From The Grindhouse Cinema Database
Rollerball. 2001: A Space Odyssey. Blade Runner. All of these movies are homaged in one facet or another in Lucio Fulci's New Gladiators. From the opening sequence of a futuristic Rome done with miniatures, the foundation for the film's atmosphere is set: a sprawling metropolis of skyscrapers, many with large video screens on the side of them, airing the popular yet brutal shows of the time. The first of these is Kill Bike, where leather-armored players face off against each other on dirt bikes, wielding swords and maces. The hero of the game is Drake, a James Caan look-a-like played by Jared Martin. A rival network whose own top show, The Danger Game, is slipping in the ratings (where contestants are attached to a "holographic dream generator" and slowly tortured in a dream world, the winner being the one to not show fear) devises a new show called Battle of the Damned. This new show would feature murderous criminals in complete gladiator battle to the death and held in the Coliseum. The network gets Drake for Battle of the Damned when he is found guilty of murdering the three men who, in an obvious nod to Clockwork Orange by way of their droog-like presence, killed his wife, Susan. From there, it becomes an escape flick as the players of Battle of the Damned (to include The Hammer himself, Fred Williamson) come together to break free from the network executive slavers, with inside help from Sarah (Eleonora Brigliadori as Eleonor Gold). Their biggest obstacle is getting beyond the uninspired Hal-9000 rip-off named Junior who is controlled by the mysterious Sam, the seemingly head of the WBS television network. There are a few twists, and unless you weren't paying attention, enough clues as to the films surprise climax.
The production design, set dressing and costume designs of Stefano Paltrinieri and Mario Giorsi owe a lot to John Box and Julie Harris, who worked on Norman Jewison's 1975 Rollerball. When I say that Jared Martin looked like James Caan, it wasn't just physically, they clothed him to look like Caan's Rollerball character, Jonathan E. And the clean, futuristic interior design was not unlike John Box's work. The original score by Riz Ortolani was standard '80s keyboard faire, repetitious and uneventful.
Fulci's work on the film seemed staggered at times: the scene where Drake's wife is murdered is the director at his atmospheric best, but then you have scenes that are filmed that seem almost empty and forced. Keeping in mind that was his first foray into science fiction, from an artistic perspective, Fulci never quite found his footing.
As a low-budget science fiction film, the movie is solid. The stunt work and make-up effects are pleasing, with a few "oh, that was pretty cool" moments scattered across battle scenes. There may have not been enough screen time for The Hammer to suit me, but New Gladiators does make for a very al dente Italian sci-fi flick.
Reviewed by Blake Kay