Wednesday, May 23, 2018

SHOCKING DARK - BLU-RAY REVIEW

Watching Bruno Mattei’s SHOCKING DARK (1989) now, it becomes quite obvious it’s one of those endearingly inept ‘bad films’ that hasn’t garnered nearly the same fanfare as say, something along the lines of Claudio Fragasso’s TROLL 2 ([1990] Fragasso also penned the script for SD), which is most likely attributable to the film’s general unavailability for years outside the grey market. Well now, thanks to Severin Films, SHOCKING DARK is making its worldwide Blu-ray and DVD debut in a brand-new, eye-popping transfer and, in spite of its many hackneyed attributes, it remains a must-see for trash-film fans, especially of the Euro variety. 

After an opening showing typical travelogue footage of Venice, Italy, we learn that the city’s water has – as is told through some laidback and nonsensical narration – become (quote) “putrid” and created a “giant toxic cloud”(?!?), which has engulfed this once-prosperous, history-steeped tourist destination. In the ‘future’ year of 2000, Venice is declared a (quote) “dead city”, and many of its last inhabitants are evacuated, but beneath the city’s labyrinthine network of tunnels, a research facility has been set up by the Tubular Corporation in order to try and purify the waters. However, something has slaughtered most of the researchers, so a crack team of marines – who are hilariously referred to as the Megaforce ([!] shades of the kitschy Hal Needham sci-fi actioner of the same name from 1982) – along with scientist Sara Drumball (Haven Tyler) and Samuel Fuller (?!? [Cristopher Ahrens]), an ex-marine now representing the Tubular Corporation, are sent in to try and rescue them.

Bravely released in some territories as TERMINATOR 2, this utterly shameless rip-off of James Cameron’s THE TERMINATOR (1984) and ALIENS (1986), is so upfront with its plagiarism that, even for an opportunistic director such as Bruno Mattei, it is utterly mind-boggling, even more-so than his earlier – and equally shameless – PREDATOR (1987) rip-off, ROBOWAR (1988). The general set-up, entire sequences and even characters from ALIENS are copied almost verbatim with some of the most wooden, stilted actors ever seen in any Italian exploitation film. While most Italian films were usually dubbed into English by a talented – and familiar – group of voice artists, SHOCKING DARK is actually shot with sync sound, flubbed lines and all, which lends the film an even cheaper quality than usual. ’80s Italian trash-film regular Geretta Geretta (who also starred in Mattei’s RATS: NIGHTS OF TERROR [1984] as ‘Chocolate’) has the most fun here as a fast-talking, bigoted marine named Koster. Her character is a distaff blend of ALIENS’ Hudson and Apone (as played by Bill Paxton and Al Matthews, respectively), and she gets to mouth some of the film’s best lines (“Alright, ya bunch of pussies! I’m back and I’m kickin’ ass!” or “What you greaseballs eat to make yer shit smell like that?!”), while Fausto Lombardi (Geretta’s co-star in RATS) is Franzini, the sole Italian grunt, who is also the recipient of many off-colour remarks (e.g., “Wopface!”) courtesy of Koster. 

Shot in and around Italy’s oldest and – still-functioning - power plant, Mattei gets the most out of this terrific location, which tries to emulate the harsh, industrial look of ALIENS on a 100thof that film’s total budget, and actually does so quite admirably. Although, Francesco and Gaetano Paolucci’s creature effects leave a lot to be desired and are a far cry from H.R. Giger’s original designs, but at least Mattei had the foresight to keep their screen time relatively limited or obscured with smoke and plentiful shotgun blasts. Anyone even remotely familiar with James Cameron’s highly influential film has already seen most of SHOCKING DARK, but in a bizarre, unexpected twist, scriptwriters Fragasso and Rossella Drudi (Fragasso’s wife, who goes uncredited for her efforts here) decided to incorporate that other Cameron film in a completely ‘out-there’ last act that just about redeems many of the film’s faults. As awful as it is, it really is an unforgettable experience!

Never released on U.S. or Canadian Beta/VHS videocassette, SHOCKING DARK first flabbergasted many viewers via Caution’s Japanese VHS tape, which was retitled ALIENNATORS and housed a nice, letterboxed print in English with customary Japanese subtitles. Scanned in 2K from (quote) “the director’s cut negative”, Severin’s new Blu-ray looks terrific in spite of the film’s low-budget nature, which also retains the more spacious and better-balanced 1.85:1 framing as opposed to the Japanese VHS, which had a 1.66:1 aspect ratio; and while Severin’s new transfer is not perfect, marred by some occasional dirt and debris, it looks pretty spectacular just the same, especially during many of the film’s more darkly-lit scenes, which were a tad problematic on the old Japanese tape, especially with all those rather troublesome diffusion effects. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 English track also sounds fine, but be aware at 29m20s, as the sound here is poorly-recorded and gets pretty faint for a few seconds. Unbelievably, Dolby Digital 2.0 audio tracks in Italian, German, Spanish and Chinese are also included, as are closed captions for the hard of hearing.

