Deathsport (1978)

The Ultimate Ride for Survival

Poster to 1978's Deathsport

In this post-apocalyptic adventure flick, Lord Ziprola (David McLean, former Marlboro Man, in his final film role), despotic leader of the city of Helix, is slowly going mad, the biological effects of prolonged exposure to radiation. He is on the verge of declaring war on the neighboring city of Tritan, and is using the latest round of Deathsport (gladiator games on dirt bikes, basically) to show off his new high tech weaponry: the ominously named Death Machines. What better way to test their mettle than to put them against the legendary Range Guides, plucked unceremoniously from the desert? What Ziprola doesn’t understand is that these Range Guides don’t go down easily.

The death machines from 1978's Deathsport

While certainly not a good film in any traditional sense of the word, DEATHSPORT is occasionally fun and interesting when it’s not being dull and meandrous. There are plenty of motorcycle chases, fiery explosions, gun-and-swordplay battles, rooms full of electric wind chimes, and full frontal nudity, if you’re into that sort of thing. Manly men with a belly full of beer seem to be the target audience.

As such, DEATHSPORT doesn’t bother with much of a story or a coherent structure. A lot is left to the imagination, if you deem it worthy of such contemplation. Personally, I suggest just shutting off the old thinkbox and watching it in a daze. Your chances of enjoying it will increase tenfold if you refuse to actually think too hard about it.


“A thousand years from tomorrow, after the Great Neutron Wars, the world consists of desert waste and isolated city-states. A few machines remain as a reminder of the past, but only the city-dwelling statesmen use them. Between the cities roam the dreaded cannibal mutants and the Range Guides. Guides are legendary warriors leading an independent and nomadic life, holding allegiance only to their code.”

So says the opening voiceover narration, cuing us into some vague backstory that is irrelevant except as an explanation for why the world has gone to such shit.

Sword fight, as seen in 1978's Deathsport

The Guides are a mystical sort of warrior breed, very stoic and serious, consistently spouting semi-coherent, pseudo-metaphysical platitudes:

“Like sand in the wind, keep moving.”

“Each of us is alone when he dies.”

“I am sacred.  No one can touch myself.  I am my only master.”

“Man is like a candle.  He must radiate life by burning himself.”

“Our union is limited.”

Their culture seems very much a combination of kung-fu mysticism and Jedi Knight—which was likely no accident. STAR WARS had premiered the year before, and producer Roger Corman may have seen it as another wave to ride into profit. The opening narration is even reminiscent of that film’s introduction (though it’s spoken aloud here), and the Guides wield crystalline swords that stand in for the Jedi’s lightsabers. The psychic-like powers that they possess are easily comparable to the Force, and although our hero Kaz Oshay first appears in an embarrassing loincloth and cape getup, it is soon enough traded in for a full-on Jedi robe. One might say that the Death Machines are analogous to Land Speeders…but there is such a thing as taking it too far.

The mega-macho Kaz Oshay (David Carradine) is joined by beautiful fellow guide Deneer (Playboy playmate Claudia Jennings, who died the following year). They join forces with Dr. Karl (William Smithers, condemned to Deathsport for daring to give Ziprola an unfavorable medical diagnosis) and his son Marcus (Will Walker) to escape Helix and find the latter two sanctuary in Tritan. First, they just have to make a quick pit stop along the way to rescue the adolescent Terra from the previously mentioned “dreaded cannibal mutants”, all the while being pursued by the ruthless Ankar Moore (Richard Lynch), Ziprola’s power-hungry second-in-command. Sounds like a lot of plot, but all of it gets lost and muddled, and is of very minor importance anyway.

DEATHSPORT was reportedly a rushed and troubled production, which may account for many of the shortcomings. Nicholas Niciphor (working as Henry Suso) cowrote the script with Donald Stewart, and began as the director. This was Niciphor’s first film gig, and he was unable to hack it, reportedly clashing with the film’s stars. He quit or was fired (accounts vary), and was replaced with Allan Arkush. Arkush could scarcely salvage the mess that he was walking into, and he would forever consider this movie one of his biggest embarrassments. There was supposedly a good deal of drug use among some of the leads, but if you’re going to be in a movie like DEATHSPORT, I imagine a little chemical enhancement would help things.

Roger Corman put this into production to capitalize on the success of his DEATHRACE 2000 (1975), and many people erroneously refer to it as a sequel to that film. If you watch both films, you’ll see that really isn’t the case. They may be thematically linked—David Carradine playing death sports in a dangerous future—but the storylines don’t match up at all. Even Corman himself has stated that DEATHSPORT is not a “part 2”, but rather a “variation”. We already knew that the man was never above cannibalizing himself to crank out a movie, and admit it, that’s part of what you love about him.

Cover image to Deathsport Games from Blue Water Comics

Although this may seem an unlikely candidate for such ventures, DEATHSPORT did make its way to the printed page, as well. Sphere Books in the UK published a novelization of the film the year it was released, written by William Hughes (who drafted a number of movie and television tie-ins for the publisher); and in 2010, indie publisher Bluewater Comics released a 4-issue miniseries that took place in the same world, entitled ROGER CORMAN PRESENTS: THE DEATHSPORT GAMES, written by Mark L. Miller with artwork by Roy Stewart.

If that’s not enough for you, no fear. Patience is a virtue. Everything is remade eventually.  But until then…

Our union is complete.

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