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.]

May 8, 2019

BLU-RAY REVIEW: THREADS (1984)


For the first half of Threads, the audience is given a semi-documentary/semi-narrative look at the life and culture of citizens of the U.K. as they go about their lives, all while war threatens to rage in the world between the U.S. (naturally), Iran, and the Soviet Union. Reminders of this war come in the form of occasional narration as well as news reports that play on televisions in the backgrounds — news reports that, in the face of the unexpected pregnancy of Ruth (Karen Meagher) and Jimmy (Reece Dinsdale), for instance, mostly fall by the wayside and go unnoticed. While this isn’t a large part nor even the point of Threads, it is a noticeable addition: war will loom, our media will warn us, but we’ll be too busy wrapped up in our own soap opera lives to actually understand until it’s too late.

And that’s just the first half.

Halfway through Threads, the bomb drops. The U.K. is decimated. Initial estimates say 10-20 million citizens are killed. And we’re there the whole time. We never cut away. We never cut back to a clean room in a clean country that was shielded from the attack. The U.K. is reduced to black and gray: formless and void of anything that once resembled life and culture. Smoldering bodies and body parts are strewn in the streets, buildings are burned out husks or entirely gone, people huddle in cellars hidden beneath mattresses thinking this will save them from the bigger threat from a nuclear bomb: radiation. But of course it doesn’t.


The most surprising thing about Threads is its lineage: it wasn’t some banned Video Nasty from the 1970s and ’80s that’s just now enjoying a controversial video release. This thing was made for television — first broadcast in the U.K. before enjoying an encore presentation in the U.S. You’d have to have seen Threads for yourself to know how shocking a revelation this is, because Threads is a brutal gut punch. It’s dark, bleak, angry, cynical, graphic, bloody — everything that also describes war. It is the closest approximation to what post-nuclear life can look like, and hopefully that’s the closest we will all ever get. Above all, it’s the clever editing that enforces such an illusion. Establishing shots of everyday homes and stores and businesses are married to stock footage of demolitions and explosions, one after the other; a simple shot of a cat playing on grass, when reversed and shown only in brief cuts, now looks like an animal suffocating from poisoned air.  Keep in mind, Threads isn’t exactly a Frankenstein of stock footage — only the bomb drop and immediate post-bomb decimation relies on these different footage sources; otherwise, Threads is entirely new footage, but it manages to match the dark and colorless tone of these destructive sequences. And as for the new footage, and its own sense of horror…look no further than the camera angles shot in an almost purposely pedestrian manner that capture a group of office workers from behind as they slip a deceased co-worker’s body into garbage bags, or a woman we presume to be the mother of the dead baby in her arms as she looks into the camera with dead eyes.

This edition of Threads, brought to you by Severin Films, includes a nice collection of special features: audio commentary with director Mick Jackson; “Audition For The Apocalypse: Interview With Actress Karen Meagher,” “Shooting The Annihilation: Interview With Director Of Photography Andrew Dunn,” “Destruction Designer: Interview With Production Designer Christopher Robilliard,” “Interview With Film Writer Stephen Thrower,” and the US Trailer.

Threads is extremely effective and unnerving. It’s an absolutely harrowing experience — one that left me shell shocked and in a daze. It actually coerced me into leaving my house after watching it and randomly driving to a more populated area just to see and be among people for the reminder that society still existed. It’s probably the most psychologically disturbing non-horror horror film I’ve ever seen — and I never want to see it again.


Threads is now on Blu-ray from Severin Films.