of mythology and modernism is often missed, and if it were made today the ideas of the gang being undead would get a heavy dose of zombie from any modern sweaty palmed director. Cutting through all the pomp and ceremony this film is just mental fun and that could just be it’s charm.
R: I Bought a Vampire Motorcycle (1990), Cycle Psycho (1973), Horror Express (1972), Hell Ride (2008)
L: Best Biker movies Vol 1
5s: George Sanders, Beryl Reid, Nicky Henson,