by Steve Habrat
One of the better cult films to be produced by legendary B-movie producer Roger Corman would have to be the 1975 dystopian satire Death Race 2000, an ever colorful grindhouse thriller that appears to have no shortage of eye-grabbing characters, gory death scenes, and black humor. Amazingly well spoken for this type of sleazy genre pic, Death Race 2000 is clearly a drive-in cheapie fueled by razor sharp satire, but it also gets by on the spirited lead performances from David Carradine and Sylvester Stallone, both who seem to be having the time of their lives as the rival racers. Maybe the charms come from the DIY approach that hovers over the entire project, from the cars that look like they had painted styrofoam additions super glued on to them, to the red candle wax blood that erupts from heads mowed over by smoking tires, to the hilarious backdrops that look like giant billboards painted up to look like a futuristic city. It all feels like it was made in a week and if you’re familiar with how Corman liked to work, you probably wouldn’t doubt it. Under director Paul Bartel, the cheap production design is never allowed to overshadow the white-knuckle action, thrills, and wit that rocket at you at about 150 miles-per-hour. However, the film does a tailspin in the final five minutes, with a blowout ending that just doesn’t seem to fit the rest of the movie. It has been said that the filmmakers weren’t sure how to conclude the film and it sure is obvious once you see how they warp everything up.
In the year 2000, the United States has been destroyed by a financial collapse and is ruled over by a Bipartisan Party, which has unified church and state. It has become the United Provinces; a fascist police state ruled over by the mysterious “Mr. President” (Played by Sandy McCallum). The public is kept entertained by the brutal Transcontinental Road Race, a gladiatorial battle that finds five colorful racers battling to score points by running down innocent civilians with their spruced-up race cars. The star of this show is the fan-favorite Frankenstein (Played by David Carradine), the government’s champion that is part man and part machine due to the horrific wrecks from past races. As the nation gears up for the 20th race, Frankenstein finds himself stuck with a new navigator, Annie Smith (Played by Simone Griffeth), who he is immediately suspicious of. As the three-day race commences, Frankenstein finds himself pitted against his jealous rival, “Machine Gun” Joe Viterbo (Played by Sylvester Stallone), who will do whatever it takes to beat the fan favorite. In addition to competing against “Machine Gun” Joe, three other racers, Ray “Nero the Hero” Lonagan (Played by Martin Kove), Matilda the Hun (Played by Roberta Collins), and “Calamity” Jane Kelly (Played by Mary Woronov), are all out to dethrone Frankenstein. As the race gets underway, the five racers find themselves attacked by a mysterious rebel group led by Thomasina Paine (Played by Harriet Medin), who are determined to put an end to the savage race once and for all.
Death Race 2000 begins with a montage of jingoism, as marching bands and fans clad in red, white, and blue congregate for the massive race set to The Star Spangled Banner. It seems harmless enough until Bartel slips in an image of a man waving a swastika flag in support of Matilda the Hun. From there on out, Death Race 2000 is a rubber-burning satire on America’s fixation with violent entertainment and the media that enthusiastically sells it. The announcers happily explain the point system directly to the viewer; smiling as they explain how many points a rundown infant is worth compared to a pancaked man or woman. Things get even more twisted as the widow of the first victim of the race is brought onto live television, simultaneously sobbing and laughing as she is rewarded with a lavish vacation, all because her husband was the first to be gruesomely rundown in the street. It is not hard to see that Death Race 2000 is skewering the media’s love of all things blood and guts, all as Frankenstein reminds us that it is all about giving the fans what they want. Bartel does lighten the mood with a few scenes of black humor, mostly coming from Stallone’s “Machine Gun” Joe and his constant frustration with both Frankenstein and his busty navigator Myra (Played by Louisa Moritz). The highlight scene comes when an innocent fan (who is minding his own business) mistakes the cocky “Machine Gun” Joe for Frankenstein. Joe retaliates by chasing the man down a river and flattening him. Now THAT is some black humor.
While the action and satire are both finely tuned, Death Race 2000 achieves its cult classic status through must-see (and when I say must-see, I mean it) performances from Carradine and Stallone. Carradine rocks as the partly mechanical man Frankenstein, who dons a leather mask and zooms from coast to coast in an alligator race car complete with massive fangs. You can tell that Carradine is having an absolutely blast strutting around in his black leather outfit that is complete with a cape that he enjoys twirling around. He is the ultimate man of mystery, at least to his die-hard fans. You’ll thrill as he is always one step ahead of his plotting rival “Machine Gun” Joe, a mush-mouthed brute bitter over living in Frankenstein’s shadow. Outside of Rocky, this is probably the best Stallone has ever been (Okay, he was decent in Rambo). He just looks so outrageous speeding down a winding country road in a car with two tommy guns and a giant knife mounted on the front. He nabs most of the black laughs while bickering with his bombshell navigator Myra, who acts like a giant space cadet. As far as Frankenstein’s navigator Annie Smith is concerned, she is mostly there to get naked and seduce him behind closed doors, but wait for a surprising twist with her character near the end of the film. Another stand out is the deliciously evil Matilda the Hun, who is absolutely wicked as she shouts about the master race while tormenting her fellow racers. And I can’t forget Don Steele as the massively annoying announcer Junior Brace, who just beams over carnage of the race, and Joyce Jameson as the obsequious television personality Grace Pander.
