Sunday, July 31, 2011

Zombie Holocaust

Zombie Holocaust.
Original Title: Zombi Holocaust
Directed by: Marino Girolami
Italy, 1980
Horror/Cannibals/Zombies
Distributed by: NjutaFilms/AWE

One of my very first orders from that old institution CineCity in Holland, René’s treasure-trove of video nasties back in the early nineties, was Frank Martin’s Zombie Holocaust on the old Video For Pleasure VHS release. Looking at the cover of today’s DVD and Blu-ray art, I can still feel the same giddiness every time I sit down to watch this film that I felt when I opened the parcel from Holland after waiting two, three weeks for a video tape to find it’s way into my post-box.

Just like some friends hold Andrea Bianchi’s Le notti del terrore (The Nights of Terror) 1981, or Umberto Lenzi’s Incobu sulla città contaminata (Nightmare City) 1980 as the ultimate totems of depravity and surreal zombie horror, for me it’s Marino Giriolami’s Zombie Holocaust.

A quick fix for a movie you should know by heart: Someone is stealing body parts of from a morgue. Lori Ridgeway [Alexandra Delli Colli – later to star in a most memorable and truly disturbing moment in Lucio Fulci’s Lo squartore di New York (The New York Ripper) 1982] isn’t only a doctor at the hospital where the human thefts have been taking place, she’s also holds a doctorate in anthropology, which leads to her joining forces with Dr. Peter Chandler [Ian McCulloch], quirky journalist Susan Kelly [Sherry Buchanan – later to pick up Caroline Munroe’s cape as Stella Star in Bitto Albertini’s knock-off/sequel to Luigi Cozzi’s Star Crash 1978; Giochi erotici nella 3a galassia (Escape from Galaxy 3) 1981], and George Harper [Peter O’Neal, who if he’d been on StarTrek would have been wearing a read jumper as the took off for the jungle] to investigate the island where the cannibalistic assailants are supposedly coming from. Dispatched by the Department of Health they head for the Moluccas Island to meet up with Dr. Obrero [Donald O’Brian], and pretty soon they are attacked by the blood thirsty cannibals that hide in the green jungle hell… but the cannibals are the least dangerous things in that jungle as they notice when slow decomposing corpses start to shuffle out of the jungle…

Being something of an intoxicated mix of Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2 (Zombie) 1979 and Sergio Martino’s La montagna del dio cannibal (Mountain of the Cannibal God) 1978 – and lifting more than one beat, sub-plot and storyline from those two, the movie also owes a lot to Joe D’Amato’s Emanuelle e gli ultimi cannibali (Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals) 1977, and this due to the connection that Zombie Holocaust screenwriter Romano Scandarito also wrote Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals on which he worked with Fabrizio DeAngelis.

Producer Fabrizio De Angelis who worked his way up from being a mail man to one of the most important producers as far as Italian genre classics are concerned, not only came up with the story for this one, he also worked on Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals. Wanting to keep on running with the success of Fulci's Zombie, which he produced too, De Angelis, together with Scandarito came up with Zombie Holocaust – which would later be recut, re-edited and re-issued by Aquarius Releasing under the name Dr. Butcher M.D. (Medical Deviate) in the USA a few years later, with extra footage from a never complete movie shot by Roy Frumkes (Street Trash 1987). Anyone who’s been anywhere near Chas Bauln’s Deep Red books will have read about the movie as Dr. Butcher M.D. but the movie is undoubtedly at it’s best in it’s original shape, with the original score… but I’ll get back to that later.

Despite all the crap you hear or read about this movie, because this is one of those movies people crap all over, it is definitely not a movie for everyone but more a required taste, Zombie Holocaust does go about it’s storytelling in a correct way.

It does set up the premise, it does gives a reasonably logic reason for heading off to the island, and if you want to be really picky, then I’d go as far as saying that the whole first act is what scholars and storytelling guru’s refer to as “the inciting incident” Without Toran [Joseph P. Persaud] stealing body parts from the city morgue, he would never have tossed himself out of that hospital window plummeting to his death on the car park asphalt, Lori would never have seen his Kito tribal tattoo, she’d never have had to tell the story of her childhood on the Moluccas island, then there would never have been any mystery to uncover, and definitely nothing that would motivate Lori and Dr Chandler taking a trip to Dr. Oberon’s makeshift jungle laboratory. Zombie Holocaust even does a damned fine job of keeping the audience in on the plot. And don’t you just love dialogue along the lines “Patient screamed disturbed me, Performed removal of vocal cords… Will now administer a second injection to maintain patients conciseness…" Sadistic dialogue not even the makers of the so-called torture porn flicks could have come up with.

Trashy, sweaty and filled with fascinating gore sequences thanks to Maestro’s Maurizio Trani and Rosario Prestopino, this movie can not be ignored, nor ridiculed any longer, as it takes the two most violent genres and mashes them together in a fantastic cocktail of death unlike anything else. Zombie Holocaust is a classic piece of gritty, sleazy, exploitative low budget filmmaking that simply kicks ass.

As the movie goes into the last act, the most is made of the combined subgenres. Lori, now white goddess of the cannibals - told you it ripped off Mountain of the Cannibal God too, and that full body rock tableau that she fits perfectly also looks just like the one Ursula Andress slipped into in that movie – Anyway after an almost obligatory disrobing and initiation ritual segment - complete with remarkable rush of insight - Lori conjures up her loin clothed cannibals to take on the zombie army of Dr. Oberon. Now how the fuck can you not enjoy a movie like that?

You can’t talk about Zombie Holocaust without talking about the cast… It would be easy to imagine McCulloch flying on autopilot at this stage but being the bold Scotsman that he is, he just digs in and get’s cracking, blissfully unaware of just how many of those cheap and cheerful Italian flicks he’d go on to star in… and what a star he became! Alexandra Delli Colli, wife of acclaimed cinematographer Tonio Delli Colli never really made much of an impression on me as a leading lady, but she get’s the job done and never has a daring escape crosscut with a nude initiation been more illustrious – Although I do find her much more enjoyable in New York Ripper. I’d easily have seen Giriolami flip the roles and have Sherry Buchanan as Lori instead of Delli Colli because if there’s one thing I feel is missing from this movie it’s more Sherry Buchanan. Dakar in the part of jungle guide Molotto, is as McCulloch, more or less reprising his part from Fulci’s Zombi.

