Biker Exploitation Double-Feature: ‘Northville Cemetery Massacre’ and ‘Hell Ride’
by Marc Patterson
In a matter of days I’ll be getting my licence to ride and hitting the open road. And it’s about time. I’ve had a lifelong fascination with motorcycles as long as I can remember. (And I’m not talking ‘bout no super slick “crotch rocket”. I’m talking about growling ripped out choppers. I’m talkin’ about a ‘54 panhead stripped down and dirty, bored out and ready to roar down the freeway). How I managed to get to this point in life (now in my 30’s) without actually riding is well beyond me.
For me, the idea of the motorcycle, and what it represents, has never been just about rebellion or a bad-ass image (though that was certainly part of the appeal in my younger years). At its core it represents a casting off of all the bullshit society dumps upon us daily. In a car you can still drag your shit with you. On a bike? It’s just you, your machine, and the road. It doesn’t get any more free than that. Not that I have anything against a suped up “cage”. Shit, I epitomize the road warrior and will always have a loving spot for good old American muscle.
That said – I’ve always been a bit of a gearhead. Mostly busting up my knuckles on old Chevy’s and the lot. I still have the number one piston from the first small block engine I blew, and emblems from various cars I’ve run over the years. Bikes… this is going to be a whole new adventure and I’m already anticipating the start of a build over the winter. (Gotta do something when you’re home bound by several feet of snow).
In a personal form of excited anticipation for this upcoming milestone I’ve gone through my DVD collection and pulled a few biker flicks off the shelf to watch again. While fans of horror might immediately think of Werewolves on Wheels or Psychomania my taste on this occasion drifted more towards some gritty and violent exploitation, two films that really embody a feel for living free, outside the law. Those picks? Northville Cemetery Massacre and Hell Ride.
I started out with Northville Cemetery Massacre. This flick has got everything to make a motorhead drool. It’s bikers vs. the cops in a bloody and brutal showdown that can’t be beat. Originally titled Freedom R.I.P (Ride in Peace) this notorious cult classic turns the biker flick head on heels by making the bikers the good guys. Not that they aren’t lawless outlaws, because that they are, but in this slice of nostalgia inducing cinema the bikers epitomize post-Vietnam era America where the hippie movement is on its way out. These bikers, portrayed by the real life outlaw biker gang Scorpions MC Detroit Chapter, just want to ride, smoke their dope, and be left the hell alone. But thanks to a few small town cops who are clearly bored of directing traffic and who happen to have a particular hard-on for loud, raucous and defiant bikers things turn sour fast.
It all starts innocently enough. The cops bust the bikers for not wearing helmets, locking them up for an overnight. Fine. They get out and go on their way, deciding to throw a wedding party for one of their brothers in a field. Once again, the cops see fun happening and just have to break it up. The bikers disperse after having a little fun with the cops. Bad news for them. When one particular hardass cop finds a girl who was left behind he decides to have a little “fun” with her, and rapes her. He threatens her to keep her mouth shut and then proceeds to pin the rape on the bikers. Now it’s a deadly combination with the young girl’s father wanting his own revenge, and the dirty cop ready to help him out. But, the bikers aren’t going to budge one damn inch and allow some dick with a badge bully them around. In short order post-Vietnam restlessness turns into a bloody war being waged in small town USA.
There are several things I just love about NCM. I first saw it a few years back when it was originally released on DVD, and since then it remains one of those few films I’ll go back and revisit once a year or so. It’s highly memorable and features some great set pieces, including one laugh inducing scene at the beginning where an old gray-haired couple is broken down on the side of the road with a flat. For them things get worse when they hear the mighty rumble of a pack of Harley’s coming straight for them. When the bikers stop and surround their car the old folks about shit themselves in their seats. Then something strange happens. The bikers change the tire, and make sure everything is running good under the hood. Who said outlaws aren’t capable of a good turn?