Death Race 2000 may toss around a few heavy ideas, but it never fails to remember its audience. Being an exploitation movie, Death Race 2000 provides tons of gratuitous nudity and violence, which is interesting because the film appears to be wagging its finger at violence for entertainment. There are plenty of gruesome deaths, which are all accompanied by the trademark 70s candle wax blood. In between these nasty moments, there are plenty of adrenaline pumping chases, fistfights, and even a nifty sequence that finds Carradine’s Frankenstein trying to outrun a rebel fighter plane unleashing bullets and bombs. Death Race 2000 also can’t resist stripping almost all the ladies of their clothing, especially Moritz and Griffeth, which will please most of the male viewers. Overall, Death Race 2000 could have been a victim of its own cut-rate production, but the less-is-more approach really allows the film to come alive. It may botch it in the final moments with an unlikely and frankly unsatisfying climax, but it is something you will ultimately forgive because the other seventy-five minutes are just so cool. Come for the nonstop action and stay for the seriously awesome performances from Carradine and Stallone.
Death Race 2000 is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
Before Italian filmmaker Lucio Fulci became known as the “Godfather of Gore,” the grindhouse/horror legend dabbled in a number of non-horror film genres. In the late 1950s and 60s, he directed a handful of comedies and then set his sights on thrillers and gialli in the early 1970s. In the mid to late 60s and early 70s, Italy was enamored with spaghetti westerns and it comes as no surprise that Mr. Fulci decided to contribute a few westerns of his own to the booming subgenre. Near the end of the spaghetti western craze, Fulci released Four of the Apocalypse, a surprisingly sensitive but brutal trip into the Wild West that plays by its own set of rules. Lacking a strong, silent hero going to war with a pack of snarling gunslingers, Four of the Apocalypse is heavy with character development and shockingly light on gunplay. If you’re a fan of Fulci’s gory later work, rest assured that Four of the Apocalypse has plenty of the blood and torture that many of his fans expect, but you will also be surprised to find that you get attached to the four main characters before you are blindsided by the pitch-black tragedy that looms over the second half of the film. It really proves to those who wrote off Fulci as a horror hack that the “Godfather of Gore” is capable of making films with some serious substance.
Four of the Apocalypse picks up in Salt Flat, Utah, with a big time gambler named Stubby Preston (Played by Fabio Testi) arriving in town looking to make some money. Shortly after arriving, Stubby has a run-in with the Sheriff and he winds up thrown in jail with a beautiful prostitute, Bunny (Played by Lynne Frederick), the town drunk, Clem (Played by Michael J. Pollard), and the local loony, Bud (Played by Harry Baird). That very evening, a group of masked bandits attack Salt Flat and leave the town a bloody mess. The next morning, Stubby cuts a deal with the sheriff and the four soon find themselves traveling to the next town, which is 200 miles away. As they make their way down the dusty trail, the colorful group gets to know each other and Stubby begins taking a liking to Bunny, who also happens to be pregnant. The lighthearted trip is soon interrupted by a mysterious bandito that calls himself Chaco (Played by Tomas Milian), who wishes to join and travel with the group. Chaco claims that he is an expert hunter and that he can defend the rag-tag group from raiders and bandits. All seems well at first, but Chaco soon reveals himself to be a sadistic bandit that leaves the group for dead. With no food or water and one of their group severely wounded, Stubby vows to track down and kill Chaco for what he has done.
While the spaghetti western was known for delivering plenty of shoot-em-up action, Four of the Apocalypse shies away from the relentless violence that made the genre so popular. While a gun is fired here and there, the only real action comes from the beginning of the film, with the masked bandits turning Salt Flat into a war zone. This early scene has plenty of Fulci’s signature gore, with holes blown through the bellies of drunken cowboys and gunslingers hung from buildings. It is actually a fairly creepy sequence, especially since the bandits seem to be attacking for no reason and they are sporting white masks with eyeholes torn into them. From there on out, Fulci leaves most of the gunplay behind and focuses on the sunny relationship between our four likable travelers. The downside to this opening explosive action is that the pacing is thrown off and the film seems to come to a screeching halt when the group hits the road. While the all-out action is pulled back, Fulci does darken the whole affair when Chaco rides into the frame. Chaco is certainly a captivating character, but with him comes torture, rape, and death, all of which shatter the innocence of the group. Things really get grim when cannibalism rears its ugly head in one of the darkest moments of the entire film.
Four of the Apocalypse also features some truly exceptional and memorable performances from nearly everyone involved. Fabio Testi really casts a spell as Stubby, the handsome and outgoing gambler that everyone seems to be familiar with (Even Chaco has heard of him!). A clean-cut guy who can’t say no to a good shave, Stubby is far from the conventional spaghetti western hero. When he mingles with a group of hardened outlaws near the end of the film, he is glaringly out of place but we can see that he may be considering going down the path that these men have chosen. Then we have Frederick’s Bunny, the beautiful prostitute who strikes up a romance with Stubby. Despite her line of work and her growing baby bump, she retains a youthful innocence that is rare when it comes to spaghetti western prostitutes. Pollard’s Clem is a pitiful soul, one who is a slave to the bottle and will literally do anything for a swig of whiskey. Fulci really focuses on his sad eyes, which easily pierce your heart. Baird’s sweet but simple Bud was probably the most sympathetic and naive character as he rambles on about speaking with ghosts in a graveyard. Yet the one that stands high above all these characters is Milian, who is absolutely unforgettable as the unpredictable Chaco. As sadistic as they come, Chaco is like a gun slinging Charles Manson, one who manipulates and violates with the aid of peyote.
What I absolutely loved about Four of the Apocalypse is that it really seemed to be playing by its own set of rules. The final confrontation between Stubby and Chaco is subtle and minimal yet strangely poignant and satisfying. You’ll also find yourself hanging on the hope and tragedy that blossoms out of Stubby and Bunny’s arrival in the town of outlaws, all of whom melt over the arrival of Bunny’s child. You will find yourself wishing that Fulci had paced his film better and that he would have pulled the distracting folk score from the film and replaced it with a jangly Ennio Morricone track. Over the years, Four of the Apocalypse has become sort of a midnight movie for some of the violence peppered throughout, but the film never seems overly interested in exploiting the bloodier moments, something that is very rare for Fulci. Overall, Four of the Apocalypse is an absorbing and emotional journey across a bleak and hopeless landscape. There are a few dry spots to be found but end result is a wildly disturbing character study that allows the film to set itself apart from the other films of this subgenre.
Four of the Apocalypse is available on DVD.
by Steve Habrat
In 2007, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez introduced mainstream audiences to exploitation cinema or “grindhouse” cinema with their sleazy double-feature experiment Grindhouse. Their experiment failed to resonate with audiences, at least at first, but in the wake of Grindhouse, there was a growing interest in exploitation cinema from the mid 1960s until the mid 80s. Glorifying sex, violence, and depravity, “grindhouse” movies were “ground out” in dingy old movie palaces or rickety drive-in theaters while a wide range of colorful audience members smoked dope, pleasured themselves, mugged other audience members, heckled the screen, and relieved themselves in soda cups to avoid a trip to the creepy bathrooms. Ranging from spaghetti westerns to European zombie movies to cannibal films to blaxploitation flicks to all out pornography, exploitation had many forms and a good majority of them were absolutely awful. However, there were more than a few stand outs that managed to hold up over the years and earn respectable cult followings. So, without further ado, here are Anti-Film School’s ten best grindhouse films of all time. Take comfort in the fact that you can watch them in your own home, far away from the junkies of 42nd Street!
WARNING: EXTREMELY GRAPHIC IMAGES
10.) I Spit on Your Grave (1978)
Israeli director Meir Zarchi’s stunningly graphic rape/revenge flick has become one of the most infamous grindhouse films ever made. The film notoriously enraged critics upon its release and even caused Roger Ebert to write one of the most scathing film reviews of his career. I Spit on Your Grave is trashy, sleazy, mean, brutal, and harrowing, with plenty of sex and violence to fuel a dozen exploitation pictures. So what makes it so awesome? Folks, when this poor woman unleashes her fury, it will have you simultaneously cheering her on while covering your eyes and reaching for the barf bag. I Spit on Your Grave was remade in 2010, but the polished presentation and evidence of a studio budget failed to pack the punch of the gritty original.
9.) The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is one seriously scary movie. Believe me, folks. It may also make you want to take a shower, become a vegetarian, and never go anywhere near the Texas border. Wielding a nerve-frying sense of realism, this grim and grimy tale about a group of young friends who come face to face with a family of murderous cannibals led by Leatherface was inspired by the heinous crimes of real life serial killer Ed Gein and famously spooked the horror-hating critic Rex Reed. Surprisingly, Hooper adds little gore to the mayhem and instead relies on the thick Texas heat, dilapidated brans, abandoned meat packing factories, and rusty family-owned gas stations to keep us on our toes. Wait for the final fifteen minuets, with a gut-churning family dinner, star Marilyn Burns screaming herself horse, and Leatherface doing a dance of death in the middle of a highway.
8.) Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965)
Sexploitation king Russ Meyer’s snarling Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is one of the funkiest films you are ever likely to see. It has just about everything an exploitation fan could want: ass-kicking go-go dancers, drag races, fist fights, big breasts, sadistic backwoods males, and switchblades. It is like a living, berating cartoon that wouldn’t hesitate to rip your throat out. It is precisely this pulpy, comic book touch that makes Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! such an essential grindhouse thrill ride. The action is breakneck, the fights are bone-snapping, the races are smoking, and the go-go dances will have the male viewers hot under the collar. The middle section of the film begins to sag, that I will admit, but the curvy Varla and her no-nonsense attitude keeps the entertainment level as high as it will go.
7.) El Topo (1970)
The film that started the midnight movie craze, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo is a work that you can’t even begin to fully understand or truly put in words. It’s a spaghetti western that really isn’t a western at all. At times spiritual, at times existential, at times beautiful, but almost always brutal beyond belief, El Topo follows a lone gunslinger named El Topo (played by Jodorowsky) on his quest to confront a handful of cunning warriors lurking out in the desert. At the time of its release, John Lennon and Yoko Ono were very vocal about their love for El Topo, and over the years, it has caught the attention of David Lynch, Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Marilyn Manson, and Bob Dylan. There is no doubt that El Topo will shock, swoon, and appall all who see it, sending the viewers away to discuss and debate the surreal string of images that Jodorowsky springs on them. You truly won’t believe your eyes.
