Thursday, June 14, 2012

Cult Thursdays: Drum (1976)

    “Blood is the color of freedom.”

    Exploitation reigned supreme in the grind-houses of the 1970’s. As the major studio movies grew darker and more grounded in serious issues, the B-movies only grew wilder and weirder. No longer inhibited by the Hays Code and set loose in a culture becoming increasingly disillusioned, the grind-house theaters pumped out films detailing every taboo and perversion they could fit - creating whole sub-genres designed entirely to appeal to our base instincts. Blaxploitation, sexploitation, Nazisploitation, nunsploitation… basically if you could fit a ’sploitation after it, it was fair game. And so we have an entire decade’s worth of cult classics and midnight movies, each one more violent and shocking and bizarre than the last - the majority not worth the film they’re printed on. But much like a bad cut of steak, you cut through enough fat and eventually you’ll find the meat.

    Among the most popular trends in exploitation films was the pretense of “historical accuracy” - an excuse for the filmmakers to get away with all manner of sleaze because they claimed to be accurately portrayal of historical atrocities. Drum is one such movie. It begins well enough, with an ominous, electric blues tune playing over period 18th century slavery art - all in stark red and black. It seems as if we’re going to get a dark, honest portrayal of the pre-Civil War South, but once the film actually starts, a voiceover narrates a much-too-complicated backstory, and it’s all the same: overly-melodramatic, sleaze-filled claptrap. Drum is the bastard son of a New Orleans brothel owner - his father was killed for sleeping with a white woman, and the woman gives him to her black, lesbian lover handmaiden to raise as her own (I got a headache just typing that sentence). He’s raised in a fairly cushy environment (for a slave, that is) as a servant in the brothel, until one day he’s noticed by one of the clientele, who specializes in slave fights. Drum makes a name for himself in his first fight, and is bought off by another slave-owner for the purposes of breeding. It’s really a flimsy excuse to string several salacious scenes together, but a handful of fine performances and an explosive ending make Drum worth checking out - especially for connoisseurs of trash.

    Drum is a pseudo-sequel to the earlier Mandingo, which was also about the trials and tribulations of an African slave-turned-pit fighter. The only real connection is the lead, in both films played by boxing legend Ken Norton. It’s easy to see why they hired Norton for the lead, with his impressive build and his arching, Doc Savage-like brow, but the “actor” just isn’t up to the task. Norton is a void of charisma throughout the entire film, lacking in acting talents and - more importantly - presence. Fellow pro-athletes-turned-actors like Fred Williamson weren’t exactly Laurence Olivier, but they drew attention on the screen like a magnet, dripping attitude and charisma - none of which Norton seems capable of. Norton here reads all his lines in monotone, coming off like someone with severe down’s syndrome. Needless to say, he’s terrible.

    Fortunately, Norton’s backed up by more impressive cast-members. Eternal character actor Warren Oates plays Hammond Maxwell, a trader who specializes in breeding slaves. Oates rarely ever got leading roles, an eternal “that guy” who audiences recognized but couldn’t put a name to the face. He was one of the finest working actors during Hollywood’s most interesting era, taking on any role no matter how daring or challenging it appeared. Here, Oates plays a wonderfully complex heavy, at times just as much a mentor to Drum as he is his master. But no matter how sympathetic or funny Oates makes Hammond, he’s still a slave-owner, treating his slaves like livestock to be bred - whipping them viciously for the smallest of offenses. He is not their friend - a fact Drum learns only too late.

    And a fact already known by Blase, Drum’s other friend and mentor played by Yaphet Kotto. Unlike Drum, Blasé refuses to drink the kool-aid, seeing Hammond for what he is. Kotto was a tremendous actor, and really should have been in the title role here. His character feels created for the movie solely to pick up Ken Norton’s slack. Kotto’s presence is such that even when the movie around him grows increasingly ridiculous, he never once loses an ounce of credibility. Unlike Norton in the title role, when Kotto rallies the slaves together to revolt against their masters, we believe it.

    Less successful are the women roles, but that’s more a fault of the film than anything else, which treats its women much like the slaves: as things to be bartered and sold - there for little more than to flash their tits and move on. Fiona Lewis gets the largest role as Hammond’s fiancee, and her scenes with Oates are often delightfully comedic. Oates’ Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia costar Isela Vega plays Drum’s real mother Marianna, but her talents never get a chance to shine through due to her limited screen-time. Pam Grier also makes an appearance as a possible love interest for Drum, but she’s utterly wasted. You would think that, having an exploitation legend like Grier in the cast, the filmmaker’s would’ve crafted a role to fit her sizable talents, but the actress just isn’t in the movie enough to register as a real character. Oates’ character also has a daughter played by Rainbeaux Smith who constantly feels up his slaves, a trait that gets old almost as soon as it’s introduced - her disappearance towards the end is a relief. 

    It’s kind of a moot point to criticize the story of an exploitation movie, but Drum meanders far too much for the majority of its run-time. The first twenty minutes are especially disconnected from the rest, as Drum makes a name for himself as a fighter and then is promptly sold to Hammond, where the fighting subplot is dropped altogether. The film would be pretty worthless without the ending, which brings the story to a boil in a wonderfully explosive climax. Blasé leads the slaves on a revolt as Hammond's mansion burns around them, leaving Drum to choose between his people and his master. Needless to say, he chooses his people, but soon learns that violence only begets more violence - the slaves and their white masters coldly murder each other in a blind fit of rage, leaving Drum with the only choice left to him: run. The screen freezes and turns the same red and black as the title sequence, as the haunting electric blues starts up while the credits roll, implying that sometimes the only way to make a change in this world is through bloodshed. It’s a chilling sequence, and one deserving of a far better-made movie.

    Still, if you have any interest in good old fashioned 70’s exploitation, Drum is definitely worthy of a look.

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