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Italian Horror & Exploitation Films

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The Italian cinema of the Fantastique, for me anyways, was born with Mario Bava and his superb 1959 b/w film LA MASCERO DE DEMONI aka THE MASK OF SATAN aka BLACK SUNDAY. It captured the look and feel of the recent spate of horror releases from Hammer Studios only in haunting b/w which I feel is part of this films power. Bava's use of the camera and atmosphere on an extremely limited budget is a testament of his abilities in fantasy cinema (someone once remarked Bava could make a feature out of a couple of boulders and some fog and make it look better than bigger budgeted fare). The storyline is very simple-revenge from beyond the grave,a concept that would be repeated in dozens of films to follow but Bava injected so much atmosphere and dark fairy tale qualities that make this film stand out.

Some of the most haunting images are the carriage ride through the forest, the evil brother of the witch Asa crawling out of his grave, the scene where he meets one of the characters by a stream, the fog seemingly following him, the scene where Barbara Steele is flanked by two big dogs at the cemetery gates, etc... Much of the gore and hints of necrophilia were removed for the US release in 1960. It was a hit and more Bava films were to follow and as usual with foreign films, cinematic racism took precedence (as it still does today).

Bava's THE THREE FACES OF FEAR aka BLACK SABBATH (the band took there name from the US title of this film) featured Boris Karloff as a host of sorts (in the italian version anyway) spinning three tales of terror. Karloff featured in the second episode THE WURDALAK, a masterpiece of horror storytelling dealing with vampirism contains some of Bava's most nightmarish imagery (saving the best for the third story). The third tale A DROP OF WATER, is hands down one of the creepiest thirty minutes you're ever likely to see. A young woman steals a ring from a dead woman's finger and she comes back for it. The first tale THE TELEPHONE is an early example of a giallo and contains hints of lesbianism.

For its US debut, the newly christened BLACK SABBATH had the stories rearranged and new scenes shot for the TELEPHONE episode to make it more of a supernatural story and eliminating the lesbianism angle altogether. The Karloff intro and outro was also removed. The italian version available from Image is the preferred viewing experience for this classic.

Bava's PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES (aka too many to mention) was partly inspiration for Ridly Scotts ALIEN and for the time was quite impressive for an italian sci-fi horror film as they just weren't done during that time. A ship receives a distress signal from another that has crashed on an unknown planet. Once there, the crew finds the ship but everyone is dead. Turns out disembodied spirits want there bodies to find a suitable planet for survival. The ending was lifted from a famous Twilight Zone episode. The bit that was used in ALIEN was a scene where the crew finds some ancient alien skeletons in one of the wrecked vessels.

NOTE: Another film that makes ALIEN seem a downright rip-off is the 1958 American film IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE.

Bava continued making films such as BARON BLOOD, ROY COLT & WINCHESTER JACK, HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD, THE WHIP & THE BODY, KILL! BABY, KILL!, BLOOD & BLACK LACE (the first giallo), BAY OF BLOOD (Christopher Lee, a fan of Bava who also starred in several of his films walked out of this film calling it distasteful) WHAT!, and INFERNO as a cinematographer was his last cinematic contribution. His son Lamberto although nowhere near as accomplished as his father made many films including MACABRE (1982), MONSTER SHARK (starring Gianni Garko!) and his most famous, DEMONS (1985) among others.

In 1969 another horror filmmaker hit the scene with a film entitled BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE that was a hit and jumpstarted the giallo genre named from the yellow covered pulp novels in Italy.Dario Argento ruled the genre with titles like FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET, DEEP RED, SUSPIRIA and OPERA to name a few. The genre became so popular many other directors jumped on the band wagon like Lucio Fulci's DON'T TORTURE A DUCKLING and A LIZARD IN A WOMAN'S SKIN, Sergio Martino's THE STRANGE VICE OF MRS. WARD, and YOUR VICE IS A LOCKED DOOR AND ONLY I HAVE THE KEY.
Some other noteworthy titles are BLACK BELLY OF THE TARANTULA, THE NIGHT EVELYN CAME OUT OF THE GRAVE (starring Anthony Steffen-even George Hilton did some of these) HER BODY SHOWS SIGNS OF CARNAL VIOLENCE, WHAT ARE THESE STRANGE DROPS OF BLOOD ON THE BODY OF JENNIFER? and on and on...

