Two Fat Ladies… A Round Up Of Elusive 88 FILMS BD RELEASES

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… elusive to me, anyway, as I haven’t had much luck getting review copies out of 88 Films. That is, of course, their prerogative, but I did think they might have sent me the promised copy of their Burial Ground disc, for which Calum Waddell and I supplied the commentary track. As it is I had to wait to catch up with that and other of their releases until Fopp started unloading them dirt cheap, at which point I left said store clutching the following load (god, my right arm hasn’t ached so much since I got that Cindy Crawford workout video)…

Burial Ground (BD. Region B. 88 Films. 18.)

Zombie Flesh Eaters 2 (BD. Region B. 88 Films. 18.)

Blastfighter (BD. Region B. 88 Films. 18.)

Emanuelle & The Last Cannibals (BD. Region B. 88 Films. 18.)

Deep River Savages (BD. Region B. 88 Films. 18.)

Spasmo (BD. Region B. 88 Films. 15.)

So, something approaching three years after actually recording it, I finally got to hear my commentary track on Burial Ground. I’d been worrying that it would make me sound like a total dickhead, so it was quite a relief to discover that I only came out of it sounding like a bit of a dickhead. Some of those who’ve enjoyed / endured this commentary question why I spent so much of it talking about myself and my involvement in the ’80s / ’90s fanzine scene rather than the film in question. The simple answer is that these were the subjects which Calum was asking me about. I’m not going to say much about the film here, either, having recently reviewed Severin’s BD edition of Burial Ground elsewhere on this blog. The Severin jobby looks sharper and boasts better extras (apart from the above mentioned boy genius commentary track) but there’s some good stuff here, too.

Mikel J. Koven, esteemed author of La Dolce Morte: Vernacular Cinema and the Italian Giallo Film, an academic with an obvious penchant for sleaze, gives an overview of Andrea Bianchi’s career with special focus on the prevalence in it of less than subtley handled incest motifs which causes him to exclaim “What The Fuck?” so many times that this expression becomes the actual title of his featurette. Having pondered his C.V. long and hard, Koven concludes that Bianchi is either a genre satirist (when I watch that J&B placement shot, I could almost believe it), (possibly) a Marxist or maybe “just not a very good director.” It’s over to you, readers…

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Peter Bark, yesterday…

You also get the “35mm Grindhouse version”, should you want to watch such a knackered-looking thing and 10 minutes of “mute” deleted scenes (dialogueless but synched up to soundtrack music)… if only we could hear what they’re saying to each other in these resurrected sequences, maybe the added context would have established Burial Ground as some kind of avant garde masterpiece. Michael even gets an “alas, poor Yorick!” moment… alas, I’d love to have heard his soliloquy while contemplating that skull and learn if he found it to be worse smelling than that cloth which smelled of Death. Plus reversible sleeve, trailers for Burial Ground and Zombi Holocaust and so on…

Among several other aliases (a death cloth by any name would smell as bad), this monstrosity was known as Zombi 3… as were several other pictures, notably the Lucio Fulci / Bruno Mattei 1987 mess, er, collaboration now released by 88 as Zombie Flesh Eaters 2, a title that could have been specifically coined to underline the degree to which Fulci’s fortunes and output had declined since he poked out Mrs Menard’s eyeball less than a decade earlier. Indeed, Fulci only directed a few scenes in this one before failing health, among other factors, obliged him to bail and leave the film for producer Mattei to “finish off”… in every sense of that phrase.

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Bacteriological weaponry and international espionage here supplant perverse medical science as the root of the zombie scourge, when a bungled attempt to burgle a canister of “Death 1” leads to bubonic infestation for the thief and everybody else in the hotel where he was staying. The inevitable ABC-suited SWAT Team arrives to shut down the hotel and liquidate all its residents. The film’s debt to George Romero’s Day Of The Dead (1985) immediately becomes evident in the ongoing squabble between scientists and the military over how to contain this outbreak. Ignoring scientific advice, the soldiers cremate the first batch of victims and – before you can say Return Of The Living Dead – a busload of sex-crazed girls is being buzzed by a flock of zombie seagulls (makes a change from Mattei’s usual rat fixation, I suppose.)

