Screams from the Crypt: Psychomania
After Easy Rider roared across movie screens in 1969, gangs of imitators revved their engines, and the biker movie genre exploded. One of the most eccentric films to follow Easy Rider was the 1973 British import Psychomania (a.k.a The Death Wheelers), which has the distinction of being the only entry in the “undead, frog-worshipping, folk song-singing, biker movie” subgenre. Cleverly combining Hammer-style horror and biker gang action, Psychomania is the kind of cult movie you dream about finding on television at two in the morning. Now available in a restored DVD/Blu-ray set from Arrow Video, Psychomania is here to fill that “zombie biker movie”-shaped hole in your heart that you didn’t even know you had.
Psychomania stars Nicky Henson as Tom, the shaggy-haired, leather-clad leader of the Living Dead biker gang. Like most teenagers, Tom is obsessed with death; unlike most teenagers, he has a Spiritualist mother, a creepy butler (George Sanders, in his final role), and a room in his manor home that he must never, ever enter. While investigating his family’s supernatural roots, he uncovers the secret of immortality, but it comes with a price: you have to kill yourself first. Soon, Tom is riding his motorcycle out of his own grave and urging the rest of his biker gang to cross over to the “other side.” (“You can only die once; after that, nothing, and nobody, can harm you,” says Tom, which is technically correct.) These re-animated road warriors terrorize the countryside, killing truckers and cops and posing a very unique threat to stuffy British authority.
From the beginning of its opening credits, Psychomania doesn’t look like any biker film you’ve seen before, with Tom’s gang riding their hogs through mist-shrouded rock formations while an eerie prog rock score plays. The setting gives the film a unique look, with motorcycles riding past verdant English fields instead of the arid American southwest. The Living Dead are also one of the best dressed gangs in cult moviedom, with enormous skull-shaped helmets that beg to be stolen for a punk band’s logo. The gang’s personalized leathers also provide a sly bit of characterization with their names emblazoned on their jackets. (“Chopped Meat.” “Hatchet.” “Jane.”) The first clue that Tom’s sweet, milk-skinned girlfriend Abby doesn’t quite fit in with their murderous ways is that she doesn’t wear leather at all, but blue corduroy. If Psychomania were made today, horror conventions would be crawling with fans in skull-masked Living Dead cosplay.
Unlike the gorier, goopier zombie films of the 70s, Psychomania is surprisingly bloodless, more in the spirit of director Don Sharp’s earlier Hammer films The Kiss of the Vampire and The Devil-Ship Pirates. So while gorehounds may be disappointed by the lack of splattered brains, the film’s stunt work does deliver excellent biker action and mayhem. Psychomania’s most spectacular sequence is a montage of increasingly elaborate gang member suicides that reveals an absurd sense of humor so bone dry, you can taste the marrow. (Why was Tom buried sitting upright on his motorcycle? So he could burst out of the ground like it was John Hurt’s chest, of course.) The supernatural elements of the story are frustratingly vague—what is the deal with all the frogs?—but the movie speeds by these plot points before we can think about them too much. After all, that blonde bird at the pub who’s a poor judge of character isn’t going to strangle herself.
Psychomania shines with truly solid performances, particularly Nicky Henson as Tom. The spoiled mama’s boy who’s also a homicidal, undead gang leader is a role that should not make the least bit of sense, but Henson makes Tom believable by playing him with complete sincerity. If he had winked at the camera with a “Well, this is all a bit rubbish, isn’t it?” smirk, the whole thing would have fallen apart. Ann Michelle also deserves recognition as Jane, the nastiest member of the Living Dead. Michelle gives the film proto-punk energy, turning her own funeral into a prank on her parents, and, after her resurrection, mock-hanging herself in a tree to gleefully scare a friend. The most surprising presence in Psychomania is actual Academy Award winner George Sanders as the sardonic, possibly satanic butler, Shadwell. Sanders committed suicide shortly after filming wrapped, but as bizarre final film performances go, he has more dignity than, say, Joan Crawford in Trog. After all, who was he in The Portrait of Dorian Gray and All About Eve if not a sinister figure lurking over the shoulder of some wayward youth, guiding them on the path to ruin?
Arrow Video continues to be a sanctuary for even the strangest and most obscure cult films, and the Psychomania Blu-ray is a delight. Along with special features imported from a previous Severin Films DVD release, the set includes a new 40-page booklet of essays and photos, as well as a look at the British Film Institute’s restoration from the original black and white separation masters. The film looks crisp and vibrant, with popping psychedelic colors; Jane’s jacket in particular is Dario Argento’s favorite shade of red. Also among the new features is an interview with Nicky Henson, who seems bemused at Psychomania’s cult following but shares anecdotes about dangerous stunts and British film censorship in the 1970s. (Showing a motorcycle crashing into a baby carriage was perfectly fine, but a character smoking would mean the film couldn’t be shown on TV.) Though “zombies on wheels” is an unbeatable hook, Psychomania is more than a gimmick. It’s a colorful, strangely unique vision of youth gone wild, and the kind of off-kilter cult film that pokes at your brain long after it’s over. Now put on your skull-helmet, and let’s go.