During Italy's fantasy boom that featured gothic horror and the peplum genre (which had Italian and American born stars as well as a few Mae West acolytes) which bore such stars as Steve Reeves, Alan Steele, one time TARZAN Gordon Scott, Dan Vadis, Kirk Morris, Michael Forest, Gordon Mitchell and Richard Harrison. The peplums eventually transformed into the Spaghetti Western genre and a handful of these stars made the transition. The giallo, the zombie subgenre and the extremely graphic cannibal subgenre came next, then around 1980 italian fantasy cinema began producing carbon copies of successful American films.

The first example of this would probably be Enzo Castellari's EL ULTIMO SQUALO aka THE LAST SHARK (aka GREAT WHITE during its brief US theatrical run) Castellari's film was so close to Spielberg's that Universal got a court injunction to remove the film from theaters and never be shown in the US...ever. The film starred James Franciscus and Vic Morrow in the Brody and Quint roles respectively. The only difference is the italian film is much bloodier and the shark changes size from scene to scene-one moment it's gigantic then it's much smaller. Real scenes of various sharks are also utilized. There is also a scene where the shark pulls a helicopter into the water. More italian shark pictures followed including 1984's DEEP BLOOD from Joe D'amato and 1995's CRUEL JAWS.

NOTE: MONSTER SHARK 1984, KILLER CROCODILE 1988 and KILLER CROCODILE 2 '89 from special effects wiz Gianetto de Rossi were similar takes on the JAWS storyline.

The 1979 Australian film MAD MAX started a LONG string of italian rip-offs that include WARRIORS OF THE WASTELAND, THE NEW BARBARIANS (both Castellari), 2020 TEXAS GLADIATORS (D'amato), ENDGAME (Fulci, whose plot was ripped-off in the American film THE RUNNING MAN directed by Paul Michael Glaser from STARSKY & HUTCH! Talk about role reversal!) EXTERMINATORS FROM THE YEAR 3000 and THE LAST EXECUTIONER to name a few.

There was even a couple of hybrids mixing ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and THE WARRIORS. Castellari's 1990:THE BRONX WARRIORS (with Vic Morrow just before the TZ tragedy) and its sequel ESCAPE FROM THE BRONX (with Henry Silva). Sergio Martino's 2019:AFTER THE FALL OF NEW YORK. Many of these films had two things in common-Fred Williamson and George Eastman aka Luigi Montefiori (who also scripted many of the films he starred in).

These films were very inexpensive to make and had little to recommend them apart from lots of explosions and gore. The Martino film 2019:ATFONY is probably the best of the post nuke genre as it is called by fans. Hack filmmaker Bruno Mattei even combined the post nuke with horror and created the fan fave (although not one of mine) RATS:NIGHT OF TERROR. One of the most laughably bad movies ever made with cringe inducing dialog and white mice painted black, the filmmakers try desperately to make them appear vicious although there are a couple of nasty scenes. The ending, which gets a lot of flack, (although I think it's pretty cool) is similar to PLANET OF THE APES....

Mattei, who often used the pseudonym Vincent Dawn on most of his films, is considered by many to be a hack director and in interviews he more or less agrees with this notion. Truly all the films I have seen of his are not good movies but have a charm about them that makes them enjoyable exercises in cinematic badness. My favorite Mattei film and according to Mattei himself, a favorite of many, is HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD (1980) aka ZOMBIE CREEPING FLESH aka VIRUS aka NIGHT OF THE ZOMBIES (US release title not to be confused with the Joel Reed stinker of the same name). The storyline borrows liberally from Romero even using the same Goblin score as well as a cue from BEYOND THE DARKNESS, the best film from Aristide Massachessi, alias Joe D'amato.

In HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD a scientific facility has come up with a cure for world hunger-simply eat the dead! A gas leak (shades THE CHINA SYNDROME) causes the workers and scientists to turn into flesh eating zombies. A SWAT team is sent in to clean up the mess and encounters zombies at every turn. Atrocious dialog, hilarious scenes of over acting, lots of nature footage and generous helpings of gore make for a great camp classic.