The increasingly ridiculous narrative unfolds to the Greek chorus accompaniment of “Blueheart”, a right-on radio DJ whose infuriating, interminable eco-babble provokes one imminent zombie victim to complain” “I like smoking, I take a toke on a joint sometimes and every so often I like to piss on a bush, OK?” As the crisis escalates, Blueheart’s bulletins are periodically punctuated by lists of emergency hospitals, read out by a guy glorifying in the name of Vince Raven… like, right on Vince baby! Pass on our regards to your brother Mike, celebrated elsewhere on this blog during our Crucible Of Terror review.

“Plot” is pretty soon reduced to an ever decreasing number of survivors running around in ever decreasing circles, a succession of run-ins with zombies and “decontamination squads” blowing away anything that moves. Of course the “unexpected” shooting of a heroic male lead is duly trotted out. Yep, he fell for the oldest trick in the book of the dead! Assorted other “highlights” include the moment when a character with the munchies opens a fridge, only to be attacked by an even hungrier zombie head that flies out at him, on obvious wires, from behind the McCain oven chips. Look out also for the Caesarian birth of an undead baby that immediately sets about gnoshing on the midwife who delivered it. The surviving human characters fly off in  a Romero-esque chopper, vowing: “We’re coming back… to win! Otherwise, humanity’s done for!”

Mattei’s crowning idiocy apes the unforgettable voice-over outro of Zombie Flesh Eaters, with Blue-heart revealed as a badly made up zombie, broadcasting immortal vibes: “New horizons have opened up… this is now the New World, Year Zero, so there’s lots of work to be done. I’ll dedicate the next record to all of the undead across the world…” Zombietastic, great mate!

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DJ Blueheart, before and after ingestion of Death 1… just say no, kids!zombie-dj.jpg

88’s BD transfer looks just fine (as fine as it’s ever going to look, given Riccardo Grassetti’s bog standard cinematography) and sounds OK (special mention for the awful, albeit infectious shrieky hair rock anthem that plays over the credits.) Bonus materials include interviews with Claudio Fragasso (sporting interesting ethnic headwear) and prolific zombie movie star Ottaviano Dell’Acqua, from each of whom you’ll get a few new pointers on exactly who directed what in this troubled production. The Catriona MacColl interview is of dubious relevance but it’s always great to see her and hear what she has to say about working with Fulci (she has plenty to say on that and many other subjects in our Catriona MacColl interview, elsewhere on this blog.) Female lead Beatrice Ring reads her answers to a bunch of questions over a series of stills of her gurning in the movie. She expresses bewilderment that any actor would have anything nice to say about working with Fulci and charts her progress from a vacuous bimbo who only got into movies because she had run up a big debt buying designer clothes, to a spiritually aware person who works for the end of racism and war. Bless her. She also provides some further clues as which bits were directed by whom.

All I could get out of Fulci on the direction of Zombi 3, when interviewing him on the occasion of Eurofest 1994, was: “That one was finished by Bruno Mattei because the producers were very strange people… I had to escape from there on an aeroplane!” Perennially prone to standing up producers, Fulci was signed to direct the original version of Blastfighter, an adventure yarn focussing on futuristic weaponry which mutated, after his secession from the project, into a fusion of First Blood (1982) and Deliverance (1972.) Hard to see why it needed four extra writers (including eventual director Lamberto Bava) to fashion Dardano Sacchetti’s original concept into this.

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Like his father before him, Lamberto Bava came up with a belting horror effort (Macabre, 1980) for his directorial debut, before turning his hand to whatever genre was currently packing them in at Italian cinemas. He didn’t execute his genre hopping anything like as skilfully as the great Mario managed, nevertheless cranking out some satisfying efforts en route to TV movie mediocrity. Blastfighter (signed off under Bava’s pseudonymous paraphrase of his dad’s former glories, “John Old Jr” in 1984) is undoubtedly one of them though to rate it (as Quentin Tarantino did to me) as Bava Jr’s best picture is surely hyperbolic.

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“Head for the canoe, quick… I hear banjos!”