Once again Severin have included a number of unique extras, beginning with Terminator in Venice (13m14s), another on-camera interview with Claudio Fragasso and Rossella Drudi where they discuss the foreign markets and their hunger for product, plus how they were (quote) “commissioned” to write SD. They also go on to discuss the film’s original concept about (quote) “alien spaceships landing in the Venice lagoon”; the hilarious CHiPs-styled wardrobe of the marines; and the (quote) “shameless” producers. In Once Upon a Time in Italy (12m44s), Geretta Geretta talks about her time working with and landing a part in Susan Sidelman’s SMITHEREENS (1982) and her eventual migration to Italy in the early ’80s for modelling assignments, which led to an extended acting career working with such admired directors as Lamberto Bava, Bruno Mattei, and even Lucio Fulci, whom she was initially warned to be cautious with (“Don’t talk back, mind your manners and do what you’re told!”), but goes on to say what a pleasure he was to work with. Other extras include the alternate Italian TERMINATOR 2 opening credits and the Japanese video trailer, titled ALIENNATORS (“A ferocious, indestructible, ruthless Terminator!”).

Undeterred by his lack of budget or anything resembling an iota of originality, Bruno Mattei has, in spite of everything, still managed to produce one of his most audacious and irresistible copycat films yet, which you’ll want to revisit, perhaps even more than twice! And if you’re feeling particularly courageous, why not set-up a double bill with Mattei’s ZOMBIES: THE BEGINNING (2007 – also available from Severin’s subsidiary, Intervision), which pilfers the ALIENS storyline yet again! Severin Films are currently offering “The Zombie Dark Super Deluxe Bundle”, “The Zombie Dark Deluxe Bundle”, “The Zombie Dark Blu-ray Bundle”, the Blu-ray (including one with a very limited and controversial slipcover) and DVD for pre-order. It’s also available for pre-order from DiabolikDVD, or for you Canadian readers, Suspect Video.

Friday, May 18, 2018

ZOMBIE 4: AFTER DEATH - BLU-RAY REVIEW

Following the troubled, Philippines-based production of Lucio Fulci’s ZOMBIE 3 (a.k.a. ZOMBI 3, 1988), on which co-directors Bruno Mattei and Claudio Fragasso were hired to finish after Fulci was unable to deliver a complete film, Fragasso was given an opportunity to direct AFTER DEATH (1989), yet another zombie epic – and again shot in the Philippines – for producer Franco Gaudenzi. Written by his wife and frequent collaborator Rossella Drudi, the film takes its cue from Fulci’s vastly-superior ZOMBIE (a.k.a. ZOMBI 2, 1979) by incorporating mysterious islands and voodoo rites into its frenetic, often mindless blend of gore and low-rent action. Making its worldwide Blu-ray debut, this zany barrage of genres is given first-class treatment courtesy of Severin’s extras-laden new disc.

While conducting research at the forefront of a revolutionary cure for cancer, a group of scientists on a remote Asian island anger the local voodoo priest when his daughter dies after having been treated with their so-called cancer vaccine. In retaliation, the priest opens one of the doors to Hell (“You wanted to defy Hell, and now Hell has accepted the challenge!”), and his daughter, who is now a drooling zombie/demon, slaughters these well-meaning – if heavily-armed! – scientists, while the island is destined to become (quote) “The Island of the Living Dead”. Years later, a rather eccentric group of (what appear to be) tourists and mercenaries (!), are mysteriously drawn to the cursed island when the engine on their boat begins to act-up. But unbeknownst to them, Jenny (Candice Daly) is one of the lone survivors from the massacre all those years ago. Meanwhile, a small group of researchers led by David (Alex McBride) and his two students Chuck (Chuck Peyton / a.k.a. Jeff Stryker) and Valerie also get caught up in the island’s (quote) “strange plague”; at one stage in a candy-coloured, candle-lit cave, they even read some incantations from ‘The Book of the Dead’ (the cover actually reads ‘The Book of Death’), which – natch! – brings forth even more zombies to join those that are already free-ranging all over the isle.

