Off the Beaten Path | Blood Drive

Oh I’ve found the perfect show for you ghastly readers (hopefully) spending this nightmare of an October in safety. I myself have been celebrating this quarantined holiday of madness with a show that’s madness personified for Off the Beaten Path

This show, the 2017 Syfy show/celebration of all things grindhouse Blood Drive, while not explicitly horror, revels in the vice, violence, and insanity that defines horror.

Spoiler Ahead

When discussing whether or not Blood Drive is good, it’s nigh inevitable discussion starts and ends with a “style vs. substance” debate. Looking at Blood Drive as a piece of art, you wouldn’t be wrong to say that the style dominates. What you’d be wrong in thinking though is that it’s solely style. After watching Blood Drive, it achieves that level the best grindhouse movies aspire and cheap imitators always fail; to be substantive. Sure, the further it goes the more it’s likely to stumble, but on the whole Blood Drive is better than it has any right to be.

Also, just so you’re aware, I will be talking mad spoilers. So, you know, read at your own risk.

On the style of Blood Drive

So it should come as no surprise if you look at either the trailer or everything I’ve written so far that Blood Drive is a show that is defined by a singular style. This should come as no surprise. Attempts to recreate grindhouse cinema since their heyday invariably starts with style. Cause let’s be honest, most people who turn out for movies like Planet TerrorHobo With A Shotgun, and Black Dynamite aren’t looking for movies that aspire to be Oscar nominees. They’re looking for low-budget over-the-top fun.

Arguably the most famous grindhouse-inspired movies from the 21st century.

Blood Drive is no exception. Everything about it oozes style.

From a writing standpoint, everything is either played for rule of cool or rule of funny. Cars that run on blood? Fuck it, we’ll toss people into meat-grinder engines by the dozen no matter the inefficiency! Need to introduce a character with some flair? Blast some goddamn classical music and fire up the pyrotechnics! Worried your character’s speech is too subdued and subtle? Well, give the limey bastard some speeches and one-liners that can only be performed as flamboyantly as possible! I can keep going, but you get the idea.

Beyond that, Blood Drive makes one really smart writing decision (there are more, but I’ll talk about those in more detail later).

Put simply, it is set in 1999.

Using this conceit of taking place in the dystopian future of 1999, show creator James Roland can create a retro-future based on the ideas of the ’70s. Ideas like out of control crime rates that’s parlayed into blood sports, nascent fears of climate disasters, life under a brutal corporatocracy, etc. While there are modern touches – there’s a racing team who drives a hybrid and there’s at least one reference to Taylor Swift – this creates an extra layer of authenticity and heightening the world-building.

The cinematography – provided by Yaron Levy – is also used to great effect to further this style. Attractive men and women are shot to look as sexy as humanly possible. Action and horror scenes are shot to highlight the content on the screen, whether it’s a badass car explosion in motion or men and women ripping each other apart in a dark hallway like wild animals. The colors pop when they need to pop, like when there’s a geyser of blood in an anti-septic waiting room. Conversely, when the colors need to be muted, like when we’re in a grimy basement or an unmopped cannibal kitchen, the colors follow suit. Speaking of colors, the color grade adds a subtle grainy texture, making Blood Drive feel like a high-quality remaster of an old VHS tape.

The sound design and score are something else. The roars of the engines, the snapping, and crunching of bones with the splattering of blood, all are given loving attention. Plus, I can’t not mention the score provided by Michael Gatt, which varies from some righteous metal during the more intense moments to whimsical songs when the black comedy is played for all it’s worth.

Slink opening the first Mayhem Party with all his vaudevillian glory

Most of all though is the production design. Watching a couple of episodes of Blood Drive made me want to take a shower, and I say that as a compliment. The costumes were always on point, with Slink and Aki’s costumes deserving special mentions. The makeup artists also deserve a shout-out. Because of them, you can almost smell the patina of engine exhaust, crusted sweat from fighting and fucking, and dried blood that coats the racers and the Mayhem Partiers through the screen.

Side note. There was one style-based thought that kept popping up while watching Blood Drive. Namely, this must have been a fucking blast to make. Just on the acting side, I can’t imagine Colin Cunningham and Marama Corlett not having fun playing such outlandish characters. I’m not one to be onset during productions – at most I usually wok as a script supervisor or grip when I work on the set of a CFS project – but this would be one of those productions I’d love to be a fly on the wall, an extra in the Mayhem Parties maybe.

