by Steve Habrat
You know a film means business when an innocent little girl is brutally gunned down while trying to get an ice cream cone in the film’s opening moments. Hell, if a little girl can get killed that early on, then that means anyone can get bumped off next! Welcome to the world of 1976’s Assault on Precinct 13, the second feature length film from John “Halloween” Carpenter. Regarded as the film that launched Carpenter’s career and viewed by many critics as one of the best exploitation films of the 1970s, Assault on Precinct 13 is one mean, unflinching picture of violence that would have been right at home in a dingy theater on 42nd Street. Partly inspired by the Howard Hawks 1959 western Rio Bravo and George Romero’s 1968 debut Night of the Living Dead, Assault of Precinct 13 is perhaps one of the most unusual crime thrillers you are ever likely to see. A complete product of its time, Assault on Precinct 13 is an appropriately gritty and bleak vision of urban decay that the police are virtually powerless to contain. The film also appears to be extremely aware of how lucrative the horror film was during the 1970s, as Assault on Precinct 13 is infested with surprisingly thrills, chills, and gore that is a little too unsettling.
Assault on Precinct 13 begins with a handful of members of the ‘Street Thunder’ gang getting ambushed and gunned down by several LAPD officers. The next morning, a group of gang warlords all swear a blood oath of revenge against the police of Los Angeles. Meanwhile, newly promoted CHP officer Lieutenant Ethan Bishop (Played by Austin Stoker) is assigned to take command of the old isolated Anderson precinct building, which is closing its doors for good in the morning. Later that evening, a prison bus that is carrying three dangerous inmates stops by after one prisoner becomes ill on their trip to Death Row. It turns out that the bus is transporting the well-known convicted murderer Napoleon Wilson (Played by Darwin Joston), who is extremely dangerous and unpredictable. As the night goes on, a terrified citizen comes bursting into the station mumbling about the death of his daughter. Bishop discovers that several heavily armed gang members have followed the man to the station. These gang members open fire on the station with powerful silenced automatic weapons, killing many of the people inside the station. Unable to get help due to the disconnected phones, Bishop is forced to join forces with Wilson, secretary Leigh (Played by Laurie Zimmer), and another prisoner named Wells (Played by Tony Burton) until help arrives to contain the relentless waves of gang attacks.
Assault on Precinct 13 longs to be a western and it doesn’t make any attempts to conceal that fact. The film pairs an outlaw and a lawman together, forcing them to set aside their differences to make one more heroic last stand. The film is basically Rio Bravo given an urban facelift and loaded with a hell of a lot more gore (and less Dean Martin). Yet Carpenter isn’t content with just producing a modern day western. He borrows aspects from Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and molds the film into a hair-raising siege film where countless silent antagonists try to force their way into the station to brutally murder the terrified individuals inside. Even Carpenter’s protagonist, the African American Bishop, is eerily similar to the gently reassuring Ben from Night of the Living Dead. The film has been called one of the ultimate exploitation films from the 1970s, one that is absolutely unforgiving and extreme. A little girl is horrifically gunned down after being in the wrong place and the wrong time. Several police officers meet a messy end, seemingly powerless to stop this senseless onslaught. There are very few rays of hope in this unpredictable beast, especially as the small group’s numbers rapidly dwindle at the hands of the cold, emotionless killers.
The real shock of Assault on Precinct 13 is how natural the acting is, free flowing as Carpenter’s camera follows the actors along. Stoker is the star of the show here, playing the unassuming good guy who just wants everyone to make it out alive even as he is sometimes powerless to make sure this happens. What is also surprising about his character is how quickly he trusts Wilson, which adds to his appeal. Wilson, on the other hand, seems grossly misunderstood and you get the sneaking suspicion that he isn’t as viscous as he has been made out. Even still, in the scenes that he gunning down countless charging gang members, he wears a beaming grin on his face as bodies go tumbling through the air. Yet for all the joy he seems to find it taking lives, he never once seems threatening to the innocent people around him. Burton’s Wells is a guy who has had a long, hard life that was riddled with bad luck that doesn’t appear to be changing. Zimmer’s Leigh is one tough chick whose skills with a gun would make One-Eye from Thriller-A Cruel Picture smile. There is also a faint spark of attraction between her and Wilson, which, much like the events around them, is hopeless to pursue.
