The high-concept pitch for Psychomania doubtless went something like this: Undead bikers return from the grave to commit murder and mayhem in suburban England. Screenwriters Arnaud d’Usseau and Julian Zimet certainly were no strangers to oddball premises, as their previous collaboration, Horror Express, had Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee squaring off against an extraterrestrial menace aboard the Trans-Siberian Express. Psychomania is precisely the sort of low-rent film maudit that might have caught the appreciative eye of a movie-mad surrealist. Unpredictable and wonderfully unhinged, the film stirs together a witches’ brew of elements borrowed from biker films like Roger Corman’s The Wild Angels and the brace of Satanic-panic films that followed in the footsteps of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby.
Spoiled rich kid Tom Latham (Nicky Henson) is the leader of the Living Dead, a biker gang whose hobbies include black magic and harassing patrons at the local outdoor market. Tom’s home situation, it should come as no surprise, leaves something to be desired: His mother (Beryl Reid) holds ersatz séances with the assistance of her suavely sinister butler, Shadwell (George Sanders). As it happens, Tom’s father died in a locked room under mysterious circumstances while seeking the secret to immortality, and now Tom wants to take up right where he left off. This involves, somewhat obscurely, a magical frog-shaped amulet and a full-length mirror that induces visions.
The key to eternal resurrection turns out to be nothing more complicated than to snuff it while believing “with every fiber of your being” that you’ll come back. One by one, the Living Dead get to live up to their name. With these set pieces, Psychomania unleashes some truly impressive stunt work. These scenes also prove that the streak of black humor running through the film isn’t entirely unintentional. After learning the secret from Tom, his second-in-command, Jane (Ann Michelle), gaily chirrups, “Oh man, what’re we waiting for?” and proceeds to aim her bike straight at a passing lorry. For that matter, most of the film’s ablest comic relief comes from Ann Michelle, whether it’s proving her undead status to Tom’s bland squeeze, Abby (Mary Larkin), by hanging herself from a tree or invading the local Safeway to run roughshod over a baby in a perambulator with the puckish cry: “Watch this!”
Psychomania captures the souring of the flower-power generation. Counterbalanced against the willowy folk tune “Riding Free,” with its yearning for uninhibited freedom of the Easy Rider variety, the film offers the image of Tom roaring full throttle out of his own grave, looking to foment a campaign of terror against leading members of “the establishment,” as he confides to Shadwell. Alas, the film lacks the budget or the initiative to do anything truly revolutionary with Tom’s appetite for destruction. Instead, it sort of sadly implodes with wanton acts of barely motivated betrayal, ending with a whimper in an utterly risible finale set amid patently papier-mâché standing stones. Perhaps it’s meant to serve as caustic commentary on the course of the counterculture. At any rate, the ending certainly lends new meaning to Bob Dylan’s exhortation that “everybody must get stoned.”
It’s amazing to consider the talent assembled for Psychomania, given its hamstrung budget. Versatile director Don Sharp helmed a handful of horror productions for Hammer Studios, as well as a couple of the Christopher Lee Fu Manchu films. Cinematographer Ted Moore lensed a number of the Bond films, and art director Maurice Carter was twice nominated for the Oscar. Carter’s touch is especially evident in the bizarre décor of the Latham parlor—all shag carpeting, Calderesque mobiles, and a massive slab of quartz with an amphibarium perched atop it. Beryl Reid had recently made waves in Robert Aldrich’s The Killing of Sister George. Sadly, this was to be the final film role for George Sanders before his untimely death by his own hand.
Psychomania underwent a painstaking restoration that involved digitally cleaning and recombining 35mm black-and-white separation reels. Arrow's 1080p/AVC-encoded Blu-ray shows a definite uptick in quality compared to previous SD releases. Colors are generally strong, though there can be significant fluctuations in intensity, sometimes conveying an almost stroboscopic effect. Grain levels also vary considerably, with bursts of noisy swarming not limited to low-light scenes. Overall, the image tends toward softness. The Master Audio mono track sounds pretty dynamic, with cleanly delineated dialogue and one groovy psych-rock score from John Cameron.
Produced for Severin's 2010 DVD release of the film, "Return of the Living Dead" is an amusing half-hour retrospective with contributions from actors Nicky Henson, Mary Larkin, Denis Gilmore, Roy Holder, and stuntman/actor Rocky Taylor. The cast seem unanimous in their bemused disdain for the film, though they do express admiration for the dangerous stunt work. Henson in particular has some funny bits about the bargain-basement nature of the production. Along the way, the featurette reiterates the apocryphal claim that George Sanders committed suicide soon after viewing a rough cut of the film. Talk then turns to the continuing legacy of Psychomania, cemented through years of late-night TV broadcasts. The 2016 interview with Nicky Henson lets him enlarge upon his earlier comments.
In "The Sound of Psychomania," John Cameron talks about arranging for Donovan, composing for Ken Loach on Poor Cow and Kes, laying down the Psychomania score with a small funk-rock combo in the "big barn" of a soundstage at Shepperton Studios, and "horse trading" for the CD release of the soundtrack on Trunk Records in the 1990s. For "Riding Free," guitarist and singer Harvey Andrews discusses cutting the eponymous track for a pittance, not appearing in the film because he wasn't a "pretty boy," and whether the song should be considered "biker anthem, Donovan folk, or absolute shite." In "Hell for Leather," Derek Harris, owner of Lewis Leathers, walks us through the biker gear used in the film. The illustrated booklet contains three essays on the film, a career-retrospective interview with director Don Sharp, and information about the restoration process.
Psychomania roars onto Blu-ray with a colorful restoration and a few solid supplements from Arrow Video.