Thursday, October 27, 2005

Petri Dish 101 is Going to EAT YOU!!!

The films of Ingmar Bergman radically changed cinema by turning the director’s point of view inward. The Swedish master's quiet, personal films emphasized inner conflict, eschewing action for psychological substance…
Just kidding.

Some people experience waves of childhood nostalgia from The Wizard of Oz, or from a comfy childhood quilt. Some are propelled into the reverie of remembrance by a favorite old song.
Me, I get warm nostalgic fuzzies from Italian zombie movies. Blame the Parkland Theater, which screened 'em with reassuring regularity.

The Italian zombie film, like a lot of other exploitation genres, first took root in the good old U S of A. George Romero's Dawn of the Dead was a huge international hit upon its release in 1978, and its combination of flesheating zombies, action, and graphic violence registered strongly with audiences all over the world. Since there was no NC-17 rating back then, Dawn was released by Romero without an MPAA rating, to avoid the box office stigma attached with the dreaded (by non-pornographers, anyway) X rating.

In Italy, Dawn of the Dead made a mint under the title Zombi. Small platoons of Italian exploitation directors soon saw the opportunity to imitate Romero's work to profitable effect, creating their own blood-soaked thrillers with walking dead, spurting blood, and flying viscera.

The Italian zombie flicks (or Gutmunchers, as some like to affectionately call 'em) represented the ultimate in cinematic forbidden fruit to a horror-crazed kid back in the late '70's/early '80's. Like Dawn, most of the Gutmunchers were released without an MPAA rating due to the graphic violence on display. The home video explosion was still in its embryonic stages, so the only way to see most of these films was in a theater, and movie houses strictly enforced the No One Under 17 Admitted policy. Even the normally lax acne cases ushering the Parkland refused to let me in to see Zombie, the first of the mediterranean Dawn knockoffs. This, despite my patient mom's presence as guardian (I was twelve at the time).

In case you haven't gathered already, the Gutmunchers didn't usually aim high artistically. Most served as little more than typical horror programmers spiked with 120-proof violence (and occasionally sex), without Romero's ice cubes of social commentary and characterization to water down the horrific homebrew. If you've got a strong stomach, though, these enthusiastically nasty shockers offer an absolutely fascinating glimpse at a bygone era in exploitation cinema.

Today's glossy, self-referential, and snarky modern fright flicks are usually helmed by young bucks with music video and commercial backgrounds. The Dawn clones, on the other hand, were directed by old hands in the Italian film industry--craftsmen, journeymen, and hacks (sometimes all rolled up in one) who previously polished their craft on spaghetti westerns, sword-and-sandal epics, and sexploitation potboilers. And in true Italian style, most of these veterans dug into the sensational elements of the Gutmuncher genre with the unjaded gusto of, well, a flesh-eating zombie digging into a handful of newly-procured human internals.

The rampant popularity of horror on DVD has led to a whole tassel of these bloody-jowled little works being reissued in almost absurdly crisp new versions. Lucio Fulci's Zombie, for example, received a deluxe two-disc, extras-packed treatment from Media Blasters/Shriek Show well before Gone with the Wind got multi-disc love from Warner Brothers. It's a strange universe we live in. But enough of my jabberjawing. Below is a list of the Gutmuncher Essentials on DVD. Dig in...if you dare!

Zombie (aka Zombi 2--originally released in 1979, issued on DVD by Media Blasters/Shriek Show and Blue Underground): Director Lucio Fulci labored for almost twenty years in the Italian film industry, heading up everything from westerns to James Bond spoofs. But in the late '70's and early '80's he found his grue-soaked niche in the horror genre, creating a whole series of chillers that wallowed in bloodletting with almost pornographic excess. Zombie set the gold (OK, blood-red) standard for the gutmuncher genre, and gave its director lasting notoriety.

Italian distributors sold Zombie as an implied sequel to Dawn of the Dead by christening it Zombi 2 in its homeland, but to its credit, Fulci's first foray into Gutmuncher turf stakes out its own identity pretty quickly. A deserted scientific ship drifts into a New York coastal harbor. Ann (Tisa Farrow, Mia's little sister)--the daughter of the boat's missing owner--travels to an uncharted island in the Antilles with a stalwart English reporter (Ian McCulloch) to try to find her father.

