EDITOR’S NOTE: This was on the site on September 10, 2019 but has new info added from my interview with Allan Arkush.
Deathsport unites everything I love about late 1970’s junk film all in one place. It’s set after a nuclear war. It has David Carradine in it. Claudia Jennings, too. Throw in Richard Lynch, motorcycles, lucite swords and strange religion and you’ve discovered the most perfect of all movies for 5:44 AM on a Thursday.
This was supposed to be a sequel to Death Race 2000 with motorcycles instead of cars. Seems simple, right? After all, Corman had a five-picture commitment with David Carradine and already had Charles B. Griffith writing the script.
Corman was unhappy with the script and Nicholas Niciphor, a recent graduate of USC, got the job of writing and directing the film. He had two weeks to write and pre-produce it. And to top it off, Carradine had no real interest in being in the movie and would only give three weeks of his time to the production.
It didn’t get any easier once production began. Niciphor would later say, “The script was too ambitious, the shooting schedule too tight and…the crew and the cast were largely sodden with drugs.” He was including both Carradine and Jennings in that statement. Indeed — this was one of her last films before she died in a car crash at the age of 29.
Years later, Carradine would tell Psychotronic Video that Niciphor was “a very talented and crazy guy. As a director, he was erratic and unknowing…The picture, which was brilliantly written, was unable to overcome the madness of the shoot.” He elaborated that his “direction seemed to me to mainly consist of hysteria and episodic tantrums,” including an incident where Niciphor physically attacked Jennings and got his ass kicked by Carradine in response.
For his part, Niciphor did admit to physically removing Jennings from a motorcycle because of how high she was and that Carradine routinely roughed him up on set, including breaking his nose. He had to hurry back from the hospital and finish the actor’s scenes before he left to film Circle of Iron.
After all that madness, Corman ordered reshoots. That’s kind of amazing given his stingy nature. But then the director wouldn’t work with Carradine, so Allan Arkush stepped in. He told Trailers from Hell about this experience, remembering: “Mostly we just blew up motorcycles. Lots of them. We also set some mutants on fire. And the stunning Claudia Jennings got naked. David Carradine…smoked a lot of high-grade weed and helped us to blow stuff up…Sad to say, I couldn’t save the picture.”
One of those scenes added in was a nude scene where Jennings was tortured. Why? Well, Corman felt like this movie needed more nudity. Despite plans for a third film, Deathworld, the movie didn’t perform and Carradine claimed that his career never recovered.
So what’s it all about?
A thousand years from tomorrow, after the Neutron Wars, the world is made up of city states — ala Judge Dredd — surrounded by wastelands populated by cannibal mutants and policed by the Range Guides.
Two cities — Helix and Tritan — are about to go to war with one another with their Death Machines, which are laser-equipped motorcycles. Yes, that’s the absolute furthest technology has taken us.
Meanwhile, the death penalty has been replaced by Deathsport, where criminals battle each other to the death for their freedom. Lord Zirpola (David McLean, one of the two Marlboro men to suffer from cancer) yearns to use his Death Machines on the Range Guides, but the two best, Kaz Oshay (Carradine) and Deneer (Jennings) escape.
As they search for Deneer’s missing child, Oshay must battle the man who turned on the code of the Range Guides and killed his mother, Ankar Moor (Lynch). Of course, they’re destined to battle one another in combat using their Whistler swords. If you’ve always wanted to see Richard Lynch get decapitated, well, this is the movie for you.
Someday, mark my words, I’m going to do a Letterboxd list of Hardboiled Haggarty’s many roles. The ex-pro wrestler is in this as a jailer.
Brenda Venus also appears as Adriann and her life could totally be a Roger Corman movie. When she was in college, Venus purchased a book at an auction that contained an envelope with the address of famed writer Henry Miller. She wrote to the ailing author and soon, the two became romantic pen pals with over 1,500 letters exchanged between the two of them. This relationship led to Miller becoming her mentor and Venus his muse.
