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Death Riders
(1976)

Director: Jim Wilson  


If you have been following my writings on this web site for years now, by this time you probably have some kind of idea as to what kind of person I am. Certainly, I have told you many stories concerning my life in my reviews. But I think one of the strongest ideas you may have of me is the kind of movies that I like to watch. Like most people, I do like to watch all kinds of movies - action, comedy, drama, horror, science fiction, fantasy, and miscellaneous. But more often than not the movies that I watch either for this web site or on my own time are unknown in nature to me. I like to find a movie that I've never heard of before yet intrigues me with its cover art or its description on the back of its box. From that declaration, one might be lead to believe that I am a person who likes to take risks. Well, when it comes to movies, the answer is definitely yes. But in most other parts of my life, I am the kind of person who likes to play it safe. For example, take something as mundane as driving. Yes, I did get my driver's license years ago, and I make sure to get it updated when I get the renewal notice in my mail every few years or so. But what you might not know is after I first passed my driving test years ago and got my license, I have not driven a vehicle for the more than twenty years that have passed since then. The thought of driving a car in my city, with its narrow roads that are jam-packed with other drivers - some of who seem to possess a sanity that I greatly question - freaks me out. Another thing I never risk doing is drinking a lot of alcohol at once. I always want to have a clear head, because I never know when I might have to make a big decision or accomplish a complicated past. In fact, the most I might drink in a whole year is two or three beers, and certainly not more than one at a single sitting.

I wasn't always this cautious and careful about doing various activities. When I was younger, I did a lot of stuff that when I look back upon makes me say out loud, "You moron, what were you thinking?" For example, during periods of good weather I would ride my bicycle around the neighborhood. That may not sound very dangerous to you, but if you were to take a look at my neighborhood - with its steep hills, crumbling pavement, and cars that would leap out of nowhere onto the roads - and also have the knowledge that not one bit of my bicycle riding involved me wearing a helmet, well, you would see that I was seriously risking my health with my reckless and speedy bicycle riding. Other risky things I did as a youth included drinking out of the local creek, as well as swimming far out into the local lake despite not being the strongest swimmer. Yes, when I think about those and other risky activities I did as a youth, it just reinforces my resolve to lead a safe and bland life for the most part. But that doesn't mean I have no interest in activities that contain risk. Ever since I was a youth, I have had an interest in watching others being involved in risky behavior. Some brutal sports like boxing fascinate me, making me wonder things like who would ever allow themselves to be repeatedly slugged by another. There are also plenty of legitimate occupations that involve a great deal of risk, from washing the windows of a skyscraper to working in the filth and disease of a sewer. When I come across those and similar activities on TV, I admit that I often stop my channel surfing and watch what's happening for a little bit of time. As I watch, various questions fill my head, like who on earth would subject themselves to such abuse or risk, and why.

But the one risky activity that fascinates me the most is the activity of stunt work. Certainly the stunt work done in motion pictures interests me the most, but I am also interested in the kind of stunt work that's done by itself, to entertain an audience that has come to simply watch the Death Ridersstunt they have been promised to see. When I watch such stunt work, I am often transfixed by the sight of seeing people putting their lives at great risk. As I watch, I wonder many questions: What attracted them to this occupation? How did they break into the stunt industry? Do they every get hurt? Do they like what they do? From this, you can probably understand why I was attracted to the stunt documentary Death Riders. It concerns itself with a group of stunt performers, the "Death Riders" the title mentions, that traveled around the United States with their stunt show in the early 1970s. The stunt performers were lead by a man named Floyd Reed, who had two sons (Danny and Floyd Jr.) among the various stunt performers in his show, including a fellow known as Squeaks The Clown (real name: Russ Smith) who performed his stunts in clown makeup. The documentary starts off with a few seconds of the Reeds and the other performers chatting, followed by a freeze-frame, where the following message appears onscreen: "The people and events in this film are real. Every stunt you will see has resulted in one or more deaths at some time." A few seconds later, a second message pops up onscreen: "This film is respectfully dedicated to all whose daring feats cost them their lives."

If that wasn't sobering enough for you, we next get a list of seven different stunts - from the "Flying Car Crash" to the "Tunnel Of Fire" - with the name of the performer and the date when that individual died from doing the stunt attached to his name. Obviously, director Jim Wilson is treating this documentary with a good amount of seriousness, which continues when, while looking at footage of the stunt performers doing various things related to their show, we hear narration from one of the performers, "My name is Larry Mann. I'm part of the Death Riders' Thrill Show. We're not like the stuntmen you see on TV or in the movies. We do our own stunts with no tricky gimmicks, no rehearsals, and no special safety precautions. That's the way we like it." The opening credits then start to unfold over a couple of stunts, including a car cartwheeling after being half driven over a ramp, as well as setting hay on the back of a car's hood, lighting the hay on fire, then driving the car up and off a ramp and into a parked car. The opening credits themselves have some interest. The first being that the music supervisor is revealed to be the legendary Mike Curb. The next interesting thing is that the editing was apparently done by Phil Tucker - yes, the director of the legendary Robot Monster. (He is also given credit as being one of this documentary's producers.) And one of the directors of photography was the legendary Vilmos Zsigmond, who a short time later won an Oscar for his cinematography of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.