The original score that I mentioned before… Well the movie does have a great soundtrack by Nico Fidenco – complete with brooding keyboards, crooning quires and all the trimmings one expects from an Italian horror piece from this time period, but the only problem being that it’s not all that original after all it’s actually Fidenco's score to Joe D’Amato’s Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals. See how I mean that Zombie Holocaust owes a lot to that flick? But it works for the flick and I’d never want to hear any other music there, not even Walter E. Sear’s Moogy sounds, which even ended up on the US Version of Fulci’s E tu vivrai nel terrore - L'aldilà (The Beyond) 1981.

Finally I want to tell you about my favourite moment in Zombie Holocaust. No it’s not the corpse who blinks his eyes midst autopsy, it’s not the arm which goes flying off the doll after it hits’ the parking lot beneath the hospital, it not when Delli Colli get’s her kit off in the Cannibal cave, it’s not even the fantastic outboard motor to the face of the zombie on the beach scene… my favourite moment is a much more subtle and minor important, but oh so damned cool. After reaching the camp of Dr. Oberro, McCulloch and Delli Colli remorsefully tell him about the deaths of the rest of the team and a saturated atmosphere sets in. Then there’s a cut, cameraman Fausto Zuccoli pans down to the same location, the actors in the same positions and Dr Obrero tells them about a boat they can take to get off the island. Look at what they are holding… They are all enjoying a cold beer! In the midst of the apocalypse, McCulloch and Dakar sip a cold Carlsberg, and when he’s done he just tosses that metal can into the jungle! Fuck danger, Fuck jungle terrors, Fuck recycling. That’s on of my favourite moments, and if nothing else a great reason for you to go and watch the movie again – or enjoy it for the first time - right now.

Image:
Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1

Audio:
Dolby Digital 2.0. English Dialogue, with optional Swedish, Danish, Norwegian or Finnish subtitles.

Extras:
Original US and German Trailer, Trailers for other Njuta/AWE releases, Stills Gallery, Filmographies and a great short documentary/interview with Rosario Prestopino. A deleted scene, which I believe to be erroneously removed from the movie at some point in time when it started to resurface on DVD, because that mind-bending scene in an obvious murky autumn forest instead of the vibrant sweaty jungle used to be in the movie. It was in my Video For Pleasure video, and I'd like a dvd or Blu-ray where it was back in place again at some point in time.

Friday, July 29, 2011

The Sentinel

The Sentinel
Directed by: Michael Winner
USA 1977
Horror, 92min
Distributed by:


Wow. Sometimes you really do stumble upon “lost” masterworks and Michael Winner’s The Sentinel is just such a movie. I was watching Jurassic Park: Lost Word with my oldest son a few nights back and reacted to what a pale, unanimated and completely dead performance Jeff Goldblum gave in that movie. I decided to check out one of his older flicks as I think he’s brilliant in early stuff like Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1978, and Cronenberg’s The Fly 1986 (obviously not forgetting his very early small part in Winner’s Death Wish 1974). The Sentinel boasts Goldblum and Christopher Walken as the main names on the DVD cover art so that became the logic choice for the night… but those two guys, despite giving decent performances, are only seen in small supporting parts and instead The Sentinel turned out to be a real gem of modern horror story which really surprised me and undoubtedly has become one of my new favourite genre flicks.

Photo model Alison Parker [Cristina Raines] expresses a desire to live in an own apartment instead of moving in with lawyer boyfriend Michael Lerman [Chris Sarandon]. He’s not too happy about her decision, but following her father’s death he goes along with the split living arrangements. Alison’s neighbours turn out to be a real collection of eccentrics where Mr. Chazen [Burgess Meredith] throws a party for his cat Jezebel something dark is awoken in her. She has terrifying nightmares, which break into reality when the swinging chandelier and creaking floorboards from upstairs keeps her from sleeping. Slowly she starts to believe that she’s loosing her mind and perhaps that is the case when none of the strange neighbours she’s been interacting with for the past days actually live in the house… the only two who live there are Alison and a reclusive priest who’s sole purpose in life is to guard the gates of hell.


Michael Winner! What a brilliant writer and director he is. Not only did he direct one of the most badass vigilante revenge flicks of all time Death Wish, but he also directed this fantastic little horror flick. It has a great cast, and a ridiculous amount of actors that at one time had been major names such as: Ava Gardner, Burgess Meredith, Eli Wallach, José Ferrer, Arthur Kennedy, Martin Balsam, and the legendary John Carradine to name a few. Then there’s a bunch of actors who where just on the brink of breaking though such as Jeff Goldblum, Christopher Walken, Beverly D’Angelo, Jerry Orbach, Tom Berenger, and supposedly Richard Dreyfus has a cameo in an outdoor scene. It’s a movie that would make for a great drinking game, just pop a shot each time you see a familiar face.

As all great horror flicks that dabble with Satan, possession, gateways to hell etc., you have to have religion in there as an opponent or accomplice – Check out Manuel Carballo’s Exorcismus 2010 for a great use of how religion can be used as an accomplice to the evil that unfolds. That’s a twist I haven’t seen to many times.

What really stands out is that The Sentinel is a top-notch pulpy horror flick, which plays by all the right rules. It’s really no different than that one they all are judged by, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist 1973.

The flick starts with an initial attack. Not a classic one with a monster, but a “disturbance in the force” if you will and Monsignor Franchino [Arthur Kennedy – who get’s a lot more to do here than he did in Alberto DeMartino’s L’Antichristo (The Antichrist) 1974.] is sent out into the ordinary world. This is where the opening montage shows us several different clips of Alison and Michael. At her work as a model, and also where Jeff Goldblum is seen as her photographer, as they take romantic walks together, as they look through her portfolio, as they look for flats, she for her own, he for a one to share with her…this establishes the ordinary world which they live in. The world about to be disrupted.

