THE MAN WHO WOULD BE THE BIKER MOVIE KING
Anyone who's ever watched one of these movies has seen, or heard the name William Smith. An imposing actor who's had enough accomplishments to fill several lifetimes, Smith has appeared in hundreds of movies and television shows over the course of his near 70 year Hollywood career. He did five biker movies between 1969 and 1971, each one different from the last. One could say that when Smith concluded his chopper cinema career with CHROME & HOT LEATHER (1971), the genre itself died. Over the course of these five films, Big Bill earned the moniker 'King of the Bikers'. His debut road warrior saga was also one of the most profitable and again had Jack Starrett behind the wheel.
RUN, ANGEL, RUN! from 1969 is widely considered one of the best films of the biker canon. It's low budget fails to hinder what amounts to a good script and engaging lead performance from Smith as Angel.
Granted, it's not perfect by any means, but there's far more going on here than mere motorcycle riding cross country, fist fights and rape. This film has those, but Richard Compton's script manages to wrangle some good character-izations here, particularly Smith's character, who only wants to go straight after quitting his gang.
When a prominent magazine offers him $10,000 to reveal the inner workings of the biker lifestyle, his former gang-mates don't take kindly to this and they go after him which brings us to the films title. Angel, along with his girlfriend, deciding that "the square life ain't so bad", take up an honest living working for a man on his sheep farm. Things come to a head, though, when Angel's gang turn up to raise a lot of hell including the gang raping of a young girl and Angel is left with the blame.
RUN, ANGEL, RUN! isn't the most action packed biker picture, but it's one of the best and arguably the best to star William Smith. Wildly profitable (it made 13 million off of a budget under $100,000), it's also one of the most successful films of the entire genre. The main theme song by Tammy Wynette no doubt helped the films success.
ANGELS DIE HARD (1970) came next, and aside from being New World Pictures' very first New World Picture pick up, it shed bikers in a different light from the 'Outlaw' films that followed in the wake of the success of Corman's THE WILD ANGELS (1966). While the usual uncouth behavior is here including bar brawls, beer and breasts, the biker gang aren't welcome in town, but ultimately prove to be good guys after all when they aid in a mine cave-in rescue. This still doesn't stop them from being blamed for crimes they didn't commit. Things don't end up well for the bikers, though, as a surprise ending attests.
Director Richard Compton (who also wrote the script) would soon move on to direct the obscure, but fascinatingly raw WELCOME HOME, SOLDIER BOYS (1972); one of a brutal bunch of 'Violent Vietnam Vet' movies (including titles like TARGETS , TO KILL A CLOWN , DEATHDREAM , SCUM OF THE EARTH , ROLLING THUNDER , WHEN YOU COMIN' BACK, RED RYDER? , DON'T ANSWER THE PHONE! , THE EXTERMINATOR  and THE PARK IS MINE ) that proliferated throughout the decade. These types of film utilized the war in 'Nam in much the same fashion as they were used in biker flicks; sometimes the war was character enhancement, and other times it was of much greater significance. Compton was also behind one of the biggest Drive In hits of all time with the brooding, Deep South Gothic MACON COUNTY LINE (1974), a film that spawned a sub genre of its own.
William Smith then turned to the exciting, absurdly enjoyable THE LOSERS (discussed in part 2), which reunited him with action director Jack Starrett for one of the genres better popcorn movies.
What C.C. & COMPANY (1970) lacked in the typical violence inherent in the genre, it made up for with an overt playfulness that, while still a pretty bad movie, made for a decent viewing experience helped immensely by a diverse cast of characters. Football legend, Joe Namath, is C.C. Ryder, a mechanic who joins a biker gang and immediately butts heads with the gangs leader, Moon. C.C. eventually wins the affection of Moon's girlfriend, Ann. This leads to friction between C.C. and Moon culminating in a big race to win the girl.
