Showing posts with label italian horror. Show all posts
Showing posts with label italian horror. Show all posts

Sep 20, 2020

HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY (1981)

Second only to Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci is likely Italy’s most infamous and highly regarded director of horror, murder, and the macabre. Though Fulci’s Don’t Torture a Duckling is considered to be the director’s masterpiece, it never achieved the same amount of adoration as Argento’s own masterpiece, Suspiria. Having said that, the bulk of each director’s filmography has very different goals. While Argento was more interested in sexualized murder-mysteries, Fulci, though his earlier work explored similar material, eventually became indebted to the “monster” sub-genre. Perhaps best known as having directed the famous unofficial Dawn of the Dead sequel Zombie, he also helmed what’s known as the unofficial “Gates of Hell” trilogy. Not quite zombie movies, City of the Living Dead aka The Gates of Hell (1980), The Beyond (1981), and House by the Cemetery (1981) tread familiar ground about a remote or infamous location concealing a literal doorway to hell that becomes inadvertently open, unleashing sentries of the dead to kill in extremely gruesome ways. This theme and the presence of lead Catriona MacColl in all three entries are the sole ties that bind them together, along with Fulci’s unrelenting dedication to executing the goriest and most surreal deaths you’re likely to see in Italian horror.

As usual with “trilogies,” every fan has his or her own favorite (I’ve always been partial to City of the Living Dead, even with its hilariously nonsensical and unfinished ending), so I honestly don’t know where House by the Cemetery lands with fans. I do know that it’s among the director’s most unintentionally amusing, mostly thanks to the character of Bob (Giovanni Frezza), an unnaturally cherubic looking young child dubbed in post-production by what sounds suspiciously like a grown woman putting on a “kid’s” voice. A line of dialogue as simple as “My name is Bob” shouldn’t be as funny as it is, but it’s part and parcel with how charmingly clumsy all of House by the Cemetery is. Each film in the trilogy isn’t known for its concrete and fluid storytelling (The Beyond is downright befuddling), and House by the Cemetery continues the trend by presenting a story that somehow feels both incomplete and overstuffed, seemingly propelled by the movie operating by its own rules. Zombies, ghosts, potential and otherworldly co-conspirators – Fulci is ready and willing to throw them all against the wall to see what sticks – if it does: great, and if it doesn’t: whatever. This is and always has been the Italian way: directors feeling more indebted to atmosphere and style than presenting an air-tight story with every t crossed and i dotted; so long as there is forward momentum that eventually leads the audience to the conclusion, even if they stumble through the dark for most of their journey, then that’s good enough.

As far as generating genuine terror, there are moments that work as intended, and sometimes, it would seem, in spite of the flick’s clumsiness. None of it ever makes much sense, like young Mae (Silvia Collatina) hallucinating walking nightmares of headless, bloody mannequins or the extended bat attack that goes on forever. When Bob has his final-act encounter with the walking terror that haunts his new country house, the sequence goes on for so long that the action turns from suspense to tedium before turning back to suspense again, and it’s because Fulci reinvents the sequence with added horrific imagery during a chase scene that is already horrific enough. (I’m just speculating, but this sequence seems to have informed how James Wan directed one of the creepier scenes in The Conjuring, featuring Vera Farmiga’s Lorraine Warren cowering from a hanging specter in a farmhouse cellar.) Also helping the scary agenda: Italian horror has never shied away from not just gore, but from committing on-screen taboos. Children aren’t safe from their film’s respective boogeyman threats, and neither are the lead characters whom we are brainwashed to believe that just because their names are first in the opening credits that they’ll walk away terrified but relatively unscathed. Anyone can bite it at any time, and when it comes to Fulci, everyone normally does.

Italian films, especially horror films, have their own look, feel, and complete disregard for a cogent story. Because of this, the style is upped significantly to at-times overbearing degrees. Characters rattle off more extraneous dialogue than is necessary; the camerawork, though fluid and beautiful even when capturing moments of the grotesque, can sometimes come off as excessive. Take that, add in all the aforementioned gore, and there you go: Italian horror. There’s nothing like it, and that’s both good and bad. House by the Cemetery, for better or worse, is the prime example of that.

House by the Cemetery is now available in beautiful 4K UHD and 3-Disc Blu-ray editions.

[Reprinted from Daily Grindhouse.]

Sep 12, 2020

AMERICAN RICKSHAW (1989)


During the finale of American Rickshaw, which takes place in a television studio, a producer in the control room looks out on the events unfolding on the stage – where Donald Pleasence’s Reverend Mortom is snorting uncontrollably like a pig and the stage’s television screens at his back are showing a hijacked transmission of a youthful Chinese woman gleefully taking it all in – and then looks to his team in pure dismay as he demands, “Will somebody tell me what’s going on?”

That right there sums up the experience of watching American Rickshaw.

Released in 1989, and also known as American Tiger (a title that makes a bit more sense), American Rickshaw was directed by cult Italian director Sergio Martino, who, among many other films, had made the classic gialli All The Colors Of The Dark and The Strange Vice Of Mrs. Wardh. Following the announcement of American Rickshaw making its Blu-ray debut some time ago, I was aware of this. I recognized the name and thought, in my unending quest to see every Italian curiosity, “Well now I have to see this.” 


