While director Lucio Fulci is best known for his high-on-splatter, low-on-sense zombie epics, the man was an incredibly prolific director who explored almost all the aspects of exploitation filmmaking, from crime dramas to Spaghetti Westerns to fantasy films to science fiction. I've got no shortage of love for "Zombie" and "The Beyond," don't get me wrong, but I find myself gravitating to his non-gore offerings as time goes on. Leave it to Il Fulci to create yet another offering of cinematic schlock that would prove irresistible to the Tenebrous Palate in the form of "The New Gladiators" (TRUE FACT: I would've watched this merely for the title's resemblance to Perennial Tenebrous Fave "The New Barbarians").
Permit me a little bit of stage-setting for this movie, won't you? There's some question about how far in the not-too-distant future we might be here: alternately, this flick is known as "Warriors of the Year 2072," "Rome 2033," or "Warriors of the Year 2079," so I'll just defer to this VHS title, "The New Gladiators," with its promise of a) newness and b) gladiatorial combat. In the world of "The New Gladiators," two major teevee networks compete for supremacy by increasing the violent content of their programming. In a ploy to secure ratings triumph for his network, an amoral executive comes up with a plan to bring back the glory of Rome's Coliseum by staging a grand battle to the death between 20 convicted felons, including probably-wrongly-accused Drake, star of competing program "Killbike." Honestly, I had a little trouble with the central bit of plotting since the film opens with scenes from "Killbike," which is... you know... a grand battle to the death. If you can get past this hiccup of logic, then the rest of the movie is fairly straightforward. All of which is to say: "this is a fucking convoluted plot even by Italotrash standards, and by the time the writers spring the 'artificial intelligence' bit on you in the final act you'll feel like you've been beaten about the cranium by a rubber mallet."
And yes--that IS a recommendation, friends.
I could take this space to feed you some lines about how this movie is more relevant now than ever, what with our global obsession with increasingly stupid and prurient reality television programming, but I won't. Instead, I'll tell you about what you REALLY want to know, handily bulleted for your ease and pleasure (bullet points are the lubricant of my blogworld):
- I derive no small measure of joy from model cityscapes. From the glorious "Metropolis" envisioned by Fritz Lang to the "Blade Runner"-inspired Playmobil Rome that opens "The New Gladiators," it's all delicious to me. Watching the tiny camera crawl across the twee skyscrapers (none of which appear in the daytime scenes filmed outdoors--whoops!) filled my heart to bursting. This movie would have to make some HARD LEFTS to get me to NOT love it.
- Dummy deaths by the dozen are on display RIGHT AWAY during the "Killbike" sequence. Exploding dummies, decapitated dummies, dummies driven over by motorcycles--it's all here, and it's all fantastic.
- Bonus points for hot chicks with great New Wave haircuts. I mean, I might be biased towards that PARTICULAR style of haircut, but I'd just like to think I have A Consistency Of Vision.
- The movie is filled with ridicu-tastic characters, like Raven, head of the Praetorians (GET IT?!), warden over the gladiators-to-be, and awesomest swarthy Fascist this side of "The Beast in Heat." I'm not unconvinced that Raven has a drawer full of left gloves, since he seems to like to fling them into the prison's vaporizing force field with alarming frequency when emphasizing important points.
- There's so much, so nifty about this movie that it's taken me this long to get to highlighting Fred "The Black Shatner" Williamson's patented Fred-Fu montage, complete with strobe lights and laser sounds!
- Then there are the stenciled-on names of the fighters during the Climactic Gladiation-Actual, to help you make sense of who the hell is fighting who. Hint: By about three minutes in, you don't actually care (and you can always tell where the Asian character is anyway, on account of his dependence on ninja techniques).
Fans of over-the-top action trash can see this movie has plenty of joy to deliver. But that's not to say it's a perfect example of the form. Unfortunately for a film about guys riding motorcycles and whacking the crap out of other guys riding motorcycles, this isn't exactly the quickest-paced flick in the world. The movie suffers from a dragging middle between the first 10 minutes of screen-time devoted to Drake's imprisonment and the eventual televised event. There are a couple of thwarted escape attempts, the development of a tepid romance between Drake and Darker-Haired-Great-Haircut-Lady, and some scenes of people working on computers. Also, the film insists on using "glare" as its distinctive cinemtographic theme (much in the manner that "Conquest" used "fog" and "fog in the dark" as its visual foci).
As with any action film, "The New Gladiators" is best experienced... well... in action! A bit of the flavor of this wild future film can be experienced in the trailer: