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The hidden romanticism Lucio Fulci’s Gates of Hell trilogy

Please note that this article may contain spoilers.

The Gates of Hell trilogy of films from the Italian director Lucio Fulci defy classification to a certain extent. Sure they are horror but what type? As fans of the genre will understand, using such a broad classification is too simplistic when discussing not only our love of these films but the artistic intent and style contained within. 

By using such an umbrella term one may fail to do justice to the work and the (variety of the) genre. Consider the films of Lucio Fulci alongside the horror of Tobe Hooper (TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE; POLTERGEIST), Wes Craven (A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET) and Alexandre Aja (HIGH TENSION; PIRANHA 3D). All of which are notably different and may appeal to slightly different audiences but yet all come under the bracket of horror.

So there is often the need to discuss and classify sub-genres but what kind of horror do the Gates of Hell films fall under? 

General consensus would place them in the filone of the zombie sub-genre however at certain points they may also incorporate the supernatural, the haunted house, the fantastical, the slasher and maybe even a little touch of the giallo. One thing however is that these three films are art.

In his book How to Read A Film, James Monaco argues that art is what you can’t specifically define and these three films certainly adhere to this. 

But ironically even the undefinable needs to be classified. I propose that these films do in fact conform to the definition of later period romanticism. That is to argue that they are art for art’s sake; in this case to elicit a sense of trepidation and fear. The same argument could be made for SUSPIRIA by Dario Argento, but that is a topic for another article.

Taking the movement of romanticism, which promoted form over content, we can see clear parallels between it and the work of Lucio Fulci covered here. Hardly surprisingly and I doubt a coincidence or mere conjecture considering that the director himself started out as an art-critic.

Throughout each film of the trilogy we are quick to realise that despite a relatively basic story that the films themselves do not directly relate to our reality, that is the world in which we live in, but rather to the relationship between the film and the artist (that is to say Lucio Fulci) and to the relationship between the film and us – the viewer.

Ever since the Ancient Greeks and their creation of drama a psychological element has been evident in performance but here it is taken to a logical, or perhaps that should be illogical, extreme wherein the emotion felt is the art and therefore is also the film. As such the three films that make up this trilogy focus on the visual and the atmospheric as opposed to plot or character development. A clear prioritisation for the makers is the focus on abstractism.

Although that is not to say the trilogy was exempt from contemporary economic demands or pressures. Those zombies are not there necessarily because they suited Lucio Fulci’s artistic vision but rather because distributors insisted that they be there and besides it was the early nineteen eighties and zombies sold. And who was he to argue with their demands considering it was their money paying for it all. Not to mention that it was arguably the zombie which gave him his biggest box office returns and may do once again.

CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD was originally proposed under the title Paura, which translates as fear in Italian, and according to Italian screenwriting legend and frequent Lucio Fulci collaborator, Dardano Sacchetti, after the success of ZOMBIE FLESH EATERS the director had realised the potential success that could be had from the horror genre and so he began reading H.P. Lovecraft, falling in love with the atmosphere of the books, in a bid to further his own journeyman career. This perhaps explains why the flesh-munching voodoo inspired ghouls from his previous film were put aside for more cranial, teleporting creatures. 

With a desire to reach critical and commercial success, a refined and well-read palette and having shown himself to have his own artistic capabilities (see A LIZARD IN A WOMAN’S SKIN for evidence) it was as if now “(Lucio) Fulci had let go of reality and embraced the fantastic…[taking] horror into a more primal subconscious place” (Eli Roth in An Introduction to The Beyond [Arrow blu-ray booklet]). 

City of the Living Dead

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Starting with CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD, a film which critics and fountains of Italian genre cinema knowledge Antonio Bruschini and Antonio Tentori state “oscillates between splatter and fantasy, visual cruelty and metaphysical poetry” (from their book Lucio Fulci: Poetry and cruelty in the movies). A brief synopsis of the film sees a reporter and a psychic traveling to Dunwich to close a gate of hell which opened due to the suicide of a priest, courtesy of a powerful and heretical opening – it all sounds rather straightforwards.

However a deep Lovecraftian influence pervades the film lending it a sense of the strange. Additionally there is further literary influence as opposed to a cinematic one, by way of the likes of Edgar Allen Poe (the rural gothic atmosphere; premature burial) and Stephen King (influence from Salem’s Lot). These influences are moulded into something that would almost define what many would think of when they think of Lucio Fulci’s body of work – surreal visual horror.

All of the Lovecraftian illogical and unpredictable horror utilised actually generates its real horror from the evil of men and their sadistic nature. This dark cynicism is a theme common in several of Lucio Fulci’s films.

In CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD perhaps this is most clearly shown in the brutal killing of Bob (as played by Giovanni Lombardo Radice). Here this act represents arguably one of the most brutal moments in the film and without a supernatural aspect in sight.

Talking of the supernatural, the séance in the opening of the film is unfortunately borderline Garth Marenghi, just take a look at the flames that occur after the first incident, but does a job in setting the tone for the rest of the movie.

Another moment from the otherworld, and one in which makes very little narrative sense, is where familiar faces Michele Soavi and Daniella Doria are sat in a car when our problematic priest reappears and disappears causing eyes to bleed, intestines being vomited up and skulls being crushed by teleporting zombies. Here the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ are irrelevant making it about the form and not the content. 

Free from the restrictive shackles of the George Romero inspired undead or even the requirement for a tight script and continuity, Lucio Fulci is able to focus more on the form. As Fangoria editor Chris Alexander is quoted in the booklet ‘Fulci of the Living Dead’ by Calum Waddell, CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD see’s “Fulci at his most uninhibited, free to jam his curious camera into the crevices of creepiness…with grandiose, abstract gore and surreal shock.”

Further support for the argument of art for art’s sake can be found in the films ambiguous ending. Like with a painting (more on that later), we the viewer are invited to overlay our own thoughts and interpretation to the piece. This is device that is repeated across the three films and the idea of the innocence of children is explored further also.

The Beyond

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A year later and THE BEYOND would continue with not only many of the same themes but also an ending that is also open to interpretation. 

Due to its focus on visual horror and supernatural themes some have compared THE BEYOND to the first two (SUSPIRIA; INFERNO) of Dario Argento’s ‘3 Mothers’ trilogy however this is slightly misleading as although there are several commonalities the key driver and execution are significantly different. 

In THE BEYOND Lucio Fulci eschews the more traditional thriller plot structure and instead fully commits to creating “an experiment in total terror” (Antonio Bruschini and Antonio Tentori). The film builds on the abstract and the surreal which again gives the director free reign to terrify us with no logical rhyme or reason. But that is ok as this almost dreamlike narrative flows like a nightmare as again the how and why is superfluous to the resulting action. 

Now THE BEYOND is the perhaps the best example of form over content, with critics such as Arnold Blumberg & Andrew Hershberger (in their book Zombiemania: 80 Movies to die for) stating that “the key to appreciating the proceedings is not to get wrapped up in the plot and instead focus on the mood.” Something that the director is on record as stating as the aim indicating a very conscious effort. Upon its release Lucio Fulci is believed to have been quoted as saying:

“People who blame The Beyond for its lack of story have not understood that it’s a film of images, which must be received without any reflection. They say it is very difficult to interpret such a film, but it is very easy to interpret a film with threads: Any idiot can understand Molinaro’s LA CAGE AUX FOLLES, or even Carpenter’s ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, while THE BEYOND or Argento’s INFERNO are absolute films.”

THE BEYOND opens in Louisiana, 1927, as an armed mob slowly descend upon a large rural hotel. A psychic reads the book of Eibon telling us of seven gateways but it is not her that the vigilantes are interested in but an ungodly warlock, played by the distinctive Antoine Saint-John (THE KILLER MUST KILL AGAIN), who resides in room number 36.

More than a simple whipping later we jump to contemporary times as Liza (Catriona MacColl) inherits said old building and is having it renovated so that may give her a much needed fresh start. Throw in a handsome local doctor (as played by David Warbeck) and we get what initially looks like playing out as a classic gothic horror but with Italian horror sensibilities. However after an attack on Joe the friendly plumber, things begin to change. 

This act of shocking barbarity is followed immediately by a beautiful and expansive shot of an empty bridge, save for Liza travelling in her car. But in the middle of the bridge, quite literally stands a blind woman, Emily, and her canine companion. Very strange. Even more so considering Emily was stood there waiting for Eliza and we get a sense that whatever conventional narrative (in horror terms at least) that had begun to take hold was about to be twisted into something a little stranger. On a side note the arthouse film INFERNO VENEZIANO would take influence from the image on the bridge and prove to be equally out-there in terms of abstract horror.

Now after some much needed exposition, courtesy of our blind friend, we get a first look towards a barren and bleak painting, showing us more that what is just on the canvas. Such as with any painting the meaning is personal and open to interpretation. While in his review Donato Totaro states that the “painting that becomes integral to the thematic and metaphysical landscape” and I am certainly one to agree.

In THE BEYOND Lucio Fulci has shown us the materials for which we can either interpret, simply accept and be entertained or as is the case with most genre fare, to scorn and ridicule it’s lack of spoon-fed narrative. However you see it though, you cannot deny that THE BEYOND has the feeling of a film in which anything could happen and it does.

The House by the Cemetery

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It is hardly surprising that the thematic influence of Lovecraft would seep into the final entry of the trilogy, only this time it is seemingly merged with a variation of the myth of Frankenstein. Only this time the doctor and the monster are one and the same.

In the film, rationality once again takes a backseat and rather than mull over lines such as “You really should take those pills your baker prescribed” we should instead accept and appreciate that it plays out almost in a dream-like state where brutal random violence is juxtaposed with childlike innocence by way of situations that assault our senses.

Much like CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD the film is a mesh of several strands of horror; the slasher, the giallo, the supernatural and the haunted house movie. Because of this THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY is the hardest film of the three to rationalise in terms of a (neo)romaticism angle, as it could just as easily be argued for as a disjointed and incomplete mess as it could a poem of childhood anxiety and fear. 

For those unfamiliar with the film the basic storyline focuses on Dr. Norman Boyle (Paolo Malco) and his family, rounded off by Catriona MacCall as the wife and Giovanni Frezza as the oddly voiced son, who relocate to the rural town of New Whitby (a Bram Stoker reference perhaps?) so that he may continue on the research of his recently departed mentor. Oh did I forget to mention that the research was on suicide and the late mentor had also committed suicide – the ill omens are all there. While discussing strange coincidences this is a second pivotal character in the trilogy named Bob. 

