Tag Italian

Rats: Night of Terror (1984)

Rats: Night of Terror (1984)

Mutants of a nuclear disaster

Hundreds of years after a nuclear war has devastated the planet, a group of nomadic bikers stumble across an old research lab filled with essential food and water – and thousands of rats. In the years since the war, the rats have become flesh-eating monsters and the bikers find themselves top of the menu.

 

Finally I have found time to check out this infamous Italian low budget classic and it’s every bit as stupendous as it’s made out to be. It’s precisely the sort of Italian exploitation nonsense that gave the country its reputation for producing dodgy films during the late 70s and 80s. Rats: Night of Terror could only have been made in Italy – the premise mixing up the post-apocalyptic scenario made popular at the time by the likes of Mad Max and throws in one of cinema’s worst representatives of the nature-runs-amok genre – the rat.

Let’s face it: rats aren’t the scariest things in the world. They may make people jump on the furniture or tuck their trousers into their socks but they’re not up there alongside sharks or crocodiles when it comes to pant-wetting. Leave it in the less-than-capable hands of notorious hack Bruno Mattei, the man responsible for such diverse horrors as Zombie Creeping Flesh and Monster Shark, and the end result is one of the messiest films to emerge from Italy in its long, varied history of horror. Obviously you’re not going to swallow the idea of killer rats without having your tongue in your cheek at the time. And after watching Rats: Night of Terror, your mind will have been changed little, if at all.

It kicks off with some stock footage of some desert and runs down the story of the nuclear war and how life has changed. Cue the Mad Max moments with the biker gang, each member having one-word names like “Chocolate,” “Duke” and “Lucifer” and sporting the ‘futuristic’ look that only the 80s could have provided. It all comes off looking like one of those early 90s side-scrolling beat-em-ups like Streets of Rage where hordes of enemies were given generic names like “Scarab” and “Dwight.” No attempt is made to give the characters any further identity barring these one-word names so their originality is the only characterisation you’ll get here. They’ve all got bad dubbing jobs too and coupled with the banal script, it makes for some unpleasant characters. It isn’t long before this gang fall afoul of the killer rats and this is where the film becomes interesting.

Bizarrely, the film runs like your standard zombie flick from this point onward where the characters barricade themselves inside from an onslaught, only this time it’s an onslaught of rats. They get well fed in the film so there are no complaints there. The highly ludicrous attacks simply consist of the actors being swamped by a bucket load of rats, seemingly poured in by stage hands off-screen. Some people will actually squirm at scenes of people being covered in the rodents so maybe it’s not all that ridiculous, even making me cringe in a few moments. The rats manage to get pretty much everywhere as well, including a sleeping bag with a nude female.

But due to the low budget, there are only a limited number of rodents on-screen at any one time and in one laughable scene (well the whole film is laughable, just this scene is a little bit more), about twenty rats manage to blockade a staircase and stop the characters from using it. When you see how docile the rats are, you’ll be amazed at the fear they produce in the characters who are petrified for their lives. They could just run past but no, they decide to tremble. In a further sign of budgetary setbacks, a scene in which the rats attack looks like a load of toy rats stuck onto a conveyer belt. Yes, it’s that type of film.

 

For some reason, Mattei claimed that this was his personal favourite out of all of the films he made. I can’t honestly see why! The gore levels are low and there’s little in the way of gratuitous nudity, save for the token sex scene. I know he was used to working on low budgets but this was one takes the biscuit. Rats: Night of Terror is on par with his other work, with the advantage for this being that we all expect a film about killer rats to be as awful as it turns out to be.

 

 ★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Phantom of Death (1988)

Phantom of Death 1988

Let the symphony of slaughter begin!

Pianist Robert Dominici suddenly contracts a rare and devastating disease that causes him to age rapidly. He also begins to suffer from memory loss and experiences mental problems. So when a spate of murders suddenly occurs around him, he draws the attention of Datti, a veteran police inspector determined to stop this maniac before he kills again.

 

My giallo-thon rolls on with another gory Italian slasher-thriller, Phantom of Death. Made by one of the most notorious Italian directors of all time (Ruggero Deodato, the man who unleashed Cannibal Holocaust upon the world) and with a host of other behind-the-scenes names who worked on other Italian horrors, Phantom of Death is a sort of twist on the tale of The Phantom of the Opera. But with this being an Italian spin, you can be rest assured of some bad acting, some terrible scripts and some over-the-top gore scenes. However if you’re looking for Deodato to shock the censors into submission for a second time, then you’ve come to the wrong place. It may be billed as a blood-splattered slash-fest but Phantom of Death is a more character-driven murder-mystery.

This giallo has some severe pacing problems though and despite a gruesome murder during the opening credits, not a great deal happens for the next third of the film. Instead the film is heavy on weak plot and pretty bland character development. The film tries to throw a curveball or two by pretending that the killer isn’t Dominici and every time he phones up the police inspector to taunt him about a new murder, he has his back to the camera. But we all know who it is early on and the fun of the ‘guess the killer’ mystery just disappears.

