by Steve Habrat
Among the many subgenres that make up the exploitation catalogue of the mid-1970s and ‘80s, the most ferocious and merciless is undoubtedly the cannibal films that first emerged in 1972. Started by Italian splatter director Umberto Lenzi with his film il Paese del Sesso Selvaggio (The Man from Deep River), the jungle cannibal movement hit a barf bag high with director Ruggero Deodato’s infamous 1980 bloodbath Cannibal Holocaust, easily the most stomach churning of the bunch with its traumatizing sequences of violence, sex, and animal cruelty, all laid out in plain view to make you recoil in disgust. From the dingy grindhouses on 42nd Street to the uproar it caused in Milan, Cannibal Holocaust was a major hit with audiences, prompting Lenzi—the director who started it all—to respond in 1981 with Cannibal Ferox, an equally repulsive but tremendously cheesy venture into the jungles of the Amazon. Released into American grindhouses and drive-ins under the menacing title Make Them Die Slowly, Cannibal Ferox will certainly have audience members with weak tummies burping back their lunch over the extreme special effects, but like most Italian exploitation films of the time, the film is brimming with goofy dubbing, mild overacting, eye-rolling dialogue, and a trumpeting score that only adds chills when it shifts over to a moaning electric guitar. It’s a gross out that you just can’t stop chuckling at.
Cannibal Ferox begins on the mean streets of New York City, with a drug addict looking for a heroine dealer named Mike Logan (played by Giovanni Lombardo Radice). Upon arriving at Mike’s apartment, the buyer bumps into two mobsters who demand to know where Mike is. As it turns out, Mike owes the mobsters $100,000 dollars, but has apparently high-tailed it out of town to avoid paying up. Meanwhile, anthropologist Gloria (played by Lorraine De Selle), her brother, Rudy (played by Danilo Mattei), and their free-spirited friend, Pat (played by Zora Kerova), arrive in the Amazon jungles to prove Gloria’s theory that cannibalism is a hoax. Shortly into their adventure, the trio bumps into Mike and his severely wounded partner, Joe (played by Walter Lucchini). Mike and Joe frantically explain that they were attacked by a cannibalistic tribe and that a third member of their party had gruesomely perished in a nearby village. The group eventually stumbles upon the village where the third member of Mike and Joe’s group met a grisly end, but the village now seems largely deserted, with only the elderly remaining. The group decides that they will camp out in the village until they can get help for Joe, but after Mike and Pat attack and kill a young native girl, the younger villagers return to exact horrific revenge.
When Cannibal Ferox first arrived in America, the posters and VHS jackets proudly declared that it was banned in 31 countries due to the extreme violence within the film—something that was sure to stir up some hype and lure viewers into the dilapidated theaters that dared to show it. Furthermore, swapping the title Cannibal Ferox for the more lurid Make Them Die Slowly also added another layer of icky intrigue. While time hasn’t exactly been kind to some of the ultra-violent Italian exploitation films from the ‘70s and ‘80s, the special effects of Cannibal Ferox haven’t softened up in the slightest. For those with the an iron stomach, the film treats to you to two castrations, a gouged-out eyeball, one character having hooks shoved through her breasts and then strung up to bleed to death, a group of natives slicing into the chest of one fallen character and chowing down on his innards, and another character having the top of his head sliced off with a machete and the villagers lining up to grab at handful of his brains like they were picking from a bucket of popcorn. For fans of the cannibal genre, it delivers, but when held up to the unflinching “found footage” approach that Deodato took to Cannibal Holocaust, it pales in comparison. Yet Cannibal Ferox gets an extra bump due to the real animal slayings that are guaranteed to upset the uninitiated. Determined to match Cannibal Holocaust every step of the way, Lenzi goes berserk with the animal cruelty to the point of disturbing even the most hardened of exploitation viewers.
