Every now and again one encounters a bit of pop culture that is almost surely the result of an off-hand joke — possibly made while neurologically compromised — that’s spun wildly out of control. It’s easy enough to imagine two aspiring TV writers going down to the local Red Cross to donate a pint, and as they lay their hooked up to an IV bag, one turns to the other and says in their best movie trailer voice: “BLOOD DRIVE! Imagine a post-apocalyptic nightmare world where gas costs $60 a gallon and so the cars run ON HUMAN BLOOD!” No, really, that’s what Blood Drive, the new grindhouse splatterfest on Syfy is all about.
What makes Blood Drive way more fun than such a ridiculous premise deserves to be is that it is fully aware of its own stupidity, and relishes in a relentless barrage of tongue-in-cheek jokes, that start from the get-go when the opening title card reads CALIFORNIA TERRITORIES 1999. Yes, that’s right, the show is set in a dystopian past of which none of us seem to recall. The story centers around a cross-country road race in which pairs of drivers motor away in cars whose engines are essentially teeth that grind body parts into fuel. A goody-two-shoes cop named Arthur (Alan Ritchson) — imagine a muscular, better looking Stephen Dorff — stumbles upon the opening ceremonies while investigating what he thinks is a simple drug dealing operation. When the race organizers discover him, they force him to team up with Grace D’Argento (Christina Ochoa), whose name is clearly a nod to Italian splatter maestro Dario Argento. D’Argento is a 5-foot-10 Latina with legs for days who, go figure, is stunningly gorgeous, unfazed by murder, and determined to win the top prize of $10 million so she can get her sister out of a mental hospital.
The Master of Ceremonies for Blood Drive is Julian Slink (Colin Cunningham), a vampiric goth dandy with a voice for late night radio, who controls his contestants by way of a chip implanted at the base of the skull via which he can deliver electric shocks ranging from a jolt to enough juice to melt their brains. His archness is a bit off-putting at first, but as the plot unfolds his thin skin and blood lust are delightful, especially when his corporate overlords force him to leave the race for a few hours so they can give him “notes” on how to make it better — anyone who’s ever gotten notes from a TV exec or a simple editor (no offense, man) will relate.
Sprinkled throughout are some clever sight gags that are delivered with an understatement one wouldn’t expect from such over-the-top fare. When Arthur’s partner on the force, Christopher (Thomas Dominique), temporarily escapes the clutches of his captors, he begins wandering a sub-basement in search of a way out, but happens upon a door adorned with a plate that reads CONFISCATED ITEMS STORAGE, because of course such a room would be clearly marked. Once inside, he discovers the box with his things in it, because of course everything is meticulously labeled. Inside his box is his phone — a clam shell, as was the style of the time — with a post-it on it that reads Battery charge compliments of Heart Enterprises — and you thought giant corporations had no soul.
The show regularly delights in mocking both corporations and corporation paranoia. Heart Enterprises controls essentially everything: the ATMs that dispense water, the police, the fuel additive manufacturers, the institution holding D’Argento’s sister, even the Blood Drive itself — there is no escaping their evil clutches, we are all just flies caught in their web, waiting to be devoured. In an effort to find parts for D’Argento’s car, she and Arthur head to a Steel City, a stand-in for Detroit, but stumble upon a survivalist cult wearing tattered suits and speaking only in corporate jargon and cliches. Listening to them blather is a far greater indictment of corporate culture than any overwrought conspiracy theory or car rally fueled by human blood. Other than the corporate cultists, the dialogue is the weakest link in the chain, offing veering into the realm overly crass, a seemingly impossible task given everything else going on.
Make no mistake Blood Drive is every bit as disgusting as the concept makes it out to be, populated by hillbilly cannibals and exploding zombies, there’s blood and human flesh splattering all over everywhere — it’s once even used as a pretext for D’Argento to stripped down to her skivvies and high heels as she stands on the roadside, ‘cuz, you know, a girl’s gotta clean up. But it’s all very tongue-in-cheek, borrowing heavily from everyone for Argento to John Carpenter to Quentin Tarantino (can you borrow something borrowed?). The whole thing makes for a big sloppy cheeseburger — just don’t be put off by the occasional fingernail.
Blood Drive premieres at 10pm ET Wednesday on Syfy; episodes will be available on-demand on Thursdays.