Saturday, October 19, 2019

THE TOUGH ONES - BLU-RAY REVIEW

One year previous, Maurizio Merli had starred in “Franco Martinelli”/Marino Girolami’s highly-profitable Italocrime meller VIOLENT ROME (1975), but despite his immediate popularity with audiences in such films, his initial casting was solely based on his similar-looking appearance to Franco Nero from Enzo G. Castellari’s (Marino Girolami’s son Enzo) HIGH CRIME (1973), one of the trailblazers of the entire Italocrime genre. In their review of the present film from April 1976, Variety reported: “The market in Italy is being partially glutted with crimeland action pix where either a tough but honest police commissioner takes justice into his own hands or the private citizen does.” While Umberto Lenzi had already explored gritty urban settings with a quartet of modern-day, film-noir-inspired films—GANG WAR IN MILAN (1973), ALMOST HUMAN ([1974] featuring a truly scene-stealing role for its star, Tomas Milian), MANHUNT IN THE CITY (1975) and SYNDICATE SADISTS (1975)—it was the director’s THE TOUGH ONES (released in Italy under the memorably defiant title ROMA A MANO ARMATA / trans: “Rome Armed to the Teeth” [1976]) that really solidified his reputation as a master of the genre. Following their initial press announcement from what seems like a decade ago, Grindhouse Releasing at long last released this Italocrime classic earlier this year in a staggering 3-disc Deluxe Edition, which was obviously well worth the wait. 

In the wake of his career-defining role as Inspector Betti in Girolami’s aforementioned VIOLENT ROME, Merli this time stars as Inspector Leonardo “Leo” Tanzi, a virtually interchangeable hot-headed, no-nonsense cop, who is once again frustrated by the current sorry state of affairs within the criminal justice system (“If we stick to the book, we’ve had it!”). Tanzi, who is part of the Anti-Gang Squad, is obsessed with capturing Ferender, an exceptionally elusive French criminal mastermind, who controls most of the Eternal City’s underworld, and with the help of Sgt. Pogliana (Aldo Barberito) and his trusted, far-more-composed partner, Caputo (Giampiero Albertini), they attempt to arrest—in the process even going so far as to break the law themselves!—some heavyweight associates of his, including Savelli (Biagio Pelligra), who’s been involved in a number of violent bank robberies, and Vincenzo “The Hunchback” Moretto (Tomas Milian), a belligerent, smart-assed gangster (unforgettably dubbed in the English version by veteran voice-actor, Frank von Kuegelgen), who, after numerous highly-colourful interrogations, vows revenge (“He’s gonna crap in his long-johns before I kill him!”) as he precipitously rises among the criminal ranks. 

As with most of Lenzi’s successive Italocrimers, the crux of the film is offset with a number of intermittent, almost cursory set-pieces involving a tight-knit group of bank robbers; an illegal gambling-den; purse-snatching teenagers; a rather disturbing gang-rape (“Hey boys, how ‘bout a big wooden dildo?!”); and a protracted scene involving Tony Parenzo (Ivan Rassimov), a heartless drug pusher who injects his girlfriend (Gabriella Lepori) with a lethal overdose of heroin; all of which illustrate the far-reaching span of the underworld’s Octopus-like tentacles. Swiftly-paced and culminating with an extensive, elaborately-choreographed car chase involving a stolen ambulance, Lenzi’s film rarely lets up, and whenever it does, Tanzi is seen (and heard!) angrily voicing his opposition to the impossible odds he is facing (“They make us sweat to bring ’em in, but before the ink’s dry, some idiot says they can go!”), anger which is mostly directed at his CO, Police Commissioner Ruini (Arthur Kennedy), who merely reaffirms that “The Law is the Law!” 

While Merli is his usual laconic best in a typecast role he continued to play virtually verbatim for the better part of his career, it’s Tomas Milian as the hunchbacked Moretto – known as il Gobbo on Italian prints – who steals every scene in which he appears. Beyond his frequent appearances as Nico Giraldi in a number of latter-day – and increasingly comedic – polizieschi, the ‘hunchback’ is one of Milian’s most eccentric, over-the-top characters to ever grace an Italocrime film. So much so that Lenzi and Milian both returned for BROTHERS TILL WE DIE (1977), an unrelated follow-up, which featured a dual role for the actor where he also played Monnezza (trans: “Trash”), yet another recurring (and incredibly popular) character. First seen gutting a large steer at a slaughterhouse, Moretto’s smart-ass rhetoric is quickly silenced when he’s unfairly kicked in the balls courtesy of the impatient Tanzi (“It ain’t enough I’m a hunchback, you ruin my eggs as well!”), who, adding insult to injury, plants some smack in his shiny lime-green Porsche. It’s here, back at police headquarters, that Moretto’s true psychosis manifests itself (“Miserable sons-of-bitches! I piss on you! I piss on you! Pigs! Pigs! Pigs!!!You sons-of-whores!”) as he angrily slashes his own wrist to avoid further interrogation. Looking for payback, Moretto has a couple of his ‘men’ (stuntman extraordinaire Riccardo Petrazzi and veteran character actor Luciano Pigozzi) abduct and scare the hell out of his girlfriend Anna (Maria Rosaria Omaggio), a government social worker who is the film’s sole politically left-leaning character and who becomes the constant victim of Tanzi’s sociopathic scorn.  

Perhaps even surpassing the established sounds of Guido and Maurizio De Angelis’ energetic scores for both HIGH CRIME and VIOLENT ROME, Franco Micalizzi’s tremendous score here is surely one of the film’s many highlights: a dynamic, brass-infused work of dazzling intensity, which not only underscores the fast-paced, turbulent mean streets of Rome, but became – as did most of Micalizzi’s subsequent polizieschi scores – synonymous with Italocrime in general. 

Those even slightly entertained by the genre will have a hard time containing their excitement with Grindhouse Releasing’s exhaustive Blu-ray set, which is as much a celebration of Umberto Lenzi’s four-decades-long career as it is of the present film. Spread out over two Blu-rays, disc one includes a stunning 4K scan of the film itself, an incredible bit of restoration that is sure to leave you gobsmacked after suffering through International Video Entertainment (IVE)’s long out-of-print Betamax/VHS videocassette (released under the auspices of Sybil Danning’s popular ‘Adventure Video’ series), which was edited, grainy and heavily-cropped. Retaining its original – and absolutely integral – 2-perf scope compositions, Grindhouse’s flawless transfer is well-defined and surprisingly vibrant. Of course, as with the immaculate visuals, the DTS-HD mono audio also sounds right-on-target in both the English and Italian versions, and while it’s no surprise that the Italian version is a more accurate representation of the vernacular (which once again features Tomas Milian’s Italian voice actor of choice, Ferruccio Amendola), the English version is, as demonstrated by the quotations above, likewise undeniably entertaining. 