So, take all those stylistic elements, toss them into a blood engine, and you got one of the best and most natural homages to grindhouse cinema on the market. In practice, this means Blood Drive is never boring (well, at least to me). Repetitive at times, sure. Confusing and convoluted? No question. But it’s never boring. Out of the shows I’ve covered on Off the Beaten Path, the only show that has so much fun with style is Danger 5, and that’s because Danger 5 is a very similar beast.

On the substance of Blood Drive

But here’s the thing many exploitation homages fail to account for. While many exploitation films are only concerned with style, the ones that have stood the test of time are the ones that have substance. Sometimes it’s a solid screenplay with good characters. Other times it’s a strong thematic backbone. Hell, it could even be both.

Regarding substance, what surprised me most going into Blood Drive was how well the character arcs of Grace and Arthur were done.

Grace and Arthur after half a season of bonding and character growth

Going into the show, I was expecting something on the order of a mission/homage of the week as the race goes along featuring static characterizations. Arthur (Alan Ritchson) would be the boy scout trying to help everyone he comes across along the way and Grace (Christina Ochoa) would be his cynical partner who, while willing to help, was unafraid of getting her hands dirty while following her own agenda.

Eventually, sexual tension would grow, and there would be a romance. Maybe they’d even strike at Heart, the mega-corp in charge of everything, once the race was over and they were free.

Basically, I was expecting something on the order of the story of Danger 5 S1, just with more figurative and literal connective tissue.

While it certainly started that way, something happened.

First, Grace started getting softer. The longer she hung around Arthur and the more the search for her sister Karma looked futile, the more she adopted his beliefs. After the events of Booby Traps, her goals and motives had become more altruistic; if Karma was truly dead, the best way to avenge her death and keep people from her fate is to bring down Heart with Arthur.

It gets to the point where she switches places with Arthur as the moral center of the show. Once he starts slipping, she’s the one pushing to help others, that redemption is possible for anyone. It’s quite the change for her, but somehow it’s not even the biggest.

That would be Arthur. To say he goes to Hell and back is an understatement. During the “search for Karma” arc, while he would slowly push his boundaries, he was more or less static in characterization and morality. To him, the idea that anyone can come back from anything was foundational. He was the rock while Grace changed during the search for Karma.

Then, A Fistful of Blood comes along and the second arc of Blood Drive, what I call “the reckonings of Grace an Arthur”, started in earnest. I call it this because Arthur in particular is thrown through the wringer. During these four episodes – A Fistful of Blood through Rise of the Primo – Arthur goes through a transformation, his very being relentlessly challenged by self-doubt and PTSD fresh from the Blood Drive. His ordeal and soul searching becomes an examination of the difficulty of living a moral life in such a violent, nihilistic world.  And you know what? It’s both surprisingly deep and heartbreaking.

Rather than a paragon of virtue, we learn that Arthur is a flawed man trying to atone for his mistakes. Basically, the cop Arthur looked up to, the one who gave him the notebook with all the accumulated evidence against Heart, was killed by his hand on accident during a food robbery. Filled with remorse, Arthur dedicated his life to living up to the cop’s challenge, to fight for something bigger than himself, the best he can. It’s a noble goal, but the more fucked up shit Arthur is put through during the race, the more he wavers, unsure if he can stack up.

The moment Arthur snapped

So at the moment of truth in Rise of the Primo, when all seems lost, Arthur falls. And when I say he falls, he falls hard. He gives in to the darkness and slaughters his way to the title of Primo aka the winner of the Blood Drive.

When it happens, it’s not portrayed as a badass. Instead, it’s played for tragedy.

Even though Grace can bring him back to his senses by the end of Faces of Blood Drive, something in him is changed forever.

It’s a wild arc, especially when juxtaposed with Grace’s character development, that serves to heighten Blood Drive and add a good amount of substance to the story.

But what about themes? I mentioned themes earlier as a source of substance in grindhouse cinema.

Don’t believe me that grindhouse fare can be thematically strong?

Consider the following.

