Posts Tagged With: Sergio Salvati

When Italian FX Aces Turn Director… WAX MASK / KILLER CROCODILE 1 & 2 Reviewed.

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Wax Mask. BD. Severin. Region Free. Unrated.
Killer Crocodile / Killer Crocodile 2. BD. Severin. Region A. Unrated.

By the early 1980s Italy ruled the ‘B’ movie waves, churning out over three hundred titles per year to fuel an insatiable international appetite for horror, action and exploitation all’Italiana… a Roman empire the extent of which Trajan himself could scarcely have dreamed. By the end of that decade, however, the Italian film landscape was as bleak as any depicted in the post-Apocalyptic epics that constituted its final filone

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It doesn’t take an Edward Gibbon to trace the causes of this spectacular fall from grace. Tightening censorship in key European markets meant that enevelope-pushing outrages like Lucio Fulci’s New York Ripper (1982) were now out of the question. Along with the consequent blanding out of Italian genre efforts, there was increased leisure buck competition from the deregulation of domestic TV under Silvio Berlusconi and increasing incursions into exploitive subject matter by the US Majors whose budgets Spaghetti exploitation mavens could never hope to match.  Dardano Sacchetti, who wrote more films than anybody else during the industry’s most lucrative years, identifies the short-term thinking and profit-taking priorities of Italian producers as a crucially detrimental factor. If they’d invested instead of constantly cutting budgets, by this account, pasta paura could have become as big a deal as the spaghetti western… and Sacchetti didn’t shy away from identifying the poster boy for this myopic modus operandi as Fabrizio De Angelis, for whom he and Lucio Fulci collaborated on several low budget classics in the late ’70s, early ’80s. “De Angelis was an amiable man but a terrible producer, always ready to sacrifice even the best things about a movie just to save a few bucks”, Sacchetti told me. “He’s a cheap-skate…” chipped in Fred Williamson, alluding to FDA’s later tactic of ditching seasoned pro directors like Fulci and Enzo Castellari to direct his own pictures (as “Larry Ludman”):  “…. it has nothing to do with creativity. He doesn’t want to pay people to do something he thinks he can do, but that doesn’t mean he can do it well“. When I interviewed De Angelis, he defended himself from such charges as follows: “I’ve always given other directors bigger budgets than I give myself. I pay as much as anybody else and many of the people who complained came back to work for me again, so I can’t be that bad”.

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Sure enough, Sacchetti was back on board (as “David Parker Jr”) to co-write Killer Crocodile (1989)… not that it took much writing, emerging as a transposition of a certain Stephen Spielberg film (and ultimately Ibsen’s An Enemy Of The People, if you want to get pedantic about it) from Amity Island to the swamps of the Dominican Republic. Just in case anybody missed the Jaws allusions (or the fact that this whole film is one big Jaws allusion), Riz Ortolani’s score reverberates with all the obvious John Williams pinches.

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Environmentalist Kevin (Anthony… son of Richard… Crenna) and his crew discover that the Dominican waterways are clogged with something way worse than plastic bags and bottles. Irresponsible radioactive dumping, facilitated by a corrupt local Judge (Hollywood heavyweight Van Johnson in one of his final screen credits) has produced the eponymous super-sized saurian, impressively rendered (when you consider the likely budget) by Italy’s FX supremo Giannetto De Rossi, despite his words to the contrary (“It’s a laughing stock!”) in one of the bonus featurettes on this set. Editor Vincenzo Tomassi completes a quartet of holdovers from the gory, glory days of Lucio Fulci.

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With all that talent on hand and everything De Angelis had osmosed from his proximity to the likes of Fulci and Castellari (whose brother Enio Girolami steals the show as Captain Ahab-like crocodile hunter Joe), it’s no surprise that Killer Crocodile emerges as an efficient, satisfying piece of throwaway entertainment, smoothly shot by Federico Del Zoppo in the American TV movie style that was becoming increasingly prevalent at this time. If all that sounds a bit too blandly slick for your tastes, rest assured (and here comes the SPOILER ALERT!) that De Angelis winds things up (things notably including the title creature’s leathery ol’ head) with a revival of the classic “outboard motor” gag from Marino Girolami’s Zombie Holocaust (1980), another picture he produced back in the golden age… but what kind of egg is that hatching on the banks of the bayou?

