May 20, 2019

BLU-RAY REVIEW: ZOMBIE 4: AFTER DEATH (1989)


Zombi 4: After Death began life simply as After Death, which explored similar ground but was otherwise completely unconnected to the Zombi series. But, in keeping with the Italian horror tradition, producers shoehorned it into the Zombi series in hopes of making a few more shekels.

Zombi 4 comes to you courtesy of Claudio Fragasso, screenwriter of Zombi 3, but who is most known (and infamous) to American audiences as being the co-writer/director of Troll 2. (I can’t state I’ve seen every Fragasso film, but the ones I have offer a very specific kind of entertainment. Troll 2 isn’t an exception to that rule, but more like an indicator of what a Fragasso film looks and sounds like.) As you watch Zombi 4, it’s clear that the filmmakers were going for something different, as it actually feels more in line (at least at first) with another popular Italian horror franchise, Demons, than the Zombi series. Don’t get me wrong, there are still some pretty lengthy scenes of zombie carnage with ghouls getting their entire heads exploded all while doing the slow-moving, dead-grunting thing, but the film’s opening deals with voodoo priests, hellish concubines, and mythological aspects, offering a bit more gimmickry beyond just “oh fuck, zombies,” which had been primarily the driving force of the series up to that point. (Zombi 3 played around with scientific experimentation being the reason behind the resurrection of the dead, but this whole subplot honestly feels like it’s going down in an entirely different movie, and in Zombi 4 it goes largely ignored beyond one line of dialogue.)


The plot of Zombi 4 is also more streamlined and coherent than the previous, but there’s also not a whole lot of substance, either. Characters end up in a place where they shouldn’t be, get stranded, and begin a fight for their lives as legions of ghouls begin unearthing and very very very slowly coming at them. Continuity is also insanely out the window, not just in terms of logic (characters transport from one environment to another with no explanation as to where they are or how they got there), but also in terms of flatout recklessness. For instance, one character (played by gay porn star Jeff Stryker) bellows that the only way to put the zombies down is to shoot them in the head; however, a little later, he sprays some automatic bullets into the chests of half a dozen ghouls and brings them down, anyway.

Zombi 4 is only slightly less insane than its predecessor, but believe me — that hardly has an effect on its overall level of enjoyment, which is damn near in line. The gore remains, as does the bad dubbing, worse dialogue, and the overall sense of “what IS this?” you’ll be frequently asking yourself. The assault rifle action hardly ever lets up, and when it does, there’s some bad bad dialogue to fill the void. (“When a man’s afraid he’s gonna die, there’s nothing he wants more than a woman by his side…and I want YOU.” ) That the zombies also talk and even use weapons (like the aforementioned assault rifles) only add to the nutsness on which Zombi 4 mostly depends to be worth a damn.


It also has a hell of a soundtrack, featuring tremendous ‘80s synth goodness by composer Al Festa, along with the rocking Zombie 4 anthem "Living After Death," which would have sounded right at home in Rocky 4, had Rocky 4 been a zombie movie.

Severin has included the following special features on this release: "Run Zombie Run! – Interview With Director Claudio Fragasso and Screenwriter Rossella Drudi," "Jeff Stryker in Manila – Interview With Actor Chuck Peyton," "Blonde vs Zombies – Interview With Actress Candice Daly," Behind-The-Scenes Footage, the trailer, and a Bonus Disc CD Soundtrack.

If you’re in the mood for a curious and somewhat introspective take on Italian zombie horror, Fulci’s Zombie/Zombi 2 seems like the most obvious choice. But if you’re in the mood for something crazier, by all means, skip that one and jump right to Zombi 3 and Zombi 4: After Death. Fans of nutso Italian horror like Demons, StageFright, and Troll 2 (yep, it counts) are about to fill the Zombie voids in their lives they never knew they had.


Zombie 4: After Death is now on Blu-ray from Severin Films.


May 16, 2019

BLU-RAY REVIEW: ZOMBIE 3 (1988)


Let’s catch you up on the Italian Zombi series, which currently holds steady at four entries, despite the last chapter being titled Zombie 5: Killing Birds.