Blaxploitation is a genre famous for examining the struggle of the black community against predominantly white society. The original Godzilla is an allegory for the horrors of nuclear weapons and the acceptable use of weapons of mass destruction. Cannibal Holocaust, besides being infamous for fooling viewers into thinking the onscreen murders are real to the point the director was charged with murder, is an indictment of western imperialism. Tenebrae is a Giallo film that examines the impact previous Giallo had in eroticizing the murder of women. Hell, even Death Race 2000, the movie that Blood Drive takes the most influence from, is a comment on media culture.

The reason why Blood Drive is among the best grindhouse homages is that it not only dives into thematic explorations akin to the exploitation classics but does so in a compelling way. While the anti-corporate and the green messaging are front and center – it’s hard to ignore the meaning of a megacorp wrecking the environment and untold lives in the name of profits and evil after a previous unrelated corporate disaster ruined the environment – I think the meatiest thematic examination is through the examination of media and our relationship with it.

Throughout the season, Blood Drive Master of Ceremonies Julius Slink (Colin Cunningham) is in a constant war with the executives at Heart over control of the Blood Drive. They deliver endless notes based on focus group feedback. Slink is fired and rehired at least once, and the Blood Drive is always dancing on the knife’s edge of cancellation.

That fateful first meeting when Slink learns he’ll be given notes

Watching this plot unfold, it becomes pretty apparent that Slink is a stand-in for Roland himself, and the Heart Execs conversely are stand-ins for Syfy producers. Think Deadpool if a big part of the plot was Deadpool trying to negotiate with a film studio. It’s all fine and good, waxing and waning in terms of overall amusement. Nothing overly out there in terms of creating a message.

Then Rise of the Primo happened.

All of a sudden, this theme dovetailed into the tragedy that is Arthur’s fall. In the blink of an eye, this became a story we all know; a story about the perverse desire to watch the downfall of our favorite celebrities. Through the machinations of Slink and Heart, we watch in horror as Arthur, a man who despite his self-doubts strove to do the best he could, lose his mind, and slaughter everyone around him. In the process, he becomes the nihilistic poster boy of psychopathic hedonism that Heart wants out of Blood Drive.

All this, for a meaningless tv show whose audience couldn’t even be bothered to be there in person.

It’s a poignant moment, one I didn’t think Blood Drive was capable of pulling off. This is only reinforced during the Primo Tribute Ceremony in Faces of Blood Drive, but the work has already been done, the thematic connections have been made.

So between the arcs of Grace and Arthur on top of the themes of our relationship to media culture, I think it’s safe to say Blood Drive has some substance to go along with the style.

When Blood Drive stalls

Now here’s where the other shoe drops. While Blood Drive‘s style is a consistent positive throughout, some issues bring the show down a peg. If I had to boil my complaints down into a nutshell, they would revolve around the B-story of Christopher (Thomas Dominique), Arthur’s partner on the force and best friend, and Aki (Marama Corlett), one of the service androids used by Heart, some of the twist reveals they make in the latter half of the show, and some of the more unsavory attitudes of the 70’s recreated.

The culmination of 5 episodes of plot between Christopher and Aki, mostly limited to this dungeon/conditioning room

When it comes to Aki and Christopher, I understand what Roland is going for.

From a characterization standpoint, Christopher and Arthur’s relationship is a thematic foil for the relationship between Grace and Karma, and the relationship between Christopher and Aki is a romantic foil to Grace and Arthur’s relationship. From a story standpoint, Christopher is our inside man in Heart, a lone cop trying to help his partner in any way he can.

That all sounds fine, on paper at least.

In practice is a different story.

Christopher is often sidelined, his story progression made all the slower. He even ends up in a similar arc as Arthur but doesn’t get the chance at redemption. The issue is that the pacing feels uneven and the content half-hearted so that by the time we get to the moment of truth it doesn’t hit nearly as hard as Arthur’s fall.

When it comes to his relationship with Aki, I don’t buy it as much as I do Grace and Arthur. Or at least, I don’t like what Aki became after her transformation. Before she was super fun to watch as she tortured Chris, a flamboyant madame of misery who is as liable to decapitate Christopher as flirt with him. Once she falls in love with him, she loses all her agency, her whole being devoted to Christopher. It’s certainly different than Arthur and Grace’s relationship, but not in a good way. This is hella disappointing to me since Aki is one of my favorite characters in the first half of the show.