Claudio Fragasso, who in a recent interview claimed he only did important movies now, said that this film was originally much more ambitious until the budget was cut in half. Fragasso also says Mattei did not like shooting gore scenes and they were shot by Fragasso in this and all there other collaborations. Incidentally, Fragasso also directed MONSTER DOG with Alice Cooper, the hilarious TROLL 2 and AFTER DEATH aka ZOMBIE 4.

NOTE: Bruno Mattei also directed the hilariously bad and must see film ROBOWAR, an exact copy of PREDATOR. Reb Brown (YOR-HUNTER FROM THE FUTURE) plays the schwarzenegger role. The movie is so incredibly awful it's difficult to decipher whether it's a comedy or serious action picture.

Mattei also finished ZOMBIE 3 when original director Lucio Fulci fell ill. According to many conflicting stories (the actual story may never be known) Fulci was disatisfied with the footage he already had and walked away from the film as he did not want to do the film in the first place. Fragasso says Fulci was sick and thought he had shot a full feature when in actuality he only had around 45 minutes. So Fragasso got Mattei to finish the film.

Watching the film now there is very little that looks like the work of Fulci. Although the film does have some good bits throughout, it's still a mess and another example of Mattei's "so bad it's good" school of filmmaking. Future director Deran Sarafian (ALIEN PREDATORS, TERMINAL VELOCITY, GUNMEN) stars. Mattei is still at it today having done two cannibal movies CANNIBAL WORLD (2005) and another whose title escapes me and SNUFF TRAP (2005).

With the italians jumping on the bandwagon with carbon copies of hit hollywood films, three subgenres are strictly italian creations-the zombie film, which Romero made his own with NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. Then with DAWN OF THE DEAD a worldwide success, particulary for an unrated movie, the floodgates were opened for the cash-ins. But the italian zombie films were unique in that they added supernatural elements absent from the American counterparts.

Examples of this are Fulci's classic ZOMBIE 2 (known as simply ZOMBIE in the US. DAWN OF THE DEAD was called ZOMBIE in Italy and Fulci's film was an unofficial sequel of sorts), Mario Bianchi's BURIAL GROUND (known in Italy as NIGHTS OF TERROR and also ZOMBIE 3-confused yet?), Jorg Grau's classic LET SLEEPING CORPSES LIE, and Fulci's CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD (known in the US as THE GATES OF HELL), THE BEYOND and HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY are some examples.

In Fulci's CITY OF THE... a priest hangs himself in a cemetery thus opening the gateway to Hell in the town of Dunwich. A town I believe is featured in some of HP Lovecraft's stories. Christopher George and the beautiful Catriona MacColl star. There is a great scene where one of the characters is thought dead and buried alive. Chris George takes a pick axe to the coffin and the spike narrowly misses her face each time he plunges it down.

Giovanni Lombardo Radice also has a supporting role. Radice, known as John Morghen in the States, despises having appeared in horror films although he has nice things to say about Fulci and Michele Soavi, he has nothing but contempt for Lenzi and Deodato. He is probably the most abused actor in Italian horror cinema. His horror credits include HOUSE BY THE EDGE OF THE PARK for Deodato, APOCALYPSE DOMANI or CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE for Margheriti, CANNIBAL FEROX aka MAKE THEM DIE SLOWLY (banned in 31 countries!) for Umberto Lenzi, GATES OF HELL for Fulci, THE SECT, THE CHURCH and STAGE FRIGHT for Micheli Soavi. I think he even plays an evil priest in the OMEN remake but I haven't seen it.

Fulci's ZOMBIE, which reportedly made more money than DAWN OF THE DEAD, took the Zombies back to their roots and used voodooism as the means for their resurrection as opposed to the hinted at venus probe crash from NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. There is a famous scene (two actually) where Olga Karlatos suffers severe eyeball violence when she is pulled through a door and a wood splinter in super close up pierces her eye. Another great scene has the beautiful Auretta Gay scuba diving in the nude and encounters a great white and a flesh eating zombie! The zombie and the shark end up battling it out with both having chunks removed. British actor Ian McCulloch, Richard Johnson, fan Fave Al Cliver and Tisa Farrow (Mia's sister) star in this highly recommended and one of the greatest Italian horrors.

