Seeing drive-in icons Roberta Collins and Claudia Jennings in THE UNHOLY ROLLERS--so vibrant and sultry and undeniably interesting--makes their untimely deaths feel doubly tragic. Especially Jennings, the 1969 Playboy Playmate of the Year, who died in a car accident ten years later, leaving behind a legacy of defiant performances in exploitation flicks like TRUCK STOP WOMEN, THE GREAT TEXAS DYNAMITE CHASE, and this 1972 roller derby yarn undoubtedly inspired by KANSAS CITY BOMBER (Jennings is even a redhead like the latter film’s star, Raquel Welch).
Although Vernon Zimmerman (FADE TO BLACK) is not much of a director, he and co-writer Howard Cohen (DEATHSTALKER) have a sure ear for satire. Their character study of a struggling roller derby newcomer masks elbow jabs at a crumbling Americana, including a wobbly, crackling, skipping LP of “The Star Spangled Banner” that opens the picture. Jennings literally takes shots at American consumerism; hey, I never said Zimmerman was subtle about it.
To give THE UNHOLY ROLLERS more credit, knowing Martin Scorsese was its supervising editor, one can’t help wondering whether it was any influence on RAGING BULL. Both films have virtually the same story, exploring the rise and fall of a volatile athlete competing in a seedy, corrupt atmosphere.
Jennings is Karen Walker, an ambitious assembly-line worker who tells off her lecherous boss and quits with dreams of joining the roller derby circuit. Showing off her skating skills (as well as her more obvious physical attributes) during an open tryout, Karen lands a spot on the Los Angeles Avengers, much to the initial displeasure of her teammates, who attack her during a post-game party and strip her naked on a pool table. Karen falls for greasy teammate Nick (Jay Varela), while her naked ambition and arrogance affects her relationships with friendly roomie Donna (Candice Roman) and Donna’s goofy boyfriend Greg (Alan Vint). The brassy Roberta Collins (THE BIG DOLL HOUSE), who passed away in 2008, registers strongly as Avenger Jennifer, whose antagonism belies an intelligence common to her performances.
After all the nice words I’ve written, it would be nice to proclaim THE UNHOLY ROLLERS a good film. Unfortunately, the whole is much less than the sum of its parts. Despite Jennings’ delicious charisma and the greasy roller derby milieu, the movie is too ragged to be considered anything more than an interesting failure.