Monday, July 14, 2008

Primal Rage (1988)

Gore? Check. Bad one-liners? Check. Eye-gouging scene? Check. I smell spaghetti! Oh wait, it’s just another American-made Italian horror film from the late 1980s direct-to-video era. But at a glance you wouldn’t know it. This one was written by the notorious Umberto Lenzi, under the pen name Harry Kirkpatrick. This may explain the constant stream of bizarre one-liners such as “It smells like a pair of sewers in here!” and “It’s sort of like eating a lot if you don’t have a colon. You never know how it’s gonna come out.”
These Italian horror guys have more aliases than the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted. They had a solid reputation for making shaky movies in the 1980s, so they used pseudonyms constantly. Bruno Matthei once commented he prefers his alias of Vincent Dawn to his own real name. This clearly shows the bizarre taste Europeans have. Who wouldn’t want to be named Bruno! That would be awesome! It’s not like he’s named Pupi Avati, director of the odd zombie film Zeder (1983).
Nowadays, anything and everything Italian horror is a collector’s item, and to many including myself, the name Umberto Lenzi spells must-watch. The man who made Cannibal Ferox (1981) The Man From Deep River (1972), Eaten Alive (1980), and Nightmare City (1980) is a real crowd pleaser.
The story starts with Frank Duffy, a school newspaper journalist, who looks like a cross between Tim Mattheson and MCA from the Beastie Boys. He gets a bite from a monkey infected with the primal rage virus, and the wound soon turns into a pulsating, bloody puss oozing sore. He runs around acting very much like the wild ape he was bitten by, exploding into violent fits of rage. Those bitten by him behave in a similar manner. When they attack, their bloodthirsty frenzy is accompanied by pounding rock music reminiscent of Demons (1985). The score by Claudio Simonetti of the Italian rock band Goblin, bears a striking resemblance to the first few bars of the theme from Dawn of the Dead. Many of the cast were reused from Lenzi’s entertaining attempt at an American slasher film, Welcome To Spring Break (1988).
The film starts out looking like another killer-animal-on-campus movie, like Shakma or Gnaw: Food of the Gods part 2, but winds up being a bit of a zombie movie.
Highlights include a fat man dressed in a baby costume getting his scalp torn off, three racquetball jocks turning on a strobe light and heavy metal music before they attempt to gange rape a co-ed, and a guy in a Dracula costume getting his throat torn out. The climax takes place during a Halloween ball and the costumes must be seen to be believed. The late-80s pop-rock band plays on as a guy gets hanged on a basketball court, and a guy in a commando costume casually gets the flesh torn off his hand. But nevermind all that, I want to know who thought up the Halloween costumes. Who the hell dresses up as a three-headed baby with faucets on its noses? I don’t want to give away too much here, but this scene sports some of the best costume party deaths this side of Terror Train (1980). I actually had to watch it twice because I kept on having to stop and write this review.
The point? There really isn’t one. The purpose of the scientific experiments that created the virus is never explained. Not that it matters. The moral of the story: When someone or something bites you, go to the doctor.
Sadly, Primal Rage is only available on DVD in Italy, and only on VHS in the United States. Used copies are still pretty cheap on Amazon, and I found mine at Video Review. This is one of those films that could disappear into obscurity at some point. I wasn't even able to find decent cover art scans to post, and as far as I can tell, you have just read the longest review of this film ever posted to the internet.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Maya (1989)

An Ancient Mayan curse is awakened in the ancient temples in Mexico, and people are killed in strange and gory ways by an invisible force. The Italian blend of supernatural and giallo horror subgenres, which climaxed early with films like Suspiria (1977), and Inferno (1980), proliferated in the late 1980s as Italian horror degraded in quality and became less focused. This is undoubtedly my favorite phase of Italian horror cinema, not because the films were better, but because they were more fun. The rules and traditional storylines went out the window as budgets grew smaller and the masters of the genre like Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento got older and less energetic.
The late 1980s phase gave birth to some of the wildest and most bizarre blends of cinematic clich├ęs, and the films just got crazier and weirder. But they were really cool because the general disregard for film logic meant infinite creative freedom for the filmmakers. An Italian director could make a magic masala of a film with ghosts, witches, zombies, demonic possession, and serial slashers, and it would get financed and distributed. Explanations were not necessary for the less-than-critical video store crowd, and if one was usually an ancient curse, voodoo, or witchcraft. Films like The Church (1989), The Spider Labyrinth (1988), and The Devil’s Daughter (1991) are artistic, well-made examples of this new-school approach. Their lower grade, crazy, inbred cousins like Ghosthouse (1988), Beyond the Darkness (aka Ghosthouse 3, 1990), Demons 6: De Profundis (AKA Il Gatto Nero), and Spectres (aka Spettri, 1988), are far more abundant, though just as much fun to watch.
Maya falls somewhere in between, with a very unfocused plot, but excellent displays of technical abilities such as camera work, gore, and atmospheric settings. It has less of a manic feel to it than movies like Ghosthouse or Demons 6, almost as if the heat and humidity of the setting slowed down the pace. The director makes great use of Mexico’s tropical, hedonistic tourist environment, and blends it with the indigenous superstitions and belief in the occult. The evil force causes people violent deaths at the invisible hands of the Mayan curse. One woman is thrashed about in a bathtub until her nose is pounded into pulp on the edge of the tub, and another man is crushed by a rolling pick-up truck. The climax takes place on Dia de los Muertos, the Mexican day of the dead.
The attacks are exclusively on outsiders and not the locals themselves. Most of the victims are sweaty gringo expatriates, doomed to drink themselves to death anyway. The film did a good job of capturing the lazy, alcohol-soaked lifestyle so many foreigners lead when they take up residence small tropical towns in the world’s impoverished paradises. When the booze and women come cheap, many retire at an early age and lose all their ambition.
Having lived in a similar place once, Thailand, it was easy for me to put myself in the head of the film’s creators and became especially appreciative. Horror is just as popular a genre in tropical Asia as it is in America, and I learned about some of their legends and superstitions by watching their made for TV supernatural horror movies. I’ve always liked films set in exotic countries and enjoy ones that involve local legends like voodoo or indigenous religions. The fact that Italians made this one automatically made it a cut above the rest.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Alone In The Dark (1982)