As the fiery car crash is extinguished with a fire hose, Mann continues his narration. "The Death Riders' Thrill Show is different because most of the guys are only seventeen or eighteen years old." Well, that is different. How they managed to get away with that even in the more innocent 1970s is pretty amazing. He continues: "The whole idea of a thrill show is to stay alive. Otherwise, you might miss out on the best part, that's after the show where the audience's whoops cover you like a blanket." Indeed, the audience is seen at that moment coming down from their seats to meet the performers. At this point, another one of the Death Riders' narrates his thoughts: "One thing about this show is that a single guy's got it made. He can be traveling down the road or at a show or anything - there are always girls just about anywhere you go." We see one girl in the crowd approaching the narrating stunt driver, and the stunt driver uses the opportunity to... give her his autograph. Darn. At this point, Mann resumes his narration. "If the show goes smooth and looks good, they don't have to hunt for girls, girls hunt for them." Now maybe we might get to see something spectacular, but instead we are treated to more footage of the stunt performers giving autographs. And when we get to see a girl who doesn't seem in the mood for an autograph, the movie still doesn't show us any bedroom-related stunts. Instead, one of the stunt performers gets involved in an inane conversation with a girl who seems as airheaded as him. "First time I've seen this!" says the girl about her experience watching the stunt show, resulting in the young stunt performer responding with, "First time we've see you too."

Next, the Death Riders move on to their next gig, at the Southern Iowa Fair. Their transport consists of four identical yellow vans, a couple of them towing small cargo trailers, which made me wonder just how they had enough space for everything. As the Death Riders get out of their vans, we're told, "Last night's girl is just a memory when you're setting up the next night's show." And as they are setting up the show, we see them unload fireworks from their vans, some still in its boxes but others already set up and ready to be lit. Excuse me, but aren't there laws about transporting fireworks? Or are the Death Riders thumbing their nose at the law? We don't know. While we are thinking about this, the narration then abruptly says, "We don't usually look for new riders - they come to us." We then see a new fellow by the name of Bob approach the Death Riders' management. In their brief conversation, we learn he had approached the management a week earlier about a possible job. On the spot, he is hired for a trial basis that will last a couple of weeks, and the management will see how it works out. This, of course, begs even more questions. Does Bob have any experience? Does the Death Riders management even care if Bob has any experience? Does Bob have any idea of what he'll have to do? As it turns out, the management thinks that the most important thing Bob will have to do is to "get along" with everyone else in the Death Riders group, seeing that the entire crew have to live and sleep out of their vehicles, and will all be working closely together. So I guess everyone's feelings are more important than stuff like safety.

That night, the show starts at the Iowa Fair. We get to see the aforementioned fireworks lit and sparkling away, and it sure looks like it was set up on various wooden stands so crudely that a breeze could bring the entire stands down. As the Death Riders start to perform, we are given our first proper introduction to Squeaks The Clown. "Without a clown," states the narrator, "your show would really be hurtin'". We then see Squeaks, in full clown makeup, put on a helmet and get on a car. Not into the car - he lies on the front hood of the car (and not strapped down to it with ropes or anything else, I might add) while another Death Rider gets behind the wheel. Further down the track, a high wooden fence is set up, and it soaked with flammable liquid. The fence is then lit on fire, and starts emitting gigantic flames. Then Squeaks and the Death Rider driver speed down the track towards the inferno and break through, with neither Squeaks nor the driver getting any injuries. The whole moment is seen through slow motion, by the way, and seeing the stunt in slow motion brings up some interesting observations. One is that the fence is made with real thin pieces of wood, so obviously the risk of damage to the participants (or even the car) has been reduced greatly. The second interesting observation is that when the car breaks through the fiery fence, the force of impact pushes the flames away from both Squeaks and the driver of the car. Neither person actually gets touched by a flame. I am sure that the stunt looked a lot more spectacular both live and far away, but seeing it up close and in slow motion shows the Death Riders knew how to look spectacular with less risk than you might think.

However, their next stunt is a lot more risky - two motorcyclists, one after the other, jumping from a ramp over the "equivalent" of ten average-sized vehicles. Just seconds after the stunt is announced, the two Death Riders manage to do it, and without injury. Impressive, but would have been of greater impact had director Jim Wilson given us some wide shots of the stunt in action instead of cramming the camera so close that it looks like the Death Riders are only jumping over a couple of vehicles. Anyway, the show comes to an end, and later that night the Death Riders are traveling to their next show date, a fairground. At the fairgrounds, the Death Riders prepare by stripping down the new cars they have just got into their possession, and we are told, "A side view mirror can kill you." How? Well, we are told that even safety glass can cut or deeply injure a person. Makes sense, but as we are seeing the Death Riders stripping down the cars, a few unanswered questions come up. Where did they get the cars that are now in their possession? How do they manage to afford the cars they seem to keep buying for every new show? Do they even figure out how to learn about a new car's power and performance before using the car in one of their stunt shows? But instead of answering those questions, the documentary moves on, and the show starts. There is another burning fence seen, only this time a Death Rider will be driving through it while on a motorcycle and driving off a ramp. This variation is also seen through slow motion, and it's quite a spectacular visual seeing the flying motorcyclist break through the fiery fence. When he doesn't land quite right and ends up crashing hard onto the ground, the slow motion makes it look like he is being greatly injured. But suddenly, the movie goes back to regular speed, and the Death Rider gets up in triumph, having no apparent injuries.