Unfortunately the film should have then just taken the gore and blood-soaked murdering to a new level by having him slay a few more people but he doesn’t and the body count is woefully inadequate. The gory deaths actually seem rather out of place at times and seem to have been added simply to beef the film up to try and attract the gore hounds. The film does work best when Datti pinpoints the murders on Dominici but can’t prove it as the witness reports are contradictory and, as Dominici is obviously aging rapidly, finds it extremely difficult to believe. The cat-and-mouse games between the two of them are pretty good

The film is greatly enhanced by the addition of its two famous ‘foreign’ stars in Michael York and Donald Pleasance. York’s character is the star of the show and he’s excellent as the tormented pianist. He’s not a nasty villain who deserves to be booed off the screen but rather a tragic man on the verge of death who has lost his self-control. His performance isn’t hammy or over-the-top and is rather touching at times. Even the make-up effects to make him age rapidly are very believable until he’s almost unrecognisable at the end.

Pleasance was clearly getting old and a little bit doddery but he still manages to instil the inspector with a degree of seasoned determination. He’s got a pretty throwaway role though and doesn’t do an awful lot with it but it’s still nice to see a familiar face. However I believe that the film relies a little too heavily on their name value – with the script as weak as it is, it wasn’t going to matter who starred! They’re expected to hold the film up during the bulk of the dull, talky periods and whilst they do a good job for the most part, it’s just enough.

 

Phantom of Death is a rather limp giallo which had a decent idea and even had some alright moments but it’s too talky and doesn’t make a lot of sense at times. You’ll most likely be as exhausted and tired as the poor old dying pianist by the end of it!

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Torso (1973)

Torso (1973)

One Day She Met a Man Who Loved Beautiful Women…But Not All in One Piece

Someone is strangling students in Perugia and the only clue that the puzzled police have is that the killer owns a black and red scarf. Some of the students decide to head to a villa in the country to get away from it all but the killer follows them to finish his murderous rampage.

 

I’ve never really gotten in the whole ‘giallo’ genre of cinema – stylish Italian thrillers (bordering on horror) made in the 60s and 70s. I’ve always heard a lot about them but having seen one or two of them in the past, I always thought they were a bit pretentious and were a lot of a style over substance. But with my current lack of interest in unoriginal modern horror, I’ve decided to go back in time and check out some films made during a time when films weren’t as desensitized and overblown as they are today. The giallos are categorised by their simple set ups and whilst not being entirely original (and many just following the same themes and ideas), they do allow their directors a bit of creative license. Like the slasher films of the 80s became showcases for the most original and graphic death scenes, the giallos became showcases for talented Italian directors to create dream-like pieces of art.

Made way before the Americans got their hands on many of the ingredients featured here, Torsocould well be considered one of the earliest slasher films. There’s the balaclava-wearing killer who strangles people and then mutilates their body (and always rips open the tops of his female victims for a quick grope before slicing their chest open). I love some of the shots of the killer stalking his victims, especially the chase through the swamp. Sergio Martino has framed the killer perfectly and there’s just the right amount of fog and light to make the scene chilling. Later in the film, he also gives us some P.O.V. shots from the killer which was another innovative idea at the time. The best part about the killer is that you don’t really know who it is until late in the film. There are a few red herrings but unlike recent slashers where you can pick out the culprit from the opening scene, this time you can’t quite put your finger on it.

Unfortunately a lot of the male cast look like each other so trying to distinguish who is who does get a bit difficult. They’ve all got character traits to make you think it’s them: the uncle who cares more about his niece’s long legs than her welfare, the town doctor who bought a red scarf from a market stall, the market vendor who sold him it wanting to blackmail someone, the mute town idiot and the prostitute-smacking weirdo with a penchant for violence. A nice group of chaps there, eh?

The gore isn’t excessive but it does look pretty fake and low budget. You can pinpoint the dummies used (watch the scene where the guy gets crushed by the car and you’ll see the worst mannequin ever going splat against the wall) but for 1973, I’d say it was pretty decent given that gore flicks weren’t all the rage and make-up effects were still crude. The victims are all stuck-up art students so you can guarantee that they look hot, they will do drugs and alcohol and most importantly, they will get naked. Actually judging by the frequency of their clothes being removed, I’d say they were studying for a degree in stripping. These women are incredibly hot and I’d say it one was one of the hottest casts I’ve ever seen, definitely not harmed by the fact they all have amazing bodies. Suzy Kendall is great in the ‘final girl’ role or at least in a prototype of what would become a genre cliché. The final third of the film as she tries to prevent the killer from finding out she’s hiding in the villa is pretty nerve-jangling, especially when she is forced to watch her friends being chopped up or else risk being caught.

