False Witches and Religious Hypocrisy

In 1968, Vincent Price starred in Witchfinder General, the story of a corrupt, hypocritical monster who travels the English countryside accusing innocent people of witchcraft and torturing confessions out of them. It is set in the year 1645, during the English Civil War, and Price’s Matthew Hopkins uses the country’s social breakdown to his advantage, identifying “witches” and charging the local magistrates for his services.

In a village in Suffolk, he accuses the local priest (Rupert Davies) of sorcery and orders him to be tortured. His horrified niece, Sara (Hilary Dwyer), offers herself to Hopkins in order to save her uncle’s life. But when Hopkins is called away to another village, his equally corrupt assistant, Stearne (Robert Russell), rapes her. Upon his return, Hopkins now considers her “unclean,” and the torture of the priest resumes, culminating in his death.

Sara’s fiance, Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy), is a young Roundhead who, upon returning home from the war, is horrified to discover what has happened to his beloved and her uncle. He vows to hunt down and kill both Hopkins and Stearne.

This is an amazing film in many respects. Price’s performance is absolutely grim and humorless, a revelation in this era when he’d really begun to camp it up. It’s also surprisingly sadistic for its time, earning the wrath of British critics, even though it had been heavily censored before it hit theaters.

Ironically, when American International Pictures released it in the States under the title The Conqueror Worm (to tie it in with the earlier series of Poe films, also starring Price), it was virtually uncut. It was written and directed by wünderkind Michael Reeves, who was only 23 at the time of filming.

Even while it was being condemned by British critics, it went virtually unnoticed in America upon initial release, but a few months later defenders on both continents began to speak up, and Reeves’ star began to ascend.

Reeves didn’t want Price in the film at all (Donald Pleasance was his first—and unavailable—choice). Price didn’t want to work with Reeves, considering him to be far too young and inexperienced. On-set explosions were frequent. At one point, Price famously sneered, “I’ve made 87 films. What have you done?” Reeves’ response: “I’ve made three good ones.”

In one scene, Reeves wanted Price to fire a pistol between the ears of the horse he was riding, and he wanted the pistol to be loaded with a blank so the puff of smoke could be seen. Price was aghast: “What? You want the gun to go bang between the ears of this fucking nag? How do you think he’s going to react?” Reeves persisted and—of course—Price was thrown to the ground.

Other problems plagued the production. A technician’s strike had to be negotiated. Price showed up drunk on the final day of shooting. Sometimes there weren’t enough actors, and production staff filled in. The startling climax (which I won’t reveal here) is the result of a continuity problem, but that’s a really lucky accident as far as I’m concerned.

Reeves had only directed two films prior to Witchfinder, The She Beast (also with Ogilvy and the incredible Barbara Steele) and The Sorcerers, with Boris Karloff. Even though his career was going well, Reeves suffered from clinical depression and he died of an alcohol and barbiturate overdose in 1969. The jury is still out on whether it was intentional. He was only 25 years old.

Inspired by the film’s success, Germany jumped on the bandwagon with the infamous Mark of the Devil in 1970, starring Herbert Lom, Reggie Nalder and an incredibly young and androgynous Udo Kier. Following in the footsteps of its predecessor, it raises the stakes (ha!) by amping up the sadism and nudity.

It’s set in rural Austria in the 1800s, and Keir plays the apprentice to a witchfinder (Lom), only to become disillusioned when he discovers that his employer is using his position for profit, free sex, and to keep the population terrorized. The torture scenes are pretty tame by today’s standards, including the cutting of flesh (in search of Satan’s skin), bare bums on spikes and perhaps the most famous scene—the pulling of a woman’s tongue out by the roots.

The film’s American distributor (Hallmark, which also released Last House on the Left and Don’t Open the Window) went into publicity overdrive. The ads screamed: “Positively the most horrifying film ever made!” “Likely to upset your stomach!” “Rated V for violence!” It was also the first release to provide barf bags for theaters to distribute to patrons.

Mark has its defenders, but it’s miles behind Witchfinder. The scenes of torture are contrasted with sequences of Kier and his love frolicking in the Austrian countryside, accompanied by that 1970s “doo-doo-doo” European music, and the frequent nudity gives it a sleaziness and unintentional humor that Witchfinder doesn’t possess. Plus, some of the scenes could be transferred intact into a Monty Python routine and were, in a way, if you count the persecution of Carol Cleveland in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

“She turned me into a newt!” Pause. “I got better!”

1973 brought Mark of the Devil II and more of the same, although ironically it wasn’t as brutal as the original. However, it did have a consistent theme of misogyny, which many found even more distasteful.

It took big, burly and prolific Spanish horror star/director Paul Naschy six years to do his own witch-burner, but in 1976 he starred in and directed Inquisition. As Bernard de Fossey, a corrupt inquisitor traveling the French countryside during the time of the Black Death, he does basically the same things Price and Lom did: accuse, torture, kill.

What makes Inquisition different from the earlier films is that many of the accused actually are devil worshippers. Plus, the film asks that its audience find some pity for the inquisitor.

I haven’t personally seen this film. I find Naschy’s movies to be rather slow and silly, but it sounds like De Fossey’s demise echoes that of Oliver Reed’s Grandier in Ken Russell’s The Devils—head shaved and burned at the stake. And, of course, it heaps on the nudity that is required of a Naschy film. Once again, the sadism stakes are raised to out-gross Mark, the highlight being a rather realistic nipple-removing scene.

Witch hunting movies didn’t enjoy the long-term popularity of the Exorcist clones, Naschy’s latecomer was pretty much it for the genre. Christopher Lee starred in Jess Franco’s The Bloody Judge in 1972, but he was targeting traitors to the crown instead of witches.

David Cronenberg and the New Flesh

When I was 16, I saw David Cronenberg’s Shivers (aka They Came from Within) at the State Theater in South Bend, Indiana. It was my first exposure to the filmmaker’s work—and indeed it was his first full-length feature as well.

Although I was too young to fully appreciate it at the time, I was certainly creeped out by the parallels between sexuality and disease, and this film introduced a different kind of zombie—one that doesn’t want to eat you but instead wants to screw you to death! In the shocking opening scene, an older guy beats a very young-looking girl unconscious, throws her on a table, strips her naked, slices open her abdomen and pours acid inside her guts before slitting his own throat. And that’s just the first few minutes!

The seemingly crazed murderer was actually a physician in an exclusive gated luxury community who developed a parasitic creature he hoped would take over the functions of diseased organs in humans, but it instead acts as a powerful aphrodisiac and hallucinogen, transforming its hosts into ravening sexual animals who are also “turned on” by the invasion. The attack at the beginning of the film was actually the doctor’s attempt to quell the outbreak, but the promiscuous young girl already had encounters with other men in the building, and the infection spreads rapidly.

Cronenberg exploits the subject to make his audience as uneasy as possible. The parasites are passed from one host to another via bodily orifices. Legendary scream queen Barbara Steele receives hers in the bathtub before passing one through an open-mouthed kiss with comely neighbor Janine (Susan Petrie). Janine’s husband, Nicholas (Allan Kolman), is one of the guys who’d slept with the infected girl, and he’s reproducing the parasites rapidly. In one queasy scene, he lifts up his shirt and strokes his abdomen, practically cooing to the parasites as they ripple beneath his flesh.

Joe Blasco’s creatures and makeup effects are very well done, especially considering the film’s conservative budget. When Cronenberg hired him to work on the film, Blasco said he prepared for a career in horror makeup by working on the “Lawrence Welk” show! The film is clammy and claustrophobic, features the trademark bleak Cronenbergian finale…and it really gets under your skin.

