Posts Tagged With: Maria Angela Giordano

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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Stork And Slash… The Shameless BD Of Michele Soavi’s THE SECT Reviewed

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The Sect. BD. Region B. Shameless. 18.

Shameless’s UK disc debut of Michele Soavi’s 1991 effort The Sect (in both DVD and BD formats) follows hot on the hooves of the similar service they recently rendered to Soavi’s The Church (1989.) In my review of that one, elsewhere on this site, I recanted my long-held conviction that its many splendid visual set pieces could not compensate for a narrative that oscillates between risible and non-existent. On relection, this verdict was difficult to square with my oft-professed love for the likes of Inferno, The Beyond and City Of The Living Dead. I’ve performed a similar critical volte face after watching The Sect on Blu-ray, though it’s probably the lesser of the two films Soavi directed with Dario Argento as producer. Both of them kick in like gangbusters, only to lose momentum as bravura visuals alternate with wilfully obscure exposition through their overlong running time (The Sect clocks in just shy of two hours) en route to unsatisfying denouements. No accident, perhaps, that this one was released in the US as The Devil’s Daughter, possibly with the baffling conclusion to Hammer’s To The Devil A Daughter (1976) in mind.

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If anything, The Sect’s opening is even stronger than that of The Church, slapping the viewer upside his/her head with a 1-2 sucker punch. First we witness the end of the ’60s dream as members of a Californian hippy colony are slaughtered at the behest of Damon (Church alumnus Tomas Arana), a wild-eyed mystic with a penchant for discerning profundities in the lyrics of classic rock songs (remind you of anyone?) before crossing Continents and decades to “present day” Frankfurt, where John Morghen blows his own brains out in a metro station after police discover that he’s been taking the words of the Tony Basil song Stop That Man (“He’s getting away with my heart in his hand”) rather too literally. Reassuring stuff, given that Morghen (the perennial super-masochist / martyr of pasta paura cinema) died such a disappointing death in The Church.

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Frankfurt magistrate John Ford (just one of several, vaguely irritating, buffish character names) issues doomy pronouncements about the activities of sinister Satanic outfits. He’s particularly concerned about “The notorious Faceless Sect operating in the US during the ’70s”, a  cult founded by the mysterious Moebius Kelly. The briefly glimpsed Ford is played by Donald O’Brien, who’s certainly got form in this field, having run a Kito cult in his role as Doctor Butcher M.D. in the Marino Girolami film of that title.

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Before we can work out what the hell is going on, elementary schoolteacher Miriam (Kelly Curtis, Jamie Lee’s prettier big sister) runs over a jay-walking hobo (Moebius Kelly himself, played by Herbert Lom) and takes him back to her place to recuperate. The old geezer’s got a funny way of showing his gratitude – he bungs a dung beetle up Miriam’s nose while she’s asleep and Celtic imagery begins to invade her dreams, which apparently signifies that she’s now ripe to be knocked up with the devil’s spawn. As the film proceeds, it becomes clear that many of the people around her are conniving at precisely this aim. Shades of Val Lewton and Mark Robson’s The Seventh Victim (1943)…

… and indeed, Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) whose demonic insemination scene was restaged at the climax of The Church. This time out the titular sect contrive to get Miriam raped by a stork that jumps out of the submerged well in her basement… a submerged basement well of which she was previously unaware … did I already mention that this film’s plotting isn’t exactly its strong point?

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Just as The Church proceeded  from a vague Dario Argento diktat (“My brief to Michele was to explore the feelings I had about life in contemporary Germany beginning a new Middle Ages”), so Argento stipulated certain of The Sect’s salient imagery, including the Satanists’ full moon face ripping ceremony which (with the aid of Pino Donaggio’s spellbinding main theme) works rather well, plus some stuff that really doesn’t, e.g. the ongoing shenanigans concerning a kind of anti-Shroud Of Turin which, we learn, smothers some people but brings others (whom you’d prefer to be dead) back to life. What I really want to know about this flying snot rag, though, is… does it smell of death? And one of its victims, Kathryn, is ideally placed to comment on this, played as she is by Maria Angela Giordano of Burial Ground infamy.