The bulk of the film unwinds on that island, as the Gutmuncher Commandments are checked off. The dead rise and begin devouring the living. A Scientist (in this case, British character actor Richard Johnson) labors to vanquish a zombie plague that he may or may not have helped to induce. The heroes discover that walking corpses can only be taken out by a bullet to the head. Guts are munched by the barrel. And you can forget about a happy ending, bucky.
It's easy to dismiss Zombie as grindhouse sleaze, and indeed, it hurls sensationalism by the shovel at its viewers (name the last movie you saw with a great white shark battling a zombie underwater while a topless lady skindiver narrowly escapes both flesheaters). Look beyond its gleefully scuzzy Coat of B-Movie Colors, though, and some real (dare I say it?) artistry surfaces from the mayhem.
An atmosphere of utter despair clings to the early island scenes like rough sand on wet skin--the director deliberately denies his audience even a tiny ray of the humor Romero injected into Dawn. Johnson (excellent here) wearily fights the zombie plague, armed with pitiful resources amidst a dilapidated backdrop of shanty shacks and sickly poor. As envisioned by cinematographer Sergio Salvati, this sand-blasted ghost town of an island village is light-years removed from George Romero's urban land of the undead. And Fulci mounts his monstrous money shots with such suspenseful grace he almost doesn't need to slather on the hemoglobin and entrails.
But slather, he does. Zombie rolls out some of the Italian maestro's most showstopping setpieces of splatter, including an incident of occular violence that imprints itself on the brain as much for its excruciating build-up as it does for sheer "Dear God, did they just SHOW THAT?!" impact.
City of the Living Dead (AKA The Gates of Hell, 1980, Anchor Bay Entertainment): Not content with merely providing feeding footage of flesh-eating zombies, Lucio Fulci stirred Book-of-Revelations prophecy into the formula with his next Gutmuncher. A priest in the tiny New England town of Dunwich commits suicide, opening the gates of Hell. In three days, the dead will walk and the entire world will be swallowed up in some major evil mojo. A scruffy reporter (Christopher George) and a psychic (Catriona MacColl) race against the clock to reclose the gates.
Despite the added mysticism, City of the Living Dead lacks Zombie's sustained tension--in fact, at times it skirts dullness by comparison. Fortunately, the Godfather of Gutmunch arms this foray into fright with George's tobacco-stained character cool and MacColl's expressive seriousness (over the years she became Fulci's best and most frequent leading lady). There's a great, tense scene where George rescues MacColl from a premature burial (seriously, it's a gore-free but awesomely Hitchcockian moment of suspense). And best (worst?) of all, the sick setpieces rank among the master's finest. I'll try not to spoil the fun, but one scene involves a power drill and the skull of one of Italian trash horror's finest lowlifes, John Morghen. Another gives the phrase, "Puking your guts out" a whole new, potent meaning. You've been warned...
Nightmare City (AKA City of the Walking Dead, 1980, Anchor Bay Entertainment): Mainstream critics patted themselves on their backs comparing 28 Days Later with Dawn of the Dead, but Danny Boyle's acclaimed thriller owes its whole central conceit to this stupidly entertaining Gutmuncher. The flesh-eaters in Nightmare City aren't so much zombies as they are crazed, radiation-infected (in lieu of 28's genetically-engineered plague) cannibals who sprint like Olympians and add hacking, gouging, and even gun-wielding to the repertoire of intestine-gnawing. Since they roll their eyes and grimace like moustache-twirling silent-movie villains with oatmeal facials, it's hard to get really scared by 'em, but they're fun to watch. Anyway, a lone TV newsman (Hugo Stiglitz) fights to warn the public that these crusty-faced radioactive cannibals are on their way, but his unfeeling studio bosses ignore his request to pre-empt the ratings bonanza that is an aerobics dance show.
You've read right; there's a zombie/cannibal infestation, and there's an Aerobic Dance TV Show coinciding with it. If you're as much of a freak as me, you're just praying--PRAYING--that these two great tastes will get a chance to taste great together. With director Umberto Lenzi (one of Italy's most venerable exploitation hacks) at the helm, rest assured your prayers are answered with blood-spattered spandex and a Euro-disco backbeat.
That, mind you, is only one five-minute sequence, twenty minutes into Nightmare City. Lenzi also thoughtfully provides about a dozen throat-rippings, one nifty ax murder, limb-rending, Mel Ferrer, and some, um, nipular trauma that'll elicit a groan of sympathy in anyone who's ever had a piercing. And 28 Days Later wasn't the only mainstream hit that cribbed from this little gem. The existentially loopy ending prefigures, of all things, the basic premise of Groundhog Day. I kid you not.