It all began with George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, which was released in Italy under the title Zombi. Following that, horror director Lucio Fulci (The Beyond) made his own unrelated undead ghoul flick, which was released as Zombie in the U.S., but as Zombi 2 in Italy, therefore suggesting it was a sequel to Romero’s film. (It wasn’t.)

Following, Fulci made Zombi 3, Claudio Fragasso made Zombi 4: After Death, and Claudio Lattanzi made Zombi 5: Killing Birds, though, according to that latter’s Wiki page, “…zombies only feature in the last half hour of the movie, and only one character is attacked by birds.”

Meanwhile still, the Zombi films were released in Britain under the Zombie Flesh Eater moniker, which ejected Dawn of the Dead from the canon and reset the numbering scheme (Zombi 2 became Zombie Flesh Eater 1, etc.). Every territory had their own titling scheme, numbering scheme, and even added or dropped otherwise totally unrelated films to make them part of the ongoing series. (One territory added the joyfully nuts Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror, which was the best choice they could have made.) Honestly, it’s all confusing as fuck and probably not worth the effort to navigate, because when you think about it, every zombie movie ever made could be a sequel to the one that came before.

Basically, if you’re a passionate movie collector living in the U.S. AND you have OCD, your complete Zombi series would consist of Zombie, and then Zombi 3-5, and it probably kills you.

Haw haw!


Having recently revisited Fulci’s Zombie/Zombi 2 in preparation for my mini Zombi 3/4 marathon, a film I hadn’t seen for a very long time, I was expecting my newfound appreciation for Italian horror and the film’s ongoing semi-respected reputation to usher in an undiscovered enjoyment of the gory zombie shocker. That didn’t happen. Surprisingly, Zombie is actually kind of dull, relocating most of its action to an island in the Caribbean after a promising opening in which a small boat containing a handful of ghouls washes up in New York harbor.

I’m no big fan of Fulci’s films in any legitimate way (although I sort of adore City of the Living Dead), but despite his very diverging outputs of quality, the man at least had a distinct visual style, which makes Zombi 3 feel so odd. Zombi 3 is just stupidity, featuring flying, biting zombie heads and one action set piece after another. And the gore! So much gore! Sadly, there’s a reason for this. Fulci (who was very ill during filming) and two ghost directors Claudio Fragasso (the film’s screenwriter) and Bruno Mattei (Italian shlockmeister director of the highest order) present Zombi 3 as a more ridiculous and action-packed experience. Whatever sense of mood, or satire, or “moral” Fulci was vying for in Zombi 2 has gone right out the window here (or perhaps was phased out after some of Fulci’s footage was tossed and replaced with new material from his collaborators). Plotwise, Zombi 3 takes somewhat of a page from Romero’s The Crazies with the presence of hazmat-suited soldiers laying waste to anything deemed a threat, as well as Return of the Living Dead, relying heavily on the idea of the zombie scourge spreading across the landscape from the cremation of infected corpses. The zombies are also of the running variety. But Zombi 3 is also much funnier than that beloved zombie comedy, even though it wasn’t trying to be. Hysterical overroughtness tends to happen when you’re dealing with an Italian horror production, usually aided by the overly emphatic dubbing which offers every character a very animated and highly emotional presence.

(And again, flying zombie head.)


Picking on Zombi 3’s lack of plot feels like low-hanging fruit given the Frankensteinian nature of its production, but I’ll go ahead and say it anyway: there’s barely a plot beyond a couple groups of wandering people intermittently finding each other, running afoul of ghouls, and getting eaten. That’s honestly about it.

Severin trots out lots of special features for this garbage classic: "The Last Zombies – Interview With Co-Director/Co-Writer Claudio Fragasso and Co-Writer Rossella Drudi," "Tough Guys – Interview with Actors/Stuntmen Massimo Vanni and Ottaviano Dell’Acqua," "The Problem Solver – Interview with Replacement Director Bruno Mattei," "Swimming with Zombies – Interview with Actress Marina Loi," "In the Zombie Factory – Interview with FX Artist Franco Di Girolamo," an audio commentary with actors Deran Sarafian and Beatrice Ring, a trailer, and a Bonus Disc CD Soundtrack.

