Tuesday, June 21, 2011

What's Up Doc?: DEATH RIDERS (1976)

I recently talked with a friend about trends that seemed like they could only have happened in the 1970s.  Culturally, the “Me decade” gave us such unique things as disco and punk rock; the “Battle of the Sexes” tennis wars; totally 70s TV shows like THE BRADY BUNCH and THE ELECTRIC COMPANY; and Elliot Gould’s career as a big screen leading man.  If these things didn’t emerge during those tens years, they would have never happened at all.  Another popular 70s culture trend (in the West, at least) was the rise of the daredevil stunt show.  Although around for decades before this, epic stunt performances took on a distinctly 70s hold and awareness thanks mostly to the mainstream popularity of Evel Knievel.

DEATH RIDERS follows the Death Riders Motorcycle Thrill Show as they traverse the United States over the course of 1974.  Based out of Danville, Illinois (only crazy folks live in the Land of Lincoln), this destruction demonstration was the brainchild of Floyd Reed, Sr.  No doubt he sat a home one day and thought, “Demolition derbies don’t do it for me. I know what we need: fire!”  Seizing on the 1960s mondo documentary trend, the film opens with a onscreen graphic stating it is dedicated to the stunt performers who died over the years doing the various stunts you are about to see.  If that isn’t salacious enough, they then list each performer, the stunt that caused their death, and the date of their demise (some dating back to the 1940s).  Ouch.  DEATH RIDERS lets you know right up front, this is as real as it gets and you are going to see the real life of a caravan of thrill seekers.


We get our first knowledge of the Death Riders thanks to a monotone voice over by young performer/narrator Larry Mann.  He lays out the group’s philosophy right away as they “aren’t like the stuntmen you see on the TV or in movies. We all do our own stunts with no tricky gimmicks, no rehearsals, and no special safety precautions.  That’s the way we like it.”  This plays over a clip of stuntman Danny Reed doing a car flip that freezes in mid-frame as the title DEATH RIDERS thrusts toward the audience while the Death Riders theme song by rockabilly singer Dorsey Burnette blasts (“Death Rider. I didn’t need to learn how”).  Damn, this is gonna be good.   We then get a sequence of a car on fire jumping up a ramp and smashing into another car.  Yeah, this is gonna be awesome.

Larry informs the audience that the Death Riders show is different because “most of the guys are only 17 or 18 years old.”  Ah, reckless child endangerment, another great 1970s staple.  Of course, he says, the best part is staying alive so you can meet all the single chicks afterward.  As Danny Reed puts it, “a single guy has it made.”  The young ladies are just a distant memory soon as the group heads out to their next location in their bright yellow vans with the Death Riders logo painted on the side.  We get to see them set up the ramps and pyrotechnics for the show at a fair while Reed, Sr. hires on young rookie Bob Spears.  “You just joined the show? I feel sorry for you,” says lanky Russ Smith aka Squeeks the Clown.  Squeeks is there to provide comedic relief and keep the audience occupied during ramp set ups.  He even gets in on the stunts, like lying on the hood of a car while it bursts through a wall of fire.  Poor Squeeks.  

We then get to see the downside of being a stunt rider as Spears sees his ego take a hit when he crashes during a bike jump through a wall of, naturally, fire.  Then we see Jim “The Maine Maniac” Moreau throw out his back on a double jump (two guys on one bike).  No doubt this stunt failed because they didn’t jump through anything on fire.  His pain vividly plays out on screen while he narrates what went wrong.  The show must go on though and the next scene has the crew picking Jim up at the hospital, with Larry saying “all the doctor did was tape Jim’s back and tell him to stay away from motorcycles.”  Ah, the 1970s indeed.  $50 says that doctor was smoking a cigarette while he dispensed his advice.  The group then visits as nudist colony where the People Jump gets the added thrill of being the Naked People Jump as the song “Sunny Side Up” plays.  As if that weren’t scary enough, the doc juxtaposes that with a visit with Claire Reed, Floyd, Sr.’s mom.  She is quite approving, saying of the show, “I don’t think much of it.”  Well, Floyd, Sr. shows her by having Danny a dangerous stunt that he flips end-over-end which causes her to pass out.  I guess that wasn’t enough so then he does the Mr. TNT bit where he gets in a box and is blown up.  How you like me now, grandma?

The film then shows the lighter side of death defying, namely picking on announcer Henry.  The crew gets into a shaving cream fight with him and later makes him a hamburger made of dog food.  It is then that I realized what DEATH RIDERS is – it is the grandfather of JACKASS minus all the butthole and penis stuff.  This is reinforced in some staged bits where the boys are “challenged” by locals to do wild stuff like ride a motocross track in one town and ride some bulls in another. Hell, one of the guys even swallows a goldfish at an amusement park, but doesn’t have the courtesy of Steve-O to barf it back up.  Yes, the Death Riders are the true originators of the insane stunt guys but they didn’t sell their soul to the Hollywood devil at the drop of the hat for fame and money or to star in lame comedies like Johnny Knoxville.  No, the Death Riders sold their souls to God, namely Earl Owensby.  After this documentary was filmed, the crew filmed some scenes in 1975 for Owensby’s stunt driving classic DEATH DRIVER (1976).    

If you are a fan of watching stuff get blow’d up and smashed, then DEATH RIDERS is essential viewing.  Of course, you can always expect me to pimp a production where apparently I was the assistant director.  News to me, but I’m sure I enjoyed hanging out with the Death Riders crew. And don’t just go in thinking this is some cheapjack documentary either.  Director James Wilson was an experienced cinematographer with over 150 credits dating back all the way to the 1920s!  His co-cinematographer is none other than Hungarian DP Vilmos Zsigmond. Zsigmond would go on to win the Academy Award for cinematography just a few years after this for his work on Spielberg’s CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977).  Both men know how to perfectly capture the stunts with incredible slow motion and camera placement (I’m pretty sure one stunt ended up with a camera getting smashed).  Combined with some top notch editing and moody score, the film offers some grand stunt moments that reach an ethereal level; these bits are more befitting a documentary contemplation the meaning of life, not adrenaline freaks putting on a daredevil stunt show.  Check out how all of these elements combine in this Mr. TNT stunt that truly makes the audience understand the danger involved. Take that, JACKASS!  And note Squeeks offering Danny his cigarette to light the fuse.

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