Assault on Precinct 13 does hit a few bumps in the dialogue department but everything else is so good that you will be willing to overlook them. Much like some of Carpenter’s best work, Assault on Precinct 13 is such a great film because it is heavy on atmosphere, especially the beady-eyed capriciousness that one cannot easily shake. It also allows us to get to know our characters, especially the ones we immediately presume to be bad which gives the film a bit of depth that is highly unusual for an exploitation film. Most characters in these films aren’t given much personality, making us indifferent when they ultimately bite the dust. Ultimately, Assault on Precinct 13 ranks up there as one of Carpenter’s finest and most satisfying films in his body of work. This is an explosive, tense, grainy, and very mean urban thriller that is all the better because it lacks escapist polish. This is one that exploitation fans will want to revisit again and again.
Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
Let’s just be honest here and admit that there are only a handful of notable horror films that deal with animals lashing out at humans. My personal favorites have to be 1954’s Them! and Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, Them! because the giant ants are so gloriously cheesy yet effective and The Birds because it is a prime example of Hitchcock building unbearable suspense. If you are looking for an animal-attack B-movie that should be the definition of schlocky, look no further than Bert I. Gordon’s 1976 film The Food of the Gods, which is loosely based off H.G. Well’s novel The Food of the Gods and How it Came to Earth. With absolutely horrendous special effects and some cringe worthy acting, The Food of the Gods is a gratuitously violent midnight movie with some great moments of unintended hilarity. Featuring gigantic attacking rodents, wasps, worms, and, most memorably, chickens, The Food of the Gods is the type of movie that requires you have downed at least a six pack of beer before deciding to subject yourself to it.
After a mysterious milky slime bumbles up from the ground on a secluded island in British Columbia, an older couple, Mr. and Mrs. Skinner (Played by John McLiam and Ida Lupino), stumble upon it and see it as a gift from God. They decide to feed it to their chickens, causing them to grow to incredible sizes. A short while later, pro football player Morgan (Played by Marjoe Gortner) and two of his friends, Davis (Played by Chuck Courtney) and Brian (Played by Jon Cypher) take a hunting trip to the island where Davis is attacked and killed by giant wasps. Morgan and Brian leave the island but are lured back to seek out what really killed Davis. While exploring the island, they run in to a money hungry businessman, Jack Bensington (Played by Ralph Meeker), his assistant, Lorna (Played by Pamela Franklin), and a young couple, Rita (Played by Belinda Balaski) and Thomas (Played by Tom Stovall), who happen to be with child. After missing the ferry to get off the island, the small group finds themselves relentlessly attacked by giant rodents eager to rip them to bloody chunks. The group meets up with the God-fearing Mrs. Skinner and decides to barricade themselves in her home in an attempt to survive until the ferry returns.
Director Gordon was no stranger to giant critters attacking humans, as he made several films throughout the 50s and 60s that tackled the subject and gained himself the nickname “Mr. B.I.G”, which referred to his initials and the size of the antagonists in his films. The Food of the Gods seems like it a forgotten film from the atomic age just with more severed limbs and blood splashes. The film somehow ended up with a PG rating even though there is tons of gore to satisfy the entire family. The Food of the Gods is devoid of any real subtext or message outside of a warning to treat the environment with some respect because you never know when it may lash out at you (riveting stuff). The film also features some of the most hysterical actions from the cast that you will ever see. At one point, Lorna suggests that her and Morgan make love before the giant rats find a way into the boarded up home and eat them. I don’t know about you but stopping for a quick lay would be the LAST thing on my mind if I was trying to stay alive but I guess everyone is different!
