It is the future, and increasingly the citizenry are distracted from the totalitarian government by the television they watch, which takes the form of violent and/or humiliating programming to channel the population's bloodlust. There are now two separate stations producing this, both bitter rivals and seeking to one-up the other if they can, one broadcasting a game show where contestants undergo horrible tortures, but not in real life, only in their minds as the audience see their thoughts: get through that and you win a prize. The other competition is Killbike, a true gladiatorial combat all the way from Rome...
Director Lucio Fulci isn't best known for his science fiction, but he did dabble in a variety of genres as well as the horrors and thrillers he was most celebrated for, making The New Gladiators his rare try at the sort of post-apocalyptic sci-fi that many Italian studios churned out during the eighties, never ones to miss a bandwagon. Actually, this wasn't so much post-apocalypse (there is a society here, it's just seriously decadent) as it was your basic dystopia where human rights have been torn up and thrown away for the sake of keeping the public docile and unquestioning, with the secret police on hand if necessary.
Which made this yet another of those deadly game show entries in the genre, well before The Hunger Games but not long after Rollerball, The Running Man (film version) not far off over the horizon. That said, there wasn't that much emphasis on scoring points, as the best the participants can do here is survive and besides, the game itself doesn't really get into action until the last half hour, leaving a long build-up where the extent of the government's corruption is revealed to our hero. He being Drake (Jared Martin), a Killbike champion who is framed for killing the men who murdered his wife and must take part in the latest bloodsport the TV stations have devised as a result.
As with many movies of this exploitative stripe, they can look better now than they did at the time thanks to the frankly wacky way they deport themselves, and in this case Fulci certainly delivered. There are those who have observed he may have been out of his comfort zone when he tried out the futuristic mayhem that many of his fellow filmmakers were reaping the benefits of, and point to this and Conquest as his most embarrassing works, made within months of each other. But of course, that makes them a more mouthwatering prospect for aficionados who relish the more outrageous styles of Italian movies, and while this was a shade too dour there was enough to entertain.
Mostly in overemphatic methods as Drake two-fistedly barges his way through various tests to prove himself worthy of the competition, including one where chief baddie (or so we think) Howard Ross yells at him to pick up a gun in spite of Drake's protests that he's not that kind of person. Circumstances will make him that sort of person, but his rivals on the show have no such qualms, numbering among them Fred Williamson who indulges in much manly exertion until oddly he starts keeping his motorbike helmet on and then disappears altogether, which may make you wonder exactly how much filming The Hammer did on this movie in the first place. Martin would be most famous for appearing on supersoap Dallas - unless you were into cult TV, which would have you remembering cancelled seventies weirdness Fantastic Journey, where he took a lead role. Anyway, here it was largely the stuntmen who were the stars, flinging themselves around on bikes for our pleasure - eventually. Stupid, but watchably so. Music by Riz Ortolani.
Italian director whose long career could best be described as patchy, but who was also capable of turning in striking work in the variety of genres he worked in, most notably horror. After working for several years as a screenwriter, he made his debut in 1959 with the comedy The Thieves. Various westerns, musicals and comedies followed, before Fulci courted controversy in his homeland with Beatrice Cenci, a searing attack on the Catholic church.