Over the following months, however, I’d forgotten about Martino’s connection, and when my screener of American Rickshaw arrived, I’d tentatively given the disc a spin, assuming it was a random title made by a random American director with no real recognition. When the credits rolled, I switched to the special features and saw the name of Sergio Martino, and that rediscovered revelation made what I had just watched even stranger.

There’s one word to describe American Rickshaw, and it’s this: baffling. From the opening moments where an elderly Chinese woman (Michi Kobi) rests on a bench in the thick of a rainstorm, and random American rickshaw driver (Mitch Gaylord) stops to pick her up, and as she stares at him with a smile reserved only for lovers, you are already baffled. Who is this woman? Does she know this young man? Does he know her? Fucking rickshaws in Miami?

And you’re off and running, and not even five minutes in!


American Rickshaw is a complete and total mystery – not just from understanding the movie’s living-thing plot, but also trying to figure out how the hell this thing got made in the first place. Because of its try-anything kitchen-sink approach, American Rickshaw seems like ideal double-feature fodder alongside John Carpenter’s Big Trouble In Little China – not just because of the superficial Chinese connection, or that it’s a weird, weird twist on the Indiana Jones format, but because it’s a mishmash of half-a-dozen different genres with none of them taking centerstage and allowing a viewer to say, “Oh, well, it’s primarily X.” American Rickshaw has it all: horror, mystical fantasy, intrigue, action, noir, and lastly, unlike Big Trouble In Little China, not a single goddamn joke. And unlike Big Trouble In Little China, where you at least had recognizable faces like Kurt Russell, Kim Cattrall, and James Hong taking you by the hand and leading you down into the depths of a studio release, the only person you’ve ever heard of in American Rickshaw is, ironically, another Carpenter connection, Donald Pleasence…but, if you’ve seen a good portion of his output from the mid-‘80s and up until his death in 1995, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re safe. 

At this point in his career, even though the Halloween series was proving to be his mainstream bread and butter, Pleasence said yes to everything that came his way. In American Rickshaw, he plays another Sam – this one a television evangelist doing his usual amount of spitting, proselytizing, and money grubbing. It somewhat recalls his role as The President in Escape From New York, only this time Pleasence really goes for it, embracing the curiosities of playing a villainous caricature falsely championing the word of God to enhance his personal worth. He relishes in playing a scumbag, and he’s very good.


Native Italian productions have their own feel, but so do Italian productions that are filmed in America using American crews. The aloofness and clumsiness of the Italian sensibility is still present, only it’s been filtered through the American aesthetic, presenting the final product as glossy, bright, and very Hollywoody. Umberto Lenzi’s Welcome To Spring Break aka Nightmare Beach, a slasher also set and filmed in Florida, is a perfect example. Italian films play by their own rules, the biggest being: it doesn’t matter if the story is illogical. The story might not even make sense to the filmmakers, and as Dario Argento himself has said in the past, it’s less about the story making sense and more about your immersion in the story itself, and the collection of scenes and images that connect them all together. There’s a beginning, a middle, and an end; there’s a hero, a villain, and a conflict; there’s danger, terror, violence, and sexytime. To quote Pleasence’s Dr. Sam Loomis, what more do you need?

American Rickshaw and Luciano Onetti’s Abrakadabra, the third in a kinda-trilogy of very stylish and faithfully rendered giallomages that began with Sonno Profondo and Francesca, are the debut releases from Cauldron Films. They are a good sign of things to come from the label; I know for sure I’m eager to see what comes next.


American Rickshaw and Abrakadabra are now available through Diabolik DVD.

Jul 7, 2020

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.

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.


Jul 6, 2020

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.

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.



Jun 28, 2020

WATCH ME WHEN I KILL (1977)


Like the American slasher, the Italian giallo can come in many forms. It can be a straight-forward horror-thriller, it can be like its American cousin the slasher, it can be a sleazy soft-core sex romp, or sometimes it can be something more: classy, with much more of an emphasis on mystery than on chilling murder sequences or titillating sexuality. That’s where Watch Me When I Kill (also known as The Cat’s Victims, neither title of which is relevant to the plot), comes in.

Directed by Antonio Bido (Bloodstained Shadow), 1977’s Watch Me When I Kill feels like the redheaded stepchild of the giallo sub-genre — not because it barely contains the same elements as more notable gialli like Argento’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet or Deep Red, but because it contains just enough giallo elements to still be considered one. And again, like the slasher, the giallo commands certain concepts that help to identify the films that fall within its confines. Above all else, is there a killer, masked or otherwise obscured, committing murders? Once the killer is revealed, is there some personal vendetta tied to the person investigating the murders, who may have been a potential target from the start, or who then becomes one after his or her investigation puts them directly in the killer’s crosshairs? According to those parameters, Watch Me When I Kill falls into that sub-genre, and while I’m not saying it’s not a giallo, it’s not the kind of experience one has come to expect--not in execution, and certainly not during the final reveal. 