If you aren’t giggling over the dated special effects, the overacting will have you in stitches. Gortner, who happened to be an ex-evangelist and spiritual healer (no joke) before he leapt to the big screen, is probably the best one in the entire film. He plays his role stone-faced and never once stops to laugh at all the absurdity he faces, even when he is asked to do battle with a giant chicken, which is the film’s highlight moment. The other notable player is Lupino as Mrs. Skinner, who hams it up begging God to save her from being devoured by giant rats. She gets a nasty bit that features her arm getting chewed off by giant mechanical worms. Everyone else is largely forgettable or just too ridiculous for words. Meeker is the typical jerk who lives too long but dies nice and gruesomely. Franklin is stuck with the worst dialogue in The Food of the Gods, her crowning moment coming when she suggests sex over trying to stay alive. Balaski is reduced to the cowering blob and Stovall spends too much time complaining about everything Morgan does to try to stay alive.
The Food of the Gods builds up to a violent last stand that features the destruction of a nearby dam that floods half the island, sending the giant rats to a watery grave (I’m being serious). Many of the special effects that we see are actually mini sets with rats scurrying over toy cars and plastic trees, all of which are extremely obvious. The one aspect of the film that actually impressed me were the scenes in which rats would be blown away by blasts from Morgan’s shotgun. These scenes feature live rats being thrown through the air as fake candle wax blood pours from their wounds. The climax of the film resembles the final stand in The Birds but without any apocalyptic chills running up and down your spine. Gordon opts to have the creamy ooze get in water which is drunk by cows on a nearby farm. The final scene is a child chugging a carton of tainted milk, hinting that there may be a sequel featuring a giant child (now THAT is scary). Overall, The Food of the Gods is a film that you could tolerate on a drunken double feature evening but just make sure that it is at the bottom of the bill so you have a nice buzz by the time you throw it on.
The Food of the Gods is available on DVD.
by Steve Habrat
The spaghetti western genre can be a truly grim affair, from the shifty characters to the unflinching violence right to the decrepit towns. Enzo G. Castellari’s 1976 Keoma is no different. Keoma goes a step further and early on establishes an apocalyptic atmosphere with barely any hope in sight. Despite the doom and gloom, Keoma is one of the most scenic spaghetti westerns I have seen, one that has obviously been treated with care since its release and embraces any opportunity to show off the mountainous landscape. Keoma is a must-see spaghetti western for two other unique approaches. The film is narrated almost like a Greek tragedy, the story guided along by a male and female singer that provides us with our hero Keoma’s inner thoughts and several nifty slow-motion shootouts, slowed down so we can see the victims doing a dance of death right before they hit the ground. They are vaguely evocative of the shootouts in The Wild Bunch and Thriller: A Cruel Picture in their splendor and horror.
Keoma follows a half-breed gunslinger named Keoma (Played by Franco Nero) who returns to his plague-ridden hometown after service in the Civil War. After saving a sick woman named Lisa (Played by Olga Karlatos) from a group of brutal gunslingers who are rounding up plague victims, Keoma learns that his hometown is in control of a brutal landlord named Caldwell (Played by Donald O’Brien). Making things worse, Keoma’s three brothers are looking to join forces with Caldwell and they wish to do away with Keoma. Teaming up with his father, William Shannon (Played by William Berger), and their ex-slave and servant George (Played by Woody Strode), Keoma begins trying to help the plague victims of the town, bringing in medicine, food, and a Marshall to bring law and order to the community. In the meantime, Keoma has to stand up to Caldwell and finds himself hopelessly outgunned.