There’s also a terrific music score which kicks in when the killer is homing down on his victims. If there’s one thing I’ve always admired about the Italians, it’s that their scores are always excellent and add to the atmosphere. It’s something that a lot of American and British directors should be looking to if they want to improve their films. The cinematography is also superb – quite irrelevant really for a horror film but it does add a lot to the ‘cultural’ feel of the film. It could almost double as a tourist guide to Italy (without the copious naked chicks and the balaclava-wearing killer I might add).

Unfortunately the problem for Torso is that if you’d have seen in back in 1973, you’d have thought it was the most brutal film ever. It would have been unpredictable, scary and genuinely disturbing. But if you watch this after you’ve seen a lot of modern flicks, you’ll just probably get a little bored with it. It can get slow in places and the dubbing isn’t the best. Plus there’s a big problem with these older films getting released on DVD and that’s the sound is never perfect so you get a lot of hissing in the background when the scene is supposed to be quiet. It’s not really a big issue but during some scenes where silence is key, it can put a bit of a damper on it.

 

Torso was a pleasant surprise to me. I wasn’t expecting a lot but I got way more than I bargained for. It’s stylish and tense yet sleazy and cheesy and the ingredients all add up nicely. If you’re looking to get into the giallo genre, then this is a great introduction to it.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Cannibal Ferox II (1985)

Cannibal Ferox II (1985)

A journey into the cannibal inferno

A small charter plane carrying a mixed group of people, including a dinosaur bone hunter, a college professor and his daughter, a Vietnam veteran and his drunk wife and a porn photographer and two of his stars, crash lands in a remote part of the Amazon jungle. Knowing that they were off course and that any rescue mission would be miles away, the group decides to trek through the jungle in the hope of reaching safety. They must battle cannibals, slave traders and all of the natural wonders of the jungle if they are to survive.

 

Nowhere near as nasty as any of it’s cannibal brothers, Cannibal Ferox II seems to be a cheap jungle adventure film with a shock-horror title thrown on to sell a few extra copies. I can’t say I had high hopes for this one simply for the fact that these cannibal films aren’t easy to watch, even for hardened veterans like myself. Cannibal Holocaust was probably the most genuinely disturbing film I’ve ever seen (in its uncut form – the butchered version released for sale in the UK is like watching Toy Story compared to the uncut version).

But like zombie films, there’s only so much you can do with cannibal and these Italian flicks share the same plot: a group of people fall foul of cannibals in the jungle and they get maimed, cooked and eaten in all manner of disturbing fashion. However Cannibal Ferox II forgets that it is supposed to feature cannibals and they make up only a small portion of the film. Those looking for a cannibal flick best turn away now because you’re going to be disappointed. If you want to watch a very cheesy but hugely entertaining schlock fest of bad acting, bad dubbing, bad special effects, absurd action scenes and lots of nudity and violence then you’ve come to the right place. But cannibals? Definitely not the focal point of the film.

Right from the start you can tell that this is going to be a little on the cheesy side. The fight between the bone hunter and two oiled-up muscle heads is hilarious – they’re the sort of guys who used to star in those equally ridiculous Italian Hercules films. He’s actually a pretty likeable character and at least there’s some attachment to the character and his lovable rogue charm. The other characters all get their own introductions and you can already sense who is going to survive and who isn’t. Apart from the two air-headed porn stars, the rest of the characters are all played with enough cartoon-like zest that it breaks the boundaries of bad acting to become absurdly silly in a good way. There’s the Vietnam vet who constantly overacts and always wants to do things the violent and aggressive way. There’s his drunken wife who you know isn’t going to make it because she’s too drunk and bitchy. There’s the sleazy porn photographer. And the good old daughter of the professor who graces us with many a naked full body shot. Suzane Carvalho is hot and the camera knows it (apparently she’s an Indy car racer now). What would a cannibal film be without the requisite ‘get the white females naked and in some native rituals’ scene?

Well the cannibals don’t really get much of a look-in to be honest. The jungle itself proves the most challenging obstacle that the group have to overcome. Crocodiles, leeches, piranhas, quick sand – you name it and the characters will be facing it. The film manages to keep a tight pace for most of its running time. There’s always one more character to kill off with each new peril faced. However towards the end of the film, there’s another sub plot thrown in about a group of slave traders who stumble upon the survivors and then enlist them into their workforce. The film was heading towards a decent climax at that point but it just tacks another fifteen minutes onto the film which wasn’t really needed. I’d rather have seen them come upon the cannibals a bit more because what you do see of the cannibals is pretty lousy to say the least.

This slave story really sucks the life out of the film and its purpose seems to be to have a few more explosions, a rape scene and then the token helicopter (a lot of these Italian cannibal/zombie films either start or end with a helicopter for some reason). And on one final note, this has absolutely nothing to do with the original Cannibal Ferox. It was simply tagged with the ‘II’ to try and get it distributed.

