Blu-ray review: Zombi Holocaust (1980)

[Originally distributed theatrically by Medusa Distribuzione, this film was released on Blu-ray in July 2015 by 88 Films.]

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Oh, those Italians. They were so good at exploiting trends—and shameless with it. And why not? Surely the mid-’70s to the mid-’80s was the Golden Age of Italian exploitation. What we have here is a real bastardo of an exploitation piece.

We all know 1979’s Zombi 2 (aka Zombie Flesh Eaters) was a Romero cash-in. That’s a pretty straightforward affair. Circa 1979, zombies were doing good business in Italy. Cannibal movies weren’t doing bad either, having reached their apotheosis with Ruggero Deodata’s 1979 epic, Cannibal Holocaust—love it or hate it (I kinda hate it, to be honest), its impact is beyond doubt.

The cannibal wave attracted a curious (if not profoundly witless and absurd) variation in 1977, when an enterprising team headed by infamous hackster Joe D’Amato excreted a movie entitled Emanuelle e gli ultimi cannibali (Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals). That’s right: an Emanuelle (sic) film—sexploitation—genetically spliced with a cannibal movie. Fucking and eviscerating in equal amounts, if such floats your boat. That’s as wacky as it could ever get, right?

Fabrizio de Angelis, one of Zombi 2‘s producers, didn’t think so. Eager to catch the wave of both the cannibal and the zombie crazes, he and his team crafted Zombi Holocaust, which delivered the zombies, the cannibals, the sexploitation (admittedly toned down a good deal), plus a peculiar Dr Moreau twist for good measure. This batshit insane bastard of a bastard (of a bastard?) probably takes some beating in the Preposterous Sweepstakes.

Lead actor of Zombi 2, the personable Scottish thesp Ian McCulloch, is brought back for his second of three Italian exploitation vehicles. The Italians apparently did not view his balding crown as very heroic, so Ian invested in a toupee for this outing—which, sadly, lifts up like a dustbin lid during one of the fight scenes (see: around 48:24), and is absent altogether in a rather grubby sequence removed from the final release print (see deleted scene on this disc). He gives good value for money, although the absurdity of things is clearly not lost on him. I like Ian. As much as I’m fond of this flick, he was wasted on material like this.

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The gore is splashy and effective, even if the FX work by Maruzio Trani appears to have been afforded a budget of roughly £9.86. The zombies are crude but oddly memorable. Donald O’Brien, as Dr Obrero, the Moreau-esque zombie maker, tries gamely—using his own voice in post would’ve helped a bit, though.

The version released in America as Dr Butcher, MD in 1982, incorporating unrelated footage and losing a bunch of padding, became something of a cult classic back in the day. The full version is more ponderous but also more cohesive—relatively speaking, that is. It’s a fun romp, but exceedingly tacky and cheap; the early scene of a falling dummy whose arm very visibly falls off when it hits the ground sums it up nicely. That said, efforts such as Burial Ground (also 1980) can make it look quite classy…

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Zombi Holocaust has a history of mediocrity in terms of home video releases. Even the Shriek Show Blu-ray release of 2011 was nothing short of underwhelming. 88 Films stepped up to make a new scan from the negative in 2015, inspired perhaps by Arrow’s sterling efforts of recent years—and staged a kickstarter to bankroll it. Was the effort ultimately worth it?

It’s a given that a movie of this budget & vintage didn’t look fantastically beautiful to begin with, so expectations for such material are always reduced accordingly. Naturally, some of the shots are extremely soft and lacking in definition (including, unsurprisingly, some of the duped jeep footage lifted from Zombi 2), but when the movie is strong—especially in various outdoor daylight exteriors—it is very crisp and finely detailed indeed. Film grain appears to be untouched—in fact, very heavy at times—and print damage is fairly minimal. Even if some of the FX suffer from the high definition, many of them hold up rather better than I’d have expected. On the whole I thought it looked quite lovely (as far as that goes).

