Tuesday, June 17, 2014

LUCIO FULCI: An Appreciation of the Italian Grandfather of Gore

Lucio Fulci would have turned 87 today. And while most gorehounds discovered his work thanks to his Golden Age of Gore that features such classics as ZOMBIE, THE GATES OF HELL and THE BEYOND, his lengthy career in Italian cinema stretches far beyond the genre in which he's frequently pigeonholed. A slightly different version of this appreciation of Fulci appeared in issue #24 of the late, lamented music/wrestling/smut/movie mag Carbon 14. 

Is it sad that I attach more sentiment to my memories of Lucio Fulci – The Italian Grandfather of Gore – than I do to my own ancestors? I suppose it isn't surprising when you consider their respective roles in my upbringing. All my grandparents were dead by the time I was a teenager, right around the time Grampy Lucio took my hand and guided me through his world of grindhouse cinema.

At the drive-in we sat in our lawn chairs, sipped cheap beer and watched GATES OF HELL (aka CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD) as John Morghen got a drill through the head for being creepy, slow-witted and trusting. We cut classes at Drexel to venture to the Budco Midtown for something called SEVEN DOORS OF DEATH (aka THE BEYOND) which featured sinister spiders, nasty zombies, and another of Lucio's trademark head-scratcher endings. Good times, good times. And I haven't even mentioned the hours spent watching – and re-watching – flicks like ZOMBIE, HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY, MANHATTAN BABY and NEW YORK RIPPER.

But recently, something interesting has happened – I've discovered another side of Grampy Lucio. It's like flipping through your grandparents' photo album and realizing that the loose-looking flapper or the Zoot-suited hoodlum is actually the kindly old soul who bakes pies for holiday dinners or took you to the fishing hole for a lesson in baiting a hook.

Despite a filmography that's top-heavy with juicy, paint-the-screen-red titles like those mentioned above, Fulci was quite the cinematic chameleon. After toiling as a screenwriter and assistant director on a number of Italian comedies, he began his directorial career with THE THIEVES (1959) a flop that drove him into a succession of musical comedies, a genre that had become a worldwide sensation thanks to Elvis, Frankie and Annette. The influence of the early days of the James Bond series can even be seen in the mid-Sixties spy flick 002 OPERATION MOON, which can be found under numerous alternate titles like MOST SECRET AGENTS, OH! THOSE MOST SECRET AGENTS and WORST SECRET AGENTS.

Sergio Leone's landmark Spaghetti Western A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964) may have been responsible for MASSCARE TIME (1966) a Franco Nero vehicle that represented Fulci's first foray into that genre.

As the swinging sixties came to a close, the director tackled one of his most complex and intricate tales, a thriller called ONE ON TOP OF THE OTHER (1969, aka PERVERSION STORY). Having been raised on a steady diet of Alfred Hitchcock and Brian DePalma, it became apparent – after a ferociously upbeat jazz-scored credit sequence – that this would be a sinister tale of murder and misplaced accusations. It's got it all – the sick wife, the creepy sister-in-law, the two medications that if switched could prove fatal, the glory-hog doctor/anti-hero, and so on.

Once our victim checks out and signs start pointing to the handsome doc, Fulci kicks it into "innocent man wrongly accused" overdrive and we're left to ponder a number of questions as the story unfolds. Who's the hot blonde doppelganger doing the striptease on the motorcycle? Why is that guy shadowing our hero? Am I gonna get some Euro-lesbian action or WHAT?!

ONE ON TOP is actually one of those rare instance where I wish the flick was longer. Things are going along nicely with Fulci delivering an involving thriller despite some wooden acting and convoluted scenes. And then BLAM! It's like there's 45 minutes missing! Suddenly, our good doctor is on death row, it's getting near gas chamber time, the culprits appear to have gotten away with murder and then twists are layered on top of surprises... all delivered by a newsman talking into a microphone! It's like a comedy sketch where they've run out of money and just tell you what happens rather than show it.

Fulci's 1970s output jumped all over the cinematic map, ping-ponging between thrillers (LIZARD IN A WOMAN'S SKIN) and Dario Argento-influenced giallos (DON'T TORTURE A DUCKLING and the haunting THE PSYCHIC) to westerns (FOUR GUNMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE) and horror comedies in the wake of YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (DRACULA IN THE PROVINCES).

The success of 1979's ZOMBIE – which established Fulci as the premier Italian gore film director – was due in large part to the success of George Romero's landmark DAWN OF THE DEAD (1977). Produced in association with the legendary Argento, Romero's flick ignited Italy's Spaghetti Splatter industry and ushered in the grisly gorefests that would keep grindhouse fans and drive-in patrons glued to their seats for years to come.