 

Cannibal Ferox II shouldn’t be mistaken for a true cannibal film. Yes it has got them in and yes they do get to eat the heart of one of the survivors. But this film is about sleaze and cheese and it serves both up in copious amounts. Low grade exploitation films don’t come much more entertaining than this. Unplug your brain and sit back and watch films how they were never meant to be!

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Monster Shark (1984)

Monster Shark (1984)

Sink your teeth into pure terror.

When boats are torn apart and chewed bodies are found off the South Florida coast, scientists are unable to match the bite marks with any known creature and they conclude that they have come across a entirely new species of predator. They come to discover that the creature is a prehistoric shark with tentacles but what they don’t know is that it hasn’t just reappeared after millions of years, it’s actually a genetically cloned bio-weapon.

 

Can you go wrong with an 80s horror flick about a shark/octopus hybrid loose in the Caribbean? Let’s look at the case: Jaws rip-off? Check. Usual Italian horror movie deficiencies? Check. Talent-less nobodies in lead roles? Check. Monster that looks appalling? Check. I could be naming any one of about five really bad cash-ins on Spielberg’s masterpiece but in this case, I’m referring to the horror that is Monster Shark. I should have had instant doubts with the cheesy 80s synth-based score, sounding more like a porno than anything, blasting out from the screen during the title credits but the cover box lured me in a little too close for my liking.

Monster Shark is just such a dire film right from the get-go and is so eye-shutting slow, that the film reel almost stops at certain points. This is really, really dull. Maybe they could market Monster Shark as a cure for insomnia? If you’ve seen Jaws (I shouldn’t even need to say if), then you’ll know how this is going to pan out. The Italians were masters at ‘paying homage’ to more successful American films (see their countless Alien and Dawn of the Dead knock-offs too) and this one is no exception, throwing in plenty of the same plot elements as Spielberg’s classic. At least Jaws had amazing pay-off to the first half – Monster Shark just keeps going at the same pace throughout the film without cranking it up a few notches for the finale.

Added to the main story about the shark killing people, there’s also a ‘cover-up’ plot where some sleazy hit-man goes around killing people trying to interfere with the genetics project. He has seemingly been added to the film for the sole purpose of stripping one of his victims naked to give us the required T&A for the film. The two plots run awkwardly side-by-side with each other as if two unfinished films were hastily edited together in the cutting room. They never work well together and harm the film in the long run. This is not just a bad film because of its content but it’s a badly made film because of the sloppy writing and editing.

At least some of the other Italian knock-offs like The Great White had some reasonably cheesy and entertaining scenes in them. This has nothing at all. I mean it opens promisingly with the shot of the mutilated corpse being winched up by the chopper but then nothing else interesting happens. Even the few attack scenes are badly handled – you don’t get to see much at all in them and the editing is shocking. When the monster does eventually appear, you’re not given a long look at it but that’s probably for the best as it looks silly and very rubbery to say the least. Watching actors writhe around with plastic tentacles is one thing I can cope with but when the monster takes a bite out of someone, it looks like it’s just stroking them with its blunt teeth. One guy even gets his head lopped off by the creature.

Unfortunately these scenes are not very gory and thus we’re robbed of one of the usually-reliable trademarks of Italian horror. I wonder whether Roger Corman got the idea for Sharktopus from here since there’s not too many films which feature half-shark, half-octopus monsters! It’s fed enough throughout the film but you’ll wish it was fed a little more as the characters are dire. The acting is non-existent as usual in such Italian hack efforts and the cast here are arguably one of the ugliest I’ve ever seen! To say the females are there to provide ‘eye candy’ would be correct if candy meant rotten apples. It’s amazing to think that Lamberto Bava would follow Monster Shark up with one of Italian horror’s cheesiest and most loved horrors – Demons. And it’s also amazing to see just how many people it took to write this mess.

 

Monster Shark is terrible. It’s hard to say which is the worst Jaws rip-off ever because 90% of them suck so badly that it’s uncanny. But this has got to rank there with the bottom three. I don’t even know why I gave it marks – perhaps for the artwork on the poster.

 

 ★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Killing Birds (1987)

Killing Birds (1987)

After a soldier arrives home at his remote Louisiana house to find his wife in bed with another man, he promptly kills them both before he has his eyes pecked out by some birds-of-prey which were kept in cages on the porch. Years later a team of students arrive at the house of the blind soldier, now a bird specialist, to study a species of woodpecker in the nearby swamps. But the house is now haunted and strange things begin to happen.