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Extras include a Q&A with McCulloch from the 2009 Festival of Fantastic Films and Calum Waddell’s superb documentary Eaten Alive! The Rise and Fall of the Italian Cannibal Film. The latter was also featured on the US Grindhouse release of Cannibal Ferox. It’s a first-rate overview of the Italian cannibal cycle—practically worth the admission fee on its own.

Calum Waddell’s booklet—basically, a medium-length interview with Ian McCulloch—is a decent add-on to complete a nice package. Overall, a very strong edition of a fun-but-trashy movie. If you like the movie, you’ll like this release—it’s a good as it’s gonna get. Thumbs-up!

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Blu-ray review: Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979)

[Distributed theatrically in the US by the Jerry Gross Organization, this film was released on Blu-ray by Arrow Films in December 2012.]

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The one with the eyeball scene. One of the most (in)famous of the so-called Video Nasties. I remember seeing this in my youth, back in the ’90s when it was still banned, on a bootleg VHS tape that was actually pretty decent quality. Pan & Scan, of course; a dub from the original ‘strong uncut’ (i.e. with the eyeball scene) Vipco release—the very one that was banned.

Blame my mother. She let me watch a lot of horror material when I was little, so fake stuff, including gore, has never troubled me much. (Real stuff is a another story…) So when I first saw that eyeball scene, I wasn’t shocked. Mostly I noticed how phoney the last-second dummy substitution looked.

I thought then it was irredeemably stupid to ban a movie for FX like that. I haven’t changed my opinion in the least.

Zombie Flesh Eaters is no cinematic masterpiece, but it’s an interesting film, no doubt. Exploitationally an Italian pseudo-sequel to Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, which was released in Italy as Zombi—hence this one was natively titled Zombi 2—its tropical setting and Voodoo undertones are more old school, more Val Lewton. The largely glacial pacing during the first half of the movie could be equated similarly. Where it keys into the Romero angle is the liberal sprinkling of blood & guts, and although it is less bloody (ounce for ounce) than George’s epic, director Lucio Fulci tries to up the ante by making the scenes a couple of notches more extreme. It started a mini-cycle for Fulci; a three-year period where he made his name as the so-called Godfather of Gore, even if the amount of graphic violence in the rest of his 40-odd years of film-making was comparatively modest. 1982’s miserably, obnoxiously sleazy New York Ripper was, for the most part, the end of Fulci’s splatter period; and for many (including myself), a sour note ending at that…

Acting-wise, the two male leads of ZFE are strong. Richard Johnson (as Dr Menard) and Ian McCulloch (Peter West) are capable hands, both cutting their teeth on the stage and both having done a fair bit of work on projects, it might be argued, a little beneath their abilities. In genre terms, Johnson’s role in Robert Wise’s classic The Haunting (1963) is as good a credential as anyone could ask for; and McCulloch starred in Terry Nation’s mid-’70s TV dystopia The Survivors, which reportedly made him something of a star in Italy. Zombie was not the finest hour for either, but they could and would do a lot worse.

Olga Karlatos, as Menard’s anxious wife (and ultimate victim of the eyeball violence), is actually pretty good in a rather thankless role. She really goes for it. In some ways I think her performance is the best overlooked aspect of the movie. A lot of fans probably just think of the eyeball antics. Too bad. She’s seething and depressed and angry and despondent; she provides the only real emotional peaks of the entire movie. Let’s give Olga a bit of kudos. She didn’t even need to try so hard. Most of her peers didn’t.

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At the time of this excellent Blu-ray release, it was rightly praised as a new high for the Arrow range, largely due their having bankrolled an all-new 2k restoration from the camera negative, overseen by James White. The result can’t be praised enough; it looks better than a film of this vintage and budget even needs to… literally, given that the considerable flaws of the FX work are brought into painfully sharp focus. (Don’t get me wrong! I love the zombies in this movie!) Grain structure, colour depth and detail are all spectacularly strong, except in obvious areas where optical work/focus is inherently fuzzy. The sound is fine, but European post-synched material is never great shakes in audio terms.