Zombi 3 is not a “good” film by any stretch, but lordy is it entertaining. It also feels incredibly unlike anything Lucio Fulci has ever done, but with him having been responsible for only 60% of the final cut, that shouldn’t come as any surprise. My second go-around with Fulci’s original semi-classic Zombie will likely be my last. But Zombi 3? I’ll definitely be revisiting this one…much sooner than later.




Zombie 3 is available now on Blu-ray from Severin Films.

May 12, 2019

DOUBLE-BILL THIS: 'SUPERSTITION' AND 'THE HOUSE ON TOMBSTONE HILL'


[This article contains minor spoilers for each title.]

The concept of a haunted house and slasher hybrid, which sees your typical masked slasher villain take a backseat to a murderous house filled with ghosts and/or demons and/or witches doling out the bloody comeuppance, wasn’t exploited nearly enough. This brief movement likely came in response to how well haunted house flicks like The Amityville Horror and its sequel, The Possession, along with The Shining and The Changeling, were cleaning up at the box office during the ‘80s era of the slasher, which made the concept of combining the sub-genres into one film very alluring. Sure, haunted house flicks are a dime a dozen, and sometimes they off a few cast members, but how many can you name where a hapless victim gets chewed literally in half by a window? While I want to believe there are many more, I can only name you two: 1982’s Superstition and 1989’s The House on Tombstone Hill.   


Superstition was completed in 1982, but sat on the shelf for four years before it opened in the UK, preempted by a trailer that retitled the film As The Witch and which featured narration by eccentric actor Brother Theodore (The Burbs). Helmed by cinematographer James Roberson, it’s clear right away that Superstition is intent on mining from the stalwarts of the slasher, opening with a teen couple doing some car kissing in the middle of nowhere. “You said you loved me,” the boyfriend says, his hand solidly on his hesitant girlfriend’s chest, but there’s no time for love, because a monster head is suddenly thrust into the car’s open window, sending the teen couple speeding off. Turns out the monster head comes courtesy of a couple prankster teens who have chosen the house—a house, mind you, that’s infamous for its bloody past involving the drowning execution of a witch—to just…hang out in, I guess. (Don’t miss the Unsolved Mysteries-caliber wigs and stick-on facial hair during the flashback witch scene, by the way – they’re hysterical.) The teens don’t have long to celebrate their successful prank, as the house comes to life and dispatches them in graphic and gooey ways. 


After firmly establishing its slasher roots, Superstition moves on to steal its plot from The Amityville Horror, including having a priest out to the house to bless it, only for the house to, er, politely decline the ceremony. However, this time, instead of hordes of flies, a wayward circular saw blade detaches from a table saw, bounces across the floor, and slices directly into the priest’s chest, magically and impossibly spinning/cutting the entire time. Before you can say Father Pieces, we meet a trio of young people, including a pair of girls who wear the skimpiest of summer attire. Despite a cast of mostly adult actors, the presence of young people helps Friday the 13th the proceedings a bit, being that, in this genre, if you’re old enough to drive but not legally drink, you’re probably a goner. As expected, everyone begins to die very graphically. 

Despite a pre-credits running time of 82 minutes, Superstition still runs a hair too long, falling victim to second-act lag as many horror films of this pedigree tend to do. Still, the pace is mostly assured and there’s always a fresh body drop to liven things up when the story begins to stagnate. Except for one off-screen kill (likely because the victim was a child), every death is fully shown, very bloody, and, when we’re lucky, relies on a dummy—my favorite kind of kill. 


As for The House on Tombstone Hill (originally titled The Dead Come Home, and later retitled on home video as the far superior/far stupider Dead Dudes in the House), well, I fucking love it with equal parts sincerity and irony. One of maybe three watchable titles produced by Troma Entertainment (home of The Toxic Avenger), The House on Tombstone Hill inspires the same feelings of enjoyment, awe, amusement, and total bewilderment as 1979’s slasher Tourist Trap, entirely because the oddness factor. As The House On Tombstone Hill unfolds, you honestly can’t tell if director James Riffel (hey, another James!) is in on the joke or not, and that’s my kind of jam. During the film’s opening/prologue, we see the murderous Abigail Leatherby, who has just killed a man, walk back and forth across the living room, hunched over her cane, apparently coming to turns with what she’s done, all while her teenage daughter sits on the couch completely nonplussed and sipping a drink. You’ll watch Abigail walk back and forth so many times, uninterrupted, in one single shot, without a single line of dialogue, as jaunty piano music plays on a loop, that you’ll realize you’re about to watch something very, very special. 