Watch Me When I Kill is carefully and maturely rendered. We’re far from the sleazy shocks of Andrea Bianchi’s Strip Nude For Your Killer or the psychedelic dreamscape of Sergio Martino’s All The Colors of the Dark (both of which happen to star the gorgeous Edwige Fenech), but closer to one of Lucio Fulci’s most respected works, Don’t Torture a Duckling. I’ve seen other reviews describe Watch Me When I Kill as gory, bloody, and graphic, and sure, with this being both Italian and a giallo, there’s a bit of blood in this, but I’d never use the words “graphic” or “gory” to describe it. Maybe it’s because the film’s finale has depressing and melancholic real-world connections and implications, or maybe the film benefits extra from having been viewed alongside another Italian almost-giallo, Paganini Horror, which is the antithesis of this experience, Watch Me When I Kill feels patient, focused, and I’ll say it again: mature. 

Watch Me When I Kill has remained somewhat obscure over they years, but recently enjoyed a new lease on life thanks to its Blu-ray release from Synapse Films. The distributor mostly known for its recent stunning edition of Dario Argento's Suspiria continues to do strong work with their titles, remaining true to their release schedule of only focusing on a few titles at a time and giving them their full attention instead of relying on the assembly line approach that other third-party distributors tend to do. I like that they’re shining an additional light on some of the subgenre's more unheralded titles. So long as you’re not expecting the kind of slasher-film experience that other gialli titles offer, Watch Me When I Kill gets an easy recommendation.



[Reprinted from Daily Grindhouse.]

Jun 26, 2020

PAGANINI HORROR (1989)


Luigi Cozzi’s Paganini Horror is one of those movies that doesn’t serve much of a purpose—an Italian horror curiosity that’s neither good in general, nor bad enough to be “good.” Though it’s based on a lunatic concept—the “ghost” of long-dead Italian composer Niccolò Paganini coming back from the grave to avenge an ‘80s girl-pop band for stealing one of his last and unreleased compositions to save their fledgling new album—the movie simply doesn’t do enough with it. You might be thinking, “What more could you want?” but you’ve just answered your own question: more. Paganini Horror simply doesn’t know what to do, spending long, looong sequences with characters creeping through hallways of the crumbling estate where they’re staying while they record their new album, only intermittently killed by a masked madman dressed in old timey Halloween costume dudes. Is it truly the enraged spirit of the composer, or a member of the girls’ own party donning the garb to exact some kind of personal revenge, or is it none of the above? Being that this is Italian, just know one thing: regardless of the reveal, it won’t make a lot of sense, but the flick will be so in love with itself that it doesn’t care whether you buy it or not.

Paganini Horror actually proves to be fairly frustrating after a while being that the death scenes contain that perfect combination of gore and incompetence. In fact, the entire movie almost works as a garbage classic because of the hilarious, over the top dubbing, making the performances strange and heightened, along with the too-dramatic camerawork. (Italians love that zoom lens.) Among the cast is Daria Nicolodi, the ‘80s Italian equivalent of Adrienne Barbeau, in that she was romantically involved with a famous horror director (Dario Argento and John Carpenter, respectively), and appeared in many of her husband’s works, though it’s hard to comment on her performance, as it’s mostly overtaken by the hilarious dubbing. Sadly, the same can be said for Donald Pleasence’s very brief appearance as Mr. Pickett, which runs the gamut from appearing to be completely useless to being completely beyond belief. (Pleasence did not dub his own voice in post-production, so unfortunately it’s one less reason to ever try sitting through this mess.)


Even with a scant running time of 83 minutes, Paganini Horror feels like it’s crawling across the finish line. Among the more almost-trash-classic Italian flicks I can think of, they share one thing in common: a strong first act, a stronger third act, and a pitifully drawn out second act. Paganini Horror can’t even claim that, as after a very amusing and engaging opening act, the film remains a flatline through the very end, and not even a dummy crashing through a windshield and bursting into flames can save it.

Just after directing Paganini Horror, Cozzi directed 1989’s The Black Cat, also known as Demons 6: De Profundis, which actually has nothing to do with the Demons series, but was made to serve as an unofficial sequel to Dario Argento’s Suspiria. (Don’t ask. Fake sequels are a hallmark of Italian genre cinema.) Though it’s just as ham-fisted as Paganini Horror, it offers a better pace and a more engaging plot (being loosely based on the Edgar Allan Poe story of the same name), and I hope it proves to be a future release from any of our Italian-horror-resurrecting distributors. I was hoping for a fun, silly, and campy good time as essayed in other Italian horror flicks from this era, but Paganini Horror only proved to B flat ha ha! 



[Reprinted from Daily Grindhouse.]

Jun 16, 2020

THE WAX MASK (1997)


If you’re a horror lover, and if you’re on this site you likely are, then by now you’ve likely seen Vincent Price’s 1959 horror classic House of Wax, itself a remake of 1933’s Mysteries of the Wax Museum. Based on the unpublished short story “The Wax Works” by Charles Belden, the concept about an owner of a wax museum moonlighting as a killer and turning his victims into wax dummies as a means to get rid of the evidence has been used numerous times, the most recent example being 2005’s House of Wax. The Price version is certain to go down as the definitive take on the story (with an honorable mention for Tourist Trap), but as you can see, that didn’t stop people from trying new iterations. 