It doesn’t get better as far as ’70s/80s Euro-Cult presentation on the Blu-ray format goes—and after a patchy history, it was a game-changer for Arrow, who since this release have been consistently superb and pretty much dominate the boutique label scene.

A comprehensive set of extras and a nice, thick booklet including contributions from Fulci expert Stephen Thrower and Calum Waddell provide the icing on the cake. Top marks all round.

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Blu-ray review: Blood and Black Lace (1964)

[Distributed theatrically in the US by Rolling Thunder Pictures and on DVD by VCI, this film was released on Blu-ray/DVD dual format by Arrow Films in April 2015.]

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While Mario Bava is often cited as the originator of the Italian giallo movie with 1963’s La ragazza che sapeva troppo (The Girl Who Knew Too Much), I tend to agree with the view that it counts more as a proto-giallo, differing on some key points from the classic giallo form—the strong presence of humour, for instance, and being in black and white. The colour palette was clearly a very important feature in so many gialli, and none more than the movie we’re discussing here.

And so, with 1964’s Sei donne per l’assassinoBlood and Black Lace—we find all the giallo elements in place. There is none of the glib, almost soapy humour elements of Girl, and most importantly it presents us with the kind of rich colour visuals only Bava could deliver. It is, of course, a whodunit, as all true gialli should be, but in common with much of Bava’s work the story itself is far less important than the mood and texture evoked. With all the best will, the script isn’t setting the world alight. The mystery of the piece is actually well executed—the truth is in plain sight, but it’s quite cleverly obscured.

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Acting wise, although there is a mid-heavyweight presence in Cameron Mitchell, he has little to do for much of the running time, even if the last reel partly rectifies this. Coupled with the absence of his own voice on the English track, he doesn’t make the impact he might have. But all is well—it’s a Mario Bava movie. If the acting upstaged the visuals I think we’d be disappointed. What draws us to Blood and Black Lace is the way in which it’s visualised & staged.

The new restoration from Arrow is one of those special moments. Given how poorly represented the film has been on home video—an expensive German DVD being the best of a sickly bunch—it feels like seeing the movie for the first time. I’d seen it half a dozen times prior, but it really was a whole new experience. The inherently mediocre soundtracks are adequate, but the real interest (it can’t be overstated) is visual; and the richness of colours, the detail, the depth, grain and texture, are a revelation in the best possible way, capturing what Video Watchdog’s Tim Lucas refers to as Bava’s ‘painterly’ compositions perfectly. Arrow have already issued an excellent series of Bava in HD (the only weak spot being the solid but under-saturated release of Bay of Blood), but Lace stands as the jewel in the crown. Stunning, beautiful, essential.

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On the extras front, there’s an hour long documentary, mostly subtitled, featuring Italian luminaries including Dario Argento and Lamberto Bava. Good stuff, but a little repetitive. Michael Mackenzie’s visual essay on giallo is an excellent and thoughtful addition—let’s hope he does more work in this vein. Tim Lucas improves & expands upon his earlier commentary for the movie to excellent effect—his detailed commentaries are always compelling.

The complete, two-part Sinister Image interview with Cameron Mitchell from 1987, hosted by David del Valle, is a great bonus—Mitchell’s memory is strong and he’s an affable interviewee. An attractive booklet, which features a mix of new and archival essay material, rounds out a superb package.

Arrow’s Blood and Black Lace is flat out the best media release of 2015. Don’t even think about passing it up.

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Blu-ray review: Witchfinder General (1968)

[Distributed theatrically in the UK by Tigon British Films, this film was released on Blu-ray by Odeon Entertainment in 2011.]

