WAR & PEACE WITH MOTORCYCLES
While they're more or less a novelty piece for nostalgia merchants and lovers of exploitation movies, biker flicks were vital cinematic plasma for the life support of Drive In's across America during the late 60s and early 1970s. The films themselves are a curious amalgamation of exploitation, road movie aesthetics and social class decadence. The plots are often secondary if there's any real plot at all. The films are mainly an excuse to showcase anti-authority types rebelling against an ever changing, increasingly industrialized society.
Most of these movies had little to say aside from being Coke and Popcorn guzzlers to be savored by undemanding moviegoers looking for cheap escapist entertainment. The popularity of EASY RIDER (1969) brought the genre a level of critical appreciation it would rarely ever attain again. Quite a few of these movies had something else to say beneath the surface even if it was frequently well hidden behind scenes of rape, brutality and socially unacceptable behavior.
The Vietnam War was in full swing in the 1960s and America's involvement over there was a controversial subject throughout the decade and into the 1970s. Regardless of ones opinion of why our soldiers were there, if it was right, or wrong, the conflict overseas let loose a wave of frustration that created some of cinemas most disturbing and creative motion pictures. It was also a topic that oftentimes reared its head in various capacity throughout the biker genre, too. The ravages and social ramifications of the war in Vietnam was sometimes integral to the story, or made for a scapegoat plot device to mask oodles of gratuitous violence.
Such is the case with 1965s MOTOR PSYCHO, directed by the worshipper of the Almighty Big Bosom, Russ Meyer. This one is about a motorcycle gang who rape a man's wife. With the help of a woman whose husband was killed by the three ring cyclists, the two seek revenge. The film was also one of the earliest pictures to feature a character deeply unhinged by the effects of the Vietnam War.
Of course, this being a Russ Meyer movie, subtleties and social significance are secondary to the exploitation elements. The fact that its a biker picture from Meyer and that it features a main villain who's violence stems from his war-afflicted experiences makes it of minor importance. Meyer was well known for putting women at the forefront of his films baring it all for the camera while kicking a lot of ass along the way. In biker movies, women predominantly got less than respectable treatment.
MEN, WOMEN & HOGS
Misogyny usually runs high in these movies as women are typically depicted as fodder for the libidos of ruthless hog huggers. Whether passed around, or the private property of their "owners", women in biker flicks who aren't part of a gang usually find themselves in some sort of peril and often end up raped, beaten, or killed and sometimes all three.
WILD RIDERS (1971) was a perfect example of 70s gutter trash that sought to shock and disturb its audience. It's lumped in with the biker genre, but it has more in common with LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972) than it does EASY RIDER (1969) with its two scumbag characters holding two women hostage in their home and subjecting them to beatings and rape.
While women were viewed as men's property in these movies, there were movies built around all girl gangs, but they're most often eclipsed by the more sensational examples the genre is known for. The motorcycles themselves are treated with a degree of dignification that acts as a peculiar dichotomy against the degradation afforded the female gang members. The hogs are symbiotic of their owners while the women act more as a sexual accoutrement. Bikers are protective of their fleshy property, but even more so should you tamper with their two-wheeled mean machine.
Such is the case with THE HARD RIDE (1971) wherein a dying Vietnam soldiers last wish isn't to give a message to his girlfriend waiting back home, but to find his Native American biker buddy Big Red and sign his coveted chopper over to him!
Not all biker movies were violent excess, nor did they all depict their social outcasts as villainous miscreants. Some were heroes (as seen in ANGELS DIE HARD, the first of Roger Corman's New World Pictures), others were misunderstood by a populace who judged them by the way they looked. Some movies were built around mindless action and violence and others were more interested in telling a dramatic story. The variations of the form are slight, but noticeable over the course of the biker genres less than dignified, if lucrative existence thriving predominantly between the years of 1966 through 1974. There were bike pictures prior to, and after this period, but this eight year time frame bore the paradigm and classic illustrations closely associated with the genre.
OUTLAWS ON THE ROAD TO FREEDOM
EASY RIDER (1969) is generally viewed as the genre defining representative of the form and the reference point when biker movies are discussed. Far more artistic than many of the genres gutter trash attractions, it was actually the iconographic result of a surprisingly profitable precursor from a few years earlier.
