Sometimes, independent film is independent because it is so wonderfully bad. You probably had to have had Cinemax or HBO in the late 1980s or early 1990s to remember 1987's Deathrow Gameshow. Or, perhaps, you frequented a video cassette rental store which was less than discriminating in its selection of titles. I first saw the film with some friends in 1990 or 1991 on one of the premium film cable channels, and we quoted from it religiously for weeks. Deathrow Gameshow is hardly Citizen Kane, but it is the type of silly movie that is so exceptionally awful that it becomes entertainment on that level.
The brain child of very independent filmmaker Mark Pirro (who also produced Nudist Colony of the Dead and Curse of the Queerwolf), the film and its premise are actually somewhat prescient, considering our recent fetish for reality television. (You can find a trailer here by scrolling down to the bottom of the page). Death row inmates can elect to participate in game show, titled "Live or Die," instead of facing their sentence of capital punishment. However, the risk of death by playing the game is quite high. As the film progresses, Chuck Toedan (John McCafferty), the show's host, inadvertently allows the mother of Mafia crime boss (Beano) to become a contestant, and when she is slain during the broadcast, Toedan's life enters a new level of jeopardy. All the while, he maintains a tense relationship with the aptly named Gloria Sternvirgin (Robin Blythe), a feminist activist who disdains Toedan and his program.
This clip adequately conveys the tone of the film:
Toedan's dream sequence, halfway through the film, is a riot. ("I'm afraid of no one," the paranoid dream Toedan exclaims in one of the more bizarre voices in cinema history.). Otherwise, the film is your basic low-budget vulgar comedy with gratuitous nudity and scatological humor which, of course, is why I watched it in the early 1990s.
In its premise, it is not unlike the same year's The Running Man, itself based upon a 1982 novel by Stephen King writing under his Richard Bachman persona. (Really, The Running Man could be called the thinking person's Deathrow Gameshow. How about that?).
Not among the film's fans was Ted Mahar, a writer for The Oregonian who noted (in a review of another late 1980s film, actually) that Deathrow Gameshow is among the films that are "so remarkably bad that they become negative phenomena, almost worth seeing for their very awfulness, like a two-pound wart or the world's largest slug."1 In his original 1987 review, Mahar wrote that Deathrow Gameshow "illustrates the ancient principle that a drama or melodrama that misfires may be inadvertently funny, but bad comedy just lies there like week-old pizza."2 Ouch. Mahar, who two decades later still writes for The Oregonian, did not respond to an email asking him if he recalled the film or his review of it.
Interestingly enough, the film has never been released on DVD. Apparently, Rhino owns the rights and has no plans to release it commercially. But, those who remember this cult film have at least one option to obtain it on DVD. P irro, when asked whether viewers can contact anyone at Rhino to motivate a DVD release, notes on his website:
Not to my knowledge. Even if they did put it out, it wouldn't be the remastered version which we discreetly offer through this site. If you're interested in getting a good DVD copy of Deathrow Gameshow, just order one of the titles that we sell (Polish Vampire, Queerwolf, Rectuma, Color-Blinded, Nudist Colony of the Dead), and in the comments section of your Paypal order, write in "add DRGS." We will include a free DVD-R of Deathrow Gameshow. We can't legally sell it, but we can throw it in for free.(See August 26, 2007 entry of Ask Pirro.). Does it get any more cult than that?
1. Mahar, Ted. "'Nightfall': Bad Story, Bad Acting," The Oregonian (Portland, OR), October 22, 1988.
2. Mahar, Ted. "'Deathrow Gameshow'? Off with the Director's Head," The Oregonian (Portland, OR), November 18, 1987.