The comprehensive extras begin with a feature-length audio commentary from Mike Malloy, director of the essential doc, EUROCRIME! THE ITALIAN COP AND GANGSTER FILM THAT RULED THE ’70s, who commends the (quote) “Eurocrime triumvirate” of Lenzi, Merli and Micalizzi, and for the uninitiated, he gives a brief overview of the genre’s history; how Merli (quote) “pounded his fist on a lot of desks” during his career; and just how many of these films were directly or indirectly interconnected through their various characters, follow-ups and sequels, which he believes could even use a handy (quote) “flow-chart”. After listening to his enthusiastic, well-informed commentary, you’ll want to check-out or even revisit a number of the genre’s key titles. The other significant extra on disc one is Calum Waddell’s All Eyes on Lenzi – The Life and Times of the Italian Exploitation Titan (84m04s), which covers the late director’s career from the late-’Sixties onwards via archival interviews with Lenzi himself, as well as a number of new interviews with contemporary film critics and historians (who pay special attention to many of his giallo and horror titles), but the doc also includes some choice bits about this (quote) “cinematic chameleon’s” Italocrime career too. In Murder for Mayhem (33m12s), an on-camera interview recorded on July 26th, 2010, Lenzi and Micalizzi reminiscence about their extensive collaborations, which is, as expected, a wonderful listen. In the archival Full-Frontal City: The Urban Geography of Rome Armed to the Teeth (22m01s), many of the film’s locations are revisited for the purposes of ‘then-and-now’ comparison. An extensive collection of trailers for all of Grindhouse Releasing’s current and upcoming product finishes-off disc one’s extras.

Packed-to-the-hilt with even more substantial extras, disc two begins with Freak-O-Rama’s Umberto (55m31s), yet another overview of Lenzi’s wide-ranging career, which compliments the doc from disc one rather nicely, as it focuses a lot on Lenzi’s early beginnings. In the exhaustive Tomas Milian: The Rebel Within (88m50s), Milian discusses his entire career, including his early, complicated life in Cuba before immigrating to the U.S., getting his start at the famed The Actor’s Studio, and eventually making his way to Italy, where he remained for the better part of his career before returning back to the U.S. and (quote) “starting all over again”. Inspirational and funny, yet at times quite melancholic, this is an utterly fascinating, must-see interview. In the archival doc The Merli Connection (44m39s), his son and a number of actors and directors who knew and worked with him talk about Maurizio Merli’s career and huge influence on the genre; in the short Back Story (5m54s), Milian once again discusses his outrageous Gobbo / Hunchback character. For the remaining interviews, Federico Caddeo and his production company Freak-O-Rama Productions truly outdo themselves with a number of terrific interview segments, including: Beauty and the Beasts (29m31s), in which Maria Rosaria Omaggio talks about both her start in the business and Lenzi’s (quote) “sweet Tuscan toughness”; in the lengthy Corrado Armed to the Teeth (45m17s), character actor Corrado Solari talks about his impromptu audition for Lenzi’s aforementioned MANHUNT IN THE CITY, as well as his excellent working relationship with Milian and how Lenzi was (quote) “distrustful, cautious and careful”; the once-popular Maria Rosaria Riuzzi turns up in Brutal City (14m12s) to discuss her career, with a particular emphasis on Dino Risi’s PROFUMO DI DONNA (1974); in The Rebel and the Bourgeois (19m05s), costume designer and sometime actor Sandra Cardini talks about her time working on the film; and then prolific screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti gets his turn in front of the camera in Vodka, Cigarettes and Burroughs (39m31s), and also discusses his collaboration with Lenzi; plus, in The Godfather of Rhythm (36m14s), famed composer Franco Micalizzi also goes into details about his lengthy career. Of course, the disc also comes with a few Easter Eggs, which are well searching out.

In addition to packaging this impressive BD set in an eye-catching slipcover, Grindhouse have also seen fit to include a wonderful 12-page booklet (whose cover reproduces the film’s U.S. one-sheet poster, retitled BRUTAL JUSTICE [which screams, “Inspector Tanzi makes Dirty Harry look like Mr. Clean!”]), containing a superb, nicely-illustrated, in-depth essay from genre expert Roberto Curti. As an added bonus, the package also includes the film’s entire soundtrack CD, and for those still lucky enough to locate a copy, the first 2500 copies even come with a collectible ‘bullet-pen’! An absolutely incredible release, Grindhouse Releasing’s extraordinarily thorough Blu-ray is not only a perfect introduction to the addictive pleasures of the Italocrime genre, but is, hands-down, absolutely one of the finest releases of the year. Order it from DiabolikDVD 

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

THE HILLS HAVE EYES PART II - BLU-RAY REVIEW

Definitely a good deal more engaging than its usually-slandered and vilified reputation would lead you to believe, Wes Craven’s THE HILLS HAVE EYES PART II (1984) is far from Craven’s best, but, if taken as an undemanding ’80s slash-’em-up, it works just fine. Thanks to Arrow Video, this oft-derided sequel has finally been given some much-needed appreciation care of their new Limited Edition Blu-ray.

Attesting to this film’s hastily-structured status, it opens with Bobby (Robert Houston) – one of the few survivors from Craven’s THE HILLS HAVE EYES (1977) – discussing his ordeal from eight years previous with his psychiatrist (David Nichols), which sets-up a rather-too-convenient flashback to the rousing finale from THHE. As the charge-by-the-minute shrink glances at his watch impatiently, he offers Bobby a vote of confidence by suggesting, “Go thumb your nose at the desert. The boogeyman is dead!” Attempting to do just that, Bobby plans to test his newly-developed ‘Super Formula’ fuel for his motocross team in an upcoming race. However, unlucky for him, this event takes place at a remote desert location. Suffering a complete breakdown at the thought of venturing out into these desolate wilds yet again, he is unable to heed his psychiatrist’s advice to confront and conquer his fears, so Bobby’s girlfriend Rachel (Janus Blythe) reluctantly volunteers to escort his team to compete in this all-important competition. 

Comprising many of the ‘usual suspects’ to be found in any number of slasher films – including Cassandra (Tamara Stafford), a blind girl with possible psychic abilities – the teammates excitedly pack their makeshift school bus and head off to the race-site. Naturally, while en route to their final destination, Harry (Peter Frechette), the group’s mandatory smartass prankster, ‘entertains’ everyone with urban legends of the first film’s dreaded cannibal clan and, as Rachel dozes-off, the sequel’s second lengthy flashback occurs. Recycling additional pre-existing footage from Craven’s original THHE, it comes as no surprise to us at all that the so-called “Rachel” is in actual fact Ruby, who, all those years before, had turned against her own (quote) “wild family of cannibals” to help the previous protagonist Bobby and his remaining family members escape; even Beast, the heroic German shepherd from the original film is, once again, also along for the ride. Sure enough, through a succession of highly-contrived yet somewhat forgivable sets of circumstances, our new group of characters wind up taking a shortcut across the open desert, thereafter coming to the grim realization that some of Ruby’s cannibalistic clan may still be alive… and are hungry for more tender city-slicker flesh! 

Unlike Craven’s grim-’n’-gritty originator, this cut-rate sequel is quite the departure in both tone and style. Whether this stylistic change was entirely intentional or simply a fortuitous evolutionary development, this time around Craven’s approach to the timeworn material is much more playful and, quite frankly, this different approach is actually quite refreshing (it was made seven years later, after all, so perhaps the director just felt like a change of pace?). Hurriedly-developed following his entertaining-if-poorly-received DC Comics adaptation SWAMP THING (1982), and originating as it does from the tail-end of the ’80s slasher boom, THHE 2 is so cliché-ridden that it might easily be read as Craven’s sly attempt to poke good-natured fun at this once exceedingly overcrowded horror subgenre. Despite the script’s trivialities, it’s great to have Michael Berryman return as Pluto, who, in keeping with his familial devotion and psychotic tenacity, provides the strongest connection to the original THHE, and he easily overshadows the towering John Bloom (BRAIN OF BLOOD [1971], THE DARK [1979], HARRY AND THE HENDERSONS [1987], etc.) as “The Reaper”, the present film’s new clan-leader, who it turns out is none other than the late Pluto’s long-lost uncle (!?), a revelation which makes for one of THHE 2’s numerous enjoyably silly developments.  