Jack Palance and Martin Landau play two of the best schizoid psychopaths ever to grace the screen. You can tell these two had A LOT of fun making this movie. These two mental patients bust out of the loony bin intent on murdering one of the new doctors in their ward. Accompanied by a serial strangler nicknamed "The Bleeder," and a 400 lb. child molester named Fatty, they joyfully terrorize a small New Jersey town. The doctor they are after is played by who played Murdock, the crazy guy from the A-team, the one that Mr. T and the gang were always busting out of the nuthouse at the beginning of some of the episodes. Donald Pleasance (Dr. Loomis from Halloween) reprises his role as a psychologist for the criminally insane, and at times appears just as crazy as the inmates he is after. In fact almost every character in this film seems to have a few screws loose. Note the stuttering police captain, the weird looking little girl, and of course the nightclub band, aptly named the Sick Fucks.
You will really have to see this movie to believe it, and it is not the typical 80s slasher movie some reviewers have made it out to be. I first heard about this film when I read a rave review of it in “The Manly Movie Guide: Virile Video & Two Fisted Cinema.” Some of the best scenes were used as samples in the mid-80s horror movie documentary Terror In the Aisles (1984), alongside some other odd choices such as the Sylvester Stallone/ Rutger Hauer action movie Nighthawks (1981).
I would say the overall question this movie poses is who is crazier, the psychologist or the psychology patient? Donald Pleasance’s doctor seems just as berserk as his mental patients in a role that is practically a reprisal of his Dr. Loomis character from the Halloween series. And the other doctor is the guy from the A-team! When the lunatics escape, they are unleashed into a world of characters who seem as bizarre and illogical as those inside the institution. The film is set in suburban New Jersey during the punk rock years, and does an interesting job of holding up a mirror to society in the form of an 80s slasher film. While not exactly a gore-fest, this film did feature some make-up effects by Tom Savini. The DVD is available with extras and a pristine transfer from Image Entertainment.

The Spider Labyrinth (1988)

The Spider Labyrinth (1988), AKA Il Nido del Ragno, made me wonder; was Eastern Europe always considered a creepy looking place, or do we just think that because it is the traditional setting for so many horror films?
Atmosphere is the name of the game in this spider’s web, and this type of film should be viewed for just that and not with so much of a critical eye. This is true for most Italian horror films, and this is one of the last of the great European gothic horrors, even though it takes place in the present. Budapest is the setting for this tale of the occult, combined with a giallo type plot, and a few stop motion monsters. The gore is not over the top, except for in the final reel, and then it gets downright disgusting.
The plot follows an American archaeologist researching an ancient religion that seems to have shown up in seemingly unconnected locations. He travels to Budapest to coordinate with another researcher and stumbles upon a pagan cult. They worship giant subterranean spider monsters that possess humans and get them to carry out their dirty work and spread the religion. Sound strange? It is.
There is lots of cool camera work and eerie settings, and Budapest’s inhabitants looked like the same villagers that chased Frankenstein with pitchforks and torches. The movie reminded me of other movies about cults sworn to protect religious secrets such as The Ninth Gate or The Da Vinci Code.
My main motivation in seeking out this film was one photograph from the movie. The back cover of the book “Spaghetti Nightmares” features a gruesome, bloody still from the movie of a man with a butcher knife and a mouth full of fangs. I knew right away that I had to see this film.
Sadly, The Spider Labyrinth is a very obscure movie, even for Italian horror fans. The copy I watched was downloaded and appeared to be VHS rip of a copy from Midnight Video, with hardcoded Japanese subtitles at the bottom of the screen. The picture quality left a lot to be desired. With such a small amount of information available about this film I regret that I cannot offer many hard facts. The Internet movie database says the US DVD release is cut by about 20 minutes, but that website has been known to contain errors. Aside from downloads, the only other way to obtain a copy of this movie is to order a bootleg DVD from one of the various online companies.