Jul 14, 2021

THE CHURCH (1989) (AKA DEMONS 3) & THE SECT (1991) (AKA DEMONS 4)

There’s no bad movie like a bad Italian movie (♪ like no bad movie I know ♪). 

Michele Soavi is proof of this, because he directed one of the all-time greats with StageFright (Deliria), a sort of slasher/sort of giallo/all of a movie where the killer wears a giant owl mask and uses a chainsaw. It’s glorious and stupid and one I revisit often. Right around the same time that killer owl was cutting up stage actors, another Italian director named Lamberto Bava was directing a similarly chaotic movie called Demons (Dèmoni) — the gold standard when it comes to terribly amusing Italian horror. And this movie, about a theater audience whose exhibiting horror film about demons inadvertently raises real demons that begin possessing and/or tearing apart cinemagoers, would naturally spawn a “series.” Demons 2 highlights the same level of disaster, this time in a high-rise apartment building, but somehow without the same level of enjoyment. Officially, the Demons series would be done, but unofficially, further sequels would be made. (Italians could make fake sequels like no one else.) Among them would be The Church (aka Demons 3), and The Sect (aka The Devil’s Daughter…aka Demons 4). Except for the basic concept of demonism, neither film has anything to do with the Demons series (boo!), but when it comes to the histrionics of poor Italian horror filmmaking, they are all kindred spirits (yay!). (And in case you were desperate to know, there are TWO MORE unofficial Demons 3’s: Bava’s own unrelated television effort, The Ogre, released on video as Demons 3: The Ogre, and Umberto Lenzi’s Black Demons, which is exactly what you think it is, and which I need in my life ASAP.)

When compared to the official Demons movies, The Church is actually pretty competent, adhering to a more broad and typical horror concept. What I mean is that it makes sense. Mostly. The Church is also more close-knit with the Demons series in that it’s more overtly about demonic possession and drippy, gooey monsters. Though it features too many characters, some of whom serve absolutely no purpose (sorry, but, I’m looking right at you, Asia Argento), The Church at least embraces a more standard horror experience, even if it does feature a little demon fucking by its ending. 

Director Michele Soavi is a genuine whizz with the camera, getting to show off a little flare that falls by the wayside in The Sect and his far more entertaining (for all the wrong reasons) StageFright. He even manages a handful of eerie images, mostly having to do either with hallucinations of the devil himself (maybe) or a horde of possessed church personnel watching his second coming (ewww) as the camera rushes by them in the bowels of the church basement. But, except for some moody gothic atmosphere, along with a few gonzo moments of violence (a woman being decapitated in the film’s Crusades-era prologue and her head being kicked around by horses was a goddamn delight), The Church is still a pretty lackluster experience. Typical in Italian horror from this decade, everyone has been redubbed, even if they were speaking English on set to begin with, making every performance awkward and emotion-free.

Unlike Soavi’s StageFright, which was full-on nuts and only out to spill some blood and dazzle the audience with its preponderance of mystifying set pieces, The Sect (aka The Devi's Daughter — don't forget now!) is out to proffer a more “mature” experience, with an emphasis on mystique peppered with psychedelic hallucinations and dream sequences. And one might argue, “What’s wrong with maturity?” Well, I’ll tell you: sometimes it’s boring. Really boring. And that’s what The Sect is: really boring. I know there are an alarming amount of Italian horror fans out there who would tear me asunder for even suggesting such a thing, but, as they say, if it walks like a duck that’s boring and talks like a duck that’s boring, that’s one boring fucking duck. Speaking of ducks, and in spite of The Sect’s insistence on maturity, it still boasts a few moments of pure absurdism which with Italian horror can be riddled — to throw out just a couple, there’s the heroine’s nightmare where she’s pecked apart by the fakest looking bird you have ever seen, or the scene where a pet bunny rabbit goes channel surfing with a remote control.

What is this? Why is this? What’s happening?