His fascination with mutated and transformed flesh continued with his next feature, Rabid (1977). Adult film star Marilyn Chambers takes a straight role as a young woman who develops a taste for human blood after receiving an experimental treatment at a mysterious clinic.

She’s been in a serious motorcycle accident, and the clinic’s head uses radiation-treated skin to graft to fire-damaged areas of her body. As a result, a barb-like appendage has grown under her arm, and she uses it to pierce the flesh of her victims and ingest their blood. She doesn’t kill them, but her “sting” causes them to contract a virulent form of rabies. The contagion quickly spreads, but she’s unaware that she’s the cause of it.

Chambers is quite good in her role, and although it doesn’t quite have the “ick” factor of Shivers, the film is better crafted and gives Cronenberg some opportunity to express his jet-black sense of humor. There’s a memorable scene at a shopping mall where cops shoot down Santa Claus while combating rabid shoppers!

The Brood (1979) stars Oliver Reed as a psychologist who is treating a patient with anger-management issues (Samantha Eggar) with unorthodox methods, causing her to give birth to vicious little mutant kids who attack and kill those who raise her ire.

It’s one of the most personal films he ever made. He’d recently undergone a painful divorce and then kidnapped his daughter because he feared his ex-wife had joined a lunatic cult. It’s a story that’s far more interesting than the film, which is a little too complicated in my opinion to be completely satisfying.

Scanners (1981) was a big hit for Cronenberg, opening the doors to Hollywood and allowing him to make Videodrome for Universal and The Dead Zone for Paramount, both released in 1983. Videodrome explores the idea of melding flesh and machinery, and though it’s high on kink, it’s too cold and complicated for me.

The Dead Zoneproved that he could make a “straight” film based on the work of another (Stephen King), and it’s very good. Christopher Walken’s central performance is great, and an air of real melancholy hangs over every frame. It’s interesting in that instead of mutated flesh, it features a mutated mind, as Walken’s character awakens from a two-year coma to find he’s acquired the gift (or curse) of telepathy. And a serial killer’s suicide near the beginning of the film should be mandatory viewing for today’s “torture porn” auteurs. It’s not particularly explicit, but it’s just…horrible.

After Zone, the Hollywood door opened even wider, and Cronenberg remade The Fly for 20th Century Fox in 1986. Here he was given a big budget and free reign to explore his themes of mutated flesh—and it was a huge hit! Giant actors Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis are a perfect match, and the film is packed with his trademark grotesqueries. As Goldblum’s Seth Brundle is mutating, he begins to lose his useless human body parts. In one memorable scene, he watches himself in the bathroom mirror as he pulls his teeth painlessly out of his mouth and then opens the medicine cabinet to reveal his redundant penis sitting on the shelf!

Dead Ringers (1988) stars Jeremy Irons as twin gynecologists Beverly and Elliot Mantle, who share sexual partners without said partners realizing there’s been a switch. When Beverly embarks on an affair with actress Claire Niveau (Genevieve Bujold), he becomes obsessed and doesn’t want to share her with Elliot.

They’ve both had a lifelong fascination with the female reproductive system (hence their career), and the fact that Claire has a uterus divided into three separate chambers makes her irresistible to Beverly. Of course, it doesn’t take long for the psychological damage to occur, and soon Beverly is designing a set of “gynecological instruments for mutant women.”

Irons is magnificent as the twins, providing each with just enough difference in character to tell them apart. The word in Hollywood is that his later Oscar win for Reversal of Fortune was in fact a reward for this film, which was considered too “extreme” for nomination at the time. And Cronenberg’s gallows humor comes through in several scenes. Here, he manages to wrangle an outrageous plot, but keep it entertaining, comprehensible and…well, moving.

Next, Cronenberg tackled William S. Burrough’sunfilmableNaked Lunch (1991). Many have complained that the film is comprised of a series of seemingly unrelated scenes of bizarreness, but I’ve read the book and that’s what happens there, too! Peter Weller is the Burroughs surrogate and Judy Davis is his wife. He works as an exterminator, and she’s been shooting up his insect spray (“It’s a Kafkaesque high,” she says. “Makes you feel like a bug.”).

Exposure to the spray causes him to hallucinate that he’s an agent for Interzone Incorporated and has been assigned to assassinate her, initiating a descent into one of Cronenberg’s most outrageous visual forays yet. There are talking typewriters with particularly sensitive anuses, giant bugs, bizarre aliens and Roy Scheider in one of the strangest roles of his career. Lessons learned from his two previous films, he manages to wrangle the surrealism and absurdity of the novel into a bizarrely entertaining and funny film.

After M. Butterfly (which I frankly had no interest in seeing), Cronenberg embarked upon his most ambitious epic of weirdness yet—Crash (1996). Boasting a great name cast, including James Spader, Holly Hunter, Elias Koteas and Rosanna Arquette, it’s based on the J.G. Ballard novel and, as the tagline proclaims, it’s about “sex and car crashes.” It’s also his most successful work, in my opinion. It’s so sleek and shiny, the sex is intense, and his obsession with flesh melding with metal is eloquently communicated.

It’s also really, really funny. There’s just no way this film can’t be viewed as a black comedy. With every outrage, Cronenberg seems to be winking at the audience and saying, “You didn’t think I’d do this, did you?” And again, he gives the central figure the name of the original work’s author.

After James Ballard (Spader) survives a horrendous car crash, he enters into a sordid sort of sex club with similarly afflicted individuals, including the woman (Holly Hunter) he’d collided with.

Some time later, he’s in bed with his equally kinky wife (a terrific Deborah Kara Unger). She encourages him to talk about the genitalia of Vaughan (Koteas), another member of the “club.” Her verbiage is oddly clinical (“Imagine his anus,” she says. “Describe it to me.”). Of course, Cronenberg follows this up with a vigorous sexual encounter between Vaughan and James in Vaughan’s convertible, which later becomes a penis surrogate itself when Vaughan uses it to ram James’ car.

And when Arquette’s character exposes a vagina-shaped wound in her thigh, which James can penetrate—and he does—it’s just too much. There’s also a scene in which Hunter is simultaneously massaging the crotches of Spader and Arquette while they’re watching car crash footage on television…whew. It’s certainly not a film for all tastes.

eXistenZ (1999) sounds disturbingly like one of those “lasting erection” pills, but it’s actually a film about a video game whose creator and marketer get trapped in. Starring Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jude Law, it’s not without its charms, but it’s kind of “Cronenberg lite.” It’s really a lark, but it’s well-done and entertaining, and there’s a lot of hilarious mutation.

Lately Cronenberg has essentially become an arthouse director, and while I’ve admired some of these films—Eastern Promises, A History of Violence and Spider, I keep leaving the theater disappointed that they weren’t weirder. They certainly have audacious moments: Violence has a surprisingly explicit oral sex scene, and everyone still talks about Viggo Mortensen’s naked, brutal battle in Promises, but I just wish they were even more “out there.”

I’m optimistic that Cronenberg isn’t done yet, and I’m confident that he’s got another sticky, messy, wonderful opus to give to us. Unlike George Romero, who seems intent on delivering a bunch of not-very-interesting zombie films toward the end of his career, Cronenberg can give us something special.

Some Classic Horrors

What makes a classic horror film? Craftsmanship, certainly, and especially repeatability—a film you want to watch again even though you’ve thoroughly memorized the moments of shock. Today I’d like to reflect on a few classics…horror films that have stood the test of time and are just as striking today as they were on their original release.

Les Yeux Sans Visage (Eyes Without A Face), from 1959, is French director Georges Franju’s masterpiece. A surgeon, Génessier, is obsessed with restoring the face of his daughter, Christine (Edith Scob), which had been horribly disfigured in a car accident. To achieve this, he recruits his devoted assistant, Louise (Alida Valli) to lure beautiful young women to his remote clinic where he experiments on them.