6.) The Streetfighter (1974)
You can’t have a list of the best grindhouse films of all time without including this wickedly savage Sonny Chiba classic. The Streetfighter is a mess in the plot department, but you’re not here to for a mind bending story. No, you’re here to watch Sonny Chiba, who seriously makes the best facial expression ever while throwing down with a sea of bad guys, rip some guys balls off, rip another dude’s vocal cords out, and sock a guy in the gut so hard that he barfs (trust me, there is a hell of a lot more). It’s great and it is even better if you watch it with a group of friends that howl every time someone memorably bites the dust. The Streetfighter ended up being the first film ever to receive an “X” rating for violence and even by today’s standards, it would make most splatter directors blush. It stands proudly as one of the greatest kung-fu films ever made.
5.) Halloween (1978)
Believe it or not, John Carpenter’s icy tale of the Boogeyman in suburbia was indeed a grindhouse movie. Made by an independent studio and on a shoestring budget of $325,000, this terrifying slasher pic is widely considered to be the most successful independent feature of all time. Halloween is the ultimate example of less-is-more and it inspired a slew of holiday-themed slashers that emerged in the wake of its popularity. There is so much to love here, from the spine-tingling score to the seemingly supernatural Michael Meyers, and plenty to give the viewer nightmares for a week. Halloween was followed by a number of sequels, two of which are worth checking out, and a gritty, ultra-gory remake in 2007 by shock rocker-turned-director Rob Zombie. There have been countless imitators, but the original Halloween remains the scariest slasher film ever made.
4.) Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS (1975)
One of the more extreme and sexually graphic films on this list, Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS, was one of the original women-in-prison grindhouse films. Directed by Don Edmonds and shot on the leftover sets of Hogan’s Heroes, Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS has earned its reputation through its borderline pornographic sex scenes, prolonged sequences of torture, its surprisingly serious approach to the silly material, the grim ending, and Dyanne Thorne as the sadistic Ilsa. Seriously, wait until you get a load of Thorne’s Ilsa. If taken for what it is, Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS is pretty entertaining even if you’re constantly closing your eyes or watching with your jaw on the floor. In October, I actually had the pleasure of meeting Dyanne Thorne and she was a gigantic sweetheart even if she was dressed in her Nazi uniform. For those looking to cut their teeth on the savage stuff, make sure you get ahold of the blood-splattered Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS. It is the real deal.
3.) Thriller: A Cruel Picture (1974)
Would you believe that director Bo Arne Vibenius, the man behind Thriller: A Cruel Picture, once worked with Swedish art house director Ingmar Bergman? If you’ve seen Thriller: A Cruel Picture, you probably can’t. The ultimate rape/revenge film, Thriller would chew I Spit on Your Grave up and then spit it out, place a double barrel shotgun to its head, and then blow its brains clean out. The tagline warned viewers that Thriller was “the movie that has no limits of evil” and it really meant it. Following the beautiful young Frigga (played by bombshell Christina Lindberg), who is abducted and forced into a life of drug addiction and prostitution before she snaps and goes on a killing spree, Thriller: A Cruel Picture is about as rough and tough as a motion picture can be. Vibenius unleashes graphic sequences of sexual intercourse (complimented by a shrill static sound effect to make the viewer cringe) and slow-motion shots of Frigga’s tormentors tumbling through the air while gore spills from the bullet wounds. He also gouges the eye ball out of a real corpse. So, do you think you have the stones to go up against Thriller: A Cruel Picture?
2.) Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
Ruggero Deodato’s “found footage” gross-out Cannibal Holocaust was so realistic, that when the film premiered in Milan, Deodato was arrested and charged with obscenity. Certainly not for everyone, Cannibal Holocaust has become the most controversial movie ever made and it lives up to its reputation. Featuring strings of unblinking violence with barely a cut to be found, real footage of animals being killed (this aspect of the film particularly disturbed me), and the most repulsive sex/rape scenes every filmed, Cannibal Holocaust is the film that goes all the way and doesn’t even consider looking back. Believe it or not, Cannibal Holocaust is a shocking reflection of the violence lurking in even the most “civilized” human beings, something you’d never expect from a film that seems content to wallow in depravity. The film sparked a number of copy cat cannibal films that emerged out of Italy throughout the 80s, but none could match what Deodato created. Deodato has since stated his regret in making the film, but Cannibal Holocaust has earned a fairly respectable cult following. It is certainly not for the faint of heart.
1.) Zombie (1979)
Legendary Italian horror director Lucio Fulci has been widely considered to be the “Godfather of Gore” and he certainly lives up to that reputation with Zombie. Released in 1979 and marketed as the sequel to George A. Romero’s zombie epic Dawn of the Dead (the films have no connection), Zombie is about as fun and icky as a zombie film can get. It is gratuitous with its blood and guts as well with its nudity (breasts are flashed for seemingly no reason at all). Zombie certainly lacks the sophistication of a Romero zombie film and absolutely no one expects it to make a profound statement about society, but it does get the zombie action right. Rotten corpses claw out of the grave, freshly infected shuffle through rickety tropical ghost towns looking for victims, a zombie battles a shark (yes, you read that correctly) and ghouls rally together at the climax to infiltrate a bordered up makeshift hospital. And boy, does it feature some nasty looking zombies. A midnight movie of the highest order, Zombie is balls to the wall insanity. Fun Fact: Zombie‘s trailer promised queasy viewers a barf bag with their ticket!