While it’s fairly certain that, even in this optimal new presentation, THE HILLS HAVE EYES PART II won’t convert too many of its legion of vehement detractors, the team at Arrow Video nevertheless give it their best shot with this Limited Edition Blu-ray, which not only looks terrific but also includes a number of highly-substantial extras to help put everything about this financially-troubled production into their proper context. THHE 2 has been kept regularly available ever since its initial Thorn/EMI domestic Betamax/VHS videocassette release in 1986, and for their BD edition, Arrow utilized a (quote) “brand new 2K restoration from original film elements”, and even though this transfer still features some minor dirt and light scratches inherent in the original elements (which is especially evident during the opening credits), quality-wise this new edition appears sharply-detailed with excellent, true-to-life colours; and for once, the claustrophobic climactic scenes in the abandoned mine reveal more pictorial details than ever before. The (quote) “original uncompressed mono audio” also sounds fine, and it gives further prominence to Harry Manfredini’s all-too familiar FRIDAY THE 13TH-styled score. 

Commencing with a feature-length audio commentary from those knowledgeable folks at The Hysteria Continues, our (quote) “slasher-loving movie” podcasters leave no stone unturned in their discussion of this (quote) “controversial” film, including its (quote) “perceived use of excessive flashbacks”; THHE 2’s exceedingly limited U.S. theatrical run; the superb desert locations, which they feel are (quote) “ripe” for a comeback; a broad selection of the cast and crew members; how The Hysteria Continues all appreciate slashers that don’t stray too far from the (quote) “tried-and-tested rules”; as well as, of course, how the film can—and indeed should be—regarded as (quote) “more of a black comedy”. Complementing the easygoing-yet-admirable commentary, the most-significant extra herein is Red Shirt Pictures’ superb making-of doc, Blood, Sand and Fire: The Making of The Hills Have EyesPart 2 (31m16s), which includes interviews with producer Peter Locke (or, as he jokily refers to himself as, the (quote) “reluctant financier”); star Michael Berryman; unit production manager/first assistant director John Callas; production designer Dominick Bruno; the score’s composer Manfredini; and star Janus Blythe, all of whom, first and foremost, discuss the film’s really low budget (“Two nickels and a quarter!”) and the various issues this caused. They also praise the wonderful Joshua tree locations, what an asset they were to the production, also mentioning how many of the young cast members had to (quote) “learn their trade on his [i.e., Craven’s] dime”. A quite extensive stills gallery (6m52s) and THHE 2’s theatrical trailer finish off the extras.

Beautifully packaged in one of Arrow Video’s sturdy slipcases, this Limited Edition set includes a two-sided fold-out poster, 6 collectible postcards, reversible cover art and a wonderful 40-page booklet featuring an essay by the talented Amanda Reyes on the merits of this neglected film and a vintage on-set report from Johnny Legend taken from an early issue of Fangoria magazine. All this adds up to another marvellous release from Arrow Video and proves—as the original theatrical trailer boldly proclaimed—that Wes Craven’s minor career-blip does in fact still have eyes. Order it from DiabolikDVD, or for you Canadian readers, Suspect Video

Thursday, September 12, 2019

DEATH WEEKEND - BLU-RAY REVIEW

Produced by future Hollywood royalty Ivan Reitman and purportedly based on a real-life incident, William Fruet’s DEATH WEEKEND (1976) is just one of the many Canadian productions to take advantage of the government’s generous ‘tax shelter’ incentives during the ’70s and ’80s, which not only saw an increased level of film production in Canada, but also opened the door for a number of ‘up-’n’-coming’ new filmmakers as well, of whom David Cronenberg is undoubtedly the most notable. In spite of its stellar reputation among fans of Canadian genre cinema (affectionately known to some as “Canuxploitation”!), DEATH WEEKEND has proved difficult to see during the digital age—until earlier this year, that is, and for those dedicated enough to venture across the pond (either figuratively or literally!) to grab a copy, Germany’s NSM Records have premiered a very nice, uncut edition of the film on Blu-ray. 

Harry (Chuck Shamata), an affluent-but-conceited dentist, has, under false pretenses, invited Diane (Brenda Vaccaro), a self-assured fashion model, for a weekend getaway with friends at his expansive ‘cottage’, situated out in the bush just north of Toronto. After Harry espouses the merits of his convertible Corvette (“When I cut into the supercharger, I can get it up to 140!”), Diane also reveals her love of cars thanks to a former boyfriend who was a (quote) “Formula Driver”. Although apprehensive at first, Harry half-heartedly agrees to let her drive (“This car is fantastic! Can I open her up?!”), but she quickly proves her mettle when they are accosted by a group of men in a souped-up Camaro; like Harry, they’re also put-off by the thought of a woman out-driving them. “I’m gonna ram that supercharger up her ass!” exclaims Lep (Don Stroud), the undisputed leader of this ragtag bunch of miscreants. After an exciting, well-choreographed car chase, Lep and his buddies get ingloriously sideswiped into a creek. Vowing their revenge, this eventually leads them to Harry’s isolated lakeside house…

Because it follows a fairly predictable pattern, while it would be easy to dismiss Fruet’s film as yet another imitative offshoot of either Sam Peckinpah’s incendiary STRAW DOGS (1971) or Wes Craven’s highly-influential LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972), DEATH WEEKEND is actually far more thought-provoking than you might initially anticipate. Simplistic in its approach, yet impressively-mounted, the film never waivers in generating suspense, this mostly care of a trio of committed, multifaceted performances highlighting the disparities of the so-called ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’, as well as gender inequality too. Ever-resourceful as Diane, Brenda Vaccaro is superb as the husky-voiced heroine, whose sex appeal lies in her confidence and ability to level the playing field or—even outright outdo her male counterparts; which is what triggered this whole unfortunate chain of events to begin with. Diane’s strong disposition is seen as a threat by all the male characters, including Harry, who at one point even flippantly remarks, “I’ve never met a woman that can fix a carburetor and drive like you can!” In Harry’s mind, Diane is merely another conquest, and even though he equates success with money and power (“That’s what it’s all about!”), he can’t win her over with his flashy car, expensive home and fine art pieces, empty material possessions which he uses to mask his own insecurities. Women are merely objects to Harry, and in one of the film’s many uneasy moments, he even uses a specially-designed two-way mirror to spy on Diane as she takes a shower, snapping photos along the way to add to his ‘collection’. Unlike Harry, whose insecure demeanour is no match for Diane, Lep on the other hand is also threatened but equally as impressed—and even turned-on—by Diane (“That bitch can drive!”), but since he only knows how to relate to people using intimidation and fear, his only outlet is to take Diane by force (“Nuthin’ gets me off quicker than a bitch who fights!”). When she no longer resists his brutish advances, however, he confusedly asks, “Why did ya stop?”; simply not knowing any other way to interact sexually with a female. 