One of those attempts is 1997’s The Wax Mask, produced by legendary horror director Dario Argento, who also provides the story alongside another legendary horror director, Lucio Fulci. Those familiar with House of Wax will definitely find similarities in The Wax Mask, right down to actor Robert Hossein, who with his pencil thin mustache bears a striking resemblance to Vincent Price. Despite the similarities to House of Wax, produced by Warner Bros., Argento and Fulci decided to lean on Gaston Leroux's short story "The Waxwork Museum" to offset any legal claims made by the studio. Somehow this worked, even though The Wax Mask is clearly borrowing many elements from Price’s most infamous feature, but if Italian filmmakers know how to do one thing, it’s skirt trademark infringement.


Though The Wax Mask bears the presence of several Italian heavy hitters, and though it’s both set in and shot in Rome, the most frustrating aspect of The Wax Mask is how un-European it feels. If you’re well versed in Italian films, you’ve come to expect them to feel a certain way: gaudy, opulent, and very stylistic. The Wax Mask is none of these. Directed by special effects artist Sergio Stivaletti after Fulci, who was originally going to direct, died in 1996, The Wax Mask feels less like an Italian horror production and more like something that would’ve been produced by Charles Band and his cheap mini-studio Full Moon. Subsisting almost entirely on close-ups, the scope of the flick feels stunted from the start, and though there is admirable costume and production design, one can’t help but walk away after having watched the production and thinking you’ve just watched something made for television or the direct-to-video market. Also missing, considering the personnel involved? Fun and gory set pieces. That’s not to say that The Wax Mask is a chaste production because it’s not. There’s plenty of flesh to stoke your fires along with some flying limbs, but when it comes to the latter, especially given the film’s concept, it doesn’t feel like nearly enough, which is odd, given director Stivaletti’s special effects background. The visual effects, though scarcely employed, are dreadful. However, the final twenty minutes are so ludicrously stupid that they more than make up for the previous plodding two acts. 

Italian horror consistently remains a watermark for many horror fans, who point to various aspects as the selling point for them, whether it’s the fluid style, the lurid content, or something less definable. As a film, The Wax Mask doesn't quite work. Though it certainly boasts some heavy Italian personnel, with Argento, Fulci, and producer Giuseppe Columbo coming together for one project, but it’s a shame that this Italian production doesn’t feel very Italian.  


Apr 21, 2020

STRIP NUDE FOR YOUR KILLER (1975)


The European cinematic movement of the 1960’s and ‘70s known as the giallo would eventually help kick start the slasher movement in the United States. And, like the slasher movement, gialli could often result in solid, respectable titles worthy of critical appreciation, but they could often vie for much less, wanting to offer their audiences nothing more than pulpy thrills and vapid, surface-level entertainment. That’s where Strip Nude For Your Killer lives. All the stalwarts of the giallo are there: the heightened murder sequences, the too-red blood, the overt sexuality, and of course, the mysterious, black-clothed killer. However, instead of a complex plot with lots of moving parts a la The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, Strip Nude For Your Killer offers a far less complex plot that’s tantamount to Agatha Christie by way of Scooby Doo: Someone is killing off the staff at a fashion studio in Milan and it’s up to photographer Magda (Edwige Fenech) and her boyfriend/also-photographer Carlo (Nino Castelnuovo) to find the identity of the killer before they’re next on the chopping block.


Featuring a short-haired Fenech, who was a popular face in a dozen films in the Martino Brothers’ oeuvre (Luciano, producer, and Sergio, director, which includes their classic All The Colors Of The Dark), Strip Nude For Your Killer is one of the trashier giallo titles to hail from this era. The level of violence on hand is fairly tame considering what other filmmakers were doing at this time (A Bay of Blood had come out four years prior and was far more violent), but where lacks in grue and gore it more than makes up for with its sexuality. Depending on your sensibilities, Strip Nude For Your Killer falls either directly within or hues very closely to soft-core entertainment. And you get it all: straight sex, lesbian sex, gross fat sex, and sex that, in today's standards, is probably rape. Fenech likely spends more time walking around topless than she does fully clothed (I’m fine with it), and everyone is either sleeping with or wants to sleep with everyone else.

There is enough intrigue established that you can invest yourself in the goings-on of the plot, even if that investment is limited to, “Gee, I wonder who the killer is?” Subtextually, there’s nothing else to grasp onto. However, simplicity of the plot aside, Strip Nude For Your Killer offers fascinating characterization. Fenech’s Magda embodies the responsibilities of the final girl, but while leaving behind the chasteness that usually comes with it. She is a feminine force who knows what she wants and is willing to play the bad girl in order to get it. Castelnuovo’s Carlo, however, is a malignant prick — pompous, shallow, misogynistic, and downright unlikable for nearly the entire running time. Complicating this a tiny bit is that he’s also the hero. Or, at least, heroically involved in trying to find the identity of the killer. It’s a bold move hinging your murder mystery on two characters who present atypical qualities from what we’re used to from the genre. They are essentially Sam Loomis and Lila Crane from Psycho, only they bang a lot. (Of course, I can always upend this argument by saying John Carpenter’s Halloween was still three years off, which would cement the archetype of the “final girl” and all the rules that came with it.) Still, making your heroes slutty and self-absorbed is a fun idea no matter if the filmmakers are circumventing expectation or not.


