A sequel (or rather, follow-up) to a major studio steamy, brutal tale of slavery in a post-Civil War Deep South (Paramount’s MANDINGO, 1975), 1976’s DRUM continues the saga and finally receives a digital release courtesy of Kino Lorber.
After white prostitute Marianna (Isela Vega, THE FEAR CHAMBER) has an affair with a black slave, she gives birth to a boy who is raised by her slave mistress Rachel (Paula Kelly, SOYLENT GREEN) as her own. Some twenty years later, the offspring grows up to be a handsome, well built man called Drum (heavyweight boxer Ken Norton, MANDINGO), now propelled into slavery and forced to bare-knuckle fight fellow slave Blaise (Yaphet Kotto. ACROSS 110TH STREET) for the entertainment of a wealthy gay Frenchman, Bernard DeMarigny (John Colicos, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA), and his depraved party guests. Drum wins the fight, but insists on befriending his competitor Blaise, and as a reward, he is given his own woman in slavegirl Calinda (Brenda Sykes, CLEOPATRA JONES). When they begin to consummate their new relationship that night, DeMarigny barges in on them with the intent on pushing his advances on Drum who resists and reacts violently as the Frenchman swears revenge (he later shoots Rachel, the woman who Drum thinks is his biological mother).
Eventually, Drum and Blaise are sold to wealthy plantation owner Hammond Maxwell (Warren Oates, RACE WITH THE DEVIL) along with another female slave named Regine (Pam Grier, COFFY) who Maxwell desires in his bedroom. Regine does bed her master Maxwell, but also forms a sexual bond with Drum. Introduced to him by Marianna, southern belle Augusta Chauvet (Fiona Lewis, DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN) also moves into the estate and eventually becomes Maxwell’s fiance. Trouble for Drum and Blaise comes in the form of Maxwell’s bratty, oversexed daughter Sophie (Rainbeaux Smith, LEMORA), who is always grabbing for the pants buttons of both men who reject her in fear of their lives. After her father announces his marriage to Augusta (who will now be her stepmother), Sophie accuses Blaise of attempted rape, as the innocent prisoner is chained up in the shed awaiting further drastic punishment. During a dinner party for the engagement of Maxwell and Augusta, Drum frees Blaise from his chains, and Blaise in turn leads a violent slave uprising and attack on the houseguests inside the Falconhurst mansion.
Produced by Dino De Laurentiis and directed by Hollywood veteran Richard Fleischer, MANDINGO was a success for Paramount even though its steamy depictions of an ugly time in American history was largely panned by critics. Naturally, De Laurentiis mounted an immediate sequel again to be released by Paramount (it ended up seeing release through United Artists) and directed by another veteran Burt Topper (known for such westerns as RETURN OF THE SEVEN, SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL GUNFIGHTER, HANNIE CAULDER and THE TRAIN ROBBERS). But due to creative differences with De Laurentiis, Fleischer was let go from the production (along with several main actors who were cast and started shooting) and he was replaced by a much younger up-and-coming filmmaker who came out of the Roger Corman school: Steve Carver, who had already directed THE ARENA, BIG BAD MAMA and CAPONE for the King of the B’s. With its high production values already concreted and Carver coming on and bringing his Corman sensibilities to the proceedings, DRUM can be considered one of the most expensive American exploitation movies of the 1970s. Much less darker and far less brutal a film than MANDINGO, when put into the perspective of its subject matter, Carver’s DRUM is a far more enjoyable piece of drive-in trash with a top-notch cast and a larger budget which really shows on the screen (the convincing Antebellum architecture and landscapes for example).
The film dabbles with just about every possible exploitable element, including hints of incest, bloody brawls, castrations, torture, debauchery and the tense sexual boundaries of the various characters. The dialogue is very racy, with "N" word mentioned commonly along with open conversations about white women's breasts and the “snakes” of black men. It’s funny how Quentin Tarantino’s recent DJANGO UNCHAINED explored similar themes (and DRUM was definitely an inspiration) and gets nominated for a “Best Picture” Oscar nod, yet it’s not quite as entertaining and not nearly as overblown. The “T&A” factor here is very high, with nearly all the familiar B movie actresses showing some nakedness or going topless. Ironically it’s Pam Grier (here billed as “Pamela Grier” perhaps looking to be taken more serious as an actress) who avoids shedding much skin (the film was made the year after her time as leading actress for American International Pictures had ended). Oates is good as usual, giving some humor and humanity into his slavemaster role, and the great Kotto treats the material with his usual intensity. Norton on the other hand is a better boxer than an actor, and he along with Sykes and Lillian Hayman (as the slave mother Lucrezia Borgia, seemingly channeling Hattie McDaniel) are the only three main actors returning from MANDINGO.
While DRUM has been an MGM home video property for quite some time, it hasn’t been officially available here on any format since its 1980s VHS release through Vestron Video. Using MGM’s HD master as the transfer source, the Blu-ray presents the film in 1080p in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The film element remains satisfyingly clean, with only a few fleeting instances of dirt and debris. While the opening slave crowd shots look a tad on the soft side, the rest of the picture boasts an excellent amount of detail, while colors look pleasing and natural throughout. The DTS-HD Master 2.0 track has clear dialog and there are no distortions or problematic background hiss.
The main extra on the disc (produced by Scorpion Releasing) is an excellent commentary with director Carver, moderated by Bill Olsen. Carver discusses coming onto the film, as well as the departure of Topper (along with cast members such as John Vernon) and remembers a lot about the production, stating that credited writer Norman Wexler is not responsible for the final screenplay. He goes on to describe his Corman-inspired approach to making the film, the well-constructed and very expensive sets afforded, and shares many anecdotes about the various cast members, especially Norton (who took a while to warm up to him after Kennedy, who he liked a great deal, was let go) including his great fear of horses! Carver also dishes about a number of scenes cut by the MPAA for their sexual and language content, as well as longer scenes of characterization which were also excised. Rounding out the extras is the film’s original theatrical trailer. (George R. Reis)
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