LOST TV WEEK: The Gladiator (1986)

Here’s the IMDB description of this TV movie/pilot: “A road warrior vigilante avenges his brother’s death at the hands of a crazy motorist by using his souped-up pickup to apprehend drunken drivers and others who abuse their driving privileges.”

Sounds like a Mad Max clone, right? But what if I told you that it starred Ken Wahl pre-Wiseguy and was directed by Abel Ferrera (The Driller Killer, Ms. 45)?

Rick Benton (Wahl) is a mechanic that loves two things: working on cars and his little brother. However, a killer is on the loose named Skull, who uses a death car (Death Car on the Freeway!) to randomly kill other drivers. One of his victims is Rick as he’s teaching his brother to drive. The accident costs his brother his life and leaves Rick in a coma.

To get back, Rick becomes a vigilante that uses an armed pickup truck that can take on any car. He drives at night, making sure drunk drivers are off the roads and that the Skull can be found. He calls in citizen’s arrests but the cops don’t want his help. And the public is divided on whether he’s a help or a hindrance.

Originally airing on February 3, 1986, this film was shot as if it were to be a feature. It also has Nancy Allen as the love interest Susan Neville, who is also a talk show host that allows a Greek chorus of public sentiment to appear in the film. Robert Culp shows up as Lieutenant Frank Mason. Also, look out for 1980’s DJ and “Disco Duck” singer Rick Dees, Stan Shaw (Detective Sapir from The Monster Squad) and Robert Phalen, who played Dr. Terence Wynn in the original Halloween (his role was taken over by Mitch Ryan in Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers).

If you’re coming to The Gladiator wanting The Road Warrior, you aren’t going to find it. That said, it’s a tale of one man wanting to avenge his brother’s death, more Frank Castle than Max Rockatansky.

Five of the 1969 Dodge Chargers used here had been General Lee’s from The Dukes of Hazzard. Two of the five survived production and were given to Smith Brothers Restorations by the original show’s stunt coordinator. Even better, John Schneider donated the engine from his General Lee to this restoration process.  

The Gladiator is available on Amazon Prime.

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