To get a sense of what The Arena has to offer, think of the Kirk Douglas gladiator classic Spartacus (1960), subtract all the sociopolitical themes, and replace them with bloody catfights and sleazy nude scenes. As directed by pulp-cinema specialist Steve Carver, The Arena is as briskly entertaining as it is shamelessly exploitive, so it makes for a zippy viewing experience. Furthermore, except for a couple of secondary cast members who camp it up by playing avaricious women and/or queeny men, the actors play their roles straight, resulting in the sort of overwrought intensity one normally associates with comic books. Combined with the picture’s most overtly appealing elements—think leading lady Pam Grier and her lissome costars parading around in the altogether at every possible opportunity—the movie’s Saturday-matinee vibe ensures 83 minutes of gleefully tacky escapism.
Set in the era of the Roman Empire, the picture begins in England, where Roman slavers interrupt a pagan religious ceremony and kidnap statuesque blonde Bodicia (Margaret Markov). Next, slavers bust up an African dancing-and-drums ritual to kidnap voluptuous Mamawi (Grier). Together with other recent abductees, Bodicia and Mamawi are taken to a place called “Burundium” and sold at auction to Priscium (Silvio Laurenzi), a fey Roman who helps operate a gladiatorial academy. The ladies are tasked with menial duties, and they’re also expected to provide gladiators with companionship. (Or, as one incensed woman exclaims, “Oh, Gods, do you mean we have to satisfy their animal heat?”) Eventually, a catfight in the academy’s kitchen gives Prisium and his gluttonous boss, Timarkus (Daniele Vargas), the notion to present female gladiators as a novelty attraction. Audiences love the girl-on-girl action, turning Bodicia and Mamawi, among others, into arena superstars. All the while, the women plot their escape. Betrayal, bloodshed, and bonking ensue.
Carver gives the material gonzo treatment from start to finish, his whiz-bang style abetted by slick editing from future director Joe Dante. (Dante enjoyed a varied apprenticeship at New World Pictures, the Roger Corman-led company that produced and distributed The Arena.) Only one scene in the movie breaks the spell by attempting full-on comedy, so for the most part The Arena remains true to itself by giving viewers one breathless scene of sex and/or violence after another. Grier and Markov, previously paired in the grungy exploitation saga Black Mama, White Mama (1973), make a physically attractive pair even if it’s a stretch to describe their onscreen interactions as evidence of genuine chemistry, and both women are displayed to flattering effect. Better still, while neither actress seems to have any illusions about what's expected of them, they each notch a credible moment periodically, contributing to the overall zestiness of the movie.
The Arena: FUNKY