Arena Blu-ray Review
Blu-ray Release: June 27, 2023 (as part of the Empire of Screams collection)
Video: 1.85:1 and 1.33:1/1080p/Color
Audio: English LPCM 2.0 Stereo (widescreen version) and Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (full frame version)
Subtitles: English SDH
Run Time: 97:20
Director: Peter Manoogian
Note: This Blu-ray is currently only available as part of Arrow’s Enter the Video Store: Empire of Screams five-movie collection, which also includes David Allen, Charles Band, John Carl Buechler, Steven Ford, Peter Manoogian, Ted Nicolaou & Rosemarie Turko’s Dungeonmaster (1984), Stuart Gordon’s Dolls (1987) and Robot Jox (1989), and John Carl Buechler’s Cellar Dweller (1989).
It’s the ultimate fight night event: man vs. monster! In the far future of 4038, a short order cook named Steve Armstrong (Paul Satterfield) becomes the first human in fifty years to compete in an intergalactic boxing event on the far side of the universe. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
Among the key personnel at Charles Band’s ill-fated Empire International Pictures were, of course, Band himself, his father Albert, his composer brother Richard, director/effects artist John Carl Buechler, and directors Stuart Gordon, Tim Kincaid, and David Schmoeller. One easily overlooked figure was Peter Manoogian, who was a stalwart assistant director, working with Band on pre-Empire features Parasite (1982) and Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn (1983), with Bruce D. Clark on the Roger Corman-produced Galaxy of Terror (1981), and with J.S. Cardone on the supernatural slasher The Slayer (1982). He was also a producer on other Empire projects, including J. Larry Carroll’s Ghost Warrior (1984) and Michael Miner’s Deadly Weapon (1989). As a lead director, his work for Band included fan favorite sci-fi adventure The Eliminators (1986), Puppetmaster off-shoot Demonic Toys (1992), Invasion of the Body Snatchers rip-off Seedpeople (1992), and the subject of this review, 1989’s creature feature boxing movie Arena.
Arena is essentially a Rocky movie in space, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Sure, there is an excess of Rocky clones in the world, but this one takes place in space and the Rocky stand-in fights aliens. Besides, a lot of Rocky’s enduring appeal (at least John G. Avildsen’s 1976 original) is tied to its blue collar pride and Arena really leans into the space age proletariat angle. It’s not as good as Alien (1979) or Cowboy Bebop (2001), nor is it as aggressively political as Paul Verhoven’s science fiction satires, but it works alongside other B-movies, like Stuart Gordon’s Space Truckers (1996) and John Carpenter’s Dark Star (1974). The creature and make-up effects were supervised by Buechler and, despite their rubberiness and inconsistencies during crowd shots, the ‘hero’ monsters and robots are genuinely impressive for the period and price. The optical effects are less outstanding, but Manoogian gets a lot of production value from the industrial locations and aged sets, some of which the film shared with Gordon’s Robot Jox.
Though it was made under Band’s banner with his involvement, Arena was actually produced by Halloween (1978) co-producer Irwin Yablans, who also produced Band’s own Parasite and made one of Empire’s best films, Prison (1987), with director Renny Harlin. The screenplay was written by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo, the team behind Trancers (1984), which became one of Band’s first successful franchises, Joe Johnston’s The Rocketeer (1991), the Flash TV series (1990-91), and, of all things, the Sims video game franchise. They first worked with Manoogian on The Eliminators and their good-natured pulp sensibilities obviously melded well with the director’s own, as well as his skillset. Arena is a better-written movie than The Eliminators, thanks in large part to its light-hearted approach. Its derivative plot and characters generally are easily overlooked thanks to the charm of its unusual sci-fi locations. My main complaint is that, like several Empire films, it overstays its welcome a bit and would probably work better as part of an anthology film or series.
There are a striking number of similarities between Arena and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993) – both take place on a space station at the edge of the universe and both feature Marc Alaimo (aka: Gul Dukat) as the main villain and Armin Shimerman (aka: Quark) as a weaselly side character. Funnily enough, co-stars Claudia Christian and Shari Shattuck were on the other ‘90s wormhole space opera, Babylon 5. Lucio Fulci fans should keep an eye out for A Cat in the Brain’s (Italian: Un gatto nel cervello; aka: Nightmare Concert, 1990) David L. Thompson and Demonia’s (1990) Grady Clarkson in small roles.
Arena was shelved until 1991, when it was released basically straight-to-video by Columbia Pictures. Shout Factory included it as part of a four-movie collection with Eliminators, David Engelbach’s America 3000 (1986), and Brian Hannant’s Time Guardian (1987), followed by Empire’s own limited edition DVD, though both releases were PAL-to-NTSC conversions and cropped to 1.33:1. The other four movies in the Empire of Screams collection were previously released by Shout Factory (and other European distributors), but Arena has never been available to own in HD. Arrow’s Blu-ray features a new 2K restoration of the best quality 35mm print materials they could find, including a printing error during the opening titles (everything skews to the left). This means that contrast levels are a bit high, but that isn’t a huge problem for this particular film, because Mac Ahlberg’s cinematography uses a lot of harsh light and deep black shadows to disguise special effects and recreate the look of a real-world boxing match. Grain levels and the finest textures are also a little mushy, but I’ve seen much, much worse from print sources, especially in terms of color. The hues here don’t skew too blue or too pink and color gradations are relatively clean, aside from a bit of clumping grain.
If you’re an old-school VHS fan, Arrow has also included a standard definition, 1.33:1 cropped version of the film.
Arena is presented in its original stereo sound and uncompressed 2.0 LPCM, unless you opt for the 1.33:1 transfer, in which case you’ll need to settle for compressed Dolby Digital stereo. The stereo field is surprisingly aggressive, including directional gags and crowd noise. The payoff, apparently, is muffled dialogue and iffy lip sync, seemingly because so much of the audio was added in post. Charles’ brother Richard Band supplies another stellar (no pun intended) synth score on a budget, giving the film a wondrous and epic feel at times, despite less than stellar (maybe pun intended) production design and a consistently silly tone.
Commentary by director Peter Manoogian – Another new, remotely recorded commentary moderated by Schlock Pit’s Matty Budrewicz and Dave Wain. With the help of the moderators, Manoogian covers his various collaborations with Band and Roger Corman’s companies, budget and distribution issues (Arena was caught up in the demise of Empire), working with other crew members over the years, casting the film, make-up design, and other special effects challenges.
Not His Arena (14:44, HD) – Co-screenwriter Danny Bilson is brutally honest about moving up the Empire ladder in various production capacities, writing Band movies based on poster art, basing the Arena script on Robert Rossen’s Body and Soul (1947), not Rocky, working from a ‘30s/’40s slang dictionary, and leaving Empire after watching Band pull funding, having too many scripts rewritten (including Arena) or ignored, and not having enough chances to direct.
Empire of Creatures (16:21, HD) – Special make-up effects artist Michael Deak wraps things up with a look at designing and fabricating creatures with Buechler and Screaming Mad George, donning the cybernetic monster villain costume, and playing Hamilton Camp’s extra set of arms (his character, Shorty, has four arms) in Arena.
Theatrical trailer in 16:9 and 4:3
Image gallery – Behind the scenes, posters & stills
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.