Friday, March 30, 2012

Prince of Darkness (1987)

One of the fondest memories of my childhood took place when I was eleven years old and in a packed house, Houston movie theatre. There was a matinee showing of Big Trouble in Little China (1986) during its opening weekend, and I was accompanied by my aunt Susan and her son, my cousin Steve who was a year younger than me. Big Trouble was a perfect film to see as a little boy and with a packed theatre of moviegoers: a large spectacle film, full of action and humor and there was plentiful cheering and laughter coming from the audience. The experience was more exhilarating than a roller coaster ride, and I daresay the experience, for me, has ever been duplicated. Unfortunately, cinemas must have been vacant elsewhere in the country. "Nobody got it," says director John Carpenter. "Like I said earlier, timing was never my thing in terms of when my movies come out. This movie was completely and totally misunderstood. The critics and public thought it was just bad, and there is nothing I can do about that." (1)
Well, Carpenter has a true fan with Big Trouble in Little China with me, but the financial failure of the film led him back into low-budget filmmaking. (2) Carpenter entered into a contract with Alive Films, and the contract stipulated a budget of three million dollars per film with Carpenter having complete artistic freedom. (3) The first of the two-picture collaboration was Prince of Darkness (1987). (4) Prince turned out to be a fortuitous production for several reasons: 1) it allowed him to shoot the entire picture in Los Angeles, close to his home, so he could always be near to his young son; 2) it was a film that he always wanted to do; and finally 3) Prince of Darkness gave him a break from the rigmarole of Hollywood games and politics. (5) With a filmography full of underrated gems and hidden treasures, no one Carpenter picture is perhaps as overlooked as Prince of Darkness.
I have always considered John Carpenter a perfect classical filmmaker: wide and medium shots and close-ups are the norm with the occasional smooth and fluid tracking shot (e.g. the opening shot of his masterful Halloween (1978)). The first act sees its exposition delivered and all characters introduced, and do not be surprised to see those same characters in the final act, holed up, with their backs against the wall, making a last stand. John Carpenter is traditional film maker extraordinaire, but Prince of Darkness sees quite a bit of artistic innovation. The opening ten minutes of the film, for example, in a bold move, are the credits of Prince of Darkness which are inter-cut with short sequences. These short sequences serve as the film's exposition but they are more like little short films. These sequences only hint to the substance of the film's plot. They are primarily, simply disorienting. For example, Victor Wong (with whom Carpenter worked previously on Big Trouble) plays Professor Howard Birack who teaches theoretical physics. In his first sequence, Birack walks towards his classroom and pauses in front of the building. He cups his hands over his face and stares at the blinding sun through his fingers. Carpenter's camera racks focus from Birack in the background of the frame into the foreground where a mound of furious ants circle, as engaged in war. The scene represents change and it's delivered in a very subtle and doubly-creepy fashion. (To further add, I love Birack's classroom speeches during this first ten minutes: "Say goodbye to classical reality!") Later in Prince, when all of the characters have gathered in the central setting location of the church, Carpenter introduces a dream sequence, which every character experiences when he or she goes to sleep in the film. The dream sequence is composed of a small, shaky tracking shot in front of the church which stops upon the entrance. At the entrance of the church, a dark figure stands with smoke bellowing from behind. The audio is squeaky hisses and barely decipherable dialogue. To this day, this dream sequence freaks me the eff out. Carpenter says that he "shot these sequences with a video camera and re-photographed it on a TV to give them a video feel. It was effective and I enjoyed shooting them." (6) I would go further to say not only were these sequences effective but quite ingenious.
At its heart, Prince of Darkness is a film about rational and logical people attempting to give meaning to, and to structure, chaos. Its spiritual father is H.P. Lovecraft, and in my opinion, its direct influence is the work of Nigel Kneale. The script is penned by "Martin Quatermass" (Carpenter's pseudonym) (7) as an homage to Kneale's best-known work, the Quatermass series that were filmed as television serials and as feature films many times over the course of Kneale's life. The plot and setting of Prince of Darkness are most evocative of one of Kneale's best works, The Stone Tape (1972). Prince of Darkness is about physicist, Professor Birack, who is contacted by a priest (Donald Pleasence) who has discovered a forgotten religious sect, "The Brotherhood of Sleep." At an abandoned church downtown, a guardian priest watched over an artifact: an ancient canister which houses an unknown substance. The substance appears to have a consciousness and is able to perform actions which defy most scientific laws. The priest senses the canister houses an ancient evil and he needs the help of Birack to figure out what it is. Birack assembles a team of students, including Brian Marsh (Jameson Parker) and Catherine Danforth (Lisa Blount), and other scholars to meet at the church for a research session. Whatever is in the canister will reveal itself to everyone at that time. Damn.
When I first saw Prince of Darkness, I was disappointed. I was an adolescent and saw the film as a "New Release" VHS rental. I felt disappointed, because I wanted to see the Prince of Darkness. (In fairness to adolescent me, the trailer kind of feeds this expectation rather than hindering it.) Preferably, the Prince would stalk the halls of the church, taking its unsuspecting victims one by one. In other words, I wanted a more visceral experience like Carpenter earlier delivered with his masterful The Thing (1982). I wanted to see everything and I had to know everything. This wasn't Carpenter's technique at all. "If I applied anything from him [Lovecraft] for Prince of Darkness," says Carpenter, "it was his style, the way be built up his stories very slowly to reach that gasp. And it was something I hadn't tried before." (8) The "gasp" to which Carpenter refers is his summation of Lovecraft's style: a fictional experience where the reader is led through a series of horrific events to the threshold of the consuming evil, the haunting ghost, or the lurking monster. Lovecraft would end his stories at that threshold and allow his reader's imagination to take over. Make no mistake, however, that Lovecraft fueled that imagination greatly with his prose. Fear is what Lovecraft wanted to generate, and it was also Carpenter's goal with Prince of Darkness.

