A Grindhouse Horror Review: Zombie Holocaust (dir. by Marino Girolami)

Traditionally, I like to start my film reviews with a trailer but, with this trailer, I do feel the need to include a quick warning.  The film being advertised, 1980’s Zombie Holocaust, was released at the height of the Italian exploitation boom and  combined two notably gory genres of horror — the cannibal film and the zombie film.  The trailer below is pretty explicit (even by the standards of the free speech zone known as the Shattered Lens) and is definitely not safe for work.

Like many of the classic Italian grindhouse films, Zombie Holocaust opens in New York City.  A hospital attendant is caught devouring a cadaver in a morgue.  After he attempts to escape by throwing himself out of a window, it’s discovered that 1) he’s a native of the Asian Molucca islands and 2) he’s only one of several natives to have both recently immigrated to New York City and gotten a job at a morgue.  Dead bodies across NYC are being eaten and anthropologist Lori (played by Aelxandra Delli Colli, who is best known for being the only sympathetic character in Lucio Fulci’s New York Ripper) is determined to discover why.

In order to investigate, Lori and Dr. Peter Chandler (played by Ian McCullough, who was also in Fulci’s classic Zombi 2) lead an expedition to the island.  Almost as soon as the expedition arrives, they find themselves being pursued by not only cannibals but zombies as well!  Even worse, it turns out that there’s a mad scientist on the island.  Dr. Obrero (Donald O’Brien, an Irish actor who appeared in a few hundred Italian films of every possible genre) is convinced that he can unlock the secrets of life by experimenting on dead bodies and doing brain transplants.

(To be honest, I’ve seen this film a few times and I’m still not quite sure what exactly Dr. Obrero was trying to accomplish but I guess it doesn’t matter.  He’s a mad scientist with his own private laboratory so I guess he can pretty much do whatever he wants.)

I love Italian zombie films but, for the most part, I try to avoid the cannibal films.  I saw both Cannibal Ferox and Cannibal Apocalypse because they both featured Giovanni Lombardo Radice and I saw Cannibal Holocaust because, seriously, that’s one of those films that any student of cinematic horror has to see at least one time.  But otherwise, I tend to avoid the cannibal films because, to me, they’re just not that much fun to watch.  (And the fact that most of them contain scenes of actual animal cruelty doesn’t help…)

However, Zombie Holocaust is one of the rare cannibal films that I can watch and enjoy because it’s just so ludicrous and over-the-top.  It also helps that the film’s gore is so obviously fake that it becomes almost a postmodern statement on Italian cannibal films.  And, finally, this film has got zombies in it and who doesn’t love zombies?

Of the countless zombie films that came out of Italy during the early 80s, Zombie Holocaust is one of the odder entries in the genre.  While most Italian exploitation films were shameless when it came to imitating other movies, Zombie Holocaust attempts to outdo them all by cramming the conventions of three different genres into one mess of a movie.  As such, the movie starts out as a standard cannibal film just to suddenly become an almost shot-by-shot remake of Zombi 2 before then finally wrapping things up by having Donald O’Brien pop up, acting like Peter Cushing in a Hammer Frankenstein film.  There’s nothing graceful or subtle about this film’s everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach to its story and, while the end result isn’t exactly pretty, it’s still watchable in much the same way that a televised police chase is watchable.

Director Marino Girolami was a veteran filmmakers who was ending a long career with his work on Zombie Holocaust and you have to admire the fact that, as opposed to many other filmmakers who have found themselves in a similar situation, he made an honest and unapologetic exploitation film, a shameless rip-off of about a thousand other films.  Instead of being embarrassed by the film’s silliness, he instead embraced it and his cast did the same.

Playing the lead role, Scottish actor Ian McCullough plays his character with an attitude that, at times, almost comes across as a parody of stiff upper lip English imperialism.  You may have to be a fan of grindhouse cinema to truly appreciate it but, whenever I’ve sat through this film, I always found myself smiling every time that McCullough discovered that another member of his expedition has been killed and responded with a frustrated, “And none of this would have happened if you had simply done as I had told you to do.”  By the end of the film, I was expecting McCullough to approach the last remaining native and tell him, “You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din.”

However, the film is truly stolen by Donald O’Brien, who plays the mad scientist with an almost alarming sense of authenticity.  For the most part, nothing that O’Brien says during the film makes the least bit of sense but he delivers the lines with such conviction that it really doesn’t matter.  In one of the film’s most famous scenes, O’Brien delivers the line, “Patient’s screams annoying me…performed removal of vocal chords.”  It takes a special type of actor to make a line like that work and O’Brien was that actor.

Indeed, watching a film like this, it’s hard not to admire the fact that both the filmmakers and the cast managed to stay sane regardless of how ludicrous the film eventually became.  That’s perhaps the best way to describe Zombie Holocaust.  It’s ludicrous but it’s still a lot of fun.

(Speaking of ludicrous and fun, when Zombie Holocaust was released here in the States, it was renamed Dr. Butcher, M.D. and it was apparently advertised by a sound truck known as the Butchermobile.  To me, that sounds like a lot of fun and it again reminds me that I was born a few decades too late.)

Which Way Forward For The “Batman” Movie Franchise? Take Fourteen : The “Return” Of Bruce Wayne

Okay, I’m cheating a bit this time around, by starting this post with the sort of image I’d ideally like to end the segment of our hypothetical Batman I movie that we’ll be discussing today with, but whatever. It’s a cool screencap from DC’s quite-nicely-done animated version of Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli’s classic Batman : Year One, and it speaks to the profound emptiness that Bruce Wayne still feels at the center of his life as a result of the cold-blooded murder of his parents. Simple, somber, and reflective, it’s a pretty powerful little image.