From the very beginning Lucio Fulci lays his cards out on the table for all to see, indeed even before the opening titles, a female victim (played by the ever suffering Daniela Doria) is brutally murdered. If anyone had wondered what type of film they were about to watch they did not have long to wait in order to find out. 

Interestingly throughout the film the script drops what may be seen as a few clues as to both the absurd nature of the proceedings and also the underlying objective and direction of the film. Examples of this include when the babysitter (Ania Pieroni) is cleaning up a large pool of blood on the kitchen floor and is questioned about it by the lady of the house, Lucy. Rather than answer she simply states that some coffee is in the pot and this random bit of information placates Lucy who simply forgets about the unexplained spillage. Although this is perhaps also explained by the previously mentioned line regarding Lucy Boyle’s pills (as prescribed by her baker) in order to supress her hallucinations, leading us to question is any of this real? After all Bob is a bit too odd but he seemingly isn’t the only one. 

Talking of odd, a member of the local community while speaking to the Dr suggests that he had visited the town previously only that time with his daughter. While it is very possible that the citizen had heard but not seen Bob and just assumed it was a girl this is very unlikely. However just as these points are raised quite often they are ignored although both do hint at another reality so to speak, one in which the young girl May exists in, only whether this is genuinely real or a figment of someone’s imagination is never made clear. 

Supernatural aside, and there are several ethereal moments, arguments of the neo-romanticism influence on the film can be made rather interestingly through the use of the ugly. Ugly in the terms of the gratuitous violence that is employed. Not only through the framing (credit to Sergio Salvati here) but also in the way that THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY makes the viewer feel like a helpless voyeur during the carnage as the director elects to revel in the violence. Instead of shying away from the action we are actually invited in for a closer, longer look and just like those visiting the grand guignol shows of Paris we love it. We are captivated by it and it draws us in. Check out the death of the Estate Agent for some prime action.

For fans of horror THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY is a must watch. It is a film built on many things including the creation of suspense, the mystery of the murderer and perhaps most of all, the visceral thrills of the violence. In short it is about eliciting and heightening a select group of emotions through its visual medium.

While watching the film viewers will have many questions, including the symbolism at the end as Bob emerges from the tomb that is located in the front room.

What does this all mean? After all he is too young to be ‘born again’ but is it even representative of a birth of anything? Meanwhile his ghostly friend May does not seem too bothered about the final confrontation that Bob had just been a party to but then again neither does Bob despite both parents fates…as he has seemingly travelled back in time without a care in the world. 

A singular vision

The Gates of Hell trilogy are three films brought together by a singular idea; to create emotive horror free from the logical constraints of a traditional narrative. Incorporating a Lovecraftian influence, as Jamie Russell would say in his book “Book of the Dead”, Lucio Fulci and Dardano Sacchetti “set out to create …radical, avant-garde gore movies” and to an extent this is an accurate take.

As all three films reject conventional and traditional film structures instead focusing on “just a succession of images” (Lucio Fulci in a printed interview with Starburst Magazine) that are interested in exploring personal fears and anxieties. 

Indeed the Tate Gallery define Romanticism as a “movement in art and literature distinguished by a new interest in human psychology, expression of personal feeling and interest in the natural world” which Neo-Romanticism builds upon to overlay the more abstract. In which it is the message and not the content that matters. 

Clearly as evidenced by the men involved these three films are built on abstract literary sources and were created for a specific form of expression and feeling in which we, the viewer, are then invited to impose our own interpretations upon.

So it is not surprising when people talk about the poetry of Lucio Fulci’s films, or when some of them are are described as “delirious, dreamy and often demented” (Calum Waddell in his booklet ‘Freudstein Revisited’ for Arrow films) because like a dream many scenes and sequences have no logical starting point or arc to help feed into the narrative but instead jump from action point to action point. Thankfully however Dardano Sacchetti never forgets to throw in some exposition so that we have some context and to aid the flow of images.

The deeper level of artistic endeavour employed adds weight to the argument that Lucio Fulci is, as many of us would already believe, a creative artist and not merely a workmanlike artisan or even a hack as some would have you believe and that the Gates of Hell trilogy stand up as a collective yet singular piece of art.

And remember…Fulci lives!

UNDERCOVER MISTRESS (2016) BY GIULIO CIANCAMERLA

Reviews

Director: Giulio Ciancamerla
Writers: Giulio Ciancamerla, Lucio Massa
Year: 2016
Starring: Stefania Visconti, Leonardo Pace, Asia Liguori

This review first appeared on my older website Cosi Perversa.

Synopsis:
During a photo show, a man enjoys scaring a girl until she decides to leave the exhibition. The man runs after her along increasingly dark and isolated streets. A man and a woman? Which one is the dominant genre?

Review:
This short film opens in a contemporary art gallery with a handsome man catching a woman’s eye, if only for a second. Shy and retiring she is clearly too nervous to do anything but steal frequent glances. However she has also caught the eye of another, a sexual predator, who carries a look of disgust and lust over his face and the pursuit of only one action on his mind.