And then we have the performances, led by genre regular Giovanni Lombardo Radice (Cannibal Apocalypse, City of the Living Dead), billed here under the name John Morghen. Radice brings some of the same screw-loose intensity that he brought to Cannibal Apocalypse. Here he is a greedy, coked-up madman who seduces Pat with powder, and gets his jollies from tormenting the natives. He’s a miserable piece of humanity meant to represent the savagery that brews and festers in bowels of civilized society. Radice is top-notch, even when his villainous side threatens to go over-the-top, but his downfall, which was out of his hands completely, comes from the atrocious dubbing and dialogue added in postproduction. As Joe, Mike’s wounded partner, Lucchini is surprisingly reserved when propped up next to the insane drug dealer. His compassionate side bleeds through when he witnesses Mike’s true savagery emerge in the most appalling way imaginable, making him a sympathetic character consumed by Mike’s personal demons. Kerova’s Pat is largely asked to run around with her shirt open and add a bit of sex appeal to this mud and blood show. Yet there is something fascinating about watching her get sucked in momentarily to Mike’s uncontrollable rage, and the results of her flirtation with the dark side have grave consequences. Mattei is slightly stiff as Rudy, the good guy who tries desperately to make a break for it and save his friends. De Selle overacts her role as Gloria, the anthropologist determined to prove that cannibalism doesn’t exist. Wait for her hilarious plea with a native savior gruesomely impaled on a wicked-looking jungle trap.
Like most grindhouse knock-offs made to capitalize on another film’s popularity, there are aspects of Cannibal Ferox that are glaringly cheap or unintentionally hilarious. On the whole, Cannibal Ferox lacks the realistic polish of Cannibal Holocaust, seemingly made in a hurry so that Lenzi could claim the cannibal movie throne from Deodato. The score from Roberto Donati and Fiamma Maglione is nice and sleazy, opening with a smile-inducing siege of funky trumpets and slapping urban jazz as Lenzi’s camera spirals around the concrete jungle of New York City. It’s definitely something you wouldn’t expect to hear in a film like this, and it certainly never matches the eerily calm and dreamy synthesizers that the late Riz Ortolani used to set the scenic stage for Cannibal Holocaust. Things fare a bit better in the score department when we step off the beaten path and venture deep into the jungle. It is here that we get static guitars that effective make your arm hair stand on end. And then there is the dubbing and dialogue, both of which keep earning their share of unintentional laughs over the ninety-minute runtime. Overall, while it provides plenty of sleazy thrills for horror and exploitation fanatics, and it thoughtfully reflects on how the depraved actions of one can have devastating penalties on so many others, Cannibal Ferox spends way too much time mimicking the far better Cannibal Holocaust. You’re left wishing that Lenzi, the godfather of the jungle cannibal movies, had taken a few artistic risks to further the genre along.
Cannibal Ferox (aka Make Them Die Slowly) 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
I honestly do not think I have ever seen a film that has been as grainy and gritty as Maniac, the splatter film told from the perspective of the pudgy schizophrenic Frank Zito, a man who prowls the shifty streets of early 1980s New York City and kills women. The film, often evocative of the Son of Sam murders from the mid 1970s, out grains films like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Halloween, and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, a film that came shortly after Maniac but is far superior. You practically need a tetanus shot and two baths after you have watched this thing. Pretending that is it shining light on a deranged and shadowy mind, Maniac lacks any real depth, acting as just a random string of scenes where Frank stalks, murders, and maims his victims. After each segment, director William Lustig changes the setting, the victims, and then presses the repeat button. Maniac’s case is not helped out by the sneaking suspicion that this slightly seems like a fetish flick.
The premise of Maniac is quite simple. Frank Zito (Played by Joe Spinell) is a sweaty, overweight psycho who stalks women, murders them, and then scalps them. He shacks up in a tiny apartment in an unidentified burough of New York City. His tiny apartment is crammed with an assortment of weapons he uses to dispatch his prey along with countless creepy mannequins. Frank likes to dress the mannequins in clothing, nail the scalps he has collected to their heads, and sleep with them. Frank also engages in conversations with himself, usually acting as both himself and his deceased prostitute mother he is obsessed with. While out on a walk one day, Frank has his picture taken by a beautiful but utterly clueless photographer named Anna (Played by Caroline Munro). Frank tracks her down and instead of simply killing her, the two strike up a bizarre relationship that is unfathomable. When it seems that Frank has found love and may turn himself around, he begins repressing his urges to kill and it is only a matter of time before they break through the charismatic persona he is hiding behind.
