The Bad Movie Report



You know what? It's an R-Rated Drive-in flick! You know what that means: the review is recommended for mature audiences.

The Arena
aka Naked Warriors

Ah, the grandeur that was Rome... is not in evidence here.

What did you expect? It's largely a Women in Prison picture, set in the heyday of the Roman Empire.

In faraway Brittany and Nubia, Roman soldiers break up religious functions and kill everyone except the priestesses: the fair-haired Bodicia (Margaret Markov) and the fiery Mamawi (Pam Grier, arguably the queen of WiP movies). They are saved "for the market".

Casting call for the Josie and the Pussycats movieThis is a tad curious; admittedly, this is set during a time of great expansion (then, practically any point you talk about the Empire is a period of conquest), so I can almost accept the Roman forces riding in like the motorized thugs of Road Warrior and laying waste to everything. It's the largest military force in the world acting as a farm team for the slave trade that leaves me scratching my head. Sure, prisoners of war ended up as slaves - empires are run on the backs of slaves - but that means you've got to keep somebody alive to enslave, and not just the photogenic ones. Well, he sighed, the story had to be set up somehow...

So Bodicia and Mamawi find themselves on the same chain in a slave market, along with Deirdre (Lucretia Love) and Livia (Marie Louise), herself a Roman sold into slavery (though we're never told why). They are bought as a lot by a mincing fellow appropriately named Priscium (Sid Lawrence). "Handle them gently," says the slave trader. "I won't handle them at all!" gaily asserts Priscium. (I also may be nuts, but Icould swear that the guy in the crowd who offers a mere four pieces of gold for the women is Roger Corman. Well, it should be, anyway.)

Do you realize how hard it is to find a picture like this that shows NOTHING?Priscium, it seems, is the procurer for the manager of the local Arena, Timarchus (Daniele Vargas), for whom the women will serve all sorts of functions. First though, the women are introduced to the Lady of the House, Cornelia (Lady Frankenstein's Rosalba Neri, here still dubbed Sara Bay for us Amurricans). Cornelia orders them to strip in the courtyard, that they may be washed, This is done primarily because the Roman Empire had not yet invented showers, and Crap Movie Law dictates that every WiP movie shall have at least one shower scene. When Bodicia refuses, Cornelia takes off her belt and smacks her into compliance; when the others still balk, a pair of passing gladiators help out, much to the amusement of all the other slaves in the courtyard.

"Your knee.... is in... my ear!!!"Timarchus, you see, also heads up the consortium that owns all the gladiators, this being the days before the Department of Justice would bust up such an obvious monopoly. As the girls are meant to sell wine to the games' patrons, Cornelia takes them to the Arena for their orientation, and they are shocked to see that the two men who aided in their stripping have just participated in the week's fight, and one lies bleeding to death in the sand. Bodicia comforts the dying man, while the victor, Marcus (Vassili Karas) sorrowfully states it was the will of the crowd.

At the post-Game celebration and orgy (those Romans knew how to party, eh? Toga! Toga! Toga!), Bodicia and Mamawi are presented to the partiers, carried in a gilded cage. Mamawi proceeds to dance for the besotted group, while Bodicia slaps one Roman who paws her, drawing the wrath of one of the slave owners, Lucilius (Paul Muller, whom I kept referring to in the Lady Frankenstein review as "Joe Flaherty". It's a regular reunion! Where's poor Joseph Cotten?). Lucilius declares he will "teach her a lesson" and rapes her on the spot (Agh! Excessive back hair!).

Timarchus and his cronies are seeking a way to boost sagging ticket sales, or whatever they had for gladiatorial games, and announces that for next week's fight, it will be two men against one, the one being the gladiators' instructor, the giant Septimus (Peter Cester), and the two last week's victor Marcus, and the black gladiator, Quintus (Jho Jhenkins). And Cornelia reveals that each man, the night before he fights, has his choice of the women the night before (Livia: "Oh Gods! Do you mean we have to satisfy their animal heat?"). Septimus already has a mate, the slave Lucinia (Mary Count), with whom he has a child; Marcus chooses Bodicia, and Quintus, Mamawi.

"What IS this Star Trek costume sh*t?"Marcus, certain that he will die at the hands of Septimus, tries to send Bodicia away, but she insists on staying and comforting him; when she speaks of escape, he truthfully answers, "To where?" After all, the entire world, at this point, consisted of the Roman Empire. Quintus tries to attack Mamawi like an animal, with the result that she threatens to cut his throat with a piece of broken crockery and shout, "The Romans have taught you to live like an animal! Have they also taught you to forget your past?" But then, a smack upside the head from Pam Grier is as good as a fiery soul kiss from any other woman, so soon both couples are going at it... after all, it's been almost five minutes since we last saw naked female flesh.

Things go rather downhill from there for our slave sweethearts as Septimus proves that he may have taught the other two everything they know, but he didn't teach them everything he knows, and both women watch the men they loved the night before die in the sand. That night, as the girls work in the kitchen for the post-Game feast, Livia proves that you don't have to be male to be a prick, as she says, "All Septimus did was kill a black." This provokes a food-and-cat fight of extraordinary magnitude, causing Priscius to run whimpering to the steambath where Timarchus and the others are trying to brainstorm another way to bring in the proles: "How about huge serpents? Would not huge serpents entice them?". They sure talked funny in the old days.