Namath is a terrible actor, and if not for William Smith stealing the movie away from him at every turn, this would be torture to sit through. But what a cast--aside from Ann Margaret as the lead actress, there's Sid Haig (COFFY, THE BIG DOLL HOUSE), Bruce Glover (WALKING TALL series) and Teda Bracci (THE BIG BIRD CAGE, THE CENTERFOLD GIRLS) filling out Moon's groovy gang. Because of Namath's participation, the film got quite a lot of attention including the cover of the August, 1970 issue of Sports Illustrated.
Big Bill did one last biker movie; 1971s CHROME & HOT LEATHER (discussed in part 2). While it's a decent time waster, Smith's last such picture is mostly an average affair that squanders a premise with an amazing amount of potential. Almost an inverted version of THE LOSERS (1970), CHROME has some Vietnam vets returning home to fight a new war. The film was more or less remade in 1985 as STRYKER'S WAR aka THOU SHALT NOT KILL... EXCEPT.
SOUL CYCLISTS: BLACK BIKER FLICKS
The mixing of two of the 70s trashiest genre stylings was a no-brainer. Biker movies frequently used real gang chapters for the supporting players in these pictures and sometimes they were center stage. Considering blaxploitation movies were well known for recruiting football greats as the stars, the melding of both biker and blaxploitation was a match made in Harley ridin' hell.
Laurence Merrick's THE BLACK ANGELS (1970) is one of those hilariously awful movies that ends up being entertaining in spite of its atrocious acting, beyond low budget and poverty row production values. The plot is minimalist concerning a street war between black and white motorcycle gangs.
The tagline "God forgives, the Black Angels don't!" was borrowed from the hugely successful 1967 Italian western, GOD FORGIVES... I DON'T starring Terence Hill and Bud Spencer. Horror's favorite desert cannibal, Papa Jupiter himself, James Whitworth, plays one of the gang members. Whitworth had a healthy career in exploitation movies appearing Drive In fare like TERMINAL ISLAND (1973) and Saturday afternoon movies such as PLANET OF THE DINOSAURS (1977).
Director Merrick did few movies of fleeting interest. The only project he was involved in that's worthy of mention is the 1973 film MANSON, a documentary that contains interviews with the Manson Family before and after the shocking murders that rocked the nation in 1969. This is yet another parallel with the biker-hippie countercultures; Manson style characters had infiltrated biker movies from time to time (such as Al Adamson's SATAN'S SADISTS discussed in part 1) as well as similar messianic pontificators in such bizarro, way out motion pictures such as J.C. (1972), which was discussed in part two of this article. Going back to MANSON, it should be noted that the differing promotional materials credit Merrick for direction, and on another, it lists Robert Hendrickson as director.
THE BLACK SIX (1973) came along during the tail end of the cycle when the genre was beginning to run on fumes. The blax genre was soon to be on its last legs, too. It built its premise around that reliable blaxploitation mainstay of the evil honkey. In this case, a girls biker gang leader brother violently disapproves of his sister being in a relationship with a black man. The film begins with the gang brutally beating the young man to death with chains. Not long after, the dead boys brother comes looking for revenge. He gets his ex-'Nam vets together to track down his brothers killers.
What makes THE BLACK SIX of special note is that all six of the leads were major football players at the time. Gene Washington--San Francisco 49'ers; Willie Lanier--Kansas City Chiefs; Lem Barney--Detroit Lions; Carl Eller--Minnesota Vikings; Mercury Morris--Miami Dolphins; "Mean" Joe Green--Pittsburgh Steelers.
There's a great amount of action potential here, but exploitation director Matt Cimber (THE CANDY TANGERINE MAN, HUNDRA, YELLOW HAIR & THE CITY OF GOLD) opts for storytelling. Unfortunately, the acting is hit or miss which hurts the film in a way it wouldn't have had the picture went the traditional trash movie route. It's still an enjoyable movie and a bit of a hoot watching six football stars having a bit of fun tearin' shit up onscreen.