One of the two parts that works in Maniac is the odd relationship between Anna and Frank. This adds some desperately needed anxiety to the film, we the viewers finding ourselves on the edge of our seat waiting for Frank to strike. It’s a clever move from writers C.A. Rosenberg and Joe Spinell who play on our fear that something is about to happen. It is also the only thing resembling a budding plot in Maniac, which is more concerned about getting to all the violence. The violence here has to rank as some of the most extreme you will ever see in a motion picture (aside from Cannibal Holocaust, Romero’s zombie flicks, and the work of Herschell Gordon Lewis). Credit should go to make-up and effects guru Tom Savini, who dreams up some truly nasty stuff that makes even the hardened viewers queasy. One scene, a sequence that has to be one of the most memorable moments in horror movie history and the most redolent of the Son of Sam, has Frank blowing the head off one victim at close range with a double barrel shotgun. It goes far beyond graphic, sickening, or shocking. It is downright fucked up in conveniently used slow motion.
The other part that clicks in Maniac is the supernatural finale the film tacks on, making Frank’s last victim himself. He ends up succumbing to his own inner demons that wield his own weapons and giggle while they close in. Frank lacks much profundity and he is fairly simple to figure out. He shows flashes of repentance and scolds his own actions when he kills. While he is on the prowl and stalking his prey, he lets out grunts and growls that sound animal and orgasmic. It is ultimately the path of the paranormal that gets the juices flowing in Maniac, enveloping us completely into Franks distorted and damaged mind, allowing us to see through his eyes rather than just tagging along side while he takes lives. While the real world stuff is unsettling, it is Frank’s world that provides the much needed spooks.
Almost cinema-vérité in execution and shot with what had to be the oldest camera the director could find, Maniac exploits the seedy and decaying look of later 70’s and early 80’s New York City. You never really feel comfortable or truly safe in Maniac. I kept wondering where a police officer was, why that woman was walking alone, and who else was lurking in the shadows waiting to stick me up for my wallet. The film does an excellent job transporting the viewer but the lack of any protagonist trying to catch Frank is Maniac’s demise. Instead of drawing the film out with countless scenes of torture and prolonged death sequences, maybe they could have thrown in a hard-boiled detective racing to find the killer before he claims another life. All we get an out-of-place overhead shot of what is supposed to be a helicopter looking for Frank and quick glimpses of newspaper headlines that declare there is a maniac on the loose. Furthermore, no character outside of Frank is properly developed so when someone meets a messy end, it’s just unpleasant. It doesn’t affect us on any emotional level like it should. For as hard as it tries, Maniac ends up being surprisingly below average but don’t count out the finale, which has a few tricks, decomposing corpses machetes, handguns, shotguns, and switchblades up it’s flannel sleeve.
Maniac is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
What do you get when you throw LSD dropping devil worshippers, shotgun packing children and old men, rabid dogs, zombies, and heaping piles of severed limbs into a blender? You get the trashy I Drink Your Blood, a grind house picture with an ADD plot and bug eyed acting. This everything-and-the-kitchen-sink film is a fun flick to watch when you and your friends are looking for a good film to laugh at between sips of beer. Hell, getting a nice buzz may actually enhance the quality of I Drink Your Blood, a film that would be right at home on a double bill with Sugar Hill or Rabid. Made in 1970, the film follows the perspiring, claustrophobic, and granular aesthetic that was heavily popular during this specific era. At times it is reminiscent of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre even though this came out way before Tobe Hooper’s nightmare was unleashed. And yet even though the film is absolutely awful, if you are like me and adore this strain of cinema, you will find yourself admitting that I Drink Your Blood is so bad it is almost, well, good!