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Laser focussed on the bottom line, FDA arranged the simultaneous shooting of Killer Crocodile 2 (1990) and detailed its direction to Giannetto De Rossi. History doesn’t record whether he was instructed to “make it snappy” but presumably De Rossi got the job on the grounds that he could be paid even less than the producer would pay “Larry Ludman”! Otherwise the crew’s pretty much the same (Giovanni Bergamini replaces Del Zoppo as DP) and so is the story. Corrupt corporate types are still dumping radioactive waste in that river, still with the connivance of scumbag politicians, one of whom is planning to open a leisure complex on a particularly hideously polluted stretch. Investigative journalist Liza (“Debra Karr”, would you believe?) is on the case but it’s not a particularly compelling one. Looks like they didn’t shoot enough footage of the crocodile to fall back on before it was definitively destroyed at the end of Part 1. There’s a great bit where it crashes through the side of a hut to snack on some low level bad dudes but such moments are few and far between. De Rossi is obliged to pad things out with a bunch of flashbacks to the original’s “greatest hits” and mucho over-baked exposition, though admittedly Ms Karr does look distractingly good, wandering around the jungle in a wet sports bra after her guide tried to rape her and was promptly eaten by the croc. Kevin and Joe arrive halfway through the picture to try and rescue her but blink and you’ll miss Joe. Having delivered the brazen line: “We’ve got to get a bigger boat”, Kevin is left to contrive the coup de gras, in the absence of any handy outboard motors, via a fistful of dynamite.

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Killer Crocodile 2 doesn’t really live up to its predecessor (how many sequels do?) but I was glad to be reacquainted with this brace, my VHS copies of which (sourced from German satellite channels) disappeared many moons ago down the ravenous collecting maw of leathery old Darrell Buxton. Severin present the films with their customary panache and  a slew of of tasty extras, notably Naomi Holwill’s fine feature length De Rossi doc The Prince Of Plasma, featuring contributions from the man himself, plus collaborators Luigi Cozzi, Massimo Vanni and Zombi 2 poster boy Ottaviano Dell’Acqua, also pundits Allan Bryce, Calum Waddell, Rachael Nisbet and Russ Hunter. In his standalone interview featurette, De Rossi is engagingly self deprecating regarding his work on these films. DP Federico Del Zoppo also has his say. The recollections of Anthony Crenna (now identifying as Richard Anthony Crenna) chime with those of many a non-Italian actor regarding his bemusement at being required to act sans direct sound and the virtually non-existent Health & Safety culture. Pietro Genuardi develops this theme further, claiming that a local drowned when operating the croc maquette underwater before detailing his own colourful experiences on location and attempting to return to Rome from it. You also get trailers and a few deleted sequences from the sequel. Nice.

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Wax Mask (1997), although it evolved into another (and rather more effective) FX-man-turned-director effort, was originally conceived as an attempt to revive the flagging Italian Horror tradition via another means, i.e. by assembling the dream team of Dario Argento (producing), Lucio Fulci (directing) and that man Sacchetti, writing (the latter has some very interesting things to say about the genesis of this project and the motivations behind it in our interview elsewhere on this blog). Of course Sacchetti was subsequently sacked (and replaced by Daniele Stroppa) when his proposed Mummy vehicle failed to find favour with Argento, whose enthusiasm for all things Gaston Leroux (below, left) at this point (which would attain its abysmal fruition in DA’s Phantom Of The Opera, 1997) re-routed the project in the direction of Leroux’s Waxwork Museum Mystery and its various cinematic offshoots. Tragically, after putting much work into that, Fulci died shortly before shooting was due to commence. Having been turned down by Fulci’s preferred successor, Claudio Fragasso (who collaborated with Lucio on the certifiably insane Zombi 3, 1988), Argento promoted long time FX man Sergio Stivaletti to make his directorial debut, resulting in the artefact under consideration here.