INTERNATIONAL BIKER FLICKS
Biker movies, while bearing all the earmarks of American iconography, were made in other countries as well. Australia will likely be most famous for exporting the immortal cult classic MAD MAX to overseas markets in 1979. That film was a simple, yet high octane, ultra violent tale of a beyond sadistic biker gang terrorizing the desert Aussie wasteland sometime in the near future.
Prior to MAD MAX, though, there was 1974s STONE. In Australia, the rules of the game were pretty much the same as far as the violence and abhorrent behavior was concerned, only the bikes were different. STONE is about a cop who is allowed to join The Grave Diggers in the hopes of capturing whoever is killing off their members after they've witnessed an assassination. The script even follows suit with the American examples with the leader of the Grave Diggers having served in Vietnam. An unusual movie, it also features some of the cast from MAD MAX, including Hugh Keys Burne, the Toecutter himself!
The biker movie phenomenon also extended to the Far East. Japan had a slew of them, but big movie industries like that in Hong Kong seemed to only experiment with them because of the exploitation potential they possessed. Motorcycle gangs featured occasionally in Hong Kong movies, but the rape-revenge movie, KILLERS ON WHEELS (1976), was a brutally violent biker flick from the Shaw Brothers.
Two couples vacationing on a small island retreat are harassed by a gang of young bikers. As the violence escalates, it becomes evident that the psychotic gang has no intentions of allowing them to return to Hong Kong alive. Danny Lee (MIGHTY PEKING MAN, THE KILLER) stars along with Ling Yun, one of Shaw's biggest box office draws in all genres of Asian cinema back in the day.
Directed by Kuei Chi Hung, a director infamous for his gloomy, despicably savage movies, this salaciously sleazy flick produced in association with Yamaha was a Chinese version of STRAW DOGS, with a dash of LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT married to the biker flick concept.
Japan, as stated above, also got in on the act with a series of hog hoppin' exploitation pictures. A few of these were helmed by trash peddler, Teruo Ishii. Sonny Chiba found time in his busy schedule acting in Karate and gangster films to take roles in some of these Nipponese cyclers, too. Some of the titles include DETONATION! VIOLENT RIDERS (1975) and some biker flicks with chicks such as STRAY CATS ROCK: GIRL BOSS (1970) and GIRL BOSS GUERRILLA (1972).
It's interesting to note that Japan's journey into EASY RIDER territory (via the trash conventions that exploded over there during the 70s) mirrored, to some degree, the genesis of the American biker movies with their socially relevant themes that acted as a backdrop. Biker gangs surfaced after WW2 morphing into a sub-culture that seemed strangely out of place for a lifestyle mostly connected with American ideals. Still, the Japanese counterparts were scarcely different at all; instead of raising hell on the open roads, these Nipponese roadsters caused commotion on Japan's city streets. The level of crimes committed by Japanese biker gangs during the 70s and into the early 80s gave Japanese exploitation movie producers a lot of material to work with.
BORN TO BE WILD: THE WEIRDEST, THE WACKIEST BIKER FLICKS
During its thriving period and even when it was on shaky ground, the biker flick had a handful of novelty movies that were interesting curios that did nothing to keep the genre going. Instead, it only added to the trash palace appeal the genre had acquired during its carny sideshow promoted heyday. Aside from EASY RIDER (1969), RUN, ANGEL, RUN (1969) and maybe a couple other films, the biker movie was rarely more than mindless, escapist entertainment fluff.
THE PINK ANGELS is "a different kind of motion picture about a different kind of motorcycle gang." In this case, it's a gay biker gang making a cross country trek to Los Angeles for a drag show (and that's not drag racing, mind you) and encountering all sorts of prejudice and trouble along the way from both the cops and a rival macho biker club. The very definition of denim and leather is redefined here in this peculiar, typically 70s comedy trash. However, there is a hetero-biker gang here so as to showcase some sex and nudity for added sleaze appeal.
