Television is a tough racket. Just ask the employees of WBS TV. In the future, the year 2072, to be precise, WBS has a hit show on their hands. It’s called The Danger Game, where contestants are hooked up to a machine that pumps visions of bloody torture directly into their brains. If they endure the torture without panicking, they win. It’s a successful show for the discerning TV consumer of the dystopian future, but it’s still getting beaten in the ratings by Kill Bike — a show featuring riders on motorbikes engaging in some poorly filmed jousting.
The mysterious head of WBS, Sam (Giovanni Di Benedetto), has a new idea for a show that should get WBS back on top of the ratings. Essentially, WBS is going to steal the idea of Kill Bike, but WBS will increase the stakes. The contestants will all be convicted murderers, and they will battle to the death in the famed Coliseum of Rome.
The New Gladiators was released in 1984, and is part of the wave of cheap Italian sci-fi that found inspiration following the successes of the Mad Max films and Escape from New York, among many others. This particular film, from famed b-movie auteur Lucio Fulci, borrows from those two films, while still finding enough room to cram in heaping amounts of Rollerball, Blade Runner, and A Clockwork Orange. Most impressively, Fulci was able to reach forward through time and steal ideas from The Running Man (all joking aside, the similarities are enough that I have to think the people behind The Running Man were Fulci fans).
Jared Martin plays Drake, who was a star on Kill Bike. But, he has been framed for murdering his wife, and now finds himself a contestant in the upcoming gladiator fight. He is imprisoned along with the other contestants, including Fred Williamson as Abdul. None of the prisoners is under any illusions about their fates. They know they are all condemned men, so they may as well go out fighting.
The bulk of the film takes place either in this drab prison or in the WBS control room, so viewers should get used to seeing these sets. In the control room, there are many, many scenes of ruminations between the WBS employees, while down in the prison, a sort of cat and mouse game plays out between the prisoners, led by Drake, and their jailer, Raven (Howard Ross).
About halfway through the film, I finally noticed that there hadn’t been much gladiator fighting in this gladiator movie, and that appears to be down to budget. This flick dwells amongst the bottomest of the bottom feeders. It had some pretensions towards being a decent film at times, but the resources were practically non-existent. Don’t feel bad for Fulci and company, though. They knew what kind of film they were making. They certainly couldn’t know that, more than thirty years later, their efforts would be seeing the light of day once more because of online streaming. This was a film made for a quick buck, and shows all the attendant care one would ascribe to a temporary investment.
This film is an obvious piece of shit. Everyone knows it. Director, producers, writers, stars, viewers. The only question that matters is, is it an entertaining piece of shit? It goes up and down, honestly. Whether because of budgetary limitations or a failure on the part of Fulci, there are slow spots in the extended middle of the film that strain a viewer’s attention span. The promise of the film is that there would be plenty of motorcycle fights and explosions. If it were to be similar to contemporary films from Enzo G. Castellari and the like, there should also be plenty of slow motion action shots and bloody death. This film teases all those things, but can’t find a way to deliver in any meaningful fashion until the final fight in the Coliseum. Until then, it’s all buildup. Character and plot development are a good thing, sure, but not when it’s done because the production can’t afford to shoot outside.
Any viewer who bothers with this flick is doing so because they are seeking out a certain type of film to scratch a very particular itch. There are more worthy examples of bad Italian sci-fi that don’t bog down the middle with overwrought plot elements designed to pad the runtime more than tell a story. No matter what title one sees this film under, we were promised either gladiators or warriors. More of both would have gone a long way to making this flick watchable. Alien: Resurrection is a better movie than The New Gladiators.