The killer’s presence looms large over the proceedings, although he doesn’t appear on screen very often. When he does, he’s clad in skin-tight motorcycle leather, complete with helmet, a design that would be used again in future gialli titles like Massimo Dallamano’s What Have They Done to Your Daughters? and Umberto Lenzi’s giallo/slasher hybrid Nightmare Beach a.k.a. Welcome To Spring Break. Director Andrea Bianchi, who would go on to direct the ultimate garbage classic Burial Ground: The Nights Of Terror, shows off minimal style, allowing his characters (and their nudeness) to do most of the work. The resolution to the story, preempted by the reveal of the killer, unfolds a little too quickly, forcing you to remember the opening that also unfolded a little too quickly, threatening an audience reaction of “Who?” when the motorcycle helmet is finally removed to reveal the killer’s identity. But none of this matters because the film ends-ends with one of the best, most tasteless “jokes” I’ve ever seen in any genre. Thanks, the Italians!

For every Psycho or Halloween, there are tiers of slashers made in the same mold that vie for a different experience. Strip Nude For Your Killer is the Friday The 13th: A New Beginning of the giallo movement. Its plot is inconsequential, its performers are happy to disrobe, and its characters are broadly painted archetypes who are all apparently sleeping with each other. Oh, and it’s trashy as hell. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with this — just know what you’re getting yourself into before you sit down to watch. (And if you’re already a fan of gialli, then you definitely should.)

Strip Nude For Your Killer is now on Blu-ray from Arrow Video.


[Reprinted from Daily Grindhouse.]

Mar 9, 2020

KILLER CROCODILE (1989)


Killer Crocodile is an inept Italian curiosity that, were it not inept, no one would talk about at all. For a while now, distributor Severin Films have excelled at releasing befuddling Italian horror cinema from the ‘70s and ‘80s, including the high watermarks of Italian stupidity, Zombie 3, Zombie 4: After Death, and Shocking Dark. Some horror fans, especially gore hounds, tout Italian horror above all others, citing it’s willing to go to places others aren’t willing to go. I agree with this, but with one caveat: no one does “oops, it’s stupid!” horror better than the Italians. Between the before mentioned Zombie sequels, or titles like Demons, Burial Ground: The Nights Of Terror, and Stagefright, Italian misfires are magically, stupidly delicious, and, to borrow the current Internet catchphrase, I’m “here” for it.

I, badly, wanted Killer Crocodile to follow along in this same vein. The makings of it were there, waiting to be plucked: first, it’s Italian; second, the villain of the piece is a gigantic crocodile that’s barely articulated, never blinks, and for the most part, just kinda floats along in the water; and third, it’s still Italian. (It’s worth repeating.) And like all killer animal movies Italian and non-Italian, it’s clearly been made in the shadow of JAWS, right down to the character dynamics and archetypes. You’ve got your Quint, your Brody, and your Hooper. You’ve got your giant-teethed villain. And to borrow from JAWS 2, you’ve got your young people in peril (natch). What you don’t have is a memorable experience, whether or not you’re here for the irony.


To critique Killer Crocodile in any meaningful way is silly. It’s not trying to be a real film, nor should we treat it as such. Whenever the titular beast isn’t on screen chomping victims with its gigantic plastic dummy jaws, Killer Crocodile is a slog, consisting mainly of people standing around, sweating, and sharing completely unrealistic dialogue with each other. This happens a lot in Italian horror of the stupid kind—moments of glory are often ruined by too-long scenes of people sharing in tepid dialogue and pretending that they’re making a real movie, and not one, say, where Hugo Stiglitz throws a TV at a zombie head and said TV explodes like a fucking bomb. (Nightmare City for the win!)

To circle back to the killer crocodile creation, it’s actually pretty impressive, considering the amount of money that was afforded to the flick’s production. Does it look “real?” In sustained shots, no, it doesn’t, but to be fair, neither did the shark in JAWS. The level of detail in the crocodile is meticulous, from its scaly skin to its conical teeth. (But still, it never blinks, and the longer you stare at that unblinking eye, the funnier it becomes.) 

That’s how Italians do it, baby.

Killer Crocodile ultimately proves to be a frustrating viewing experience: not consistently stupid enough to be entertaining, and nowhere close to being a legitimately good film, it’s just kinda there, bobbing up and down in the water like a kinda top. (If you’re feeling adventurous, you can purchase the 2-disc limited edition directly from Severin's website that also includes Killer Crocodile 2.)

(I’m not feeling particularly adventurous.)


Aug 7, 2019

A WHOLE DIFFERENT ANIMAL: ‘ORCA’ (1977)


By now, JAWS is a Hollywood institution. It not only birthed the summer blockbuster, but, like any popular new idea, it inspired countless knockoffs – a trend that continues to this day. Putting aside the more infamous examples, like the Italian-lensed Cruel Jaws (yes, this is real) and Enzo G. Castellari’s The Last Shark aka Great White, both of which saw their U.S. releases halted by JAWS distributor Universal Studios due to obvious reasons, the “animals-run-amok” subgenre wasn’t actually confined just to sharks. Following the unparalleled success of JAWS, every kind of animal that could reasonably run amok ran amok, regardless if those animals had legs or not.