 

This film, dubbed Zombie 5 in some quarters, is an appalling mess of a horror flick and features a distinct lack of both zombies and erm, well ‘killing birds’ too. I hate it when films that are clearly stand alone efforts are simply tagged with the name of a popular film series in a feeble attempt to cash in. They’ve done in with the later Hellraiser films which clearly had nothing to do with the original films so they simply inserted a few minutes of Pinhead to pretend they are part of the franchise. Some of the later Anaconda films seem like rubbish third-rate snake films which were slapped with the more famous title in an attempt to trick audiences into thinking Ice Cube or Jennifer Lopez were in it. But no evidence is more damning than that of the Italian Zombi films (usually referred to as Zombie Flesh Eaters in the UK) – five films that have about as much in common with each other as the Pope and myself. However all are billed as sequels to Fulci’s classic in a futile attempt to fool the audience and cash-in. Well anyone expecting Killing Birds to fool the audience must be in clear need of help – those looking for a zombie film will be grossly disappointed and those looking at the front cover and thinking “oh look, an Italian version of The Birds” will be in for even more of a shock.

Ripping off everything from Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond to Hitchcock’s previously mentioned classic and even John Carpenter’s The Fog, Killing Birds is just a loosely connected series of gore set pieces with a poor framing device. It’s just a nothing film in all honestly. There are no long explanations of what is going on. Things just seem to happen because they can. The film shifts from different sub-genres with abandon, going from zombie film to haunted house flick in an instant and then switching back whenever the need for another set piece arises. The deadly birds that feature so prominently on the front cover aren’t the main focus of the film and do very little except kill one person (and not as graphically as the front cover, I might add). And there’s only two zombies lurking around the house so they can’t be the main focus either. In fact I don’t even think they are zombies – more like horrible-looking ghosts.

Robert Vaughan’s blind character seemed to be a bit of a menace and perhaps the big instigator of the film at first but then he turns out OK in the end. I mean just what the hell is going on? What was Robert Vaughan doing when he signed on to this – he must have been playing his blind character in real life when he signed the contract! And think about it for a moment – his character is a BLIND BIRD WATCHER! How does he know whether he’s looking at a pigeon or a crow? Actually he’s not that bad in his role and it’s a pity that he isn’t in the film for longer than his five minutes of fame. The rest of the cast are absolutely atrocious and it’s never a good sign to be chalking off people you want to see die quickly. These teenagers act like complete morons for the bulk of the time and, given that not a lot else happens for around fifty minutes, you’re going to be looking at the clock with angst and waiting for the zombies or birds or just some random runaway car to take them all out.

Even the gore, usually the sole positive from Italian horror, is pretty bad. The same neck-slash effect is used too often and it seems like the only way these ghosts know how to kill people. The film itself looks pretty bad too, with a lot of scenes being too dark, too fuzzy or simply just not framed correctly. But then in some other scenes, the cinematography is excellent and the lighting is spot on – including a great scene in which an approaching zombie is back-lit. I think the copy I watched may have been victim of the BBFC and its unnecessary butchering but I doubt it. Killing Birds looks like two very poor films edited together in a nonsensical way to create an even worse mess. There’s not even a decent pay off at the end of the film and it all ends just so abruptly. Either they ran out of money by hiring Robert Vaughan or they simply gave up and called it a day. Maybe it was the wisest choice they ever made. Euro-horror and especially these Italian-made ones hold a very special place in my heart because at least they try their hardest, usually with the same disappointing results.

 

Killing Birds is a sorry mix of The Birds, The Beyond and The Fog. Surely with ripping off those films, then this film should at least have some half-decent moments? Nope. Don’t even waste ninety minutes of your life trying to prove me wrong.

 

 ★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Zombie Dead, The (1981)

The Zombie Dead (1981)

The earth shall tremble…. graves shall open…. they shall come among the living as messengers of death and there shall be the nights of terror…. “Prophecy of the Black Spider”

A professor conducting research into an ancient burial site unwittingly unseals an underground crypt and unleashes an army of flesh-eating monsters. They immediately head for his mansion nearby which is hosting a party. Following a terrifying encounter in the grounds of the mansion, the guests seal themselves inside as the undead gather outside.

 

The good old Italian zombie genre produces one of it’s more infamous offerings with The Zombie Dead, perhaps the sleaziest of the Italian zombie gore fests. Following the success of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, a whole slew of Italian zombie flicks were hastily made and no one did cheap exploitation rip-offs like the Italians. Pushing the boundaries of graphic horror further than their American counterparts would ever dream, the Italian zombie films mostly consisted of little plot, little in the way of characterisation, bad dubbing and generally poor production values. But they contained a tremendously mean spirit and sense of brutality that would see them turned into iconic and controversial films, most notably during the ‘Video Nasty’ furore in the UK during the 80s. It’s generally hard to tell each of the films apart as they all plagiarise each other but the occasional one did manage to stand out. Say hello to one of the most notorious of the lot: The Zombie Dead.