When released onto VHS / Beta videocassette by the mighty Vestron Video all the way back in 1985, this was the slightly-edited U.S. version, whose master removed a couple of instances of violence: namely a vicious throat-slashing, and the after-effects of a gruesome immolation. Never released on DVD in North America, it did get a belated DVD release in Sweden from Studio S Entertainment, but it was apparently taken from a full-screen master. Then, earlier this year, Germany’s NSM Records surprised everybody with their unexpected Blu-ray of this highly-requested film, and, while it is a very nice release indeed, don’t go expecting a brand new 2K or 4K restoration. Unfolding under its rather ridiculous, in-your-face German title, PARTY DES GRAUENS—DIE VERGEWALTIGUNG (trans: “Horror Party – The Rape”) and presented in the now customary 1.78:1 aspect ratio, NSM’s Blu looks pretty good for the most part, nicely emphasizing the autumnal colours of the rural location’s surrounding areas. At the same time, though, the image suffers from a tad too much contrast (as evidenced in a couple of shots from the film’s opening car chase) while some dirt and occasional vertical scratches are also noticeable from time to time; nothing too distracting at all, really, so until some intrepid Blu-ray label puts up the cash for a new-and-improved scan of the film, this will do just fine in the interim. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 is available in both German and English, and thankfully, the English audio is far punchier than the rather tinny German track. NSM have also included both German and English subtitles, so for a completely oddball and surreal viewing experience, it can also be watched in German with English subtitles (which, alas, are simply translated verbatim from the original English audio itself). 

Other than for its U.S. theatrical trailer by A.I.P.—who, for their American release, retitled the film THE HOUSE BY THE LAKE (“A house of secrets! A house of evil! A house of pain! A house of death!”)—the limited extras are not English-friendly. Just for the record, they include a feature-length audio commentary from Marco Erdmann of Wicked Vision magazine, and, in DEATH WEEKEND’s Mediabook packaging, a 16-page booklet with liner notes from Lars Dreyer-Winkelmann; but no matter, it’s just great to finally have this terrific film back in circulation, as it remains one of William Fruet’s grittiest and best. Order it from DiabolikDVD

Friday, August 30, 2019

BILLY THE KID VERSUS DRACULA - BLU-RAY REVIEW

Arguably best-known to many for directing the Sammy Petrillo and Duke Mitchell cult oddity BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA (1952), William Beaudine (1892-1970) had an extremely prolific career—he directed well over 200 films!—that stretched all the way back to the silent era, spanning just about every commercial genre of film, with a particular emphasis on B-western programmers. Following his role as Count Dracula (alias “Baron Latos”) in Erle C. Kenton’s monster mash-up HOUSE OF DRACULA (1945), the equally-prolific John Carradine re-donned the cape yet again for BILLY THE KID VERSUS DRACULA (1966), one of Beaudine’s very last films, a cost-conscious if highly-entertaining ‘horror western’ quickie (shot back-to-back with the same director’s JESSE JAMES MEETS FRANKENSTEIN’S DAUGHTER), which has recently made its worldwide Blu-ray debut thanks to the efforts of Kino Lorber Studio Classics.

Fluttering through the night as a giant vampire bat, ‘Dracula’ (Carradine) has been quietly terrorizing the wild west, and in the film’s opening, under the cover of night, he sneakily takes a bite out of a young woman whose parents, Eva (Virginia Christine) and Franz Oster (Walter Janovitz), become convinced the perpetrator was a vampire. Following a simplistic-yet-imaginative credit sequence, which perfectly sets the appropriate tone, our titular bloodsucker boards a stagecoach and is immediately smitten by a photo of Mrs. Bentley’s (Marjorie Bennett) daughter Betty (Melinda Plowman), about whom he boldly remarks, “She’s eighteen andso beautiful!” In need of a quick plan, he incenses a group of usually peaceful Indians after he kills one of their own and, as a result, they attack the stage and kill everyone on board, a development which allows the canny vampire to assume the guise of James Underhill (William Forrest), Betty’s long-absent uncle and the owner of the family ranch. Upon his arrival, he is dismayed to learn that Betty is actually engaged to William Bonney (Chuck Courtney), Mrs. Bentley’s ranch-hand, who is better-known to most as Billy the Kid (“Marry a notorious gunslinger! I won’t hear of it!”). After he assumes control of the ranch, the locals begin to cast suspicion on ‘Mr. Underhill’, which is exacerbated by the arrival of Eva and Franz, the immigrant couple from the film’s opening.

In what is much more of a western than a traditional horror film, Carradine’s vampire, contrary to the film’s spirited title, is never actually referred to as Dracula, nor does he ever even sprout the usual fangs, either. In what was most likely a budgetary constraint or a glaring continuity error, he also parades around in complete daylight, but at the same time, the ol’ bloodsucker is always in need of sleep (“I’m very tired. I may sleep all day!”), and occasionally catches some ZZZ’s at an abandoned silver mine on the outskirts of town. In yet another bizarre ‘revisionist’ touch, however, he doesn’t sleep in a coffin, but rather a neatly-made queen-size bed instead (with fittingly blood-red sheets). Perhaps toying with the established vampire lore, Beaudine and scriptwriter Carl Hittleman also further break the ‘rules’ by allowing their eponymous menace to be staked with an iron spike instead of the usual wooden stake, but at the same time, such traditional means as holy crosses and wolfbane seem to repel him as well.

Regardless of its many inconsistencies, Beaudine’s film remains a whole lot of fun just the same, which commentators Lee Gambin and John Harrison lovingly refer to as part of the “weird western” subgenre, a smattering of genre-hopping westerns that includes Edward Nassour’s and Ismael Rodríguez’s THE BEAST OF HOLLOW MOUNTAIN (1956), James O’Connelly’s THE VALLEY OF GWANGI (1969) and Larry G. Spangler’s A KNIFE FOR THE LADIES (1974), latter of which featured a Jack the Ripper-style killer set against a western backdrop. Worn-out and emaciated, John Carradine’s vampire remains exhausted-looking despite putting the bite on a number of women, apparently having a hard time assimilating into the harsh – and barren – landscape of the west as opposed to his usual European stomping grounds. Virginia Christine, who, like Carradine, also starred in a couple of Universal horror films from the ’Forties (including Leslie Goodwins’ THE MUMMY’S CURSE [1944]), adds a nice European touch to the proceedings as she casts her suspicions on this mysterious visitor, while veteran screen actor Olive Carey (also seen in John Ford’s THE SEARCHERS [1956] andTWO RODE TOGETHER [1961]) is wonderful as the straightforward, no-nonsense Dr. Henrietta Hull, who, in one of the film’s many rudimentary in-camera effects, discovers Mr. Underhill’s secret when she notices that he casts no reflection in a mirror (yet another traditional aspect of vampire lore that was retained). In an interesting role for Chuck Courtney, the star of yet another “weird western”, Jacques R. Marquette’s TEENAGE MONSTER (1958), Courtney imbues plenty of sympathetic traits into his performance as Billy the Kid, the infamous gunslinger, who is trying to change his trigger-happy ways, but who nonetheless draws his guns during the film’s unique, seemingly almost improvised, finale.