Even those animals (or insects) that weren’t obvious amok-runners still got their own one-word titles through which to generate “terror”: Grizzly, Frogs, Slugs, Bug, Ants, Gi-Ants, Squirm, etc.

Even automobiles got in on the action, like 1974’s Killdozer and 1977’s The Car.

It got pretty ridiculous.

Addressing the great white in the room, Orca, on its surface, could easily be written off as one of these JAWS bastards. It even takes the name of Quint’s doomed sea vessel for its title. Obviously, the similarities are profound. Sea-based killer animal? Check. Crusty, hard-drinking boat captain tasked with killing the beast? Check. A crew assembled with people of differing philosophies toward the animal and how it should be dealt with? Check. An entire town’s financial stability affected by the maniacal animal? Oh yes. And like JAWS, Orca also gets a huge boost from its musical score – Ennio Morricone’s absolute all-time best, in fact.

Long dismissed as just another JAWS clone, Orca is worthy of much more respectable appreciation – forty years after its release.


While out on a routine sharking expedition hoping to land a big payday for a local aquarium, Captain Nolan (Richard Harris) and the crew of his vessel, the Bumpo, get an up-close and personal encounter with an orca whale during a shark attack. Impressed with the size and savagery of the whale, Nolan switches targets, deciding that the capture of a male orca – alive – would fetch a much bigger payday. But after botching this capture and accidentally killing the targeted orca’s pregnant mate (which miscarries on the Bumpo in a devastating sequence), the orca becomes incensed, ramming the vessel and then stalking the murderous captain all the way back to shore – and beyond – intent on ruining his life by any means necessary. Even from the frigid ocean waters, the orca inexplicably begins to wear down Nolan in every feasible means – physically, mentally, financially, existentially, and philosophically. (If Hannibal Lecter were an animal, he would be an orca.) Soon, Captain Nolan is left with no choice but to take back to the sea and engage in a battle to the death with his massive opponent.

Yes, Orca follows a lot of the same familiar JAWS beats, and though it pales in comparison, Orca is much better than its reputation or immediate sketchy filmic colleagues would suggest. (The opening sequence, which sees the orca kill a great white shark in a violent battle, is a not-so-subtle dig at its legendary predecessor.) Based on the 1977 novel of the same name by Arthur Herzog, what sets Orca off from its unintended brethren is the amount of sincerity with which it was made, with much of the credit going to director Michael Anderson (Logan's Run) for maintaining a level of seriousness and weaving a palpable sense of regret throughout what would otherwise be your standard animal-revenge thriller. Orca is inherent with sadness and despair, from the quiet haunted life of Nolan to the vicious capture of the pregnant orca, right down to the icy finale which sees the crew being led to the unforgiving crushing ice caps and brutal cold of the Strait of Belle Isle. Not a single time during the film can the sun be glimpsed or does daylight look bright and warm. Colors are muted, and at dusk, barely present. Nolan and his crew live a shiftless life, existing only in those strange lands where their fishing work takes them. No one has any roots to speak of – the only relationships they have are with each other. All of this is purposeful; Orca isn’t out for the same kind of adventurous thrills as JAWS, nor is it only interested in cheap but entertaining exploitation thrills like Alligator. Though the furious orca kills quite a few people, it’s not done for titillation like the usual sharksploitation flick. As each character sleeps with the fishes, you feel conflicted, even if these characters have shown off their ignorance toward the dangers that their profession can have on the ecosystem. Like real people, they’re flawed but not villainous, and none of them are particularly heroic; in fact, Nolan only gets up the gumption to resolve the conflict he’s inadvertently created because the town where he‘s temporarily docked blackmails him into doing it – even refusing to sell gasoline to the crew attempting to retreat from their sins. (Heroism!)


Aiding Orca’s effectiveness is the slightly dangerous tone exhibited by ‘70s-era Italian thriller and horror films, which always had their own look and feel, and which were heightened in every sense – regardless of genre. Exploitation films were just a bit more exploitative. The infamous “cannibal horror” period was rife with filmmakers pushing boundaries – so much that murder charges were brought against Cannibal Holocaust director Ruggero Deodato in response to the too-convincing fates that befell that film’s characters. This sensibility would spawn the giallo sub-genre – one that gleefully focused on the exaggeration of sex and sensuality, fluid and poetic camera movement, and, most famously, very specifically choreographed and violent murder sequences. The presence on Orca of Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis, a major figure during this time (and who remained so until his death; he’d go on to produce several films in the Hannibal Lecter franchise), and the largely Italian crew – from the script writers to the production and art designers – inadvertently rode that over-stylized subset of Italian filmmaking, which enhances Orca’s sense of danger and unease; it comes across as similarly loose-cannoned and willing to push the boundaries of good taste, even though, except for the upsetting whale capture scene in the first act, Orca is fairly restrained. (Though this is not at all applicable to Orca, Italian productions were also occasionally unkind to animals, which also enhances the unsettling usage of Orca’s special effects. More on that in a bit.)