Carpenter adeptly attempted to generate a lurking fear with his viewer and was mostly successful. If you have never seen Prince of Darkness, then during your first viewing watch closely the character of Kelly, portrayed by Susan Blanchard. In the ensemble cast, she is not a very rich character with a well-drawn background nor does her character initially buttress the plot or drive the narrative. In a very subtle fashion during the second act, Kelly becomes a very important character to the plot, but Carpenter keeps her character in the background. In a very adept turn towards the end of the second act, Carpenter makes a big revelation about Kelly that kicks off the action of the final act. Kelly's character is a perfect example of Lovecraftian fear. The homeless people who populate the area outside of the church serve as guardians for the Prince of Darkness. They serve mostly as a very effective visual motif for Carpenter (rocker Alice Cooper is amongst their number). Carpenter's compositions of the legion of homeless folk are completely creepy. The best murder sequence of the film involves character Wyndham (Robert Grasmere) standing alone under the night sky in a large alley behind the church. Wyndham has been through a bout of sulking and whining and stands defiantly behind the church in protest. A beautiful wide composition emphasizes that Wyndham is all alone. Another wide shot follows to see the legion of homeless people shadowed in the distance. Wyndham turns his head to follow another wide composition to see an ominous character come out of the church. Cut to a quick close-up on a murder weapon then to its charging assailant. It's a brilliant murder sequence: disorienting, haunting, and violent.

The biggest flaw of Prince of Darkness is attempting to integrate a quick romantic subplot between Brian and Catherine to provide an emotional core for the film. Brian shows that he has a crush on Catherine during the first act but is too shy to talk to her. When he does get the courage to speak to her, Carpenter intensifies their relationship quickly. Both characters, however, fade into the ensemble during the second act, so one wonders why Carpenter went through the trouble. The last ten minutes of the film provide a somewhat hollow consummation of their relationship and answer the first-act questions. This relationship feels forced, so perhaps Carpenter should have kept Brian shy and Catherine distant: unrequited love may have been more appropriate or more tragic. C'est la vie.
Today, I watch all of Carpenter's movies over and over with much love. I would rank Prince of Darkness as one of my favorites from him. As I get older, I'm more impressed with the quality of Carpenter's work and the immense talent that he possesses.