THE WILD ANGELS from 1966 was the first film of any major substance that got the motor runnin' and headin' out on the highway some three years before the trendsetting EASY RIDER hit the pavement.
Directed by Roger Corman and written by frequent cohort, Charles B. Griffith, the plot is inconsequential existing only as an excuse to showcase lewd behavior, drug abuse, rowdiness, violence and rape. Peter Fonda stars as Blues, the leader of a California chapter of Hells Angels, who takes to the road along with Loser (played by Bruce Dern), to locate his friends stolen motorcycle. Believing Mexicans are responsible, this ultimately leads to a shoot out with the police. When one of the Angels is seriously wounded, he's placed in the hospital only for Blues to bust their injured comrade out. Later succumbing to his wounds, the Angels have a wild party, which is the eye-opening portion of the movie. For 1966, the sight of swastikas draped over a casket, dancing with a corpse with a freshly lit marijuana cigarette in its mouth and rape was no doubt a shocker to audiences of the day.
Yet again Corman had hit box office gold with his minuscule budgeted movie beating out bigger, higher profile fodder from the majors. This influential biker movie made millions and was one of the earliest samples of the soon to explode 'Outlaw Biker' genre that would run roughshod over Drive In movies screens for several years.
THE WILD ANGELS also benefits from performances from the likes of Bruce Dern (as the doomed Loser), Nancy Sinatra, Diane Ladd and Michael J. Pollard. Interestingly enough, Corman's THE TRIP (1967) also starred Peter Fonda and co-starred Dennis Hopper, both of whom would make history in '69 with the genre defining road movie EASY RIDER. There were a few ER alums who had done chopper flicks before and after the groundbreaking and genre defining independent hit movie, itself something of a lightning rod for future big Hollywood names.
Prior to directing EASY RIDER, Dennis Hopper starred in his own vehicle as a rough-housing cycle hellion in the AIP distributed THE GLORY STOMPERS (1968) where he played Chino, the leader of The Black Souls. Chino beats the holy hell out of the leader of The Glory Stompers and kidnaps his woman in the process. Left for dead, the defeated biker is still alive and goes seeking revenge in this enjoyable exploitation movie.
Speaking of Bruce Dern, the EASY RIDER connection continues with his lead villain role in THE CYCLE SAVAGES (1969). It's a sleazy effort that sees Dern playing the maniacal, insane Keeg (that's geek spelled backwards!) who goes off the deep end when he catches an artist sketching his gang. Beating the artist up, Keeg becomes entranced with crushing the artists hands should he ever draw again. When he isn't wishing bodily harm on artists, he and his boys are gang raping young girls, doping them up and selling them off to a white slavery ring run by Casey friggin' Kasem! Top 40s star shooter also co-produced!!
Biker gangs and unruly characters had been prime staples of movies well before THE WILD ANGELS invaded the motion picture industry. They were essentially the bastard children of the 'Youth Rebellion', or 'Juvenile Delinquent' genre that dealt with troubled teens and rambunctious hellraisers seen in such high profile movies as THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE (1955) and REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955). Trashier examples include CRY BABY KILLER (1958), HIGH SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL (1958) and HIGH SCHOOL HELLCATS (1958).
A number of these movies usually featured a leather jacket wearing hoodlum with a motorcycle. This type of character was a staple of teen delinquent movies and later found massive audience appeal with the endearingly likable Arthur 'The Fonz' Fonzarelli on the hit TV show, HAPPY DAYS. Even the TWILIGHT ZONE featured an episode from season five entitled 'Black Leather Jackets' about a motorcycle gang from outer space!
LOSERS ARE BORN AS HELLS ANGELS ON WHEELS
With THE WILD ANGELS being a lucrative enterprise for American International Pictures (the king of the independents at the time), they retaliated with a few more in a similar vein, one of them being yet another runaway success; that film being THE BORN LOSERS (1967).
This was the first of the wildly profitable and critically lambasted BILLY JACK series. In it, Billy Jack is a hermetic, half-breed Vietnam veteran who runs afoul of the Born Losers, a vicious motorcycle gang that terrorizes a small town.
Directed by Tom Laughlin, his personable film made millions, but not without a good degree of critical conflagration for its political and socially mixed messages. A staple of Laughlin's movies, his socio-political subtext would increase with each succeeding BILLY JACK movie culminating with BILLY JACK GOES TO WASHINGTON in 1977. It's interesting to note how different the original poster design was a lot different from what was actually in the movie. The films re-release poster more accurately conveyed Laughlin's film.