by Steve Habrat
Imitation was the name of the game in Italy from the mid 1960s until the mid 1980s, something that was both positive and negative. Sergio Leone gave birth to the spaghetti western genre in the mid 60s with the marvelous A Fistful of Dollars, a leaner and meaner version of the American western, and Lucio Fulci sent Italy into a zombie craze with his uncompromisingly vicious 1979 grindhouse film Zombie, which was marketed as a sequel to George Romero’s mega hit Dawn of the Dead. It is no surprise that Italy was also enamored with Wes Craven’s grainy rape/revenge horror outing The Last House on the Left. Aldo Lado’s Night Train Murders is Italy’s answer to Craven’s horrifying redo of Ingmar Begrman’s The Virgin Spring, even marketed as the “new Last House” and using The Last House on the Left’s famous tagline, with minor alterations (“You can tell yourself it’s only a movie – but it won’t help”). Many have argued that Night Train Murders is actually a stronger and much more intelligent film than The Last House on the Left, but in reality, the film seems to be preoccupied with its graphic sexual assaults rather than really doing anything fresh or constructive with the story outside of some thin satire and a change in setting. It should also be pointed out that the film is poorly paced and (naturally) shoddily dubbed with eye-rolling dialogue. The only thing that saves the senseless clone is the acting, which is surprisingly strong for a controversial grindhouse throwaway.
Night Train Murders focuses on two pretty college girls, Margaret (Played by Irene Miracle) and Lisa (Played by Laura D’Angelo), who are taking an overnight train from Munich to Lisa’s parents home in Italy for Christmas. While on board, Margaret and Lisa cross paths with two thugs, Blackie (Played by Flavio Bucci) and Curly (Played by Gianfranco De Grassi), who hop aboard the train to avoid being arrested by the police. As they hide from the ticket collector, Blackie attempts to rape a pretty upper class woman (Played by Macha Meril), but is shocked that the woman begins seducing him and enjoying his advances. This promiscuous woman joins the two thugs on their journey, but the train is soon stopped after authorities get word of a bomb on board. The girls decide to hop on another train that guarantees they will reach their destination by morning and allow them to avoid the suspicious Blackie and Curly. As the girls settle in, they are shocked to discover that the two thugs and the woman who pursued them on the previous train are also on board. As night falls and the train cabins darken, Lisa and Margaret become the victims of rape and torture at the hands of Blackie, Curly, and the mysterious woman. As the night goes on, the girls begin to realize that no one is going to be able to save them and they begin wishing for death.
After the slow set up that hangs over the first act of Night Train Murders (the girls flirt with the thugs, Curly plays his harmonica, Blackie has graphic sex with the mysterious woman), director Lado settles in for almost forty minutes of graphic rape and jaw dropping torture that will certainly stir up the casual viewer, but frankly just exhaust the hardened horror buff. The initial first encounters during the lengthy rape sequence are certainly appalling (the deflowering with the switchblade comes to mind), but after a while, you are left checking your watch and wishing that Lado would move on with the story. When we do finally move past the nasty stuff, Lado seems to rush the confrontation between Lisa’s parents and these three sadistic individuals. If you are familiar with The Last House on the Left, you obviously know that the parents cross paths with the thugs and proceed to serve up a bloody plate of revenge. Night Train Murders approaches the sequence as almost an afterthought, and the way the parents figure out what has happened feels forced. When the sparks finally do fly, things do get bloody, but it never reaches the levels of violence that The Last House on the Left reaches. Amazingly, there is plenty of atmosphere during the final confrontation (the billowing fog and the whistling wind do send chills as Lado fixes his camera on a dead body), but the action feels a bit sanitized for a film that seems well aware that it is a knock-off exploitation film. It sadly never achieves the realism that Craven achieved.
For an exploitation film, Night Train Murders does muster some above average performances from its leads. Miracle and D’Angelo are certainly sympathetic as Margaret and Lisa, especially when they realize that there is no hope of escape from these three maniacs. Especially effective is D’Angelo’s Lisa, a virgin who is violated with a switchblade and then left to bleed out. As far as the thugs go, Bucci and De Grassi will make your skin crawl as Blackie and Curly. One is just as bad as the other, the loose cannon easily being Curly, who happens to be an unpredictable junkie with a sinister harmonica. Meril’s mysterious woman (we never do learn her real name), who joins forces with Blackie and Curly, is probably the creepiest character in the film, a seemingly sophisticated upper class woman who conceals her darker interests in porno and smirks at the violence erupting around her in the final moments. It is frightening the way evil is lured out during an attempted rape, a horrific act that she enjoys. And we can’t forget Enrico Maria Salerno and Marina Berti as Lisa’s parents, Giulio and Laura, two more upper class citizens who erupt in quivering carnage even though they state their dislike for violence in society.