1. John Carpenter The Prince of Darkness. Boulenger, Gilles. Silman-James Press. Los Angeles. 2003: p. 198.

2. Ibid. p. 201.

3. Ibid. p. 201.

4. Ibid. p. 201.

5. Ibid. p. 206.

6. Ibid. p. 204.

7. Ibid. p. 280.

8. Ibid. p. 204.

Monday, March 26, 2012

La polizia chiede aiuto (What Have They Done to Your Daughters?) (1974)

La polizia chiede aiuto (1974), directed by Massimo Dallamano, is better known to English-speaking audiences as What Have They Done to Your Daughters? This film follows Dallamano's previous What Have You Done to Solange? (1972) and along with the latter film, La polizia chiede aiuto is often referenced as the second film in a trilogy, the "Schoolgirls in Peril" films, that conclude with Enigma rosso (Red Rings of Fear) (1978). Fans of Italian genre cinema and the genre's traditional critics often enthusiastically debate as to what label to ascribe to La polizia chiede aiuto: is the film "i poliziotteschi minori," as authors Federico Patrizi and Emanuele Cotumaccio relate? (1) or is the film the only other financially successful giallo to be released after 1972 (along with Profondo rosso (1975)), as authors Daniel Dellamorte and Tobias Petterson relate? (2) La polizia chiede aiuto begins and ends with onscreen text, relating to the problems of missing teens in Italy: this is a film which wants to inform its audience and be socially relevant to its culture and at the same time, the movie also wants to be compelling and entertaining and not exploitative. Is the film successful?
Inspector Valentini (Mario Adorf) discovers in an attic loft the body of a fifteen-year-old girl, named Silvia Polvesi (Sherry Buchanan), an apparent victim of suicide. An autopsy is performed. Its results conclude that Silvia's injuries do not match her cause of death (hanging), and evidence was found in her body that she had sex shortly before her death. The police now label the case a homicide. Assistant District Attorney Vittoria Stori (Giovanna Ralli) oversees the case while Inspector Silvestri (Claudio Cassinelli) heads the investigation. Their prime suspect is Silvia's mysterious lover, and through a series of leads, the police discover that Silvia was part of a prostitution racket involving girls her own age...
Little fault can be allocated to the script of La polizia chiede aiuto, penned by Dallamano and Ettore Sanzò. It's a script guided by logic and strictly adheres to the cinematic concept of a police procedural. Stori and Silvestri appear as credible and intelligent and are competent with deductive reasoning. Plot construction is not a problem: there's more than enough material to move the mystery swiftly along. What La polizia chiede aiuto is sorely lacking, and its absence is to the film's serious detriment, is characterization. This is surprising, given the adept casting of the leads. Claudio Cassinelli is perhaps the most underrated actor in Italian genre cinema. In my opinion, he is just as handsome as Franco Nero or Fabio Testi, for example, but is much more talented. Cassinelli is one of the few actors that can appear as impulsive and obsessive and sensitive in the same role (see Morte sospetta di una minorenne (1975)) or as brooding, intense, and violent (see
Diamanti sporchi di sangue (1977)). Beautiful Giovanna Ralli has an incredible vulnerability surrounding her character in the film and she's quite adept at channeling that vulnerability for the entire picture. Mario Adorf's character appears briefly in the film but Adorf's character benefits from having an emotional background, whereas Stori and Silvestri's characters conspicuously have no background whatsoever. Adorf's character has a daughter the same age as the initial victim in the film (which later becomes a big plot point). In a representative scene, Assistant District Attorney Stori meets Silvestri in an elevator after a particularly grueling bout of reviewing gruesome evidence. Stori has also become the target of the killer who is acting in an effort to stop the police investigation. Silvestri reaches out to Stori for a tender moment, and she curtly rebuffs him. That's it. There's almost no characterization to La polizia chiede aiuto.
In my opinion, the almost total absence of any characterization makes La polizia chiede aiuto definitely a minor film, worth revisiting once in a blue moon. There is, however, much to praise within the film. Of particular note are the film's visuals. Franco Delli Colli handsomely lensed La polizia chiede aiuto and Dallamano is also a seasoned and respected cinematographer. It is unsurprising, then, that the film looks so slick, especially the giallo and the poliziottesco sequences. The killer of the film dons a complete black leather outfit, replete with motorcycle helmet to mask his identity. He carries a large butcher's cleaver as his weapon. In a signature giallo sequence, he stalks the dark halls of a hospital in order to attack an injured witness housed there. The killer is discovered by the police, and they give chase in the hallways. One officer rounds the corner, and the killer chops off his hand with plenty of blood spray. The lighting, combined with a judicious use of the killer’s point of view, make this sequence classic gialli, and it rivals the best scenes in the genre. This scene is quickly followed by an exciting motorcycle/car chase (as one appears in every poliziottesco film): the editing is quick and meticulous and the pacing is furious. Overall, La polizia chiede aiuto is a fantastic film to watch, and it has enough signature elements to satisfy both giallo and poliziottesco fans. Not to forget to mention, Stelvio Cipriani composes another amazing score.
Ultimately, La polizia chiede aiuto (What Have They Done to Your Daughters?) (1974) feels too clean, cosmetic, and compartmentalized for me to truly enjoy it. This, however, says more about my artistic taste than serving as an accurate criticism of the film. La polizia chiede aiuto needed to loosen up at some point, have its characters embrace each other or tell another a joke. The film needed some distraction to shake up the proceedings. La polizia chiede aiuto has a mechanical and meticulous story, well-rendered in a sumptuous visual package. If you are a fan of the genre, then this one will find its way to you.
1. Italia calibro 9. Patrizi, Federico and Cotumaccio, Emanuele. Profondo Rosso. Rome: 2001. p. 174.
2. Violent Italy. Dellamorte, Daniel and Petterson, Tobias. Tamara Press. Malmo: 2002. p. 39.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Pronto ad uccidere (Risking) (1976)