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Matthew Hopkins (1620-1647) was a real-life witch-hunter who was active from 1644-47. Witchfinder General, the 1966 novel by Ronald Bassett, was inspired by his life and the times in which he lived. Bassett didn’t stick to the facts very closely; the 1968 movie inspired by the book didn’t stick very closely to the facts or the novel. It was the third film directed by Michael Reeves.

Michael Reeves might be described as the James Dean of genre cinema. Dead at 25 and with only three feature films in the can—would his directorial career have realised the promise his first efforts displayed? Or would he have settled into a journeyman position and attracted none of the legend that now surrounds him?

Impossible to say, of course, but for a while Reeves was possibly the luckiest man alive. In three films he could already count amongst his lead actors Barbara Steele, Boris Karloff and Vincent Price. Ironically, the latter was imposed against his will via production company Tigon’s association with AIP—his titular casting preference would have been Donald Pleasance.

Reeves and Price locked horns on day one, but against the odds it resulted in something special. Vincent probably arrived for this movie in a weary mood to begin with. The golden period of his association with AIP—the Corman/Poe cycle, the deliriously astonishing cast lists—appeared to be over. Price had lately done a second Dr Goldfoot movie in Italy (the great Mario Bava’s worst effort, most would agree), which had been a miserable experience amongst others. Things weren’t going all that well.

When he repaired to the Witchfinder set and started to perform on autopilot, Reeves wasn’t having any of it. But the resulting clash of wills did not form an impossible barrier, even if tensions ran high; Reeves earned Price’s perhaps grudging respect. In the process, a first-rate performance emerged—amongst VP’s career finest, as even the man himself conceded.

Witchfinder General, as noted above, is not what you’d call a docudrama. The real-life events and fictionalised novel that suggested it are mere props upon which to hang a classical story of young love, odious villainy and ultimate revenge. Reeves saw it as a Western style movie set in 17th Century England. It follows the basic template—and very well. Along the way, the sadism and violence provide some genuinely unsettling, if not particularly graphic, moments. Price’s Matthew Hopkins cuts a spectacularly unpleasant figure; his leering, sneering vileness may leave some viewers feeling in need of a shower. Fortunately, unlike the real-life Hopkins, who retired from his profession (probably for health reasons) and died in bed, cinematic justice is fully served by his meeting an appropriately grisly end…

As something of a sacred cow—the third and best movie of a promising young director whose life was cut tragically short, featuring one of the career-best turns from a bonafide horror legend—it’s tempting to take the view that the mythology outweighs the reality. Annoyingly, Witchfinder General really is as good as the hype that surrounds it. The movie is an unquestionable classic.

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Odeon’s 2011 Blu-ray boasts the same print that was released on DVD in 2007 under MGM’s Midnite Movies line. Although there is a slight plus from the jump to high definition, this movie is never going to be a feast of detail. This release is certainly its best appearance on home video. There’s a definite boost/push in some of the reds (especially on uniforms) and greens, no doubt to compensate for the relatively earthy photography coupled with print fading. Overall, it’s nothing too egregious, although people with colour-boosted setups might want to dial the hues back a bit. Film grain is natural and in some scenes a bit of on the heavy side, as might be expected; use of DNR appears to be minimal.

While the MGM disc offered an audio commentary with co-producer Philip Waddilove and star Ian Ogilvy, Odeon provides a track with Reeves biographer Benjamin Halligan and Mark of the Devil‘s writer/director Michael Armstrong, who as a Tigon stablemate knew Reeves personally. Armstrong’s first-hand recollections—including later memories of working with Price on The House of the Long Shadows (1983)—are the main pull here, and the track is an excellent listen. The other highlight of the bonus features is Reeves’s short, silent film, Intrusion (1961), to which Halligan & Armstrong also supply commentary. Quality, sadly, is exceedingly poor, but it’s a fascinating artefact.

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Although there’s some scope for improvement—a brand-new 4k scan wouldn’t go amiss—the Odeon disc is an excellent release overall. Highly recommended.