As with Zombie Flesh Eaters 2, Zombie Holocaust, et al, the film makes little attempt at creating a plausible story. The professor unlocks the crypt and unleashes zombies. End of. We don’t learn of how the professor raises the dead or why they have come back to life. They just appear and kill him in the opening scene. From there the script introduces us to the various human characters who will eventually turn into zombie chow by the end of the film. Why are all of these people gathering at the professor’s mansion too? All they do is have sex with each other – I actually think it was some sort of wife-swapping weekend. Whilst this does deliver the T&A pretty early on (and most of the women are really attractive too), it means that you’ll be waiting a while to see the living dead once they’ve offed the professor. The naughty antics and debauchery of the characters is most welcome though and adds a nice sleazy element to the film. The characters are all thinly sketched and apart from one or two of the more infamous characters (more on that later), I have no idea who was who. Names meant nothing to me here. You won’t care about any of the characters because not enough time is spent with them. Andrea Bianchi knows what his audience expects and soon delivers our wishes in buckets when the zombies make their presence known to the characters.

The zombies are suitably rotting and maggot-infested although the make-up department went a little overboard with the oatmeal faces. They’re some of the most realistic-looking zombies ever to grace the screen and look like they’ve been decomposing in the ground for a long, long time. Compared to the pale-faced zombies of George A. Romero, the Italians get higher marks for believability. These zombies are slow and shuffling but also reasonably intelligent, not afraid to pick up weapons to attack their victims or band together to smash down a door with a battering ram. In fact the zombies are cleverer than the cast as is proven when they have the bright idea of opening the doors to let the zombies in since they can be outrun. Look where it gets them!

When the deaths begin to roll, they’re pretty graphic. Fulci’s trademark close-up of someone’s eye being impaled on a sharp object is copied here to the same gruesome effects. Let’s just say that the zombies are well fed. Its rudimentary carnage though as the film simply drifts from one set piece to the next, with no story to hold it all together. But what set pieces they are! The two standouts are the decapitation of the maid which proves that zombies should work together more often and the most-talked about scene of the film during the finale.

This involves what The Zombie Dead is perhaps most infamous for one as one of it’s implied subplots is based around a mother and her incestuous, extremely freaky looking thirteen year old son. I mean this kid looks like a middle-aged man in a tiny body – he really does give you the shivers before he even opens his mouth. Peter Bark, the actor, actually a 25-year old adult, was cast so that the scene where he gropes his mum wasn’t as shocking (imagine having a child do that for real and you can see why they opted for the “tiny” man route). Still, the scene is disturbing enough at the suggestions being made and this bizarre man-come-boy actor certainly doesn’t do it any favours. But the real kicker is in the finale where the now zombie-boy seeks to get his mother’s affection for one last time. Obvious prosthetic chest aside, it’s the highlight of the film. This finale leads into an ending which is just as shocking and abrupt. Take a note Hollywood, not all films are meant to end in sugar-coated packages where everything is resolved.

 

The Zombie Dead is perhaps one of the greatest of the Italian zombie films and deservedly a cult horror flick. With no plot and bad dubbing dragging it down a few stars, the film more than makes up for it with its excellent make-up effects, controversial moments and a general sense of impending doom. Even if you don’t want to sit through the film, I suggest that you still go and find a picture of Michael, the ‘little’ kid, on Google. I swear he’ll give you nightmares like never before.

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ 

 

 

Contamination (1980)

Contamination (1980)

They Invade Your Body … Control Your Mind … Blow You Apart!

A cargo ship pulls into New York Harbor with no one on board. The police find a cargo full of green pulsating eggs which burst when in contact with humans, spreading a green slime that seeps into the skin and causes their victims to explode with a hideous chest-bursting death. A research team is called in to trace where the eggs came from and the trail leads them to former astronaut Hubbard, who returned from a mission to Mars years earlier rambling about alien life forms.

 

Italians used to do rip-offs better than anyone so needless to say this exercise in splatter is simply a thinly-veiled clone of Alien, or at least a whole film based around the most infamous moment in that film, being John Hurt’s chest-bursting exercise. To create a film entirely around one cool moment (albeit such an iconic moment) is a bit of a tough ask and Contamination does it’s best to flesh it out.

The first thirty minutes are quite promising with a cool opening scene aboard the deserted boat, complete with lots of exploded bodies and gore. Unfortunately the film runs out of steam quite early when Ian McCulloch’s astronaut character comes on board and the investigation into what is happening picks up pace. It’s rather dull and talky and doesn’t lead anywhere in a hurry as the characters go from one clue to the next. You know most of the budget has already been blown on the copious amount of exploding people here so the rest of the film is constantly trying to better it.

However you’ll have to keep watching, as dull and monotonous as it may be, as the end third picks up pace again when it’s revealed that behind the exploding eggs is a hideous alien, trying to take over the planet.  Not since the 50s have you seen anything as ridiculous as this thing at the end. Criticism aside, it probably works in the film’s favour because it’s just pure cheese from the start and never pretends to be anything else.