The men stick their head into the tumultuous kitchen, then withdraw them quickly again, for fear of having their heads cut off by flying tomatoes or something. They eventually send in Septimus; the big galoot, concerned that Lucinia may be hurt, breaks up the party single-handed. In the aftermath, one of Timarchus' yes-men realizes they have just been handed the special event that will bring the punters in: put the women in the Arena.

Yeah, like that was really hard.So the women find themselves training alongside the men, albeit not very seriously. The first match is between Bodicia and Deirdre; Deirdre, who has been stealing wine since the very first scene, is too inebriated to even hold her sword, finally collapsing on the ground in a drunken stupor; the crowd takes it all as a major joke, and cheer spectacularly.

That night, Lucinia has a dream, that she will fight and die in the Arena. The sleepy Septimus tells her that will never happen, and urges her to go back to sleep.

The first fight having been such a popular success, Timarchus schedules another for the next day, and it is the grudge match we've been waiting for: Mamawi vs. Livia. Once on the sands, however, Livia proclaims to the crowd that she was born a Roman. The crowd, already in an ugly mood, gets positively surly: "Will you murder our children before us?" Cravenly, Timarchus orders another slave, any slave, to take Livia's place. All the others, however, are working the crowd... all of them, that is, except Lucinia.

If there is one thing a study of literature teaches us, it is this: if you live in an ancient civilization, do not ignore dreams.

Lucinia, of course, loses to Mamawi (Septimus must be restrained by several other gladiators to prevent his intervention and subsequent execution) and when the Nubian proves reluctant to obey the crowd and kill her opponent, the Roman archers step to the plate and nick her arm in warning. Staring down the barrel of a loaded bow, Mamawi must kill Lucinia to save her own life - something Livia does not let her forget that night. (We are now pretty damn certain that Livia is going to come to a sticky end.)

"My wig!  My poor, poor wig!"Business is booming, so Timarchus decides on an unprecedented third Game in one week - this one featuring the winners of the first two matches, Bodicia vs. Mamawi. Bodicia claims her right to the man of her picking that night, surprising many with her choice: Septimus. But the wily Briton wants to be alone with the grieving gladiator for a reason: he knows the way through the catacombs beneath the town, and Bodicia begs him - for the sake of his daughter, who might herself one day be forced to fight in the games - to help them all escape. Septimus, still sobbing, agrees.

So all the women - even the unwilling Livia, brought along so she can't tattle - sneak out to the catacombs, and wait there for their guide. But Septimus has other ideas, and breaks into Timarchus's chamber to assassinate him. He is thwarted in this by the Roman soldiers guarding Timarchus, and the slave owner - chewing the scenery and his bedsheet (in that order), orders Septimus to be crucified, over the dismayed protests of the Centurion.

Apparently the women get tired of waiting for Septimus and go back to their quarters, since the next time we see them, they are suiting up for the Arena. Cornelia tells them that Timarchus is so giddy over surviving the assassination attempt, that he will consider giving the winner of today's fight her freedom. Bodicia tries to convince Mamawi that there is another way, but Mamawi is convinced her freedom lies only through the Arena, and the death of her opponent.

Carrot Top makes the "Arrow Shirt" gag once too oftenThe expected donnybrook occurs, with Mamawi winning; however, rather than killing Bodicia, she instead demands the freedom promised her, as victor. To Timarchus' shock - and okay, to the audience's as well - the crowd agrees with her. When the archers are ordered to kill Mamawi, instead several of the girls in the stands pop up with their own bows and arrows (Wha-? How -? How did they learn to - ? Aaaghh! Never mind!) and start porcupining soldiers. Deirdre pushes Timarchus into the Arena, where he cowardly drops an offered sword and snivels for his life rather than fighting for it. After he is dispatched by Mamawi and Bodicia, the crowd decides this is fine spectacle indeed.

In fact, alongside the innovations with which we usually credit the Romans - water systems, roads, bureaucracy - we can also add The Soccer Hooligan, as the crowd riots and storms Timarchus' box, throwing all the inhabitants of the box into the Arena. (You just can't trust a drunken mob anymore.) Well, almost everyone winds up in the killing field, except for Lucilius (who cagily crawled out when he saw which way the wind was blowing) and Livia, who gets her prescribed comeuppance, gang-raped by the mob. Yes, it would have been much more satisfying if Mamawi had been finally allowed to whack that smirk off her Roman face, but in the WiP film, one accepts what justice one can. More soldiers arrive, gladiators storm out of their pens, and the carnage - and our climax - starts in earnest.

Studio audience?  What do you say?This is the next Great Tradition of the WiP picture, the Jailbreak In Which Damn Near Everybody Dies (oh, I'm sorry - did I spoil anything for you?) . Our surviving trio, Bodicia, Mamawi and Deirdre, break out of the Arena along with several other gladiators just as Lucilius arrives with more soldiers. After all the other gladiators whose names we never bothered to learn are killed (including one who was apparently just standing there, minding his own business), the trio take refuge in those catacombs again. The Centurion receives orders that his garrison is to return to Rome, and offers the angry Lucilius only a token force - on a time limit - to take down into the labyrinth.

