This September, the zombies won’t move around on the screen, they’ll roar across it on the back of motorbikes, like BFI Australian-born director Don Sharp’s 1973 Blu-ray releases Psychomania, a mixture of two obsessions from early 1970s cinema exploitation: mysterious and ferocious motorcycle packs.
Not content with terrorizing the residents of their local town, the leader of the motorcycle zombie gang, Tom Latham (Nicky Henson), makes a pact with the Devil, takes his own life, and returns from the dead with supernatural powers. His crew follows in his footsteps, killing themselves and returning to wreak havoc on the neighborhoods. While Psychomania has a few moments of true horror, it does have a unique look, great soundtrack, and some weird plots, most famously the biker returning from the dead riding his motorcycle from his grave. There are also great performances by former British veterans Beryl Reed (as the witch mother who worships Tom’s frog) and George Sanders, in his latest on-screen role, as Mrs. Latham’s fearsome butler, Shadwell.
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Motorcycle gangs first appeared on the big screen in the early 1950s. Little motorcycle-themed movie appeared until the mid-1960s, but that wasn’t until the release we Journalist Gonzo Hunter S. Thompson’s 1966 book Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Horrible Saga of Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs and then the Rolling Stones’ 1969 party at Altamont Speedway, where Hell’s Angels act as vigilante who murders an audience member, and popular culture’s preoccupation with criminal motorcycle gangs has reached fever pitch.
Hollywood has spawned a flood of outlaw motorcyclist films, and while this was the most common screen appearance of motorbikes, the machines also symbolize the pursuit of freedom and self-discovery. Here are 10 films in which motorcycles play a major role.
The Wild One (1953)
Director: László Benedek
The Wild One single-handedly promoted the little-known post-war phenomenon of motorcycle gangs, and awarded Marlon Brando one of his most iconic shows as Johnny Strabler, the sullen leader and police hater of black rebels. It also created a key trope for later motorcycle gang movies: motorcyclists terrorize a small town, in the process exposing the divisions among the white middle-class population.
Brando aside, The Wild One casts real cyclists and a lot of Black Rebels dialogue has been incorporated into the script from conversations by Stanley Kramer with these extras. This includes Brando’s famous response to the question, What are you rebelling against? – “Well, what did you get?” Although the gang is positively clean by the standards of later biker films, the film was hugely controversial for its time. It was banned by the British Board of Film Classification and (except for limited screens where local councils overturned the decision) remained so until 1967, when it was issued with an X certificate.
The Leather Boys (1964)
Director: Sidney J. Furie
Sidney J. Furie’s The Leather Boys is a stark piece of kitchen sink realism amid Britain’s rock culture ( United kingdom The equivalent of we motorcycle gangs). The script, which Gillian Freeman adapted from her 1961 novel, focuses on two South London rockers, Reggie (Colin Campbell) and Dot (Rita Touchingham), who decide to marry despite their young age. Their relationship is tested by his interruption, self-centeredness, and her common immaturity. As they drift apart, Reggie befriends fellow rocker Pete (Dudley Sutton) and begins to explore the broader meaning of emotional commitment and life, unaware that Pete wants so much more from companions and a bit of fun in his 650cc Bonneville Triumph.
The Leather Boys is a dark but fascinating look at rock culture in the early ’60s and is now known as an important piece of old gay cinema.
Wild Angels (1966)
Released the same year as Hunter S. Thompson’s first-person reporter on his time with outlaw bikers, Roger Corman’s The Wild Angels provided Peter Fonda’s first big-screen role. He plays “Heavenly Blues”, the nihilistic leader of a fictional chapter of San Pedro Hells Angels.
A raid group to recover a stolen motorbike leads the gang’s second-in-command, “Loser” (Bruce Dern), to the hospital under police escort. Heavenly Blues and his old lady “Mike” (Nancy Sinatra) overthrow him, but Loser dies soon after, which leads to an extended scene where the gang dumps trash at a church and the local townspeople fall apart. Motorcycles, leather jackets, and Nazi gear blend with black trim, hats, and a surf soundtrack, giving the outlawed cyclists an eerie rhythmic vibe. The Wild Angels features real members of biker gangs Hells Angels and Coffin Cheaters.
Born Losers (1967)
The Born Losers was the first of four films featuring the character of Billy Jack (Tom Laughlin, who starred and directed all four), a mystery, nature-lover, half-Indian, ex-Green Beret, and counterculture protector. A group of motorcyclists terrorize a small California coastal town, rape several young women, and then try to scare the victims into cooperating with the police. Billy Jack is drawn into conflict with the gang when he accidentally becomes the protector of one of the girls, Vicky (Elizabeth James).
Whatever the movie’s made-for-TV aesthetic (it was shot in three weeks for $160,000, died at the box office but earned more than $40 million during its 1973 re-release), Laughlin’s movie is a true counterculture product. Generational division, racism and veterans’ struggle to get back into society. Significantly, the impact of sexual violence is explored with empathy rather than used merely to provoke exploitation.