Jake “Tiger” Sharp (Michael Sopkiw) is a former cop who went all Charles Bronson on the ass of the slimeball who killed both his wife and his partner. Coming out of chokey, he considers bumping off the killer’s lawyer with a high-powered assault rifle that one of his friends acquired for him (basically this thing will launch anything short of nukes) but opts instead to renounce any further violence and lose / find himself in the backwards back woods of Georgia where he grew up (though the irritatingly catchy theme song, which sounds like a Starland Vocal Band B-side but turns out to be a Bee Gees number, keeps name-checking Arizona.) Wherever the fuck he is, our boy Tiger is looking for a bit of contemplative peace and quite. Fat chance… slack jawed yeehawing yokels are soon taking the piss and though he laughs that off, his Zen-like mellow is irretrievably harshed when he discovers their cruel trade in wounded live animals for the Chinese medicine market. Like a before-his-time Steven Seagal, Tiger dispenses some serious ass kicking (admittedly without such signature Seagal moves as breaking people’s arms, throwing them through plate glass or kicking them in the testicles till they stagger around groaning “my balls… my balls!”)

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Things start looking up when his estranged daughter Connie (Valentina Forte) introduces herself but take another pronounced downward turn when the inbred hill-billies take it upon themselves to kill her, her boyfriend (Michele Soavi) and yet another cop who made the mistake of being one of Tiger’s old colleagues. Breaking out his big gun, Tiger zaps them all to yokel Hell before the climactic confrontation with his old nemesis, Tom (our old pal “George Eastman” / Luigi Montefiori.) Bava makes exemplary use of his beautiful rural locations and has a serious message for us, to wit: “There’ll never be an answer to violence!” As if to ram home this very point, his next cinematic outing was the eye-wateringly OTT splatterfest Demons (1985.)

American actor Michael Sopkiw parlayed a passing resemblance to Franco Nero into a mid-80s Italian acting career that took in all of four films – this and Bava Jr’s oddball Jaws variant from the same year, Devouring Waves, topped and tailed with Sergio Martino’s entertaining entry in the post-Apocalyptic stakes, 2019: After The Fall Of New York (1983) and Michele Massimo Tarantini’s awful last gasp cannibal effort, Massacre In Dinosaur Valley (1985.) All of this is small beer compared to Sopkiw’s real life adventures, which include a year’s imprisonment for smuggling Marijuana into the US… so his role in Blastfighter as an ex-jailbird wasn’t too much of a (sorry!) stretch, then. He now spends his time promoting the use of “natural healing remedies.” Hmm…

Apart from a nice looking transfer of Blastfighter, 88’s release includes an interview with DP Gianlorenzo Battaglia, various trailers and of course you get a reversible sleeve.

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“George Eastman”, who actually puts in a pretty good performance in Blastfighter, appeared in any amount of Joe D’Amato outrages, though he’s conspicuous by his massive absence from D’Amato’s Emanuelle And The Last Cannibals aka Trap Them And Kill Them (1976.) This represents Joe’s second, third or possibly fourth (who can say, he was churning out several titles a year by this point) “Black Emanuelle” effort after he’d hi-jacked the franchise from Adalberto Albertini and is a co-production with Fabrizio De Angelis for their company Fulvia Cinematografica, though the partnership survived only one more film (1978’s Emanuelle And The White Slave Trade.)

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E&TLC claims to be “a true story, reported by Jennifer O’Sullivan”… sure thing, you guys! Gemser’s Emanuelle is an investigative reporter, which apparently involves her in sneaking around mental hospitals with a camera concealed in a teddy bear (?) She comes over all tabloid moralistic when a nurse is bitten while molesting a disturbed female patient (“She’ll be OK but she lost her breast… she had it coming”) but has no qualms whatsoever about pursuing a scoop by masturbating the same patient, who boasts a distinctive tribal tattoo on her pubic area. When she mentions this to hunky anthropologist Mark Lester (!) he invites her back to his place but not with the intention of showing her his etchings… oh no, he shows her anthropological footage of castration and cannibalism, which somehow convinces her to sleep with him. The Prof is played by Gemser’s real-life husband and frequent screen partner Gabriele Tinti… I often wonder if that’s how he wooed her in real life!

They abscond to The Amazon (actually an Italian park) to hook up with Donald O’Brien and giallo stalwart “Susan Scott” (Nieves Navarro), who are encountering a few difficulties in their relationship (“You’re just a tramp!” he chides her. “… and you’re an IMPOTENT!” she spits back, cuttingly albeit ungrammatically.) Their soap operatic distractions are put firmly into perspective when the cannibals turn up to dismember and eat them and various camp followers, all recorded in excruciatingly dull detail by D’Amato amid a plethora of unconvincing, not-so-special FX and to the accompaniment of an original sound track that sounds like some demented, retarded ancestor of Groovejet. Of course, various people take time out from dodging cannibals to have sex and at one point a chimpanzee savours a fine cigar while watching them at it… only in a Joe D’Amato film!