Then the shift in balance, all told in a majestic way in which you rarely see exposition be delivered today. This happy go lucky woman who appears to have everything proves to have a dark secret. When returning to her childhood home after her father has passed away, she has a flashback of a traumatizing moment in her youth. When she walks in on her father being unfaithful with two different women, Alison runs to the bathroom and slits her wrists in an attempt to take her life…

That suicide, and others referred to though out the narrative, are all part of the key to the movie. This is like Exorcist, all about loss of faith, and what happens on the way back to finding it. Suicide is as you know the ultimate sin in the eyes of the church, and guilt can drive people to anything. Nothing is as powerful or useful in a horror flick of this kind as Catholic Guilt. This is what Monsignor Franchino latches onto when he meets a terrified Allison suffering from posttraumatic nightmares and an imagined death! Yes there’s a stunningly effective sequence right before midpoint where Alison’s nightmares see her killing a spectre – or was it a spectre, did she in fact kill someone? The guilt of that act, her adultery – again backstory exposition delivered brilliantly – and her many suicide attempts drive her right back into the arms of the church… which is exactly what Monsignor Franchino plan, and mission from that opening sequence has been all about. Monsignor Franchino even says it to Alison clearly in dialogue just before the third act starts that she’s lost her way and the guilt that breeds suspicions and deceptions will vanish when she makes peace and embraces Christ… It will make perfect sense once you see this magnificent movie.

I completely love how the movie slowly creeps from the normal to a world completely off kilter as the demons and Old Nick start to move in – and that’s without mentioning that really unsettling Beverly D’Angelo masturbation scene which will freak you out no matter what – It’s a great gentle shift in balance as we start to move into the supernatural world. The transition moves smoothly and working its way from the ordinary world to the supernatural in this slow fashion helps sell the illusion to the audience.

The supernatural plot takes something of a second seat to the investigation plot, or perhaps I should call it an investigation Sub-plot where detective Detective Gatz [Eli Wallach] and Rizzo [Christopher Walken] go after Lerman with the suspicion that he might be behind Alison’s state. Its though this investigation subplot that’s brilliantly used to lay out exposition, as every time the detectives are on screen, they tell us of something of importance, either to clearly or to dig into someone’s’ backstory and that helps explains certain parts of the narrative.

And you never make a movie like this without filling the piece with religious metaphors, sinister twists and red herrings. The theory I had in mind was way off and surprisingly I fell for the oldest trick in the book when Winner started laying out false leads for me to pick up.

The last fifteen minutes when all is revealed and the sub-plots come to culmination are outstanding. The visions of hell are outstanding and a true delight of outlandish cinema. Winner used actual disfigured people in these scenes, which led to both him and the production receiving some harsh critique. But it was the right way to go, because the real freaks add an authenticity to the piece, and together with the climactic special effects – created by the legendary Dick Smith, who also created Regan’s transformation make-up in that other movie, and Albert Whitlock’s visual effects – come together for an unforgettable climax to an unforgettable movie that I’m ecstatic to have seen.

Produced, directed, screenplay written (based on Jeffrey Konvitz’s novel) and edited by Winner himself, The Sentinel is a movie you want to seek out right away if you like good old school horror with brilliant twists and an atmosphere that is right up there with the cream of the crop.


Image:
16x9 Widescreen

Audio:
Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, English dialogue, no subtitles:

Extras:
A really entertaining commentary track with Winner, the original trailer, biographies and a photo gallery.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Primal

Primal
Directed by: Josh Reed
Australia, 2010
Horror, 80 min
Distributed by: Njuta Films

It would seem like there’s a wave of interesting genre directors finding a way though the static from down under. Greg McLean’s Wolf Creek 2005, still packs something of a punch, Andrew Trauki’s The Reef 2010 is one of the best shark attack flicks in decades, and Brian Trenchard Smith is at least still making movies. Josh Reed’s Primal starts off pretty slow, but in the flip of a switch it becomes an aggressive competitor for global attention. And you should pay attention because this is quite thrilling ride that goes from outback Australia to the heart of fear via a little detour of Lovecraftian mythos!

A quickfix for Primal goes something like this: An unlikely bunch of friends follow anthropology student Dace [Wil Traval] out to the bush to look for some old cave paintings he needs to study for his doctorate thesis. The fastest way to the paintings is though a system of labyrinth like caves. Finding no empathy from Mel [Krew Boylan] who tells her to ”Get over it, it’s only a fucking cave!” Anja [Zoe Tuckwell-Smith] drives round the mountain meeting the rest of the gang on the other side. On their first night at their camp, Mel develops a fever and pretty soon she’s turns into a primal beast with fangs and attacks the rest of the group. But despite being at the top of the food chain, even Mel fears what dwells in the caves, something that obviously has been there long before the ancient aboriginal paintings that drew them to the location in the first place.

Several things made this movie click with me, and not only Warren’s [Damien Freeleagus] awesomely cool RIP LUX t-shirt! The pre-title sequence set’s two important factors. The cave painting origin – which also tells a tale of the cave and gives a warning – and furthermore establishes the genre – horror and sets the threat – the monster if you will… or at least what we will believe to be the monster for the next eighty minutes.

Following the credits, introductions are dealt with and after rapidly establishing stereotypes; I notice that several roles are tossed around to what is common practice. Here the jock has been replaced with Mel who acts as the dominant, sexually aggressive character of the group usually reserved for the horny sports guy. Already in the first scene she uses foul language in the shape of the “C-word” to alienate her from the two other females of the group, accessory cast member Kris [Rebekka Foord] and the leading lady Anja. It may seem as a small silly scene, but it’s going to be important in the final scene, which I’ll return to later on. Male characters really don’t have much importance, strength or stamina in Primal, which was a pretty fun angle to take. All men are mere puppets to the women in one-way or another.

After the introductions and arrival at the location, it’s established that Anja suffers from claustrophobia. There’s also an indication of a back-story where she’s been captive in an ex-boyfriends basement. Also in the dialogue there’s a second indicator of that strong female presence as Mel totally disses Anja and her claustrophobia despite Anja fainting and vomiting... Kris holds back Anja's hair and comforts her, but it’s pretty obvious from that moment on that everything is going lead up to Anja being in that small tight damp cave in the final fight.

