Wednesday, August 25, 2010

New Gladiators (1984): Or, Why Was I Programmed To Kill? Why?!

Dearest readers, I must beg forgiveness. Too long have my words been absent from these hallowed pages. But there is good cause, lower thy knives and stay thy murderous hands, I pray! A few weeks past, I, the Duke of DVD, found myself on a caravel, bound for a small South Pacific island that shall remain nameless. The ship’s captain, a beastly, bulging man of ill repute, rode the waves like a man possessed, possessed of singular intent: to deliver my person to the island and depart with a quickness. The crew crossed themselves, muttering prayers to nameless sea gods under their breaths. They feared my destination, as did I, I must confess.

In the weeks leading up to my departure, dark whispers had begun to reach my ears as I traveled in places best left alone by the bulk of humanity. Foul mutterings of a rare treasure, an object so valuable that I would beggar the Ducal estates just for a glimpse. Soon, these rumors led me to acquiring maps through auguries I shall not describe here. A ship was procured, a crew was assembled, and we were off. After days of rough seas, the island swam into view like a diseased miasma, congealing on the horizon. Shrouded in mist and darkness, it splintered the ocean with jagged cliffs, like the teeth of a rotten skull. The captain, wanting to be rid of me, dropped anchor some miles away and whipped two of the crew into taking me via skiff to the nearest beach.

As my feet sank into the black volcanic sand, a piercing roar sounded deep within the jungle before me, reverberating through my being and nearly causing my flight back to the waiting ship. I half turned and saw that the two oarsmen were already away, hauling at the oars like men in mortal fear. Facing the jungle once more, I made my way past piles of flotsam, into the island interior...

Very quickly, the sun disappeared above the canopy of the dense jungle. Wet fronds slapped my face as I plunged heedlessly forward. Multicolored beetles scurried from my path as large, furred beasts leapt from tree to tree above my sweating head. Soon I entered a clearing, and I knew my journey had borne fruit. Before me stood an impossibly tall monolith, hewn from obsidian so black it drank in what little light pierced the trees overhead.

Behind the monolith were piles of bones, each dozens of stories tall, for as far as the eye could see. The scattered stumps protruding upwards through the bone piles spoke of a forest that used to be, but was no more. Foul energies blanketed the clearing, coalescing around a stunted altar erected before the monolith. As I approached and gazed down at my prize, the earth-shattering roar once again rang through my body like a bell from Hell. Bones slipped among other bones, some of the piles cascading and shifting into their neighbors.

Grabbing the object of my desire, I sprinted back through the jungle, diving into the ocean, heedless of the closing footsteps of a Thing that Should Not Be, an old god, worshipped for eons by a forgotten tribe. I finally gained the ship as the captain was pulling anchor, the crew, to their credit, hauling me aboard. I shall never forget that trip, as I hope you shall never forget its result:

Fulci’s motherfucking sci-fi spectacular The New Gladiators, bitches! That’s right, Lucio Fulci made a science-fiction film, and it is every bit worthy of the praise his horror efforts elicit. Friends, the year is 2072, the setting is Rome. Fulci gives us a brilliant, constructed-model cityscape that had me erect. It’s right out of Blade Runner, complete with huge video billboards on the sides of buildings.

Rome was not built in a day... but due to budget constraints, this model was.

Just as we’ve learned in countless other sci-fi films throughout cinema history, the future is all about bloodsports that are nationally broadcast, usually with convicted felons as the participants. Fulci paints us a picture of warring networks, ever-consumed by the almighty ratings system. It seems the go-to show for ratings, “Kill Bike,” is starting to wane in popularity with the unwashed masses. One can see how it would get old, as Power Ranger-colored bikers pilot 50cc dirt bikes around a dirt-floored arena, occasionally bumping into each other until finally someone loses his balance, then gets run over. Or, a competitor might run headlong into an embankment, causing the highly unstable motorcycle to explode into a fireball. Another show, wherein regular folks are hooked to a machine that makes them see and feel their worst fear, is also going nowhere, ratings-wise. Il Maestro manages to work some gore in here, as we see a blond chick get decapitated rather messily, Pit-and-the-Pendulum style.