Hilariously, endearingly inept, AFTER DEATH has very little in the way of plot or character development (why complicate matters?!). Following its lengthy prologue – which, incidentally, was shot back home in Rome on the set of Michele Soavi’s flashy occult shocker THE CHURCH (1988) – these (quote) “soldiers of fortune” and hangers-on are simply plopped onto the island by some unexplainable force, and thereafter begin battling cloth-covered zombies. They eventually make it to the island’s dilapidated hospital where, amidst a barrage of machine gun fire, they fend-off the (small) horde of oncoming walking corpses (“Shoot the motherfuckers!”), some of which just shamble aimlessly about, while others run, talk and even use weapons. Pilfering elements from a number of other films which are too numerous to mention, AFTER DEATH is perhaps closest in spirit to Andrea Bianchi’s consummately trashy BURIAL GROUND (a.k.a. THE NIGHTS OF TERROR, 1980), mixed-together with one of Flora Film’s ubiquitous ’80s action films, most of which, as with the present one, were also shot in the Philippines. 

Never released on U.S. or Canadian Beta/VHS videocassette, AFTER DEATH was mostly seen via SPO’s Japanese tape, which was uncut and in English (with Japanese subtitles, of course) but was presented full-screen, an unusual anomaly for Japanese tapes back then (most of whose transfer prints were presented in their original theatrical aspect ratio, which was always a nice bonus). The film received its official North American debut via Shriek Show’s 2002 DVD, which was properly shown in its 1.85:1 aspect ratio and, just like Severin’s new Blu-ray, also retitled ZOMBIE 4: AFTER DEATH on its packaging. The disc featured a nice, colourful transfer of the slightly shorter “Uncut Original Version” as opposed to the “Export Version” included on both the Japanese tape and Severin’s new disc. This latter version doesn’t include any extra gore, but it does have a few extended scenes, including Jenny’s backstory and the island’s history (click here to see the differences). Extras on that earlier disc featured a solid interview with Claudio Fragasso, and a very short one with Candice Daly; plus another lengthier one with Jeff Stryker. The disc also featured a trailer for AD, as well as trailers for some other Shriek Show product.

Following a proposed-but-aborted Blu-ray edition from the same company a few years back, Severin have now debuted the film on Blu and, as with their other Italian releases, it’s another fine-looking disc indeed. The misty, fog-enshrouded settings and colourful action scenes look great here, and while it’s maybe not quite on a par with Severin’s ZOMBIE 3 Blu, it still looks miles better than any releases which came before it. Mostly shot at night (more on that later), Luigi Ciccarese’s photography benefits greatly from the added clarity of the crisp new 2K transfer, which exhibits nice, deep blacks and rich, stable colours. The sound likewise registers mighty fine, with the DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track clear enough for us to be able to better appreciate (!) the wonky dubbing of the entire cast, as well as Al Festa’s driving, highly-’80sesque synth score, further highlighting the unforgettable title track “Living After Death”, which Severin have (for the first 3000 units) also included on a bonus CD featuring the film’s entire soundtrack (18 tracks, totalling 52m19s). What more do ya want when it ain’t even Christmas?!

In Run Zombie Run (31m50s), what is basically Part 3 of their ongoing interview with Claudio Fragasso and Rossella Drudi from their earlier Blu’s of VIOLENCE IN A WOMEN’S PRISON (1982) and ZOMBIE 3 (1988), the always-chatty couple discuss the origins of the project, and how it represented Fragasso’s (quote) “personal revenge” on zombie movies; the discussion also covers the challenging shooting conditions of the film, as well as how it was shot concurrently with Bruno Mattei’s ‘straight’ actioner STRIKE COMMANDO 2 (1988) utilizing the same cameras, which resulted in Fragasso shooting all his scenes at night, while Mattei got to use the cameras during the daytime! Both Fragasso and Drudi go on to praise George A. Romero as the (quote) “maestro” and get into the social significance of zombie films, also discussing the current (sorry) state of the Italian film industry, and how directors of genre films are labeled as (quote) “Z-grade” in Italy. It’s another great, informative interview, which once again features their kitty-cat trying to hog even more screen-time! In Jeff Stryker in Manila (9m32s), the once-popular gay porn icon talks about his start in the business, how he was touted as the (quote) “cat’s meow” and how he landed roles in a couple of Italian films (the other one being Joe D’Amato’s DIRTY LOVE [a.k.a. 11 DAYS, 11 NIGHTS PART 3, 1988]), this due to German character actor Werner Pochath, who was a fan of his work. As for AFTER DEATH, he talks about the (quote) “handwritten” script, which resulted in a lot of improvisation, and how he would (quote) “play it by ear” as they went along. In Blonde vs Zombies (2m18s), a reedited interview from Shriek Show’s DVD, Candice Daly talks briefly talks about her experiences on the film. Also included is some behind-the-scenes footage (3m43s) of Fragasso and art director Bartolomeo Scavia shooting the film’s prologue, plus AD’s trailer, which finishes-off the extras. 