And that final fight… well I found it to be somewhat of a fresh approach. Instead of going about it the way you would predict it would – that is rush to the end, fight the monster – use the cave in some way, defeat the monster and end credits – Primal takes something of an outlandish detour during the final act. Early on in her post-transformation, it is apparent that Mel, despite her animal state, is terrified of something within the cave. Small indicators in the shape of tentacles seeping forth from cracks and crevices in the cave establish a second threat, and if not even the “monster-beasts’” dare enter within, how the hell is Anja going to make it through. Letting the audience in on the threat before the character is a brilliant device and which made Alfred Hitchcock a household name all those years back. Pre Psycho 1960, he frequently presented the treat then the character in peril. He made Sabotage twice with the same device – Bomb under the desk, clock is ticking, protagonist walks into office knowing fuck all about the bomb under the desk… but we do. And as the audience we bite our nails in terror as the protagonist faces the unknown threat. This is the same device as Primal and instead of a bomb under a table, there’s that Lovecraftian being within the rock. I’m not going to say anymore, but damn did that spring out of nowhere, pack a real shocking vibe, and definitely lifted the movie in my eyes. I love movies which I think are predictable flip things around and come up with a fresh ideas or even unexpected “Elder Being” monsters impregnating women and pounding protagonists to the ground…

To wrap it all up, lets return to that little sequence in the opening of the movie where Mel uses the “C-word” and everyone more or less freaks out at how verbally aggressive she is. Well, the last word of the movie is the “C-word”, and in the way it’s used it refers to character development. The speaker has ventured from a pretty plain character with a phobia of tight spaces and passive actor to a bold, aggressive survivor who metaphorically takes the power of Mel in her last action and comment. It’s a great little arc and use of detail that ties it all together neatly. But the journey here wasn’t one that came in an instant like it does in many other generic horror flicks. Nah, this was a painful trip and there are a lot of obstacles to pass over before the Anja actually becomes the final girl. There’s several times when she attempts to take command and dominate, but fails, or can’t because it would be morally wrong – the movie does at times pose questions like “Could you kill a friend if it wasn’t your friend anymore?” and this is what creates dimension in the characters confronted with these questions. It is also what makes Primal stand out amongst the crowd and lift it’s head up above stereotypical actions and behaviour… and the tentacles of course.

A great looking movie – shot by John Biggin’s who previously shot Trauki’s Croc-shocker Black Water 2007, Primal is a genuinely scary and original fright fest, blending Darwinian survival with Lovecraftian elements and gives the old gender stereotypes a run for their money.

Image:
16x9 Widescreen

Audio:
Dolby Digital Stereo 5.1. English dialogue, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Finnish subtitles are optional.

Extras:
TBA.

Zombies: The Beginning


Zombies: The Beginning
Original Title: Zombi: La creazione
Directed by: Bruno Mattei
(Vincent Dawn)
Italy, 2007
Horror/Zombies, 91 min
Distributed by: Ritka Video

Oh Bruno, Dear Bruno, Dear Meistro Mattei… what a superb final movie you left for us fans of cheap and cheerful entertainment to relish. A magnificent piece of popcorn horror with some of the most diabolical dubbing in the history of film, some impressing awesome moments of Helicopters, Submarines and previous movies, and a plot that uncannily rings a bell in the back of my head… But I wouldn't want it in any other way, this is Bruno Mattei at his best, and again, this is a perfect last movie from one of the grandmasters of Italian horror. A grandmaster who never hesitated to borrow a few ideas or two from a fellow filmmaker if it would enhance the story he wanted to tell.

Zombies: The Beginning opens up with an impressive and heroically toned rescue where Dr. Sharon Dimao (Yvette Yzon) sole survivor and somewhat action heroine from the preceding movie Island of the Living Dead is hoisted up to a helicopter and safety… at least for now.

Picking up directly from L'isola dei morti viventi (Island of the Living Dead) 2008, Zombies: The Beginning kicks right in as Sharon transforms into a deadly zombie demon and tears the throat out of an unfortunate night nurse. With a jolt Sharon wakes from her terrifying nightmare and proclaims that she will never be free… true in more than one way.

Trying to put the events of that terrible ordeal behind her, she seeks refuge in a monastery. Some months later Paul Barker [Paul Holme] from the Tyler Cooperation approaches Sharon and puts forth a proposition that she helm an expedition back to the island of the living dead… Or rather a nearby island where they have sent a second expedition to investigate the samples - that's zombies to you and me mate - which they have taken from the Island of the Living Dead to the nearby location.

After a pretty effective search and destroy sequence where the platoon of special forces troops secure the facility, Dr. Sharon and the Tyler exec’s enter the building which soon reveals itself to be a research laboratory where zombie foetuses and semi dissected adult corpses are scattered about on operating tables. You know that they will realise they are not alone in there and pretty soon the zombie infested action explodes onto the screen.

Just like Bruno's RoboWar – Robot da Guerra (Robowar) 1989, which is in some ways a frame by frame reproduction of Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop 1987 and John McTiernan’s Predator 1987, or Terminator II (Shocking Dark) 1990 which is Mattei’s modulation of James Cameron's Terminator 1984 - Zombies: the Beginning is more or less a frame by frame reproduction of Cameron's Aliens 1986 - but retold with a zombie angle instead of the alien angle… or is it...

Zombies: The Beginning is a great movie that totally feels like the old Mattei classics – but looks like a Mexican telemundo… which I obviously mean in the best possible way. [It’s the crispy video vs grain thing all over again] But despite that it still packs a punch, there’s some splendid low-budget special effects – and I can not point out how much freaky Alien, Zombie, headshots and gore splashes there are in this wonderful movie - cramped laboratories and workspaces that induce seventies Doctor Who locations, snarling and grunting solders, bloodthirsty zombies, spectacular birthing scenes - yes you sure as hell haven't seen anything like this in a zombie movie before!