The Beyond (Anchor Bay Entertainment, 1981): This flawed but extremely effective horror film belongs in a dead heat with Zombie as Lucio Fulci's finest directorial hour. An artist in 1927 New Orleans is tracked down and gruesomely murdered in his house by a pack of angry locals. Said artist, it turns out, possesses Satanic connections, and the grounds of his home house one of the Seven Gates to Hell. Fifty-some years later, Liza (Catriona MacColl) inherits the property, and the Hellgate is somehow swung widely, catastrophically open.
From there, The Beyond takes a step into Fulci's most surrealistic and sustained nightmare world. The sometimes languid pace and lush photography(Sergio Salvati again mans the lens) create a druggily dreamlike and hypnotic atmosphere. In fact, The Beyond mounts its sense of foreboding so elegantly that Fulci's trademark images of gruesome death, mutilation, and (yep) gutmunching threaten to jerk the viewer out of the magic at times; at a few points, it's like watching an art film abruptly stuffed with porno inserts.
Even with this jarring collision of elements, The Beyond really delivers--at its best, the movie manages to have its bloody cake and eat it, too. Sledgehammer gore effects combine with good old-fashioned tightly-wound tension in the final act, as Liza and her beau John (David Warbeck) fight to escape an entire hospital full of the living dead. And the final shot's a nihilistic, almost Lovecraftian doozy.
Zombi Holocaust (AKA Dr. Butcher, Medical Deviate, 1980, Shriek Show/Media Blasters): Organs and limbs are being stolen from New York hospitals. Why? Hell if I know. But it has something to do with experiments taking place on a remote tropical island. It's up to a beautiful scientist (Alexandra Della Colli) and a NYC investigator with a British accent (Ian MacCulloch, the John Agar of the gutmunchers) to travel to that island and solve the mystery. Zombi Holocaust teases with its non-gutmunching zombies, but director 'Frank Martin' (aka Marino Girolami) compensates with lots of cannibals feasting on the ridiculous stock characters, a nutty doctor (Peter O'Neal) who (to everyone's surprise but the viewer's) is up to no damned good, a lovely zombie-head-meets-outboard-motor scene, and some of the most uproarious dubbed dialogue this side of an Ed Wood feature.
Hell of the Living Dead (AKA Night of the Zombies, 1981, Anchor Bay Entertainment): If Zombie is the Dom Perignon of Italian zombie flicks, Hell of the Living Dead is the warm bottle of Mad Dog 20/20. It's the most openly artless, patently absurd, sloppily made, laughably acted, hilariously gratuitous, and outright incompetent Gutmuncher ever--in other words, absolutely essential viewing.
Some poor schmuck in Haz-Mat gear at a high-security chemical plant in New Guinea gets his throat ripped out by a rat (don't ask), and accidentally releases a scary virus-laden gas that creates (Presto!) flesh-eating zombies. A SWAT team, reluctantly joined by a buxom anthropologist (Margit Evelyn Newton) and her Yanni-lookalike photographer chum (Selan Karay), head to the factory to try and stave off the Funky Zombie-Making Gaseous Cloud.
I saw Hell of the Living Dead (under its alternate US release title, Night of the Zombies) no less than four times at the Parkland Theater as a teen. And as with any profound work of art, each successive viewing revealed different shadings and nuances. The jaw-dropping use of New Guinea wildlife footage; the chubby-cheeked little zombie boy who looks like Mikey the Life Cereal Kid gone Gutmuncher; Franco Garofalo's bug-eyed, scenery-gnawing performance as the loose-cannon of the intrepid crew; the SWAT-team member who dons (you don't have to believe me if you don't want to) a top hat and tutu amidst a zombie infestation; the utterly shameless scavenging of Goblin's Dawn of the Dead music (in the documentary on the DVD, Hell director Bruno Mattei alleges that he 'borrowed' said soundtrack for his masterpiece); Faux-Yanni's tasteful vomit launch; and a nude scene that's so hilariously, ridiculously random and gratuitous that it induces side-aching torrents of laughter from even the most anally-politically correct of mortals.
Anchor Bay Entertainment's DVD sports a clean print and a good handful of extras. But the movie's so gleefully, magnificently lousy that even normally ultra-respectful Anchor Bay can't resist devoting all of the disc's liner notes gleefully, magnificently lousy the movie is. If that doesn't scream out a ringing endorsement to you, you best go sniffing around a Seventh Heaven fansite.

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