It’s a fairly straightforward plot, but what makes this film exceptional is Franju’s handling of the material. Hauntingly poetic and genuinely creepy, it really gets under your skin (pun intended). Christine wears a white porcelain mask to hide her disfigurement, and it makes her seem like a living statue. Dressed in stylish white gowns, she drifts through the house like a ghost.

Génessier is so smug and self-involved that he doesn’t realize his skin graft experiments are in fact torturing Christine—not to mention the fate that befalls the numerous victims who are unlucky enough to find themselves under his scalpel. Louise is slavishly devoted to this bastard—she knows full well the women she brings to the clinic are going to die—and yet she keeps procuring more, defending the doctor’s work when Christine dares to complain.

Scob is remarkable in her role. We only see her face for perhaps three minutes in the entire film, yet she manages to convey a full range of emotions with her body language. Valli, of course, is terrific, and her Louise is a study in contradictions. Brasseur plays the arrogant doctor to the hilt, not in mad scientist mode, but with the self-assurance that comes from believing he’s always right. Christine is the only one with a conscience, preferring to die rather than continue suffering—and causing the suffering of others.

The most famous scene—the removal of a victim’s face for the graft—is still shocking today, because it’s done so clinically. There’s no sound except for the doctor’s breathing as he methodically cuts into the skin, carefully pulls up the edges and lifts it off. Even though I knew it was coming and had seen it before, when I watched this film in its 2003 theatrical re-release, I thought I was going to pass out during this scene!

The fleeting glimpses we get of Christine’s face are equally shocking. She slips into the room of one of her “donors,” and the disfigurement is seen, briefly and blurrily, but it’s enough. When a graft seems to be successful, she is elated with her restored beauty, but when it begins to fail, we’re subjected to a series of clinical still photographs documenting the skin literally rotting off her face accompanied by the doctor’s passionless reportage of the failure.

There are fairly straightforward scenes of police procedurals, but the images of Scob seemingly floating down hallways, and the leonine Valli driving through the streets of Paris in search of prey are oddly beautiful, surreal and absolutely unforgettable. Future Academy Award-winner Maurice Jarre provides the excellent score.

Terrence Rafferty, writing in The New York Times, said it best: “Eyes Without a Face is among the few films in the genre—Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) is the only other one I can think of—that holds our attention without any recourse to narrative suspense. We barely care how the story will turn out: the suspense is in the images themselves, in the tension generated by our attempt to resolve the contradictory emotions they arouse.”

Hard-working horror hack Jess Franco did a remake of sorts in 1987, Faceless. Relentlessly sleazy, it amps up the gore and is actually one of his more watchable efforts…which isn’t saying much. It also boasts (for Franco) an all-star cast: Helmut Berger, Telly Savalas, Anton Diffring, Stephane Audran (who gets a needle in the eye) and Caroline Munro!

Curse of the Werewolf (1960) is one of my favorite Hammer films, along with Brides of Dracula, which I’ve discussed before. Featuring a star-making turn by a shockingly young Oliver Reed, it’s perverse, violent and has a lot more on its mind than just ripping throats.

A beggar (Richard Wordsworth) is thrown into a prison cell and left to rot by a sadistic Marques (Anthony Dawson). When his mute servant (Yvonne Romain) rebuffs his repulsive advances, she is put into the same cell and raped by the now-beastlike beggar. After escaping the cell and killing the Marques in revenge, she flees to the country and is taken in by the kindly Don Carledo (Clifford Evans) and Teresa (Hira Talfrey), his faithful servant.

When the girl dies in childbirth on Christmas Day, Don Carledo adopts the boy, naming him Leon, but superstitious Teresa fears that he is cursed. Sure enough, soon the little nipper is flashing his fangs and telling his father about his disturbing dreams of blood. Local farmers are up in arms about the “wolf” that is prowling the countryside and attacking their sheep.

Leon grows to adulthood, and he moves to another town to take a job in a winery. There, he meets and falls in love with his employer’s daughter, Cristina (Catherine Feller), but when he is taken to a brothel by a well-meaning co-worker, the beast inside him is awakened and he goes on the rampage. He goes to the police, but they don’t believe him, so he turns to his father for help. Don Carledo realizes he must summon the strength to put his son out of his misery with a silver bullet.

Curse brings a number of new twists to the werewolf story. Rather than suffering a bite from another wolf-creature, Leon’s lycanthropy is truly a “curse,” having been born the bastard child of an insane man on Christmas Day. And the film explicitly links lycanthropy with puberty, as the young Leon is seen howling at the moon as hair sprouts on his body.

This is the Hammer factory in its prime. Excellent color cinematography, beautiful sets and crackerjack direction by the great Terence Fisher make this a film to savor again and again. The details are great—when the Marques calls the servant girl to his room for unsavory purposes, he is seen studying himself in the mirror and picking scabs off of his face. Behind the opening title sequence is a long-held close-up of Reed’s eyes darting, animal-like, back and forth. One could argue that the contact lenses he’s wearing are causing his eyes to well up with tears, but it really adds an extra dimension to the shot—this is not a happy monster.

Reed is so good as the suffering Leon. I don’t think his screen time even adds up to half of the film, but he’s in turns eloquent, pitiful and scary—all the right attributes for such a role. His werewolf makeup by the ever-reliable Roy Ashton is perfect, taking advantage of Reed’s already wolfish appearance. The supporting cast, including Wordsworth, Evans and Talfrey, also add to the persuasiveness of the story. And the story—written by producer Anthony Hinds under his John Elder pseudonym—is based on Guy Endore’s “The Werewolf of Paris” (switched to Spain because Hammer had the standing sets) and it has enough religious, psychological and sociological underpinnings to keep Freud busy for weeks.

1960′s The Mask of Satan (aka Black Sunday) is the legendary Italian horror director Mario Bava’s finest film and the sensational Barbara Steele’s first venture into the genre. She plays a two roles she’d repeat several times with variations—Asa, a reincarnated, centuries-old witch and Katia, her innocent, virginal descendant.

When we first meet Asa she is being condemned to death for sorcery. Before she is burned at the stake, a spiked metal mask (the mask of Satan) is hammered into her flesh.

200 years later, Dr. Thomas Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) and his assistant Dr. Andre Gorobec (John Richardson), are traveling through Moldavia to a medical conference when one of the wheels of their carriage breaks. While waiting for their coachman to fix it, they explore a nearby crypt and find Asa’s tomb. Kruvajan is curious about the mask he can see through a glass panel in the lid, and when he removes it from the corpse’s face, he accidentally cuts his hand. His blood drips on the exposed flesh, but they leave the crypt unaware that Asa is being restored to life. Outside, the doctors meet Katia. who lives with her father, Prince Vajda (Garrani), and brother Constantine (Enrico Oliveiri), in a nearby castle that the villagers all believe is haunted. Gorobec is smitten with her beauty.

Now revived, Asa telepathically contacts her henchman, Javuto (Arturo Dominici), who’d been executed along with her, and orders him to rise from his grave. She wants to drain the blood of her descendant, Katia, believing it will give her immortality. Javuto goes to the castle and vampirizes Kruvajan, kidnaps Katia and taking her to Asa. As the witch begins to drain away Katia’s life force, Gorobec arrives in time to save her and dispatch her malevolent ancestor.

The devil is in the details with this film. The simple plot is merely a device upon which to hang a series of startling—and startlingly beautiful—images. When we (and the doctors) first meet Katia, she is dressed in a black coat, accompanied by a pair of large black dogs, standing against a dramatically clouded sky. It’s quite an entrance. As the mask is hammered onto Asa’s face, blood jets out—it’s still a startling scene. Asa’s resurrection is striking, too. When Kruvajan first pries the mask off of her face, her empty eye sockets stare up at him and a spider crawls out of one of them. Later, when his blood begins to resurrect her, eyeballs “regrow” in the sockets.

