Maybe it’s just me, but the ultra-low-budget films of writer/director/producer Mark Pirro and his yes-he-really-does-call-it-that Pirromount production company always sound better on paper than they end up being. A Polish Vampire In Burbank, Curse Of The Queerwolf, Rectuma, Nudist Colony Of The Dead — hey, they all sound like winners, right? Unfortunately, every single one of them demonstrates the annoying Pirro habit of having a great premise and then nothing much by way of a script to follow it up with. He shoots his wad early and leaves the building, just to mix metaphors for a second. Hell, he even manages, with Buford’s Beach Bunnies, to make a pretty dull pic that stars Tom Hanks’ slow-looking brother and features Kitten Natividad, Monique Parent, and Avalon Anders revealing their — ahem! — golden globes. That one starts out pretty good, too, but if you can’t maintain an audience’s interest when you’ve got Kitten Natividad’s gazongas hanging out, you’ve got a problem.
The same goes for his quite-likely-most-widely-seen effort, 1987’s Deathrow Gameshow. Filmed on the quick (and needless to say, the cheap) to cash in on the success of Ah-nuld’s The Running Man, this one was picked up for distribution by an at-this-point-on-its-last-legs Crown International, who even sunk a pretty impressive amount of promotional muscle into pimping it far and wide. I remember full-page ads running for it in the local papers within a month of The Running Man hitting theaters — not that it did much good, mind you. It was gone the following Friday.
And yet, as with almost all things these days — except for a few thousand films that, as a consequence of their absence more than anything else, you really absolutely are dying to see —it lives on, thanks to the miracle of DVD! It’s even managed, somehow, to pick up something of a cult following over the years.
And ya know what? For a minute there — or, more precisely, for about 15 or 20 of ’em, since that’s about how long the good times last here — I was right there with ’em. Supposed “star” John McCafferty gives an amiably inept performance as shit-eating-grin gameshow host/producer Chuck Toedan, whose signature program, “Live Or Die,” gives condemned inmates a crack at a reprieve if they’re willing to successfully debase themselves in various creative ways (the best of which being when he’s got a reputed Mafia Don hooked up to some kind of contraption that sends a deadly current of electricity up his schlong if he pops a boner — he manages to remain limp all the way through a rather sultry striptease number performed by the fetching Debra Lamb, but when Chuck puts his hand on his shoulder to congratulate him for earning his freedom, the poor yutz sprouts wood and gets zapped). Pirro regales us with a few amusing (in a “retard humor” sort of way) fake commercials. Characters pop up with groaningly stupid names like a feminist “hater” of Toedan’s show named Gloria Sternvirgin (played by Robyn Blythe, who gives the closest thing to a credible acting performance here). And the film’s miniscule production values are a real treat, as well — despite being a multi-millionaire, Chuck drives a (maybe) $30,ooo MG; the exterior shots of his home show a palatial mansion, but his bedroom looks like a shitty college dorm (his bed doesn’t even have a fucking frame, it’s just a mattress tossed on top of a box spring); his office is a messy shoebox-sized affair that he enters through a back- alley door. These are the kinds of things we love around these parts, and I’m betting that you do, too.
Unfortunately, the whole thing falls apart both rather suddenly and completely when Pirro realizes that, once his set-up is complete, he’s still got about 60 minutes to kill (the film has a mercifully short 80-minute runtime) — and kill it he does when he decides, after an agonizingly-dumb-but-fun David Lynch-spoofing dream sequence that convinces us that maybe he’s gonna play up the film’s transparent absurdity for all its worth (which admittedly ain’t much, but still — ), to go, instead, into droll and predictable (but not in a good way) “comedy-thriller” territory as Chuck attempts to survive the half-witted, half-assed attempts of a morbidly obese “Family”-connected hitman to kill him for a)exposing his boss as being gay on live TV before killing him, and b)stealing away the affections of Ms. Sternvirgin, who’s fallen for our gameshow Romeo’s supposed “charms” and spurned the affections of the bloated killer who talks with his mouth full — when his food’s not spilling out of it and down his shirt.
It’s all kind of a bummer, really, to watch a movie that started out being amusingly stupid end up just being tediously stupid. Still, what the fuck, right? Better 15 or 20 good minutes than none at all, I suppose. And it’s rather gratifying to know , for fans like me of his seminal performance, that it was so obvious to everyone that Richard Dawson’s character was the most compelling thing about The Running Man that even the most brain-dead, one-nut producers in Hollywood understood that if you’re gonna churn out a rip-off of that movie in the space of about two weeks, it was the sleazy emcee guy that audiences really wanted to see more of.
I won’t kid you, though — if you make it all the way through Deathrow Gameshow awake, you’re gonna be the exception, not the rule. Once this movie “jumps the shark,” it jumps it with a foot to spare and no looking back. Pirro had himself a pretty solid little idea — even if it was a completely stolen one — for, say, an SNL skit here, but stretched out over the course of entire feature — even a seriously short feature — well, let’s just say you should never try to run a marathon when all you’ve trained for is a sprint.
If you’re one of those contrary bastards who gets their kicks out of ignoring me, though — come on, show of hands! — you’ll be pleased to know that Deathrow Gameshow is available as part of Mill Creek’s Rare Cult Cinema 3-disc, 12-movie DVD box set, which is composed, wall-to-wall, of stuff from Crown International’s damn sizable remainder bin. The widescreen picture, like a very pleasantly surprising number of these Mill Creek cheapies, has been cleaned up and remastered pretty nicely, and while the 2.0 stereo sound is a bit muffled in spots (especially, and annoyingly, during the opening theme song), by and large it gets the job done. While none of the films in the set are really any great shakes, even for what they are, at an average price online of about eight bucks it’s not the most complete waste of your money you could imagine. — which I guess is damning the whole set with some pretty faint praise, but when it comes to receiving any praise at all, I think Mark Pirro and Deathrow Gameshow will take what they can get.