The Girl on a Motorcycle (1968)
A frustrated young housewife Rebecca (Marianne Faithfull, who was dumped on the German model originally set for the role who overdosed on drugs) leaves her husband asleep in bed in order to travel to meet her lover Daniel, a pipe-smoking college professor (Alain Delon). Being the heyday of the ’60s, Rebecca took the ride with a full body leather aboard a Harley-Davidson, a gift from Daniel.
Based on a novel by French surrealist writer André Pieyre de Mandiargues, The Girl on a Motorcycle (also released under the title Naked under Leather) is low on dialogue and plot but heavy on psychedelic special effects and nudity (particularly in Faithfull). The motorcycle as an instrument of female liberation is an interesting spin on a popular trope of late ’60s housewife films as she rebels against her boring existence, but is undermined here by the pessimistic ending. Director Jack Cardiff is best known for his work as a professional cinematographer at Technicolor for the likes of Powell & Pressburger, Alfred Hitchcock, and John Houston.
Easy Rider (1969)
Director: Dennis Hopper
1969 was a big year for biker movies, when at least 12 movies were released. By far the most famous is Easy Rider, telling the story of Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper, who also runs), who raced from Los Angeles to New Orleans on Harley-Davidson bikes (purchased used Los Angeles Police) to “The Discovery of America”. On the way, they encounter dirty, freaks and backward farmers, see an amazing country, spend time with the small town of Jack Nicholson, a liberal attorney, and set acid with two prostitutes in a cemetery (one of whom is a young Karen Black).
Alternating between racy, masculine Americana and post-Summer of Love nihilism, Easy Rider certainly has its moments, but the dime-store alternative spirituality feels very outdated. Nevertheless, it remains an American classic for its looks and distinct points, and is seen as a major film that laid the foundation for the new Hollywood era in the early 1970s.
Blue Electra Glide (1973)
Director: James William Guircio
The title refers to a Harley-Davidson Electra Glide series motorcycle that the central character rides: moderate Vietnam veteran and Arizona Highway Patrolman John Wintergren (Robert Blake). Bored with his duties and disappointed with the attitudes of his colleagues, Wintergren is to be a murder cop. His chance comes when he first appears at the scene of a reclusive old man’s gun suicide, and is taken under the wing of hard-right detective Paul (Mitchell Ryan).
This unusual new feature is the only feature directed by James William Guircio, Grammy Award-winning music producer and original guitarist with Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. Enhanced by Conrad Hall’s stunning cinematography, this is a sharp depiction of fading American culture and the local reflections of Vietnam as it came to life on screen.
Director: Sandy Barbot
A little-known prequel to the classic 1979 Mad Max movie Ozploitation, Stone combines the male Australian road culture and bikers with elements of the paranoid plot film popularized in the early 1970s. At its center is the unconventional cop Stone (Ken Shorter, a real-life ex-cop), who is tasked with traveling undercover with the demonic outlaw biker gang, the Gravediggers, after an unknown killer begins killing their members.
The first and final film directed by television actor Sandy Harbot, features iconic Australian actors including Rebecca Gilling, Bill Hunter and Helen Morse. Stone was rejected by critics upon its release, and was a huge hit at home, in part on the back of his impressive work and massive scenery, both of which exceed the film’s low budget. Several hundred real-life motorcyclists took part in the film’s most famous scene, the highway funeral procession of one of the deceased’s grave diggers, for which they were said to have been paid in beer.
Quadrophenia is about disaffected young men in 1960s London in the run-up to the 1964 bank holiday riots between moderates and rockers, in which several people were hospitalized and more than 50 arrested. Jimmy (Phil Daniels) is the classic juvenile delinquent rebel, working a dead-end job during the week to finance his weekend steam scooter exploits with co-workers, and trying to get ahead with Steve (Leslie Ash).
While the film’s central narrative—which includes Jimmy’s gradual disillusionment with the moderate lifestyle—now seems a bit straightforward, Quadrophenia still packs a punch. Pre-Swinging London and its then two main youthful tribes are evocatively photographed, the riot scenes spilling over into Brighton have deep energy, and there’s – of course – classical music from The Who.
The Motorcycle Diaries (2004)
Director: Walter Salles
Brazilian director Walter Salles’ depiction of medical student Ernesto Che Guevara (Gael Garcia Bernal) and his friend Alberto Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna), from Argentina to Peru in the early 1950s, is based on Guevara’s journey of himself. The name, supplemented by Granado’s Journey with Che Guevara: Making a Revolution.
In contrast to the violent, high-speed gang members that inhabit most motorcycle-focused movies, the two characters begin their journey sharing the 1939 Norton 500 nicknamed “The Mighty One.” The mechanical death of their bike midway through the trip forces the two to begin to grapple with whomever they meet, opening their eyes to the poverty, hardship and political oppression that many on the continent suffer. The film is a truly touching coming-of-age story, boasting eye-catching cinematography and phenomenal performances by Bernal and La Serna.