Pronto ad uccidere (Risking) (1976) has a simple yet confusing narrative. The director, Franco Prosperi, and the four screenwriters, Peter Berling, Antonio Cucca, Claudio Fragasso, and Alberto Marras may be praised for creating a story which cleverly "blurs the lines" with their characters' motivations or may be chastised for being somewhat lazy with their characterizations. In between the clever or lazy bits, Risking is a standard police thriller with a few standout sequences.
Ray Lovelock is Massimo Torlani who lives with his disabled mother. One morning, after coffee, he kisses her on the cheek goodbye. With ski mask and machine pistol in his possession, Massimo attempts a daylight jewelry store heist and fucks it up very badly. Within seconds, his heist fails and the police arrive. Massimo takes a hostage and attempts to flee the scene but is subdued by the police's karate master. Now in a Roman jail, Massimo meets Giulianelli (Martin Balsam), a respected crime boss doing hard time and running the prison. Massimo earns his respect by beating down Bavoso in the yard. Not long after his arrival, Massimo is visited in jail by his "attorney," who actually turns out to be Commissioner Sacchi (Riccardo Cucciolla). Lovelock's character is a cop, and it seems getting Massimo into the prison was a ruse. Sacchi works to get Giulianelli and Massimo into the same cell, and Massimo earns his trust. They bust out, and now Massimo must stop Giulianelli and his drug ring...
Or get revenge. Massimo’s mother was put in a wheelchair by a shotgun blast to her back from a gun wielded by one of the syndicate’s henchmen. Commissioner Sacchi wants Massimo to keep focus and not let his anger hamper his investigation.
The events of the first act of Risking are cast in a new complexion after the first dialogue between Sacchi and Massimo. I especially wondered why Massimo didn’t see the police karate master coming during the botched heist. This is one of the big “twists” within Risking, and this type of narrative and character trickery is common throughout. Martin Balsam as Giulianelli is so cool during every scene, even when he takes a bullet from a rival gangster, that I often wondered if Giulianelli knew who Massimo really was and was manipulating his character for his own ends. The ending of the film supports this thesis. When Elke Sommer appears in Risking as the secretary for drug supplier, Perrone (Ettore Manni), she immediately captures both Lovelock’s character and the viewer’s attention. She flirts with Massimo only to rebuff him. Within hours later, Sommer’s character is in Massimo’s hotel room, ready for some loving. Massimo finds a pistol in her purse. Who is she really? I don’t know. What’s going on?

