I’m a huge sucker for dystopian gameshow cinema, so my appreciation for Deathrow Gameshow might very well be entirely dependent on genre. There’s nothing particularly special about this mid-80s sci-fi cheapie that you couldn’t find in titles like The Running Man, Death Race 2000, The Hunger Games, or Nerve in terms of dystopian world-building or slick production design. Deathrow Gameshow even sidesteps the genre’s usual adherence to liberal, anti-authoritarian politics to sympathize & laugh along with the abusers in power, which seems like the exact wrong way to go about making one of these things. Still, I couldn’t help but take delight of some of the Killer Gameshow from the Future surface pleasures of the film’s premise because the genre territory it occupies is so instantly appealing to me. As the film went along, I even started to appreciate the way its disgusting Reagan era politics & sadistic black humor helped distinguish the work from its genre peers, even if by being spiritually repugnant.
In the not too-distant future of1991, a game show titled Live or Die executes prisoners for captivated audiences’ afternoon television entertainment. Deathrow inmates sign waivers to appear on the show, where they answer trivia questions or complete simple (but rigged) tasks in the hopes of winning prizes. The cost of an incorrect answer or a job half done is a televised execution – by guillotine, by electrocution, by explosion, by whatever keeps eyes glued to the television. The show is wildly popular, with citizens committing crimes for the opportunity to appear as contestants & family members of the executed cheering on their death for brief fame or small prizes. Live or Die does have its critics, though. Protestors gather in the streets holding signs saying the host “should be aborted.” There’s also, of course, people out to kill the host themselves to avenge lives he’s ended on air for personal profit. What’s weird is that we’re asked to sympathize with the sick, oppressive fuck instead of his portrayed-as-whiny detractors. Instead of watching him suffer under the weight of his own societal sins like, say, James Woods’s similar sleaze bag in Videodrome, we’re supposed to be invested in his spiritual growth as he’s threatened punishment, but ultimately gets out on top. That might be a result of the film’s dedication to comedy instead of horror or dystopian sci-fi, but it is a striking deviation from how these things usually go nonetheless.
Besides aligning audience sympathies with its selfish sleaze bag gameshow host, Deathrow Gameshow also disgusts in the targets of its misanthropic humor. This film takes jabs at “militant” feminism, makes casual references to prison rape & domestic violence for easy “humor,” and is convinced that the mere mention for homosexual desire is the height of hilarity. It’s also worth mentioning that although there’s diversity in its deathrow prisoner population, the only black characters represented onscreen are violent criminals. The film wholly & cruelly commits to a Reagan-era sense of Fuck You, I Got Mine selfishness, but in a way that almost works to its advantage. Even if its goal was to make me laugh with its cruel sense of punching down humor, the way those gleeful stabs at political incorrectness land make me recoil in horror, which in a way heightens the effect of its premise. This is a crass film with a complete absence of a moral center, but that kind of Money > Empathy sentiment fits its killer gameshow premise surprisingly well. I’m not sure the effect was entirely intentional, but the discomfort certainly makes for a memorable, authentically horrific viewing experience.
That’s not to say all of Deathrow Gameshow’s humor amounted to empty cruelty, though. I got a chuckle when one of the Live or Die contestants wins death by hanging as a gameshow prize, only for a The Price is Right-type announcer to declare, “Every man dreams of being well hung.” It’s not a particularly smart or inventive joke, but it’s well told, much like other gags where a secretary is caught masturbating or a rolled-up car window reads the message, “Blow it out your ass.” Everything in Deathrow Gameshow fits in one of two categories: sex or violence. Sometimes that 80s-era lizard brain idiocy can be amusing, like when an assassin, portrayed by an actor known simply as Beano, chows down on a whole mess of spaghetti while casually discussing murder. Sometimes it can be deflating, like when a character calling a woman coded to be a Feminist “a stupid bitch” is supposed to be a knee-slapper of a punchline.
There are some stranger, non-comedic touches to Deathrow Gameshow too: prisoners only being referred to as numbers, television advertisements for sex work, a nightmare sequence being rigidly blocked off like a movie trailer, a character justifying the show’s murder for entertainment ethos by explaining, “Life is a transitional state and Death is God’s way of saying ‘Take a Break.’” The movie’s just a little too compromised in its spiritually corrupt humor & underwhelming in its world-building ambition to award a hearty recommendation. I don’t mean to besmirch the good name of filmmaker Mark Pirro, whose other titles include Nudist Colony of the Dead, A Polish Vampire in Burbank, and Curse of the Queerwolf, but I’m not sure he was the best person to tackle the material. While Pirro’s grimy, off-putting sense of humor did provide the film a memorably sleazy, discomforting vibe, it’s a property that could’ve been an all-time classic in the more ambitious hands of The Canon Group or maybe Roger Corman’s crew. As is, Deathrow Gameshow is entertaining enough in its lighthearted approach to cruel, meat-headed exploitation cinema. It’s just difficult to shake the feeling that it could’ve been something more worthwhile.