At times, Night Train Murders seems to have a bit more on its mind than simply rape and revenge, but the idea of violence lurking in the most civilized human beings seems stale and borrowed, much like the plot itself. The film is effective with its claustrophobic setting (very rarely does Lado’s camera venture out of the train cabin) and the image of a switchblade stuck between Lisa’s legs is certainly something that will not leave your memory any time soon, but the film never manages to sicken like it thinks it does. The middle section just becomes tedious and sadly, boredom begins to set in. It should also be noted that the film packs a beautiful and haunting score from Ennio Morricone, a nice little surprise for the viewer. Overall, if you’ve exhausted your copy of The Last House on the Left and you’ve admired Bergman’s staggering The Virgin Spring, Night Train Murders is worth checking out simply for the slightly different take on the story. However, if you’re an exploitation fan, Night Train Murders will leave you longing for the scummy realism of Craven’s film.
Night Train Murders is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
If you’re a grindhouse fan and you’ve had your fill of spaghetti westerns, ziti zombie trash, shoddy kung-fu throwaways, gritty revenge outings, and jungle cannibal gross-outs, perhaps you should jump into the women in prison subgenre. Heavy on the sexual content and graphic torture sequences, this sleazy subgenre was born out of producer David F. Friedman and director Lee Frost’s 1969 Nazi exploitation film Love Camp 7, which was the first of the Nazi exploitation films. With Love Camp 7 being a massive hit, Friedman developed 1975’s Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS, which has become the bloody face of the women in prison subgenre. Directed by Don Edmonds and penned by Jonah Royston and John C.W. Saxon, Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS is ranked among the most shocking exploitation films to ever grace a movie screen. Certainly living up to its reputation, Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS is loaded with eyebrow-rising sex scenes and queasy torture sequences which make it a chore to get through, but would you believe that the film is actually good? That’s right, Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS is actually a pretty good movie. For those who can take it, this nasty little film is actually morbidly entertaining and strongly acted, with special credit going to the sadistic Dyanne Thorne, who is game for pretty much anything. Believe me, there is a good reason why Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS has stood the test of time.
Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS takes us inside a concentration Camp 9 run by Commandant Ilsa (Played by Thorne), a big-breasted SS officer who is out to prove to Hitler that women are capable of withstanding more pain than men and should be allowed to serve in the army. By day, she performs her macabre experiments with the help of her two blonde sidekicks and by night, she selects male prisoners to pleasure her for the evening. Disgusted that no man can pleasure her all night, Ilsa punishes the unlucky chaps by castrating them and sometimes killing them. Ilsa soon meets her match when her forces capture Wolfe (Played by Gregory Knoph), an American who is capable of pleasuring a woman all night long. As Ilsa’s experiments grow more and more horrific with each passing day, the prisoners begin to plot their escape and revenge on Ilsa. Their plan is further complicated when an equally psychotic Nazi general drops in to evaluate Ilsa’s work.
Probably the furthest thing from high art, Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS is certainly a grim and gruesome affair. In fact, Ilsa is so extreme that even Friedman changed his name on the credits and has admitted disgust that he is even attached to the film. Yet despite having a flimsy D-grade plot and lingering a bit too long on the countless nude women in the film, it is actually played shockingly straight which makes it weirdly likable. It never seems to laugh at itself, even when Wolfe delivers lines like, “When I reached puberty, I discovered something about myself that set me apart from all the rest of the guys.” The torture sequences are just as stomach churning as you would expect, one even involving a giant dildo capable of dishing out a whole lot of anguish. Another jaw-dropping moment comes during a dinner party sequence, with a nude female prisoner standing on a block of ice and a noose tied firmly around her throat. It really makes you squirm, especially as the perverted Nazi general and Ilsa laugh heartily in her face. Much has been made out of the idea that the gore is vaguely erotic but I have to disagree. It sets out to repulse and it certainly does, especially when we get close ups of third degree burns, cuts infected with gangrene, and severe lashings. Credit should go to Joe Blasco, who is responsible for the gore effects and is responsible for making us want to loose our lunch. The film also features a climatic gunfight that will have you cheering on the prisoners who are out to exact revenge on the depraved psychos who get off on disfiguring them.
In the end, Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS belongs to Thorne, who plays Ilsa as menacing as she possibly can. Loosely based on real-life Nazi Ilse Koch, Ilsa is surprisingly terrifying as she stomps around in her thigh-high boots and blood stained medical coat. She will make your skin crawl as she stares down her nose at a quivering Nazi general who begs Ilsa to remove her britches and pee on him. Needless to say, you’ll fear for the men that are forced to ravish her all night, especially with the knowledge that they will surely be tied to an operating table and have their manhood removed as Ilsa’s henchmen giggle with delight. It is obvious that Thorne is hamming it up for the camera and that she enjoys showing off her curvy body and you honestly can’t blame her. One can’t help but wonder what Thorne could have done with a real script and a character that wasn’t designed to simply shed her clothing. Knoph is stone faced as the self-described “machine” that can “do it” all night. I suppose his heart is in the right place as he sacrifices himself and shares a bed with the devil. Tony Mumolo also has a bit part as prisoner Mario, who has been robbed of his manhood by Ilsa but is patiently plotting his revenge.