Like Superstition, The House on Tombstone Hill wasn’t released right away following its production in 1988, though it was eventually relegated to cable and VHS under its new title. (Like most Troma productions, it was shot in New Jersey, easily confirmed by one character, Joey, repeatedly saying, “Hey, yo!” to his friends.) And despite being a Troma production, The House on Tombstone Hill plays things straightforward, which makes the flick come off very weird, as it strives to be a ghost story, a slasher, and a zombie flick all at once. Speaking of ghost stories, The House On Tombstone Hill is happy to homage/rip off an all-time classic in an extended scene where a recently killed college yuppie returns from the dead, possessed by the house’s bad mojo, and begins threatening his girlfriend, demanding to know, “What about my responsibilities?” as she slowly backs away swinging a large 2x4 at him. (Sound familiar?) All during this sequence, you honestly won’t know whether The House on Tombstone Hill is purposely honoring The Shining this long, or if it’s simply ripping it off instead. I don’t know and I don’t want to know; ambiguity is all part of its charm. 

The characters are your archetypal young adults, and though most of the actors give underwhelming performances, Victor Verhaeghe, who plays Bob the carpenter, is tremendously over the top, very overbearing, and I wouldn’t change a thing about it. Dialogue doesn’t exit his mouth, but slithers out—with the kind of disdain that makes him sound like the most hateful man alive. (“I ALWAYS have a cigarette before I start a job,” he tells another member of the cast wanting to know if he has to smoke. “It’s a RITUAL with me.”) That Bob is a dick from his first minute to his last makes The House on  Tombstone Hill much more entertaining, and seeing him act the asshole to every single person he evidently calls a friend is glorious. (He’s also the one that resurrects the spirit of Abigail by purposely breaking her tombstone, so every bloody thing that happens to him and all his friends is literally his fault.)

The House on Tombstone Hill’s odd retitling on video wasn’t the only attempt by Troma to market the film to a different kind of crowd, packaging the VHS with completely brand new cover art: 


Falling back on a marketing scheme that will never make sense to me, Troma leaned on aesthetical designs calling forth Home Alone, House Party, and, evidently, the New Kids on the Block, even though none of the dudes depicted on the cover are actors in the film, nor do they come close to representing what the actual characters look like. (I hope you noticed that one of the dudes on the new cover is holding a pair of nunchucks.) 


Previous synopses for the flick referred to the teens as “heart-throbs” and “hip-hop yups,” along with their “groupie” girlfriends, solidifying that Troma was obsessed with selling these characters as musicians/singers. That wasn’t me putting those words in quotes, but Troma themselves on their own VHS releases, as if they were acknowledging they were fibbing about the movie’s plot. (Example: Troma is a “professional” company that exercises “good judgment” in their business practices.)

Having said all that, I’m totally fine with it. It’s all part of what makes The House on Tombstone Hill so great.


Both flicks have recently enjoyed solid high-def releases, with Shout! Factory tackling Superstition and the glorious Vinegar Syndrome knocking it out of the park with The House on Tombstone Hill, which includes reverse artwork with the Dead Dudes/“hip-hop teens” cover that I love so much. To approach either or both titles as mere haunted house films will inevitably lead to disappointment, as “proper” ghost stories work much better with frightening images, suspense, and the establishment of a creepy, ambient environment. However, if you are fully aware of the hybrid you’re getting, I can’t imagine how you could ever be disappointed. Basically, if you’ve marathonned a handful of Friday the 13th sequels and thought, “this would be better if Jason were a HOUSE,” now’s your chance to live out your weird fantasy, you weirdo. (Just remember to invite me over.)

[Reprinted from The Daily Grindhouse.]