And is exactly the opposite of how I’d like this whole little return-that-isn’t-really-a-return-because-Wayne-has-been-sneaking-in-and-out-of-Gotham-to-construct-his-batcave-and-establish-Batman-as-a-presence-in-the-city-prior-to-his-official-arrival-for-some-time-now part of the movie to begin.

The arrival gate at Gotham International airport should be literally packed with reporters, photographers, flashbulbs going off and the like — maybe even a couple of rather presumptuous young ladies with flowers — and a press aide/PR flak informing all and sundry that “Mr. Wayne will be sitting down with the media on Monday morning to address any and all questions as to his past activities and future plans.” The throng should literally begin pushing in towards Wayne as he smiles and good-naturedly holds his hand in front of his face while he offers some lame line like “please, friends, I’m flattered by all the attention, and it’s great to be home, but trust me when I say my travels have been exhausting and right now there’s no such thing as a good angle from which to photograph me.” A quick “Key To The City”-type presentation from the Mayor and a couple other local dignitaries before he exits the airport might even be in order, though it should be quick and Wayne should be both engaging yet totally non-specific if he’s called upon to, as the old expression goes, “say a few words.”

The bedlam should continue unabated as Bruce heads to his waiting limousine, Alfred assuming chauffeur’s duties in the front, and by the time he’s reached the car he should look truly, well, not so much exhausted as just plain bored with the attention already. Message to the audience : this is a guy on a mission, who is by nature uncomfortable with the limelight but won’t let that sort of thing distract him from his ultimate aims, one of which is,  he already understands to his sometimes-chagrin, presenting an upstanding public image for himself as a responsible civic leader. In other words, the “front” of being a “playboy” that we’re used to seeing from him in other iterations of the character is definitely not going to be a part of this series.

Which is not to say that he’s going to be all business, either — humanizing the Bruce Wayne persona is a big part of what this little imaginary trilogy of mine is all about, and my hope is that, as further details unfold, how I intend to portray this “more human” side will become readily apparent. If it’s not, then I won’t have done my job properly.

Anyhow, after exchanging the briefest of pleasantries with the ever-faithful Mr. Pennyworth, an exchange that ends with an admittedly predictable “just take me home, Alfred,” the last image we’ll be left with as far as this whole early segment of the film goes will ideally be one very much like the picture we started things out with here — Bruce Wayne, silent and alone, brooding over his parents’ tombstones on the “stately Wayne Manor” grounds. The media interview mentione a moment ago that he’ll be giving, and that we hinted at in an earlier post in this series, will be the focus of our attention when I return to this (go ahead, say it — never-ending) series in a few days’  (that’s the plan, at any rate) time!

Trailer: Hitchcock

It seems appropriate that, during the time of year that is devoted to horror, Fox Searchlight should release a trailer for an upcoming film that claims to tell the “true” story about the making of Psycho, one of the scariest and most influential horror movies ever made.

I have to admit that I’ve had my doubts about Hitchock ever since the project was first announced and, watching this trailer, I still have my doubts.  While Helen Mirren looks to be as strong as always and Scarlett Johansson is an inspired choice to play Janet Leigh, I still have my doubts about Anthony Hopkins playing the role of Alfred Hitchcock.

From the evidence presented in this trailer, Hopkins’s interpretation of Hitchcock appears to be …. interesting, if nothing else.

Fox Searchlight, however, seems to have a lot of faith in Hitchcock as they’ve moved up the premiere date so that the film can premiere in November, at the start of Oscar season.

October Music Series: Стары Ольса – Танцы

I want to say Стары Ольса (Stary Olsa) are my favorite non-metal folk band, but to be honest I have only heard two of their albums. That just might suffice. Stary Olsa formed in Belarus in 1999. Келіх кола (Loving Cup) is their first album, and they have released eight more since (of which I have only heard their first live album, Шлях (Šlach). It contains much of the same material.) So I can’t really speak for the band as a whole, but Loving Cup is easily one of the best albums in my entire musical collection. Their self-described style is “medieval”, though I don’t know if the Belarusian word they use, сярэднявечнай, carries precisely the same context (it is not a cognate). Their music lacks (to its advantage) a lot of the formalism I associate with western early music. (The average Drolls song will give you an idea of what I mean.) There’s something a lot more free-spirited about Stary Olsa’s sound, which lends it closer continuity with modern folk.

Part of that is an inevitable consequence of the most awesome instrument in the world: the bagpipe. (Did I say the whistle was my favorite just a few days ago? Ah well, close enough.) Stary Olsa do a wonderful job of going into thorough detail about the instruments and styles they employ on their official website. Unfortunately the English translations they provide are not very fluent. Stary Olsa employ three different variants of the Belarusian bagpipe, known as a duda. In the case of this song they also use some more contemporary instrumentation. I gather from what their site says that the flute is in fact a standard modern flute, or something close to it. They make no mention of the tambourine, but I have to wonder just how common an instrument that required metal could have been. The drum they use is likely an authentic medieval instrument, though I’m no good at guessing which. The hurdy gurdy has been known in Belarus since the late 16th or early 17th century, called there the колавая ліра, or “wheel lira”.

Танцы (Dances) is not my favorite Stary Olsa song though. There’ll be plenty more by them to come. In the meantime, you can check out a live recording of this song.