Kelly Curtis, sister of Jamie Lee Curtis you’re just now finding out not only exists but actually acted in the ‘80s and ‘90s (she even had role in Trading Places), proves in The Sect that she shouldn’t be acting. Of course, I won’t profess to be an authority on this second Curtis and maybe she’s decent in her own right. Perhaps it was the curse of the Italian horror film, as American actors in Italian productions often offer shaky performances. But based on The Sect…yeesh. Really, The Sect as a whole…yeesh.

Keeping up with Italian horror franchises can be tough because they often deviate to an alarmingly complicated degree depending on the territory in which you're trying to watch them. (See the Zombi series for proof of this, which is so chaotic that its wiki entry provides a helpful breakdown showing which unrelated Italian movies that happen to contain zombies are considered official Zombi entries depending on which country you're talking about.) One thing is for certain: Demons, the crazed, cocaine-addled monster flick that started it all, is still the final word on this sub-genre of Italian horror. Everything that comes after bearing its moniker offer their own share of amusement, but you should definitely tread at your own risk.

Jun 25, 2021

DAY OF THE DEAD: BLOODLINE (2018)

Isn’t it bad enough that George A. Romero, the mastermind behind the holiest of zombie cinema and the godfather of a subgenre that has since been running rampant, is no longer with us? And even before he passed, wasn’t it also bad enough that we had to witness the backsliding of the filmmaker firsthand and suffer through the pedestrian schlock that was Diary of and Survival of the Dead? But every master eventually reaches that point where his better days are behind him — not a single one of them, not even Hitchcock, were as good at the end as they were at the beginning.

And during this two-decade period of Romero regression, his works were exploited in both remake and sequel form. 2004’s Dawn of the Dead managed a successful rebirth, but 2008’s Day of the Dead did not. The less said about the Romero-less Day of the Dead 2: Contagium (not a word) and Creepshow 3, the better. And the numerous remakes of Night of the Living Dead continue to flood the marketplace, which, outside of Tom Savini’s authorized remake (and written by Romero), have been as lifeless as you might imagine.

The presence of a “major” studio might give a Romero fan hope when they see a familiar title and concept coming down the pike, similar to how the critically and financially successful Dawn of the Dead remake was released by Universal Studios. But none of the other titles mentioned above were released by anything approaching a studio. All of them were quiet direct-to-video releases — and for a reason: awfulness. So when Lionsgate announced the existence of Day of the Dead: Bloodline, neither a sequel nor a remake but a “retelling,” there was momentary cause for optimism. Would it touch on the social commentary and political subtext as Romero’s films had previously? Probably not. After all, the Dawn redux didn’t — it was openly more interested in human drama and zombie carnage than anything else — so that didn’t necessarily negate this new Day of the Dead right off the bat.

Know what did, though? Every single thing else about it. This more than includes Johnathon Schaech’s ultra-evil zombie that looks waaaaay too much like Heath Ledger’s Joker.

If you’re in the mood to be in awe of how something baring a familiar title can be so unrelentingly stupid, then please, by all means, see Day of the Dead: Bloodline. It contains the cheapest looking sets, the worst acting, and the laziest storytelling you’ll ever see in a film that could still be considered a somewhat anticipated title, given the legacy to which it’s attempting to attach itself. It does absolutely nothing new, and with zero fucks given. It’s the worst episode of Fear the Walking Dead taken down five hundred million rungs. It’s one of the most pitiful movies I’ve ever seen, and this is coming from someone who has previously suffered through that other Day of the Dead remake, that other Day of the Dead sequel, and Romero’s own lackluster swan songs. As I write this, a television series based on Day of the Dead is in production, with none other than Astron-6 member Steven Kostanski (PG: Psycho Goreman) helming. Dear god, please restore some class and brains to this title that's otherwise been beaten to death.

Run away as fast as the zombies run in Day of the Dead: Bloodline, or else the end result will be the same: there will be no survival of this dead.