While inherently silly, Fragasso’s film is nevertheless a gory, fast-paced zombie-action film, which strips away much of the fat – not to mention any intelligence – in its rudimentary storyline, but ably succeeds at mustering-up enough energy for an undemanding night’s entertainment. Severin Films are currently offering The Zombie Dark Super Deluxe Bundle, The Zombie Dark Deluxe Bundle, The Zombie Dark Blu-ray Bundle, the Blu-ray and the DVD for pre-order. It’s also available for pre-order from DiabolikDVD, or for you Canadian readers, Suspect Video.

Friday, May 11, 2018

ZOMBIE 3 - BLU-RAY REVIEW

Anticipation ran high when it was announced, sometime in 1987, that Franco Gaudenzi’s production company Flora Film were moving ahead with ZOMBI 3 (1988), a sequel to Lucio Fulci’s extremely successful and unparalleled gore epic ZOMBIE (a.k.a. Zombi 2, 1979), which also had the good fortune to have Fulci signed-on as its director. Following a troubled production in the Philippines, the film premiered at the 1988 Rome Fantafestival, and whatever excitement was generated leading up to its premiere almost unanimously turned into derision as this vastly inferior sequel unreeled.  It was eventually revealed that Fulci, due to illness, actually didn’t finish the film himself, so it was taken over in midstream by directors Bruno Mattei & Claudio Fragasso, who had also helmed HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD (a.k.a. THE NIGHT OF THE ZOMBIES, 1980), a cheap but spirited rip-off of George A. Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978). It’s difficult to ignore just how silly the present film is, but, to its credit, it moves quickly and never fails to entertain (sometimes for the wrong reasons!). At the very least, though, Severin Films’ newest Blu-ray is downright flawless, and it’s the best that ZOMBI 3 has ever looked on home video.

Somewhere in Asia – represented by the Filipino locations – a pair of scientists led by Dr. Holder are experimenting with “Death One”, a nasty “bacteriological weapon” which not only brings the dead back to life but mutates them into infectious ghouls in the process.  Deemed (quote) “very dangerous”, this mysterious toxin is destined to be destroyed, but during a routine exchange, it falls into the wrong hands (“They have to stop him, or it will mean the end of everything!” exclaims Dr. Holder). In the ensuing chaos, the canister is accidentally broken, which causes one of the thieves to become infected. Of course, he goes on to infect a bunch of other people at a resort hotel, but not before first cutting-off his own hand in futile hope of stemming the infection’s spread.  General Morton (Mike Monty) orders his men – who, incidentally, are all dressed in white HazMat suits similar to the ones seen in George A. Romero’s The CRAZIES (1973), from which this film borrows quite liberally – to (quote) “evacuate the premises, eliminate everyone and bury them in a mass grave”, but taking a cue from Dan O’Bannon’s THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (1985), General Morton then orders the body of the primary infected incinerated in order to take (quote) “maximum precautions”. However, as in O’Bannon’s film, the rising ashes become assimilated into the air, which results in just about everybody getting infected… including even a flock of birds.  Meanwhile, three soldiers on a weekend pass (“I don’t remember her name, but I sure remember her tits!”), which include Kenny (Deran Sarafian, son of VANISHING POINT [1971] director Richard C. Sarafian), Roger (Richard Raymond) and Bo (Alex McBride) are soon embroiled in the escalating zombie apocalypse and, along with Patricia (Beatrice Ring) and a camper full of vacationers, they hole-up at the desolate Sweet River Hotel, where they are besieged by the walking dead…

Although there are a number of entertaining moments, including a flying zombie head and some admittedly atmospheric zombie attack scenes, apathetic, slovenly scripting and piecemeal filmmaking are easily this film’s biggest downfalls. In a complete lapse of logic, apparently this virus is (quote) “extremely sensitive to oxygen and dissolves less than thirty seconds after diffusion”, but when General Morton orders the body to be burned the ashes contaminate everything around it... including a passing flock of birds! Later on, in a hilarious Edward D. Wood, Jr.-style throwaway line, Dr. Holder – who, by the way, is played by one of the worst actors to ever grace a Fulci film! – explains that “…the heat must have mutated the virus and made it resistant to oxygen.” In yet another illogical moment, when our trio of soldiers arrive at the hotel, they conveniently ‘just happen’ to come across a crate full of automatic weapons, a fortuitous score which does admittedly help propel the action forward, but this ‘unexpected’ development amounts to simply another case of lazy writing. In a friendly nod to the aforementioned VANISHING POINT (in particular Cleavon Little’s “Super Soul” character), DJ Blueheart periodically drops into the film with his social commentary, but as one character so ‘mildly’ puts it, he merely spews more (quote) “ecological bullshit” over the airwaves. And, as in many Italo-horror pics of the period, the film resorts to some to rather excruciating ’80s-style pop songs (that threaten to infect your psyche like a zombie virus!), which Blueheart spins liberally throughout the bare-bones narrative.