Richard Harris’ Captain Nolan is a heavy figure. The fisherman lives a life of isolation, having seen his pregnant wife perish in a car accident caused by a drunk driver – one that’s already taken place before the opening credits, but which can be unnervingly glimpsed through quick flashbacks complemented by the unsettling shrill shriek of an orca. The film draws parallels both obvious (the tragic loss of a burgeoning family) and subtle (obsession leading to self-destruction) between Nolan and the orca that hunts him, and which he then begins to hunt. As life took away Nolan’s family, so Nolan took away that of the orca. They become one and the same — two lost souls navigating a cold and barren seascape; satisfying the avenging beasts within them is the only thing offering them forward momentum.


The death scenes, too, are executed differently. Unlike JAWS, where the shark attack scenes were suspensefully predicated by John Williams’ famous low-end piano and Spielberg’s paranoid shots of the water, the death scenes here are quick and brutal, and over before you realize they’ve happened. The orca lunges with a shriek, takes his target, and disappears beneath the depths. It’s not at all about suspense this time around; it’s much more focused on shock – how, at one moment, you can be sitting safely on the bow of a ship, and at the next, you’re immediately disappeared as if you never existed. Again, a film that clearly exists because of what’s come before is still making an effort to distance itself through different stylistic choices. Yes, both films feature an aquatic killer as the main threat, but each is going about it as differently as they can while remaining in the same genre and delivering, ultimately, what the audience expects.

For its time, the special effects are quite good. Granted, some of the visual tricks, like superimposing together scenes of orcas breaching the ocean’s surface, show their age, but the practical effects are extremely lifelike to the point where certain shots look downright disturbing. Charlotte Rampling sitting on the beach next to the corpse of the orca that Nolan kills during the opening moments and seeing it rock and sway in the coming and going ocean tide offers it a very sad reality. (Production on Orca was even momentarily shut down following outcry from animal rights groups after someone glimpsed a life-sized orca prop being trucked into the shooting location.) A brief shot of a pummeled great white shark floating lifelessly in bloody waters, too, looks alarmingly real. (It wasn’t; all underwater shark photography was captured by ocean conservationists Ron and Valerie Taylor, who famously obtained all the real shark footage used in JAWS.) Honestly, there are times when Orca’s best special effects even look better than some of the troublesome effects from JAWS – and for a film that would go on to inspire a multi-billion dollar franchise and a theme park ride (RIP), that’s not dismissible praise.

It’s fair to admit that Orca would not exist without JAWS, but it would also be unfair to disregard Orca as a lazy cash-grab. It has its own identity and purpose, and its own less traveled path for getting there – one might even argue that it has much more in common with Moby Dick than that aforementioned stillness in the water. Richard Harris once stated to have found the characters in its script far richer and more complicated than Brody, Hooper, and Quint, and that its label of being a mere JAWS rip-off was offensive. Charlotte Rampling, who works steadily to this day, continues to look back on the film with pride. Affirmations like these are important to preserving and fairly examining Orca’s legacy. This isn’t a case where actors, who go on to more prominent roles in wider reaching films, look back on their horror past with embarrassment and dismissal. A good film is a good film, regardless of its genre, unfair reputation, and especially regardless of its inspiration.


Apr 30, 2019

BLU-RAY REVIEWS: ANTHROPOPHAGOUS & ABSURD

“There’s evil on this island. An evil that won’t let us get away. An evil that sends out an inhuman, diabolic power. I sense its vibrations now. The vibrations are an intense horror. It will destroy us! The very same way it did all the others!”
“Shut up, Carol!
Italian filmmaker Aristide Massaccesi is more commonly known as Joe D’Amato, the most prominent of his many pseudonyms. Like his colleagues Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, Michele Soavi, Bruno Mattei, Ruggero Deodato, Umberto Lenzi, and the Bavas — Mario and Lamberto — D’Amato was a director and producer primarily known for gross-out, gory horror that featured the kind of gags you’d never have seen during the same era of American filmmaking. I guess it’s because Italians are inherently fucked up (I’m allowed to say that), but even during the video nasty era of Britain, or when Reagan et al. were cracking down on R-rated movies and profane lyrics in music, Italian filmmakers were also pushing back on violence and gore — but in the opposite direction. They pushed violence and gore to the breaking point — beyond “this is fun!” to “I’d like to vomit!” D’Amato was the hardest working one among his colleagues, averaging FIVE feature films a year, and he directed EIGHT in 1981 alone. (To put things in perspective, similarly “boundary-pushing” horror director Eli Roth has been making features for 16 years and he currently has only seven features to his name.) By the time of his death at 62 years old, D’Amato had 197 directorial credits. Granted, a lot of this was porn, but hey — a movie’s a movie. (My favorite title from this era of D’Amato’s filmography is definitely Robin Hood: Thief of Wives.)


1980’s Anthropophagous (The Grim Reaper) is one of D’Amato’s most famous efforts, which would be one of several collaborations with actor/screenwriter Luigi Montefiori (pseudonym George Eastman), who wrote Anthropophagous and its sequel, Absurd, while also playing the maniacal cannibal/killer in each. Anthropophagous was one of many titles infamously included on Britain’s official Video Nasty list, which nearly declared this and films of its ilk illegal and was pulled from video store shelves. I won’t go as far as calling it “tame by today’s standards,” which is a go-to line for retrospectives on once-infamous films, but it’s not a constant collection of gross-out gore, either. For much of its running time, it unfolds as your fairly typical slasher flick: a group of attractive youngin’s go where they ought not to have gone and run afoul of a cannibalistic madman who begins to kill and semi-eat them one by one. 