Released onto Beta / VHS videocassettes (“Billy the Kid is down for the “Count”!”) by Embassy Home Entertainment in 1986, BILLY THE KID VERSUS DRACULA seemed to bypass DVD altogether with the exception of a few bootleg editions from the likes of Cheezy Flicks, which were nothing more than VHS-rips. Following their massive licensing deal with StudioCanal, Kino Lorber Studio Classics finally give Beaudine’s little film a much-needed upgrade, which is superior in every way. Looking far more detailed and colourful than ever before (the fun opening credits look especially nice in HD), some scenes do still remain a little on the ‘soft’ side, but this is clearly a by-product of the actual physical film stock itself and not a result of the transfer, which is spot-on. The DTS-HD MA 2.0 audio also sounds perfect, which really draws attention to Raoul Kraushaar’s wonderful score. 

The big – and very welcome – extra is an audio commentary with authors and film historians Lee Gambin and John Harrison, who profess early on that they have a lot to discuss over the film’s short running time of 75 minutes, which they do admirably. They talk a lot about westerns and the (quote) “changing period of the genre”, and how this particular film was a (quote) “throwback to the classic genre”, which also leads into a lengthy discussion about the history of Billy the Kid on screen. Of course, they also go on to discuss both William Beaudine’s and John Carradine’s highly extensive filmographies, which leads to all sorts of delightful tangents as both of them bounce titles around. Lastly, they also discuss Kraushaar’s music and some of the borrowed cues, including stuff from Spencer G. Bennett’s 15-part serial THE PURPLE MONSTER STRIKES (1945) and Edgar G. Ulmer’s DAUGHTER OF DR. JEKYLL (1957). It’s a jam-packed, entertaining listen from a pair of knowledgeable and enthusiastic film lovers, who cap things off with their personal favourite “weird western” selection.

Unfortunately, no trailer for the film is included on the disc, but Kino has included a number of other horror trailers, including Reginald Le Borg’s THE BLACK SLEEP (1956), Ted V. Mikels’ THE ASTRO-ZOMBIES (1968) and Pete Walker’s THE HOUSE OF LONG SHADOWS (1983), which also star the wonderful John Carradine, and all of which are available from Kino. Order it direct from Kino or DiabolikDVD.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

THE BEAST IN HEAT - BLU-RAY REVIEW

In their pursuit to try and issue as many current and former ‘Video Nasties’ onto Blu-ray, Severin Films have chosen to release one of the nastiest nasties of them all: namely Luigi Batzella’s THE BEAST IN HEAT (1977), an infamous patchwork concoction which represents the absolute nadir of an already suspect subgenre. One of a handful of Nazi-themed exploitation pictures (hence the inevitable catch-all term “Nazisploitation”), Batzella’s lowly offering to the form gets quite the deluxe overhaul indeed with a brand new 2K scan taken from (quote) “35mm negative elements”, and in spite (perhaps even because) of the film’s humble origins, the results are quite remarkable.

Clearly an imitation of Dyanne Thorne’s now-legendary “Ilsa” character from Don Edmonds’ ILSA: SHE WOLF OF THE SS (1974) and its two ‘official’ sequels, in BEAST Dr. Ellen Kratsch (Macha Magall) is finalizing her (quote) “creation of an artificial master race”, which is nothing more than a caged, primordial-looking beast (the aptly-named “Sal Boris” / a.k.a. Salvatore Baccaro) that gleefully rapes most of her female captives. In a ridiculous bit of post-synched dubbing, Dr. Kratsch hilariously promises her in-house brute will (quote) “make the God Eros go green with envy!” Meanwhile, due to the careless efforts of one Captain Hardinghafser (Kim Gatti / a.k.a. Edilio Kim), local partisans led by Moreno (Alfredo Rizzo) and munitions expert Drago (John Braun / a.k.a. Gino Turini) successfully blow-up a tactically important bridge, an act which enrages the Nazi top brass (“As you can see, it is not easy dealing with half-vits!”), who then order Dr. Kratsch to assist in both the capture and torture of the partisans and their womenfolk.

Accentuated by the film’s quickie cash-in status and downright ludicrous – often verging on cartoonish – English dubbing, Batzella’s film is impossible to take seriously, despite its many grisly, uh, ‘highlights’. These include flagellation, fingernail-yanking, electro-shock treatments, and ‘flesh-eating rats’ (in actuality only harmless domesticated guinea pigs [?!]). Then there’s “The Beast” itself, that in one over-the-top scene even resorts to some impromptu cannibalism. Also seen in Bruno Mattei’s tawdry SALON KITTY (1976) rip-off SS GIRLS (a.k.a. PRIVATE HOUSE OF THE SS, 1976), Macha Magall ticks all the appropriate boxes with her pulpy portrayal of a sadistic, leering dominatrix (“You’re just a bitch on heat!”) and she remains the dubious highlight of the film. However, interspersed amidst all the lowest-common-denominator exploitable elements, we get a tired and rather-too-convoluted narrative involving the Italian resistance movement, double-crosses and even dissention among the ranks (“I’m bored of this war!” exclaims one partisan). These less-interesting subplots take up much of the film, and are actually merely redubbed / repurposed footage from Batzella’s earlier – equally meagre – WWII flick, WHEN THE BELL TOLLS (1970). This ‘creative recycling’ of pre-existing scenes also explains the uncredited reappearance in BEAST (presumably without either his knowledge or remuneration) of ex-peplum strongman and usual total badass Brad Harris in an atypical role as a sympathetic priest named Don Lorenzo; other familiar Eurotrash supporting players to look out for include Brigitte Skay as a local prostitute, Xiro Papas (probably best-remembered as the fedora-wearing, sex-starved manster in Mario Mancini’s FRANKENSTEIN ’80 [1972]) as yet another partisan leader, as well as stuntman / bit-parter Benito Pacifico in a tertiary capacity. 

Although most of the notoriety heaped upon this film stems from its early ’Eighties U.K. videocassette release, Batzella’s film also garnered an uncut U.S. home video release in 1985 courtesy of notorious sleaze merchants Video City Productions (box-blurb: “Helpless victims caught in a mad quest for power!”), whose now-hard-to-find Beta/VHS edition featured some truly eye-popping cover art. The film was released yet again in 1987, this time by Mogul Communications (retitled SS EXPERIMENT CAMP PART 2), but this heavily-edited version ran approximately 10 minutes shorter than VCP’s aforementioned version. In 2004, BEAST finally made its DVD debut courtesy of Media Blasters’ Exploitation Digital line, and while it looked good for the time, the interlaced transfer hasn’t dated very well. Extras were limited to an archive of promotional materials, a slightly reedited export trailer and, for the film’s first pressing, a liner notes booklet was included. 

Opening with THE BEAST IN HEAT’s grammatically incorrect English-language export title, HORRIFYING EXPERIMENTS OF S.S. LAST DAYS [sic!], Severin’s new Blu-ray is quite stunning to behold in its crystal-clarity, with nary a blemish in sight during much of the film’s newly-shot footage, or the rearranged scenes from Batzella’s earlier film, WHEN THE BELL TOLLS. However, the meagre production also made use of some additional stock footage from yet another unidentified, bigger-budget war film, which is in considerably rougher shape, so due to the film’s new transfer, this abrupt shift in picture quality is even more jarring than before. In an interesting comparison to Exploitation Digital’s earlier DVD, the initial demolition of the bridge and the climactic siege upon the Nazi compound utilized some cheap day-for-night blue filters, which are absent on Severin’s new transfer, and it actually looks the better for it. Regardless of the laughable English dub track, the DTS-HD MA mono audio sounds great given BEAST’s obvious post-production limitations. English SDH subtitles are also provided.

