Psychomania/Death Wheelers/The Living Dead/The Frog (1971) **
You might think it would be impossible to go wrong with a movie about an undead biker gang. I mean, think about it-- zombie movies are cool, biker movies are cool; surely zombie bikers are the best of both worlds, right? Perhaps, but not this time. For all its promise, Psychomania/Death Wheelers/The Living Dead/The Frog is really pretty dull.
18-year-old Tom Latham (Nicky Henderson, from The Conqueror Worm/Witchfinder General) is the leader of a biker gang called The Living Dead. He’s also the son of a medium (Beryl Reid, who would appear in Dr. Phibes Rises Again the next year) and a mysterious unnamed man who apparently died at about the same time Tom was born, and whose study in the family mansion has been kept locked up ever since. Tom’s upbringing, steeped as it was in the paranormal, has given the boy an unhealthy interest in “the Secret of the Living Dead.” For whatever reason, Tom believes that his mother and her butler, Shadwell (George Sanders, from the original Village of the Damned, who would die by his own hand shortly after making this movie... makes you think, doesn’t it?), possess this secret, and that if he can only extract it from them, he will be able to die and rise again as some sort of invulnerable zombie. Just why Tom finds this idea so attractive is a little hard to grasp, but one night-- after a big evening out, involving running innocent motorists off the road with his gang, making out with his girlfriend Abby (Mary Larkin) in a cemetery, and catching some rare form of bullfrog in the same graveyard (this is somehow very important, but it never becomes clear exactly how)-- he comes home to the mansion and coerces his mother into giving him the key to his father’s study. Mrs. Latham’s and Shadwell’s warnings that he may not be ready for the revelations that will come to him in the locked room do nothing to dissuade the boy, but he should know to listen to his elders. Up in the room, Tom has visions that suggest that his birth was somehow connected to a pact his mother made with the devil, and then goes into shock.
He comes to a little while later, just in time for him to overhear his mother and Shadwell discussing the Secret of the Living Dead. Apparently Tom’s father shared his obsession, and he died in an attempt to “cross over” and become undead. According to Mrs. Latham, her husband failed because, at the last minute, he doubted that it could be done. And that, apparently, is all there is to it. If you want to become an invulnerable zombie, you just kill yourself while believing with all your heart that you will rise again. I don’t know about you, but to me, it seems like something of a let-down for one of the most closely guarded secrets of the occult.
Tom, of course, wastes no time in giving the Secret a try. After leading his gang on a strangely docile rampage through his town’s shopping district, he drives his bike off a bridge into a stream maybe twenty feet below. I think I could come up with a few surer ways to off myself than this if I wanted to make absolutely certain I did it right, but I suppose we should cut Tom some slack on account of his youth and inexperience. Anyway, the gang secures Mrs. Latham’s permission to bury Tom according to a rite of their own devising at their hangout, a stone circle called the Seven Witches (it involves burying Tom and his bike in an attitude suggestive of the deceased riding off into the next world, the ceremony performed to the accompaniment of a song that could scarcely be taken as anything less than an exhortation to teen suicide), and Jane (Anne Michelle, of Virgin Witch and The House of Whipcord) steps up to assume command of the gang.
Psychomania’s one really good scene follows shortly thereafter, when a middle-aged man trudging through the Seven Witches on a quest for a spare tire witnesses Tom bursting out of his barrow on his cycle. The unlucky man becomes the first of Tom’s numerous victims, as the zombie biker makes the rounds of the countryside testing out his new powers. Tom ends up killing five people, all in all, including a gas station attendant who had the temerity to ask him to pay for a fill-up. All these crimes have the effect of bringing the Living Dead to the attention of Chief Inspector Hesseltine (Robert Hardy, who would probably rather be remembered for “All Creatures Great and Small” than for Demons of the Mind or Dark Places). He and his men bring every surviving member of the gang in for questioning (all the witnesses described the gang’s unmistakable uniform when asked what the perpetrator looked like), leading Abby to conclude that somebody has stolen the clothes from Tom’s body in a morbid attempt to frame his followers. At first, the Living Dead take the emptiness of Tom’s barrow as proof of Abby’s theory, but then Tom himself arrives on the scene to set them straight. A brief discourse on the benefits of the undead lifestyle convinces the rest of the gang, and the lot of them begin killing themselves in an effort to be just like the boss.
All the other members, that is, except for Abby, whose attempted OD on sleeping pills fails to kill her. Her failure gives her a new sense of perspective on the matter, and she comes to the conclusion that she’d really prefer to live after all, if that’s okay with Tom-- especially after the boy reveals that he wants to use his new zombie powers to destroy society. But Tom wants Abby dead, so that the two of them can be together. It all leads up to a somewhat confusing finale at the Seven Witches, in which Tom tries to force Abby to choose between death by her own hand or by his, but which ends with the girl being saved by Tom’s mother, who reneges on her pact with Satan, causing Shadwell (really the devil himself) to transform her into a bullfrog and Tom and his gang into stone monoliths.
Like I said, this one just doesn’t quite deliver. The biggest problem, outweighing even the listless pacing (we’re looking at a 70-minute movie dragged out to 95), is the characterization of the gang members. I suppose it shouldn’t seem that shocking that the English, known the world over for their love of restraint and propriety, would see a threat to the fabric of society in this, the world’s politest motorcycle gang. We’re definitely not talking Hell’s Angels here, not even the comparatively domesticated Hell’s Angels of today. Before they kill themselves and sell their souls to the devil, about the nastiest thing they can come up with is driving their bikes around in a pedestrian courtyard, knocking packages out of people’s hands and slapping attractive girls in hot pants on the ass. Frankly, these candy-asses would need to come under the tutelage of Satan before they could seem in any way dangerous. Meanwhile, the far more interesting matter of Tom’s mother and her relationship with the powers of darkness is shunted aside into an ill-developed subplot. Seriously, Beryl Reid and George Sanders have real chemistry here, and nearly all of the anemic script’s most interesting ideas concern their characters. But instead, the movie spends nearly all its time detailing the amateurish exploits of Tom’s gang, and going about it with an almost total lack of urgency at that. Again, maybe someday we’ll get to see a film that fulfills the promise of Psychomania, but not today.