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Struggling to impose some of his own identity amid all of this Argentiana, Soavi seems more intent on stuffing every available frame with arcane symbolism and cryptic allusions than he is with pulling all of these disparate strands of material together in a way that makes some kind of narrative sense. At one point he offers us a channel-hopping bunny which tunes into footage of the director himself doing conjuring tricks on TV! You’ll like it… but not a lot!

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“Who hid the remote in the cellar?”

It would be unfair to dismiss Kelly Curtis as just another sorry sibling recruited by the spaghetti exploitation industry solely on account of kid sister Jamie Lee’s scream queen exploits (in much the same way that Italian producers made a minor star out of Tisa Farrow and even attempted to do so with Neil Connery, before he forsook international espionage and returned to working as a milkman)… she already had a decent acting pedigree quite independently of JLC, who was born the same year that Kelly appeared as a little girl in Mom and Dad’s The Vikings (1958.) Plus, she’s actually rather good, here, ably personifying the anxieties suffered by pregnant women in a film that deals with such concerns rather more subtly than e.g. Alien (1979) or Humanoids From The Deep (1980), if considerably less so than Polanski’s picture. No doubt Herbert Lom later pleaded ignorance of any violent scenes that take place in The Sect…

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Having moaned in my review of The Church that I was only sent the DVD version, I’m happy to report that they sent me The Sect on Blu-ray and it looks just great. Given the two audio options available, I chose the Italian language one (with English subtitles) because it’s in 5.1 Surround. The mix proved strangely unadventurous and I didn’t notice any significant benefit until the outbreak of Pino Donaggio’s gorgeous main theme during the moon lit face removal ceremony… that one always gets the hairs standing up on the back of my neck to an extent only bettered by Fabio Frizzi’s Voci Dall Nulla at the climax of The Beyond.

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Extras include trailers for this and other Shameless releases plus the continuation of the Soavi interview from their Church disc, this instalment entitled Beauty And Terror.” Hardly surprisingly, he talks up his collaborations with the likes of Argento and Terry Gilliam but it’s gratifying to hear the director acknowledging his debts to Fulci and D’Amato (“This man had an energy not human!”), too. His “compare and contrast” reports on the various directors’ personalities, working methods and the atmospheres on their respective sets are most enlightening. Soavi also reveals that Tarantino offered him the direction of From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), which he now regrets turning down.

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Given her grisly former glories, it’s interesting to hear Soavi detailing the way in which the demise of Maria Angela Giordano’s character was cut, having been deemed too gruesome. We also learn that the Sergio Stivaletti special effect by which a bug climbs up Kelly’s nose was shot with a camera that was formally Mario Bava’s.

The Sect is an uneven film, no question, but it’s probably better than anything Argento himself has managed since 1987 and only a terminally hard-to-please pasta paura buff could fail to find something to enjoy herein, if only the first screen teaming (ish… they don’t actually share a scene) of Italian Horror’s “Mr & Mrs Most Mutilated”, Morghen and Giordano. Perhaps some sinister Satanists can arrange for him to impregnate her… or perhaps even they would find the probable results of that coupling just too daunting to contemplate!

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Sex Dwarf, Isn’t It Nice? BURIAL GROUND Reviewed

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BD. Regions A/B/C. Severin. Unrated.

Not content with their blockbusting Doctor Butcher / Zombi Holocaust double disc set, Severin immediately plunge back even further into the delirious depths of zucchini zombie territory with this notorious 1980 offering from cut-price sleaze specialist Andrea Bianchi. “Is Burial Ground as bad as it’s cracked up to be?” David (Reprobate) Flint was moved to ask, when reviewing this release. My answer would have to be in the affirmative, though I’d follow it up with another question, namely: “But is that necessarily a bad thing?”

