THE EXCELLENT EIGHTIES: Deathrow Gameshow (1988)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Sean Mitus grew up watching Chiller Theater from Pittsburgh and has been a drive-in enthusiast for the last six years. Sean enjoys all genres but has become interested in Italian horror, thriller and action movies most recently.

“Anyone on death row can be a contestant. Man or woman. Young or old. I do not discriminate.” – Chuck Toedan (John McCafferty)

Deathrow Gameshow was director Mark Pirro’s first 35 mm feature.  Pirro had made several shorts with a small company of friends which caught the attention of Crown International Pictures.  Pirro’s shorts A Polish Vampire in Beverly Hills and The Spy Who Did It Better mixed comedy with other genres which appealed to David Baughn at Crown who gave Pirro $200,000 to make Deathrow Gameshow.

Deathrow Gameshow plays like a warped mashup of National Lampoon comedy and New World Pictures schlocker. Many of the jokes fall flat but that doesn’t stop Pirro and company from trying.  The lead Chuck Toedan, producer and star of the Live or Die gameshow, which features death row inmates play for a stay of execution or a grisly death a la Monty Hall’s Let’s Make A Deal, is beset on all sides by his horny secretary Trudy (Darwyn Carson), protesters and picketers, and the Spumoni crime family’s hitman Luigi Papillardo. Chuck is trying to put on the most entertaining show he can, even if the odds are stacked against the inmates. It’s all proper because the inmates sign a release before taking their chances.  

Deathrow Gameshow’s premise aims for fun and schlock but is undermined by the broad comedy and the low budget’s impact on the sets, props, and special effects. There’s a guillotine that barely accommodates the inmate’s head. There’s simply a rope hangman’s noose. And there’s a gas chamber barely big enough fit the intended victim. However, there’s no gore or actual showing of the contestants (inmates) reaching their demise. All end with a cutaway or the action moves off-screen. There are also tongue and check commercials featuring inmates demonstrating products the lead to their demise.   

The plot centers on sleazebag Chuck meeting Gloria Sternvirgen (Robyn Blythe), a staunch opponent of the show who falls for him and running afoul of hitman Luigi Papillardo, (played over the top by Benjamin Agundez credited as Beano) who initially wants to put the squeeze on Chuck for “protection money” but later wants to kill Chuck after Luigi’s mother accidentally becomes a contestant on Live or Die and goes up in a spectacular explosion. Chuck tries to get rid of Luigi as another contestant. However, Luigi survives for the climax at the end of the film involving a rabid fan who’s desperate to be a contestant on the show.

Deathrow Gameshow was intended for the right kind of crowd at a festival screening or a group of like-minded friends watching home video. Fans of schlock cinema will certainly enjoy this game effort by Pirro and company.  Deathrow Gameshow is a great fit in Mill Creek’s Rare Cult Cinema boxed set.  Fans wanting more can look for Vinegar Syndrome’s stacked Blu-ray/DVD combo. 


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