Thursday, 15 March 2018

Drum (1976)

Drum was a kind of sequel to Mandingo, which in 1975 had (for a short time) put the slavesploitation genre on the map. Mandingo actually took itself more seriously than you might expect, trying to be more than just trash. It was trash, but trash with some pretensions. Drum appeared in the following year and it is pure trash. Pure trash, but deliriously entertaining trash.

Drum is the name of a slave. We start with a brief prologue about his birth and upbringing. He is the offspring of a white woman, Marianna (Isela Vega) and a black slave. Marianna’s slave Rachel raised the boy as her own to avoid a scandal.

Now, twenty years later, Marianna runs the most celebrated whorehouse in New Orleans. Drum enjoys a comfortable enough life as a house slave. Then fate takes a hand.

The sinister degenerate Bernard DeMarigny (John Colicos) has organised a fight between two slaves to serve as entertainment for his friends but one of the slaves has been withdrawn from the fight by his master. Rather than be embarrassed in front of his friends DeMarigny coerces Marianna into allowing Drum to fight. DeMarigny’s slave Blaise (Yaphet Kotto) is a formidable opponent. After half-killing Blaise Drum decides he wants to be his friend. It will be an uneasy friendship.

DeMarigny offers Drum anything he wants as a reward for winning the fight and Drum decides he wants a woman. He gets Calinda (Brenda Sykes). As a bonus he also gets Blaise. Things turn very awkward however when DeMarigny tries to seduce Drum and not only gets rejected but gets clobbered as well. DeMarigny vows to get his revenge.

To get Drum out of the situation Marianna sells him to Hammond Maxwell (Warren Beatty). Maxwell’s plantation, Falconhurst, is devoted entirely to the breeding of slaves.

To set up a nicely explosive situation two more elements are added. Maxwell wants Marianna to find him a nice whore to help him raise his very troublesome daughter Sophie (Cheryl "Rainbeaux" Smith) but Augusta (Fiona Lewis) turns out to be a lady rather than a whore and being a lady she is determined to change things at Falconhurst.

Even more explosive is Sophie herself, whose chief hobby seems to be trying to seduce the male slaves. When set sets her sights on Blaise things are clearly going to get messy. If the master finds out he’ll have Blaise killed, if Blaise is lucky.

The stage is set for the standard slavesploitation ending - a revolt with lots and lots of violence.

The plot offers obvious opportunities for copious amounts of sex and violence. The sex includes every deviation you can think of. There’s a great deal of nudity. Most of it is entirely gratuitous but it doesn’t pretend to be anything else, which at least is refreshingly honest.

This was not an exploitation B-movie. It was a genuine big-budget A-picture. It was originally a Paramount project but ended up being released by United Artists. The switch to UA entailed major reshuffles with Steve Carver replacing Burt Kennedy as director, major cast changes and a complete rewrite of the script. It also meant a cut in the budget but the budget was still insanely high by exploitation movie standards. Not many exploitation movies have a crew of 150. And when they needed a mansion they built one, at a cost of one million dollars (and that’s one million dollars in 1976 money). They then burnt it to the ground.

With lots of money spent on it and an extremely generous 63-day shooting schedule you’d expect Drum to look sensational, and it does. The sets are superb. And they’re big! Having multiple Academy Award-winning cinematographer Lucien Ballard onboard also doesn’t hurt.

The movie’s biggest asset is Warren Oates. He gives a performance that very cleverly combines campiness and subtlety. He gets plenty of laughs but he makes Hammond Maxwell surprisingly complex. Maxwell might be a slave-owner but in his own bizarre way he’s a kindly man with his own individual but rigid moral code. He is definitely no melodrama villain. He’s the most interesting and in some ways the most sympathetic character in the movie.

Ken Norton can’t act at all but he looks the part. Yaphet Kotto can act, and does so to good effect. Fiona Lewis is a delight as Augusta, combining primness with spirit and managing to be scheming but in a good way. Pam Grier gets very little to do as Maxwell’s bed wench Regine (unfortunately most of her scenes were among the many that the MPAA insisted be cut). Rainbeaux Smith is great fun as the terrifyingly slutty Sophie.

While it tries to be a bit more serious at the beginning and at the end the middle part of Drum is outrageous and often very funny.

Drum is the kind of movie that no-one would dare to make today. While it ticks all the right political boxes and takes all the correct political stances (it is certainly very much an anti-slavery film) it still manages to be outrageously politically incorrect. There’s nothing pious or preachy here - despite the big budget this is unequivocally an exploitation movie and it delivers the exploitation elements with enthusiasm. Steve Carver was a graduate of the Roger Corman school of film-making and the end result is exactly like a Roger Corman movie made on an enormous budget.

One thing you have to keep in mind is that if this film seems a little disjointed at times that’s because it was cut to ribbons by the MPAA.

Kino Lorber’s Region 1 DVD includes an audio commentary by the director. The transfer is anamorphic and it’s excellent.

Drum is totally disreputable but it doesn’t care. It sets out to entertain and it succeeds. Highly recommended.

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