For the remaining sixty minutes, Death Riders continues to jump around with the traveling stunt performers. Their experiences include various (and inevitable) injuries and how they deal with them, performing at a nudist colony, and taking a break from their vehicular stunts to show some cowboys they too can ride bulls. The documentary certain contains a lot of variety, but even then the movie is lacking something that I think would make it especially interesting. And that is to hear more about the Death Riders themselves. I wanted to know stuff like how they got into this business, why they do what they do, and if they had any plans for the future. In the end, we get few answers to questions like those, and the few answers we do get are usually pretty short and lacking in detail. Still, while the documentary does disappoint with its human aspects, there's still enough here to make an enjoyable viewing experience. For starters, I can say with confidence that there's not one boring bit in the entire documentary. Even when the Death Riders are not performing, seeing them  preparing for shows or joking around is really interesting. You really feel you are there watching unpredictable people in action, and its a fascinating look at a kind of entertainment that simply doesn't exist nowadays thanks to new laws and regulations. As for the times when they are performing in front of an audience, we get to see some pretty spectacular (and dangerous) stunts on display, and director Jim Wilson often shoots them in ways that maximize the impact, such as strapping cameras onto the vehicles or even the stunt performers themselves. The icing on the cake is a great country/soft rock soundtrack, one that often manages to comment on whatever action is taking place onscreen at the time. So despite the lack of a strong human angle, Death Riders remains an entertaining and often fascinating look at a long-gone profession.

(Posted August 3, 2014)


UPDATE: Jason Pankoke sent this in:

"Greetings,

"Just happened to find your site via the recent review of Death Riders.

"I live in Champaign, IL, just an hour away from Danville where the thrill show was based in its heyday. I have been noodling around for info about it for a couple of years now. Coincidentally, I finally watched the doc for the first time last week.

"The Death Riders provided stunt work for a narrative feature that came out a year after this, Death Driver, produced by the southern B-film maker Earl Owensby (Wolfman, Rottweiler).

"I recently picked up an original program for the stunt show off of eBay, and it was sent and autographed by none other than Floyd Reed, Sr., the founder of the show. He included a note saying that other DR memorabilia would be offered. The program gives a better idea than the doc about the structure of their shows. (You do see their announcer hawing them once or twice in the doc.) I didn't grow up here so their history is news to me.

"I do agree with the lack of "human interest" material in the doc. The voice overs from the team were probably only a small portion of interviews that were recorded.

"Thought you'd be interested! Keep up the review work, I'll have to look around your site more."

UPDATE 2: I got this message from Joe Byars:

"Every once in a while I get curious about my past and punch in "Death Riders" on whatever search engine I happen to be enamored with at the time to see if anyone is aware of the Death Riders Motorcycle Thrill Show of which I was a member for 6 years.  Sitting here at work this morning, I got curious and found your review of the Death Riders movie and found it to be fascinating.  I do agree with on one point in particular, a point I had when the movie was released; why did we do what we did?

"You're right, the movie never really explored that.  For me, It was that I was going to break the world's record for distance on a motorcycle and become so rich and famous that I would do only 4 major shows a year, as opposed to the 60 or 70 shows we did in 4 months out of the year.  In trying to book shows, no one would take me seriously even though I had built my own ramps, had a good bike and leathers (actually, canvass at the time, I was a vegan) but only 18 so no one would care to take me seriously.  Ended up with Floyd who turned out to be a really great guy, a father figure for me and for that matter, all of us in the show. 

"Floyd and the show gave me an experience that would require a book to describe so I will leave the details to imagination right now but offer that it did help groom my character for the rest of my life.  I joined the Marines after the show where I got technical training, did well in leaving the Marines after 4 years at the rank of Sargent and went on to a successful career in medical devices.  Danny became an owner/operator over-the-road trucker, his big brother Floyd Jr. owned a number of doughnut shops in Danville, Cheese (Ron) ran his own plumbing company, Steve is a retired cop for Danville as of a few years ago, Larry hooked up with Hollywood from our movie experience and became an audio expert - I see his name pop up in movie credits from time to time, Rusty, our clown, passed away a couple years ago.

"I found your review fascinating in that I gave me somewhat of insight to your character and how you perceived our movie which takes it to a personal level.  My reaction was, "Wow, a real person actually watched our movie, scene by scene and was interested in that part of our lives".  Now it will be difficult to focus on work without thinking of this time of my life.  Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on the Death Riders."

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See also: Biker Dreams, On Any Sunday, Skateboard Madness

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