Also known as Zombie 3, Zombi Horror and Nights Of Terror, this one attempts to take a leaf from the occult tomes of Lucio Fulci, substituting for the Books of Eibon and Enoch another slice or arcane lore, “The Profecy (sic) Of The Black Spider.” Never heard of it? Then allow me to quote a particularly chilling passage: “The Earth shall tremble. Graves shall open. They shall come among the living as messengers of death and there shall be the nigths of terror…” You heard me. Nigths!

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A nigth of terror… last nigth in Frascati.

Now I hate to be nigth-picking, but in the light of all these ridiculous spelling errors, it’s difficult to put too much faith in this here “profecy”. Nevertheless, as the film opens, it’s being pored over by one Professor Ayer. Surely that’s not the noted logical positivist, A. J. Ayer? Well no, in fact this guy’s hirsute appearance suggests he’s about to pack in his studies of ancient Etruscan ritual magic and join Z Z Top.

Before strapping on a furry pink guitar, however, he nips out to the ancient Etruscan amphitheatre and catacombs that conveniently seem to comprise the back garden of his villa, muttering: “It’s incredible… I’m the only one who knows!” (don’t worry viewers, you’ll soon be in on the whole risible secret, too.) Chipping away with a hammer down in the vaults, he disturbs several dough-faced undead who rise from their coffins to surround him. “No… I’m your friend!” he blubbers, before the hungry deadsters get stuck into him. Nice try, Rasputin, but no coconut. zombies have been known to responds unfavourably to fire and a shot in the head is almost invariably efficacious… but an appeal to their finer fraternal feelings? Forget it!

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No sooner have his innards slid down their throats than a bunch of the Prof’s swinging pals turn up at the villa for a soapy weekend of bickering, making out (“You’re getting a rise from me… but it’s nothing to do with money!”) and knocking back the ol’ J&B (cue the mother of all product placement shots.) Prominent among them are Maria Angela Giordano (a refrigerated torso in Mario Landi’s Giallo In Venice, victim of a flying snot-rag attack in Michele Soavi’s The Sect and violated by a psychokinetically-guided poker in Mario Landi’s Patrick’s Still Alive, though undoubtedly her finest hour of scuzzy  outrage occurs in this one), Gianluigi Chirizzi and Roberto Caporali (who teamed up again in Ferdinando Baldi’s Night Train Murders knock-off, Terror Express), Simone Mattioli (on whom more later) and, keeping up the cheesecake quotient, Karen Well and Antonella Antinori.

Special mention, of course, must be made to Peter Bark, who plays Giordano’s son Michael. Although many have characterised Giovanni Frezza (“Bob” from Fulci’s House By The Cemetery) as the weirdest looking kid ever set loose in a zombie film (European Trash Cinema’s Craig Ledbetter memorably designated him “the pig faced lad”), anyone who’s ever witnessed Bianchi’s film will beg to differ. Film scholars debated this unique individual’s exact status long and hard before the “middle aged dwarf” theory was conclusively confirmed. What’s indisputable is that his mutated appearance is frankly more frightening than any of Gino de Rossi’s misfiring zombie make-ups in this filmic fiasco.

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He’s a perceptive little bugger, though: “Mama… this rag smells of death!” he whines at one point. “I’ve always been terrified of the dead” chips in one of his fellow house mates, who’s predictably mortified when scores of deceased folks start ambling around the grounds (to the accompaniment of those obligatory whooping and farting synthesiser sounds, which alternate on Burial Ground’s OST with sub Popol Vuh ambient atmospherics and, over the titles, a passable  knock off of Herbie Hancock’s main Blow Up theme) , rudely interrupting various heavy petting couples in the garden (“You look just like a whore… but I like that in a girl!”)