Time to answer the question you all are waiting for: Does Yzon’s Dr. Sharon Dimao holds up as an action heroine like Ellen Ripley or Sarah Connor? The answer is Hell Yeah! When the shit hit’s the fan and the executives hide safely behind their video monitors as the tactical unit is slaughtered by the alien/zombie creatures in the factory, it’s Dimao who steps up, saves the remaining troops and sets the agenda for what need’s to be done. And it happens just past midpoint, propelling the movie into the final third, delivering some new antagonists to the plot and revealing the true intentions of going back to the island. Global Cooperation’s with their sights set on new fields of weaponry sure as hell do suck, and that’s without the final act twist that will blow your socks off. Supposedly the movie was intended to be the second part in a trilogy, but Mattei passed away before the third was initiated. Mattei has obviously established Yzon as a heroine to rely on, and the final shots of Yzon looking out over the destruction is a very classic cliffhanger pose. It would have been great to pop part three in the machine and see where Mattei would have gone with the story. It’s also possible to read the ending as a homage to those nihilistic endings of the eighties movies, which more than often ended with a final attack presenting the end of mankind after all.

It strikes me that the most of the Mattei movies I’ve seen actually have pretty strong female protagonists. Zombies: The Beginning is no exception. Dimao is in no way a passive character, which she easily could have become in the male dominated cast of grunts. But she looks at ease with being an action hero, walks the walk and talks the talk. When staring death in the eye, she reaches for the closest weapon and delivers the classic “I have something I need to do.” line instead of doing a 180 and running. It’s the same in that board meeting early on in the movie. Instead of obeying the authorities, she gives them a bollocking and goes her own way. So could it be so that Bruno Mattei actually was a man who enjoyed strong female characters in his movies…? Think about journalist Lia Rousseau [Margit Evelyn Newton] in Virus (Hell of the Living Dead) 1980… she’s a pretty strong character, after all she get’s her kit off and walks right into that village of primitives in the midst of a zombie outbreak… Mother Vincenza [Franca Stoppi] in L’altro inferno (The Other Hell) 1981 is a rather strong character, yes an evil one – or is she really, she’s only looking out for her child, a mothers strongest emotions… Emanuelle [Laura Gemser] in Violenza in un carcere femminile (Violence in a Womens Prison) 1982, well if there’s a euro trash archetype for strong female who makes it out on top of each submission she find’s herself in then Emanuelle is she. Victoria [Ydalia Suarez] in Island of the Living Dead, well she goes down in a blaze of glory… You see, there’s more than just coincidence here, and I could easily go on giving you more examples but I’ll just leave the thought with you and let you explore that pleasure all for yourselves. So you plainly can see that Bruno Mattei is more than just a seedy smut peddler, but a man who actually held feminist values close at hand in his storytelling.

Recycling footage is part of Mattei’s game, I’d even go as far as saying it’s a trait. In Zombies: The Beginning, you’ll find not only footage from Island of the Dead, but also a decent portion of Crimson Tide 1995 is used, and as per custom, the aspect ratio is off. I remember an old VHS I had of Hell of the Living Dead where the inserted material was full screen and the original footage presented in a letterbox format. Good old glory days and definitely an ingredient to the charm and experience of Bruno Mattei movies.

Zombies: The Beginning is a perfect final Bruno Mattei movie. Not only does it ooze of the atmosphere, attitude and style of the movies that once brought him to my (and fellow Matteiists) attention, but it also stands as an example of how dedicated Mattei was to his art. Because never mind how cheap his sets, locations, effects where they work. In his universe they work, they add to the movie and they elevate it. God knows I’ve seen major big budget productions come out looking worse than Zombies: The Beginning. Bruno Mattei’s movies don’t demand anything from me, they don’t try to be clever or arty or stylish, they simply offer me ninety minutes of mindless entertainment that will take me away to an imaginary world, the perfect escape from the daily grind. And for that I will always love the movies of Bruno Mattei. Cheap trash made perfect, and for this Bruno Mattei will always be one of my favourite directors.

There’s a clip with Bruno at the end of the movie, which shows a frail Mattei joking with the cameraman in what possibly is the editing suite. A sad reminder of what a true trooper Mattei was, a man who despite staring death in the face continued to make low budget trash for us to devour. Because we love it and he loved it. Rest in peace Meistro.

Image:
Widescreen 16x9

Audio:
Dolby Digital 2.0, Czech Dub or English Dub with Czech subtitles.

Extras:
Nothing but a few trailers for other Ritka Video releases.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Reef


The Reef
Directed by: Andrew Trauki
Australia, 2010
Thriller/Horror, 85 min
Distributed by: Cinematic Vision

First, let me just say that no shark movie ever scared me as sodding bad as the original Jaws 1975 did the first time I saw it on video in what probably was the early eighties. We where sat round at my aunts, eating fish and chips watching this flick she had on video, and when Ben Gardner’s [Craig Kingsbury] head floated out of that wreck I was scared so profoundly that I didn’t even dare go take a piss afterwards just in case that head was in the bog. Needless to say, shark attack movies never really ever got to me in that way since then… Until I saw Joe Dante’s Piranha 1978 sometime later that is.


I was supposed to review Australian low budget flick The Reef for my genre column in Cinema a few months back, but the screener didn’t work and I was like “Whatever, it’s probably just another random shark attack flick not too unlike those I’ve seen before.” And in all honesty I’m not to fond of that specific kind of movie, despite easily wasting time on YouTube searching for shark attack videos – have you seen that Discovery show clip where the shark handlers leg is turned to mush? There’s Mondo for ya! Anyway, in their short YouTube form I can get right to the goodies and skip all the boring exposition and predictable climax’s that these films all play by.

My bad, as The Reef is much more than that.

Fairly straight story; a bunch of friends meet up and take a sailing boat round Australia's Great Barrier Reef. After some brief character set-ups the horror sets in when the boat surprisingly capsizes and they all end up in the sea. Two choices are pending: either stay on the overturned boat wreck or swim back to the island they visited the day before. Heading off towards the island it soon becomes apparent that they have company in the shape of a Great White which stalks them and finally goes to the attack...

The Reef completely caught me off guard; it surprised me, engaged me, scared me and really got to me. It is indeed a brilliant little flick, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I will most likely keep this one right up there with Spielberg’s classic and those beloved Italian rip offs.

One of the details that make this a fascinating flick is the use of an emotional backstory to bond the two lead characters together. In all honesty we don’t really give a shit about any other characters, and quite simply get caught up by the bond between Kate [Zoe Naylor] and Luke [Damian Walshe-Howling].