The performances of our two leads, Leonardo Pace and the Cinecittà graduate & transgender model Stefania Visconti, are terrific. Working without dialogue both are still able to convey the required complex emotions required allowing the viewer to innately understand their thought processes. The ability of both helps provide an added level of believability to the films set up.

Now with director Giulio Ciancamerla having established these, sadly prevalent, social norms he immediately sets about subverting the role of gender as a discordant soundtrack emphasises both the sadistic and non-conventional approach the film takes to tacking its subject matter. It is this ‘torture’ sequence that is vaguely reminiscent of the way a couple of giallo masters would frame their sexual transgressions as the activity builds up to a disturbing climax that undoubtedly will elicit a reaction from the viewer.

At the most simplest, base level this is an empowered and violent role reversal of the sexes but Ciancamerla imbues the film with much more complexity for those willing to delve further down the rabbit hole, beyond the preliminary visual layer as he strips away the social concept of gender roles and masculinity in particular as our male (Leonardo Pace) is emasculated rather than dominant.

What we are left with is the realisation that our identities are a performance piece, sometimes for the admiration of others and sometimes for our own gratification at the expense of others. To paraphrase British playwright Shakespeare “All the world’s a stage… and one man in his time plays many parts” and this is never truer in UNDERCOVER MISTRESS where our projected self may in fact be very different and our capabilities exceed that of even what we expect when pushed.

According to the press release the idea behind Undercover Mistress is a contamination of “gender studies” with “erotic…psychological horror” and as such tackles subjects such as sexual identity, harassment and roles. 

It is a challenging movie that no doubt will alienate many but for a few, it will raise societal questions and realisations as ugly as the violent acts it depicts. The fact that UNDERCOVER MISTRESS will appeal just as much to the arthouse liberal as the horror fan provides verification that the film has succeeded in its objectives perhaps even lending creedence to the subjects it tackles.

Visit the films Facebook page here.

Version Reviewed:
I watched an online screener of the 13-minute short film which was at the time was winning several awards on the festival circuit. The film is nicely shot with clean, modern visuals and clear sound.

VIOLENT SHIT (2015) BY LUIGI PASTORE

Reviews

Director: Luigi Pastore
Writers: Emanuele Barbera, Luigi Pastore, Lucio Massa
Year: 2015
Starring: Giovanni Lombardo Radice, Antonio Zequila, Lilli Carati, Steve Aquilina, Vincenzo Pezzopane, Erika Kamese, Antonio Tentori, Luigi Cozzi, Enzo G. Castellari, Barbara Magnolfi

Synopsis:
Rome is shattered by a series of gruesome murders that paint the Eternal City deep red. The suspicion grows that these atrocious crimes are connected with the return of one of the most heinous serial killers of our time – Karl the Butcher.

Review:
The original VIOLENT SHIT was released in 1989 and directed by Andreas Schnass (ANTHROPOPHAGOUS 2000) – who has a cameo in this version along with the returning Steve Aquilina who additionally had a key role in the creating, filming and editing of the version. The original film started off as a gore Fx showreel before turning into a feature length and that initial focus shone through in both the quality of the Fx and the lack of quality in the film…but overall it proved to be a solid amateur effort and an enjoyable watch.

After several sequels of, let’s be honest, limited quality it was quite surprising that Italian director Luigi Pastore became involved in a reboot twenty-five years later. 

Now no contemporary reboot would be complete without an origin story and this is no different with the pre-title sequence set, conveniently, 25 years in the past as we witness a young Karl being locked in a cupboard by his mother and subsequently being seduced (no not like that!) by the devil thereby starting his transformation from human to inhuman.

Now jumping to contemporary times we are treated to a monologue by the late and still beautiful Lilli Carati who continues the occult theme as she foretells of the coming of the antichrist and his puppet thereby setting the scene for the action that will come later.

Only being familiar with the original VIOLENT SHIT and not it’s sequels this supernatural element certainly added something new to the origin of Karl, however I was not expecting this and initially was left confused by the developing, lets call it , triumvirate of evil comprising of the devil, Professor Vassago (Lombardo Radice) and the Kevin Costner lookalike, Senator Vinci (Zequila) in particular the relationship between the three, not to mention the role of Karl the Butcher himself.

In almost complete contrast to the original, and apologies for the seemingly constant comparisons, the opening half hour is primarily taken up with exposition at the expense of any real onscreen action as myths are explored, the past explained and characters introduced. Out of this however we do get to witness the aftermath of  a couple of murders with the finding  of a bloody torso in a Rome park being of key interest.

It is this murder that introduces us to our primary detectives, the young Aristide D’Amato (fantastic joining of the real name of the director Aristide Massaccesi and his alias Joe D’Amato) as competently played by Vincenzo Pezzopane and Interpol agent Hans Ebert, which see’s VIOLENT SHIT stalwart Steve Aquilina reprising his detective role from an earlier film.

After more exposition between the two we are introduced to a couple more characters, and although just a cameo, Enzo Castellari (director of THE BRONX WARRIORS, IL GRANDE RACKET, THE LAST SHARK) and Luigi Cozzi (director of CONTAMINATION, THE KILLER MUST KILL AGAIN) steal the show. In particular, Castellari’s bitter, wise cracking forensic doctor is a particular highlight, emphasised even more thanks to the English dubbing he receives.

