Approaching a supposed cult classic with cold eyes is like being a little kid all over again. (Stay with me here.) You approach the club house where all the cool kids are playing. You know that you could join in their games if only someone were to explain the rules. It's too bad you don't have the right decoder ring. Now you'll never know what the hell they're going on about. Psychomania (aka The Death Wheelers) feels just like that, except with British zombie bikers.
Tom Latham (Nicky Henson) and his friends are unsavory to say the least. Roaming around as a motorcycle gang called The Living Dead, they terrorize the townsfolk when they aren't busy forcing innocent drivers of the road. Lately however, Tom has bigger things on his mind. He wants to kill himself so that he can cross over to the other side before returning as a brand new man. Luckily for Tom, his mother (Beryl Reid) and her associate Shadwell (George Sanders) may know how he can accomplish this. He learns the truth after a trippy sequence with a mirror that shows him images of massive frogs, graveyards and his mom making dark deals with shadowy figures in said graveyards. You see, he can kill himself and return from the dead. The catch is that in his final moments he has to really, really believe that he will come back to life. One motorcycle mounted swan-dive off a bridge and Tom is dead.
Tom's friends decide to honor him by giving him a rather unorthodox burial. He is put in the ground while still astride his metal steed. This lays the groundwork for a goofy scene where he bursts out of the ground, bike and all, promptly kills an innocent man and proceeds to a gas station for a fill up. Invigorated by his newly discovered immortality, Tom starts preaching the ways of the undead to his biker friends. They readily agree to give the whole rebirth-via-suicide method a shot. Most of them follow through with creative ways of offing themselves and many of them return (one got distracted while he was trying to believe...hate it when that happens). Now the lone holdout is Tom's girlfriend Abby (Mary Larkin). She loves Tom but she has grown accustomed to being alive as well. It's now up to him to convince Abby to trade in her life for an eternity of motorcycle based shenanigans.
I made the critical mistake of attempting to process Psychomania as I was watching it. I was simply trying to classify its genre but was defeated at every turn. It features zombie bikers but it's not really a horror movie since it never goes for your gut. Heck, even the zombies don't deserve to be called zombies since their reanimated selves look a little too 'put-together' for people who have just jumped off bridges, out windows and through trucks. Then there's the matter of the suicide attempts themselves. The film approaches them with a cheery but morbid sense of humor. It highlights the devil-may-care attitude of the gang but it's also desperately silly. The scenes with Tom's mother and Shadwell almost belong in a different film. They carry a tone that is more ominous than the rest of the film can sustain. Surround all of this with multiple motorcycle chases and perfectly synchronized stunts and you have a very strange beast indeed.
I was surprised to find out that Don Sharp directed this film in the early 70s along with Dark Places, a horror movie that I absolutely adored as a youngster. While that movie also featured Robert Hardy (he's a police inspector in this one), the similarities end there. With Psychomania, Sharp creates an atmosphere of mild unease and repeatedly spikes it with psychedelic and flat out weird elements. Unfortunately the film fails to put any of its strange energy to good use. After all the anticipation surrounding the biker gang's conversion, we find that their imagination remains as stunted as ever. They just go back to all of their old haunts and act like general nuisances. Before the film can do anything more interesting with them, it's all over. Sitting there with a "That's it?" expression on my face, I realized just how poor the overall pacing was.
Despite having a large cast, only a few of the actors leave any sort of impression. Nicky Henson wears a permanent sneer as the leader of the gang. He isn't intimidating as much as he is annoyingly arrogant although I suppose that's intentional. Mary Larkin is sufficiently naive and put upon as Abby. Beryl Reid and George Sanders have a bit more fun with their performances. Reid gets to engage in kooky séances while Sanders comes face to face with a toad and manages to keep a straight face. Clearly both of them are suffering through a script that is below their abilities but somehow work through it. As it turns out this film was a strange footnote for Sanders since he took his own life soon after it was completed.
Unless you already belong to the club of this film's admirers, I suspect your enjoyment will hinge upon how much you value quirk over a cohesive plot. If you just want a slab of strange with a darkly humorous undercurrent, then have a look. As for me, I think my decoder ring is busted again.
The movie was presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement. At the outset of the film we are warned that "because the negative of Psychomania is considered lost, the following transfer was taken from the best known elements in existence." Despite the warning, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the image that followed. To be fair there is noticeable grain in places and the color palette seems a bit faded with occasional orange flesh tones. Other than those minor issues the disc is free of obvious digital defects. I suspect this is the best the film has ever looked.
The audio was presented in English Mono Dolby Digital. Other than the vocals being a bit uneven and occasionally muddy, this was a fairly lively track. It did a great job conveying John Cameron's psychedelic score and was front and center with all the motorcycle chase scenes. This was a more than adequate audio presentation for the film. There were no subtitles.
While I may not get Psychomania, the good folks over at Severin Films clearly do. They've lovingly assembled a selection of extra features especially for this release that should tickle any fan's fancy. First up we have Return of the Living Dead (25:02). This is a collection of fairly recent interviews with Nicky Henson, Mary Larkin, Denis Gilmore, Roy Holder and Rocky Taylor. While not all of them agree upon the film's relative merits, they seem to relish talking about it, sometimes with brutal honesty. Henson and Larkin clearly view the film as a bit of silliness in their youth and are amazed at its persistent popularity. The cast also reminisce about working with Don Sharp and George Sanders. Considering they are all talking about a film they made 38 years ago, this piece serves as an excellent retrospective with a rather gracious group of people.
The next two extras are dedicated to the music of the film. Sound of Psychomania (9:06) is an interview with composer John Cameron. After talking about his musical career, he delves into the specific off-kilter rock and roll feel he was reaching for with this film. He mentions the quirky and unpredictable themes of the film coming through in his non-traditional score. At the end, he even plays the central theme of the film on his piano. Riding Free (6:25) is an interview with the singer Harvey Andrews, whose delicate finger-picked folk song is featured in Tom's burial scene. He keeps up the jovial yet blunt tone maintained thus far. He mentions that his face didn't make it into the film because he wasn't a pretty boy and goes on to express his horror at watching the chosen actor strumming along to a song that was clearly finger-picked.
We close things out with something that oddly enough should have opened the disc. It's an Introduction by Fangoria Editor Chris Alexander (5:30). Chris makes his adoration for the flawed film quite evident. He mentions that it was the first VHS he purchased for the princely sum of $10. His is the sort of gushing recommendation that would make me watch the film if I was still on the fence about it. Last but not least we have the Original Theatrical Trailer (2:49) in all of its glory.
I know there are a lot of people out there who think the world of Psychomania. I am not one of them. Without nostalgia to guide my opinion, I found it to be an odd example of psychedelic black comedy masquerading as a horror film. While the nuggets of dark humor are fairly entertaining, it can be a chore to sit through the rest of the film. The performances are stilted and the plot ends up spinning its wheels after putting forth its central conceit. If you are already a fan of the film, then you can take solace in the fact that Severin has assembled a fairly nice collection of retrospective interviews with the cast and crew. If you've never seen it before, I would suggest that you Rent It.