Javuto’s resurrection is also atmospheric. Revived but still unable to move, Asa commands him to return from his grave. The ground splits open and an alarming-looking, undead creature gropes his way out of the soil and pulls off his mask. Later, when Gorobec discovers that Kruvajan has become a vampire, he goes to the coffin where his former colleague now rests, accompanied by a local priest, who drives a wooden spike into the fiend’s eye in a scene that certainly must have inspired Lucio Fulci’s trademark eye-mayhem.

For years we Americans had to live with American International Pictures’ version of the film, heavily edited and re-scored by house composer Les Baxter. The first time I saw it was on VHS videocassette with a faded pan-and-scan print that did criminal things to the splendid black and white cinematography. And although it was a British print, it still had the more explicit scenes of violence excised.

Image Entertainment’s 1999 DVD release was a revelation. Not only was it restored to its widescreen monochrome glory, the mayhem was back. I knew what to expect—the old videotape was clumsily cut, but you could sort of tell what had happened. Not that Black Sunday is a splatterfest—the scenes are swift and unexpected, which makes them all the more shocking.

What makes this film a perennial is a handsome production, rapturously atmospheric settings, truly creepy sequences and the insanely gorgeous Steele, who was dubbed by one critic “the only actress whose eyebrows can snarl.”

Giallo di Fulci

Ah, Lucio Fulci. He’s the gift that keeps on giving. I’ve covered a couple of his films previously, House By the Cemetery and his epic Zombie, but today I’d like to focus on two of his 1980s giallos, the vehemently Italianate murder mystery genre that features a mysterious killer with gloved hands, cops on the case, lots of red herrings and extreme deaths.

Ripping One

1982′s The New York Ripper (aka Lo Squartatore di New York) is hands down Fulci’s filthiest, foulest film. You don’t just want to take a shower after viewing it—you want to be steam-cleaned. Chock full of nasty sex, extreme violence and some of the splatteriest gore he’d ever committed to celluloid, Ripper is completely repellent, one of the most polarizing titles among his hardcore fans.

Never before had he attempted anything as extreme as this film, so I can only guess that he was attempting to cash in on William Lustig’s X-rated Maniac (1980), a sublimely sleazy grease spot of a film that stunned even the most hard-bitten Times Square audiences. Doing the earlier film one better, Fulci amped up the gore and pushed the sexual content to near-pornographic levels. It’s truly a piece only the most hardened sleazehounds can enjoy.

The plot is fairly rudimentary: the brutally butchered bodies of women are turning up all over town, and the lead cop on the case keeps receiving taunting calls from the killer, who speaks in a cartoonish voice and quacks like a duck. The typical giallo “who’s the killer?” story follows.

Taking a page from Argento’s playbook, Fulci lets the anticipation of the violent scenes build slowly, throwing in false leads and tightening the noose until the killer strikes. The first murder takes place on the Staten Island ferry, where a female bicyclist who’s had an argument with a man whose Volkswagen she accidentally ran into and scratched, sneaks into the hold to scrawl an obscenity on the windshield of his unoccupied car. Caught in the act, she tries to make nice with her surprise visitor (whose face we never see, of course). He begins to quack, the switchblade comes out, and the slicing commences.

In another scene straight out of DePalma’s Dressed To Kill (Angie Dickinson’s surprise elevator murder), a woman who’s been indulging in a little S&M in a sleazy hotel room begins to suspect her sexual partner is the killer the police have been looking for. She frantically releases herself from her bonds and runs into the hall, only to be confronted by the Quacker, who slices her stem-to-stern in savage fashion.

The murders are excruciatingly drawn out. You see every cut in graphic detail. The climactic killing—the most notorious in the film—features Fulci’s trademark eye-gouging and slashing of particular body parts in loving close-up. Still, fans of pre-Disneyfied Times Square will love the exterior shots of the long-gone grindhouses, sleazy bars and sex clubs, and the subway back when the cars were still filthy and covered with graffiti. Interiors are equally sleazy, with a real feel for down-at-its-heels Manhattan.

The film is well-made, with some of the most realistic effects seen in a Fulci work, as well as truly sleazy and embarrassing-to-watch sex scenes. There’s not a lot of unintentional humor to leaven the tension, which certainly enhances its repulsive atmosphere. I can only imagine what an experience it would have been to watch Ripper in a theater with strangers back in the day…and wonder if they were enjoying it.

Unfortunately, Ripper initiated the final phase in Fulci’s career in which he would produce some of his weakest films, seemingly turning his back on his fans by refusing to deliver the extreme gore they demanded.

Slash Dance

The above title is a pun, but it’s also one of the alternates for Fulci’s Murder Rock (1984), a cross between the giallo, Fame (1980) and Flashdance (1983). Get ready for leotards and leggings, folks. It’s a Lucio Fulci musical!

Well, not really, but it’s the closest he ever came. Like Ripper, it’s also ostensibly set in Manhattan (Lucio just loves those harbor shots), but it’s pure Eurotrash all the way. A killer is stalking students at New York’s Arts for Living Center, headed by Candice Norman (Olga Karlatos, Zombie‘s original eye-gouging victim), and cops arrive on the scene to investigate.

Candice is a former dancer whose own career was cut short by a motorcycle accident. Apparently she’s getting her revenge by forcing her students to perform some of the most spastic, super-aerobic dance moves I’ve ever seen. Sadly, the mystery portion of the movie isn’t really that mysterious and it’s pretty slow going, but these numbers, along with some of the casting, give Murder Rock some watchability.

It’s almost a who’s-who of Italian horror actors of the ’70s and ’80s. Along with Karlatos, there’s Ray Lovelock (The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue), Christian Borromeo (Argento’s Tenebre) and, in uncredited roles, Al Cliver (Zombie) and Silvia Collatina (House By the Cemetery). Fulci, of course, provides his usual cameo.

The killings are committed with a hatpin to the breast, so there’s no gore. The story attempts to blur the lines between fantasy and reality, but it’s mostly just blurry, since so much of it is set in darkness—with strobe lights. And it’s too damn slick, missing the beloved Fulci trademarks. Gone are the smash zooms and extreme close-ups of characters’ eyes and noses. The English dubbing isn’t as hilariously dodgy as the director’s earlier supernatural horrors, which is a shame, because the characters talk a lot. Sample exchange (on the telephone):

Candice: Bob—what happened?

Bob: Something terrible…Susan.

Candice: What?

Bob: At the school. The police are here.

Candice: What are you saying?

Bob: She was…

Candice: What do you mean she was…she’s dead?

Much of the dialogue goes on in the same fashion, but unfortunately it never reaches the dizzying heights of—say—Karlatos in Zombie: “You won’t be happy until I meet one of your zombies!”

I suppose the dance numbers are well-shot and edited, but they’re so goofy they defy measurement. With music by Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s Keith Emerson, they provide whatever fun the film has to offer. What the hell kind of school is the Arts for Living Center anyhow? The Institute of the Pelvic Thrust?

I want a performance space or nightclub in New York to do a show featuring detailed re-stagings of all the dance numbers from Murder Rock—without a trace of irony. It’d be a huge hit.

After New York Ripper, Fulci’s career seemed to go into decline. He made The New Gladiators (1983), a post-apocalyptic action film in the style that was popular at the time, but Murder Rock really signaled the beginning of the end. An attempted sequel to Zombi 2 was taken over by Bruno Mattei due to his illness. He made a couple of TV movies considered too violent to air even on Italian television. I’ve seen one of them on DVD, but it was pretty nondescript.

