Warning: The following article will contain spoilers
The story, all names, characters and incidents portrayed in this production are fictitious, but wouldn’t it be neat if they weren’t?
So reads the disclaimer in the end credits of Deathrow Gameshow, the 1987 satirical film directed and written by Mark Pirro. Live or Die is the name of the show and on it, contestants are all death row inmates who have the chance to evade execution, provided they can answer trivia correctly, make the right deal, or get through the physical challenge. Otherwise, it’s certain death, which from what is shown to the viewer seems to predominantly be the case.
Deathrow Gameshow was a contemporary of The Running Man, and a precursor to the likes of The Hunger Games, but differed in several key areas. Its interest is not in getting points across with solemnity, but with humor and playing as many pieces for comedic effect as it can.
Unlike those other films, a contestant is not the narrative’s focal point. The protagonist is Chuck Toedan, the host and producer of the show. He is not presented as a villain like how other pictures of this kind do, however oily and sleazy he is as a person. The story is told from his perspective, not that of a contestant who has to overcome the challenges of the show. Chuck has his own set of obstacles as only the face of a controversial program can have. For him, a good day means receiving just two bomb threats.
The character in the film that serves as the voice of moral outrage is Gloria Sternvirgin. The given name of this character is no doubt a reference to Allred and/or Steinem, and the surname is no doubt a harsh jab at both and other women like them. Sternvirgin is the leader of a special interest group called WAAMAF, Women Against Anything Men Are For. There’s also a scene earlier in which she’s leading a protest rally, where some of the signs held up say “Only God Can Kill” and “Chuck Should Be Aborted.”
It’s rather odd that the film opts to use a feminist for this role. The contestants shown are all men and the issues that she raises are not ones of gender. This is perhaps done as a critique of the current feminist movements in how they jump on bandwagons of unrelated causes to stay relevant. This is especially true by the end of the film when Gloria has fallen for Chuck and all but abandoned any objections to his work.
Despite this, Live or Die is shown to have a large number of fans. Chuck regularly encounters Dinko, a fanatic who begs to be let on the show, apparently not realizing the obvious basic requirement. He also has groupies, and one is shown sleeping with him to convince him to make her imprisoned boyfriend a contestant. Some religious types also approve, believing the show to be doing God’s work in the transition between life and death. The tapings of the episodes always have a full studio audience, including sometimes a contestant’s family members who he can win money for. Interestingly, this was a component of the original novel of The Running Man but was not used in the film version.
The contestants of Deathrow Gameshow are not humanized in the manner that is seen in those other films. They have no names, only referred to by numbers. When Chuck is asked if he remembers a past player, his memory only gets triggered when it’s mentioned how he was killed on the show. This is not limited to the game show, as one of the commercials features a prisoner as a test subject for rat poison. Furthermore, no real histories are given and it is never specified whether any may be innocent of the crimes they were sentenced for.
That is until Luigi Pappalardo and his mother enter the story. Luigi is a mob hitman who’s out to avenge his boss Don Guido Spumoni, who was killed on Live or Die in a challenge where he had to avoid getting an erection while the show’s model Shanna Shallow did a lengthy striptease or else would be electrocuted. He managed not to get aroused during this, but as soon as Chuck put his hand on his shoulder in a congratulatory gesture, the contraption went off and he was fried. So not only was this powerful crime figure killed but he was humiliatingly outed as well.
Mama Pappalardo and Spumoni are played by the same (male) actor. This is rather fitting, as the former replaces the latter as Luigi’s motive for vengeance. He brings her to the studio (K-SIK) to get her on a different game show called Make Your Big Deal and dresses her in a black and white horizontal striped shirt, thinking that it will get her noticed and chosen for the show. It does, but for Live or Die. Her challenge there is to jump through flaming hoops while holding two cans of gasoline and then place the cans on a podium between candles, which she manages to do but the podium collapses and she is blown up. Ironically, she proves to be a more capable contestant than the actual death row inmates.
When Chuck realizes the error and Luigi discovers it, he then is forced to put Luigi on the show and then make certain that he fails to complete his task. However, he does not die and tries to finally take revenge on Chuck and Gloria by forcing them to complete the challenge he had, but is at last mortally wounded by Dinko in his attempt to commit a crime that would put him on death row. That wish won’t be granted though, since Luigi manages to shoot and kill him before dying. In essence, the show proves to be so well-loved that any attempt to stage a coup against it will be thwarted.
But what chiefly sets Deathrow Gameshow apart from the dystopian stories is that it is in fact not dystopian at all. The setting is the present, the same world as we know it. All the excess and debauchery that the 1980s became known for are front and center. A radio announcement says: “We’d like to remind our alcoholic friends out there not to drive while drinking – you could spill it.” When the other films set themselves in a far-off time and place, they become less linked to our reality. The audience just sees it as fantasy and not something that could legitimately happen or holds any relevance to the real world. But when the setting is immediate, there’s a tangibility to the picture.
Deathrow Gameshow is not a cautionary tale to warn about perverse sensibilities running rampant in the future. Its point is in illustrating how those exist in the present.