How to Get A Head in the Nielsen Ratings

An enterprising TV exec named Cortez comes up with the brilliant plan: resurrect the one thing Rome is famous for (other than Caesar-stabbing) - Gladiators! Faster than you can ask “Joey, do you like films about gladiators?”, we are introduced to our hero, the curly-locks-of-love hunky-guy Drake. Drake doesn’t seem like a career criminal, so it’s hard for me to guess how he came to be the star of “Kill Bike,” but he is nonetheless. Cortez’s plan for ratings domination hinges upon attaining instant fame for his New Gladiators show, and the first step is securing the use of Drake.

Hell's Satans

They do this in the most obvious way possible: they send three whistling killers to murder Drake’s girlfriend/wife/significant-other, and then frame Drake for the revenge killing of the three whistling murderers. Seriously, the three creeps invade this chick’s home, and whistle while snapping their fingers as they close in on her. “What the fuck, Duke?!” you might be asking aloud, a white mist of Krispy Kreme frosting befouling the air around your gaping pie-hole. I will attempt to answer your slurred query: Lucio Fulci did enough cocaine on a daily basis to assassinate a small village. There’s no other explanation as to why the killers must whistle while they work.

"I am Cortez. I am... de sexy."

Drake is rounded up and taken to Italy, along with a motley crew of degenerates including a black kung-fu combatant played by blaxploitation great Fred Williamson. An Asian fellow and a few other bearded lumps round out the group. Tasty quote from a meeting between Cortez and Drake:

Drake: "Go to Hell, Cortez!”
Cortez: “I would... if I thought it would help my ratings.”

Overseeing their care is a Gestapo-esque gent by the name of Raven, who has a penchant for wielding a riding crop which doubles as a sort of stun-ray emitter. He also has a hand-implanted device used to turn on the security measures around the holding area the fighters are locked up in. He also sweats. A lot.

"Papers, please."

Drake quickly asserts his dominance as alpha male among the group, only he doesn’t use posturing, his fists, or the gay strutting technique employed by the Vicar. No, instead he humiliates Raven in front of all of the others using a modified game of chicken involving throwing himself into a disintegration field, which he dares Raven not to shut off. Raven sweats, then sweats some more, and finally gives up like the pansy he truly is. This cements the loyalty of the others, forming them into a sort of band of brothers, which obviously only holds up until they have to kill each other for the general public’s amusement.

The chili from the prison lunch room finally kicks in.

Fulci has a lot going on in this movie, and while the central theme is reality television and its future sway over the lumpen masses (a prognosticative masterstroke), we also get a theme of computers invading every day life, and the eventual control asserted by A.I.s. Cortez sums this up brilliantly, early in the film by saying, “Computers. We built them to be our slaves. We are turning out to be theirs.” It seems the ratings system, nay the entire city television and who knows what else, is run by an A.I. bent on human distraction, while it schemes for grander things behind the scenes. But more on it later.

Much to the dismay of its spokesmodel, Cortez decides to cancel the low-rated show "Machete Salon"

First, we are treated to a training montage so bad ass that it wasn’t bested until Rocky IV. Fred Williamson fights computer-generated foes while a strobe light, uh, strobes. The token Asian dude does much of the same, while Drake faces off with computer-generated simulacrums of the whistling murderers. Fulci’s milkshake brings the boys to the yard, there is NO doubt! After their sweaty, computer-based training, the combatants hatch a plot: Escape!

First, however, they have the nagging threat of the prison security system. This is quickly circumvented by Drake swallowing a microchip that allows him to control nearby computers at will. The year 2072 is bringing us untold scientific advances, people! I can’t wait! So Drake and the others make their way out of the prison, aided massively by the Ingesto-Chip's ability to melt fucking steel bars. Technology: It’s FANTASTIC! However, their escape is short-lived, as it’s revealed to the viewer that the A.I. is watching their every move, somehow. As they make it out to the sunlight, Raven and a cadre of guards are there waiting. Raven employs his stun-wand to great effect.