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Reflecting its convoluted origins, Wax Mask incorporates various strands of the Italian Horror / Thriller tradition, notably Gothic and Giallo, emerging as an attempt (no doubt Argento’s) to propel the two geriatric genres over the line into the 21st Century. Its action commences in Paris at the beginning of the 20th (“31st. December 1900” says the caption, but surely that’s a mistake?) where a little girl witnesses her parents being butchered by a masked figure with a robotic hand. Years later, two bravos partying in a Roman brothel strike a bet about whether one of them is brave enough to spend a night in a spooky wax museum (shades of Antonio Margheriti’s Danse Macabra). The designated dude duly dies of fright when confronted with a Medusa tableau. Was he the world’s biggest girl’s blouse or did something altogether more sinister occur? While we’re pondering that one, Sonia Lafont (Romina Mondello) turns up at the wax museum looking for a job and becomes obsessed with the contents of proprietor Boris Volkoff (Robert Hossein)’s gloves. Turns out she was the little girl who survived the film’s brutal prologue… how sensitive of Volkoff, after taking her on, to open a new display which recreates that crime in suspiciously accurate detail. And why do the new wax figures always look so much like people who’ve recently disappeared from the streets?

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Wax Mask looks quite ravishing due in no small part, one imagines, to the participation of Fulci stalwarts Sergio Salvati (DP) and Massimo Antonello Geleng (production design). Maurizio Abeni’s lush music vindicates the decision to go with an orchestral score rather than Simonetti-style synth rock and the surround sound option on this disc will give your home cinema setup quite a workout. As you’d expect from a Stivaletti film (and with the sterling support of the ill-fated Benoit Lestang) the FX are pretty impressive and the director continues to explore the possibilities of CGI, which he’d first tackled in Argento’s The Stendhal Syndrome (1996), not least with the startling eruption of a Terminator-like animated death’s head figure during the film’s denouement.

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The question inevitably arises (as it previously did with the likes of Lamberto Bava and Michele Soavi) as to how much of the film Stivaletti actually directed, considering that Argento spent so much time on set (and apparently Hossein, a director in his own right, wasn’t exactly backwards in coming forward with advice). It’s a question that’s thoroughly addressed in this edition’s plentiful bonus materials, interviews with several of the creative principals throwing much light on Wax Mask’s protean progress from the drawing board to the screen and providing fascinating insights into the proverbial “personal and professional differences” with which the Italian film scene is freighted. Argento talks of how his attitude towards Fulci developed from mistrust into “love” and opines that if he had lived, Wax Mask secondo Fulci would have been “wild”.  Anyone who was puzzled by Alan Jones’s critical volte face on Fulci after the early ’80s will find Jones’s comments here interesting. We also get some clues as to what a Fulci-directed Wax Mask might have looked like and Stivaletti rues the stick he got from the ol’ Goremeister’s fans (and allegedly his daughter Antonella) for coming up with something different. Not, perhaps, the most reasonable of criticisms. There’s also a trio of “behind the scenes” featurettes that you might have seen on previous DVD editions. If not, all the better.

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Two interesting facts about Robert Hossein (above) emerge from the supplementary materials assembled here. Firstly, that he actually appeared in productions of Pigalle’s legendary Theatre Du Grand Guignol and also that he is (at least by Argento’s reckoning) a total fanny magnet! David Gregory moderates a commentary track from Stivaletti and his son Michelangelo, who’s there to help Dad out with his English and point out his own, intra-uterine film debut.

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I’d dispute Severin’s billing of Wax Mask as “the last great Italian gore film of the 20th Century” but it’s a consistently watchable and entertaining one and the compelling extras on this disc, constituting a revelatory delight for the cognoscenti of pasta paura, turn it into an indispensible purchase. My copy came with a bonus CD of Abeni’s OST.

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The two FX men-turned-directors are pictured below during their triumphant recent appearances at Manchester’s ever wonderful Festival Of Fantastic Films.

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Truth With A Capital “T”? Luigi Bazzoni’s THE LADY OF THE LAKE, Released On Arrow Blu-ray As THE POSSESSED.

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BD. Arrow. Region B. 12.