Although never released on either U.S. or Canadian VHS (although it was rumoured at one point that Prism Video was going to issue it), ZOMBI 3 was seen by most via Tokuma’s Japanese VHS videocassette, which for the time, was a nice letterboxed transfer of the uncut print, with English dialogue to boot. In spite of all the film’s obvious issues, ZOMBI 3 has remained in circulation throughout most of the DVD era, beginning with Shriek Show’s 2002 DVD, which was a problematic composite utilizing a cut Italian print with spliced-in gore scenes from a very dupey-looking version. Extras thereon included interviews with ‘substitute’ director Bruno Mattei wherein he discusses the film’s (quote) “poor pre-production” and how (quote) “a little bit of me and a little of Lucio” are in the film. In the next interview, actors / stuntmen Massimo Vanni (a.k.a. “Alex McBride”) and Ottaviano Dell’Acqua (a.k.a. “Richard Raymond”) discussed how they contributed to most of the action scenes and also their (at that time) ongoing collaborations with Mattei; in the last interview, Marina Loi discusses her brief involvement in the film and the difficult working conditions. In 2003, Shriek Show rereleased the film with added extras, including a lively audio commentary with actors Deran Sarafian and Beatrice Ring, where they clearly acknowledge the film’s many deficiencies, its troubled production and how physically taxing it was working in the Philippines. At one point, Sarafian points out how some of the film’s locations would be great for playing paintball in! He also, much to Ring’s amusement, begins paraphrasing some of the film’s more inane dialogue in a MST3K-type manner, which, to be honest, is quite amusing. In a bonus interview, make-up effects man, Franco Di Girolamo discusses the rushed conditions on the set and also demonstrates the ‘flying zombie head’ in his makeup studio. 

In 2015, its first Blu-ray incarnation arrived courtesy of 88 Films, and this was a vast improvement compared to previous releases, which made Riccardo Grasetti’s economical, hazy photography a great deal easier on the eyes, and for once, it didn’t just look like a smeary mess! Some of the extras with it included an interview with Claudio Fragasso (17m21s), who freely admits to not having very good luck with zombie movies, and that he and Mattei had essentially tried to remake their earlier HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD, but were at the same time being respectful of signorFulci. In Veteran of the Living Dead (8m10s), Ottaviano Dell’Acqua talks about his experiences working in the Philippines and his now-iconic ‘worm-face’ zombie makeup from Fulci’s ZOMBIE, which graced just about every piece of promotional material worldwide. Other extras included Zombi Reflections (16m26s), a nicely-illustrated audio interview with Beatrice Ring and a live Q&A session with Catriona MacColl (29m30s) at the Spaghetti Cinema Festival in Luton, U.K.; the action-oriented trailer, plus the film’s Italian opening and closing credits rounded-out the extras.  

In 2018, those Italian-loving madmen at Severin have, if that’s even possible, bettered 88 Films’ Blu-ray with their bright, colourful and absolutely pristine transfer of this schlocky, clunky if lovable mess. Retitled ZOMBIE 3 on the disc’s packaging, Severin’s disc is, for the most part, exceedingly sharp indeed, with every squishy, colourfully gory effect getting the most out of the new 2K scan; the jungle foliage also looks especially lush, and even that problematic, colourful opening with all those heavy reds and greens finally looks spot-on as well. Severin's disc is also shown in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, which displays slightly more information on the sides of the frame compared to 88 Films' 1.66:1 transfer. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 English audio also doesn’t present any issues whatsoever. It’s entirely free of distortion and really shows-off Stefano Mainetti’s energetic score, which, in the disc’s first pressing of 3000 units, is included as a bonus soundtrack CD (15 tracks, totalling 43m21s).

Newly-shot for this release, The Last Zombies (18m49s), is an on-camera interview with Claudio Fragasso and his wife Rossella Drudi, who discuss the film at length, beginning with their first zombie film, Bruno Mattei’s aforementioned HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD, and they remain (quote) “pissed-off” about the project to this day due to the fact that their initial script had to be changed because of a lack of budget. They go on to discuss their (quote) “apocalyptic” approach to the film and all the problems associated with the production, including Fulci’s poor health and how he gave Fragasso his (quote) “blessing” to re-work the film. It’s another great interview and, once again, like the interview segment from Severin’s VIOLENCE IN A WOMEN’S PRISON (1982) disc, watch for their pesky kitty-cat trying to hog some additional screen time here! The other new extras are The Problem Solver (8m30s) with Mattei; Tough Guys (4m55s), with Vanni and Dell’Acqua; Swimming with Zombies (4m30s), with Marina Loi; and In the Zombie Factory (5m56s), with Franco Di Girolamo, which all are reedited, newly-subtitled versions of the interviews which had first appeared back on the aforementioned Shriek Show disc. The audio commentary from that same edition is also re-included, as is the film’s trailer, which is in considerably poorer shape than the feature itself, making one appreciate just how good Severin’s disc truly looks.