The same year saw the release of another biker film of note, HELLS ANGELS ON WHEELS. Directed by Richard Rush (THE STUNT MAN), this movie purporting to tell the true story of the Hells Angels. It starred Jack Nicholson in his first of three biker flicks, the other two being EASY RIDER (1969) and THE REBEL ROUSERS (1970).
Yet again, this movie has a mostly non-existent plot aside from dramatizing the inner workings of the Hell's Angels. What passes for a plot is the introduction of Nicholson's character of Poet, whose bike is damaged by a member of the Angels. After brazenly challenging the gang member who mangled his bike, Poet is offered a place within the Angels' circle by the chapters leader, Buddy. That's pretty much it for storyline. That's not to say HELLS ANGELS ON WHEELS isn't an entertaining diversion. The film also had a couple other notable players among its cast who were instrumental to the biker film phenomenon.
Adam Roarke played Buddy in HELLS ANGELS ON WHEELS. Outside of biker flick king, William Smith, Roarke is closely identified with the biker genre having worked with some big names including Nicholson, Smith and also Peter Fonda in the classic road movie DIRTY MARY, CRAZY LARRY (1974).
Roarke's THE SAVAGE SEVEN (1968) saw him reunited once more with HELLS ANGELS ON WHEELS director, Richard Rush. It was also one of a scant few biker pictures that flaunted social commentary as opposed to mindless scenes of sex and brutality in its story about a biker gang leader who falls for a Native American girl while her father wholeheartedly disapproves.
The storyline concerning bikers and Indians is a novel approach, but the whole exercise gets overly political when its discovered that a greedy land developer has been using the gang to remove the Indians from their reservation so as to build a thriving business emporium. Both the bikers and Indians join forces before the final credit crawl.
Mr. Rockin' New Years Eve himself, the late Dick Clark, was a producer on THE SAVAGE SEVEN. Roarke also lent his charismatic persona to other genre entries like HELL'S BELLES (1969) and the classic THE LOSERS (1970) (frequently listed as an alternately titled NAM'S ANGELS) directed by Jack Starrett, a film which is discussed elsewhere in this article.
The name Jack Starrett won't be lost on exploitation movie fans. Having held a decade long career helming a handful of memorable movies throughout the 1970s, Starrett also had a career as an actor taking parts in his own movies and those of other directors.
He directed one of the most important biker movies as well as one of the most wild. The former would be the classic, and highly profitable RUN, ANGEL, RUN! (1969) and the latter would be the aforementioned THE LOSERS from 1970.
Starrett's other accomplishments include the awful ultraviolent western CRY BLOOD, APACHE (1970), the MISERY influenced THE STRANGE VENGEANCE OF ROSALIE (1972), blaxploitation epics SLAUGHTER (1972) and CLEOPATRA JONES (1973), the action horror classic RACE WITH THE DEVIL (1975) and the redneck revenge pictures A SMALL TOWN IN TEXAS (1976) and FINAL CHAPTER: WALKING TALL in 1977. Fans will also recognize Starrett most famously from his role as the town drunk, Gabby Johnson in Mel Brooks' BLAZING SADDLES (1974) and also as the vicious policeman that assaults Stallone in FIRST BLOOD (1982).
BIKER BITCHES & SHE-DEVILS ON WHEELS
Biker movies about all girl gangs were a rare breed and weren't as good as their macho counterparts. Hell hath no fury like a biker chick scorned and that's more or less the plot of 1968s THE MINISKIRT MOB. In it, Shayne, the leader of a female motorcycle gang, takes violent issue with her ex-lover spurning her for another woman. Shayne then goes after her former man and his new bride. Violence and death ensue in what amounts to a pretty bad, if unintentionally hilarious experience.
The same years THE HELLCATS benefits from a recycled plot, but lousy execution in its tale of a war vet infiltrating a gang to find his brothers killer. Trash film actor and big screen heavy Ross Hagen stars here and also in the above mentioned MINISKIRT MOB. He also took roles in another biker movie, THE SIDEHACKERS (1969) and also in Burt Topper's THE DEVIL'S EIGHT (1969) starring Christopher George. Watch for an early appearance by Lyle Waggoner in HELLCATS before hitting it big on THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW and again on WONDER WOMAN.