Besieged inside the villa by ravenous zombies who’ve tooled up with various household and gardening implements, our heroes naturally scorn any idea of sticking together, wandering off instead to suffer their miscellaneous fates (one clumsily cribbed from Zombie Flesh Eaters’ most notorious moment, a pane of glass substituting for that wooden splinter.) Meanwhile mutated Mike, whose Oedipal resentment of Giordano’s new boyfriend has already been made clear, responds a little over enthusiastically when comforted and cuddled by his mom… he starts touching her up (!) so she has to slap him down.  “What’s wrong? I’m your son!” wails the brat, running away to his well-deserved dinner date with the undead (Giordano’s hysterical reaction to the discovery of Michael’s chewed-up cadaver is absolutely priceless.)

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Like Professor Ayer before them, characters continually and misguidedly attempt to mount a constructive dialogue with the shambling corpses instead of just reaching for the nearest Uzi, consequently placing themselves in continuous peril. Now, a certain measure of suspense-generating recklessness is a prerequisite in most horror movies, but get this for sheer biscuit-taking stupidity: “”They move so slowly we can easily avoid them…” announces one dunce as he unboards the windows, “… so we might as well let them in!” Incredibly, the others go along with this suggestion, resulting in the inevitable maggot-faced mayhem as the Etruscan dead dudes duly run riot.

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Even the zombified Prof returns to join in the intestinal barbecue. Offended by this brazen violation of the rules of hospitality, the remaining three survivors finally vacate the villa and, after an interlude with a chapter of zombie monks, finally come to grief in a cellar workshop. As her friends are gored and buzz-sawed, Giordano is confronted by Zombie MIchael, whom she encourages to suckle at her breast. There can’t be too many people reading this review who don’t already know what happens next… and even if you’ve already seen it, you could be forgiven for not believing it.

Severin’s presentation of the main feature looks sharper and richer than 88’s equivalent UK release and although it lacks the boy genius commentary track that distinguished the latter, there’s ample compensation to be found in the raft of bonus materials on offer. Along with the inevitable trailer, you get interviews with Giordano and her love interest / producer of this and countless other sleaze epics, Gabriele Crisanti…  Simone Mattioli talks about the film, his attitude towards which is neatly encapsulated by the title of his featurette (“Just For The Money”) … in “Villa Parisi – Legacy Of Terror” a scholarly Andrew Marr lookey-likey gives us a guided tour around the Frascati villa, once occupied by Napoleon’s sister, where Burial Ground was shot… as, it turns out, were a host of other notable Italian genre efforts, including Mario Caiano’s Nightmare Castle (1965), Mino Guerrini’s The Third Eye (1966), Mario Bava’s Hatchet For The Honeymoon (1970) and Twitch Of The Death Nerve (1971), the Morrissey / Margheriti Blood For Dracula (1974) and another Crisanti production, Mario Landi’s characteristically crackpot Patrick’s Still Alive (1980)… the villa is still used today to film Downton Abbey-type productions for Italian TV. On many discs this would be the stand out extra, but here it’s trumped by “Peter Still Lives”, in which the near-mythical Mr Bark answers questions from his adoring fans after a recent Roman screening of Burial Ground, somewhat creepily offering to bite the breasts of girls in the audience and plugging his upcoming autobiography… now whatever happened to that?

Adding a further weird twist to a cinematic saga that didn’t really need one is a story that’s mentioned in a couple of the bonus features… if you thought that gore FX Hall Of Famer Gino De Rossi had a bad day (or several) on Burial Ground, consider that his assistant Mauro Gavazzi, shortly after his stint on this film, was jailed for the fatal and apparently random stabbing of a passer-by.

Severin’s Burial Ground comes with reversible sleeve options and a slip-case boasting impressive, specially commissioned new art work. Their Nights Of Terror Bundle further comprises a T-shirt, badge and poster, together with a shot glass boasting Mr Bark’s distinctive image… essential accessories for the next time you throw a sex party in a historic Italian villa!

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Somebody… anybody… please… stop this madness now!

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