May 28, 2021

DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978) — FULL CBS BROADCAST, 1979

To lazily borrow some of this earlier Dawn of the Dead television promo post, pandemic lockdown and all the extra stuck-at-home time it afforded pushed me into embarking on an ambitious video project. File this one under fan edit: George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead as it may have looked if it premiered on network television in the late '70s, specifically December of 1979, modeled on the 1981 broadcasts of Halloween on NBC and The Exorcist on CBS

As the world continues to regress into a filthy toilet that refuses to flush, instead doing the same laps around the same bowl over and over, I've been immersing myself in way-back-when pop culture more and more as a means of comfort and escape, which led me to collecting recordings of network broadcasts of movies from the '70s and '80s with their original commercials intact. You can get lots of these on The Internet Archive, some more on Youtube, and if you really do your due diligence, from other collectors. In doing this, I've been able to collect some of my favorite movies in broadcast form, all with their original commercials, which is the most entertaining part. I can't tell you why older commercials are so hilarious and charming. Is it the corny approach to marketing, the awful skits, the dated fashions, or even the commercials that, by today's standards, are actually kind of politically incorrect? Whatever it is, there's something self-owning about a commercial trying to confidently sell you a product you've never heard of because it no longer exists, but at the same time, there's something oddly comforting about it, too — it's a return to simpler times, or at least a return to the times in which our bubbling cauldron of sins and hate lived under the surface of the world and wasn't so in-your-face throughout every 24-hour news cycle.

After accumulating all my must-have titles of these old broadcast recordings, including original airings of Dark Night of the Scarecrow and the Bob Wilkins Creature Features presentation of The Fog, one title eluded me, however: 1978's Dawn of the Dead, Romero's tale of four people taking refuge inside the abandoned Monroeville shopping mall from the zombie-ridden world that surrounds them — not because this broadcast was difficult to track down, but because it never existed; the movie's initially-issued X-rating almost ensured it would never be aired even on cable television, let alone a network station. With that, I decided to, as faithfully as I could, recreate what it may have looked like had CBS made the very reckless decision to present it for broadcast. Of course, I had to decide in which form to present the movie — meaning, would I include it as-is, squibs and all? Or should I really pursue making it look like a genuine broadcast for network television and cut out all the violence and bloodletting? After much back and forth, I decided it was necessary to go the censoring route. I know, I know — neuter Tom Savini's majestic gore gags? Who on earth would do that to such a genre masterpiece, and one especially known for its special effects? It all sprang from this amusing realization that Dawn of the Dead is the last movie a network would ever consider for broadcast — at least during that late-'70s era. Though it plays tame these days when compared to stuff like The Walking Dead, American Horror Story, and every show by Kurt Sutter for FX, the idea of cutting out all the gore from Dawn of the Dead for a hypothetical television broadcast became hilarious to me because it's such an antithetical title to show to a mass audience, especially when being presented by one of the anchor networks in all of television. (I was partially inspired to do this after watching ABC's 1979 Taxi Driver broadcast because so much of its content and dialogue had to be cut out that the remainder of the movie comes off as somewhat incoherent.)

Without further masturbation, my entire "CBS broadcast" of Dawn of the Dead is below, "recorded" by a Pittsburgh VCR in December of 1979, containing a VHS rip of the movie (edited for content), "original" 1979/1980 commercials (which naturally include TV spots for landmark horror films released that year), and CBS promos, all presented in purposely dubbed-over-many-times garbage quality. Nearly every commercial that's not a TV spot is a nod to something in Dawn of the Dead, so keep your eyes eagled. Whether you check it out just to catch a flick you've seen so many times before in a different form, or because you "get" the elaborate joke that it is (my edits are purposely clumsy, and don't miss my twist on the end credits), I hope you enjoy this standard-definition grindhouse experience. 