But that didn't stop Fulci from detouring into strange and unexpected territory. 1980's CONTRABAND pulls back on the gore reins while setting up a tale of naïve smugglers who resist influences to get them involved in the drug trade. Fabio Testi stars as Luka, a family man/smuggler who enjoys a good life while throwing cops off his trail with exploding boats loaded with rubber dummies.

When a shadowy underworld figure known as The Margliese starts applying pressure to the heads of the crime families, Fulci shines and the flick perks up. There's an uncomfortable sequence where a chick gets her head set on fire for trying to pass bad drugs and when the villains kidnap Luka's wife the body count rises, double crosses ensue, surprise revelations are, um, revealed and the master paints the screen red in the gory shootout finale. Occasionally confusing but frequently entertaining, CONTRABAND is an unexpected crime-thriller with enough action and sadistic gore to keep viewers interested.

The period after CONTRABAND represents Fulci's landmark era of horror cinema. CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD (1980) would be a "greatest hits" reel for most directors of the time and 1981's THE BEYOND is one of the most haunting (and gory) masterpieces of horror cinema. While HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY (1981) is no match for the genius of THE BEYOND, it's still an effective and creepy take on haunted houses – with a zombie thrown in for old times sake. MANHATTAN BABY and NEW YORK RIPPER (both 1982) veered into the then-popular slasher genre but received limited distribution and lukewarm receptions at the time.

Between 1983 and 1984, Fulci helmed two more out-of-left-field projects: the futuristic actioner THE NEW GLADIATORS and the sword-and-sci-fi "epic" CONQUEST. Though they would represent his last efforts outside the horror genre, both flicks are intriguing and entertaining in their own way.

Pre-dating Governor Schwarzenegger's THE RUNNING MAN by several years, THE NEW GLADIATORS mines the fertile post-apocalypse genre for a tale that mixes equal parts social commentary and barbaric sports flicks like DEATHRACE 2000 and ROLLERBALL. Due to slipping television ratings, the World Broadcasting System has resurrected the idea of gladiators for 'The Battle of the Damned'. In a nutshell, a dozen convicted killers battle it out with the survivor receiving their freedom.

To goose the ratings, Cortez (the guy running the whole shebang) decides that he needs a people's champion. So, they hire Drake (played by Jared Martin, later seen on the syndicated 'War of the Worlds' )... a pasty-faced, sunken-chest ween we're supposed to believe is the world's greatest 'Death Bike' champ. He's in prison for the murder of the guys that offed his young bride. Along for the ride is Fred "The Hammer" Williamson, who (I hope) amassed a small fortune acting in these things.

As expected, 'The Battle of The Damned' is the flick's price-of-admission highlight – competitors get gouged, set on fire, decapitated (in loving Fulci slow-mo) and generally abused. Like THE RUNNING MAN, THE NEW GLADIATORS features a mission to knock out a satellite, a maniacal man in charge, framed competitors, a "people's champion" and more.

While NEW GLADIATORS lets Fulci deliver social commentary with the bloodletting, CONQUEST is nothing but a good-time genre-splicing mish-mash that will either entertain or enrage you. Grafting snippets of the sword-and-sandal genre (think CONAN) with a certain well-known space opera, CONQUEST has it all. If by "all" you mean: a bevy of chimp/wolf creatures that are like the third cousin of Chewbacca, twice removed; female actresses that are either topless, covered in blood, drawn and quartered, or all of the above; cascades of blood; a couple decapitations; and, who can forget the "arrows" that appear to have been created by scratching the negative with a paper clip!

Fulci would direct a baker's dozen of theatrical and TV flicks – give or take – after these final non-horror outings, though none met with the acclaim of THE BEYOND and ZOMBIE. In March of 1996, just weeks before beginning pre-production on THE WAX MASK (eventually helmed by effects guru Sergio Stivaletti), Fulci died as a result of a diabetic attack.

While the very mention of his name conjures up images of flesh-eating zombies, sharp implements to the head and visions of the afterlife, don't let Lucio Fulci's rep as the Grandfather of Italian Gore fool you. Check out the surprising and unique cinematic detours that dot his impressive filmography.

Monday, May 19, 2014

THE STABILIZER's Arizal Dead at 71

Plenty of genre icons have left us in recent months but this one will probably not get much digital ink.

