Color, 1973, 90m.
Directed by Don Sharp
Starring Nicky Henson, Mary Larkin, Beryl Reid, George Sanders, Ann Michelle, Roy Holder, Denis Gilmore, Rocky Taylor, Robert Hardy
BFI (Blu-ray & DVD) (UK RB/R2 HD/PAL), Severin (US R0 NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9), Image (US R1 NTSC) (1.66:1)
A hellraising biker gang called The Living Dead finds its course of destiny changing dramatically when shaggy-haired leader Tom (Henson) decides to try out a theory of his occult-loving mother (Reid) that a person can return from the dead simply through force of will. After offing himself following a particularly frisky chase sequence, Tom is buried while still straddling his chopper and left with a strange amulet from the spooky family butler, Shadwell (Sanders). Sure enough, Tom has soon risen from the grave and begun a reign of terror across the countryside. He talks his small cult of followers into following his example, with good girl Abby (Larkin) backing out and incurring the wrath of her resurrected compatriots.
This loopy British biker/zombie film has haunted the shelves of countless video stores over the years, sneakily lurking in wait for unsuspecting viewers destined to be left speechless by its hallucinatory fusion of rebellious mod youths, spooky zombie mayhem, loud motorcycle chases, and... uh, supernatural frogs. Though it contains all the elements of a perfect drive-in film, Psychomania plays out as anything but a run of the mill zombie movie. The strange mingling of old pros like Sanders and Reid (a veteran of lowbrow trash like Beast in the Cellar and highbrow trash like The Killing of Sister George) with the game young cast makes for an odd clash of youth movement and classic horror, with some froggy cult worship thrown in to make the plot even odder. Shortly after the completion of Psychomania and before its actual release, he committed suicide in Barcelona, Spain on April 25, 1972, leaving behind a darkly witty, oft-quoted note. As film writer Michael J. Weldon noted, he did not return on a motorcycle. One real scene stealer in the cast is the beautiful Ann Michelle as bad girl Jane, best remembered for British horror cult films like House of Whipcord and Virgin Witch.
Director Don Sharp, best known for the Hammer masterpiece Kiss of the Vampire and a pair of Christopher Lee's Fu Manchu films, keeps things percolating along even when they don't make a bit of sense, and the second half of the film is an almost nonstop montage of nuttiness including some suicide montages that must be seen to be believed. There's also some sharp work by cinematographer Ted Moore, who had already shot five James Bond films by this point with other credits including A Man for All Seasons and would soon do the last three Ray Harryhausen features, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, and Clash of the Titans. The strange, creepy quasi-pop score by John Cameron (one of the most prolific library music composers of the '70s) puts just the right polish on the action, making this a unique artifact for any horror collection. Pop it on as a double feature with Werewolves on Wheels and enjoy.
Though presumed to be public domain for a while which made for some very rocky VHS experiences, Psychomania got its first legit DVD release from Image in 2000 as part of its EuroShock Collection with a middling non-anamorphic transfer, barely letterboxed, with a heap of print damage in the opening reel, though it did also feature the Spanish language track and a funny frog cartoon on the back sleeve. It took a decade for a better version to come along in 2010 courtesy of Severin, who did as good a job as possible given this film's often negligent cinematic history by that point. The aspect ratio tends to fluctuate between 1.78:1 and 1.66:1 (the latter comprising most of the film), and it's a much better encoding with less damage than the Image version.
However, the real payoff here is in the extras. "The Return of the Living Dead" spends 24 minutes with actors from the film including some very funny observations from Henson, an amiable, still-busy actor whose credits range all the way from Witchfinder General to a hilarious appearance on Fawlty Towers. He's up front about his motives for doing the film (he loved motorcycles but was shocked when they didn't have Harleys on the set, and he had a new wife and baby to support), and he's candid about the cause of his Shakespeare-style haircut and the producer's reasons for choosing what everyone regarded as a substandard script. Also present are Larkin (who discusses Reid's "instructive" tendencies and points out she had no idea how to ride a bike, simply straddling an idle one at all times on screen), Denis Gilmore (who plays Hatchet and mentions some of his other genre appearances like Tomb of Ligeia and Blood on Satan's Claw), Roy Holder (who plays Bertram and had a few Zeffirelli credits under his belt already!), and stunt man Rocky Taylor (who also plays Hinky on screen), who worked on every 007 film -- including the infamous rival ones in 1983. "The Sound of Psychomania" is an interesting, shorter featurette with composer John Cameron, who talks about his trial by fire doing film scoring under an insanely short schedule and also covers some of his other major scores (including Kes); his music is such a major part of the film that it's gratifying to see him getting a spotlight here. "Riding Free" features singer Harvey Andrews discussing the creation of the memorable ballad of the same name in the film, which is mimed by a different actor on screen, while former Fangoria editor Chris Alexander offers an introduction from the vantage point of nostalgic VHS junkies who have cherished this film for years. Last up is a surprisingly good transfer of the obscure theatrical trailer under its original title.
Anyone who had given up hope of a pristine version of this film ever turning up will be truly gobsmacked by the 2016 UK revisit from the BFI, whose dual-format Blu-ray and DVD features a new 2K restoration from the CRI elements housed in Spain. It truly makes this feel like an entirely different film as the formerly oversaturated and inaccurate colors have been snapped back to perfect fidelity, and the detail level is often astonishing with countless details never even remotely visible before. The whole film has a classy veneer now that easily makes it a competitor to the best-looking Amicus titles of the period, and there's nary a speck or scratch to be found. For a comparison, check out frame grabs from the American DVD here and here. The LPCM English mono audio (with optional English subtitles) is also a remarkable improvement with a strong dynamic range and sturdy support for the score, which now has real presence and induces chills as soon as it kicks in during the main titles. The film can also be played with a "Wilson Bros. Trivia Track" offering pop-up tidbits about the film throughout the running time, covering everything from the models of motorcycles to the stories of each significant actor. The "literally dancing around it" bit is especially priceless.
All of the extras from the Severin release have been carried over (the three featurettes and trailer) except for the negligible Chris Alexander piece, with some welcome new material added as well. A new 14-minute interview with Henson goes deeper into his career at the time, briefly repeating a few anecdotes but offering a far richer portrait of his days shooting until 5:30 in the afternoon and taking off to do theater in the evening. He's still quite funny, and it's a joy hearing him read the original tag line from the script he was handed, too. The 8-minute "Hell for Leather" features Derek Harris, owner of Lewis Leathers, the store founded in 1926 that provided the biker outfits seen in the film. It's actually quite a fascinating history of motorcycle culture and racing over the years including its courting of younger riders in the '50s and the arrival of the Bronx jacket, which Henson wears in the film. A brief restoration demo leads into a pair of vintage shorts that reveal a definite sense of humor over at the BFI: 1955's "Discovering Britain with John Betjeman" is a brief (3-minute) Shell-produced piece about the rock formation treasures of the Avebury countryside with narration by the famous poet, while "Roger Wonders Why" is an 18-minute portrait (in pretty rough condition) of two young leather-clad biker boys exploring the contrast between church life, the great outdoors, and village social rituals. The reversible packaging (which features a really wild design inside) also has a liner notes booklet with an enthusiastic appraisal of the film by Vic Pratt, a look at Sanders' history with the film by William Fowler, a study of postwar teen horror films and this one in particular by Andrew Roberts, and brief notes about the two short films. A quite miraculous release for any fan of bizarre horror movies from the genre's wildest decade