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Severin Films has disinterred an amusingly campy horror item in 1973's Psychomania, released here in the states as The Death Wheelers. Another disclaimer must be added not to confuse this all-Brit thriller with one of the alternate titles for an earlier New York indie called Violent Midnight. That B&W proto-slasher film is about a mad artist, and is a better fit for the term "psychomania". This particular Psychomania is a better than-average low budget thriller about zombies on motorbikes. It folds in a little bit of the occult, some rock music and a lot of biker action. Taken on its own terms -- fairly laughable melodrama -- it's good, slightly looney fun. Severin's extras allow us to enjoy the reactions of the young cast as they re-view the film 37 years later. That's almost as much fun as the movie itself.
The story by screenwriters Arnaud d'Usseau and Julian Halevy is fairly generic stuff. Tom Latham (Nicky Henson of Witchfinder General) leads a group of leather-clad, skull-helmeted biker hoodlums known as "The Living Dead". When not riding in formation around a local mini- Stonehenge site called "The Seven Witches", the gang terrorizes the local shopping district and murders drivers on the road. Tom is bored with this life, but knows that relief can come through his mother (Beryl Reid of The Killing of Sister George), a medium who happens to be a real member of the living dead. Mum long ago 'crossed over' but Tom's father failed when attempting to follow her in the ceremony. She and her faithful servant Shadwell (George Sanders, in his last movie) are cultists that worship large toads (with big, sad eyes). Finding out that the secret of "coming back" is to commit suicide without fear, Tom rides to his death. He makes a triumphant return, literally driving out of his own grave in a blast of dirt. Tom celebrates by murdering five pub patrons. His Living Dead crew follows his example with enthusiasm, killing themselves in various carefree ways. Two don't make it. One chickens out before smashing into a truck on the interstate. Tom's girlfriend Abby (Mary Larkin) fails in her overdose attempt, and decides she doesn't want to die. Tom and the gang have other ideas.
Psychomania shows its low budget but surely delivered what early '70s audiences wanted to see. The Living Dead's helmets render them more or less anonymous, enabling a team of stunt drivers to take their places to depict at least a dozen hairy-looking highway killings and suicides. Guest stars Beryl Reid and George Sanders play their roles more or less on a single set. Although their parts are trifles compared to their cumulative filmographies, Reid and Sanders do what's expected of British actors and give the roles their full attention. Sanders maintains his cool and reads his occult-ish dialogue with verve. "Living Dead" Beryl is woefully underwritten -- she never offers any opinions about the benefits of immortality -- but she seems genuinely concerned for her wayward Tom, who just can't seem to recapture the thrill of kicking over baby buggies and slaughtering tradesmen out on the highway.
The "crazy kids" are all in their twenties, garbed in pastel woolens and other faux-hippie gear. They recite their ridiculous dialogue as if warming up to play more meaningful parts. The result is a movie that functions quite well at its own Z-movie level. The theme of suicide is too laughable for any but the most uptight parent to worry about. These kids leap up eagerly to kill themselves, as if someone suggested having ice cream. The crazy thing is that after the bikers have become dead-but-immortal, they just continue doing the same things they did before -- kicking over old ladies' shopping baskets and murdering the odd truck driver. What's the point?
Director Don Sharp keeps the basic story on the rails and lets his young cast do what they will, which is as good a strategy as any. Nicky Henson struts about in tight leather pants. Some of the others try to affect distinguishing characters, but we're mostly aware of their hair, which is always in great shape, looking fresh and Clairol-clean. Mary Larkin is the sole conflicted biker, but even she isn't overly troubled by her cosmic dilemma. She weighs her life or death decision as if trying to choose between junior college or a new dress.
Psychomania rumbles to an acceptably moralistic conclusion. It thankfully doesn't waste time making a big deal out of the fruitless police efforts to solve all of those baffling murders. The Living Dead advertise their names on their leather jackets so everyone knows exactly who's doing the killing. But those silly cops never seem to get a handle on how to proceed.
Severin Films' DVD of Psychomania comes in a good transfer of a print with acceptable color and only a few scratches. Viewers frustrated by TV showings that reportedly excised most of the violence will be happy to know that this version is the uncut British original.
The fun feature is followed by two professional featurettes from Severin producer David Gregory. For the behind the scenes interview docu Return of the Living Dead Gregory tracked down several of the film's actors and stunt people, including leads Nicky Henson and Mary Larkin. None harbor illusions of greatness for the picture but all have amusing stories to tell. TV star Henson laughs out loud, but seems to have a good attitude about this unexpected career highlight. He's convinced that British TV would show the film whenever he'd open a new play, just to let his cast members give him a hard time. The stunt actors explain the serious business of pulling off those dangerous-looking death scenes. Actor-stunt man Rocky Taylor worked in several classic James Bond films. One of the actors had a role in Village of the Damned, at age nine.
A second featurette concentrates on the music score of composer John Cameron and a third visits with Harvey Andrews, who sings the movie's theme song Riding Free. Another video extra is a talky intro from Fangoria Editor in Chief Chris Alexander.
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T'was Ever Thus.