Housed in a badass black amaray keepcase highlighting Enzo Sciotti’s now-familiar artwork, Severin’s truly outstanding Blu-ray of this troubled film finally looks picture perfect, and may very well garner some new fans of this admittedly flawed if cheekily entertaining film. Severin Films are currently offering The Zombie Dark Super Deluxe Bundle, The Zombie Dark Deluxe Bundle, The Zombie Dark Blu-ray Bundle, the Blu-ray and DVD for pre-order. It’s also available for pre-order from DiabolikDVD, or for you Canadian readers, Suspect Video.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

DEATH SMILES ON A MURDERER - BLU-RAY REVIEW

Best-known for his numerous globetrotting Emanuelle films and a few notoriously gory horror outings, including BEYOND THE DARKNESS (a.k.a. BURIED ALIVE, 1979), Joe D’Amato was a prominent – and much-sought-after – cinematographer in the late ’60s and early ’70s before he embarked on his first ‘official’ directorial assignment, 1973’s DEATH SMILES ON A MURDERER. It remains the only film he ever signed under his real name Aristide Massaccesi, and it’s a superbly realized horror gem, which not only incorporated hints of gialli, but some then-controversial sex and gore as well, which eventually became the raison d’être of D’Amato’s entire directorial career. Long relegated to inferior bootlegs and low-grade releases, Arrow Video’s eye-popping new Blu-ray will amaze most fans of this film, and hopefully generate a new appreciation for one of Massaccesi’s most neglected treasures from his vast filmography.

Bewildering, yet fascinatingly so, Massaccesi’s debut feature unfolds with a succession of loosely-connected scenes, which do, in their own unique way, come together in the end, fashioning this latter-day Gothic into one of the more memorable of the period. Attempting to properly put together a plot synopsis would be futile and ruin much of the film’s novelty, but the general outline revolves around Greta (Ewa Aulin), a mysterious woman who enters the lives of Walter (Sergio Doria) and Eva (Angela Bo) Ravensbrück after her carriage overturns near the castle grounds. Because she is suffering from what appears to be amnesia (“The poor girl’s mind is completely confused!”), Dr. Sturges (Klaus Kinski) is summoned and is baffled by some of his discoveries, which prompts him to return to his laboratory and begin work on a possible reanimating agent (“You’re going to live again!”). Meanwhile, a love triangle between Greta, Eva and Walter develops which unleashes the usual jealousies and, in a moment inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s The Black Cat (1843), the attempted murder of this mysterious guest. However, Greta has far more in store for both Eva and Walter, as well as Sergio’s father (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart) too, all of which is somehow connected to her obsessive – and incestuous – brother Franz (played by Luciano Rossi, an actor who was pretty much exclusively consigned to playing unstable lowlifes for his entire career, often to memorable effect, especially in his westerns and crime films).

Beautifully aided by Berto Pisano’s remarkably lush and melancholic score, DEATH SMILES ON A MURDERER is a stylishly compelling film, which features only a minimal amount of dialogue, with most of the cast instead constantly casting suspicious glances at one another as Inspector Dannick (Attilio Dottesio) tries to get to the bottom of everything. Everyone’s behavior is tinged with an air of mystery and we are treated to a number of mysterious events, including the film’s unique opening moments with Franz kneeling over the corpse of his sister (“Dear sweet sister…They killed you!”), as well as a haunting stalking sequence in a desolate cemetery, and also one of the more bizarre screen deaths involving a possessed pussycat ever seen.

Never released on U.S. or Canadian videocassette, DEATH SMILES ON A MURDERER (or as it is referred to on English language export prints, DEATH SMILES AT MURDER) was available in Greece on the Key Video label, and although that version was uncut, it seriously cropped Massaccesi’s ingenious camerawork, much to its detriment. The film was also available in Japan on the once highly-collectible Sony Video Software label in an edition which was also uncut, in addition to being handsomely letterboxed as well; like Key’s Greek release, the superior Japanese videotape version also came with English-dubbed dialogue and native subtitles. In the early 2000’s, Dutch DVD label Italian Shock gave the film its first DVD release, which was okay for the time, but it was non-anamorphic and featured an only mediocre transfer at best. In 2008, Legend House released the film on U.S. DVD paired-up with Harald Reinl’s THE TORTURE CHAMBER OF DR. SADISM (a.k.a. CASTLE OF THE WALKING DEAD, 1967), and, like the Italian Shock DVD, it too was non-anamorphic, but did feature a commentary track with American Cinematheque programmer Chris D. 

