Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Zeder (1983)

Italian director Pupi Avati's contributions to the genre have been few but they have been potent, and quite often brilliant, contributions.  His atmospheric mystery starring Lino Capolicchio, La casa dalle finestre che ridono (1976), subverted the mechanics of the standard giallo formula and boasted rich characterizations and a meticulous and satisfying story.  Its visuals, like the iconic image of the titular house, have few equals from his contemporaries in the genre.  Within the last few years, I was treated to a viewing of a much later Avati contribution to the genre, L'arcano incantatore (1996), a wonderful period-piece mystery with a strong occult theme.  L'arcano incantatore plays out like a beautiful and cautious fairy tale, and again, boasts a strong performance by its richly-drawn protagonist, portrayed by Stefano Dionisi.  Over the last few months I have kept my eye on several copies of the out-of-print, Image Entertainment DVD of Zeder (1983) with hopes a seller would reduce the price, so I could purchase it.  With luck I was able to secure a copy and was again treated to Avati’s cinema.  I haven’t seen Zeder in years, and this recent viewing was extremely satisfying.
Zeder begins with an odd flashback sequence, set thirty years before its present, in Chartres where an old lady is killed in the shadow of a dilapidated maison by an unknown assailant.  Enter Dr. Meyer (Cesare Barbetti) who accompanies the police to the maison crime scene.  After a preliminary investigation, Dr. Meyer believes that there is something unusual about the location.  He brings a young patient to the location, named Gabriella, and during one evening he escorts her to the basement of the maison.  Gabriella is violently attacked by an unknown force.  After her attack, Dr. Meyer believes that he has identified what is unusual about this location.  He summons some workers who begin digging up the floor in the basement.  Little is yielded from the dig, save a wallet with an identification card with a name that reads Paolo Zeder.  Dr. Meyer believes that Paolo Zeder had his corpse buried on the premises for a specific reason:  Zeder knew that he would be resurrected, because of an unnatural power located within the area.
Cut to the present in Bologna, where Stefano (Gabriele Lavia) and Alessandra (Anne Canovas) are celebrating their one-year wedding anniversary.  Alessandra gives Stefano a rare model of an electric typewriter that she purchased at an auction.  As an aspiring novelist, Stefano begins giving his new gift some use.  When his typewriter ink ribbon becomes dislodged, he removes the ribbon to discover the words of the typewriter’s former owner:  a man named Luigi Costa who has written some very bizarre material.  Apparently Costa knows of Paolo Zeder’s work and the ability for the dead to resurrect at selected places, denoted as “K” zones.  Stefano, with reluctant Alessandra’s help, sets out to find Luigi Costa and uncover the mystery.
Zeder contains elements of the paranoia/conspiracy thriller (popular the decade before); the tried and true (yet very much dead) Italian giallo; and atmospheric horror (mostly akin to haunted-house theatrics).  At times, Zeder appears confused, only because Avati doesn’t strictly adhere to any of the mentioned formulas.  Avati is a master filmmaker, however, so the patient viewer will very much rewarded at the end.

At first blush, I thought that the exposition, the opening flashback sequence at Chartres, was too contrived to introduce the character of Zeder and the concept of the “K” zones.  What is later revealed, in a storyline parallel to Stefano’s investigation, is that Dr. Meyer and Gabriella, now a grown woman, have not abandoned their search from almost thirty-years previous.  They are not alone, either, as it appears they have recruited quite a staff and have secured serious financial backing in uncovering the existence of a “K” zone.  When Stefano makes a little headway in his investigation, he usually becomes thwarted by some mysterious figures who knows exactly what Stefano is up to.  These mysterious figures appear to be working for a larger group engaged towards the same goal.

By the end of Zeder, it is apparent that the central relationship of the film is between Stefano and Alessandra.  Stefano becomes obsessive towards uncovering the truth, even putting his life in danger at times, while Alessandra wants him to abandon his search and come home to her.  In a particularly endearing scene, Alessandra reunites with Stefano in a hotel room after a fight.  She reveals to Stefano that one of their close friends is dead, and they both realize, despite their previous spat, that they need each other for consoling.  The emotions of the scene never feel forced, and Zeder is really benefited by Lavia’s and Canovas’s performances.
If you have watched a lot of gialli, as I have, then you’re well prepared for Avati’s death scenes.  Avati effectively uses the tried-and-true method of the unsuspecting victim encountering a menacing figure emerging from the darkness.  The menacing figure gives a little chase, before the flash of the blade and the bloody killing.  Avati excels far better with his atmospheric set pieces, nearly all of which come in the final act.  When Stefano learns that an old building, near a necropolis ruin, is being occupied by a mysterious scientific group, he undertakes several clandestine trips into the old building.  All of his trips are revelatory and nearly all are extremely creepy.

Riz Ortolani’s score for Zeder is memorable, primarily because it is tonally inconsistent with the images (as is his score for Cannibal Holocaust (1980)).  It is a heavy-synth score, far more evocative of John Carpenter’s score for Halloween (1978) with shades of Harry Manfredini’s score from Friday the Thirteenth (1980).  Ortolani’s score is kind of amazing in a singular sense for adding a true unreal vibe to the entire film.

I can find little fault with Zeder.  It is truly a film to be appreciated by adults.  It’s storyline always assumes that its viewer is intelligent and thoughtful and rewards that viewer in the end.  Zeder easily ranks as one of the best Italian genre pictures in its waning days.


Alex B. said...

Congratulations on getting your hands on a copy of Zeder! It gets better on repeat viewings. The final quarter or so is just superb. I find Lavia an odd but effective choice for a protagonist.

Nigel Maskell said...

Clever film. Visually quite something too. Wouldn't expect anything less from Avati.