Unlike other spaghetti westerns, where the characters sit around and stare at each other and mumble little snippets of dialogue (don’t take that as negative criticism, I absolutely love westerns like that), Keoma is a chattier experience and one that is much more action packed than other entries. In fact, I was truly taken aback by the extended gunfight at the climax of the film, one that lasts about twenty minutes. This is a film that is galloping along right from the windy opening scene. In such films like Sergio Corbucci’s The Great Silence, Django or even the films of Sergio Leone, the violence was sudden and short, startling the viewer with how quickly it started and how fast it ended. Keoma draws these sequences out and then proceeds to slow the violence down, exploiting it just like a good sleaze picture should. The end shoot out is at times redolent of Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 The Wild Bunch crossed with Bo Arne Vibenius’s Thriller: A Cruel Picture, the camera glued to the waving ribbons of gore spilling out of the bullet holes of the dead. I was also impressed with the way the film has held up all these years, a clear picture, timeless acting, and expert dubbing (I point this out because these films are usually poor in the dubbing department).
Keoma packs a steely-eyed performance from the gruff Franco Nero as Keoma. Imagine if Johnny Depp had time traveled back to the 1970s, grew a thick beard, and dawned a cowboy hat. If you can make a mental image of that (I doubt that is very difficult), you have Nero’s Keoma. Keoma isn’t a man interested in money or wealth. He only sets his sights on bringing law and order to a town without any and in the process, protecting those who can’t protect themselves. He’s a far throw from Eastwood’s The Man with No Name when it comes to his morals but he is still a man who doesn’t have infinite amounts to say. Sure he speaks more than The Man with No Name, but he hates scum that has too much to say. Those who do end up meeting the blast of his double barrel shotgun. Another standout in Keoma is Woody Strode as George; a pitiful ex-slave with petrified eyes and who is consistently enduring malicious racial slurs spit at him by Caldwell’s men. He is a man who was once honorable, a man who Keoma looked up to when he was just a boy. When we meet him, he is a slouchy drinker who doesn’t stand up for himself. Your heart will break when one of Caldwell’s men walks up to him and urinates on his boots, making a fool of George even though he was just trying to do the right thing. When George finally picks up a gun (and crossbow) and joins Keoma to defend the town, you will want to stand up and cheer.
Director Castellari makes Keoma a standout with some inventive camera angles that makes the film an artful journey into the west. The opening scene has the camera sitting stationary inside an abandoned structure, mostly in the dark except for the light streaming in from a slamming screen door where we can faintly see Keoma ridding through a ghost town. The door is to the right if the screen, the camera almost trying to remain elusive and reluctant to enter the ailing world. Another scene finds the camera placed behind a piece of wood that Keoma and his father are using as target practice, the picture slowly being revealed from the holes shot into the wood. Castellari compliments that unique camerawork with a shrieking score that is the furthest thing from the jangly Ennio Morricone scores that were so popular in these films. The score is used to allow us to hear the thoughts of the characters and sometimes acts as our own inner advice to the characters. It suggests that Keoma should run away with Lisa and start a new life, fleeing the danger that is slowly closing in around them. It also narrates the tension between Keoma and his three nasty brothers, their fractured relationship told in both the score and in flashbacks that play out right before the eyes of the adult Keoma.
For fans of the spaghetti western, Keoma is a must-see for its hasty pace, drawn out action, and doomed love story all told on an apocalyptic stage. At times, the score can get a bit distracting, a nice and inimitable idea but not always as harmonizing as it should be. Another small gripe I had with the film is that the villain Caldwell is slightly brushed over and left underdeveloped. Overall, I had fun with the tragedy that is Keoma and I loved the way the film embraced rollicking action sequences. Next to Leone’s work, Keoma has aged remarkably and is easily accessible to those who are usually put off by older films like this. If you love your westerns with an unconventional touch, seek out Keoma immediately. You will not be disappointed.
Keoma is available on DVD.
by Corinne Rizzo
I don’t like scary movies. I am not interested in the thrill of axe murderers chasing a pretty lady down the street or guys that live under your bed and infiltrate your dreams. Corn syrup and red food coloring, gore and guts, never did it for me and still don’t, which is why I didn’t mind George Romero’s Martin so much.