Due to this new story angle the occult takes precedence, aided by a creepy looking Giovanni Lombardo Radice (CANNIBAL FEROX, CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD) who in the role of the mysterious Professor Vassago is clearly at the centre of what is going on but as a result of this shift and the inclusion of an origin of Karl’s evil and motives, the plot receives an extended explanation and set-up thereby relegating Karl the Butcher and any violence to the background for the majority of the movie.

It is because of this necessity to explain, or at least the writers belief in its necessity, that the film suffers, in order to allow the new plot narrative greater emphasis needed to be given to character, set up and mystery – which Pastore and co. manage but in a film entitled Violent Shit and one with a history such as it has, fans might be expecting something less subtle and less developed and more direct, more violent.

It is not until the final third that things really begin to heat up as the creepy professor hosts a dinner party cum orgy for the Senator and a few of his friends. Things clearly get out of hand here in an orgy of drugs, sex and cannibalism, with the inclusion and excess of the perversions no doubt aided by the influence of co-writer Lucio Massa (HIPPOCAMPUS M 21th) and this set up perfectly juxtaposes life and sex with death and violence. Pastore delights in showing us the outer flesh one moment and the inner flesh the next as Karl the Butcher finally makes his real entrance and brutally slaughters all those in his path.

As with all lower budget films the performances are mixed both in terms of in front of camera and of course the dubbing, with some suffering more than others and you can’t shake the feeling that some voice actors are just reading through the lines with no inflection, accents or passion while others have that 1980s style high pitched voice that no one actually sounds like. But there are several positives namely Antonio Zequila as the sleazy Senator, Vincenzo Pezzopane as the detective and best of all Enzo Castellari.

Overall this effort is much more restrained than the original films which is a shame as it fails to find that balance between characterisation and extreme violence. However when the violence is shown, much credit must go to David Bracci (SLEEPLESS, EATERS) for his work which is exceptional, in particular the castration of one young male is exceptionally well done and it is clear that he has learned well from the master Sergio Stivaletti.

One could also argue that this is a meta-film, aware of both itself (the detectives watch footage from the original film showing Karl’s past action) and the industry (namely the character names such as D’Amato and Fulci as well as those playing versions of themselves such as Castellari, Cozzi and Tentori) and these moments are both a lot of fun and interwoven well into the story.

VIOLENT SHIT: THE MOVIE makes it difficult for a critic or even a genre fan to either like or dislike. While it is commendable that Pastore and co. take the series in a new direction and attempt to add some texture and background to the characters, it is done so at the expense of the films essence. The very thing that had previously defined the series, namely the frequent over the top gore has been replaced with a supernatural mystery with the result being a more layered and considered film but one lacking the direct, brutal action that it requires.

Credit has to go to the team for trying something new and while it fails to hit the mark the cameos, the references and the humour all work particularly well and make this film worthwhile for fans of Italian horror to check out and ending on a high note, the soundtrack performed by Claudio Simonetti’s Goblin again is spot on. Having previously scored Luigi Pastore’s last work SYMPHONY IN BLOOD RED, these two appear to be forming a strong professional relationship and long may it continue.

Version Reviewed:

I reviewed the 2015 media book version as put out by 8-films which featured a blu ray and dvd version of the film alongside a CD of he original soundtrack by Claudio Simonetti’s Goblin. This version is limited to 999 copies. Standard versions of the film have been released.

The extras feature a stills gallery, the almost mandatory film trailer and international trailer as well as a tribute to the actress Lilli Carati. The tribute features her last interview which although brief is very nice and quite moving as she discusses her past and excitement to working alongside Luigi Pastore and in the horror genre. Unfortunately she passed away before the full project that she was working on could come to fruition.

Other extras include a ten minute ‘The origins of the myth’ in which Steve Aquilina discusses the reason behind the films name and how the reboot came around. Steve is a very interesting guy and the only shame is that this segment was not longer. However a counterview to this comes in the shape of the ‘Making of’ which tells the story of this film came about but from the Italian perspective, adding further context and details alongside several behind the scenes shots and explanation of why certain filming and plot decisions were made. These revelations or rather justifications actually added a different element to the film and made me reconsider my thoughts on the film and its plot points and drivers with Pastore stating that they “tried to combine the German ultra gore with the Italian thriller” and on reflection that does come across even if the balance is not quite right. A further interesting piece goes on to explain the inclusion of the sequence with the late Lilli Carati, which threw me on first watch. Initially her role and the footage was meant for another movie only for it to be adapted posthumously into this film as a tribute.

Finally we are treated to brief interviews with the cast which is interestingly and it is always nice to see on these types of films that the actors are there for the right reasons and not just a paycheque, although it adds little compared the previous two additions it still is worth checking out.

SHANDA’S RIVER (2018) BY MARCO ROSSON

Reviews

Director: Marco Rosson
Writer: Nicola Pizzi
Year: 2018
Starring: Marcella Braga, Claudia Marasca, Margherita Remotti, Diego Runco

Synopsis:
A professor, Emma, travels to the small Italian town of Voghera, in order to study the story of the witch Shanda killed in the 16th century. Soon after arriving however Emma finds herself trapped in a nightmare where she forced to relive the same day, the day of her death, over and over again.

Review:
SHANDA’S RIVER opens in the 16th Century, as a terrified woman is pursued and strangled in the woods and the quality immediately struck me as being much better than I had expected.

