Syfy’s grindhouse masterpiece stuns, shocks and goes out with a bang.
Blood Drive, or Midnight Grindhouse Presents: Blood Drive, premiered on Syfy in early June and recently finished its 13-episode arc in a glorious, explosive finale on September 6. But most unfortunately, the very next morning, creator James Roland announced that Blood Drive was not, in fact, picked up by Syfy for a second season.
Like most great cult epics, Blood Drive will for now remain a one-season series.
It may sound presumptive to refer to the series not long after its ending as a “cult hit.” Generally the metaphorical tea needs to steep long enough for a cult classic to be born. But one look at the exaggerated, colorful art style and over-the-top satirical writing would immediately peg Blood Drive as a dark hit.
To sum up Roland’s work, one would have to first take a look at what the grindhouse subgenre is.
The term grindhouse comes from a type of movie theater existing from the 1920s to the 1980s that usually screened exploitation films, which sought to make a good cash haul from the most basic ingredients of pop culture: sex, violence and thrills. These theaters, and the type of films they usually screened, were known for their low budget and artistic merit and for attracting more “undesirable” audiences.
Which, of course, made them a legend to American film culture. And while the invention of the home video destroyed the grindhouse theater, it turned the films into their own subgenre of horror.
The grindhouse, as it stands today, is best known for its exaggerated style and emphasis on the thriller basics of gore and sex. It’s most often fused with horror and transcends into comic books as well as music. Look to classics like Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror, Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof, and other hits like Hobo with a Shotgun, House of 1000 Corpses and Machete. Nothing screams grindhouse like wailing electric guitar dives and splatters of blood.
Blood Drive encapsulates grindhouse in all its gory glory.
As a brief synopsis, Blood Drive takes place in a dystopian future (or present) in which a terrible fracking accident caused a natural disaster that split the United States in half and created a great “Scar” in the world that seems to be an endless source of deadly sci-fi tropes. The Scar was discovered and exploited by evil megacorporation Heart Enterprises, which used the mysterious resources harvested within to essentially take over the world. In the midst of this chaos, there’s also a cross-country death race of cars that run on human blood, sponsored by Heart Enterprises and headed by the enigmatic Julian Slink (played by Colin Cunningham). Intrigue, chaos and gallons of blood follow.
Now, of course anything at this level of exploitation is bound to be risky. But Blood Drive was a critical success. It received favorable reviews and created a decent amount of social media buzz from excited die-hard fans.
Only a few days after James Roland’s announcement about the cancellation, attendees were given a whole new reason to gather. On Saturday, September 9, they assembled for a screening of the finale at Freddy’s Bar in Brooklyn. In the strangest combination of celebration and mourning, fans were treated to flickering projector screens, lots of beer, an appearance by Blood Drive star Marama Corlett (the actress behind the robot babe Aki) and a set from What the Funk! a New York local funk band headed by Colin Cunningham, the face of Julian Slink.
The intimate gathering featured a lovely talk-back with Corlett and Cunningham, a prize raffle and signings. It felt like a last love letter from the two Blood Drive alumni to a group of fans who’d given the show life. And there was no greater contrast between Marama Corlett’s character, the soulless and deadly Aki, and the petite and incredibly sweet actress herself.
Corlett spent hours personally meeting pretty much everyone in the room, giving them signed merch handouts and taking pictures. In a brief interview, she discussed the show’s grindhouse origins. “Even though maybe it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, there’s clearly a lot of work that goes into it and a lot of fans following it,” she said, gesturing back to a packed bar and an even more packed screening room. “I think what Blood Drive has done is given the fans something on TV. I don’t think there was anything on TV that’s really grindhouse.” (There is definitely not.) She said, “I just think there was a space for this. Definitely, there was a need for this on TV. It’s very sad it’s been cancelled, but I think it will find its place in the end.”
So where was the artistic merit to be found in a TV show based so fully in the cheap, sleazy thrills of the grindhouse? It was evident in the risk of airing it, a risk that ultimately didn’t pay off as well as it should have. The genre is a testament to the history of pushing the envelope, feeding into our most basic desires as people and escaping into a gritty, gory world of shameless entertainment.
When Cunningham was asked whether the show had an artistic message, he responded, “Oh my God, yes.” He said, “I refer to Roland as a Rembrandt, except he works in crayon and boogers. It’s nuts… But that’s the silly package. It’s an indictment on society and corporations and people’s lust for violence and sex. It uses these very things to take the piss out of the culture that’s obsessed with it, and the corporate power that’s more than happy to feed it to people.”
Blood Drive in itself is probably the strongest metaphor for this: a show devised by Julian Slink to be the greatest show on earth, full of twists, violence, objectified bodies and everything a human could want to see. Entertainment and escapism are always the basic objective, and Blood Drive explored that, twisted it and shot it back at us as parody as well as grand adventure. It’s probably the most ironic metaphor in the show that Slink is constantly fighting corporate producers on keeping the show alive, a fight he ultimately loses.
“If anything, it’s perfect that it was cancelled,” said Cunningham, “I think it’ll be one of those little diamonds you find or hear about later on, and that’s what makes it so cool.”
It’s clear Cunningham is as in love with Blood Drive as the audience is. He made the raffle numbers and set up the screening DVD himself. After performing a set with his band, he talked with the last lingering fans while putting away equipment and deconstructing the room himself.
Meeting with me outside the venue, he said, “I remember when I first saw Peter Gabriel from Genesis, before he broke and before he was successful. He would have these incredible concerts, and if you knew about them, you were one of those people who knew about them. He’d fall backward over the crowd and surf, and they’d pop him back onstage and he’d finish a song. Then all of a sudden he got huge, and he’d do the same bit; he’d fall back onto the audience, and they’d take his shoes and rip his clothes off, and it was over.”
A cult classic, it seems, is the best route for Blood Drive to take. Mainstream should never be its destiny.
A lot of the failures of Blood Drive can be attributed to Syfy’s seeming unwillingness to advertise, thus making James Roland’s gritty creation fly under the radar of a potentially huge audience. This was probably out of an understandable fear of censorship and accusations of failed artistic integrity. According to Roland, Syfy was the only network that had the stones to green-light it in the first place. Maybe the world wasn’t ready for Blood Drive, or maybe it was just standard network trepidation that created the faulty support the show suffered for.
A cult classic is almost always a commercial failure — look at standards like Rocky Horror. What immortalizes them is the love of die-hard fans after it ends. It’s the metaphorical resurrection after the death of something great that makes something truly cult.
So as a critic and as a big fan of the missed opportunity of this bloody, sexy, hilarious gem of a show, I implore you to take a ride with Blood Drive, and give it its rightful place as a cult masterpiece.