Despite being made on the cheap and shot on the leftover sets of Hogan’s Heroes, Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS is still an insanely efficient film. It is gross and it is graphic with the gratuitous sex sequences but it is damn near impossible to pull away simply because you want to see the devil get what is coming to her. I wanted Ilsa to suffer and I wanted the prisoners to get far, far away from Camp 9. Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS also managed to earn a nod in Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s 2007 ode-to-all-things-sleazy Grindhouse, which featured a fake trailer called Werewolf Women of the SS, directed by Rob Zombie. That fake trailer featured a few topless blondes who looked suspiciously similar to Ilsa and her bloodthirsty sidekicks. For those looking to jump into the exploitation arena, Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS would be one of the films to start with. It has the thrills, the chills, the gore, and the sleaze that would really cut the viewers teeth on exploitation cinema. Plus, it is worth seeing for Thorne’s priceless performance. Overall, people may think me crazy for saying it but I actually really like Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS. It has some strong performances despite goofy dialogue, the make-up effects will drive horror fans crazy, and the premise is just ridiculous enough to work. Just make sure you wait a half hour after eating before watching.
Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS is available on DVD. However, it is extremely hard to find and if you own a copy, it is worth a hefty sum of cash.
by Raymond Esposito
Echoes in a Quiet Room
When Steve asked me to write an article for Anti-Film School, I was honored. When he said, the topic was “my” top five horror movies I thought, “Perfect. Two things that I love…horror and my opinion. I can write that in about ten minutes.” It took me almost five weeks…not to write the article but to choose the movies. For a horror fan and dark fiction author, asking me to pick my five favorites is like asking me to eat a single potato chip…I can do it, but it’s really difficult. There are, after all, so many great horror scenes spread out across so many movies. The challenge loomed even larger when I considered all those scenes that filled me with dread, but didn’t actually belong to a horror film. Take for example, Saving Private Ryan. It’s a war movie true, but there is one scene in that film that disturbs me more than most horror scenes I’ve watched. Near the end of the film an American soldier fights a Nazi. The Nazi gets the upper hand, pins the American’s arm and so begins the short struggle with a very large knife. The American soldier pleads while the Nazi slowly impales him all the while softly whispering. I always skip it. I’ve watched hundreds of other knife scenes that had no effect on me, but this one is different. Perhaps because there is nothing more frightening than watching another human plead for their life – not in screams of horror, but in the soft voice of reality.
So that was my dilemma. How does one decide the “best” or the “scariest”? Is it based on how many times one jumps in fear? Do you have to spend the entire film cowering in your seat? Does it matter if you were five or forty-five years old when you watched it? Can a movie from the seventies scare anyone these days? These were all difficult questions I needed to consider. I mean I can’t just “rank” things without a proper criteria – that’s anarchy. I spent a number of weeks contemplating these and many other questions. It was a quest not for my five scariest movies, but for the criteria to reduce a list of at least twenty five choices. (Steve said be creative, but I was certain he didn’t mean go ahead and make up my own rules.) Five. I needed just five.
Resonance. That was my final criteria. I decided it did not matter when the movie was made, how old I was when I saw it, or even if it was the overall scariest movie. It had to be a film that resonated long after I watched it. And resonate in a “bad way.” By that I mean I had to find myself in situations where I remembered the movie and maybe ran a little faster up the stairs, or closed the door a little quicker…and locked it, or actually decided not to do something because I remembered “that scene.” Now that level of fear may seem a little extreme for a forty six year old guy who writes horror stories. All I can say, in my own defense, is that an active imagination is both a gift and a curse. I feel sorry for people who are so pragmatic that a horror film could never scare them or those who can dismiss the darkness as just the world without light…people with imaginations understand that the darkness is so much more than just daytime’s counterpart. Those pragmatic souls may lead a braver life than me, but I don’t think they’re having as much fun. When it comes to horror, well I’m still ten years old.
Resonance. Like that scene from Saving Private Ryan. That helped. It brought my list down to eight films. Did I want to cheat? Hope that Steve would overlook my three “extra” films? Maybe he just threw out a number and didn’t really care about the actual count. I considered it. I realized however that not all eight films ranked the same in their resonance. I mean, The Strangers left me as enraged over the characters’ stupidity as I was filled with dread. That single line from the darkened doorstep, “Is Tamara here?” was creepy but it’s not like it made me pause each time the doorbell rang (well maybe for a couple of weeks.) The randomness of why the killers choose that couple, “Because you were home,” certainly confirmed my belief that the world can be dangerously random, but hey, that’s why I have a gun and a 135 pound dog. So The Strangers didn’t feel like top five material. So seven it was. And while I’ll admit I was a big fan of keeping the lights on after that opening scene of Darkness Falls, today it is hard to recall why I found it so frightening…it no longer resonates in emotion or in memory…so I was down to six.
I turned to the three films competing from my long spent youth. One was a keeper because it changed me so fundamentally that it had to be number one. The other two presented a real problem. The first film stayed with me for years and I can still recall that fear. Forty years later the “idea” still resonates. The other by and far was the scarier film and if I wanted to be popular, this would be the choice. The Exorcist should be on anyone’s list of scary films, but for me it would be number six because as crazy as it sounds, The Omega Man gave me more nightmares than the young Linda Blair and her friend Captain Howdy. It resonated longer and broader too. The hooded “white” people. Those crazy eyes. Jumping from windows onto Heston’s car and that primal requirement to “get inside before the sun set” were all the perfect fodder for my five year old imagination…and eight…and ten. Perhaps it was the combination of my age in 1971 (5), the fact that I saw it at a drive-in, and that my brother and I kept the scare alive by taking turns screaming… “Watch out for the white people,” while locking each other out of the house at sunset or in the dark basement. Today it can’t hold up to new films…but when I was five…oh boy!