Along with their excellent transfer of the film, Severin have also provided a batch of worthwhile extras, beginning with Naomi Holwill’s feature-length documentary, Fascism On a Thread: The Strange Story of Nazisploitation Cinema (91m29s), which covers the genre’s rather curious origins, its obvious controversies and its short-lived history beginning with such masterworks as Luchino Visconti’s THE DAMNED (1969) and Liliana Cavani’s THE NIGHT PORTER (1974), and of course, that (quote) “weirdly influential trash movie” ILSA: SHE WOLF OF THE SS (1974), while film critic Kim Newman also points out the genre’s debt to the many (quote) “sensationalist 1950s paperbacks” on the theme as well. It’s a thorough, well-researched doc, which also includes newly-filmed and archival interviews with many of the films’ personnel. Next up, Stephen Thrower provides his thoughts on both the genre in general and BEAST in particular in Nazi Nasty (30m18s), whose primary motivation was to (quote) “shock and outrage jaded consumers”, and notes how Batzella’s film in particular is (quote) “genuinely, startlingly disgusting in many details”. He also points out the film’s sheer absurdity and describes its (quote) “bathos” as shocking, yet recognizes the memorable contributions of both Magall and “Sal Boris”, latter of whose suitably bestial and (quote) “unrestrained” performance is one of the most memorable aspects of the entire production; the influence of adult comic books (or fumetti in the Italian vernacular); and even the attempted – and subsequent failure – to successfully meld eroticism and horror into a moneymaking potpourri of sleazy sex-and-violence; and of course, he also goes on to discuss its release in the U.K. and the ensuing ‘Video Nasties’ outrage it garnered. Finishing-off the extras is BEAST’s lurid theatrical trailer (bearing the film’s French title card HOLOCAUSTE NAZI), which includes some alternate footage not seen in the main feature itself. In a nice added touch, Severin have also provided a reproduction of the film’s original Video Nasty cover art with the package.

As a film,THE BEAST IN HEAT may be cheap, crude, crass and tasteless, but Severin’s top-drawer Blu-ray presentation is anything but, a fact which should please most fans of boundary-pushing, scuzzed-out shock-erotica. Order it from Severin Films here or as part of their June Bundle, and for you Canadian readers, order it from Suspect Video.

Monday, August 12, 2019

THE PASSING - BLU-RAY REVIEW

Stitched-together and expanded to feature-length via a pair of the director’s pre-existing short films, John Huckert’s THE PASSING (1983) is precisely the kind of unusual and highly-compelling micro-budget discovery that fans of Vinegar Syndrome have grown accustomed to. As with Brian Damude’s must-have Canadian-lensed obscurity, the crime thriller SUDDEN FURY (1975), which they released last year, VS have once again provided another fantastic, extras-filled Blu-ray / DVD combo of the present atypical, science fiction-tinged film, which will hopefully warrant a looksee for anyone searching for something a little more esoteric, as opposed to just the same-old/same-old.

Elderly lifelong buds Ernie (James Carroll Plaster) and Rose (Welton Benjamin Johnson, playing a male character despite his traditionally female name) have been living together since the death of Ernie’s wife. While it’s never made abundantly clear, Rose may himself be dying, but has accepted his mortality with an equal amount of grace and melancholy. Ernie, on the other hand, tries his darnedest to ensure that the pair of them make the best of the rest of their lives; both these old guys know full-well that the end may be near and come without warning, however. Meanwhile, through a series of somewhat disconnected—at first disorienting—scenes involving Wade (director Huckert) and his family (including a rather startlingly graphic sexual assault on his onscreen wife), he winds up on Death Row for the accidental killing of his wife’s attacker. Despite the initial disjointed effect, these two disparate major plotlines do eventually intersect when Ernie is given the opportunity to participate in a new experimental procedure by means of his family doctor, whereas, rather than going to the gas chamber, condemned murderer Wade instead opts to take part in a heretofore-unknown experiment at a mysterious (fictional) institution known as the Maryland State Rejuvenation Center…

In spite of the narrative’s deliberately slow pacing, THE PASSING remains thoroughly engaging in its exploration of life and death… as well as reincarnation. Confounding at first—although both its gradually-comingling stories do come together in a logical manner eventually—the film frequently drifts into out-of-sequence flashbacks, generating a cryptic, verging-on-hypnotic aura over the course of the running time. The somewhat amateurish-if-earnest performances also add immensely to the proceedings, with principal performers James Carroll Plaster and Welton Benjamin Johnson as Ernie and Rose being especially memorable. Offering affecting psychological character studies that encompass love, loss, loneliness and the inexorable aging process from cradle to grave (“First thing you know, you’re 20. And now you’re 40. And then it just goes faster and faster!”), THE PASSING never becomes monotonously pretentious, even during some of its many tangential philosophical ruminations, while the scenes at the aptly-named Rejuvenation Center are spartanly sparse, displaying a highly-impersonal ambiance of cold, clinical sterility akin to some of David Cronenberg’s early works set in dehumanized, dystopian near-futures. 

Barely released theatrically, THE PASSING did receive a decidedly scant independent VHS videocassette release in the ’80s, then, in the early ’00s, budget-pack specialists Brentwood released it in no less than three separate, colourfully-titled box DVD sets, including Ancient Evil – 10 Movies, the dozen-pack Blood Soaked Cinema– Bite Night (“Twelve Times the Terror”!) and also Blood Thirst – 4 Movies. Given the film’s differing master print sources, VS succeeded in performing a mini-miracle bringing this long-passed-over rarity into the HD age with their newly-scanned 2K transfer taken from (quote) “16mm archival elements”. Shot and developed over a seven-and-a-half year period—how’s thatfor dedication!—utilizing recycled, reedited and newly-shot footage, things look surprisingly good in spite of the original celluloid’s numerous scratches, some occasional film jitter and what-have-you, but this is really nothing to quibble about at all, and the vibrant colour scheme during THE PASSING’s latter half really POPS off the screen upon occasion. The DTS-HD 1.0 mono audio track also sounds fine, with no real issues whatsoever, although it does sound a tad coarse and tinny whenever the score utilizes such hoary old ‘lo-fi’ 78rpm show-tunes as Ray Henderson’s classic “That Old Gang of Mine” (published by Irving Berlin, Inc. for The Ziegfeld Follies way back in 1923). 

The VS BD/DVD’s copious extras begin with a much-welcome audio commentary from director Huckert moderated by Tom Fitzgerald of EXP TV wherein they discuss the film’s still-humbler beginnings as The Water That is Passed, a short subject that probably best-resembles the finished feature it became. Director Huckert goes on to discuss his close relationship with principal actors Plaster and Johnson, as well as discussing Ernie and Rose, a second short film they made together, which likewise provided THE PASSING with still more additional footage to extend its running time; it’s also revealed how it was fellow Baltimore filmmaker John Waters—“The King of Trash” himself!—who suggested that Huckert might want to add some extra more-exploitable elements into his final product. It’s an interesting, relaxed and detailed discussion, that also includes plenty of anecdotes. Top marks all around! In Passing Time (22m31s), Cinema Arcana’s Bruce Holecheck interviews freelance DP Richard Chisolm, who discusses how he met director Huckert and producer Scott Guthrie and eventually got involved with the production. He describes Huckert as a (quote) “sensuous, dedicated filmmaker” and goes on to provide plenty of details about both the THE PASSING specifically as well as the Baltimore indie film scene of the time in general; reminiscences which include some of Chisolm’s later work (such as HBO’s much-lauded series THE WIRE [2002 – 2008]). In Water Under the Bridge (15m55s), writer and co-producer Mary Maruca is once again interviewed by Mr. Holecheck and reveals that John Huckert was one of her English students at the University of Maryland and was asked by him to co-write the screenplay, even though she playfully referred to herself as (quote) “such an ingénue”. She also speaks most highly of both Plaster and Johnson and their credible naturalism in front of the camera, discusses the stresses inherent in trying to shoot a film without any money, plus the (quote) “un-Godly amount of time it took to finish”. Like Chisolm, she also praises Huckert’s unwavering dedication to his pet project. 

