The Unholy Rollers (1972)

Also known as:
Leader of the Pack

With Roller Derby seemingly undergoing some kind of resurgence in 2007, the time seems apt to take a look at this little epic from producer Roger Corman. After watching The Unholy Rollers, I'm convinced star Claudia Jennings could have become quite a screen actress even beyond her youth. The spunk and aggression she conveys here shows quite a talent, and an acting passion beyond merely showing off her admittedly fine body. Are we looking at a classic of the exploitation genre that's a must-see for all you Girls, Guns and Ghoulsers? This virtually plotless film does provide a lot of low-brow entertainment, and certainly anyone with a hint of a Claudia Jennings fetish will have to track it down.

Karen Walker (Claudia) likes watching the local Roller Derby team, the Avengers, beat the hell out of each other and entertain the masses. It's a small relief though, from her mundane job at a cannery. When the obnoxious old floor manager gropes her and tries to put her in her place, Karen's a tough nut and won't take anything from anyone. In a rage, she puts the conveyor belt into overdrive and sends cans of muck careening all over the factory. She then smears some of the gunk in the sleazy boss's face. That's the end of her cannery career. When Karen comes home she find her stripper room-mate and boyfriend having sex, but she's more concerned with getting a new job. When they go to a supermarket later and are snubbed by the girl at the cashier, Karen sends a display of cans all over the shop floor. Our Karen is an aggressive gal when crossed!

On a whim, Karen tries out for a place in the Avengers. After a comical tryout session with all sorts of bumbling goons getting ejected from the session, she impresses the boss, Mister Stern (Louis Quinn), enough with her skating style, and gets a place. There's a subsequent training scene that tries to explain what Roller Derby is all about, but I couldn't catch half of it. Something about gaining points by passing your opponents. The main gist of the sequence, though, is to show that Roller Derby is more theatre than reality, and that the Rollers need to engage in staged fights to entertain the masses. Kind of like wrestling on wheels! After an appointment with a sleazy doctor who may not be a doctor and just wants to see her naked - he gets as far as her undies - Karen undaunted joins the team. It's not an easy group of people to find a place in, though. There's tensions in the locker room, and one of the female team seems to have a problem with Karen, teasing her about her dress-sense and attitude.

When they all go out to a bar, the friction comes to a head between Karen and her female harrasser. When Karen bats her off yet again, she gets most of the team to hold her down and rip her clothes off (except for undies) on a pool table, as some kind of initiation rite. Far from cowed, humiliated and subserviant, Karen gets off the table and proceeds to berate the girl, telling her to take a good look at what a fine body she'll never get her hands on. She tells off all the others, telling one participant (as her boyfriend looks on) that she's not good looking enough to fight for. This is quite a scene, with Jennings in full angry flight. She's impressive, not just for the bared flesh on display, but for the sheer attitude she radiates. I'd be intimidated by this woman! One of the male Avengers, Nick, (Jay Varela) finds her clothes and gives her a lift on his bike, a chopped hog in the Easy Rider tradition. Karen pulls his gun and fires at passing landmarks, much to his chagrin. Later, they go back to the arena and roll around, bumping each other as Karen does a gradual, rolling strip and they have sex.

Quickly, Karen becomes the number one Avenger. Due to her aggression and charisma in the rink, the crowds love her. She instinctively beats up on the comic villains the rubes love to hate. She gets herself a tattoo on her arm to flash at the crowd. She sells products on television in cheesy adverts for the Avengers. With money at her disposal, Karen buys herself a flash super-car and house. Her roommate and boyfriend move out though - they don't want to be 'looked after' by her and they have a topless mechanic's business to start! Mister Stern is becoming annoyed with Karen flouting the rules but she's still his star. On the tour bus, Nick introduces his wife Tina to Karen. Karen's feigns disinterest but she's less than impressed and acts angrily towards him after that. They shoot some bullets at a firing range as a last 'date' and soon, in a locker room, Nick tries to seduce Karen and ends up kneed in the balls.

Karen's female nemesis joins the other team, the Demons. As the two fight it out, Karen ends up flinging her out of the skating area and sending her unconsious to the hospital. After that, The Avengers - including exploitation regular Roberta Collins - turn on her, and beat her up in a carpark and 'key' her beloved car. She gets in her car and attacks things on her way. Tries to run over drunks. Crashes through street displays. Later, Karen has another argument with Mister Stern about toeing the line after he barges into her locker-room when she's half-naked. She realises another woman, tall, black Beverley, is being groomed to be the new number one. Cracking under the pressure, Karen goes berserk during the next Roller Derby, attacking all and sundry, the doctor, the bench of resting teammates and throws off her helmet and rolls out into the carpark. The audience is dumbfounded. All the 'derbyists' begin fighting. Chaos ensues. Outside, Karen's rampage continues! She attacks anyone in her way, until she's hit by a car. Will she rise, crazed but defiant, or is this the end of our Roller Queen?

I'll get the obvious bit out of the way first. Claudia looks great naked. Obviously director Vernon Zimmerman agrees, because he shows quite a bit of her in this state. Nonetheless, he also allows her to portray a snarling, fierce young woman who won't take any crap from anyone. It's drive-in fare to be sure, but I think even the staunchest feminist would raise a smile if they saw Karen in full alpha-female flight. I don't feel like I know any more about Roller Derby than when I pressed start on the film, The Unholy Rollers is not filmed like a Roller Derby instructional. It's lots of slim and not-so-slim bodies careening around, bumping each other over rails and mock-fighting. This is not to say that Zimmerman's film isn't a successful piece of simple entertainment. As I mentioned at the start of the review, there's no real plot, just Karen going through a rudimentary rise-and-fall scenario. An actress with less charisma would have crippled the film into utter obscurity (which The Unholy Rollers almost dwells in anyway) but Claudia makes it worth a watch. The rest of the actors do their best, with only Roberta Collins as an angry - but beautiful - teammate really standing out.

It's probably time The Unholy Rollers got a decent DVD release. It's got a lot of drive-in, seventies entertainment value, cult actress Claudia Jennings with a marvellous performance, and a fun glimpse into a once-bygone, distinctly oddball sports-entertainment which may be now playing at an arena near you!

© Boris Lugosi, 2007.

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