Successful novelist Bernardo Giovanni (Peter Baldwin from Freda’s The Spectre Of Dr Hichcock and Michele Lupo’s The Weekend Murders) winds up an unsatisfactory relationship and returns, out of season, to a hotel in the Alpine village where he grew up. Keen to rekindle an involvement with Tilde (Virna Lisi), a maid he encountered on his previous visit, he is shocked to learn that she has committed suicide and withdraws into obsessive musings about what happened to her, fuelled by gossip he picks up from local photographer Francesco (Pier Giovanni Anchisi) and his own observations of the outwardly respectable but seriously dysfunctional family who own and run the hotel… Enrico (Salvo Randone), his son Mario (Philippe Leroy), daughter Irma (Valentina Cortese) and clinically depressed daughter-in-law Adriana (Pia Lindström). Fuelled by a flu bug he picks up, Bernard’s memories, dreams, speculations and fantasies fuse in a fashion that causes the viewer to constantly question what they’re seeing. Just as you’re beginning to think that Bernard’s suspicions might be the product of an overheated imagination, Adriana drowns under mysterious circumstances… meanwhile, who is the mysterious lady whose presence haunts the lake?

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Made in 1965, a year after Mario Bava’s Sei Donne Per L’Assassino / Blood And Black Lace, La Donna Del Lago / The Possessed is as much ghost story as giallo (in the wide definition offered by Tim Lucas during his commentary track) or even proto-giallo (as suggested in Arrow’s publicity blurb), Luigi Bazzoni’s psychological thriller having more in common with Bergman or Borges than Bava. Although it’s generally accepted that he contributed very little to the film’s actual direction, Franco Rossellini (nephew to the great Roberto and future producer of several Pasolini efforts, also Caligula) is officially credited as co-director, the film is scored by his father Renzo and Pia Lindström, as Ingrid Bergman’s daughter, was of course related to the Rossellini family by marriage… things behind the camera on this one were nearly as incestuous as the familial relationships portrayed in it, inspired by Giovanni Comisso’s book documenting the notorious “Alleghe killings”. Giulio Questi (later the director of Django, Kill! and Death Laid An Egg) collaborated with Bazzoni and Rossellini on the screenplay, which can’t exactly have detracted from the overall quirkiness of the proceedings, then again Bazzoni rendered similarly surreal psychological malaise without Questi’s collaboration in Footprints On The Moon (1975) and even his straight(ish) giallo The Fifth Cord (1971) plays out as an existential crisis suffered by its protagonist / chief murder suspect Franco Nero.

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The Lady Of The Lake occupies the crucially important but critically under-explored hinterland between Italian Arthouse Cinema and the B Movie tradition that underwrote it. Bazzoni and his closest circle of collaborators never made it into the august company of erstwhile associates Pasolini, Bertolucci, Antonioni et al, nor did they ever descend to the lowest common denominators of Italian genre cinema. The dynamic between these cinematic demi-mondes is incarnated here by the presence of Francesco Barilli, reminiscing about his friends and collaborators the Bazzoni brothers, Luigi and Camillo, throwing in random bits of tittle-tattle as he goes (“Steve Reeves was rumoured to have a very small cock”). Having played the protagonist of Bertolucci’s Before The Revolution in 1964, Barilli went on to write Aldo Lado’s memorable giallo Who Saw Her Die and Umberto Lenzi’s seminal Deep River Savages (both 1972) before directing his own unforgettable, indefinable oddity Perfume Of The Lady In Black (1974).

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Arrow’s 2K restoration from the original b/w camera negative does ample justice to the beautiful b/w cinematography of Leonida Barboni (Enzo’s big brother), whose camera team included the up and coming Sergio Salvati (subsequently to pull off so many lighting miracles for Lucio Fulci). Bonus materials include a video appreciation by cultural critic and academic Richard Dyer, who identifies the film’s central thesis as “the monstrosity of The Family in Italian life”. Interviews with assistant art director Dante Ferretti and make-up FX ace  Giannetto De Rossi are highly watchable but neither of them touches upon The Lady In The Lake to any great extent. De Rossi’s is particularly entertaining. During it he identifies the personal attributes that smoothed his career trajectory (“My deep voice, my big eyebrows and my assassin look! That’s why people feared me. Everyone behaved when I was around”), recalls a run in with Anne Parillaud and confirms that it was his hand pushing Olga Karlatos’s head towards its celebrated intersection with a splinter in Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters. You also get some trailers and then there’s the stuff I never get to see, including a reversible sleeve that features original and newly commissioned artwork by Sean Phillips and – in this edition’s first pressing only – an illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Andreas Ehrenreich and Roberto Curti, plus reproductions of contemporary reviews.