Sure, George Romero isn’t known for good clean fun, but the one thing I could always tolerate about his films is that the gore is almost playful. The blood, bright red and reminiscent of paint, the prey/predator dance always has some edge to it where the viewer is left saying something along the lines of “really?” or “wait, why are they still alive?” And Martin follows in this pattern.
The film follows what appears to be a young man suffering from a family curse of the nosferatu. Though Martin’s case of vampirism is a technical one of syringes and razor blades instead of your typical Dracula slow moving and mundane. Martin, while appearing to be in his mid twenties, is also quite ancient. Romero sneaks these details in through simple conversation with a radio station and Martin’s cousin Christina, who is no stranger to the idea.
While the plot and premise of the film are an updated version of a classic tale, what is most attractive about the film is its eight millimeter quality. The frames and colors are grainy and tinted, which, intended or not, is one of the best qualities of the film. Of course, it may just be a default of the time and place in which the movie was created. Certainly not a hi-def, saturated color experience. But it lends an authentic and dated look to the film which parallels Romero’s approach to his paint red blood.
Another twist to the film that lends itself to Martin’s vampire tendency is that it is seen as more of a mental illness than any hocus pocus type family curse. Christina, Martin’s cousin tries to talk him into going to a hospital or seeing a doctor. Martin is stand-offish and quiet. Awkward at best. So the neighborhood sees him more as someone with a disorder, maybe something along the line of Asperger’s Syndrome. No one really questions it and one friendly neighbor even finds it endearing.
A thorough examination of the film would delve deep into the sexuality of the film, the history of the vampire and so on, but what is important about the film is that a legendary director of timeless zombie films has taken a stab at the origination of the zombie, according to some schools of thought, exposing the vampire: An undead and immortal being who can only be conquered under some extraneous effort.
At first the film grossed me out. I have no tolerance for these gory horror flicks that over use violence for the sake of entertainment, though there is a threshold to which I can tolerate these things and Martin keeps it just below that line.
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by Steve Habrat
George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead did not strictly send the United States alone into a frenzy over zombie horror. Italy had also taken notice and they drooled over the ultra-gory horror flicks to the point where they went to great lengths to emulate the master’s formula and success. While many of these zombie films made in Italy from 1979 through the mid 1980’s were extremely poor in the quality department, there are still a handful of them that are reputable. They even have a rare scare or three to be found among the senseless nudity, exploitation, extreme violence, and wantonness. The best Italian zombie movie is without question Lucio Fulci’s 1979 fire starter Zombie, which is one of the goriest movie I have ever seen next to 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, 1980’s Cannibal Holocaust, and Hell of the Living Dead. It’s also not the level of awfulness that is 1980’s Zombie Holocaust, which used leftover sets and footage from Fulci’s tropical island nightmare. Zombie is the true embodiment of a grind house picture, inspiring Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s Grindhouse, which was loaded with nods to the original film. Shock rocker Rob Zombie also borrows the opening visuals of his concert from this film’s legendary trailer, which you can watch below this review. Many filmmakers have expressed affection for this film and remains one of the most talked about cult classics of all time. Not a great film, Zombie proves to be shockingly entertaining and influential.
Perhaps the most original of all Italian zombie flicks that were sent over from Italy with love, it was it’s own movie from beginning to end. Most of these other zombie films borrowed music from other zombie films (Hell of the Living Dead borrows music from Romero’s Dawn of the Dead), actual scenes (Zombie Holocaust), and even smashing together the jungle cannibal flicks (Cannibal Holocaust) with zombie films, making for some strange exploitation concoctions. I love these films, the most unusual that I have seen is without question Burial Grounds, a film that is another cult icon, one that is not sold widely and still is a movie that must be obtained under the table. I found my copy in a record exchange, the guy who sold it to me oozing with delight that a fan of these types of gorehound horror films was in his shop and even showing me other exploitation films I should own like the controversial 1976 film Snuff, a film that many people still argue features real death caught on camera. He practically reached over the counter to hug me when I told him I owned the two-disc DVD set of Cannibal Holocaust. I meet some strange individuals seeking out films like this and I love it. But Zombie is the true freak show of the group because it’s actually good!