I like being effectively manipulated while watching cinema. However, when narrative and character twists become common, not only do they become predictable, they become distracting. I’m not the type of viewer who demands supreme closure and absolute resolution to any film’s narrative or their character arcs. I’m pretty cool with keeping things loose, but Risking feels way too contrived and poorly-constructed at the same time. It’s as if Prosperi and company had good ideas and filmed those good ideas as scenes, but when some sort of transitional scene or some revelational moment came in Risking, Prosperi and company became lazy and made some ridiculous shit up to move the film along. Risking ends with myriad loose ends, and those loose ends were never tied to anything firmly-rooted.
This is a pity, because despite its flaws and standard construction, Risking has some fantastic sequences. I love the prison yard brawl between hulking Bavoso and Lovelock. Lovelock’s character mimics a matador as he beats down Bavoso who is wearing an appropriate red muscle shirt complete with hairy back and arms. In the third act of Risking, there is a truck hijacking-cum-chase sequence which sees Lovelock’s character take many a dangerous tumble (mostly on motorcycle). Like most 1970s cinema, the stunts all appear genuine and dangerous, and some of those stunts during the truck sequence were exhilarating for me to watch yet potentially fatal for its participants. Risking has brutal and graphic and sadistic shootouts and ridiculous and unintentionally hilarious sequences. For example, Massimo and one of his criminal associates are walking down the street. A uniformed police officer recognizes Massimo and yells “Hello!” Lovelock has to give the officer a quick and brutal punch to the face to maintain his cover. It’s a brutal scene but it also induces a chuckle. Elke Sommer receives little screen time in Risking but is radiant, enigmatic, and charismatic in her role. She and Lovelock have fantastic chemistry in few scenes, and perhaps in retrospect, Risking should have been built around them. Oh, well. Martin Balsam is one of the best American actors and gives another excellent performance as Giulianelli. Balsam and Sommer certainly elevate Risking from complete obscurity. Lovelock is so good-looking and so cool that his enthusiastic fans should seek this one out.
Pronto ad uccidere (Risking) is flawed to the point where the flaws are distracting, making subsequent viewings definitely optional. This flick is for fans of Italian genre cinema and its rousing crime cinema.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Demonia (1990)

Demonia (1990) is about Liza (Meg Register), an archaeologist and protégé to Professor Paul Evans (Brett Halsey). Despite her mentor's discouragement, Liza has a real fascination with the occult and the supernatural. In her hometown of Toronto, Liza attends a séance and has a powerful vision of young women her age being murdered. She collapses and awakens to find Professor Evans at her bedside. Evans tells Liza that she is accompanying him to Sicily to study the Ancient Greek influence at the base of a local village. Upon arrival, Liza, however, seems drawn to a monastery atop a hill, long abandoned and shunned by the villagers since the Middle Ages. The building once housed a convent of nuns who died under mysterious circumstances, and perhaps they are calling out to Liza, today.
Piero Regnoli co-scripted Demonia with director Lucio Fulci in one of his last credits. The plot of Demonia is the typical tale of small town fear and loathing towards outsiders. The small Sicilian village at whose base the archaeological team has begun a dig fears the archaeologists uncovering their secret: nearly five hundred years ago, the young nuns who lived in the monastery atop the hill were massacred by the local villagers. Why? The young nuns were fond of having orgies with men; murdering them during orgasm; and then drinking their blood. They also committed quite a few other blasphemous and heinous deeds. Hence, the local village lynch mob and vigilante murder. Interestingly, the villagers actually kill the nuns by crucifying them. "I really prefere [sic] the crucifixions," says Fulci, in regards to the special effects of Demonia, "I like them alot." (1)