Sutradar Arizal – simply credited as Arizal – died at the age of 71. I had no idea who or what an Arizal was until good pal and Cinema Arcana honcho Bruce Holecheck introduced me to the magic and majesty that is THE STABILIZER. An Indonesian action flick starring Brian May lookalike Peter O'Brien, it's such a magnificently enjoyable slice of sinema it's nearly impossible to put it into words (though one of these days I'll try).

Arizal also directed such actioners as AMERICAN HUNTER (another over-the-top winner starring Chris Mitchum), FINAL SCORE (Mitchum again) and DOUBLE CROSSER, not to mention a number of other Indonesian flicks I won't pretend to know anything about.


Friday, May 09, 2014

CALL GIRL OF CTHULU (2014)

Baltimore filmmaker Chris LaMartina's old school horror comedy CALL GIRL OF CTHULU gets both the "horror" and the "comedy" spot on in this gory riot inspired by the works of H. P. Lovecraft.

A virginal artist falls for an escort, unaware that her butt cheek birthmark is her ticket to being the bride of Cthulu. Chock full of gore, grue, boobs, blood and laughs, CALL GIRL harkens back to the days of plucking a classic like BRAIN DAMAGE, THE CONVENT, FRANKENHOOKER or one of the BASKET CASE flicks off the video store shelves.

Coming to video (hopefully later this year according to the filmmakers) but try and see it on the big screen with a raucous, trash-loving crowd. Look for a full review in Exploitation Retrospect #52.


Thursday, May 01, 2014

June 3rd is Ralphus Day! BLOODSUCKING FREAKS Comes to Blu-Ray!

Gasp!

Few films of the VHS era ever spoke to me quite like Joel Reed's hysterical BLOODSUCKING FREAKS (aka THE INCREDIBLE TORTURE SHOW).

Thanks to its softcore antics, seedy veneer, absurd plot, outrageously ridiculous gore effects and over-the-top acting from everybody involved it never fails to entertain.

And now it's coming to home video in all its sleazy, re-mastered glory!

June 3rd is officially Ralphus Day as Troma releases (unleashes?) a Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack featuring:

  • High-Def Transfer from the Original Materials
  • Widescreen 1.85:1 Presentation and Dolby 2.0 Stereo
  • New Bonus Features including interviews with Eli Roth and wrestling star Chris Jericho (?!)
  • A Never Before Seen Deleted Sequence 
  • And, a Original Title Sequence for Sardu, Master of the Screaming Virgins
July brings a 30th anniversary Blu-Ray Edition of THE TOXIC AVENGER but as great as that flick is (and it definitely put Troma on the map) it can't hold a candle to BSF for me.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

ER Lives, Upcoming Shout Factory Action Double Bill, Weng's Chop 5 and More

While waiting out a torrential downpour here on vacation I decided to use my free time to check on the ER blog and discovered it had been a shocking two-plus months since I'd posted an update.

Granted, I have the usual annual excuses like my January through April work schedule to go along with some personal events, but I'm still surprised I hadn't posted anything in more than two months.

Things seem to be starting to return to "normal" and ER 52 is even nearing completion despite an intended release date of Fall 2013 (I always tend to be a little optimistic on those print dates) – hopefully you'll all think it was worth wait.

Anyway, just wanted to pop in, let you know we're still kicking and drop a few pieces of news and notes while I drain some PBR and watch the really large palm tree outside wave back and forth in the storm...

Brian Harris, Tim Paxton and Co. have released another issue volume of the mighty Weng's Chop and it's a doozy. But don't take my word for it. Jason Beck of Post-Modern Trashaeology has a great review of the new issue (complete with a nice shout out to ER and his review of issue 51).

Speaking of Tim Paxton, the longtime zine fixture has relaunched his MONSTER! zine and has already produced not one, not two, but three (!) installments of the latest incarnation of the influential and informative publication.

Need a little action in your life this summer? Shout Factory has announced a Blu-Ray featuring Jim Brown and Christopher George in I ESCAPED FROM DEVIL'S ISLAND plus the Lewis Collins SAS vehicle THE FINAL OPTION which I remember from its days in heavy rotation on PRISM. The flicks will be available as a Blu-Ray double bill or part of a DVD quadruple feature which also includes SHAKE HANDS WITH THE DEVIL and Tony Anthony's TREASURE OF THE FOUR CROWNS.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

January 2014 Watchlist

Nothing like getting the cinematic year off to a good start. Watched 16 flicks during the month including two rewatches (BATMAN BEGINS and KISS MEETS THE PHANTOM OF THE PARK) and not one flick that made me question my sanity as a movie lover.