Again in '68 saw the release of yet another horrendous all-girl motorcycle gang picture; this time from Herschell Gordon Lewis. Entitled SHE-DEVILS ON WHEELS, plot was again thrown to the four winds in what amounts to female bikers ruling their men picking and choosing who they bed down by how well they do in their gang games. There's also a male biker gang and the film culminates in a gory decapitation. The acting is suitably terrible in this forgettable movie.
New World Pictures were, more times than not, reliable when it came to delivering the exploitation goods with their releases. That was not the case with BURY ME AN ANGEL from 1972, a biker movie about a woman who hops her hog armed with a sawed off shotgun with the intent on avenging her brothers death. The poster artwork is magnificent, if only the movie were just as good. It's of note simply because a woman directed it; Barbara Peeters, who would go on to helm the infamous HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP (1980). Dan 'Grizzly Adams' Haggerty also stars.
Another girl gang cheapie came in 1972 from prolific trash filmmaker, Al Adamson. Entitled ANGEL'S WILD WOMEN, this was yet another example of Adamson's blender approach to making a movie. If you're familiar with his resume, you'll know what I mean. Arguably one of the better of the 'Bad Biker Beauties' movies (which isn't saying a whole helluva lot since this is an Al Adamson movie after all), the plot concerns a few lady hog huggers who get raped, beat up rednecks and eventually happen upon a drug dealing Manson style cult. The actual Manson Family Spahn Ranch is the central locale here. Ross Hagen is featured here, too. Adamson's SATAN'S SADISTS (1969) is far more successful in maintaining a cohesive narrative even though it, too, has little in the way of plot.
With Herschell Gordon Lewis being one of the crowning purveyors of Drive In schlock along with the likes of Andy Milligan and Larry Buchanan, Al Adamson was one of the more creative filmmakers who made the stinkiest of cinematic shit moderately tolerable. If some of his films seemed like two pictures squeezed together, that's because they often were. One example of this being one of his more well known endeavors, the stunning, entertainingly awful DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN (1971), a film that also had a biker subplot intended for an entirely different movie.
Adamson did three biker movies, or, more accurately, two and a half. His SATAN'S SADISTS (1969) is one of the genres delectably notorious examples in addition to being one of trash cinemas best known features. Starring many of Adamson's regulars like Russ Tamblyn, Greydon Clark, Kent Taylor, Gary Kent, Scott Brady, John "Bud" Cardos and Adamson's wife Regina Carrol, the plot here was a trash kings treasure.
Russ Tamblyn, late of WEST SIDE STORY (1961), plays Anchor, the leader of the Satan's, a sadistic Mansonesque biker gang. The plot is, like most in this genre, little more than orderves prior to a main course of malevolent behavior. The Satan's terrorize the patrons of a diner out in the California desert. Everyone in the eatery are butchered, but a Vietnam vet and a waitress manage to escape into the desert. They are then pursued by Anchor and his gang.
Adamson was never known for artistry, but he's arguably at his best here managing to wring a watchable, if disturbing experience punctuated by an eclectically savage lead performance by Russ Tamblyn. The actor would flirt with a similar character in the nutty beyond words DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN. SATAN'S SADISTS no doubt garnered additional revenue by being marketed in such a way as to link it to the then recent Manson Family murders as seen in the accompanying poster to the left.
Prior to this, Adamson had begun work on a spy picture that began life as OPERATION M then retitled THE FAKERS, a title that alluded to the counterfeiting scheme of the Nazis seen in the film. Over time, it was decided to weave some biker nonsense into a narrative that had everything from Israeli agents, Nazis attempting to start the Fourth Reich and a guest appearance by the real Colonel Sanders awkwardly asking the two leads "Isn't that the best chicken you've ever ate?"
This bizarro amalgamation then surfaced in 1969 bearing the amazingly lurid title of HELL'S BLOODY DEVILS. Not surprisingly, the later biker scenes never meld well with the spy plot, but there's just enough wackiness to hold ones attention. The women are gorgeous and the story wildly nonsensical. Both these Adamson flicks played as a double bill back in 1971. How in the hell did Broderick Crawford end up in this mess, anyway?
TO BE CONTINUED IN PART 2...