The small-town tale of fear and loathing within Demonia becomes, thematically, a story of oppression and rebellion. This aspect is mirrored by the main relationship of Demonia between Paul and Liza. To say that Paul is controlling and that Liza is submissive is an understatement. Paul dominates Liza. It’s one thing to control someone’s physical behavior by controlling him/her through his/her actions. It’s another thing to tell someone what to think. Throughout Demonia, Paul continually tells Liza to avoid the monastery and focus on the Ancient Greek influence of the project. It’s not an admonition to Liza in a horror-movie sense: Halsey’s character is telling Liza to stop focusing on superstitions and the occult, because he thinks it‘s stupid. Paul is so controlling and insecure, as Demonia progresses, his character appears more and more pathetic. In acts of quiet rebellion, like exploring the monastery in the middle of the night and researching its history at the city’s archives, Liza never confronts Paul.

The setting, the convent/crypt of the once evil nuns, combined with the central relationship, the dysfunctional/sick relationship between Paul and Liza, equals a ripe opportunity for Liza to become a candidate for demonic possession. With Liza’s body as a conduit, one of the evil nuns will be able to exact revenge on the villagers and continue to do evil shit by killing members of the archaeological team. There are also plenty of opportunities for brutal, Fulcian gore, like a man being quartered, a woman having her eyes removed by kitty cats, and the aforementioned crucifixions.

The structural problems of the script of Demonia, however, are glaring. Meg Register, as Liza, drives the drama as the main character, but once she becomes a victim of the evil, the plot of Demonia takes focus off of her character. Lucio Fulci, as the chief police inspector, then enters the film to drive the narrative. With all due respect to the Maestro, Fulci’s performance is fine but his role is boringly perfunctory. It doesn’t help either that the small town fear and loathing is personified by one character, the village butcher, played by Lino Salemme, a popular genre actor of the period (especially in Dèmoni (1985) and Dèmoni 2 (1986)). Like Fulci, Salemme gives a good performance, yet his character has such a burden and just a little more variety would have helped. Brett Halsey is a real addition to Demonia. He’s a legendary actor in Italian genre cinema, and his charisma is undeniable. However, like the other performances, Halsey’s character is very rigid and limited. At a later point in the film, Paul is a suspect in the rash of murders around the village and the archaeological dig. It is difficult to feel any empathy for him, as he is such a controlling jerk for the majority of the film. Watching Paul squirm a little bit under police interrogation is actually kind of refreshing. Nonetheless, Meg Register, as Liza, is very compelling as the lead in Demonia. It’s very entertaining to watch her indulge her obsessions, like a late-night visit to the monastery. Register is really beautiful and she gives a very good performance and stands out.

Demonia contains the strong elements that have made other Fulci film classics, like Zombi 2 (1979), Paura nella città dei morti viventi (1980), and L'aldilà (1981), for example: very strong atmospheric sequences punctuated loudly by brutal (and often sadistic) gore sequences. The beautiful Sicilian scenery, especially the monastery, is authentic. Steve Fentone, author of AntiCristo: The Bible of Nasty Nun Sinema & Culture, writes:

Demonia was filmed on authentic sites at Monte Castello, the isle of Sicily (in the thick of Mafia country). When we interviewed the star in 1995, Halsey remembered the chief location was a genuinely spooky ancient monastery whose basement actually contained the mummified cadavers of human beings. Fulci and crew were given permission to shoot there by the caretaker, a Roman Catholic clergyman; who evidently never suspected that the script included naked killer nuns.” (2)

Despite the fact that there are few sequences within the monastery, all of them are memorable within Demonia. These sequences carry the film, in my opinion. While the gore sequences are competent and certainly effective, none are as memorable as Fulci’s atmospheric sequences. In the truest sense, Demonia shows Fulci’s growth as an artist: he was always able to create more unique, different, or equally intense atmospheric sequences with every subsequent film. In terms of the visceral in Fulci’s cinema, the films waver wildly in content. Fulci’s cinema set the bar high with films like Zombi 2, for example, with its slow-motion eyeball sequence, and I believe that it would be difficult for any filmmaker to top that work. Fulci’s later work that relied more heavily on atmosphere, like Aenigma (1987), for example, appears more personal and interesting than the later gore-heavy work. Demonia is a good and very entertaining late Fulci work. Unfortunately, the characters are drawn too flat and are too limited from making the film a richer and more whole piece. Definitely ripe for a revisit for fans of Lucio Fulci or demonic cinema.