One of the last films Fulci made was Cat in the Brain, in which he plays himself, a director so tormented by nightmares of his own creations that he consults a psychiatrist. It’s really no more than a clip show, with newly-shot wraparounds “introducing” scenes from earlier horrors.

Still, for a filmmaker whose career spanned more than 40 years and included almost every genre (westerns, a couple of White Fang movies, even a comedy with Barbara Steele!), to be remembered for a notable handful of thrillers isn’t a bad record at all. Here’s my list:

Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971)
Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972)
Zombie (1980)
City of the Living Dead (1980)
The Beyond (1981)
House By the Cemetery (1981)
The New York Ripper (1982)

Women Behind Bars

This week on TCM I saw the 1950 Warner Brothers film Caged, starring Eleanor Parker and Agnes Moorehead, and it put me in the mood to reflect on other Women in Prison (or WIP, as they’re commonly referred to) epics. Although there were other WIPs made before it, Caged was the first to take place entirely inside such an institution, and it really established the template for those that came after. I’ll break the template down for you according to character:

1. The new fish. A young, innocent girl who has inadvertently been caught up in a criminal act and is terrified to be locked up. She learns about life the hard way and is usually released to begin a career in crime of her own by the end of the film.

2. The “boss” of the cellblock. A professional, hardened criminal who is serving serious time and controls the rest of the women in her block. Variations include sapphic lusting for the new fish, corrupt financial dealings with the warden and guards and a last-minute heart of gold. She always has toadies hanging around to do her dirty work.

3. The warden. Either male or female, the warden can be either a corrupt sadist who uses the inmates for sexual and financial reward or an earnest individual struggling against the system to improve conditions. Sometimes gets killed, sometimes ends up behind bars, too.
4. The head matron. Usually corrupt and in cahoots with the cellblock boss. Enjoys psychologically traumatizing the inmates and delivering severe physical punishment when the need arises. Doesn’t often get sexually involved, but is typically depicted as a mannish lesbian.
5. The older-but-wiser inmate. She’s spent much of her life behind bars. With jaded eyes, she sees the high-pitched dramatics of the other characters as ridiculous, but she has valuable life experience to pass on to the new fish.
6. The delicate flower. Like the new fish, she hasn’t been incarcerated for a very long time, but she is unable to handle the rigors of prison life. Trembling and in constant fear, she is easily pushed over the edge, resulting in her suicide or the killing of someone else (often the head matron).
In Caged, Eleanor Parker is the new fish, Agnes Moorehead is the kindly warden and Hope Emerson plays the head matron. Parker and Moorehead are very good, but it’s the astonishing 6’2″ Emerson who really steals the show whenever she roars onscreen. It’s a good film, too, addressing some then-taboo topics, including corruption in the prison system and some brief but delicately-handled same-sex lusting. Parker is an unwed mother (well, technically a widowed mother), and the word “pregnant” is used and—gasp!—you can actually see that she’s with child! It did well at the boxoffice, even garnering several Academy Award nominations, assuring the genre would continue.
1955 brought Women’s Prison with then-husband-and-wife Howard Duff and Ida Lupino, respectively, as the kindly prison doctor and the sadistic warden who loves to psychologically torture the inmates by wearing feminine clothes and makeup denied to them. A great cast of B-movie vixens, along with Lupino’s unabashed hamminess, make it a lot of fun. 1958′s I Want To Live! is technically not a pure WIP, as it is based on a true case and doesn’t completely take place behind bars, but it is notable for Susan Hayward’s Oscar-winning performance as real-life convicted murderess Barbara Graham, sentenced to death in San Quentin’s gas chamber. Later in the decade, the drive-in craze spurred by the influential teen population moved the action from prisons to reform schools so that younger, more buxom stars like Mamie Van Doren (Girls Town) could take the leading roles. Nowhere near as hard-hitting as the earlier films, these movies often featured rock ‘n’ roll numbers by popular acts of the day and just the right amount of teenage titillation.
By the time the more liberated ’60s rolled around, sex and sadism became the two major plot points in WIP, initiated by prolific Spanish director Jesse Franco’s 1969 99 Women. Pornography was still illegal in the United States at the time, so men anxious to see female flesh both bare and bloody (the “raincoat crowd”) would queue up wherever these films were shown. This particularly nasty offshoot of the genre continued for decades, upping the ante as censorship slackened until they became full-on porno with scenes of cruelty and torture thrown in for good measure. An extreme example of this is the notorious Dyanne Thorne Ilsa series.
In the ’70s, American producer Roger Corman decided to play catch-up, bringing films like The Big Bird Cage and The Big Doll House (both starring Foxy Brown‘s Pam Grier) to American drive-ins. They delivered the requisite nudity and violence, but not as extreme as their European counterparts. They also had a sense of humor. Cage, for example, has an amusing twist—all of the male guards are gay to prevent them from being “interested” in the nubile inmates! Most importantly, Jonathan Demme made his directorial debut with Caged Heat (1974), featuring the incredible Barbara Steele as a sexually frustrated, wheelchair-bound warden and Erika Gavin, from Russ Meyers’ Vixen and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, as an inmate.On stage, John Waters’ muse Divine played the matron in the WIP parody Women Behind Bars, which was frequently revived over the next couple of decades.
The 1970s also brought WIP to the small screen. Ida Lupino returned to play another sadistic warden in 1972′s Women in Chains, also starring Stella Stevens and Lois Nettleton. Most notorious was the 1974 Linda Blair telefilm Born Innocent, in which she plays a runaway teen whose uncaring parents have her locked up. A scene depicting a shower room rape with a broomstick allegedly prompted a similar real-life assault and so outraged the viewing public that the concept of “family hour” was born. The Partridge Family‘s own Susan Dey played the new fish in Cage Without a Key in 1975, during a period in which teen idols took on “adult” dramatic roles in TV movies to demonstrate their range. It’s amusing to see Laurie Partridge facing the rigors of incarceration. And what a performance—in one scene, she’s supposed to be losing control, spinning around to beat her fists against the wall, but you can clearly see she isn’t even touching it.
Blair was locked up again in one of the genre’s highlights, Chained Heat (1983). Once more playing the new fish, she has a rather embarrassing shower scene and veteran villain John Vernon plays the warden who videotapes his sexual exploits—ugh—with the inmates. Stella Stevens is the butch matron, and Sybil Danning is the cellblock boss. It’s wall-to-wall sleaze, and it’s a hoot. It’s the only WIP I saw in an actual theater. Danning was promoted to warden in the 1986 WIP spoof Reform School Girls, but unfortunately it’s never as funny as it thinks it is, despite the presence of The Plasmatics’ Wendy O. Williams and Warhol stalwart Pat Ast. It was probably the last WIPto receive a legitimate theatrical release.On stage, Women Behind Bars was revived with Adrienne Barbeau as the warden.
The ’90s were a dire time for WIP, with nudity-laden, low-budget sequels being churned out for the increasingy uninterested home video marketplace. A sequel-in-name-only, Caged Heat 3000, was made by Corman’s Concorde Pictures in 1995, and it represents the absolute nadir in my opinion. Allegedly set on an asteroid in space, its chintzy sets barely suggest anything other than someone’s basement. The silicone budget was much higher than the production costs, if you know what I mean. With endless shower scenes and sexual interludes, it’s as explicit as a Hustler spread, but it’s not erotic, it’s not funny—it’s just awful. Recently WIP spoofs have come back to the marketplace. Cult star Mary Woronov played the warden in 2003′s Prison A-Go-Go, and most recently, Stuck!, with Karen Black and Mink Stole, has been making the festival rounds. Filmed in black and white, it’s a throwback to the beginning of the genre. So, in a way, the circle is complete.