This sequence over and we jump to the modern day as Emma, a history professor writing a piece on women who were sacrificed in inquisitions style hunts, arrives into the small town of Voghera in order to meet a tour guide named Julia.

Visually the film does not take long to start incorporating historical flashbacks into action, hinting at perhaps some occult ritual sacrifice or injustice, almost as if Emma is remembering a past life. To further add to this, as viewers, we learn that these scenes are tied to the river in which the tour is to incorporate but Emma is not the only one interested in the areas history.

Daniel, a Croatian Investigative Reporter, has paid his way onto the tour at the last minute and appears to have in mind a story about contemporary ritual killings somehow being linked to the site. These sorts of hunches never really work out well do they.

On the way to the tour we get given the Shanda backstory, but soon out in the rural countryside things appear to go wrong as the car breaks down and some hooded assailants appear and our tour participants find themselves waking up tied to a tree – here things start to go a bit WRONG TURN or at least they appear to start to. For writer Nicola Pizzi clearly had other ideas as he deviates from the normal taking things into time-loop territory along the lines of FINAL DESTINATION (stay with me), GROUNDHOG DAY and perhaps more recently and relevant HAPPY DEATH DAY – with this twist marking something quite different than the occult mystery or slasher that I had expected from the trailer.

As you can tell from these cinematic references there is an element of premonition and repetition that comes into play, and for our lead character Emma, hell certainly is repetition. However every time her day restarts she learns a little more, but with this gain in knowledge she appears to be losing a little bit of her sanity as she begins to question are any real consequences when the end result is the same, much like Francesco in DELLAMORTE DELLAMORE, leading to a realisation and choice of what to do in order to free herself from this curse of simultaneously not being able to die yet being condemned to be killed over and over again.

Director Marco Rosson is smart in how he portrays this, and although he has plenty of opportunity to show blood and violence, he does not over indulge and that is to the benefit of the film as it allows the narrative to maintain a strong narrative flow rather than becoming reduced and stifled by constant bloodshed that adds no value to the film.

Smartly written and cleverly constructed, SHANDA’S RIVER shows great maturity by the filmmakers and a sense of intelligence that is not often displayed (or rather successfully conveyed) in these types of productions. It would not surprise me if the film was picked up for a bigger budget remake (and on a personal note a new title for marketing) giving it the resources it deserves.

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Now let me clarify the film looks very nice, and it is terrifically edited but there are a few moments that show its independent status. Although inconsequential in the grander scheme of things viewers will notice a few audio level issues (most notable in some dialogue scenes) and a few cinematography issues which have very little to do with the skill level of the crew but are common amongst all films of lower budgets.

SHANDA’S RIVER was a very different film than I had expected and all the better for it. A clever, intriguing plot that manages to seamlessly incorporate genuine tension, scares and intrigue; however I am still baffled by the animal magnetism that journalist Daniel appears to possess. That remains the unsolved mystery.

Version reviewed: 

I watched an online screener with English audio. SHANDA’S RIVER was released on Friday 16th March 2018 on blu-ray and DVD and can be ordered from the European Cine Museum store and other online outlets.

NYCTOPHOBIA (2017) BY FRANCESCO LONGO

Reviews

Director: Francesco Longo
Writers: Francesco Longo, Paolo Mercandante
Year: 2017
Starring: Roberto Ramon, Michael Segal, Roberto D’Antona

Synopsis:
When the darkness comes at night a man is tormented by visions of the past but are they only visions or something more?

Review:
The third in a trilogy of short films looking at phobias (with SKIZOPHRENIA, 2014, and CLAUSTROPHOBIA, 2015, coming before) from upcoming director Francesco Longo, NYCTOPHOBIA unsurprisingly focuses in on the fear of darkness and wastes no time with preamble, immediately introducing us to our main character, the man, as he returns home and gets ready to go to sleep. While attempting to doze off the film INSANE plays, a nice nod not only to co-star Roberto D’Antona but also perhaps indicative of our man’s mental state and with it perhaps an analogy of what is about to occur – namely a psychological journey in which the darkness may or not be playing tricks.

One of the strengths here is that the setup is surprisingly very normal and grounded in reality, from the mysterious, unspecified creaking in the dark to the lying silently in bed trying to pin down the logical cause of the noise, helping make the situation more relatable and safe to us…that is until Longo introduces a few supernatural flourishes and things start to get a little creepy.

A menacing tone starts to pervade throughout the film, suddenly we are unsure as to what is real or imagined as things start to go south for our man and surreal for us pretty quickly. It is worth noting here in the realisation or rather visualisation of events that things do come across a little like I imagine they would in the mind of Rob Zombie from the crazy blonde chick to the interpretation of the devil and from this it has to be noted that the success of this film on a personal level may depend on your own stylistic preference for this type of horror. Although for my British readers imagine the writers of PSYCHOVILLE and INSIDE NO.9 playing it a little straighter and that would give some indication of what to expect.

In short NYCTOPHOBIA is a decent watch that will entertain and one that ultimately achieves what it sets out to. It is not a mindless dull literal translation of the concept of a ‘scary dark’ à la recent Hollywood hogwash horror but rather a more thoughtful, internalised and dare I say European approach as to the true horrors brought about by the impenetrable mysterious darkness, one’s own mind…and perhaps some supernatural forces too.