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Lucas’s commentary track is every bit as informative and insightful as you’d expect. Bonus points for twice referring to Pasolini’s Jesus biopic by its correct title, The Gospel According To Mathew. Deduct one point for subsequently misidentifying it as “The Gospel According To Saint Mathew”. TL makes much of TLOTL’s sliding perspectives and the difficulty of arriving at Truth with a Capital “T”, a point nicely underlined by the fact that his interpretation of the story’s resolution deviates markedly from my own. I think he watched it with Italian dialogue and English subtitles (as you might well care to, this option reducing as it does the on-the-nose portentousness of Bernardo’s introspective musings) while I oped for the English dubbing. Try running the English language version with English subtitles, which also throws up some significant discrepancies. An already substantial plot thickens…

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Figures like Questi, Barilli and the Bazzoni brothers represent a significant but long concealed stratum of Italian Cinema, further illumination of which is long overdue. Arrow’s new edition of La Donna Del Lago constitutes a solid step in that direction.

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The Gates Of Delirium… Fulci’s CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD on 4k.

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Ol’ Purple Eyes is back…

BD. Arrow. Region B. 18.

City Of The Living Dead (1980), initiating Lucio Fulci’s celebrated “Gates Of Hell trilogy”, was only his second Horror film and clearly evidences the crash course in H.P. Lovecraft recommended to him by co-writer Dardanno Sachetti after their collaboration on that unexpected international box office champ, Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979).

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Evil New England clergyman Father Thomas (Fabrizio Jovine) hangs himself in a Dunwich cemetery, thereby opening the very Gates of Hell (the initial manifestation of which is a bunch of grungey zombies clawing their way out of their graves). All of this is witnessed by psychic Mary Woodhouse (Catriona MacColl) during a drug crazed seance in New York City, resulting in convulsions and her apparent death. Presiding medium The Great Theresa (Adelaide Asti), an authority on The Book Of Enoch, warns the investigating cops that “at this very precise moment, in some other distant place, horrendously awful things are happening… things that would shatter your imagination!” 

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After Mary’s been rescued from living internment by bibulous hack reporter Peter Bell (Christopher George), they set off for Dunwich, intent on closing those Gates Of Hell before All Saints Day, when Hell’s dominion over the Earth will be irreversibly completed. Hooking up with Dunwich psychiatrist Gerry (Carlo De Mejo) and his patient Sandra (Janet Agren), they learn that Theresa wasn’t bullshitting about those “horrendously awful” things, principle among which are the gruesome demises of genre icons Daniela Doria (who vomits up her entire gastro-intestinal tract), Michele Soavi (skull ripped off) and (as misunderstood vagrant sex-case Bob) John Morghen, who gets treated to an impromptu spot of amateur brain surgery by a red neck vigilante. Penetrating the bowels of Dunwich cemetery (and indeed of Father Thomas himself), the surviving protagonists Mary and Gerry save the day… or do they? Your guess is as good as mine, on the strength of COTLD’s proverbially baffling conclusion.

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This film has already appeared in so many editions (several from Arrow alone) that the above synopsis is probably superfluous, though one entertains the hope that it might galvanise some new viewer, in some other distant place, into connecting with the imaginationshattering milieu of Lucio Fulci, much as Alan Jones’ accounts of these films in Starburst magazine galvanised Your Truly, oh so many years ago. What’s important these days, I guess, with each successive reissue, is the quality of both the film transfer and any supplementary materials. Subjecting the negative of a 1980 film to 4k scanning, while shedding further, er, light on the subtleties of DP Sergio Salavati’s handiwork, is arguably an upgrade too far in terms of ramping up screen grain... you pays your twenty quid and you takes your choice. Sound wise, we’re offered the usual language alternatives and a 5.1 option… Arrow’s previous steel box edition offered 7.1 but I’m not certain that my home set up (nor those of most people) extracted any discernible benefit from that anyway… suffice to say Fabio Frizzi’s celebrated score fair throbs from the speakers this time out.