The Glory Days of Video

It’s hard to believe that home video has been with us for over 30 years. I still remember the magic of going into a store where you could “rent” a whole movie given to you on a tape about the size of an eight-track cartridge! Films I wanted to see (or see again) that never aired on cable, like “Zombie,” were available to take home and enjoy. So what if it was a pan-and-scan print, fuzzy and green? I still got my zombie fix.

In Los Angeles there are still many independent video stores with VHS tapes available; they usually charge 99 cents for a week’s rental, but DVD has pretty much pushed analog tape off the face of the earth. I find it pleasant to go into the stores that still carry tape, stroll the horror aisle and take a trip down memory lane as I gaze at the obscure, strange or cheesy packaging from defunct companies like Genesis, Media, Wizard and Magnum, to name just a few. Sometimes I still rent ‘em; there’s something comforting and homey about the fuzzy prints and worn-out video in this day of crystal-clear DVD.

Since the home video revolution came so quickly after my stint at the drive-in theater, it was like a continuation of the experience for me. Not only could I revisit old favorites like “The Silent Scream” with Barbara Steele and Ralph Bakshi’s “Fritz the Cat,” I could also explore new avenues of entertainment. Each box (usually oversized; it was the independent releasing company’s marketing gimmick), regardless of the quality of the art on the outside, held the promise of something weird and wonderful. There were a lot of disappointments: often the print used for transfer wouldn’t be in the best shape and would sometimes be cut for television. The bloody mayhem promised on the box would either be disappointingly mild or not come at all. Worst of all, the film would be just plain boring. Hate me if you will, but the films of French erotic horror director Jean Rollin are boring, boring, boring.

On the other hand, the pleasant surprises were frequent. For example, “The Devil’s Nightmare,” a bizarre French-Belgian-Swiss-Italian co-production, featured Italian horror hottie Erika Blanc as a vengeful succubus terrorizing visitors at a creepy castle. In one scene, a woman relaxes on a bed after some lesbian action (a requirement in films of this type and vintage). The succubus (who can appear lovely, as seen here) turns into a pasty white, greasy-faced spectre with crazy eyes and supernatural powers. In the yard outside the bedroom, she transforms a stick into a snake (don’t ask) and it crawls through the window to get the lesbian. What makes the scene especially hilarious is the dubbing. The hissing of the snake is just some guy saying “ah-h-h-h-h” into a microphone, and when the woman screams at the sight of the reptile, her voice is about two octaves lower than you’d expect.

And obscure American product like “The Toolbox Murders” (which actually played my drive-in) features Cameron Mitchell at his most over-the-top, kidnapping a young girl (“Charlie Brown” alum Pamelyn Ferdin) and murdering women in his apartment complex with various implements. The film has an overwhelming degree of sleaze that makes for some disturbing viewing. When I met Pamelyn at a collectors’ show a few years back, she had no stills from this film to autograph. I encouraged her to start offering them as there were collectors out there who would really appreciate them. Next time I saw her, there they were! I think she was originally embarrassed by the film, but decided to embrace it in all its greasiness.

For better or for worse, home video was also the only way to experience films off the beaten path or too strong for the drive-in, if you weren’t lucky enough to live near 42nd Street in the 1970s. Italian cannibal films were always a challenge. You knew you were going to see rubber gut munching and staged mayhem, but you also knew the filmmakers were going to throw in scenes of real animal butchery, which were not only hard to watch but were always infuriating.

In 1989 Magnum Video did the world a favor by releasing Dario Argento’s previously unavailable “Suspiria” in multiple versions: R-rated fullscreen and letterboxed and unrated fullscreen and letterbox. I’d only seen 20th Century Fox’s R-rated release at the State-Lake Theatre in Chicago in 1977, so it was a revelation to finally watch it in all of its uncut glory. The film-to-video transfer for the time was truly extraordinary, with the wonderful, saturated three-strip color and that troublesome Technoscope. Great packaging art, too!

In the late 1980s I discovered a wonderful video company, still in operation, called Sinister Cinema. The company had a wide variety of economically-priced videos and it was with its help that my one-sided romance with Barbara Steele began. Quickly I snapped up “Black Sunday,” “The Horror of Dr. Hichcockand “The Ghost.” Sinister even had a series of Drive-In Double Features. For one low price, you got two films (often those that were originally booked together) with a generous selection of drive-in commercials between them. I’ve been buying from Sinister for 20 years now! It’s a great resource for some really obscure product.

Well, the digital revolution has taken over. Soon physical recorded media of any kind will be extinct as on-demand libraries become more readily available on cable and satellite. I sold my Beta on eBay last year after transferring the tapes to DVD. I still have a laserdisc player and some discs, but it’s stored in the garage. And the VHS recorder I keep around for those times I’m strolling through one of those stores with the “big box” obscurities and get in the mood to watch a scratched, beat-up print of one of my favorites.

Fulci's "Zombie": An Appreciation

About a year after Romero’s shattering “Dawn of the Dead” (1978) blew my mind, another kind of zombie film arrived at the good ol‘ Niles 31 Drive-In. Despite a cast led by Richard Johnson (“The Haunting”) and Mia Farrow’s kinda sorta lookalike sister Tisa (“Anthropophagus“), I could still tell it was Italian in origin and reminded me more of Jorge Grau’s “Don’t Open the Window” (aka “The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue”) than its American counterparts. It also delivered the gore galore, featured an underwater zombie attacking a shark, and put a previously unrecognized director (in America) on the road to splatter stardom.

The Italians were always quick to cash in on popular American sci-fi/horror films, especially in the 1970s and 1980s. “Alien” became “Alien Contamination”; “The Exorcist” inspired “Beyond the Door,” “Eerie Midnight Horror Show” (gee, what’s that supposed to remind you of?), and my favorite, “The Tempter” aka “The Antichrist.” “Zombie” is actually known as “Zombi II” in Italy, because “Dawn of the Dead” was called “Zombi” and was specially recut for Italian audiences by Dario Argento.

Lucio Fulci was a workaday director who helmed films in all kinds of genres from the 50s to the 70s: spy movies, spaghetti westerns, giallos. He even made a comedy called “The Maniacs” with Barbara Steele! Some of his early pics have violent scenes (like a cruel sequence with a character falling off a cliff, featuring a close-up of his face being torn away by rocks again and again and again, repeated in two of his films) that would become more prevalent in his post-”Zombie” work.

Some of his notable earlier work: “Don’t Torture the Duckling” (1972) tells the story of a small village torn apart by a rash of child murders (I think it’s actually his best, most virulently anti-religion and—most personal,—film) ; “Lizard in a Woman’s Skin” (1971) is a giallo made to cash in Argento’s”Bird with the Crystal Plumage” (1969) whose most notable aspect is a graphic scene of vivisected dogs that was deemed so realistic that Fulci and his special effects director, Carlo Rambaldi (“E.T.”), had to go to court to prove that they were fake. Then he was hired to do a cannibal zombie film to cash in on the success of “Dawn of the Dead,” and the rest is history.

“Zombie” hit me like a ton of bricks. Sure, “Dawn” was graphic and extreme, but the zombies were obviously reg’lar people with purple makeup and there was something pink and artificial about the entrails on display. “Zombie,” on the other hand, projected a disturbing sense of disease and decay that even hilarious dubbing can’t completely eliminate. One character pronounces the word Conquistadore as “Con-quee-sta-dor-ay” numerous times, but when one of them rises up out of the ground with worms dangling from his eye socket and rips out a girl’s throat, the laughs kind of stop.