Well, a couple more dead women later - and one of them is Deirdre, whom I was actually sorry to see go - the remaining soldiers balk at leaping across an abyss so deep that we are never shown it (yeah, that's why we're never shown it, it's so deep, yeah....) leaving it up to Lucilius to hurl himself to the opposite side and go all Terminator on our two remaining slaves. I've already killed the ending for you, so I'll reveal that Lucilius gives a sword a new home (in his back), Bodicia and Mamawi make it out and apparently find a way to safety, also according to Crap Movie Law. Although they do not swear to come back and destroy the Roman Empire, which would have completed the Crap Movie Trifecta. The end.

Well, that's generally the toughest part - the plot synopsis. The Arena progresses more or less logically, along established lines. There's not a whole lot of new ground broken here, but the story does keep things moving briskly, alternating between skin and fight scenes. It's not as gritty as, say The Big Bird Cage, nor as exploitative (is that even a word?) as Love Camp 7, but it is fairly entertaining.

"You fiends!  What have you done to Carrot Top?"Although there is the usual amount of the "Oh come on" factor to be found here, there is also evidence that some actual effort was made to keep the history on the up and up. Smaller towns in the Empire did indeed have their own bloodsport arenas. The Spartacus-inspired slave uprising is mentioned at least twice, both times in a way that seem to indicate that it had happened just a few years previous. Given that the uprising occurred somewhere between 71 and 73 BC, and the first mention of female gladiators crops up around 63 BC, it indicates some actual thought went into the plotting.

Juries are still out, however, on how much actual death went on in those Arenas. A certain amount of the fights resulted in dead contestants, certainly, but if there is one thing the owners seems concerned about in The Arena, it's the economics of the situation. Training a good gladiator was a lengthy, relatively expensive process - you had to pay for upkeep until he was good enough or famous enough to realize a profit on your investment. Getting them killed willy-nilly would simply be bad business. But for the sake of drama, of course, death must be the inevitable outcome of the Games, at least in the realm of movies. Just as everyone, whether from Brittany or faraway Nubia, apparently speaks Latin.

"You wanna kick his ass?  or should I?"The cast is an attractive lot, and most hold up their end of the movie well. The lovely Rosalba Neri is fairly wasted as the villainous Cornelia, but Lucretia Love as the drunken Deirdre is not only perpetually cute, but manages the neat trick of being the Comic Relief without also being Odious. The team of Margaret Markov and Pam Grier had explored similar territory the year before, in Eddie Romero's Philippine WiP flick, Black Mama, White Mama; the problem here is Markov's relative blandness simply pales next to Grier's earthy naturalism. That's a problem sadly inherent in playing the hero or heroine, and Markov is not a sufficiently forceful actress to overcome that hurdle. Pam Grier is - Pam Grier. She gets naked several times during the movie. These two factors combined make this required viewing for most of us heterosexual male Crap Movie fans.

The male contingent of our cast is a sad lot, though much of their performance is damaged irreparably simply by the obvious dubbing. No amount of dubbing, however, could excuse Daniele Vargas' overacting as Timarchus. His eyerolling, sheet-chewing scene when he condemns Septimus to death could likely be used as proof for the (now discredited) theory that Rome went mad from drinking water poisoned by lead piping. Sid Lawrence can be forgiven, he was told to be a cliché as Priscium, and he is a Is dis uh dagger uh see before me?cliché. Paul Muller's Lucilius, however, is a nicely restrained, steady performance by a pro.

Though credited to Steve Carver, the IMDb credits the movie's direction to the now-legendary Joe D'Amato. This does seem to make some sense, as Carver's filmography is solidly rooted in American soil, and Arena is an obviously foreign production. D'Amato is in the credits as cinematographer, under one of his thousand names (and apparently his real one), Aristide Massaccesi. While not as explicit as D'Amato's later work (like Porno Holocaust) nor as gut-wrenchingly bad (like Troll 2), Arena does show signs of both traits, while not wallowing in either. Like I said, it's entertaining, even affecting in several scenes, which elevate the movie above mere drive-in fare.

There is, for instance, the scene where Lucinia is stoically dressed in armor for the Arena, knowing that she is going to die, all under the sad, watchful eye of her five year-old daughter. And the scene where, as the soldiers prepare to crucify him, Septimus states that man should die as he lived, and the Centurion silently hands him a shortsword. Septimus, however, apparently did not see Gladiator, as he thankfully accepts the weapon and guts himself.

It is also worth mentioning that, unlike a certain other multi-million dollar Roman bloodsport extravaganza, I could see and comprehend fully everything that happens during the fight scenes in The Arena - even though I was watching the dreadfully cropped Concorde DVD. That counts for a lot with me, and proves that sometimes, the old, cheap ways really are the best.


Exploitation with a (rather slight) historical flavor.

- March 9, 2001


Opposable Thumb Films