Fred Williams' Kung-Fu: It Explodes Sunlight

When we next see our intrepid fighters, they are suspended over a metal grill, hanging onto some overhead bars. Raven is watching, and with a smirk, explains that the floor will cook them like a Xmas goose should they not hang on for a given number of minutes. Slowly, gravity takes over until the bearded hanger-on type fighter falls. The shock isn’t instantly fatal, and in fact he gets fried for several minutes until he somehow pushes himself off the floor high enough so that Drake and another can hold him up.

The reek of singed back-hair was overpowering

Next up we find out the AI is furthering his plots of destruction. Luckily, Drake has a helmet-haired beauty at the studio to help out. She’s Cortez’s assistant, but she spends most of her screen time helping Drake, either directly or indirectly. First, she tracks down the man responsible for programming the AI, some recluse of a nutjob holed up in what appears to be a monastery. He says he never programmed the AI to kill, that it’s learned that on its own. Oh dear, it’s fucking SkyNet all over again! Before he can give details on how to stop the rogue computer, he’s killed.


Queue the gladiators! Our futuristic fighters take to the arena before a live audience. Even though this isn’t “Kill Bike,” they still ride monstrous chrome-plated motorcycles and the bikers are armed with all manner of bludgeoning weaponry. The games kick off, and once again we have lots of slow speed near-misses, followed by someone's mislaid manequin getting run over, followed by more obvious dummies piloting motorcycles into small obstructions, causing the cycles to immediately fireball. Next up is round two, where the combatants are paired up and the cycles are outfitted with sidecars. The most spectacular kill here involves a biker being jerked off his bike with a flail-like weapon, only to be drug behind the opponent’s bike, while another biker lights him up with a flamethrower!

"Ladies and gentlemen... Devo!"

Meanwhile, Drake’s helper chick finds out that all gladiators that make it through to the end are set to be disintegrated on live TV, in some weird plot to discredit the incumbent president, who is running for reelection. (Ed. note: Wha?) She has to warn Drake, which she does. The remaining gladiators make a break for it, which has the side benefit of them getting to first stab then run over Raven. They confront Cortez, who reveals that the metal shackles they all have tightly implanted around their wrists are the catalyst for the disintegration. One of them tries to remove his bracelet, with obvious results. They end up killing Cortez and then figure out that the AI is located in mutherfuckin’ SPACE! Inside a satellite, naturally. Kinda hard to get to there.

Ben Hur, Done That

A plan is hatched--but first betrayal! A loyal friend, an older fighter named Monk, is revealed to be the traitor that helped the AI see everything, via an eletronic eye implanted in him. They kill Monk, pop his eye out (it's Fulci movie--there are rules!), and use the eye to somehow retrieve all info it ever saw, including the AI’s self destruct code! Why Monk was privy to this tidbit of info is not explained. Just before the arbitrary countdown expires (seriously, if the AI wanted them dead, why not just flip the disintegrate switch immediately?), they blow up the satellite. Drake gets the girl, all is well. Corporate greed and rogue AIs are no match for a determined set of gladiators. Late-model gladiators, anyway.

I have to say, in researching this film, I saw a lot of hate for it. The Duke is baffled by this. The New Gladiators has it all! Model cityscapes, evil computers, sweaty Gestapo prison wardens, kung-fu strobe sequences. What more could you possibly ask for? To those that poo-poo’d this great film: might I interest you in my middle finger?

Oh, I kid! I love you all! I get it, I guess. The movie does drag a bit, and the action sequences aren’t too thrilling. I just can’t get over two aspects: 1) Fulci is MAD as fuck, and 2) the film has heart. It’s obvious to me that Fulci operated on a small budget, forcing him to cut corners where perhaps he wouldn’t have otherwise. I guess I’m just a sucker for gladiator movies that feature rogue AI computers as the central villain.

Special props go to Riz Ortolani’s fabulous score, which, while repetative in some spots, kept me grooving the entire time. He’s scored a fuckload of movies, and to me this stands right up there with the best. It was made in the early 80’s, so obviously the synth was heavy and forward, but that’s how we liked it in those days. Guiseppe Pinori’s cinematography was more than adequate as well, though I believe he was also constrained by the low budget. He did great with what he had to work with, though.