There were more than a few pleasant surprises including the low-budget customed caper ALL SUPERHEROES MUST DIE, Arnold's comeback vehicle THE LAST STAND and AFTERSHOCK (with Eli Roth as an American tourist in Chile who must survive the aftermath of an earthquake... and worse) plus a couple flicks that totally lived up to their reps (Duke Mitchell's jaw-dropping MASSACRE MAFIA STYLE, the Linda Blair revenge-a-thon SAVAGE STREETS and REWIND THIS!, the first of several VHS-related documentaries I hope to catch this year).

The most pleasant surprise of all may have been 2013's HANSEL AND GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS, which I had dismissed as an uninspired VAN HELSING rip-off, if such a thing is even possible. Turns out it was actually gory fun as the titular characters and their monster-fighting pals stomped heads and, well, hunted witches with glee.

Here's the running list for January... and the new year so far...

  1. DESPICABLE ME 2 (2013)
  2. MASSACE MAFIA STYLE (1974)
  3. SAVING MR BANKS (2013)
  4. ALL SUPERHEROES MUST DIE (2011)
  5. RUSH (2013)
  6. THE LAST STAND (2013)
  7. AFTERSHOCK (2012)
  8. HANSEL & GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS (2013)
  9. BULLET TO THE HEAD (2013)
  10. SAVAGE STREETS (1984)
  11. BATMAN BEGINS (2008)
  12. THE FLASHPOINT PARADOX (2013)
  13. ARCTIC BLAST (2010)
  14. KISS MEETS THE PHANTOM OF THE PARK (1978)
  15. REWIND THIS! (2013)
  16. CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS 2 (2013)


Wednesday, January 22, 2014

"Every Town Has Its Legends..."

"Every town has its legends... Bigfoot, Chupacabra, Loch Ness Monster. We have a Snow Shark."

When I was an adolescent my brother and his buddy took me to a dollar theater for a screening of JAWS (they simply wanted to see my reaction to the head popping out of the boat hull) and since that day I've been a sucker for "nature run amok" cinema. Doesn't matter if it's land or sea, real or cryptozoological, I am all in when man's hubris, ecological tampering or misplaced curiosity comes back to bite us in the ass.

Thanks to the unquenchable thirst of outlets like SyFy Channel, Redbox, Netflix and Amazon, "when nature attacks" cinema is back with a vengeance.  Whether it's a deep psychological exploration of an urban legend (2011's THE BARRENS in which Canada poorly apes the Garden State), a boobified remake of a trash classic (I'm looking at you PIRANHA 3D franchise), or a high-concept "you had me at the title" schlockfest like last summer's SHARKNADO (starring Ian Ziering and Tara Reid!), nothing catches my eye quite like a cover that suggests I'll be watching some washed-up 80s pop star get eaten by a creature with the body of a crab and the head of a social worker.

Sam Qualiana's SNOW SHARK – in which an earthquake unleashes the long dormant titular creature from its icy tomb – barely attempts to disguise its ultra-high-concept ("JAWS In The Snow"). After a trio of university researchers disappear in 1999 – presumably eaten by the computer-generated-looking monster – we fast forward to the present day when another snow shark has reared its ugly head. After the monster makes a late-night snack of the local sheriff's son, things get personal and it's up to the cops, a trio of experts, and a cadre of armed hicks led by Mike (writer / director / director of photography / star) Qualiana to destroy the creature.

I have to give SNOW SHARK points for playing the ridiculous material totally straight. While the sight of the creature's dorsal fin cutting through the snow is occasionally guffaw-inducing, the flick never succumbs to the desire to wallow in parody (like the wretched, almost-unwatchable GUMS starring Brother Theodore) and never had me scrambling for the remote. And though he looks like he's late for his gig as a Teddy Roosevelt impersonator, C.J. Qualiana (the director's father) lends the proceedings a certain somber tone and gravitas as the widowed sheriff who has just lost his ne'er do well son to the creature.

Like MACHETE, MACHETE KILLS, THANKSKILLING 3 and other faux grindhouse concepts, SNOW SHARK is probably an idea that plays better as a two-minute trailer or short than a fleshed-out feature. There's perhaps a couple lead characters too many and despite its 79-minute running time I found my interest starting to wander during multiple viewings. But, like a cheap fast food meal grabbed during a long road trip, SNOW SHARK knows what it is and never raises your expectations too high, and there's something to be said for that.

The 27-year-old Qualiana -– who won the Filmmaker to Watch Award at the 2010 Buffalo Screams Horror Film Festival – is currently back in the writer/director/actor chair for the upcoming found footage monster flick THE LEGEND OF SIX FINGERS. Based on what he accomplished with SNOW SHARK I'll certainly give it a look.

SNOW SHARK is available from Amazon.