Man—these zombies are decayed! Shuffling, taking their time, they seem to be oozing an infectious putrescence. And, boy, does Fulci (and his SE guy, Gianetto DeRossi, who he would keep for the rest of his career) emphasize the rot! The first zombie, found by unlucky patrolmen on a boat in the harbor of New York, bursts out of a hold filled with decayed food, decayed bodies and worms playing “Chopsticks” on the piano (yes, there’s piano on the boat; it’s not the QEII either, just a regular four-person yacht). As the obese zom goes for a patrolman’s throat, he defensively rips at its face, only to pull away a handful of wormy goo.

Anne Bowles (Tisa Farrow) arrives on the scene, as the boat had belonged to her father, who’d been missing at sea for months. Reporter Peter West (Ian Mcullough) pops up and together they hit the briny to retrace her father’s route. It leads to an island called Matul. Yes, pronounced like “My tool.” I showed the Media Blasters unedited DVD to friends last Halloween, encouraging them to “MST3K” the film and work the name of the island into their comments as frequently and as obscenely as possible. Elise won.

Anyhow, Matul, which is larger than expected (HA!) is infected by a plague. All the recently dead have been popping up and running (well, shuffling) around town. The locals think it’s voodoo, but the veddy English Dr. Menard, who’s been using the island as his own personal concentration camp, complete with freaky experiments, knows better.

Now, the aforementioned Richard Johnson, who was the priest in “Beyond the Door” (link!), plays Dr. Menard in all of his sweat-popping glory. He knows the only way to stop the living dead is to shoot them in the head, which brings me to my only complaint about the gore effects. In his disgustingly filthy hospital (nicely realized), when the sheeted dead begin to rise, he plugs them in the head. Unfortunately, it looks like intestines come bouncing out of the bullet wounds.

Anne and Peter, meanwhile, hitch a ride with two nautical free spirits, Brian and Susan, on their yacht to the island. You can tell they’re free spirits because Susan whips off her top and goes skin diving while Brian eats beef jerky and pays no attention. Peter leers and you can tell he is thinking about “Matul,” or his tool. Anne has decided that Peter is now her boyfriend (why?) and looks on angrily. Everything takes a turn for the worse when Susan comes up out of the water and shiveringly declares that there’s “a man down there.” Now that’s pretty cool. This leads to an underwater attack by the living dead and Sushi with a shark!

I gotta say, even with the hilarious dubbing, Susan still manages to engender sympathy. When the aforementioned “con-sta-dor-ay” rises up and rips out her throat, you feel bad. Plus the actress portraying her (Auretta Gay) does a really good job of doing the “so scared you can’t move” expression. Sweating, sloe-eyed, she can only watch with a chilled passiveness as the huge creature rises up out of the ground and rips out her throat. Later, when she’s reanimated as a zom, she looks more sad than hungry as she lunges at Brian and tears into his esophagus. Of course, she must be killed again, and you feel really desolate.

Fabio Frizzi’s score (which grows in stature each year IMO) perfectly plays up the emotion. The “thump thump thump” march that Frizzi devised perfectly encapsulates the inexorable finality of what’s happening on the island. It’s great. By the way, for those familiar with the score, Frizzi did the “thump thump thump” sound by tapping on a microphone with his finger. So much for high tech.

Menard’s wife, Paola, played by the extremely exotic Olga Karlatos (who can be seen in such wildly varied films as “Once Upon a Time in America” and “Purple Rain”) has the best line. I encourage you to recreate it. Say the following as if you’ve got laryngitis but are being punched in the stomach every other word:

“You WON’T be HAPPY until I MEET one of your ZOMBIES!”

Congratulations. You read it just right. She ends up with one of her eyes (what color are they anyhow?!?) impaled on a shard of wood in the most famous scene of the film, and later her abdomen is laid open for a zombie buffet. When Anne, Peter and grief-stricken Brian arrive at Menard’s house, they find a group of room-temperature types chowing down on Paola. The camera pans from face to disgusted face. Hilariously, they all look like they’re going to barf. But they don’t move. I mean, its sickening, but wouldn’t the sight of the reanimated dead instill the “fight or flight” instinct in you, rather than a leisurely “I ate at Arby’s” reaction?

Of course, they all end up trapped in the nasty hospital to fight off the onslaught of active corpses. And, of course, the circular ending: Anne, Peter and Brian manage to escape back to New York, which is now overrun with the living dead: zombies are walking across the Brooklyn Bridge (doesn’t that happen everyday?).

Oh, yeah. I moved to Los Angeles from South Bend, Indiana, about six months later, with all my possessions in a Chevrolet Chevette with no floorboard, and was welcomed by the sight of hundreds of “We Are Going To Eat You!” posters all over Wilshire Boulevard featuring ol’ Wormy. I knew I was where I belonged. God bless you, Jerry Gross.

I need to do another Fulci post to finish the story. This one’s plenty long. I had a lot of fun writing it. I hope you had fun reading it.

Fulci’s "Zombie": An Appreciation

About a year after Romero’s shattering “Dawn of the Dead” (1978) blew my mind, another kind of zombie film arrived at the good ol‘ Niles 31 Drive-In. Despite a cast led by Richard Johnson (“The Haunting”) and Mia Farrow’s kinda sorta lookalike sister Tisa (“Anthropophagus“), I could still tell it was Italian in origin and reminded me more of Jorge Grau’s “Don’t Open the Window” (aka “The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue”) than its American counterparts. It also delivered the gore galore, featured an underwater zombie attacking a shark, and put a previously unrecognized director (in America) on the road to splatter stardom.

The Italians were always quick to cash in on popular American sci-fi/horror films, especially in the 1970s and 1980s. “Alien” became “Alien Contamination”; “The Exorcist” inspired “Beyond the Door,” “Eerie Midnight Horror Show” (gee, what’s that supposed to remind you of?), and my favorite, “The Tempter” aka “The Antichrist.” “Zombie” is actually known as “Zombi II” in Italy, because “Dawn of the Dead” was called “Zombi” and was specially recut for Italian audiences by Dario Argento.

Lucio Fulci was a workaday director who helmed films in all kinds of genres from the 50s to the 70s: spy movies, spaghetti westerns, giallos. He even made a comedy called “The Maniacs” with Barbara Steele! Some of his early pics have violent scenes (like a cruel sequence with a character falling off a cliff, featuring a close-up of his face being torn away by rocks again and again and again, repeated in two of his films) that would become more prevalent in his post-”Zombie” work.

Some of his notable earlier work: “Don’t Torture the Duckling” (1972) tells the story of a small village torn apart by a rash of child murders (I think it’s actually his best, most virulently anti-religion and—most personal,—film) ; “Lizard in a Woman’s Skin” (1971) is a giallo made to cash in Argento’s”Bird with the Crystal Plumage” (1969) whose most notable aspect is a graphic scene of vivisected dogs that was deemed so realistic that Fulci and his special effects director, Carlo Rambaldi (“E.T.”), had to go to court to prove that they were fake. Then he was hired to do a cannibal zombie film to cash in on the success of “Dawn of the Dead,” and the rest is history.

“Zombie” hit me like a ton of bricks. Sure, “Dawn” was graphic and extreme, but the zombies were obviously reg’lar people with purple makeup and there was something pink and artificial about the entrails on display. “Zombie,” on the other hand, projected a disturbing sense of disease and decay that even hilarious dubbing can’t completely eliminate. One character pronounces the word Conquistadore as “Con-quee-sta-dor-ay” numerous times, but when one of them rises up out of the ground with worms dangling from his eye socket and rips out a girl’s throat, the laughs kind of stop.