In the end, this movie is well worth the effort to track down and watch. Netflix has it via instant streaming, as of the writing of this review, so that’s an option. Turn off your reality television and tune in for some futuristic reality TV, courtesy of the Maestro himself, Lucio Fulci. I give New Gladiators a hearty 2 thumbs up, only kept from another half-point or even 3 thumbs by not having any nudity to speak of, which is a grave oversight that I cannot ignore. Still, my friends, watch it, love it, worship it. Until next time, I bid thee adieu.

"Whistle while you work!"

Ride == Pimp'd

"What homoerotic subtext?"


JamiSings said...

Drug use aside, I can see a reason for the whistling killers - it's as creepy as all get out!

I don't know if you ever watched the tv show Dead Like Me - but there was this Halloween episode where there's this serial killer who only strikes on Halloween. Through out the show up until his own reaping/death you only see his shoes and he whistles as he approaches each house. You know he's about to strangle that 10 year old boy in the devil costume who answers the door after Mason reaps the kid's soul. But it's the whistling that gets you. He's so freaking HAPPY he's about to kill someone, he's whistling!


venoms5 said...

Nice one, Vicar! Have you seen ENDGAME from the previous year? It's virtually the same movie with some of the same cast, but directed by Joe D'Amato.

I haven't seen either of these since renting them on VHS tape years ago. I don't know if ENDGAME (1983) is on DVD here, or not.

The Vicar of VHS said...

@venom5: I can't take credit for this one--it's all El Duque! ;)

But it is a nice one Duke--truly MAD beyond madness. I need to further educate myself on the wonders of the Italian Post-Apocalypse; WARRIORS OF THE WASTELAND is pretty much all I've seen in that regard, that I remember...of course that one's a great one too, and brings the homoerotic/homophobia subtext up to FULL ON TEXT. :)

The Vicar of VHS said...

Also, I just noticed the tagline at the top of the DVD image: MAD 17 YEARS BEFORE GLADIATOR! Umm...yeah, so? :P

That Lloyd Kaufman--what a marketeer! ;)

venoms5 said...

Woops! Apologies for the mix up!

venoms5 said...

If he ever releases THE REBEL GLADIATOR from 1962, he can re-use that blurb but put "Made 39 years before GLADIATOR!" (I hope the math is right on that!) on the cover since that film tells virtually the same story.

Anonymous said...

Well, SOMEONE's been reading a lot of Lovecraft as of late, I dare say!

Great write-up. It's all too rare that I get to read a POSITIVE review of New Gladiators. I love this flick! One of my favorite Fulci flicks, and I'm a Fulci diehard. It's just some sweet fuckin' dumbshit, cornball, sci-fi b-movie fun. Awesome stuff. I actually have a French poster print (which actually has nudity right in the artwork, despite the fact that there's none in the movie) signed by a few of the actors. And the reaction was pretty much the same whenever I presented the item to be autographed: bewilderment. I have no idea why New Gladiators doesn't have a bigger fanbase, but even the people who made it were puzzled by the fact that I actually like this film. With scenes like the "strobe light/hologram training" and the "whistling killers attack" and with characters like Raven and the one gladiator played by Al Cliver (I can't remember the name of the character, but he's such a hilariously skeezy schmuck... Cliver rules!), I'm baffled by how this flick is still so far under the radar.

Also, as you said, the musical score kicks ass!

Anonymous said...

Haven't seen this one, but it almost looks like a mix of Knight Riders, The Running Man, and American Gladiators, with a splash of Death Race, lol.
Dreaded Dreams
Petunia Scareum

The Duke of DVD said...

@Jami - Whistling killers, no matter the show/movie, is creepy, that's for sure!

@venoms5 - It's ok, I get mistaken for the Vicar a lot. I think it's the aura of evil that rolls off us in waves. That, or the constant orgies.

@Vicar - Italian cinema: We don't have time for subtext!

@William - Glad you liked it! NEW GLADIATORS is definitely a movie deserving of much love. Al Cliver did a fantastic job, I should have mentioned him.

@Trick - You pretty much nailed it. Take all you mentioned, throw in a trip to the Thunderdome, and you have NEW GLADIATORS. Plus, eye-plucking. Can't forget that.

Ashton Lamont said...

Basically one of the greatest films ever made. Fact.

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