Psychomania!: Ridin’ with the Living Dead in “The Death Wheelers”

By on July 22, 2016

“You’re looking at the only teenage zombie biker frog voodoo hippie musical that Beryl Reid ever made,” says BBC broadcaster Matthew Sweet in a 2009 BBC documentary called “British B-Movies: Truly Madly Cheaply,” a behind-the-scenes look at the groovy 1971 cult classic zombie biker movie Psychomania, which was released in the U.S. as The Death Wheelers. Watch a snippet from the interview below, and see The Death Wheelers now over on Night Flight Plus.

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“George Sanders is in it too,” Sweet continues, “and the magnificent Nicky Henson.”

Setting aside for the moment that these might not be names you are very familiar with, we do not hesitate to point out that this low-budget and outrageously-dated zombie biker gang flick has much more to offer beyond relatively-unknown British actors.

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Psychomania was a curious mash-up of b-movie genres, and features rampaging motorcycle gangs and macabre Hammer-esque horror scenes paying homage to early 70s devil worship movies (only they’re worshipping giant frogs).

Added to this is a bit of mod Swinging London-ish fashion and assorted accoutrement (mid-60s style mini-skirts, hot pants and go-go boots for the pram-pushing gals, colorful pop art furniture, etc.), and it’s all set to John Cameron’s rockin’ psychedelicized soundtrack score, rife with a handful trippy hippie folk tunes, including one about the glory of living and dying as a biker.

The film begins with a bunch of anti-social leather-clad bikers riding their motorcycles in slo-motion around “The Seven Witches,” where, legend has it, is where a witch coven were turned into a fog-shrouded mini-Stonehenge-style circle of stones after breaking their pact with ol’ Lucifer himself.

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These devil-worshipping bikers — who call themselves “The Living Dead” — all wear skull-face helmet visors.

Their leader is Tom Latham — played by Henson, who some may remember as Trooper Swallow from Witchfinder General and he was also in the 1974 comedy vampire spoof Vampira (aka Old Dracula) — who seems to be channeling Malcom McDowell’s “Alex” from Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, getting his kicks lately from a little of the ol’ ultra-violence.

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His girlfriend, the good girl biker mama Abby (Mary Larkin) doesn’t understand why he’s being such a spoiled rich asshole who doesn’t seem to give a shit about anyone else, saying “Sometimes you scare me, Tom!” when he breaks away from her in order to capture a frog (interaction with the psychedelic amphibian leads to a scene with pretty tripped-out LSD-enhanced color swirls).

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Abby’s also more than a little concerned about his suicidal tendencies, like riding his motorcycle straight towards oncoming cars.

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It turns out that Latham comes from a wealthy family of witches, and his mother — the resplendent Beryl Reid — is a rich, elderly medium (maybe a large) who dabbles in the Occult, and can bring her son back from the dead, thanks to a Satanic pact involving the family’s pet frog (“Hello, little green friend” he says cheerfully).

We learn that his dad fucked up his attempt to come back from the dead, which pretty much left Latham without a strong father figure to blame for his problems, and the room he died in has been shuttered for the past eighteen years.

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“Everybody dies, don’t they…but some come back! Isn’t that so?… How do the dead come back, Mother?”

After Mother talks over her son’s interest in the death pact with her manservant. the sinister cult leader Shadwell (George Sanders in his last film role), Latham’s given the key to the locked room, and once inside he can see images from the past, including his Mother in full-on witch mode, standing in the center of the Seven Witches and summoning The Devil.

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Latham learns the secretive truth about what it takes to come back alive, and then gets the Living Dead back together again for one last rampage in their quaint English town.

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We see them smashing their way through a shopping center downtown (English viewers love watching this sequence, shot at the Hepworth Way shopping centre, which has subsequently been rebuilt after it was first demolished) and through the Wellington Close housing block in Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, before Latham decides to end it all by committing suicide, aiming his bike off the bridge and into the frigid Thames River below.

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There’s a hippie-dippy funeral scene where Latham’s body is buried in the center of the Seven Witches, sitting atop his motorcycle (genius!), which means when the Zombie Tom comes back to life, so to speak, he’s already back in the saddle and ready for more mayhem!

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He ends up showing the rest of his biker gang that they, too, can shuffle off their mortal coils and cross back over the bridge just as he did, thus becoming, literally, the Living Dead reborn as zombie bikers ready to raise hell, which doesn’t exactly sit well with Mother, or Abby (who refuses to off herself).

The Living Dead then go on a killing spree that draws the attention of Chief Inspector Hesseltine (Robert Hardy), who devises a clever way to catch the gang, but you’ll have to watch to see how he does it.

Hammer Films B-movie veteran Don Sharp (Bride of Fu Manchu, The Violent Enemy, Kiss of the Vampire) is the director here, working from a screenplay by Julian Halevy and Arnaud d’Usseau. The production was mostly shot at Shepperton Studios and the surrounding area.

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It’s interesting to note that sardonic George Sanders — whose career as an actor spanned more than forty years — committed suicide (an overdose of sleeping pills) shortly after production was completed, on April 25, 1972, in a Barcelona hotel.

He left behind a suicide note which read: “Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck.”

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John Cameron’s soundtrack score, credited to a band called Frog, is one of the best reasons to watch the film, and has something of a cult following of its own.

The British punk-goth-psychedelic rock band The Damned even included a tribute track to the film, “Psychomania,” on their 1986 album Anything.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.