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The climax is a real hoot, with Gemser and Tinti looking on from the bushes, calmly swapping anthropological observations as their friends are done away with (O’Brien torn limb from limb, inconvincingly, in a tug-o-war). Eventually she’s moved to discard her clothes and impersonate a water goddess, a spectacle that has to be seen to be disbelieved, likewise Gemser’s closing speech, delivered as though she’s in the throes of a major stroke. Last Cannibals enjoyed a theatrical release (minus all the gore) over here, playing to packed houses of old guys in dirty macs.

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88’s release does seem, as promised, to be uncut though one imagines there could well be versions floating around in some territories that have been recut with hard core inserts, standard operating procedure for D’Amato. Sometimes with these HD upgrades you wonder why they bothered, but E&TLC does look really good, significantly better than 88’s release of its companion piece Zombi Holocaust, even though the improved picture quality does make the stroboscopic alternation of day and night shots within certain scenes even more obvious (the amount of times they say “We’ll wait until dawn” with the sun beating down on them!) Although I’ve criticised the acting in this film on many occasions, on reflection those who dubbed it must take their share of the blame, though I still think Gemser’s got to carry the  can for that lumpen closing soliloquy (“Maggie and Donald with their…” what, now?) No significant extras beyond the obvious.

I’m told that Ruggero Deodato got really pissed off, when he watched Calum Waddell’s Eaten Alive documentary, at my suggestion that D’Amato pre-empted his Cannibal Holocaust here with his use of fim-within-a-film and by setting the action of E&TLC in South America (even though the crew never got anywhere near there)… no disrespect intended, Ruggero, but hey… facts is facts! There can’t be any dispute though, that all these Italian cannibal capers (and most of their terminally non-PC) tropes) kicked off with Umberto Lenzi’s 1972 effort Nel Paese Del Sesso Selvaggio (“In The Land Of Savage Sex”)… hang on, I seem to recall Deodato disputing that, too!

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Among its many other aliases this one is also known as Sacrifice! (in the US) and Mondo Cannibale (in Europe),  but made it to pre-cert  UK VHS as Deep River Savages, courtesy of Derann. The guy who wrote the liner notes for that release sure hit a purple patch of prose: “A story of raw savagery, tribal torture and one man’s courageous fight for survival, respect and the delicate and fragile love of a beautiful native girl… a compelling film in which character relationships are brilliantly developed and a richness of human emotions are played out against the bizarre and tortuous rituals of the primitive world.” The DPP wasn’t fooled and nor should you be, for signature Lenzi sleaze is lurking, not far beneath the surface of all this hearts and flowers stuff. No matter how compelling, courageous and brilliant its depiction of delicate, fragile love and rich human emotions, Deep River Savages was also heavy on those bizarre and tortuous rituals, not to mention cannibalism and the mistreatment of animals, which in March 1984 (the height of the home video witch hunt) meant that it found its way onto the official “nasties” list, where it stayed for about a year and a half. Now, shorn of a couple of minutes of man’s inhumanity to animals (a snake being flayed, a pig gutted, a mongoose forced into a life-or-death struggle with a cobra, et al), 88 have brought it to Blu-ray in the UK as Man From Deep River.

Ivan Rassimov, on the lam after killing a native at a Thai boxing match, surveys the steamy interior and pronounces: “I’m sick to death of this trip … I wish I was at home drinking a pint”. Though we’re only scant minutes into the film, viewers will find themselves in sympathy with this verdict, as all their least favourite pieces of stock footage are trotted out yet again (if I see those bloody storks in that tree one more time…) When the cannibals roll up, Ivan tries the diplomatic approach (“Leave me alone, you bloody savages!”) but they drag him back to their village, where the first thing he witnesses is a guy getting his tongue cut out … Blood Feast has a lot to answer for! Rassimov, on the other hand, after a tricky bedding-in period, is treated to the life of Riley after he has proven his worth in fighting against neighbouring tribes and saved the chief’s son from choking to death with an impromptu tracheotomy. Most memorably, he is allowed to take part in a ritual during which the men of the village file past a hut and put their hands through a hole in the wall. The aptly named Me Me Lai (Lay, by some accounts) sits blindfolded on the other side while the men take turns squeezing her breasts and feeling between her legs.

