TV REVIEWS : Showtime's 'Rebel Highway' Recycles AIP 'Classics'

If they can remake "Angels in the Outfield" and "Lassie" for the '90s, by gum, they can remake "Confessions of a Sorority Girl" and "Runaway Daughters." Which is just the inevitable exercise that Showtime has undertaken with its new series of Friday night movies, collectively titled "Rebel Highway." The 10 reconstituted titles in this "drive-in pictures" series mostly hail from the vaults of AIP--American International Pictures, a.k.a. Always Irritating Prudes--with well-known contemporary directors trying their hands at trash recycling.

Were they veritably ripped from today's headlines, these stories, like "Reform School Girl" and "Motorcycle Gang"? Uh, no. But many hemlines will get ripped, at least, in the coming weeks, and the series' indomitable appeal proves nothing if not that juvenile delinquency knows no season.

Tonight's premiere offering, "Roadracers," is the second feature-length effort from Robert Rodriguez--who is uniquely qualified to direct one of these pictures, since his critically hailed debut, "El Mariachi," was micro-budgeted even by old AIP standards. Though each of these Showtime features costs a relatively robust $1.3 million, success hasn't spoiled Rodriguez: "Roadracers," too, looks and feels as if it were done on the fly, with adrenaline dripping into the editing bay. Sam Arkoff would be proud, or at least not ticked off.

A la several of the filmmakers involved, Rodriguez hasn't actually remade the original "Roadracers" but just borrowed the title and started from scratch. His version has a good--or at least, er, soulful--leather-bearing hood, Dude (David Arquette), battling a nasty one, Teddy (Jason Wiles), in diners and on extemporaneous drag strips all over town, while an almost nonstop rockabilly soundtrack eggs them on.

Dude also has a voluptuous Latino dreamgirl to alternately pout and cheer him along. When he comes to pick her up, he sticks his tongue down her throat in broad view of her aghast parental units and promises, "I'll be sure to get her back as late as I can." One of their dates is at the roller rink, where Dude and Teddy and their respective cliques will momentarily ditch dragsters for a rumble on skates. It ain't quite the "Ben-Hur" chariot race, but it suffices quite nicely; watching Dude derail his rival by literally greasing the track with his 'do has to count as one of the week's major TV pleasures.

"Roadracers" is a giddily shameless paean to misspent youth. By contrast, John Milius' taut suspenser "Motorcycle Gang," which airs in two weeks, takes just the opposite tack; there, Gerald McRaney plays an upright ex-Marine dad who must rescue his virgin daughter from the clutches of socially licentious beatniks and psychopathic bikers.

And in three weeks, in Joe Dante's very funny "Runaway Daughters," as a supporting character there's the James Dean-like iconoclast who answers his folks' every query with the tremulously voiced "Don't crowd me!" In the passion pit, it matters little whether the hood is misunderstood or murderous, menace to society or martyr; the odor of leather will do. Grease up the popcorn: The early, stupidly fun installments of "Rebel Highway" really do smell like teen spirit.

* "Roadracers" airs on Showtime at 10 tonight and again on Thursday at 8 p.m.

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