In 2018, the wonderfully diverse Arrow Video decided to tackle this once-rarely-seen film, and the results are nothing short of spectacular! The original camera negative was scanned in 2K, and while the film itself is beautifully crisp and clean, it also preserves a normal amount of grain. The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 tracks in both English and Italian are also greatly improved-upon from previous versions, which were hissy and/or poorly recorded. Arrow have also included properly-translated English subtitles for the Italian audio, which differ slightly from previous versions, which adds a classier veneer to the film, while the more-familiar English audio features the oft-heard voice talents of Carolyn De Fonseca, Richard McNamara and others. 

As usual, Arrow have once again included plentiful extras, beginning with an audio commentary by Video Watchdog’s Tim Lucas whereon he discusses the film’s production history, plus many of the film’s principal actors and parts of their respective filmographies. He also talks about much of Massaccesi’s (quote) “modernistic” camerawork; Pisano’s (quote) “fluid and organic” score, which helps immeasurably to (quote) “carry the narrative”; many of the film’s (quote) “deliberately disorienting surprises”, and its rather ironic ending. It’s a solid listen, which will undoubtedly give most readers a better appreciation of Massaccesi’s distinct approach to this film. The most significant extra is All About Ewa (42m55s), in which the actress, in her first on-camera interview, talks about her entire career and her experiences working with directors Alberto Lattuada and Tinto Brass, latter of whom she describes as (quote) “one-in-a-million” and as someone who loved (quote) “life and sex”; her work on Giulio Questi’s DEATH LAID AN EGG (a.k.a. PLUCKED, 1967), Christian Marquand’s CANDY (1968), on which she was (quote) “showered with stars”, John Shadow’s MICROSCOPIC LIQUID SUBWAY TO OBLIVION (1970), Romolo Guerrieri’s highly-underrated THE DOUBLE (1971), and the present film. In Smiling on the Taboo (21m34s), a video essay filled with numerous stills and clips from Aristide Massaccesi’s films, Kat Ellinger discusses the filmmaker’s taboo-breaking career at some length with great affection and detail. A generous stills and collection gallery (7m20s) and the film’s English and Italian (subtitled in English) trailers are also included. For the disc’s first pressing, a well-illustrated, 43-page booklet includes a thorough essay by Stephen Thrower about how this film fits into his extensive filmography; a terrific piece by Roberto Curti detailing its production; and a previously unpublished interview with its writer / assistant director Romano Scandariato courtesy of Nocturno’s Manlio Gomarasca. This handsomely-packaged disc also features a reversible sleeve with new artwork by Gilles Vranckx along with the film’s lurid original Italian due-fogli manifesto art by the great “Symeoni”/Sandro Simeoni featuring a bloodied Luciano Rossi being clawed in the face by the killer kitty.

Languorously-paced, yet highly compelling, thanks to Arrow Video’s gorgeous new Blu-ray, Aristide Massaccesi’s DEATH SMILES ON A MURDERER can now be properly regarded as one of the last great Italian Gothics. Order it from DiabolikDVD, or for you Canadian readers, Suspect Video

Friday, May 4, 2018

VIOLENCE IN A WOMEN'S PRISON - BLU-RAY REVIEW

Yet another of Bruno Mattei’s infamous back-to-back productions, VIOLENCE IN A WOMEN’S PRISON (1982) was, like his earlier nunsploitation twofer, THE OTHER HELL and THE TRUE STORY OF THE NUN OF MONZA (both 1980), helmed jointly alongside WOMEN’S PRISON MASSACRE (a.k.a. BLADE VIOLENT, 1983), another ‘Emanuelle in Prison’ movie starring Laura Gemser, which was actually directed by his frequent collaborator Claudio Fragasso but attributed to Mattei.  Along with their recent slate of Italian trash films on Blu-ray, Severin have seen fit to give this unapologetically sleazy WIP film a very nice HD upgrade, which should please fans of both Mattei’s and Gemser’s outrageous filmic oeuvres. 

VIAWP follows the standard WIP template to a tee without ever straying outside the lines. Sent to prison for an unspecified stretch for drugs and prostitution, Laura Kendall (Laura Gemser) is soon witness to the usual acts of humiliation, subjugation, beatings and other such ‘niceties’ common to the women-in-prison genre; which are, more often than not, instigated by the head prison guard Rescaut (Franca Stoppi from BEYOND THE DARKNESS [1979]) and the quietly authoritarian warden, Delores (Lorraine De Selle). At first, Laura merely calmly observes the brutality on display from the sidelines, but she herself eventually becomes drawn into and embroiled in the prison milieu too, and in one of the film’s more memorably disgusting scenes, she dumps a bucket of excrement over a prison guard’s head (“I gave you an order! Obey it!”), resulting in a truly one-of-a-kind, shit-strewn scuffle on the prison floor. Thrown into solitary confinement, she is soon hungrily chewed upon by nasty red-eyed rats – possibly relatives of those later seen in Mattei/Fragasso’s notorious post-apocalyptic sci-fi schlocker RATS: NIGHT OF TERROR (1984)?! – during a scene where Gemser appears to be squirming in all-too-genuine discomfort, which only adds extra exploitation verisimilitude to an already sleazy, downbeat scenario. The requisite sympathetic doctor (Gemser’s real-life husband, Gabriele Tinti), himself also an inmate at the men’s prison located – handily – right next door (!?), naturally comes to Laura’s rescue, but, sure enough, one of the prison snitches (Italian porn starlet Françoise Perrot) soon discovers Laura’s covert true identity and motivations, which as a result, sees still more indignities being heaped upon her…