1. “Beyond the Thoughts of Lucio Fulci: A Conversation with the Man Behind such Legendary Movies as ‘The Beyond,’ ‘New York Ripper’ and ‘Gates of Hell.’” Trauma # #2. Edited by Kristian P. Mølgaard. Karpedam 4b, DK-6200 Aabenraa. Year unknown (presumable mid-1990s). p. 13.

2. AntiCristo: The Bible of Nasty Nun Sinema & Culture. Fentone, Steve. FAB Press. Surrey, England, U.K. 2000. p. 75.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Zombi 3 (1988)

Almost all of the literature that I have read about Zombi 3 (1988) revolves around blame. In a cool featurette included as a supplement on the Media Blasters/Shriek Show DVD of Demonia (1990), entitled "Fulci Lives," a fan was able to capture Lucio Fulci directing a scene from Demonia and was even able to ask him some questions. Fulci responds to a question by answering "Zombi 3 is not my film." (1) Despite this admonition, Lucio Fulci is the credited director of Zombi 3, the sequel to one of his most famous films, Zombi 2 (1979). “Lucio Fulci wasn’t in good health so when we saw the first cut of the film, it was much too short, therefore I shot two weeks of material to fatten it up,” says director Bruno Mattei. “There’s a little in it by Fulci and a little by me.” (2) Lucio Fulci would add in a later interview: “That’s a movie that I made for money, not pleasure. After the film was half-finished, the producers gave the direction over to Bruno Mattei who didn’t create a masterpiece, to say the least. Although the audience applauded when my name appeared on the credits, I am ashamed of the movie. Later on, the audience started throwing crap at the screens!” (3) Finally, Bruno Mattei relates, “Zombie 3 had a bad screenplay and I didn’t want to make it but it was made to cash in on the name of Fulci and because Zombie 2 was successful. Zombie 3 is not a good movie.” (4)
I enjoy Zombi 3 immensely. However, it’s a notorious film: in addition to the two directors of Zombi 3, most real fans of Italian genre cinema tremendously dislike the film, especially fans of horror. One has to bear in mind that Zombi 3 is a Flora film production: producer Franco Gaudenzi, screenwriter Claudio Fragasso, cinematographer Riccardo Grassetti, and director Bruno Mattei are representative members of this production company. The films that this company were making at the time (like Zombi 3 primarily in the Philippines) were action films, like Strike Commando 2 (1988) and Born to Fight (1989). It’s unsurprising that Zombi 3 appears like a film more of this class. Two of the leads of Zombi 3, Ottaviano Dell'Acqua and Massimo Vanni, for example, are also seasoned stuntmen. Zombi 3 has more machine-gun action and shit blowing up than slow zombie shuffling. Despite the film’s notoriety, I am here today to celebrate Zombi 3 and not to bury it.
With two directors, Zombi 3 is unsurprisingly a fragmented film with some very strong episodes. In perhaps the most famous sequence of the film, Bo, a soldier played by Vanni, and Marina Loi, who plays Carol, trek off together to find a doctor for one of the injured in their party. They traverse the quiet streets in their jeep until it breaks down. Vanni’s Bo suggests that the jeep’s radiator needs water and Carol volunteers to find some. She enters what appears to be a resort area onto a second-floor balcony, overlooking a lagoon. She ominously calls out, “Is anybody there?” Carol is pushed into the lagoon and Bo hears her scream. He attempts to rescue her, and this rousing episode becomes an action-packed survival-horror sequence. Bo uses his military combat skills to thwart the oncoming zombies who are amazingly animated and energetic. Visually this sequence is remarkable. A crane shot (in two cuts, not one fluid take) slowly pans from Carol at the top of the balcony down to the lagoon, showing the vast area and the quiet dread surrounding it. Theatrical green lighting filters out of an alcove at the base of the lagoon while the lagoon itself bubbles like a cauldron. The set looks like a Halloween haunted house attraction and when the first zombie appears, he looks like his makeup is homemade and caked on by himself. It’s a beautifully artificial sequence, like most effective Mattei cinema, and it’s also hauntingly atmospheric, like the best Fulci cinema.
