UNHOLY ROLLERS combines two of my favorite 1970’s obsessions – Roller Derby and Claudia Jennings! Back in the day, the exploits of Roller Derby teams like the San Francisco Bay Bombers and Philadelphia Warriors, and stars like Charlie O’Connell and “Pretty” Judy Arnold, were broadcast Saturdays on the local UHF outlets alongside professional wrestling. We’d travel down to the Providence Civic Center (now known as Dunkin’ Donuts Center) to catch the violent banked track action live and in person, a rowdy good time for the whole family!
Beautiful Minnesota native Claudia Jennings was an exploitation star of the first magnitude. 1970’s PLAYBOY Playmate of the Year made her film debut with a small part in JUD (1971), and later starred in a series of drive-in action flicks: TRUCK STOP WOMEN, GATOR BAIT, MOONSHINE COUNTY EXPRESS, THE GREAT TEXAS DYNAMITE CHASE, DEATHSPORT, and David Cronenberg’s FAST COMPANY. UNHOLY ROLLERS was her first starring role, and Claudia’s natural charisma is in full effect.
She plays Karen Walker, stuck in a crummy job at a cat food cannery with a sexually harassing boss, surrounded by loser friends like her stripper roommate Donna and Donna’s small-time crook boyfriend. One day Karen decides to chuck it all, quitting her job (and smushing cat food in her creepoid boss’s face!) and trying out for local low-budget Roller Derby team the L.A. Avengers. Team owner Stern likes her “showmanship”, and soon Karen’s crowd pleasing antics take her to the top, alienating her fellow skaters in the process.
Karen’s a pretty screwed-up chick, a feisty wild child straight outta the trailer park (as we see in a scene featuring veteran Kathleen Freeman as her chain-smoking mom). The girl’s got issues, to be sure, and a bad attitude to boot. Roller Derby fame becomes her identity, and of course eventually becomes her downfall. Claudia Jennings shows off some decent acting chops, as well as her body, since she spends much of the movie in various states of undress – not that I’m complaining!! With the right part, Claudia Jennings could’ve been much more than a cult star, but a problem with cocaine caused her to be labeled ‘difficult’, and kept her locked in the exploitation field. Sadly, a head-on collision ended her brief life on October 3, 1979. Claudia Jennings was just 29 years old.
UNHOLY ROLLERS is the feature film debut of writer/director Vernon Zimmerman, who, like the film’s executive producer Roger Corman before him, overcomes the miniscule budget and creates a pretty damn good movie. The seedy world of the Roller Derby and its sleazy denizens form the backdrop for a fine character study of an obviously disturbed young woman. Zimmerman populates this milieu with outrageous yet believable characters, and I especially enjoyed the play-by-play announcing team’s running commentary during the action scenes – it was on point! Zimmerman went on to write and/or direct memorable cult films like the trucker comedy DEADHEAD MILES, HEX (a biker/western/horror hybrid), and BOBBIE JO AND THE OUTLAW (starring WONDER WOMAN’s Lynda Carter and ex-evangelist Marjoe Gortner). His most well-known film is undoubtedly 1980’s FADE TO BLACK, a movie buff’s dream, with Dennis Christopher as a demented horror film fan.
The supporting cast features rotund actress Maxine Gates in her last role as whip-toting team manager Angie Striker, Louis Quinn (TV’s 77 SUNSET STRIP) as owner Stern, and Joe E. Tata (owner of BEVERLY HILLS 90210’s Peach Pit!) as Stern’s dense son-in-law. Exploitation vets Roberta Collins ( DEATH RACE 2000), Princess Livingston (BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS ), Betty Anne Rees (SUGAR HILL ), Candice Roman (THE BIG BIRD CAGE), and Alan Vint (MACON COUNTY LINE) appear, as do a couple of Familiar Faces out of the past: Dan Seymour (unrecognizable as a used car dealer) and John Harmon, who made his film debut in 1935, as the team’s quack doctor.
UNHOLY ROLLERS credits a young man on his way up as supervising editor: Martin Scorsese, who cut his cinematic teeth on fare like this and BOXCAR BERTHA. The 50’s rock score is credited to songwriter Bobby Hart of Boyce & Hart fame (“(I’m Not Your) Stepping Stone”, “Last Train to Clarksville”), who was dating Jennings at the time. The vintage songs are performed by Louie and the Rockets, who sound like precursors to The Stray Cats. UNHOLY ROLLERS may not be to everybody’s taste, but I liked the film a lot, and even if you’re not a fan of Roller Derby or Claudia Jennings (and seriously, how can you not be??), if you give it a shot you’re in for a surprising treat.