I’ve said it before, but even the most blackest heart of us all will subconsciously root for them to make it through, as we are all romantics at heart – or if you want a cynical take on that, we are all programed to find someone to mate with and keep the race afoot. It’s a Darwinian emotion that we live with everyday. Although we may never have the experience of swimming for our lives from a giant fuckin’ shark, we can have an emotional recognition with the feelings that Luke and Kate are having. First upon sort of awkwardly hooking up again, relapsing to past emotions, feeling doubt and then finally bonding again… Which is why the movie gets to us… it’s that emotional recognition, and I love the fact that traditional classic storytelling get’s a punch in its snout in the movies climax.
Based on a true story, like almost any freakishly big shark/crocodile/bear whatever supposedly has been these last few years, - and director Tranucki’s previous film Black Water 2007 about big ass crocodiles in the Australian mangroves, The Reef sticks out and with it's seamless mix of CG and authentic footage, top notch acting, identifiable values at stake and a powerful survival horror in the middle of the sea story at the core, this is the one I’ll be thinking about the next time I set foot in the sea.

Image:
Anamorphic Widescreen 16:9 2.40:1

Audio:
Dolby Digital 5.1 or dts 5.1, English Dialogue, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish and Finnish subtitles are optional.

Extras:
None.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Toxic Avenger

The Toxic Avenger
Directed by: Lloyd Kaufman
USA, 1984
Horror/Comedy/Cult
Distributed by: Troma Entertainment.

One ring to rule them all… nope, this isn’t a nod to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Ring’s trilogy, but merely a statement. Years before Jackson became the landmark of fantasy epics that he is today, he was the undergrounds’ leading name of splatter comedy. But today’s story goes deeper than any Hobbit hole, beyond Sumatran Rat-monkey's and rushes past vomit fuelled space aliens, because in my book the epitaph "lord of the splatter comedy" lies safe in the hands of one single man, Uncle Lloydie!

Melvin Ferd [Mark Torgl] the painfully uncool nerd who also goes under the name “Mop Boy” finally get’s pushed to far when a sinister and vile practical joke goes terribly wrong. Well at least you would think it went wrong, but as Melvin laid snap, crackling and popping in a vat of toxic waste the foul members of Tromaville Health Club still stood by laughing. Melvin was transformed into a hideously disfigured monster and chased out of town like all classic monsters are… In his lair of hiding – and with his new found love, the blind Sara [Andree Maranda], Melvin takes the name The Toxic Avenger [Mitch Cohen] and set’s about his personal revenge on his antagonists, and the corruption that has turned Tromaville into a nightmare for it’s citizens… It’s time to clean up!

I can still vividly remember the first time I ever set eyes on The Toxic Avenger. It was in the golden eighties. I’d just moved from home, I was in a new town, I was making new friends, I had a new girlfriend, I was sharing a room with my best mate, I was on top of the world, I knew everything and I had a new video store just across the road from my tiny student dorm. But knew fuck all about a four-year-old movie housed in a spunky puffy 3D cover called The Toxic Avenger that summoned me towards it like flies to shit.

Buddies since they where roomies at college, Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz nourished a dream of one day becoming filmmakers. Hustling tricks and churning out low budget sex-comedies at the end of the sixties early seventies under the name 15th Street Films, Kaufman literally worked his ass off. When not making his own low budget features, he was working on larger studio pics – such as Rocky 1976 and Saturday Night Fever 1977. Whilst location scouting for Rocky, Kaufman decided that the mainstream moviemaking wasn’t for him and whilst wandering around gyms he started toying with an idea for a horror flick situated in such a location; "Health Club Horror”. After a string of unsuccessful investments, his company 15th Street Films was bust and the odyssey of Lloyd Kaufman may have ended here – yeah right... It’s 1975, enter Joel M. Reed and his unfinished exploitation flick “Master Sardu and the Horror Trio”. Under their new name Troma Studios, Hertz and Kaufman shot new footage, re-edited it and finished the movie for a 1976 release as the now infamous Bloodsucking Freaks! Not an international phenomenon, but it did good enough to keep the studio afloat, and slowly, slowly they started making sexy themed comedies once again. Half a decade later the struggling studio took a chance shot at combining horror with sexy comedy and what better than the “Health Club Horror" story Kaufman had been thinking of a few years earlier. All that was needed was a better name, The Toxic Avenger. The rest is history and Troma have been the longest living most struggling independent studio on the face of the earth since then.

It would be easy to look at Troma’s output and merely laugh it off. But that would be wrong. Sure the movies may bee dorky and futile, but at least Troma dare distribute independence. They don’t negotiate with a filmmaker’s vision; they get it out there and to an audience. Which obviously is there, as they have managed to hang in there for somewhere near forty years.

I’ve said this before in my piece on Poultrygeist – Night of the Chicken Dead 2006, don’t knock the Troma team, because behind all the laughs, gasps, chuckles and big-titted women are some serious issues and damned fine storytelling traits awaiting for anyone observant enough to see them.

A few examples from the ever-great The Toxic Avenger;

Establishing the “ordinary world”. This is essential to genre film. If you establish the world the characters and beings live in, the world we are about to explore, the audience will have an easier time believing it. That’s why Ridley Scott's Alien 1979 has that long “space truckers at work” segment at the start of the movie, to establish an ordinary world. That’s why a lot of horror movies start with a bang, to establish the threat through an initial attack, and to establish the ordinary world. A place where this monster/killer/entity/etc. can be found, and pose a real threat to the characters. The Toxic Avenger does exactly this. It establishes the sick, foul world of Tromaville where hit and run car accidents are all sick games, where corrupted cops ignore crime and the major reaps all the benefits that he can lay his hands on. Even if it’s looking the other way whilst transgender mobsters beat up policemen and shoot blind women’s guide dogs.

Keep the monster in the dark. Again Alien is a brilliant example of this trait, and the longer you keep a being in the dark, the more we will mystify it. Toxie is kept off screen, or at least his disfigured face for a very long time after the accident, which creates him. The majority of his shots see his back and how interacting characters shrug in horror from him. Not until far past the mid-point and Melvin’s revenge get’s personal, does Kaufman reveal the disfigured face of vengeance!