So nine hundred and something words later I arrive at my top four. Number four is a little odd, for two reasons. The first is that once they cleaned up the film quality for DVD, the effects were sort of lost…I mean the gore looked fake.. The second, and bigger issue, is that following The Evil Dead were the Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness and both films turned the original into a sort of “horror-comedy trilogy.” This was not how I felt in my first viewing of The Evil Dead and I don’t believe Sam Raimi intended it as a comedy. Nonetheless, my seventeen-year-old self loved this movie and I still do, at least in memory. It stayed with me for a long time. Partly because of that “demon in the basement” scene…that is one of my primal fears…basements. But mostly because of the texture of the film and those cackling demons. Demons can talk, they can scream, hell I don’t care if they sing, but that damn giggling…that’s creepy and I want it to stop.
The film Paranormal Activity is more dividing than a presidential election. Audience opinion on Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 56%, which demonstrates that this film has only two camps…love it and hate it. The biggest criticism I hear from the haters is “it was stupid.” I’m not sure what that means, but perhaps they wanted more special effects. Maybe they needed to “see” the demon. Granted this low budget Indie only used a bag of flour and an old photo, but for me it comes in firmly in the number three position. It resonated. I jumped several times during the film and actually felt something I don’t often experience during horror films…fear. Sometimes it’s what we don’t see that frightens best. Years later I still worry that I may awake to find my wife standing over me in the darkness (I’m not worried that she’ll be dragged down the hall because I see that as my escape opportunity.) I thought about setting up a camera to assuage my fear but then thought, “wait I saw that movie…everybody dies.” We have an attic hatch in our laundry room. It’s a low ceiling attic, more like a crawl space and I’ve never been up there. I have no desire to come face to face with a spider in a place that I can’t run. (I have no facts to support that spiders live in our attic, but it’s prudent to err on the side of caution.) Sometimes at night when I pass that dark laundry room, I think about that hatch. I wonder if there is a photo of someone I know sitting amongst the installation. I often pick up my pace as I pass and try to keep my eyes forward, but at times…it’s just so difficult not to steal a glance.
Six months after I saw my number two film I was in a hotel traveling on business. Every now and again I get it in my head to take the stairs just to burn a few extra calories (I pretend twenty steps will offset that coffee cake muffin I ate). On this particular night, I took the two flights up to my room. It was a well-lit and well maintained stairway at the Hilton. Absolutely nothing to conjure thoughts of creepiness. Halfway up I remembered The Grudge and thought, “this is exactly why people die in horror films you idiot…now run!” I don’t often take my own advice, as my pragmatic self can be a real f-in kill-joy, but that night I did. Later… after I locked the door, turned on all the lights, checked under the bed and in the closet, and pulled back the bathtub curtain (don’t invite trouble leaving that closed) … I felt foolish for running up those stairs. The Grudge had so many great moments. Probably the “under the covers” scene was the worst, followed closely by “meow boy” and “whatever the hell that mouth noise was.” I still like to think about it from time to time. It doesn’t scare me as much today, but I can still remember how much it did frighten me. It still resonates at least in memory.
When a film touches a “primal” fear, when that film changes how you experience an activity, when it can transfer to any body of water…that is the ultimate definition of “resonates.” Before the summer of 1975 I was a water rat. We lived in Connecticut about thirty minutes from the beach and I loved the ocean. At the age of nine, I was certainly aware of sharks, but seldom thought about them beyond science class. After Jaws my love of the ocean was forever tainted. Besides being frightened of the sea, my nine year old self began to question the safety of ponds and lakes…and swimming pools. Several times I had a dream that my bed had been washed out to sea and the waves kept threatening to toss me into that dark green water where Jaws waited. I guess being in the ocean is like that attic crawl space…not much chance of escape. I live in Fort Myers Florida now and still go to the beach and I still swim in the warm gulf. Never though without consideration that perhaps at that very moment, a black-eyed death is charging silently towards me. And all these years later I still take a quick look at the deep end of my pool before I get in, I pretend I’m checking for snakes (they get in sometimes) and in part I am, but in truth I’m also looking for that fin. Jaws may not be a horror story in the classic sense, but its attack on primal fears, the way it forever changed my thoughts on the ocean, and for being an iconic symbol, it earns its place as number one on my list.
So those are my top five horror films…with some creative cheating to add the others…and it is what I love about the genre. It’s a personal experience – some things scare universally but most just individually. I don’t believe special effects cause fear. I’m not even certain it is the monsters on the screen. I believe the truly haunting moments, the terrifying things are just a reflection of the stuff we brought with us to that movie. The dark little thoughts our imaginations create and our rational minds work to hold at bay. And when every so often, if we’re lucky, a story stirs those fears, we hear the sounds like echoes in a quiet room, and they whisper to us… Yes, I understand.”
A little about Raymond:
American novelist, Raymond Esposito lives multiple lives. He is a husband, father of five, the executive vice president of an international professional services firm, proprietor of the website Nightmirrors.com, and when time allows, the voice of Graveyard Radio. His debut novel, “You and Me, Against the World,” is book one of his Creepers Trilogy and provides his own spin on the zombie apocalypse.
To purchase “You and Me, Against the World,” click here.