Which brings me to some of the reveals that I wasn’t crazy about.

I should note before moving forward that I watched Blood Drive twice over the course of October. Mostly this was because I watched the season the first time in late September/early October, but between other writing projects I ended up procrastinating writing about Blood Drive.

Fast forward about two weeks. I start writing this review in earnest, but I find myself stuck. My opinions about the episodes were blurring together and my notes were incomplete, so I said “fuck it, I’ll watch it again”. There was another reason too. With so many twists that seemingly come out of nowhere in the latter half of the season, I wanted to see if Roland built up to these reveals.

Karma D’Argento

After rewatching the show, I was surprised how much was foreshadowed. Aki’s turn was set up as early as In the Crimson Halls of Kane Hill. The Karma reveal, that she was not only alive but covertly the new CEO of Heart, was set up as early as Steel City Nightfall. The Slink reveal, that he is an artificial android akin to Aki designed to be the perfect Master of Mayhem, was set up back in The Fucking Dead. All of those major reveals were there. The issue is that I’m still not fully on board with a number of those developments.

I’ve already talked about my displeasure about Aki’s arc, but Slink’s also had me scratching my head. It not only throws a wrench into what hints we have about his past pre-Heart enterprises, but it also makes the whole hiring/firing storyline seem rather pointless.

Just to add salt to the wound, it’s not even an episode later that Slink’s multitude of extra bodies are destroyed off-screen, rendering the original reveal all the more questionable.

To be fair, Slink is entertaining till the end reveal or no reveal, and I bet there are ways to write him into future seasons if the show had continued. That said him being an android subtly undermines his character in my eyes.

Lastly, I should mention that like Danger 5 S1 and yellow-face, Blood Drive resurrects some rather unsavory tropes that were more pervasive at the time. The most egregious to me is the use of the “depraved homosexual” and “depraved bisexual” tropes. This trope is used for the Gentleman and Sergeant Gower (Arthur and Christopher’s superior officer at ContraCrime), which is especially bad when most of their characterizations revolve around their sexuality and their shitty attitudes. It makes watching The Gentleman’s Agreement, where both of these tropes are in full display, rather hard to watch.

In Conclusion

So that’s Blood Drive. 

Just to recap my opinions, as a homage to the types of exploitation movies that filled the old-school grindhouse theatersBlood Drive stands atop the rest. Compared to its brethren, Blood Drive manages to make the homage feel legitimate and unforced while at the same time telling a compelling if somewhat flawed story. It’s a shame we won’t be getting any more Blood Drive, but I’m honestly cool with it.

If you’re already into grindhouse cinema, I bet you’ll dig Blood Drive. If not, it may be a lot but I think you’ll be surprised at what Blood Drive has to offer.

Final Recommendation: Recommend

My Episode Recommendations

  1. The F***ing Cop: Recommend
  2. Welcome to Pixie Swallow: Recommend
  3. Steel City Nightfall: Recommend
  4. In the Crimson Halls of Kane Hill: Recommend
  5. The F***ing Dead: Recommend
  6. Booby Traps: Recommend
  7. The Gentleman’s Agreement: Recommend With Caveats
  8. A Fistful of Blood: Recommend
  9. The Chopsocky Special: Highly Recommend
  10. Scar Tissue: Recommend
  11. Rise of the Primo: Highly Recommend
  12. Faces of Blood Drive: Recommend With Caveats
  13. Finish Line: Recommend

In Case You’re Interested in Watching Blood Drive

In case you’re interested in watching Blood Drive, you won’t find it available to stream on any of the main streaming services. If you’re brave enough, you can watch the episodes for free on the Syfy website.

Joseph MacMaster

Writer extraordinaire in progress who hangs out with the Chicago Film Scene crew. I screenwrite for my fellow CFS filmmakers. I also write TV and movie reviews, and am a co-host/main writer of the Chicago Film Scene: Live! podcast.

Joseph MacMaster

Writer extraordinaire in progress who hangs out with the Chicago Film Scene crew. I screenwrite for my fellow CFS filmmakers. I also write TV and movie reviews, and am a co-host/main writer of the Chicago Film Scene: Live! podcast.

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