As I’ve already stated, the film has been written around the idea of someone’s chest blowing up. The make-up effects for the chest-bursting moments are pretty gruesome, although it’s repeated once too often for my liking. They always happen in slow-motion for added impact and you can tell when they’re coming because one moment a character is a skinny as a rake and the next they have a huge padded chest ready to blow open. The effect looks great the first time, not so by the time the film has ended and pretty much everyone has blown up. There’s also a fantastically haunting synth-soundtrack from Goblin which gives the film that distinctive Italian feel. Say what you want about the actual films but there are some very gifted composers out there who really left their mark in these films. The soundtrack is arguably the best bit of the film and the signature theme is one of my favourites, giving the finale a powerful kick as the characters fight and try and to survive as the giant alien locks in its hypnotic gaze.

One final note goes to Ian McCulloch who puts in a great performance. I’ve seen some of his work in these Italian horror films and the guy never looks like he’s slumming it, despite clearly knowing what sort of trash he’s starring in. McCulloch has a strong presence on screen and gives the film a much needed seriousness.

 

Contamination is your typical Italian horror – gory set pieces are preferred over pretty much everything else including story and logic. But whereas with some of its brethren, this one actually manages to hold together a reasonable plot and doesn’t just go off on a tangent. Coupled with a solid lead performance and a rich soundtrack, this has been unfairly forgotten behind some of the more infamous films of it’s time.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

City of the Living Dead (1980)

City of the Living Dead (1980)

The Dead Shall Rise And Walk The Earth

In the town of Dunwich, a priest commits suicide which opens the gates of Hell and sets about a terrifying chain reaction of events which, if unstopped, will lead to the dead rising up from the grave. A psychic in New York has the terrible vision of these gates opening and, with the help of a reporter, heads to Dunwich to investigate.

 

The first entry in infamous Italian director Lucio Fulci’s Gates of Hell Trilogy, City of the Living Dead is like the marmite of horror films. You’re either going to love it for it’s outlandish approach and the gory set pieces or you’re going to hate it because it makes not a blind bit of sense and can be hard to follow at times. There’s little in the way of middle ground here but I’m going to try and take it, although I don’t quite get the love for City of the Living Dead as I do for some of Fulci’s other films. Heavily censored for many years in the UK because of its content in the wake of the ‘video nasties’ scandal, it wasn’t released uncut until 2001 but now everyone is able to enjoy this in its original form.

Let’s get the awesome stuff out of the way with first though. I’d question anyone who says that this doesn’t ooze some ether-worldly atmosphere. City of the Living Dead reeks of doom from the opening scene with the village of Dunwich alternating between gusty winds and being drenched in fog. The atmosphere is constantly brooding, with Fabio Frizz’s superbly-ominous soundtrack highlighting the impending terror that will be unleashed upon the Earth. It’s a living nightmare, with each frame of the film ready to burst out from the screen and grab a hold of the audience. There’s always unease and always the feeling that something nasty is literally just around the corner. And this is usually the case, with a variety of zombies which seem to appear and disappear at random (one of many plot holes) as well as the priest, who has now turned into some kind of demonic preacher who can make eyes bleed through his gaze. They didn’t call Fulci ‘The Godfather of Gore’ for no reason and City of the Living Dead contains some of his most memorable moments as the nightmare comes to horrifying reality for some of the characters. We’ve got a couple of unlucky victims who have their brains ripped out by having their heads crushed and there’s the aforementioned eye-bleeding moments.

It is the film’s two major gore set pieces  that are some of the most visually-disgusting but outstandingly-produced set pieces you’re ever likely to see. The first involves a girl puking up her entire digestive system and intestines out through her mouth – it needs to be seen to be believed if you can ‘stomach’ it. The second involves a pervert having a drill slowly inserted into the side of his head by an overly-protective father who thought he was trying it on with his daughter. The scene looks frighteningly realistic and total credit must go to the special effects team who give the illusion that everything witnessed is a continual shot. Possibly the most effective shock scene in the film is the one which doesn’t need gore to work and that’s when Catriona MacColl’s psychic character is presumed dead at the beginning of the film and buried alive. Anyone with a remote fear of this should be advised to stay well as its claustrophobic and unsettling in its depiction.

But this is where the problem lies and it’s a common theme across Fulci’s output. The film makes little sense. I can understand the film working as a simple collage of nightmarish visions designed to replicate the randomness of dreams but he could at least make an effort to get everything to gel better than it does. Literally all the story you need to know is from the opening ten minutes or so when the priest hangs himself and then the physic tells everyone that the gates of Hell have been opened. City of the Living Dead seems to just go on that bone alone and it’s not enough to really keep it from struggling along at times, especially when there’s nothing supernatural happening on screen. The flimsy story simply serves as a loose connection to a series of gruesome set pieces. We never find out why one man’s decision to take his own life spells death for the rest of humanity. We never know why these zombies are able to transport in and out of locations at will. The ending also makes no sense whatsoever – understandable given that they ran out of time to do re-shoots – but I can only review what’s in front of me! And as an end product, the final ‘twist’ in the film is ridiculous. No more so than the characters that have just survived a confrontation with the undead priest.