Throughout the films brief run time Longo manages to expertly craft a decent amount of tension within a short amount of time thanks to an intelligent use of audio and strong pacing (aided by the editing choices) although perhaps the narrative itself is a little too obvious for the seasoned horror fan with the turn being seen from a mile away nonetheless this minor gripe does not detract to much from the film.

Oh and check out what time the lead character wakes up. Amityville or Italy – evil is the same everywhere (and disregards time zones).

Visit the films Facebook page here.

Version Reviewed:

I watched an online screener of the film.

MORGUE STREET (2012) BY ALBERTO VIAVATTENE

Reviews

Director: Alberto Viavattene
Writers: Emiliano Ranzani, Alberto Viavattene
Year: 2012
Starring: Mario Cellini, Dèsirè Giorgetti, Roberto Nali

Synopsis:
Two prostitutes, mother and daughter, struggle against a mysterious creature who breaks into their house after their john has left.

Review:
After that brief synopsis there really is very little one can add in regards to the story or narrative without giving anything away about this eleven minute film.  Although the film poster and inspiration might hint at it.

Director Alberto Viavattene reinterprets the general theme of the famous story ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’  by Edgar Allan Poe but does so with not only a contemporary kick but also added malice and artistic licence.

No doubt with his hand forced by the short running time Viavattene wastes no time in showing the degenerate filth of modern society and the cinematography perfectly captures this mood with its dark shades and grimy tones bathed in neon red light. However this haste to get to the point may also be a hindrance for many viewers as the brutal events that unfold do so almost without any recognisable context meaning that there is a high probability that MORGUE STREET will be taken at face value as a superficial rape horror, one that will be judged on one base sequence that comes to not only dominate but perhaps define it.

This is a shame because on subsequent watches and analysis MORGUE STREET is much more than this and is in fact a competent (technical) piece of work, particularly its opening act. Sure it completely eschews the traditional mystery element (something that is extremely tricky to replicate in a short film format) and perhaps rather than being seen as an adaption of Poe’s classic it should be taken as a harsh look at the reality of our animal instinct as well as addiction. One in which there very often is no redemption for those who are it’s victims.

Viavattene clearly has talent (which is unsurprising considering he has worked with Paolo Sorrentino and Dario Argento) and is certainly a director to look out for should he ever get his  big break into feature films and although MORGUE STREET no doubt made a good calling card for him it is perhaps the most unconventional, anti-commercial show reel for the cast – all of which put in strong performances, English speaking aside.

Undoubtedly this is a short film that will divide, even for myself on the initial watch I was impressed with the technical abilities but left wondering if certain scenes had to be shown the way they were. However the film stayed with me, there is more going on underneath the surface and one has to give the director the benefit of the doubt.

A grim and stark take on an aspect of modern humanity framed around a brutal and bizarre adaption of a Poe penned story. You can make up your own mind and watch the film here.

Version Reviewed:
I watched a free to watch version hosted by the director on Vimeo. This short film is also accessible via the FilmDoo streaming platform and rather surprisingly it looks fantastic not just for a short film but one that is streamed online. It has English audio.

EROTIC NIGHTS OF THE LIVING DEAD (1980) BY JOE D’AMATO

Reviews

Alternative Titles: Sexy Nights of the Living Dead; Le notti erotiche dei morti viventi; Nite of the Zombies, Le Notte Erotiche; Le Notte Degli Zombies
Director: Joe D’Amato (aka Aristide Massaccesi)
Writer: George Eastman (aka Luigi Montifiore)
Year: 1980
Starring: Mark Shannon, George Eastman, Laura Gemser, Dirce Funari, Lucia Ramirez

Synopsis:
EROTIC NIGHTS OF THE LIVING DEAD follows property developer and human hard-on John Wilson (Mark Shannon – PORNO HOLOCAUST, THE PORNO KILLERS) as he attempts to purchase a supposedly deserted Caribbean Island to be transformed into a holiday resort. Wilson enlists the help of sailboat captain Larry (played by the massive George Eastman aka Luigi Montefiore, who also wrote this film under his writing name Tom Salina  – ANTROPOPHAGUS, RABID DOGS) and rather oddly his sexy hotel room neighbour Fiona (Dirce Funari – EMMANUELLE AND THE LAST CANNIBALS), whose only purpose on the trip is to seemingly service the gentlemen on board. Upon reaching the, seemingly, deserted Cat Island, it soon becomes apparent that all is not what it seems. John Wilson and co. come across a blind old man and his ghostly grand-daughter Luna (genre star Laura Gemser – EMMANUELLE AND THE LAST CANNIBALS, WOMEN’S PRISON MASSACRE), who warn them to stay away but to no avail and the living dead soon appear to protect their land.

Review:
Now I know what you are thinking- that synopsis did not sound too bad, if a little derivative of some other, more famous Italian zombie movies- but let me tell you, there is a reason that this film is still only known to the hardcore (and for the hardcore) fans.