The plot of Zombie is basically irrelevant, there only to guide us through disgusting peepshows of zombie feeding sequences, death scenes, and piss-poor excuses for two of the handful of actresses in the film to get naked. The film begins with an abandoned yacht floating into the New York City harbor, on board a handful of zombies, which immediately attack the police officers sent aboard to explore the boat. It turns out that the boat belongs to a scientist currently residing in the Antilles. A journalist named Peter (Played by Ian McCulloch) and the scientist’s daughter Anne (Played by Tisa Farrow) team up with another couple, ethnologist Brian (Played by Al Cliver) and his all-to-egar-to-get-nude explorer girlfriend Susan (Played by Auretta Gay). Once they reach the tropical island, they discover that it has been overrun with the walking dead who are seeking the flesh of the living. The group tries to round up Anne’s father and escape with their lives before they meet their demise.
The plotline is one-dimensional and shamefully foreseeable, but it’s the effects execution that makes this film a true gross-out classic. The film was advertised as coming equipped with bar bags for audience members and while watching it; it’s easy to see why those with sensitive stomachs would be running for the bathroom. Zombie does have its fair share of tense moments, which makes it better than the average Italian zombie flick. The climatic siege on a church can run with the attacks on the farmhouse in Night of the Living Dead. Even at its crudest moments, like the looping of one particular scene, it still manages to be inescapably claustrophobic. Another inspired scene is an underwater attack by a zombie that ends with a zombie battling a shark. The cinematography is incisive, the choreography smooth, the editing tight, the vivacious electronic score just right, and the scares pitch perfect. It truly is an essential horror movie moment. Perhaps Romero saw the scene and was inspired for later installments (Land of the Dead) in his Dead series. The shots of abandoned villages are also hair-raising, showing wobbly villages caught in windstorms and billowing dust, rotting zombies staggering through the dirt streets. It’s probably some of the most handsome shots in any exploitation horror film.
This is not a film you see for the acting. You see it for certain moments and for how detailed the make-up and gore is. A scene with reanimated Spanish conquistadors is truly grotesque. The ghouls have worms falling out of their eye sockets, crooked rotting teeth darting at jugulars and ripping skin from throats. The ghouls are covered from head to toe in dirt and filth, blood pouring from gaping wounds. The dispatching of one zombie ends with a cracked skull and jellied brains pouring from it’s broken head. Another scene finds the scientists gorgeous wife getting snatched by a zombie and having her eye gouged out by a giant piece of splintered wood. It has to rank as one of the most unforgettable death sequences ever caught on film. It’s appalling. But Zombie doesn’t stop there. Our group of protagonists force their way into the scientist’s house only to discover a handful of hungry ghouls picking at her shredded corpse, with enough flowing blood and gooey guts to satisfy a hundred Romero zombie films.
Zombie is an experience. That I can say confidently. It’s not all that intelligent and it opts for style every chance it gets. It inspired countless other amateur Italian directors to take a stab at the zombie film. It’s extraordinary ghouls were the blueprint for films like Burial Grounds. The most vivid of all the ziti zombie offerings, it’s flawed (the end scene is absolutely hilarious, proving the budget on this film was not a large sum of cash), but somehow it adds to its allure. It’s not for everyone and I heavily warn those who seek it out. It’s brutal and relentlessly violent. The poor performances and extreme overacting will soften the blow, making the film go down easier for those who have trouble with it. One of my personal favorites around Halloween and a nice break from the complex Romero films, Zombie remains a cult icon. It will have you watching from between the cracked fingers covering your eyes and you may not want to eat anything red for a while after watching it, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t a blemished masterpiece. Grade: B+