The lowbrow humor is funny when it works, but this all depends on your tolerance for silly stereotypical hijinks being trotted out for a lifestyle (in this case, a biker gang) normally associated with lots of drinking, brawling and attraction to the opposite sex. The film may be poking fun at the gay community, but the script is unusually preoccupied with social prejudices and discrimination in what would appear to be some barely hidden far left agenda.
These "Hard riders wearing a size ten dress" are quite likable and it's a nice change of pace seeing the conventions of the genre turned upside down as they are here, and the ending... the ending will shock the hell out of you in a way that only the un-PC, subversive cinema of the 70s can. Truly you will not expect what transpires in the last couple minutes of the movie. Dan 'Grizzly Adams' Haggerty and Michael Pataki add some value to this Crown International Drive In flick.
From homosexual bikers we go to living dead ones in the pseudo zombie movie that defies description, PSYCHOMANIA (1973). This bizarre film from the United Kingdom (known as DEATH WHEELERS on that side of the pond) dares classification in what amounts to a film that is less a horror picture than it is a dark fantasy punctuated by satanism and rebellious youths. The film rarely makes much sense and benefits from some decent stuntwork on what was an anemic budget. The name of the gang just happens to be The Living Dead!
The plot concerns the gangs leader, Tom, wishing to do what his father failed to do--commit suicide and come back from the dead attaining immortality in the process. Tom does this, and manages to convince his fellow followers to do likewise. So now there's a bunch of dead bikers speeding around British locales terrorizing the inhabitants. It's a mess of a movie, but strangely compelling considering the muck of a quagmire British horror had found itself in during this time.
Warren Zevon sang about Werewolves of London in 1978, but seven years earlier, werewolves were riding mean machines in 1971s awesomely titled WEREWOLVES ON WHEELS. In this strange amalgamation of biker thrills and horror chills, a motorcycle gang stop for the night to sleep in an old church. Unfortunately, a group of satanists use the church for black mass. When they try to entice one of the female biker bunch to be a willing sacrifice, the bikers trash the place and incur a satanic curse in the process.
The title is one of the great missed opportunities of 70s cinema, but the film itself has some trashy charm if only the films moniker didn't roll off the tongue with so much promise of motorcycle riding lycanthropes. They're in there, just not quite the exploitational delight the poster conjures with such imagery. Definitely of curiosity value to devil worship movie enthusiasts, although students of werewolfery will likely find little to howl about here.
This collage of the wild and wacky in the biker genre concludes with one of the absolute worst movies of all time and also one of the funniest. So far we've had gay bikers, then zombie riders, wolfen atop choppers and now what would you say about bikers versus Bigfoot? Yes, 1970s BIGFOOT must be seen to be believed. It's John Carradine and Chris Mitchum starring in this insipidly constructed, brain-dead movie about a whole family of Bigfeet who kidnap human women to mate with them in an apparent bid to sire a half-breed Bigfeet army.
Chris Mitchum and his girlfriend find something buried in the ground and immediately get attacked by a shaggy rug. Mitchum is knocked out and his girl carried off. He later comes to and ends up on an expedition with John Carradine and a biker gang to rescue his girl from the hairy beasts. They really don't make mons-turd movies like this anymore and especially with advertising that screams, "the most realistic, horrifying film ever!" Incredible.
REQUIEM: FLIRTIN' WITH DISASTER
Out of gas, the biker genre sputtered along for the remainder of the decade leaving behind a plethora of titles for a genre that had long since hit its peak back in 1970. After 1974, it was a sporadic title here and there with little to nothing worth mentioning. DARKTOWN STRUTTERS (1975) was a confounding, if playfully offensive movie that has 'Made in the 70s' stamped all over it. It's something of a blaxploitation-musical-comedy with Roger E. Mosley (MAGNUM P.I.) and Dick Miller as a racist cop.