Beginning in a mental institute the film barely takes three and a half minutes before some sexual activity occurs between two patients (Larry and Fiona) and then a sudden quick cut takes us to a luxury yacht out deep sea fishing. If that sounds like bad editing, either stay away or get used to it for it will happen a lot in this film, which for the first hour is almost a mish-mash of scenes, predominantly sexual. What’s more if you are a person who can’t stand bad dubbing (Bob from the HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY excluded) then again you should stay away from this film. In some scenes it appears the mouths aren’t even moving, but that’s the least of this film’s problems.

Approximately 13 minutes in we are treated to some, loosely termed, zombie action (complete with terrible acting) and remaining true to the films style it is interspersed with a quick scene in a casino which is then followed by yet another sex scene; this one a full on hardcore scene featuring both oral and penetrative sex, which took even me by surprise due to it’s graphic nature.

But at least George Eastman in his writer guise penned some unintentionally hilarious lines as two prostitutes’ run from a hotel room, not due to Mark Shannon’s hideous warty testicles (which as the viewer you will have a front row seat to), but because he asked about Cat Island. This seemingly innocent question caused them to flee and be pursued by Shannon’s character shouting “wait a minute you dumb whores, you forgot your money!” down the hotel corridor. But never fear, rather than any guests lambasting him for his oh-so-subtle behaviour, his alluring neighbour Fiona actually is seduced by it.

By around 25 minutes into the film, you are starting to forget you are even watching a zombie film as the sex scenes come thicker and faster than a teenage Peter North, and I start to doubt my own critical analysis and consider reviewing this as porno instead of a horror. Thankfully my own self doubt is quickly erased as I remember I put this film on for gut munching not cock munching, and thankfully it does also deliver the later…quite literally.

Eventually some zombie action re-occurs and the make up of the morgue zombie sets the benchmark for the make up in the rest of the film. Sadly though it’s a benchmark that won’t be reached as even ‘Flowerpot’ zombies are too creative for this film, where the budget was most likely spent on lube than latex.

Another issue with the film,  and its 1 hour 50 odd minutes running time,  is that many of these sex scenes (and others to be fair) drag on too much and some are just bizarre; such as a stripper inserting and uncorking a bottle of champagne with her vagina, exploitation and sleaze with no justification to the film at all but which no doubt titillated the audience at the time. Once our merry band of protagonists (can we even call them that?) reach the island things do improve very slightly, but the core of the movie remains the same. Although the film introduces (but does not explain) a supernatural element to the film in the form of what can only be described as a ghost and a cat that possesses the strangest meow I have ever heard. Taking well over an hour before it gets going, it’s sad to say that even by removing the first 75% of the film you won’t have enough shots for a decent zombie short film. The long running time does not justify the three to four horror money shots that litter the film- but the out of no where blow job scene does come close- even if viewers can find that kind of action from many other films if they looked around.

But what of the zombies I hear you moaning, tell us more about them in this film, after all they are in the title so there must be some decent action? Well yes and no. There are perhaps three or four memorable scenes in the the whole film but on the whole for the very little screen time the zombies get they tend to prefer to walk around in slow motion simply looking like the unfortunate from the developing world. Like almost every other character in the film they are partial to human flesh, and in line with the movie that kick started the Italian zombie splatter cycle these are voodoo inspired creatures who can only be stopped with a bullet to the head or fire. When put down in writing it all sounds very promising, which is what makes it even more disappointing when you watch the film. In this movie, the sex is far more important than the horror causing the vast majority of critics to call it sleazy at very best. But I would also add that it may appear distasteful and misguided to a contemporary audience.

The use of jump cuts, in particular between sex and horror scenes is a strange one, offering an almost juxtaposition of libido (life) and death but these actions also pose the worrying question of whether they are just haphazardly cut together with no real thought or it D’Amato wants us to relate violence and sexual pleasure. From the evidence I would argue for the latter- with particular reference to the infamous blow job scene.

Although don’t be fooled, this is no promiscuity means death moral tale, as everyone is at it in this film, regardless. Interestingly, the “awkward mixture of soft-core and hard-core footage is the result of D’Amato being forced to go back and shoot additional hard-core material at the insistence of his distributor” (Blumberg and Hershberger, 2006) and this would on the face of it at least help to justify the poor editing choices and sexual focus.

However, simply looking at the back catalogue of D’Amato, one must think he really did make the film he set out to make, a film which placed a quick financial return ahead of lasting quality, and that is evident when audiences revisit it today.

Filled with poor dialogue, convenient character actions and very little horror but much sex, this is a terrible film no matter how you approach it. Although there are moments that work, and despite its lack of quality there is something more than competent about D’Amato’s work which begs further questions about his motivations and effort. What works about this film however is the music. Sometimes it lends a more sensual and emotional aspect to the film (similar to that of CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST) hinting at a deeper meaning, despite the viewer knowing none exists and can see none exists. While Eastman has a strong screen presence helping to pull the film through. As for  the violence, or what little there is of it, is more hit than miss, but that is not enough in an over-long, crass, ugly and cheap production that will appeal only to the most hardcore of fans. For those of you looking for more zombie hardcore action, perhaps check out D’Amato’s PORNO HOLOCAUST from the same year which shares locations and cast in a true economies of scale film production.

The best way to describe this film is to use an Italian saying, Mi fa cagare.

Version Reviewed:
I watched the Media Blasters Shriek Show line extended cut of the film and the terrible alternative ending, but would advise people to find the shortest version possible if you must watch it.