In light of the film’s pieced-together structure, VS have also included Huckert’s short films in their entirety, including the aforementioned The Water That is Passed (27m50s, 1976), Quack (24m21s, 1976), Einmal (9m06s, 1979) and Ernie and Rose (28m48s, 1982). The extras conclude with a short-but-superb stills gallery (2m00s) of archive material. As per usual for VS, reversible artwork is also provided, while the first 2000 copies include a Limited Edition slipcover featuring artwork from Earl Kess, Jr. Order it from Vinegar Syndrome here

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

ROBOWAR - BLU-RAY REVIEW

Reviewed by Steve Fenton.
Let’s get one thing straight right at the start: coming as it did from 1988 (i.e., during the ‘last gasp’ of Italo trash cinema), as well as from low-end exploitationeer Bruno Mattei (using his infamous “Vincent Dawn” pseudonym), ROBOWAR is pure, undiluted exploitation mindrot that makes absolutely no bones about who and what it’s exploiting. Over the course of its brisk 88-minute runtime, it succeeds in—well, triesto, at least—ripping-off elements from ROBOCOP (as the title most obviously suggests), PREDATOR (especially that film!), the entire Rambo series, ALIENS, and also Arnold Schwarzenegger’s then-recent campy combat actioner COMMANDO, with a dash of Oliver Stone’s PLATOON thrown in for good measure.
Whole segments from ROBOWAR’s principal influence source PREDATOR are lifted almost verbatim and given the low-budget rerun-through. There are skinned human carcasses hung in trees and a bit where our mucho-macho ‘heroes’ use their arsenal of big guns like high-calibre Weed-Whackers in order to rout the hidden menace possibly lurking in the bush (“Whoever it was, it ain’t no more!”); indeed, as if to belabor this obvious nod to PREDATOR, there are numerous scenes of the heroes shooting wildly into the undergrowth elsewhere throughout, so obviously the minimal budget at least allowed for an unlimited amount of ammo to be fired-off! Playing one Major Murphy Black (“...better-known as ‘Kill-Zone’!”), Reb Brown leads a ‘crack’ expeditionary force of mercenaries somewhere deep in a Latin-American (or is it Southeast Asian?) jungle. Amongst others under Brown-as-Black’s command is well-seasoned spaghetti stunt-grunt Romano Puppo, who appears highly credible as the outfit’s grizzled, grim-faced senior member, Corporal Neil Corey (“Expert heavy weapons, top marksman rating…”), while Massimo Vanni, better-known to some as “Alex McBride”, plays Private Larry Guarino, alias “Diddy-Bopper” (?!) or just plain “Diddy” for short. As the squad’s shortest member and (quote) “crack reconnaissance man”, “McBride”/Vanni does a loose impression of Chuck Norris (circa that worthy’s Missing in Action stints), with mirror-shades, erect triceps, unkempt facial growth and all. Like Puppo an experienced fall guy in his own right, Vanni—best-known for his work on ’70s/’80s Italocrimers—also served as the film’s stunt coordinator (utilizing local Filipino stuntmen, who had plenty of experience in this sort of thing, as, not only were many European and American ‘tourist’ productions being shot in the Philippines at the time, but the nation simultaneously had its own then-thriving action movie industry too). Receiving plentiful screen-time herein, physically imposing (roughly 6-foot-5-inch) Pinoy actor Max Laurel (who played the titular snake/man-monster in both Jun Raquiza’s ZUMA [1985] and Ben Yalung’s sequel ANAK NI ZUMA [1987]) appears as Quang, the squad’s sole Asian (as in South Vietnamese) member and laconic pointman.
Collectively nicknamed BAM, an acronym for “Big-Assed Motherfuckers” (in our opinion, “BadassMofos” has a much better ring to it, but I guess something got lost in translation), our ‘dirty half-dozen’ are there to track down a renegade, gone-AWOL military cyborg as well as battle token revolutionary guerillas (who are present merely to up the gratuitous body-count during loads of chaotic combat scenes). Him—er, it?—known as “Omega I” is a bionic half-man/half-robot super-soldier invented by an unscrupulous techie named Mascher (played by Mel Davidson, wildly under- and overacting by turns) for use in militarily difficult theatres of war. To add some extra ‘dramatic tension’ to the proceedings, it develops that Omega incorporates various leftover bits-’n’-pieces of Reb’s ex-’Nam vet buddy, who was blown apart by a ’Cong land-mine.
Catherine Hickland (playing a chick named “Virgin” [yeah, right!]) is a blonde white missionary the squad picks up along the way, who eventually takes up arms—albeit without ever even coming close to actually shooting anything!—against the delinquent cyborg. Handling her M-16 like a squeeze-mop, rather than bother trying to come across like some kickass Sigourney Weaver clonette, Ms. Hickland instead plays seventh fiddle to the boys and steers clear of the gunfights. During these, lots of innocent incidental shrubbery (courtesy of the Filipino locations) and low-rent jungle real estate get blowed-up real good care of economical-if-energetic pyrotechnical effects.
Realization of the supposedly terrifying Omega droid is tawdrily shoddy in the extreme, it should—and indeed, must—be said. Super Force (1990), US TV’s own ROBOCOP rip-off from the same period, boasted a much more ominous-looking costume, and that guy was the hero! In the long run, ROBOWAR’s sub-state-of-the-art biomechanical menace comes across about as intimidating as your average 8-inch toy action figure. Indeed, the most-realistic aspect of Omega’s get-up is its black-painted football-cum-motorcycle crash helmet with smoked plastic visor; its least-convincing aspect being the urine-tinted, fuzzily digitized POV shots (accompanied by an overlaid gibberish of electronic tonalities) that indicate its heavily-pixelated worldview. For the most part, DP Riccardo Grassetti’s camerawork is efficiently functional, looking all the easier on the eyeballs in Severin’s pristine BD edition, and the crisp cinematography makes special makeup-man Franco Di Girolamo’s gnarly ‘putrefying cadaver’ effects appear that much gnarlier.
The affably dudebro-ish Brown—some of whose career ‘highpoints’ are a couple of Captain America TV movies and “Anthony M. Dawson”/Antonio Margheriti’s prehysterical schlock sci-fi epic YOR: THE HUNTER FROM THE FUTURE (1983)—spends most of his screen-time looking like either a mildly-startled bullock or an embarrassed Myrtle Beach surfer dude (or both at once). Possibly the Omega reminded Reb of resident supervillain Overlord’s pet ’bots in YOR too much, and made him nervous? His California beach bum act (complete with jet-black headband, as per his onscreen surname) is mostly played tongue-in-cheek, although he really gives his all in some scenes (you’ll know ’em when you see ’em!). But, was our Reb starting to look more and more like Doug McClure (especially in his career moves) during this period in his career? At one juncture, Brown pins a guerilla to the side of a native hut with a thrown knife. With the punchline-timing of an Arnie or Freddy, he then proceeds to deadpan, “Don’t move!