Another thing I loved about the film was that these bikers aren’t actors. They’re bikers. The only actors in the film are the cops, and the supporting cast. So while you’re not going to get great delivery of lines or some highbow riff on Easy Rider you are going to get an authentic feeling film. In my opinion these guys make Peter Fonda look soft.
For those of you who want to see more than just a mid-70’s low-budget version of Sons of Anarchy, well Northville has the goods. When the violence starts to kick in it might not be as gut churning and visceral, but it’s bloody and damn hardcore, directed in a style that slows things down and allows you to soak in every frame. No quick cuts here. This lets you see brains getting blown out in slow motion detail. Sweet.
My advise? Warm yourself up on this one with a joint and a couple shots of Southern Comfort. That ought to put you in the right state of mind.
Once the credits roll on Northville (and with that soulful southern rock soundtrack I let them roll ALL the way to the end) it’s time to crank up the volume with a more modern play on post-grindhouse era filmmaking with the Quentin Tarantino produced / Larry Bishop directed, Hell Ride.
Fans of modern exploitation are going to enjoy this romp through the dusty, dirty, crime filled west. It’s part cowboy film, part revenge fueled chaos, and a total outlaw. Authentic? Nah… no one was going for authentic here. Hell Ride celebrates the glamorous side of being a badass. Even though it was directed by Larry Bishop, Hell Ride reeks of the stylistic underbelly that defines a Tarantino film experience. It’s pure titillation from beginning to end.
The casting line-up will impress any testosterone addicted movie geek. You’ve got Larry Bishop, Vinnie Jones, Michael Madsen, Dennis Hopper, Eric Balfour, and David Carradine headlining this adrenaline fueled maniacal ride. Supporting them are a bevy of voluptuous bare breasted babes that are simply TOO hot for this film. (I’ve seen biker chicks – these gals are more like So. Cal glammed out strippers than the take-no-shit foul mouthed gals I’ve known).
Outside that, pure carnage is all this film has going for it. Lose the post-war subtext of Northville Cemetery Massacre. Hell Ride has none of that bullshit. This is a stripped-down, lean and mean story of two rival gangs with a long history of violence. Nothing more, nothing less.
Particularly impressive in Hell Ride are the bikes themselves. In Northville Cemetery everyone is riding a Harley. A lot of MC’s are insistent on that, almost in a neo-military kind of fanaticism. In Hell Ride no such rule exists. There are all kinds of American made machines on the road, and each one are equal characters to the actors. Madsen “The Gent”, rides an interesting low riding chopper that has old school Harley styling, but clearly has an updated engine setup. It’s built by this company called Flyrite Choppers. Even though the engine is newer Madsen insisted on a kick start (always a cool move). From everything I can tell Vinnie Jones sports an Exile Bar Hopper chopper. I don’t know much about those, but if you check out their site they’ve got some mean looking machines. This one comes with a Harley drive train. The Bar Hopper is definitely one of their sharper looking machines, with a real basic retro look.
Both Dennis Hopper and Eric Balfour cruise around on classic Indian’s, which will garner a chuckle from some, because they aren’t custom or new and flashy, but Indian’s are nice fuckin’ bikes. Balfour’s dates into the 50s’ and Hopper states his bike was from ‘38. These are the most “pure” bikes in the film. No chops or re-designs. But personally, for me, the most badass bike in the film belongs to Pistolero, which was an early 70’s FLH Shovelhead Harley. You can tell it’s a shovelhead from the design of the rocker box covers. Panheads, which dominated the 50’s were big and flat topped. The newer shovelheads got their name because they resembled the curved shape of a shovel. Nothing too complicated. Pistolero’s bike is stripped down, with none of the fancy dressings it came with “factory”, and has a ton of dirt thrown on it. It’s a Harley the way a Harley should look – ridden hard.
Hell Ride is a raging tough guy film that runs kamikaze style at 90 miles an hour. It’s basic, simple and it works. Hell Ride packs in as much babes, bikes and badasses as humanly possible to create an over-the-top action packed 90 minutes. My suggestion is to set the reefer aside and just keep pounding the whiskey through this one. Not much else more to say.