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Death Run (1987)
Director: Michael J. Murphy

review by Paul Higson
Spoiler Alert!
"Dear Sir,
Thank you for your interesting and informative magazine. I particularly appreciated your 'Best of '86' item in the January '87 issue, with which I agree with nearly all of your choices. However, I did find in the category 'Most Unfortunate News of the Year' that you could have given more information regarding the death of the actor Daniel Greene. Having only recently viewed FISTS OF STEEL it came as a surprise to me, as I am sure, to others, that this little-known actor is now dead. Some information as to the cause or circumstances of his death would be of interest.
Yours sincerely,
M.J. Murphy"


The only printed letter attributable to the director Michael J. Murphy that I was to turn up in my rummaging through the pages of old magazines was published in the March 1987 issue of Video - The Magazine. It was an enquiry into the fate of the actor Daniel Greene. Murphy wasn't the only one enquiring into the death on that page. The director agrees that it was the only letter he ever wrote to a publication. Greene met a premature end but the details were not immediately forthcoming. He was the star of too few mid-1980s Italian science fiction and action films. Murphy was clearly taking a lot of interest in the future imperfect genre if his 1987 Death Run was anything to go by. There are nods aplenty throughout Death Run least of which is the apparent basing of his tough guy lead, the otherwise nameless 'Hero' (a role taken by Eddie Kirby) and as the script terms it "as good a name as any," on the late Mr Greene, dressed after him in Fists Of Steel.

His first sci-fi outing was clearly taken as a challenge, to prove that he could match the efforts of the many post-apocalyptic efforts of the 1980s, primarily those of Italian and Filipino origin. It is apparent that he is not shy to reference the superior films in the genre also. The good post-apocalypse and action sci-fi of the period were few and far between, yet in Death Run they can be identified. Murphy is having fun, his sense of humour is out, and yet the film is still focused on being a fast-paced, professional actioner. Death Run is as good as many of this type of film of the time and better than most.

Young lovers Paul and Jenny (Rob Bartlett and Wendy Parsons) are awakened from a cryogenic sleep that was arranged by Paul's mother, Dr Eileen Sanders (Kay Lowry), a space mission scientist. They have awoken into a future a quarter of a century on in which punk thugs jump to the orders of the Messiah (Patrick Olliver), a brutal dictator. All known relatively human survivors reside in Junk City, fenced off from the mutant majority. Messiah is a Nazi and no variation on it. He wears swastikas and listens to German cantina songs. He has a taste for boys and girls. Murphy cannot help himself and gives Messiah's pet boy the name of Sly. Messiah has a harem and wiles his time as Nero to a game called the Death Run. He also has a three-digit hand, but he's no mutant, it's 'genetic'.

Paul awaits the Death Run in his cell and Jenny is raped. Barbara (Debbi Stevens), blonde hair and fishnets, takes pity on the young couple and plots their escape. By this time, Hero (Kirby) has been recaptured, the only person to date to have done the run and survived. There are four of them for the big escape now, Barbara releasing the flesh-eating mutants into Junk City adding to the chaos and aiding them. Jenny catches a crossbow bolt in the escape and her condition is poor. The group encounter three fugitives, a couple (Neal Goulbourn and Karen Turk) and a pregnant escapee from the harem (Kate Kneafsey) and they attend Jenny's medical needs before feeding the others. Too late they discover that they are being fed a stew that is predominantly Jenny in its ingredients. They return to Junk City for Paul to take part in the game as part of a plan that will remove the Messiah and his cronies in a bloody finale.
director Michael J. Murphy shoots action
Running at exactly 70 minutes, it was probably written with the expectation that it would be longer but there is a considerable amount of action and the script probably looked lengthier than 90 as a result of accounting for those action directions. It puzzles me now how the fight scene in the later Moonchild could appear so sluggish made after a film from Murphy that is almost 50 percent action. Armed combat, physical exercises, cars, motorbikes, the game run, bolts and arrows, it is constantly on the move and yet the continuity is never lost.

There are a lot of films clocked off in this one. The central premise of the film is a game that is a zed-budget skeletal breakdown of the challenge in Overdog's pit from Ivan Reitman's Spacehunter: Adventures In The Forbidden Zone. Here it is pared down to a cable running through the countryside and back. I might not have noticed that had it not been for Messiah stealing a line from Overdog. As Jenny is presented as a gift to the Messiah, he responds emphatically: "I like her!" It may not have quite the croak given it by Michael Ironside but the lifting is obvious from the delivery.

Talking of Columbia Pictures, in reference to the then newsworthy and vile practice of product placement in films, when Death Run's loving couple's encampment is initially raided, the threat of rape on the girl is abandoned when one of the punk assailants sees a can of coca-cola among their belongings and they fight over that instead. Jodie Foster and James Caan are among the stars still tragically prostituting themselves to an unnecessary scene of pouring out cans of coke for others in feature-length advertisements like Panic Room and Eraser to this very day.