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The budget wouldn’t stretch to a Man Called Horse-type ritual for Rassimov’s formal initiation into the tribe, so instead he is lashed to a vertical rotisserie which turns slowly as the villagers aim their blow-pipes at him through cubby-holes reminiscent of the set up in a Soho peep-show.

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This formality dispensed with, Rassimov gets down to bringing up a family with Me Me, but those neighbouring tribesmen – their faces liberally daubed with boot polish – are soon viewing her as lunch. She escapes, but one of her friends is not so fortunate, and when Rassimov catches the intruders red handed / mouthed (to the accompaniment of jolly music, as is often the way in these things) he shows how thin the veneer of civilization is by doling out summary tongue removals. Thus it comes as no surprise that even when Me Me dies of some tropical disease or other, he elects to turn his back on civilization and stay with the tribe that adopted him.

The most notorious scene of excised animal baiting here is the brutal bit of monkey business by which some unfortunate simian has the top of its head lopped off, boiled-egg style, so the tribe can snack on its warm brains for supper. A similar scene was faked up in fellow “nasty” Faces Of Death (1978) but the notoriously stingy Lenzi no doubt figured it was much less bother and expense to just chop off the unfortunate creature’s bonce and be done with it. He clearly did have resort to prosthetics when restaging this scene on a human (well, John Morghen’s) cranium during his altogether more notorious foray into cannibal country, Cannibal Ferox (1981) though further animal outrages in that one proved the rock on which personal and professional relationship between the splatter star and his terminally irascible director foundered.

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“Whaddya mean, ‘What’s my fucking motivation?’?”

Bonus materials include the expected trailers and reversible sleeve options (including the Derann “nasty” artwork) plus the short Inferno Of Innards in which Eli Roth (director of Lenzi / Deodato hommage The Green Inferno) enthuses about all things Italian and anthropophagic.  More substantial extras include Me Me Lai Bites Back, the ace Naomi Holwill documentary portrait which I review elsewhere on this blog and Calum Wadell’s commentary track. The latter certainly constitutes VFM for both Calum’s admirers and his troll following, being charactersically incessant, informative and opinionated. Travellers seeking information on how to track down many of the film’s locations will find it particularly useful. My own interest in these films centres on the specifically Italian experience of Mussolini’s frustrated neo-colonialism but it’s interesting to hear Calum rehearse the Cold War context arguments that will apparently inform his upcoming book on Cannibal Holocaust.

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Ever a busy boy, Calum also contributes a Lenzi interview that was conducted at the 2013 Festival Of Fantastic Films in Manchester (which I attended myself after something like a twenty year absence!) Mischievous as ever, Lenzi says that he’s now buried the hatchet with Deodato but can’t resist taking a few crafty digs at him. He wriggles around all over the place when any attempt is made to pin him down on the vexed question of animal abuse, contending that the decapitated money had to be killed because of an illness that it could have communicated to humans (best way to reduce the risk was to spray its brains all over the set, I guess!) Obviously mellowing in his old age, the director reveals that he no longer slams the phone down on people who ask him about Nightmare City or Cannibal Ferox (this is no mere rhetorical flourish either, he once did exactly that to me!) Yep, he still despises the latter title but after realising how much money it’s made him over the years, he’s cynically prepared to concede that it’s “a masterpiece.”

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It’s difficult to imagine any circumstances under which that appellation could be levelled at Lenzi’s Spasmo (1974.) Since I last encountered this title as a Diplomat (Videoform) VHS release much water has passed under the bridge and many Freudstein brain cells have clearly crinkled up and died, for me to have been labouring under the misapprehension that this one was (just about) worth six quid of my money… on reflection, six pence would probably be pushing it!

