In America, ‘Psychomania’ was released as ‘The Death Wheelers’
Sometime in the mid-1980s, in one of those “Checks Cashed” places on 14th Street in NYC, I came upon a remarkable cache of el cheapo cult videos for sale. Things like Don Lett’s Punk Rock Movie. King of the Zombies with Mantan Moreland, rock conspiracy flick Beyond the Doors and something called Banned and Racist Cartoons which is probably self-explanatory. (I even found some animated “Tijuana Bibles” including one called “Woody’s A Fag” which could have ruined Woody Woodpecker’s movie career, let’s just say, had this information gotten out in the 1940s). These tapes were being sold amidst things like car air fresheners, steering wheel covers, and 99 cent “travel” shoe shine kits. This enterprise seemed to be a side-business of the check cashing business. I don’t want to give the impression that someone artfully curated these tapes, because this was decidedly not the case. They were more likely to have fallen off a truck. There were also old Flash Gordon serials, Jack Benny shows, NASCAR and monster truck videos and Mexican Cantinflas comedies. None of it made any sense, but every time I went into this place, there were new weird videos for sale, just $2.99 each.
Probably my very favorite of all the no budget VHS exotica discovered in this unlikely location was an oddball 1973 British horror film called Psychomania.
Psychomania stars legit Shakespearian actor Nicky Henson as the arrogant leader of a frog-worshiping zombie motorcycle gang who makes a pact with the devil to return from the dead. His posse is called—what else—The Living Dead. His witchy mother is played by BAFTA-winning actress and OBE, Beryl Reid (The Killing of Sister George). Hollywood’s favorite sinister British cad, Oscar-winning actor George Sanders (Rebecca, All About Eve, “Mr. Freeze” on the Batman TV series, Village of the Damned and the one-time husband of Zsa Zsa Gabor) plays mum’s sinister butler Shadwell, who never ages. It was directed by Don Sharp, a Hammer director who’d also shot a few episodes of The Avengers.
This movie is so fucking wack it’s unbelievable. Jaw-dropping scene after jaw-dropping scene sees this gang of impolite (yet quite articulate) Satanic bikers wreaking havoc in grocery stores, committing ritual suicide and being buried sitting atop their hogs (there’s a reason for this, you see). What’s strange for a film with such a ridiculously outrageous premise is how decent the acting is. Usually low budget 70s horror movies had terrible acting—few would mistake a 70s Hammer flick for Masterpiece Theatre—but this film had actors who could actually sell and somehow make this preposterous shit believable. (George Sanders is here seen in his final role before committing suicide. This is something that nearly every reviewer of Psychomania makes an all-too predictable joke about.)
To be honest, I’ve seen this film more times than I care to admit to, and I’ve inflicted it on a good many unsuspecting friends. Now I can retire my rattty old $2.99 VHS of Psychomania in favor of the sparkle-y new restored version put out by none other than the noted film snobs of the esteemed British Film Institute. Frankly, as surprisingly well-made and repeatedly watchable as Psychomania truly is, it’s still the sort of thing you’d expect perhaps Arrow Video to release in such a deluxe edition, but not necessarily the BFI. (Ken Russell, or Ken Loach, it’s not.) Even so, it must be said that they did an absolutely splendid job with it, actually restoring the film on 2K from three layers of a 35mm monochrome separation master that was tracked down in Spain. Truly, Psychomania has never looked this good. It’s a much better film—extremely entertaining—than it used to get credit for back in the $2.99 VHS days. I mean, look, it’s been restored by the august British Film Institute. Now it’s rightfully seen as a British exploitation classic. I can get behind that!
With a cornucopia of extras including a short on the film from 2010, a recent interview with Nicky Henson, a talk with John Cameron the composer of its uniquely atmospheric prog-funk soundtrack, and much more.
Here’s the trailer. Tell me you don’t want to see this tonight. Also fun to watch in a group. Screen it at your Halloween party or dress like a member of the Living Dead!