There are killer lines potted here and there. When Barbara defends herself from a molester in Junk City, he protests "Hey, I've only got a few fucking diseases. You don't know what you're missing." Told of their cryogenic sleep, Barbara's snap response is that they should never have considered waking up. The cinematography is good throughout. One scene of a punk tart leaning against a dead car as a graffiti-riddled car is driven into the scene then cuts to the same vehicle looming towards the camera and stopping, guard and bumper in full frame, and you are reminded of Russ Meyer. There is some intriguing play with a block of convex glass distorting the Messiah and Jenny's faces in turn. The bike wheel cam shot is cleverly done and although the chase should be unfeasible as the motorbike is always moving faster than the running couple, Murphy bleeding well pulls it off yet again with a smart series of edits.

Some of the stunts though low-level stunts are all the same precarious. The thought occurs that Murphy's interest in manner of Greene's passing may have been a concern that it might have been in an on-set stunt. If so, there would have been some odd relief in the editor's immediate response that it was an "unidentified debilitating disease." In Death Run, with so many moving vehicles in so many seemingly crowded scenes it is too often worryingly close and thrilling´┐Ż an accident could so easily have occurred. Then again, how crowded was the set. Another cinema magic trick is pulled off as cast members double and likely triple as mutants and masked citizens. Paul trots along planks running over a room with no floor to a window in his cell and one of the punks is thrown face first into the canal from a concrete wharf. The potential for dislocations, broken bones and cuts appear to be everywhere.

The soundtrack music is various from John Carpenter style synthesiser compositions to bad rock music. One track has a lyric that repeats the line: "Take me... free me... help me." While at the same time not sounding anything like The Who, the lyrics do check directly back to Tommy. The junkyard used in the film to represent Junk City was the same junkyard used 14 years earlier in the Ken Russell film.

The Joe Vernard costumes are not good, but they are no worse than anything from The Bronx Warriors or The Final Executioner. The makeup is often crude but then so was the face-crap in 2019: After The Fall Of New York and Endgame. Murphy finds that it is an easy mete with these rough and ready exploitation films. Whereas The Bronx Warriors 2 became tedious with it's easy kills and a director who clearly didn't care, Murphy does care about what ends up on the screen.
mutant prisoners in Death Run
The gore score counts. A dismembered head in the bed, a second gruesome decapitation, a staking, slit throat, spearing, spike traps, knife in the neck, arrows in the eye, a knife in the mouth, multiple stabbings, mutants petrol soaked and burned alive... and the drowning of the cannibal in her own stew by Paul as he vomits over the back of her head in the realisation that he has just eaten his girlfriend in a chowder. It leaves the majority of spaghetti futures way behind in sheer entertainment value. The athletic training exercises shared by Paul and the hero are hilariously homoerotic, a Triumph of the Wanton. There is plenty to gawp at. Not to mention the outrageous final scene, a twisted breastfeeding scene you might want to clap your hands and reel backwards at. I doubt I will ever be able to watch it without laugh out loudness resulting.

Only my snobbishness and uncertainness prevents me from rating it more highly, how could one possibly approve of this film with costumes and mutant makeup these cheap and tacky in it? I have returned to The Rite Of Spring and warmed more to it since my review. I can see a future 70-minute space in my schedule where I might fill the time watching this again rather than suffering something longer and less rewarding. To hell with it, I'm still finding things to say about the film and I'm still smiling, it gets its third star; snobbery be damned. In Death Run, Murphy gave Britain it's only homemade post-apocalyptic action film and did it as well as the Italians, despite their working with much higher budgets. Certainly, Craig Lindsey Shonteff filmed The Killing Edge, Alan Brigg's shot Ghetto Wars, while Steven Lisberger offered Slipstream. But Slipstream skirted close to space soap pretensions. The Killing Edge was less active and self-propelled, was a sulky trundle over ploughed fields broken by the occasional knifing and gunfire, while Ghetto Wars was shot silent to accompany a live band soundtrack, though it did have the tacky costumes, firepower, vixens and cars, in an attempted embracing of the spirit of the spaghetti post-apocalypse. The latter two were also shot on video whereas Murphy was working in his usual medium of 16mm. The film was made available on video in Germany under the title Mutant City on the video label Motion Entertainment, erroneously presuming the film to have a 90-minute running time, citing the original title as 'Wicked City' and the country of origin the USA.

The deal with these films by the end of the 1980s was to go in big and fast, to chuck horror and sex and action at the schlock fans, in simple satisfaction of the expected generally adolescent audience. In Death Run, Avalon, Atlantis and Legend Of The Hero there could be a titillating boxset of exploitation fantastic, and it could turn out to be the most rewarding, amusing, bemusing, bloodiest, babe bevy, action heavy, cheap magic DVD packages sewn up on the smallest of original collective budget costs ever. I was initially put off by the idea of Murphy's fantasy fare of this period, not fond of the films from which they drew their influence, not expecting much on a phenomenally smaller budget. Now I'm looking forward to seeing the rest of them.
Death Run

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Debbi Stevens in Death Run


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