Deathrow Gameshow (1987) *½
No matter what else changes on the American TV scene, there is one immutable constant— at no point has there ever been a shortage of people eager to grumble loudly to anyone who will listen about how crass and crude and scandalously sensational television has become of late. I find this terribly amusing, because to complain about TV becoming crass and crude and scandalously sensational necessarily implies that there was once a time during which it was none of those things, yet even the most cursory survey of what was actually on the air in any given season will expose the idea of a golden age of “quality” television as 100%-pure, FDA-certified bullshit. Take, for example, the current hand-wringing over “reality” television. Seemingly everyone agrees that here, at last, is something new under the sun, and opinion among those who make their livings by having opinions is close to unanimous to the effect that it is something new which we’d have been better off without. Such concerns are not confined to the usual conclave of talking heads, either. Among other, more obvious forms of criticism, recent years have seen the appearance of a number of satirical and/or dystopian movies predicated upon the notion of an “ultimate” reality show in which the stakes for the contestants would be nothing less than life or death, films which have run the gamut in terms of seriousness and accomplishment from Series 7: The Contenders all the way down to Hell Asylum. The best of the lot have received approving nods from mainstream critics, who have tended to regard them as a commendable and audacious skewering of the latest cultural blight foisted upon us by the entertainment industry. Such short memories these people have. From “The Real World” in the 90’s to “America’s Most Wanted” in the 80’s, and all the way back to the likes of “Twenty-One,” television producers have always seen the profit-making potential of exploiting the “reality” angle in one way or another. And though they didn’t garner as much attention at the time, there were movies being made about the ultimate reality show at least as early as the 1980’s, a decade or more before anyone had yet dreamed up the term “reality television.” One of them was even a high-profile Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle, for Christ’s sake! And more to the point for our present purposes, another one was Mark Pirro’s no-profile follow-up to Polish Vampire in Burbank, which modern observers can legitimately be forgiven for not remembering— a little movie by the name of Deathrow Gameshow.
The show to which the title refers is called “Live or Die.” Host Chuck Toedan (John McCafferty, from Witchcraft VII: Judgement Hour and Nudist Colony of the Dead) and his lovely assistant, Shanna Shallow (Debra Lamb, who played parts of absolutely no consequence in The Turn-On and Stripped to Kill), bring in death-row inmates and put them through a variety of wacky contests in front of a live studio audience. The grand prize, naturally, is a stay of execution. “Live or Die” enjoys some of the highest ratings in its timeslot, which inevitably makes it also just about the most controversial show on TV. Toedan’s official line is that he’s actually performing a humane service by offering condemned men and women an admittedly slim chance to gain a reprieve which would ordinarily not be available to them, but his critics— most notably Gloria Sternvirgin (Robin Blythe, whom Pirro would bring back years later for Rectuma), the head of WAAMAF (Women Against Anything Men Are For)— don’t see it that way. All they see is a bunch of slack-jawed meatheads cheering in the stands while convicts humiliate themselves in a desperate, last-ditch, and generally futile effort to save themselves from the gas chamber.
One afternoon following a televised face-off between Toedan and Sternvirgin on some talk show or other, Gloria corners her nemesis in the parking lot to continue the argument. This happens just as a pair of armed goons in ski masks attempt to ambush Toedan, and Chuck ends up dragging Gloria along with him while making his escape. Sternvirgin may be awfully shaken up by the attack, but it’s just another day at the office for Chuck Toedan, who has been laughing off death-threats and wiggling his way out of assassination attempts practically since the day “Live or Die” premiered. Things have, however, been just a little bit hotter for the public face of the program during the last six months or so. As Toedan explains while driving Sternvirgin back to the studio parking lot so that she can retrieve her car, one of his contestants had been notorious mafioso Don Spumoni (Mark Lasky), who unexpectedly got fried by the erection-sensing electrodes wired up to his cock even though he successfully maintained his flaccidity in the face of Shanna Shallow’s “Dance of the Seven Boners.” (This is the first of several indications we’ll see to suggest that “Live or Die” may in truth be rigged. The fact that Deathrow Gameshow does absolutely nothing with this idea despite setting it up repeatedly makes me think it found its way in here by total accident.) Ever since that broadcast, Spumoni’s mob has been gunning for Chuck, albeit with far more persistence than success.
The man behind Toedan’s mafia-financed persecution is named Luigi Papalardo (Beano— don’t ask me whether that’s his first name or his last— of Caged Fury and Nudity Required), and as we are about to see, he’s also Gloria’s problem now. Those assassins whom Chuck foiled in the parking lot passed along word that Toedan had a woman with him, and Papalardo, operating under the reasonable assumption that said woman would be his target’s girlfriend, has tracked Gloria down so as to harass her as well. Sternvirgin barges in on Toedan at work one day to vent her disgust at this development, but she has picked a most inopportune time to do so. Papalardo, you see, is growing weary of chasing after Toedan, and he has agreed to stop by and negotiate terms for a truce. Gloria is still there when Luigi lets himself into Chuck’s office at the TV station, and so it is that she gets even more deeply entangled in the feud. Papalardo’s terms are simple. Toedan will pay him a regular protection kickback, and pull some strings to get his mother (also Mark Lasky) onto “Make Your Big Deal,” her favorite TV show, which shoots on the stage next door to “Live or Die.” Chuck will also see to it that he never kills another member of the Spumoni mob again. Papalardo hasn’t quite decided how much his payments ought to be yet, though, so he heads over to his favorite restaurant to ponder the matter, bringing Gloria along as a sort of combined hostage/date while Toedan rushes off to tape the latest episode of his show. Gloria is less than thrilled, as you might imagine, especially once the mobster misinterprets an offhand comment from her as a proposal of marriage. Mama Papalardo, meanwhile, gets her “Make Your Big Deal” tickets from Chuck’s secretary, Trudy (Darwyn Carson, from Curse of the Queerwolf and The Seventh Sign), but the old lady gets lost on her way to the soundstage, and winds up in the “Live or Die” studio instead. And since she happens to be wearing a black-and-white striped shirt at the time, the stage manager takes her for a contestant. Thus it is that Toedan ends up vaporizing Luigi’s mother in a gasoline explosion not half an hour after promising never to do any such thing again. Hijinks and hilarity— or something along those lines, I suppose— ensue.
Somewhere out there, Lloyd Kaufman is kicking himself for not having thought of Deathrow Gameshow. This movie is very much like something Troma might have released at the same time, except with no nuclear waste and fewer disgusting bodily fluids. Both of the main characters are profoundly obnoxious and annoying, in precisely the Troma manner, and while it’s perfectly obvious that such was writer/director Pirro’s intent, that doesn’t make it any easier for us to put up with them while they’re on the screen. Acting throughout is approximately on par with Surf Nazis Must Die, and the overall comedic sensibility is on the level of, “Look! It’s death— and boobies! Death and boobies are funny, right? That’s what we always heard, anyway…” Very little effort seems to have gone into developing the main joke, and most of the film’s comedic energy is channeled into a barrage of unrelated situational and sight gags which aim for a trashier version of Airplane! but mostly can’t even make it to Hot Shots, Part Deux. The only jokes that really work are the unexpected outcome of the “Hunger or Lust?” game and the mordantly hilarious television commercials to which Toedan turns for his livelihood after the inevitable counterintuitive romance between him and Gloria Sternvirgin leads him to renounce offing convicts on national television. Unfortunately, that means all the really good material is in the last ten minutes of the film, and that the lion’s share of it plays underneath the closing credits! That, it should go without saying, is no way to structure a comedy— or anything else, either, for that matter.