Weak protagonist who finally rises to the occasion, well Melvin is possibly the single largest geek to ever have picked up a mop and gone to town on the evildoers who live there. Not to forget the splendid orgasmic orgy of gore and death that floods the movies climax. It’s a classic movie moment and a damn fine one too. The people of Tromaville embrace their hero and the real villain of the piece – the corrupted mayor - get’s his comeuppance in all it's gory glory.
You can say what you want but Troma movies, especially the Kaufman productions, play by all the rules and obviously know exactly how to use them.

Then there’s the gravy. Just take a look at those special effects, not only the infamous head crush scene – yes lads, this flick has a real infamous head crush scene It’s an impressive piece of shocking gore and effect wizardry. Not to forget the transformation of Melvin to Toxie which to this day manages to look awesome, the diner massacre still works and there’s many other great moments of onscreen carnage that elevate The Toxic Avenger way above your average low budget schlock.

This is the stuff that the house of Troma was built on, sexist gags, slapstick comedy gags, impressive effect work, and there’s a very clear reason why we all love the monster hero. Melvin is a likeable character, perhaps even more after his transformation, where he goes from geeky gimp to hefty super hero. And yes this is the kind of story we like, a rise to the occasion, an answer to the call, a hero that we all can identify with. Perhaps not as the buff mutated monster, but we can identify with the emotion of wanting to be that character who takes revenge for all the wrong done to us and the world we live in. Yes, you do, there’s no need denying it. If opportunity were giving, you’d take it in the blink of an eye.

Finally there are the themes. Kaufman written scripts and Kaufman directed movies usually have a critique towards several areas. The fast food industry (and ancient Indian burialgrounds) was the main area of focus in Poultrygeist– The Night of the Chicken Dead, The Toxic Avenger has, like Class of Nuke ‘em High 1986, a quite sublime anti nuclear power theme. Not surprising as nukes and toxic waste where a strong fear in the eighties. There’s also a comment on the fitness craze of the eighties. A health boom where anyone who meant anything was seen in leotards and sweatbands down the nearest gym. Last but not least, there’s the corruption. Every politician – and almost every cop - in Troma movies –well all forms of authority, corporations, officials, etc. all have a streak of corruption to them. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to see this as a metaphor for mayor corporations – read Hollywood – a place that we perhaps should be grateful that Lloyd Kaufman decided to walk away from as there’s no way in hell they would have let him make the fantastic movies that hoe’s been making for the last forty years.

So go get The Toxic Avenger, make yourself a big bowl of pop-corn, listen to Mark Hoffman & Race’s power ballad, Is this Love, watch a beloved New York skyline that no longer exists and simply have one hell of a great time. The Toxic Avenger is still as fucking great as it was the first time it popped my Troma cherry twenty-five years ago! Now I need to get me a I love the Monster Hero T-shirt from the Troma store, as I await the debut of this definitive modern classic of genre cinema on BluRay! Troma has entered the BluRay game with Poultrygeist – Night of the Chicken Dead, Class of Nuke ‘Em High, and the epic Shakesperian Tromeo & Juliet 1996 all three very fine examples of Lloyd Kaufman and the Troma teams unique brand of entertainment.

Image:
4:3 1.33:1, Colour.

Audio:
Dolby Digital 5.1. English dialogue.

Extras:
Troma discs are always filled to the brim with fun and interesting stuff. This very early release of The Toxic Avenger is no exception. A fascinating commentary, with insight into the movie, it’s making by Lloyd Kaufman, deleted scenes, interview with Toxie, Theatrical trailer for The Toxic Avenger and other Troma flicks, Movie stills – including pictures of Marisa Tomei in her first role, Secrets of a Mop-boy, and much more.
Not an extra, but a novelty, the DVD I have is one of the initial 2000 limited signed edition which all came with a certificate of authenticity signed by Lloyd Kaufman himself. This was years before I got to meet Lloyd (both in New York, and in Stockholm some years later and had him sign shit-load of stuff everytime.) and the way he treated me on both occasions speaks the philosophy of Troma. Meet people with respect, and for that reason alone I’ll always love Troma and the Monster Hero.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Eyes of Crystal

Eyes of Crystal
Original Title: Occhi di Cristallo

Directed by: Eros Puglielli
Italy/Spain/UK/Bulgaria, 2004,
Giallo/Thriller, 107min
Distributed by: Revolver


I try to stay away from contemporary neo-Gialli themed flicks. I find that they lack the grander of the real deal and quite often, like many other late eighties Gialli, focus more on naked chicks, sordid sexuality and predictable plots, and that I can find done better in other genres beyond the Giallo. Not that this need be a bad thing, but in my Gialli I prefer at least something that reassembles an intelligent, or enigmatic or even deceptive narrative so that I can become engaged by something that keeps me from falling asleep, or becoming offended by a predictable plot. Yes, I did seek out movies like
Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani’s AMER 2009, Guillem MoralesLos ojos de Julia (Julia's Eyes) 2010 or even Anthony Hickox Knife Edge 2009 (which should have been sold as a Giallo to reach a more appropriate audience, as it makes more sense being read as a Giallo.) - all reviewed or mentioned in my monthly magazine column* - so of course it does happen now and again. I also did pay attention to Kristian Petri's Gialloesque Ond Tro (Bad Faith) 2010 too, but for the most of the time, I'd rather watch something old that I've enjoyed before than go down that treacherous path of poor quality once again.


One afternoon at my resident movie mecca and cult temple of cool,
Monkey Beach, the ever-present entity you may know as Ninja Dixon pulled Eyes of Crystal out from the shelves, stuck it in my hands and said - This is a movie YOU need to see. Said and done, and as I trust Ninja's recommendation it was a solid buy.

