In the 1987 film Deathrow Gameshow, there are no winners

In the 1987 film Deathrow Gameshow, there are no winners

Film: Deathrow Gameshow (1987)

Director: Mark Pirro

Tagline: “Chuck Toedan wants you… to die laughing!”

Key IMDB keywords: Dark humor, talking to the camera, electrocution, sex with food, film within a film, severed head, bra and panties

Also known as: Death Game

Plot: Think “trash TV” is bad today? The media satire Deathrow Gameshow journeys back to the far trashier era of the late ’80s, when the fictional Los Angeles station KSIK broadcast a game show called Live Or Die, hosted by the unctuous John McCafferty, who offers condemned death-row prisoners “a way to be entertaining before they go,” by letting them play games, win prizes, then get killed on camera. McCafferty is so callous about his show that when he hears that a contestant’s been gang-raped, he shrugs, “So he won’t be sitting.” And he’s so used to driving through hordes of protesters that he has the words “blow it out your ass” etched on his car window. Yet Live Or Die is bigger than The Gong Show, because viewers can’t get enough of games like the one that opens the film, where a man’s family has the chance to win money if, when he’s guillotined, his severed head lands face-up.

Unfortunately for McCafferty, one of the inmates killed on his show is the head of the Spumoni crime family, electrocuted when McCafferty attaches wires to the mob boss’ genitals, then has his sexy assistant perform “The Dance Of The Seven Boners.” The Spumonis don’t mind the game; they mind that the boss only pops his fatal chubby when McCafferty touches his shoulder. So they send Beano Agundez, “da best hitman in da woild,” to rub out McCafferty. Agundez’s wrath intensifies when his frail, senile mother wanders onto the Live Or Die set in a striped shirt, and accidentally becomes another contestant/victim.

And the Agundez contract doesn’t just affect McCafferty. After appearing on a talk show with the shrewishly disapproving Robin Blythe (playing a character named Gloria Sternvirgin), the spokeswoman for Woman Against Anything Men Are For, McCafferty meets with Blythe in his office exactly when Agundez shows up, and finds that Blythe’s attitude toward killing is profoundly changed once she’s in danger of being murdered (or worse) by Agundez. In the end, Agundez forces McCafferty and Blythe to play Live Or Die, having them do puzzles while stuck in a small glass box with a limited air supply. They’re saved when a deranged fan of the show rushes onto the set and shoots Agundez, in hopes of being sent to prison so he can qualify to become a contestant. The winner is… irony!

Key scenes: Because Deathrow Gameshow is ostensibly a collection of sketches arrayed around a theme, it doesn’t lack setpieces. In one, McCafferty has a dream that takes the form of a movie—rated “REM,” and directed by “David Blynche”—that re-establishes the plot of the film thus far, between freaky close-ups of the main characters.

In another sketch, Agundez’s elderly mother quickly crones her way through flaming hoops, clutching cans of gasoline, which explode when she reaches the finish line.

Beyond the death of Mama Hitman, there are ample examples of Live Or Die in action, including the game “Hunger Or Lust?” where contestants bet on whether an inmate who’s spent months in solitary confinement will choose to eat a roast turkey or molest a beautiful woman. (Spoiler alert: He molests the turkey.)

Can easily be distinguished by: The occasional Airplane-esque puns and gags sprinkled throughout. For example, a shot of school kids crossing the street in slow motion pulls back to reveal a sign: “Slow Children.” And when a contestant is asked to identify an old movie in which a bandaged monster lets loose a string of profanities, the answer is, of course, Curses Of The Mummy.

Sign that it was made in 1987: Blythe plays one of those Diane Chambers types who were common on TV and in movies in the Cheers era—prim and snippy, but with a secretly powerful libido—and the inmates, audience, and TV crew alike all have a clean, yuppifed look. Also, the movie sports an electro-funk theme song with lyrics that describe the premise, just like Ghostbusters and Police Academy 4.

Timeless message: Always make sure the person you’re about to kill on television has signed a release.

Memorable quotes: Typical of Deathrow Gameshow’s punnery, during a scene where an inmate chooses a curtain that hides a noose (rather than an envelope that contains a stay of execution), the announcer jokes, “Every man dreams of being well-hung.” 

Available on DVD from Mill Creek.

Filed Under: Film, Cheers

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