Man—these zombies are decayed! Shuffling, taking their time, they seem to be oozing an infectious putrescence. And, boy, does Fulci (and his SE guy, Gianetto DeRossi, who he would keep for the rest of his career) emphasize the rot! The first zombie, found by unlucky patrolmen on a boat in the harbor of New York, bursts out of a hold filled with decayed food, decayed bodies and worms playing “Chopsticks” on the piano (yes, there’s piano on the boat; it’s not the QEII either, just a regular four-person yacht). As the obese zom goes for a patrolman’s throat, he defensively rips at its face, only to pull away a handful of wormy goo.

Anne Bowles (Tisa Farrow) arrives on the scene, as the boat had belonged to her father, who’d been missing at sea for months. Reporter Peter West (Ian Mcullough) pops up and together they hit the briny to retrace her father’s route. It leads to an island called Matul. Yes, pronounced like “My tool.” I showed the Media Blasters unedited DVD to friends last Halloween, encouraging them to “MST3K” the film and work the name of the island into their comments as frequently and as obscenely as possible. Elise won.

Anyhow, Matul, which is larger than expected (HA!) is infected by a plague. All the recently dead have been popping up and running (well, shuffling) around town. The locals think it’s voodoo, but the veddy English Dr. Menard, who’s been using the island as his own personal concentration camp, complete with freaky experiments, knows better.

Now, the aforementioned Richard Johnson, who was the priest in “Beyond the Door” (link!), plays Dr. Menard in all of his sweat-popping glory. He knows the only way to stop the living dead is to shoot them in the head, which brings me to my only complaint about the gore effects. In his disgustingly filthy hospital (nicely realized), when the sheeted dead begin to rise, he plugs them in the head. Unfortunately, it looks like intestines come bouncing out of the bullet wounds.

Anne and Peter, meanwhile, hitch a ride with two nautical free spirits, Brian and Susan, on their yacht to the island. You can tell they’re free spirits because Susan whips off her top and goes skin diving while Brian eats beef jerky and pays no attention. Peter leers and you can tell he is thinking about “Matul,” or his tool. Anne has decided that Peter is now her boyfriend (why?) and looks on angrily. Everything takes a turn for the worse when Susan comes up out of the water and shiveringly declares that there’s “a man down there.” Now that’s pretty cool. This leads to an underwater attack by the living dead and Sushi with a shark!

I gotta say, even with the hilarious dubbing, Susan still manages to engender sympathy. When the aforementioned “con-quee-sta-dor-ay” rises up and rips out her throat, you feel bad. Plus the actress portraying her (Auretta Gay) does a really good job of doing the “so scared you can’t move” expression. Sweating, sloe-eyed, she can only watch with a chilled passiveness as the huge creature rises up out of the ground and rips out her throat. Later, when she’s reanimated as a zom, she looks more sad than hungry as she lunges at Brian and tears into his esophagus. Of course, she must be killed again, and you feel really desolate.

Fabio Frizzi’s score (which grows in stature each year IMO) perfectly plays up the emotion. The “thump thump thump” march that Frizzi devised perfectly encapsulates the inexorable finality of what’s happening on the island. It’s great. By the way, for those familiar with the score, Frizzi did the “thump thump thump” sound by tapping on a microphone with his finger. So much for high tech.

Menard’s wife, Paola, played by the extremely exotic Olga Karlatos (who can be seen in such wildly varied films as “Once Upon a Time in America” and “Purple Rain”) has the best line. I encourage you to recreate it. Say the following as if you’ve got laryngitis but are being punched in the stomach every other word:

“You WON’T be HAPPY until I MEET one of your ZOMBIES!”

Congratulations. You read it just right. She ends up with one of her eyes (what color are they anyhow?!?) impaled on a shard of wood in the most famous scene of the film, and later her abdomen is laid open for a zombie buffet. When Anne, Peter and grief-stricken Brian arrive at Menard’s house, they find a group of room-temperature types chowing down on Paola. The camera pans from face to disgusted face. Hilariously, they all look like they’re going to barf. But they don’t move. I mean, its sickening, but wouldn’t the sight of the reanimated dead instill the “fight or flight” instinct in you, rather than a leisurely “I ate at Arby’s” reaction?

Of course, they all end up trapped in the nasty hospital to fight off the onslaught of active corpses. And, of course, the circular ending: Anne, Peter and Brian manage to escape back to New York, which is now overrun with the living dead: zombies are walking across the Brooklyn Bridge (doesn’t that happen everyday?).

Oh, yeah. I moved to Los Angeles from South Bend, Indiana, about six months later, with all my possessions in a Chevrolet Chevette with no floorboard, and was welcomed by the sight of hundreds of “We Are Going To Eat You!” posters all over Wilshire Boulevard featuring ol’ Wormy. I knew I was where I belonged. God bless you, Jerry Gross.

I need to do another Fulci post to finish the story. This one’s plenty long. I had a lot of fun writing it. I hope you had fun reading it.

Guy Maddin and Barbara Steele

About a year and a half ago I saw Guy Maddin’s incredible film “Brand Upon the Brain” at the American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. As I’m sure you know by now, it’s a silent film with recorded music and narration (by the wonderful Isabella Rossellini) in some cities. However, I was fortunate to see it with the music, effects and narration performed live.

When the film toured the United States, guest celebrities performed the narration in different cities. In New York, for example, Eli Wallach and his wife Anne Jackson did it, which would have been a thrill, but…

In Los Angeles I had the opportunity to see it with the incredible Barbara Steele narrating. Yes, the “Black Sunday,” “Terror Creatures from the Grave” and “I Lunghi Capelli Della Morte” Barbara Steele–in person! I was beside myself, having never been able to attend the East Coast conventions, like Chiller Theatre, that she has been known to appear at–but rarely.

Not only was the film a moving, funny and on-target pastiche of silent movie techniques, German surrealism and just plain Winnepegean strangeness, it was given an extra dimension by the small but surprisingly full orchestra and effects team. And Ms. Steele looked glorious, delivering the narration for this very strange movie with determination in her sultry, Steele-esque tones. And she didn’t fluff a line.

About the film, for the uninitiated. Maddin is certainly an acquired taste, but once you’ve familiarized yourself with his style, there’s no turning back. He loves silent, stark, black and white surrealism, but he’s like Bergman on Red Bull. He’ll lull you into a “Cabinet of Dr. Caligarisemiconsciousness and then he’ll do something that really f**ks with your head. Can I say f**k? This is my first blog.

And he utilizes such great, unusual, adventurous actresses as his leads. Shelley Duvall, from “The Shining,” Faerie Tale Theatre” and “Nashville”; the gorgeous Alice Krige from “Ghost Story” and the Mickey Rourke/Faye Dunaway sleaze masterpiece “Barfly”; Rossellini, who is also in “The Saddest Music in the World” as well as their co-produced “My Father is 100 Years Old” (about Roberto, of course, in which she plays Alfred Hitchcock, her mother, Ingrid Bergman, and her father). She is currently his de facto muse (I hope), and well deserved. But I digress…

Anyhow, the film ended and Ms. Steele walked down the aisle and to the ad-hoc backstage area right in front of me. Two people in front of me jumped up and ran after her. Of course, I said “Hell, I’m going with them!”

She was behind the stage, looking incredible with the klieg lights dancing in her hair. She was signing autographs for the people who ran after her. I walked up to her and asked, “May I have one, too?” (Yes, like Oliver). She signed my program, handed the pen back to me, and smiled that strange, upside-down, serpentine smile, and suddenly decades melted away. Was this the good twin or the evil twin? Who cares? I was within touching space of the real Barbara Steele, and it was great! I said nothing else to her because it would have been ridiculous fanboy blather…I think.

And I was taken back to that warm summer night sitting in the back of our station wagon at the Niles 31 Drive-In Theater, watching “Terror Creatures from the Grave” and thinking, “That guy’s guts just came out of his stomach! Now that’s entertainment!”