In another effective Romero-esque sequence, a group of soldiers, donning hazmat suits and machine guns, patrol the infected zone. The audio is the voice of radio D.J. “Blue Heart” who gives a summation of the events so far and introduces another who relates rescue station information. With some haphazard and off-kilter compositions, zombies jump upon the soldiers and engage in battle. In a nasty sequence, a soldier and a zombie get into quite a tussle before the soldier ends the fight with a harsh blow to the chest with a knife. The famous siege sequence in the final act of Zombi 2 at the church-cum-hospital receives a memorial reference in Zombi 3 at a resort hotel-cum-survivor camp. The effective Fulci composition of the group of zombies dismantling an entire wall signals the near-end of the group of survivors. (I admit this sequence is much more effective with Frizzi’s score accompanying the visuals.) The final act of Zombi 3 sees its survivors mobile, moving from location to location and fending off zombies, as opposed to the final act of the previous film. Finally, Beatrice Ring appears in two fantastic sequences. During one in a gas station where she fights a small group of the undead and blows up the station by igniting the pump. The second Ring sequence is a classic Fulci setup on a bridge where Ring, who plays Patricia, attempts to cross with her boyfriend and Vanni’s character in tow. Patricia loses control of her car (for an unintentionally hilarious reason) and is forced to exit the bridge by foot. She seriously injures her leg while escaping the vehicle. The zombies surround both sides of the bridge. The key visual touch is the back light on the zombies: despite the low-budget nature of Zombi 3, both veteran directors were able to create effective sequences.
The script of Zombi 3 is poorly paced and constructed. Fulci admits in an interview that Claudio Fragasso would “show up every morning with a new script. Every morning, I mean it.” (5) The first twenty minutes of the film is an expository sequence, detailing a biological weapon entitled “Death One” whose scientists believe is too unstable and should be contained. A sample is stolen by a criminal, and the sample breaks and infects its thief. Before you ask, no, this act does not begin the zombie outbreak. Another sequence follows where the soldiers subdue the thief and take his corpse. The military burns his corpse and the ashes enter into the air. The ashes affect the local ecosystem and BAM! zombie outbreak. This sequence definitely feels like filler. The famous sequence involving Marina Loi should have kicked off the action of the first act (presumably in Fulci’s initial version) but the sequence appears almost halfway through the film. The plot construction is forgivable, considering its patchwork final version. Unfortunately, it is the poor plot and pacing which will deter most viewers from taking a second chance on Zombi 3. However only real cult film fans will ever see Zombi 3, if I had to speculate.
This period of Italian genre cinema, the late-eighties to early nineties, is one of my favorites. It’s the last gasp of the cinema that I love and there is a wonderfully desperate quality to the cinema that I cannot define. Zombi 3 is almost representative of this period and with an open mind, it can be, if not sublime, at least quite fun.
1. Demonia. DVD. Media Blasters/Shriek Show. Region 1. 2001.
2. “An Interview with Bruno Mattei.” Conducted by Andrea Giorgi, Matteo Palmieri, and Andrea Daz. Translation by Max Della Mora and Adrian Smith. European Trash Cinema. Vol. 2, No. 5. Edited by Craig Ledbetter. Kingwood, TX. 1992. P. 10.
3. “The Lucio Fulci Interview.” Conducted by Loris Curci and Antonio Tentori. European Trash Cinema. Vol. 2, No. 4. Edited by Craig Ledbetter. Kingwood, TX. 1991. P. 7.
4. “An Interview with Bruno Mattei.” Conducted by Andrea Giorgi, Matteo Palmieri, and Andrea Daz. Translation by Max Della Mora and Adrian Smith. European Trash Cinema. Vol. 2, No. 5. Edited by Craig Ledbetter. Kingwood, TX. 1992. P. 11.
5. “Lucio Fulci.” Shock Masters of Cinema. Edited by Loris Curci. Fantasma Books. Key West, FL. 1996. P. 72.