Other Zombie pictures followed- Umberto Lenzi's NIGHTMARE CITY aka CITY OF THE WALKING DEAD stars Hugo Stiglitz and Mel Ferrer. A cargo plane lands and crusty faced zombies emerge weilding knives, machetes and guns. This is also the first film to feature running zombies. There are many action scenes as Stiglitz and his wife attempt to escape the city and encounter zombies everywhere. The creatures attack an airport, a military installation, a dance studio, hospital and amusement park. The gore was provided by the busiest effects man in Italy at the time Gianetto de Rossi. A typically mean spirited and mysoginistic Lenzi movie. The R2 special edition has a hilarious commentary track by Lenzi where he pats himself on the back for the films duration.

Enzo Castellari's father Marino Girolami even got in on the Zombie bandwagon with ZOMBIE HOLOCAUST aka ISLAND OF THE LAST CANNIBALS aka QUEEN OF THE CANNIBALS aka DR. BUTCHER M.D. (US title). This particular film combined the zombie and cannibal film subgenres. Ian McCulloch stars again along with the gorgeous Alexandra Delli Colli and Donald O'brien as the evil doctor.

Originally Castellari was asked to do this film but passed as horror was not his thing. The plot is similar to Fulci's ZOMBIE even featuring some of the same actors adn similar locations. Basically, O'brien is working on creating a new race of beings and uses the cannibals to ward off interlopers. Delli Colli saves the day at the finale (you must see it to fully appreciate). The incredible gore effects were done by Maurizio Trani who also did the effects for the zombie mummy hybrid DAWN OF THE MUMMY (1981).

The cannibal subgenre is unique to Italian cinema rivaling the Italian Nazi subgenre of films in sheer tastelessness. Lenzi and Deodato for years had argued over who had actually started this genre but it was Lenzi who planted the seed with MAN FROM DEEP RIVER (1972) aka DEEP RIVER SAVAGES starring Ivan Rassimov and Me Me Lai, a thai actress whom I believe was also a singer. However, Deodato got the ball rolling with THE LAST CANNIBAL WORLD (1976) aka JUNGLE HOLOCAUST...and the ball got bigger and couldn't stop with the release of one of the most vile and notorious films ever made-Deodato's CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1979)...continued later....

Such is the case with Joe D'amato's ANTHROPOPHAGUS: THE BEAST (1979)aka THE GRIM REAPER aka MANEATER aka SAVAGE ISLAND. In it, a boat load of vacationers including Tisa Farrow (ZOMBIE) and Zora Kerova (CANNIBAL FEROX) go to a Greek Isle only to find it deserted except for a woman seen wandering around the village. Turns out the killer (played with gusto by George Eastman) years earlier was lost at sea with his wife and son. He kills and eats them to survive. He is then stranded on the island where he ultimately kills and devours the locals. The same fate awaits the vacationers. They find a young blind girl who can smell the killer when he is near.

The movie is slow in places and doesn't really get going until the final 30 minutes. The film was severely truncated in the US removing two scenes. One in particular caused quite a stir involving Eastman removing the unborn child from future soft core porn actress Serena Grandi while simultaneously strangling her. He then eats the fetus while her husband watches helplessly in the background before expiring from a fatal knife wound.

The other scene involves Klaus (the name of the killer) feasting on his own innards after being disembowled with a pickaxe during the final moments. The movie was a modest success in Italy and D'amato and Eastman returned the following year with a semi sequel ABSURD aka MONSTER HUNTER. The sequel is more of a HALLOWEEN rip off with lots of gore added.

Very nice and informative article.  I enjoyed reading it.  Nice job Commissario.   :P

Thanks. I might expand it as I've learned some more interesting things from other members here.

Peter Neal:
Great article! Lots of info in these paragraphs and a good read, too. ;)

thanks again for the kind remarks. I typed this piece for another forum and once I delve further into giallo movies, I may expand it with thanks to the numerous contributors here. :P


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