Mario Bava effectively invented the giallo in 1962 with The Girl Who Knew Too Much aka The Evil Eye and set many of its conventions with “Six Women For The Murderer” aka Blood And Black Lace (1964) but things were still pretty fluid within the genre and by the turn of the decade Bava himself was still experimenting with its possibilities in the likes of the psycho case-study Hatchet For The Honeymoon, the stylised body count effort 5 Dolls For An August Moon  (both 1970) and the grand guignol of Bay Of Blood (1971.) In the meantime Lenzi was staking out a nice little giallo niche for himself with sexually charged soapy pot boilers like Paranoia, So Sweet… So Perverse (both 1969), A Quiet Place To Kill (1970) and Oasis Of Fear (1971.) When The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, directed by Dario Argento (whom Lenzi likes to portray as a protegé of his) became a surprise international hit in 1970, however, it changed the game viz-a-viz what was expected of a giallo. Lenzi’s producer Luciano Martino transferred his patronage to his own younger bother Sergio, who effortlessly managed (with the likes of  The Strange Vice Of Mrs Wardh, All The Colours Of The Dark and Your Vice Is A Locked Room And Only I Have The Key) a more contemporary and feisty overhaul of the melodramatic bonkathons that had been Lenzi’s stock-in-trade.

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Lenzi’s subsequent gialli have the feeling of a man flailing around, attempting in vain to reassert a grip on a genre that has moved on without him, thank you very much. Knife Of Ice and Seven Bloodstained Orchids (both from the same year in which Lenzi churned out Deep River Savages) are, respectively, a thinly disguised remake of Robert Siodmak’s classic The Spiral Staircase (1946) and an Italian / German co-production falling back on the latter territory’s ongoing fondness for Edgar Wallace adaptations (both genuine and bogus) with a pinch of Cornell Woolrich and added gore thrown in. 1975’s Eyeball (reviewed elsewhere on this blog) was an amusingly deranged stab at the body count format whereas Spasmo (1974)? Hmm… Spasmo is  an ill-advised attempt to do some kind of metaphysical giallo… a bit of Blow Up here, a sprinkle of Lisa And The Devil there… a suggestion of Death Laid An Egg (“Hey, you remind me of a dying chicken!” to quote one scintillating line of dialogue.) More than anything else, Spasmo brings to mind one of those swinging ’60s pictures Jesus Franco made for Harry Allan Towers, but without any of Franco’s willingness to experiment, either in visually or narrative terms.

Louche characters slip in and out of bed with each other… star Robert Hoffman might or might not have killed somebody… his brother Ivan Rassimov might or might not share the gene that drove him bonkers… but who’s been draping the woods with hanged mannequins? And does anybody who actually stays awake until the end of this thing give a flying fuck? Lenzi even manages to make genre goddess Suzy Kendall look frumpy and unalluring… a cardinal sin!

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Good points? The whole thing is dignified with a Morricone soundtrack it doesn’t really deserve (ditto the nice transfer 88 have afforded it here) and there’s a truly hysterical  trailer which will probably cause any immature schoolboys who see it to go round the playground shouting “Spasmo!” at each other… which, from a PC standpoint, isn’t very good at all, so let’s forget I ever mentioned it.

Bonus materials include the expected postcard, reversible sleeve, trailer, Italian titles and credits… but it’s the Q&A session with Lenzi from the aforementioned Manchester bash, mediated by Calum Waddell that probably makes this disc just about worthy of your attention. Lenzi had just lunched with Barbara Bouchet, a contingency which would have left me in a very good mood indeed, nevertheless he goes out of his way to justify his rep as a grumpy old man. Translator Nick Frame suffers more than anyone on account of this long-winded answers. Nevertheless, among familiar gripes, we learn such interesting stuff as how filming of The Cynic, The Rat And The Fist (1977) was complicated by an ongoing feud between stars Tomas Milian and Maurizio Merli. Lenzi refuses point-blank to talk about namby-pamby animal lover John Morghen.

If you haven’t seen Spasmo and still want to after reading this review, that’s fair enough, but don’t say you weren’t warned. As I often find myself telling Kid Freudstein: “I went through this shit so you wouldn’t have to.” Caveat emptor.

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So there you go… six 88 releases… I tracked ’em down, I trapped ’em and I only killed one of them. One general bugbear, though… why do 88 discs always default right back to the starting menu when you stop them, rather than to the point where you left off?

In honour of all you Irene Miracle devotees out there, of whom there are thousands if the stats of this site are anything to go by, I’ll shortly be taking a look at the 88 Blu-ray release of Aldo Lado’s notorious Night Train Murders.

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