At film’s end, the villainous Man Eater suffers a fatal blow to his stomach, out of which flow his intestines, which he promptly sticks in his mouth and begins to eat as he stares into the eyes of the man who wounded him, which is the greatest spite-suicide I’ve ever seen.

Sure, Anthropophagous is definitely gross, and its infamous fetus-eating scene is one of the grossest things from this genre, but it’s also more well made than you might expect based on its reputation. For much of the first half, in spite of the intermittent murder scenes, D’Amato is much more interested in creating tension and setting a mysterious and creepy mood. A night-brought storm rages, dumping buckets of rain on the crumbling structure where the friends are hunkering down and filling its darkened rooms with blazes of lightning flashes. He also sticks Eastman’s killer, Man Eater, in dark corners and other faraway places nearly offscreen, revealing him in small bursts like a bearded Michael Myers. Reputation aside, D’Amato was a competent director, and it’s to his credit that he was able to work in every genre beyond horror, and especially beyond gross-out horror, even if the horror genre would come to define his legacy.


A soft sequel to Anthropophagous, called Absurd, would follow just one year and ten more D’Amato-directed films later, and would travel much of the same path, although this time, Eastman’s script would borrow heavily from elements from the first two Halloween films: Eastman, this time given the name of Mikos Stenopolis, is your de facto Michael Myers; Edward Purdom (from the legendary slasher flick Pieces), though whose trench coat may be black, is definitely the regretful Sam Loomis; and young bedridden Katia is doomed to act as the film’s beleaguered Laurie Strode. There’s even a subplot of a babysitter watching two kids while the parents fuck off to a party, both of whom having to contend with a killer in their house. (The babysitter, however, isn’t so lucky this time.)

The reason I call Absurd a soft sequel to Anthropophagous is because it doesn’t feature any returning cast members beyond Eastman, and even then he’s playing a brand new/basically the same character. The film also finds a way during its opening scene to replicate the fatal wound that Eastman’s Man Eater is dealt in the final moments of Anthropophagous in an additional effort to tie the films together. However, Absurd isn’t nearly the same success as its predecessor, surrendering to a more common and less interesting setting and falling back on a less assured pace. In Anthropophagous, tension built from having our characters wander a desolate location where we know the killer to be and slowly put together the events of the dastardly deeds that have gone down there. In Absurd, we spend way too much time watching a bunch of middle-aged party-goers standing around watching American football on TV and eating spaghetti. That sounds like I’m making a joke, but I’m not — that’s really what happen. (Spaghet!) Obsession with American football must’ve been at an all-time high in ‘81 because every character beyond Eastman (who never speaks) mentions football at least once. Like Antropophagus, the murder sequences in Absurd are top notch, but they all occur so far from each other that we’re forced to spend most of our time with the police investigation side of things, led by Sgt. Ben Engleman (Charles Borromel, who looks freakily like Robin Williams).


Interestingly, though Absurd borrows heavily from the plot of Halloween, both Absurd and Halloween 2 were released in October of 1981, and both feature a finale in which the maniacal killer is blinded and the final girl begins throwing off the path of the coming killer by creating false signs of her presence around the room using anything that makes noise, allowing for someone else to come in and dispatch the killer. The very ending even predicts that of Halloween 4, which wouldn’t be released for seven more years, so apparently Eastman piped into the official Halloween series wormhole and got a glimpse of what was to come.

Severin Films’ releases of both titles look phenomenal, as they are finally free from years of cramped and murky transfers that plagued previous video releases.

Supplements-wise, Severin never disappoint, and this duo of garbage cinema titles are no different. Anthropophagus offers several interviews with the flick’s participants: “Don’t Fear The Man-Eater: Interview with Writer/Star Luigi Montefiori a.k.a. George Eastman,” “The Man Who Killed The Anthropophagus: Interview with Actor Saverio Vallone,” “Cannibal Frenzy: Interview with FX Artist Pietro Tenoglio,” “Brother And Sister In Editing: Interview With Editor Bruno Micheli,” “Inside Zora’s Mouth(!): Interview with Actress Zora Kerova,” and caps it off with a collection of trailers. Moving on, Absurd offers an alternate Italian cut (with optional English subtitles), along with “The Return of the Grim Reaper: Interview With Actor / Writer / Co-Producer Luigi Montefiore (George Eastman),” “D’Amato on Video: Archive Interview With Director Aristide Massaccesi,” “A Biker (Uncredited): Interview With Michele Soavi,” the trailer, and a bonus CD soundtrack (first 2500 copies only). Yes, Eastman is on hand to provide interviews for each title, and as he’s proven on prior Code Red releases, he’s extremely to the point. (He calls Anthropophagous, a film he wrote and starred in, “shit.”)

Fans of Italian horror should see each title at least once. I wouldn’t go as far to call them cult classics, but they do feel like necessary viewing for those who have a predisposition toward “extreme” Italian horror cinema.