While ostensibly an unofficial Emanuelle entry, Mattei’s film is far removed from Joe D’Amato’s rather playful, globetrotting skinflicks starring the same character (which, in the inimitable Italian exploitation cinema way, were themselves unofficial cash-ins on the legit Emmanuelle [note double-“m”!] series). Shot in-and-around what appears to be a large abandoned villa, VIOLENCE IN A WOMEN’S PRISON is steeped in a morbid sense of decay and hopelessness. Even the sparsely-decorated DePaolis Studios sets are suitably grubby, another aspect that further augments the overall depressing atmosphere. Of course, being a Mattei film, it never fails to entertain, really piling-on the sexploitation staples throughout its almost 100-minute running time. The director also inserts plenty of sleaze in-between all the violence and, in one of film’s more stylistically-realized sequences, cons seek solace in each other’s arms during a montage of Sapphic couplings set to appropriate synth-’n’-sax ‘mood muzak’ courtesy of Luigi Ceccarelli. Over at the men’s wing of the big house, the token gay character (Franco Caracciolo) – who is dubbed with a particularly annoying voice – is constantly harassed by his fellow inmates, which comes to the fore (“Drooling savages! I satisfied you once!”) when one of the female prisoners (Antonella Giacomini) gives the sex-starved men next door a bad case of blue balls (“Look at those jugs!”) while teasingly stripping for them in her cell window, so near yet so far away. 

At the time of the film’s release, Gemser had been an established presence in Italian cinema for a number of years already, and she gives a committed performance (well-dubbed by English voice-talent Pat Starke) as the bruised-and-battered heroine and, as with their earlier co-starring roles, she and Tinti generate some believable onscreen chemistry. As expected, Franca Stoppi also puts in another lively, over-the-top performance, and much like her roles in both BEYOND THE DARKNESS and THE OTHER HELL, she seems to revel in portraying unstable, power-hungry characters who are prone to histrionics.

Released theatrically and on video simultaneously in the U.S. as CAGED WOMEN in 1984 by both MPM (Motion Picture Marketing, who also released Mattei’s zombie opus, HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD [1980] as NIGHT OF THE ZOMBIES), and Vestron Video, respectively, VIAWP film made its official DVD debut in 2002 courtesy of Shriek Show. This was, for the time, a nice-looking disc, which was repackaged by Shriek Show in 2010 in their Prison Girls Collection, a 3-disc set which also included Michele Massimo Tarantini’s WOMEN IN FURY (1985) and Derek Wan’s much-more-recent American zombie splatterfest SHADOW: DEAD RIOT (2006). In 2018, Severin decided to revisit Mattei’s present squalid little film with a new (quote) “2k scan from an uncensored inter-positive”, which still retains the adequate amount of natural film grain and some surprisingly colourfully-composed shots, which nonetheless doesn’t take away from the filthy atmosphere on display in abundance. The DTS-HD master audio 2.0 also sounds very good, with all of the post-synched dialogue coming through loud-’n’-clear.

Extras begin with Brawl in Women’s Block (29m03s), an on-camera interview with Claudio Fragasso and his wife and frequent collaborator Rosella Drudi, who discuss their humble beginnings working together when they (quote) “learned to do everything” on a film set; their initial collaboration with Mattei on the two-pack of aforementioned nun films, and the (quote) “successful formula” of shooting their films back-to-back; their mutual admiration for Gemser, as well as many of the other actors in the film… and, be ready for their camera-hungry cat, Milo, who photo-bombs the proceedings to share some unexpected screen time with its humans! The disc also includes an archival interview with Mattei (2m47s) which originally appeared on Shriek Show’s DVD, the film’s 30-second radio spot (“A bizarre world of violence where anything goes!”) and reversible cover art featuring two quite striking choices. 

Anyone accustomed to Bruno Mattei’s tawdry if colourfully sleazy/skeezy works will be more than satisfied with Severin’s newest, slick-looking Blu-ray of this admittedly scuzzy, straight-ahead WIP film. Order it from Severin Films as part of their Laura Gemser Deluxe Bundle, Blu-ray, DVD or from DiabolikDVD, and you Canadian readers can get it from Suspect Video.