Speaking of which, the characters suffer from the same fate as the story in that they’re thinly-written and poorly constructed. Both Catriona MacColl and Christopher George do alright in their roles but they play second fiddle to the horrors around them and the robotic dialogue does them little favours. They’ve also clearly had to re-dub their voices over the soundtrack which adds a bit of jarring to the sound, especially when some of the dubbing is a little over-the-top. They’re the only standouts from the cast which features many unnecessary minor characters who serve little purpose other than clog up the screen and provide extra ammunition for the zombies to rip apart (for instance the whole sub-plot with the pervert could have been easily removed).

 

I’ll go out on a limb and advise people to check out Fulci’s far superior Zombie Flesh Eaters (to give it the UK title) before they decide whether they want to venture into his other works. City the Living Dead works purely as a nightmarish journey with some excellent imagery, an amazing mood and some of horror’s finest gore moments. But aside from the gruesome gloss, there’s little substance and I’m sure you could tear the film apart if you tried to piece it all together coherently.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Killer Crocodile (1989)

Killer Crocodile (1989)

A group of environmentalists discover that someone has been dumping radioactive drums along a Santa Domingo river which in turn has also mutated a giant crocodile. As attacks begin to happen along the river, the company responsible for dumping the material blames the environmentalists for the spate of deaths in order to cover their tracks.

 

The Italians used to make rip-offs better (or maybe that should be worse) than anyone else. Two of their favourite films to rip-off were Dawn of the Dead and Jaws, both of which are the recipients of many terrible attempts to cash in on their success and popularity. One of the more infamous copies of Jaws (the ‘pretty watchable in a bad way’ The Great White) was even banned in America for being such a knock-off. So it’s quite surprising to see such a blatant Jaws clone come out around fourteen years too late, especially when the idea is to cash in on a popular film as soon as possible. But then whether it is four months, fourteen years or forty years, Killer Crocodile was never going to be anything but a dud.

Many of the same problems that face these Italian films are evident from the get go. Extremely bad dubbing, a terrible script, some poor actors, a complete lack of atmosphere and suspense and an over-reliance on cruder shock methods like more gore are the film’s problems, not to mention some totally obvious copying from Jaws. Taking into account the obligatory monster POV shots, there’s plenty of other ripping. The opening scene is almost a like for copy of Jaws, with a lone female swimmer going out for a swim, being attacked in the water whilst a guy sits on the shore. The music is very John Williams-esque and it’s easy to spot his signature ‘shark’ motif in there, albeit it twisted around a little bit to avoid copyright problems!

After the first third, the copying seems to cease and the film veers off on its own random tangents, only to crank back up again with the introduction of the token ‘Quint’ character who wants to hunt down and kill the crocodile. Not once does the film manage to create any shocks or tension though, instead creating plenty of unintentional laughs with the situations the characters find themselves in or just the actions of the characters themselves. The characters are idiots – every single one of them. They just find more stupid ways to get into trouble near the water. If there’s a killer crocodile on the loose in the swamp, what’s the best way to avoid getting eaten? Avoid the swamp entirely! But here we have people who hang over the edges of boats waiting to be knocked into the water. We’ve got guys who venture out in the smallest, cheapest boats possible. Everyone seems so aggressive too and they’re always barking their lines out in anger. I know it’s the badly botched job on the dubbing but it adds a comic effect to the tone which it doesn’t need. The hunter character even resorts to calling the crocodile names in an attempt to hurt its feelings. I’d much prefer a shotgun myself. Despite shooting it many times with an elephant gun and making little difference, he decides to leap onto its back and stab it repeatedly with a boat hook. The scene is totally absurd but at least it raises a chuckle.

I’m not sure what to make of the crocodile but at least I can see where a lot of the budget went. It certainly looks fake but it’s big, pretty fearsome in close-ups and you get to see a lot of it. At least there is an animatronic crocodile which is used for interaction during attack scenes so you see characters being bitten and dragged underwater by the crocodile. These are not victims of stock footage attacks like many of it’s genre ilk opt to display and it was made in a time before CGI come to prominence. It’s an old fashioned mechanical monster and it earns brownie points for that. The crocodile doesn’t do an awful lot though except swim around in a straight line, bump into boats and roar and growl a lot.

Being predominantly water-based, obviously the crocodile needs people to come to it and so takes to smashing into boats to knock people overboard. The crocodile would have worked a lot better had the film actually kept it hidden away for longer to build up the anticipation of its first appearance. But you get to see it early on so there’s no big pay-off towards the end. Once you’ve seen it attack once, you’ve seen the rest of the attacks as they’re all pretty much the same.

 

Killer Crocodile isn’t as bad as it probably deserved to be. There are a few decent moments, the crocodile at least looks real enough and it gets reasonably well fed, it’s just that the film is so dumb, so derivative and so badly made. If you’re a fan of these Italian exploitation films then maybe Killer Crocodile would appeal but to the rest of us, this is one crocodile that needs turning into a fashionable pair of shoes ASAP.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