After ROBOWAR and his work on Fulci’s lamentable and virtually unsalvageable ‘unfinished mantelpiece’ ZOMBIE 3, it seems as though Bruno Mattei’s best effort, in this writer’s opinion, shall remain the nasty nunsploitation shocker THE OTHER HELL (1981); although, since Mattei openly admitted he’d never made a good film anyway, my opinion is entirely disposable. In the present offering, the director throws our way sufficient explosions, f-bombs—including a surprising number from former ‘boy-next-door’ Brown—unexpectedly competent and grisly after-the-fact gore FX, as well as prodigious amounts of asinine dialogue, that there’s not much time left to dwell on ROBOWAR’s shortcomings, when all is said and done… it definitely does entertain, and that’s the main thing. 
Final verdict: ROBOWAR is an absolutely vacuous but fun timewaster for undemanding fans of such fare; nothing less, and certainly nothing more. As rampaging sub-zero cyborg exploitation goes, gimme FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE SPACE MONSTER any day, but for 1980s future schlock sci-fi, the present film ain’t too shabby at all (especially when you consider some of the far-crappier and less-energetic American-made STV [“straight-to-video”] ROBOCOPPREDATOR imitations that were released back then). Al Festa’s noodly synth electrobeat/cheese metal score is late-’80s all the way, and doesn’t sound half-bad even in 2019; who cares that incidental songs are periodically superimposed atop the action on a seemingly random basis, without rhyme nor reason?! While it’s been very nearly 30 years (GULP!) since I last killed X number of brain-cells watching ROBOWAR, in retrospect—especially in light of its latest, optimal incarnation on Blu-ray—it looks a whole lot better (in more ways than one) than I remember it being the first time round. 
In conclusion: let’s hear it for Reb Brown, the “Doug McClure” of the ’80s and ’90s!
Like Mattei’s other unashamedly—and highly-enjoyable—rip-off, SHOCKING DARK (1990), ROBOWAR was also never officially released in either the U.S. or Canada in any form, and it first gained notoriety among discerning cineastes via Columbia Home Video’s Japanese VHS videocassette release. In English with Japanese subtitles, Columbia’s tape also retained the film’s original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and it remained the optimum release for more than two decades prior to Severin’s long-overdue Blu-ray. Scanned in 4K from the original camera negative, this all-region edition is virtually flawless, boasting razor-sharp detail and a bold, lush colour scheme, which is especially attractive considering that the entire narrative unfolds in a tropical rainforest. However, this added clarity also draws attention to the film’s ‘rough edges’, including the hilariously thrifty robo-suit. The DTS-HD MA 2.0 audio is provided in both English and Italian (with optional SDH and newly-translated English subtitles, respectively), and while there are some minor differences between the two tracks, it’s pretty hard to resist the film’s animated and sometimes highly-surreal English audio, which at times is a real hoot (e.g., “C’mon, Doc, you walk like a ruptured duck!”).
Containing a whopping six (!) special featurettes, the extras begin with Robo Predator (23m06s), an on-camera interview with writer/director Claudio Fragasso (a.k.a. “Clyde Anderson”), who shares his memories of working with Bruno Mattei and their cost-effective technique of shooting two different films simultaneously, beginning with their earliest collaborations, THE TRUE STORY OF THE NUN OF MONZA (1980) and THE OTHER HELL (1980), and later ROBOWAR along with Fragasso’s zombie film AFTER DEATH (1988), which they shot using only one camera! He also praises Mattei for his prowess as an editor, and how at one point he had to step in and direct a few sequences when Mattei fell ill. In Italian Rip-Off (9m18s), screenwriter Rossella Drudi gives her thoughts on the genesis of the film, and how she and Fragasso were commissioned to deliver a (quote) “part-PREDATOR, part-ROBOCOP, and part-ALIEN” film for producer Franco Gaudenzi. Drudi also admits how initially she wasn’t very fond of ROBOWAR, but after re-watching the film, she has become more forgiving (“It’s a nice movie. It’s very funny!”). Drudi pops-up again in Violence, She Wrote (21m05s) for a career-spanning interview, which is similar to the one she shared with Claudio Fragasso on Severin’s BD of VIOLENCE IN A WOMEN’S PRISON (1983). Nevertheless, in this new featurette, she shares a number of interesting stories as one of the very few female screenwriters associated—at that time, at least—with the horror genre.
The film’s leading lady, Catherine Hickland submits to an interview in Robolady (11m34s), during which she reminiscences about the unforgiving Philippine locations and how (quote) “There were a lot of surprises there for me”; she also speaks fondly of the cast and crew, despite some of them only speaking Italian (including director Mattei). In addition she discusses leading man Reb Brown’s (quote) “utter commitment”, no matter what the scene called for (this dedication is never more apparent than when Brown daringly leaps from atop a lofty cataract into a pool far below, and also during a strangely poignant anticlimactic scene at the end when he convincingly sheds tears over what his fallen ’Nam comrade-at-arms has become). In Papa Doc’s War (12m50s), American actor John P. Dulaney briefly discusses his career in Italian cinema and how he ended-up in the Philippines thanks to his friend, actor Mike Monty; the hot ’n’ humid locations; and how Mattei instructed everyone to yell incessantly while firing their machineguns. Actor Jim Gaines, Jr. is interviewed in The Robo Warrior (9m02s), wherein he primarily talks about how ROBOWAR was shot simultaneously with AFTER DEATH, as well as relating a number of funny anecdotes. Finally, in War of the Philippines (17m32s), actor/stuntman Massimo Vanni, who went by the anglicized pseudonym “Alex McBride” for most of his ’80s work, speaks warmly of working with Mattei, and how he initially got to know him via his cousin, editor Vincenzo Vanni. He goes on to discuss Mattei’s and Fragasso’s working relationship and how he enjoyed making (quote) “homemade” versions of Hollywood blockbusters. 
Additionally, this already extras-packed release includes Catherine Hickland’s Behind the Scenes Home Videos (15m14s), which is narrated by Hickland herself and features most of the cast and crew enjoying their time on-set and also includes an appearance by long-time actor Luciano Pigozzi (see note below). ROBOWAR’s trailer finishes-off the extras. For the first 3000 copies of the run, Al Festa’s score is included on a bonus CD. The film is currently available through Severin as a Limited Edition Blu-ray, DVD or as part of a Robowar bundle. For you Canadian readers, copies can be obtained from Suspect Video.
Note: Evidently, some scenes featuring long-time Italian character player Luciano Pigozzi (a.k.a. “Alan Collins”) were shot, but for whatever reason got excised from the final cut. Coincidentally enough, the same thing supposedly happened to the same actor on Mattei’s hilariously out-of-whack Vietnam War-set poliziesco COP GAME (1988), yet the name “Alan Collins” remains in its opening credits (as it also does on ROBOWAR), despite Pigozzi himself being nowhere to be seen in the flesh.