In the ancient Roman town of Brundusium, a group of slave girls are sold to a man named Timarchus (Daniele Vargas), organiser of the bloodthirsty events that take place in the town’s colosseum. After a fight breaks out amongst the girls, Timarchus has the idea of putting the women in the ring to fight to the death. The recently captured Mamawi (Pam Grier) and Bodicia (Margaret Markov) realise they must stick together if they are to survive.
The Arena was produced by Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, and although the historical themes and gladiatorial action might seem like a change of tack for a company that was at the time churning out modern day exploiters like The Big Doll House and Caged Heat, it doesn’t take long to figure out this is actually just another chicks-in-chains picture. All the requisite elements are here – gratuitous shower scenes, a sadistic matron-type, a spot of torture and rape, and a climatic break out in which the gals overthrow their male oppressors. There is a vague stab at giving the film some historical context – Sparticus's slave revolt is mentioned, and Timarchus seems to be politically connected, since he is able to deploy the Roman army whenever the ladies start getting out of line. But let's face it – if there are any scholars watching, they’re here for the blood and the babes, not a history lesson.
Steve Carver (who also directed Big Bad Mama for Corman) is the credited director, although it was supposedly the film’s cinematographer, shlock-merchant Aristide Massaccesi (aka Joe D’Amato), who handled most of the directing chores on this Italian-shot film. This is Ancient Rome-on-a-budget; where Ridley Scott filled the arenas in Gladiator with thousands of CGI spectators, Massaccesi can’t really muster more than about 30 toga-clad Romans in any one shot – in fact, we never really get a full view of the colosseum, just short sections of wall and seats. Likewise, it seems that Corman only forked out on a couple of horses and half a dozen soldier costumes, and he definitely saved money on material for the ladies' outfits.
Still, give me a leather-clad Pam Grier over Russell Crowe any day. Grier is reunited with Margaret Markov, her co-star in 1972's jailbreak romp Black Mama, White Mama, and although they don’t really have as much fun here, there’s no denying they look good kicking Roman butt. Unfortunately Massaccesi can’t direct an action scene to save himself and Grier is largely wasted – whereas someone like Jack Hill would give her delicious dialogue to spit at her foes, the ponderous script doesn’t allow much opportunity for her to rise above the material. Elsewhere, Daniele Vargas camps it up as cruel arena master Timarchus, and Rosalba Neri has a good time dishing out abuse to the girls as his right-hand woman.
Compared to many women-in-prison movies, The Arena is fairly tame; it also lacks the knowing wit of the genre’s high point, the Corman-produced Caged Heat. More a slightly-dull curiosity than anything else, the film’s biggest surprise is that it was edited by none other than Joe Dante, back when the Gremlins director was honing his genre craft for Corman. Annoying ‘medieval’ music by Francesco De Masi.