Opening with a very strong character presentation of Ispettore Amaldi [
Luigi Lo Cascio] who bolts down alleyways, jumps fences and does near damned anything to catch his man; it's fair to say that this good guy cop is whom we are going to be rooting for. And who wouldn't as moments later, after a very stylish and genre typical opening montage, the villain of the piece is presented… The embalmer [Eusebio Poncela - if you figure it out from that you've seen a lot of spanish genre flicks.]. Needless to say in the polarization of the villain from the hero, nothing is spared. A young couple are having a shag as they are being watched by a pervert who starts to pleasure himself too. The embalmer is setting a trap with the intention of capturing more of the somewhat tacky specimens the titles sequence ends with, but instead the young couple, and the old geezer watching them, distract him. Producing a high calibre semi automatic weapon, the embalmer shoots not only, the wanking old bloke, but also the fornicating couple in violent and cold fashion. The corpses are left in the places they fell at the crime scene and when the police - Amaldi and Frese [José Ángel Egido] - arrive on location they pretty realize that the killer has an odd trait. He "fixes the wounds". The young woman shot so violently in the breast, left with a gaping wound, has apparently had her chest fixed and repaired as if she where an animal on display. This at first all seems like just a random oddity, but pretty soon they start to realize it's the killer’s modus operandi.

Secondary characters are introduced; Guiditta [Lucía Jiménez] and Detective Ajaccio [Símon Andreu], the plot deepens and the movie gets on the way. Bit by bit, the pieces fall into place and just as you want it the clues lead one way before flipping over and going somewhere else. Not to mention the several red herrings that
Puglielli tosses at his audience. But what I found fascinating is that it's never trying to fool us, it's just keeping information in the dark that makes it such a damned fine ride. Everything chugs along fine, and the final act delivers some serious surprises and a welcome exploration of Amaldi's character that gives an insight into why he plays so hard, and is so thankfull for it. Remember that early scene where he calls up his colleague in the middle of the night just to thank him for having his back. That kind of stuff.


Throughout the piece Gialli traits are frequent and dominate the narrative style. You will be thinking of your favourite pre-eighties Giallo and then realizing that this goes beyond, it's not just a mediocre homage or pastiche, it's a full-feathered Gialli well worth checking out. There’s several moments that stand out and I'll say that my favourite passage of the movie is the entire "Dollmaker's death" segment. It's completely oozes of what this genre is all about, an unseen threat, a distraught victim, and cinematography that plays with the audience's imagination, and damn do they use all the mirrors in that location to perfection. It's THE key scene that I will base future recommendations of this film upon.

After watching
Eyes of Crystal it's mesmerizingly obvious that Puglielli knows his Giallo, and Eyes of Crystal is a splendid homage to that greet genre. If not the, definitely one of the best neo-Gialli. Among the new names in the opening credits, I'm hardly surprised to find veteran, Franco Ferrini, amongst the writing team because this is a movie that breaths the same air and aura of his Dario Argento flicks Phenomena 1985, Opera 1987 and Stendhal Syndrome 1996. A powerful, potent and intriguing Giallo with all the trimmings. A killer kept outside the frame, hiding in the safety the off-screen space… and we all know what happens the moment he enters the screen space to reveal his identity now don’t we… There's a red herring in the shape of Guiditta's stalker, but perhaps most importantly and terrifically resourcefully used in Eyes of Crystal is the childhood trauma in the backstory to motivate the killer and his vile actions’. And the neat gimmick here is that they choose to tell it through a completely different character. Brilliant.

Three arcs are set in motion, the murderer mystery arc, Guiditta's stalker arc and Ajaccio's childhood flashbacks arc. They all come together neatly in the investigation plot as defined by film theorists. And it's the investigation plot that lies the closest to the Gialli as their leading character frequently are either professional or amateur detectives. In
Eyes of Crystal we have a professional policeman who tries to solve the puzzle and this is well in line with many a grand old classics.


Our old friend guilt is here too, and in a big-time badass effective way too. In Amaldi's backstory lies a dark sinister tale, a tale that drives him further than the average cop. A dark tale of murder and loss that Amaldi blames himself for. So when the taxidermist murders start, the memories of that harrowing backstory resurfaces and he pushes himself harder than before - that not saying that Amaldi isn’t a hard-ass cop before, but the guilt of not being able to stop that initial killing in his backstory drives him harder as the taxidermist starts killing off his victims.

As I mentioned earlier, there’s also a childhood trauma that drives the killing spree, a trauma which all surfaces when the killer/taxidermist is offered to purchase a rare life-size mannequin, which due to the seller's relationship with the killers mother is offered at a fair price. As you may have guessed already the rather grizzly and violent murders involve the taxidermist stealing body parts from his victims and replacing them with parts of the mannequin. Sure one could perhaps have asked for more visual gore, but then at the same time it isn’t really needed and the aftermath itself is there in all it’s glory for the audience to awe over. In the last act the Guiditta stalker arc climaxes into the main narrative and we see what her purpose in the larger picture is. It sneaks in there and gives a pleasing little pay-off at the end.

Puglielli, Ferrini and the rest of the screenwriters have come up with a solid, watertight script, the cinematography of Luca Coassin – who went on to win several awards for his camera work after this movie - is awesome, and relies heavily on darkness, shadows and creative lighting. All traits we know too well from our beloved Giallo. This is a movie that contains some pretty damned impressive scenes, where many breathe old school Giallo, but at the same time live their own contemporary life. Especially when looking at things like how they ingeniously used the backstory arc, the way guilt has shaped Amaldi as a character, the triangular arcs that all come together in the final act and the last frames of the movie which present an explanation to the movies title. As you know half the fun of the really good Gialli, is figuring out what the name holds for referent in the movie.

Alan Jones
’ cover quote “Watch out Dario Argento, director Eros Puglielli is after your chiller crown” still rings true. Nothing either Argento or Ferrini have come up with since Puglielli’s flick is anywhere near the brilliance of Eyes of Crystal

Nevertheless,
Puglielli still has to follow Eyes of Crystal up with another feature movie, and I for one will be looking forward to it to make sure he's no one trick puppy. Now I only have to figure out how to get hold of those half dozen TV movies he’s directed since this one.

*(In forth coming issues of
Cinema I gave Julia’s Eye’s 4 of 5, claiming it to be the best of the new wave of Spanish horror themed movies. AMER 5 of 5 as it’s a perfect homage. But you already read my piece here didn’t you so you know how much I like that flick.)

Image:
Widescreen

Audio:
Dolby Digital 5.1 Italian Dialogue, optional English Subtitles

Extras:

There’s a “Making of Eyes of Crystal Documentary and “Sul set di” a short featurette.