Ed Millis wrote, “Venus was a source of inspiration to the aging and ailing Miller. Brenda was all of 24 years of age, Henry was 84. She was a beautiful Southern belle, “The Botticelli of Mississippi” — he called her. Henry, the renegade intellectual, the writer, had taken millions of us to the sexy Tropic of Cancer and Capricorn. Now he was sick and slowly recuperating. He needed a lift in spirits… Brenda the Muse breathed life into her mortal charge and gave him reason to live.”
After appearing in the June 1997 issue of Playboy, Venus wrote a column for the magazine called “Centerfolds on Sex.” She also wrote the books Secrets of Seduction and Secrets of Seduction for Women, which have been translated into 37 languages.
In 2002, prime minister Vladimir Putin requested that Venus visit Moscow as his guest to attend the opening performance of Venus, a play about her life. I can only imagine how bonkers that play was.
Even stranger, the music in this movie comes from the film was scored by Andy Stein (A Prairie Home Companion’s Guys All-Star Shoe Band and Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen) and Jerry Garcia.
My favorite part of this movie would be the strange speeches that the Range Guides give to one another. They also heal one another through sex, which is very 1970s. Carradine wrote in his memoirs that when the time came to shoot those scenes, Niciphor told him he hadn’t slept with a woman in six months, so he couldn’t trust himself to be naked in the same room as Jennings. Carradine directed those scenes instead. He also probably punched Niciphor in the face afterward.
In true Roger Corman fashion, some of the footage from this film was sold to the TV show The Fall Guy, where it appears in the episode “Baker’s Dozen.”
You can get this on a double disc with Battletruck from Shout! Factory. It’s also free on Tubi.
I asked Allan Arkush several questions about this movie.
B&S: Another IMDB trivia note that maybe you can dispel: Is that the Deathsport bike in the hallways scene near the end of Rock ‘n’ Roll High School?
ALLAN: No. Those were bigger road bikes and that was the problem. Shooting them for that film, they weren’t really the right bikes for going across a rough landscape. But Roger got a deal on those bikes and we used them…
B&S: What happened with Nicholas Niciphor directing that movie?
ALLAN: Well, Nick had gone to UCLA and he was really good, but he was brought up in Europe and he had never seen a Roger Corman movie. And he hadn’t seen the kinds of movies that we were making, he’d seen art films.
Everyone working with Corman had turned down Deathsport. It had a bad, bad script. We were desperate to do our first picture and we still all turned it down!
One of the problems Nick had was that we’d all been working for Corman for three or four years and had built this network of people. Nick was an outsider. And he’s working for Corman, who was so cheap that he didn’t want to rent out a screening room to show him Death Race 2000 and he’s making the sequel to that movie!
He didn’t know anyone like we did, the people you could turn to to get these done. Making a Corman movie took a certain amount of camaraderie and he was walking into it blind. And his experience wasn’t enough. I don’t want to say anything about him as a person. He was a stranger in a strange land.
It wasn’t going to work, so nothing was working right. If you look at the Trailers from Hell, I summed up all of the things that were wrong about the movie. I worked on it for another six weeks afterward trying to save it. Nothing changed. It still was awful.
Roger was like, put aside Disco High — which was what he wanted Rock ‘n Roll High School to be — and come blow up motorcycles and then I’ll let you make your musical.
The story was so vague and strange. I had to spend a lot of time correcting screen direction and so forth. And I was editing and writing and shooting it was a disaster. The preview was so bad that just before the sword fight, the projectionist closed the curtain.
B&S: Well, the poster sells the movie. And Claudia Jennings. You can’t look away from her.
ALLAN: Ali Larter, who was on Heroes, is the same way. There’s no time of the day or night where she doesn’t look perfect.
In 2010, Blue Water Comics released a four issue miniseries with more stories from the universe of this movie.