A Fistful of Djangos

The sloppy state of Italian intellectual property law and enforcement in the mid-20th Century enabled all sorts of cinematic shenanigans. For instance, Zombie Flesh Eaters was known as Zombi 2 in the Italian market and presented as a sequel to Dawn of the Dead (whose Italian release was called Zombi), and a number of movies came out presenting themselves as Zombi 3 when it became clear that there was a hungry audience for this sort of stuff.

Another example is the Django craze of the late 1960s and early 1970s. After the 1966 release of the Spaghetti Western Django, a swathe of Westerns came out capitalising on its popularity – often by just adding the name “Django” to their titles and changing nothing, which is awkward when the movies in question don’t include a character called Django (or even a character who resembles Franco Nero’s character in the original movie).

Some of these were dross, some are pretty good, and naturally any obscure movie craze from this period is going to sooner or later catch the attention of Quentin Tarantino and be recycled by him: thus, Django Unchained, with Jamie Foxx in the title character, came out in 2012, prompting in turn a brace of reissues of Django movies. Talking Pulp has produced some reviews of these, and here’s my take on two of them.

Django

In the first Django movie the iconic character – played this time around by Franco Nero – is introduced to us as he’s dragging a coffin through mud and filth in a miserable rainstorm, wearing the remnants of a Union uniform. He encounters and rescues María (Loredana Nusciak), a prostitute who has become caught up in a conflict between Mexican bandits and the forces of Major Jackson (Eduardo Fajardo), a Confederate officer who, with the Civil War over and ol’ Dixie run down, has gone off West to fight his own private war against those he considers racially inferior.

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Lenzi’s Variable Focus

Umberto Lenzi’s career, like many Italian directors of his generation, would require him over the years to adapt to a range of different genres. Tending to work more towards the sleazier end of the spectrum, he’d happily turn out sword and sandal epics, spy movies, gialli, or whatever other flavour of schlock was in vogue at the time, though he also made some original contributions of his own – for instance, his Man From Deep River is considered to have kicked off the cannibal subgenre (and his later Cannibal Ferox is, alongside Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust, held to be the point where people said “OK, enough of this, the ‘who can be grimmer’ competition is over and we have our tied winners”).

As with any Italian director from this era, the quality of his output varied widely. Lenzi seemed happy to pitch his movies at the level demanded by the genre he was working in – going a bit more sophisticated for giallo, a bit sleazier for zombie movies, and so on – and when Lenzi is truly phoning it in, the results are awful. (Ghosthouse is only worth watching in the Rifftrax version.) Here’s a brace of three of his movies which have had recent Blu-Ray releases to illustrate what I mean.

Spasmo

Despite its title sounding like the sort of playground insult that people should really know better than to use these days (it’s a perfectly legit Italian word which happens to sound terrible in English), Spasmo does in fact at least start off as one of the more clever giallos out there. A young man and his girlfriend ride their motorbike to a ruined cottage by the coast to get some privacy – though they’re not so concerned about privacy that they’re shy to ask a dark figure sat in a car a little way away from the cottage to light a cigarette for them. In the middle of their making out, they are interrupted by…

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After the Fall of Good Taste

It is 20 years after a devastating nuclear war between the Pan-American Confederacy and the Euracs, an alliance of European, African and Asian forces. Massive contamination from radiation has largely sterilised humanity; no new human beings have been born for 20 years. The Euracs have occupied Noo Yoik and are scouring it for survivors, on whom they conduct intensely painful and invasive medical tests in the hope of finding anyone capable of producing children.

Meanwhile, the defeated Pan-American Confederacy has regrouped in Alaska (or an amusingly poor model thereof), where their leaders have discovered through old census records the existence of a woman in New York who could viably become pregnant. (How records largely compiled before the downfall of civilisation that caused mass sterilisation can indicate this is, shall we say, one of several plot points which are glossed over due to not making a lick of sense. (It actually makes sense in the end, but it seems like Parsifal is caused an awful lot of problems by the fact that the Confederacy leaders don’t bother giving full details to him.)

Parsifal (Michael Sopkiw), a badass road warrior who has a troubled history with the Confederation, is recruited by them to go on a mission into Eurac-occupied New York to retrieve the woman in question, so her eggs can be surgically harvested and used to make a viable new population on a colony mission to Alpha Centauri. Along the way he’ll have to tangle not only with various local ragamuffins and Eurac soldiers, but also the animalistic gang led by Big Ape (George Eastman), who dress in old-timey costumes and for some reason include a bunch of Neanderthal-types and full-blown Planet of the Apes-esque talking apes.

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George Eastman: Absurd Anthropophage

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Among the various movies added to the so-called “video nasty” list in the UK in the 1980s, few have as as much in common as Anthropophagous and Absurd. Both are projects by expert trash merchant Joe D’Amato, and both have George Eastman in almost identical costuming. And both are incredibly grim, though in mildly different ways…

Trigger warnings would be appropriate at this point: both of these involve cannibalism and murder, one involves violence against a pregnant woman, one involves violence against a disabled person.

Anthropophagous

As with many of the video nasties, this one was released under a whole swathe of different titles; the print 88 Films seems to have used to prepare this high-definition rerelease actually has the title “The Savage Island” appear during the opening scenes. The film kicks off with a young German couple exploring a delightful Greek island, with a lovely old village and decent beaches. As the man sunbathes, the woman spots a boat sitting apparently abandoned just off the beach. She swims over there, only to be shocked by what she finds therein – the occupant being the eponymous anthropophage, who after slaying her makes short work of her blissfully unaware friend.

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The Sophisticated Soavi

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Italian horror cinema is generally held to have had a peak of creative accomplishment in the 1970s and a rather sad decline in the 1980s, with the former masters of the genre suffering from diminishing returns and a tidal wave of second-rate material glutting the market.

A happy exception to this critical slump is the work of Michele Soavi. After serving an apprenticeship with a number of small acting parts and stints as an assistant director or second unit director for more prominent directors like Lamberto Bava, Joe D’Amato or Dario Argento, Soavi would direct four movies that are often taken to represent the best in Italian horror of the 1980s and 1990s.

Unfortunately, his career was derailed when he was forced to step back his involvement in the industry to care for his terminally ill son, though in the 2000s he did make some non-genre TV movies, and it’s still possible that – particularly with recent blu-ray releases of his own movies and those projects he assisted on coming out – the stars might align to allow him to produce another horror feature one day. If he does, these are the films that work will be measured against.

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