The plot concerns the leader of an all girl biker gang looking for her mother who has disappeared. Along the way, she uncovers a dastardly plot conceived by a Kentucky Fried Colonel Sanders lookalike to clone black leaders! You'll be scratching your head in confusion or laughing your ass off, but it's definitely an unforgettable mess and a bizarre experience that's an acquired taste.
The gory excess of THE NORTHVILLE CEMETERY MASSACRE was a bit of a welcome return to violent form for the biker movie in this gritty and gloomy tale of things that are not at all what they seem. The war in Vietnam was over, so this film seemed a bit out of place since the biker movies were more in tune with what was going on earlier in the decade.
A motorcycle gang roars into a small town and is framed for the rape of a young girl. The townsfolk, not liking their looks anyways, believes them responsible. This leads to an all out blood squib fueled war between the bikers and the law of the town. William Dear, the director of HARRY AND THE HENDERSONS (1987), directed this downbeat movie.
New World hit the same year with the futuristic biker flick DEATHSPORT (1976). This was a troubled production filled with trashy elements, explosions and laser firing "Death Machines" that have an eclectic selection of sound effects accompanying their zipping around mountainous terrain.
George Romero's early 80s curio KNIGHTRIDERS (1981) is yet another bizarre biker movie even though it appeared about ten years too late and even then, it's doubtful such a concept as this film presents would have been accepted at the genres peak. This is more of a modern drama with a traveling medieval re-enactment troupe who ride motorcycles instead of horses.
The films plot is basically this merry band attempting to make a life for themselves and all the soap operatic character interplay they get into over the films two plus hour running time.
KNIGHTRIDERS is possibly the most perplexing movie on Romero's resume, but one that's ripe for critical re-assessment. Virtually ignored since its original release, it's an epic film, if a bit of a confusing one and the cast is fine, too. For Romero completists and biker enthusiasts only.
Clint Eastwood starred in two hugely successful action movies that featured a biker gang in them. EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE (1978) was the actor/directors biggest hit up to that time and its sequel ANY WHICH WAY YOU CAN (1980) was more of the same, just twice as wild. The Black Widows seen in both were hilarious hog ridin' comedy relief and Eastwood partakes in a classic brawl with biker movie King, William Smith that sees nearly an entire town demolished.
MEGAFORCE (1982) was a MEGAbomb for both 20th Century Fox and Hong Kong's Golden Harvest Productions. Universally lauded as one of the worst films ever made, director Hal Needham (SMOKEY & THE BANDIT, THE CANNONBALL RUN) approaches the material like a bull in a china shop as if he's intentionally trying to destroy his career and everyone else's in the film. The plot has something to do with an elite bunch of moronic military men in bright spandex who zip around the desert in flying motorcycles that shoot rockets protecting the world from the least imposing villain the world has ever seen. A major studio misfire, this is highest recommendation material for bad movie buffs and those who enjoy watching prominent actors crash and burn onscreen. Monumentally awful in every sense of the word.
The last film of any significance in what remained of the once prosperous biker gang genre would have to be the one that the Hell's Angels shot themselves, HELL'S ANGELS FOREVER (1983). This is a documentary revolving around the inner world of the biggest, and most notorious Harley ridin' gang of them all. The film documents their beginnings, their chapters across the nation and the grittier side of the gang that doesn't sugarcoat anything. The Hells Angels President, Sonny Barger (HELL'S ANGELS ON WHEELS, HELL'S ANGELS '69), is featured as well as a few musical stars like Jerry Garcia, Bo Diddley and Willie Nelson.
The Hell's Angels are still around and still making the news. Regardless of their controversial legacy and its attachment to organized crime, the Hell's Angels made for some highly enjoyable, sometimes disposable entertainment. There's been attempts here and there at possibly reviving the long dead genre, but nothing at all like the films of old. Even if those societal outcasts ever hopped on their Harley's once again, it's doubtful the roar of their hogs would result in a denim and leather renaissance emulating that niche genre that was a violent and profitable reflection of the time period in which they were made.
THE END, MAN!
*The bulk of the poster images came from Wrong Side of the Art*