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The pizza girl’s here…

It’s the sheer breadth and depth of its extras that ultimately promote this City Of The Living Dead from a debatable purchase to an indispensable one. You’ll already be familiar with some of those… audio commentaries from Catriona MacColl and John Morghen (the latter moderated by Calum Waddell) and Waddell’s video interview with Carlo De Mejo… from previous editions. The disc is creaking with a veritable cemetery load of cracking new stuff, though… Stephen Thrower’s take on these films is always worth listening to and here he challenges the received wisdom that Fulci couldn’t get a gig after the success of Zombie Flesh Eaters (what’s indisputable is that producer Fabrizio De Angelis was slow to see the possibilities and continued to think small even after he did reconvene with Fulci). For once Thrower’s presentation, as diligently researched and passionately felt as ever, takes a back seat, given the wealth of primary sources testifying on this set. Among the most compelling is a lengthy new interview with Dardano Sacchetti, in which the irascible writer pursues his familiar theme of De Angelis’ short-sightedness while throwing out all manner of interesting insights re what was going on behind the scenes. Never one to hold back on his opinions, it would seem that Signor Sacchetti is not the biggest fan of Catriona MacColl. 

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“Oui, whatever…”

MacColl herself is duly interviewed, sounding a lot more French than I remember from my own encounter with her (then again that was nearly 25 years ago and she’s spent the intervening quarter Century living in Paris)… interesting  to hear that when she wasn’t being buried alive and showered with maggots, Catriona was required to dub and scream over multiple takes of the same shots, prior to the definitive editorial decisions being taken. 

Camera operator Roberto Forges Davanzati talks, among other things, about the difficulties of making sunny Savannah, Georgia look like an autumnal New England location, neatly illustrated by his private “behind the scenes” 8mm footage, for which he also supplies an audio commentary. Production designer Massimo Antonello Geleng also talks about “the Savannah problem” and his own difficulties breaking the ice with Fulci, after having been parachuted in by producers Medusa over the director’s original pick, Massimo Lentini. Fulci’s misgivings were predictably assuaged by Geleng’s amazing work on this picture.

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Cinematographer Sergio Salvati clearly loved Fulci but acknowledges and regrets the director’s sadistic treatment of some of his actresses… also his overuse of the zoom lens. As an unexpected bonus, Salvati supplies some fascinating incidental revelations about how The Beyond’s stunning denouement was contrived, against all the odds, in the face of producer De Angelis’s constant budget cutting.

Giovanni Lombardo Radice / John Morghen (these days sporting a beard of Biblical proportions) reiterates that he never had any problems with Fulci but confesses that he’s never been able to watch Daniela Doria’death scene all the way throughGino “Bombardon” De Rossi talks us through that and several other of his gory FX tours de force for City Of The Living Dead et al. He also mentions the prank played on Fulci, referenced by several of the participants in these featurettes, by which maggots were placed in the ol’ goremeister’s pipe. De Rossi initially got the blame for this, but turns out the culprit was actually Christopher George, who obviously figured that one good maggotty turn deserved another.

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Father and son acting team Venantino and Luca (“Jon Jon”) Venantini recall their experiences on the picture, which have become somewhat sanitised in the telling, compared to the version they offered in Mike Baronas’ documentary Paura: Lucio Fulci Remembered. Venantino, clearly still very much a character in his late ’80s, now resembles an over-baked spud. Luca’s obvious love and concern for his dad make for touching viewing. There’s also a previously unseen interview with Fulci’s go-to OST man Fabio Frizzi, who suggests that Fulci’s personal sufferings made him a person of substance.

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Fulci fan boy Andy (Ghost Stories) Nyman, though obviously not a member of the inner circle, recounts his encounters with Giannetto De Rossi and Richard Johnson in appropriately enthusiastic style and the ubiquitous Kat Ellinger contributes another of these here video essays, concerning Fulci and his seminal role in the busy Italian zombie cycle.

Among the more predictable extras are the alternative US “Gates of Hell” credits sequence and assorted trailers and radio spots. The extensive image gallery features over 150 stills, posters and other ephemera from the FAB Press and Mike Siegel archives. You also get reversible sleeve options (choose between Charles Hamm and pals in all their original glory and newly commissioned artwork by Wes Benscoter), a double-sided fold-out poster and 6 lobby card reproductions. As usual we HOF drones haven’t set eyes on that stuff yet, nor the limited edition 60-page booklet featuring new writing by Travis Crawford and Roberto Curti, an archival interview with Fulci and contemporary reviews.

Just make sure you grab your copy before All Saints Day, or there’ll be Hell to pay…

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