May 26, 2021

AT CLOSE RANGE (1986)

The breakdown of the family unit is one of the more disturbing themes at play in cinema, only because it's inherent in us to desire a close relationship to those with whom we share a history, bloodline, and hereditary traits. To be born among people with whom we'll eventually have a falling out, or worse, is one of those fears that's always simmering beneath the surface. Because if we can't rely on our family, on whom can we rely? That's a really scary concept to posit, and unfortunately, it's something that happens more often than it should. It's starting to become more commonplace to pick up a newspaper and see a headline about a father killing his son, or a son killing his father, or a father and son going out and killing people together, as if it's part of a sick and twisted bond they share. Based on a true story, At Close Range, which one might describe as a southern gothic crime noir (the film takes place in Tennessee, but the actual events occurred in Pennsylvania), due to its appropriate amount of shadows, smoky rooms, and darkness, asks if a person's character can be stronger than their lineage - if a person can overcome his inherited physical and hereditary traits and prove he's much more than a genetic duplication of the family tree that preceded him.

Sean Penn and Christopher Walken as Brad Jr. and Sr., respectively, play an uncanny son and father, down to their piercing eyes and their hard features (screaming sandy blonde hair notwithstanding). Even when the film begins, and before they are reunited after years of estrangement, the film suggests  Brad Jr. is already proving  the apple may not fall far from the tree, engaging in the kind of reckless behavior that supersedes teen hijinks and instead suggests  he's a kid with very little to lose. But once father and son are reunited, and the former begins taking the latter under his wing, involving him in the more nefarious parts of his crime-filled life, the bond that initially forms between them takes a pretty devastating turn halfway through. Brad Jr. realizes  the bond between father and son can be easily overcome by the desire for self-preservation. Meaning, there's nothing Brad Sr. won't do if it means keeping himself out of prison.

Like De Niro, the modern-day Walken is barely an indication of how good he used to be, and how effortlessly he could play unhinged and disturbing characters. His Brad Sr. is clearly the villain, but only from an audience perspective. We know he's bad because of our omniscient view of everything ongoing. But Brad Jr. is blinded by his familial ties to his father, while also being somewhat blinded by wanting more for himself - his own fair slice of the American Dream - besides working overtime every week in a supermarket or a garage. Brad Sr. doesn't exude villainy; he doesn't come across as an obvious antagonist. He smiles at his son and buys him a car and invites him into his line of work - one which has the potential to pay off big time. Walken has the uncanny ability of pulling off likable villains because as an actor he's naturally likable.

Penn, too, delivers an excellent performance, and this during the early part of his career. Though he teeters a bit too close to going over the top in some of the more dramatic scenes (including the final confrontation between father and son), At Close Range was an indication he was going to be an actor to watch. It's also cool, since this is a film about the family unit, to see him share the screen with his real-life brother, Chris Penn (most famous for having played Nice Guy Eddie in Reservoir Dogs, and who died in 2006 of a drug overdose), who plays his on-screen brother. Obviously the knowledge that they're brothers, but also their clear resemblances to each other (along with the fact that the boys' real-life mother, Eileen Ryan, plays their on-screen grandmother), lends a sincerity to a film emphasizing the impact of a family in turmoil.

At Close Range is a tough film to watch - entirely all to do with the effectiveness of the conflict and the realism of the performances. Director James Foley, whose films (and television episodes) are well-known for their rapid fire and cutting dialogue (his most well-known is certainly Glengarry Glen Ross, which your annoying co-workers who have never touched hands with sales probably quote every day), dials back the character exchange and relies more on mood and that earlier mentioned inherent fear of the destruction of the family unit. Take all that, add a remarkable supporting cast (David Strathairn! Crispin Glover! Tracey Walter!), and you end up with a film that's now thirty-five years old, but whose themes of betrayal and the familial bond will be forever ageless.

James Foley has the dubious honor of being one of the most underrated filmmakers working today. Insiders, thankfully, know this, as he consistently gets some pretty high-profile gigs (Netflix's House of Cards for one), but considering he has the skills behind the camera and has mastered the spoken word like Quentin Tarantino but without all the flamboyance, it's kind of a shame  he's not a household name. One day that could all change, but for now, as his back catalog drips slowly to Blu-ray, here's hoping his work becomes even more appreciated by newer generations.