A group of wacky Satanist hippies lead by the bloodthirsty Horace Bones (Played by Bhaskar Roy Chowdhury) roll into what appears to be a fairly conservative and largely abandoned small town. After the gang captures a local girl Sylvia (Played by Iris Brooks), who was watching the group perform a satanic ritual in the woods, they proceed to rape the poor girl. The next day, Sylvia stumbles from the woods, bloodied and rough up. She is discovered by Mildred (Played by Elizabeth Marner-Brooks), a woman who runs a local meat pie bakery, and Sylvia’s younger brother Pete (Played by Riley Mills). Mildred and Pete take Sylvia home to her grandfather Banner (Played by Richard Bowler), who swears he will get revenge on the group for what they have done to his granddaughter. Armed with a double barrel shotgun, he goes out to find the group, who has taken up shelter in an abandoned and supposedly haunted house. The group soon discovers Banner sneaking up on them and consequently he is the beaten, tortured, and force-fed LSD. Pete follows his grandfather to the house where he tries to rescue his grandfather and the two barely escape. While Banner recovers, Pete takes his grandfather’s shotgun and kills a rabid dog, taking its blood with a syringe and proceeds to inject it into a batch of meat pies. Pete then offers the meat pies to the hippies and soon after eating them, members of the group begin changing into rabid, infected psychos who just want to dismember anyone in their path.
Vaguely evocative of the Manson Family and part cautionary tale about the side effects of LSD, I Drink Your Blood is a repulsive gross out film with very little aptitude. It is never insinuating, as at one particular moment, the young and naïve Pete asks about LSD and a whole background is given on the drug. It doesn’t help that it packs the most outrageous plotline ever conceived. Yet it achieves cult status much like films like Burial Grounds, Zombie, Cannibal Holocaust, and I Spit on Your Grave. It has to be seen to be believed. That is if you can stomach it. Filled with pointless sex scenes (The film stops part way through to deliver for the nudity craving viewers) and graphic gore (In one scene, a leg is hacked off and it is a bit too real), it is no wonder this film was slapped with an X rating upon its release.
I Drink Your Blood is a film of memorable scenes rather than a substantial work of art. You will never forget a hoard of construction workers flailing through a field looking for someone to hack up. How about the moment with cult movie starlet Lyn Lowry (Of The Crazies fame) sawing off someone’s hand and carrying it around and examining it? How about the pregnant Satanist stabbing her own bulging, pregnant stomach? Or a mouth foaming psycho carrying a severed head around showing it to terrified citizens? Pretty sick stuff, huh? There are moments that have been influential (I’m fairly certain that Rob Zombie was inspired by the final firefight and added a nod to it in The Devil’s Rejects. He also samples a bit of the synthy score in his song “Feel So Numb”) and some that are harrowing (The final shot of the film sticks with you).
Unable to evaluate the film on intellectual terms (The film sparks no intellectual thought at all), I Drink Your Blood knows its target audience and everyone else can go to Hell. It is a sour concoction that manages to offend in almost every way imaginable and I’m convinced that is the only reason it was made. If you are deeply disturbed by animal cruelty, I’d stay far away from this (And Cannibal Holocaust). I found myself chuckling at some of the lunacy but I suppose I take these films on their own turf and the more extreme they are, the more the burrow their way into the soft spot I have for them. Yet I would never consider I Drink Your Blood a good film or recommend it to anyone looking for a movie to watch on a Friday night. The craftsmanship is amateur, the score is repetitive, and the acting cartoonish, I Drink Your Blood is for fans of this genre only and especially ones who understand how to approach this material. If your mission is to seek out the most extreme forms of cinema and try to see as many of these films as you can, I Drink Your Blood will rank among some of the most twisted you will see. If there was ever a film that leaves the viewer thinking they need a shower, I Drink Your Blood is the one.
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+
by Steve Habrat
No film has scared me like Dawn of the Dead did when I first laid my unsuspecting eyes on it. I had seen some brutal films before, but I had never experienced the onslaught of carnage that tore at me with unstoppable force. I was electrified by the film, vaguely aware that there was much more going on behind the stationary scenes of gut munching. The film is, yes, a full-fledged assault on the view. This is why it scares us. Director George Romero just does not let up, backing us against the wall and indirectly beating us into submission. I believe that Dawn of the Dead and I were bound to be together. The strange ways I kept stumbling upon the film in my youth and the ways in which I would end up seeing it. Sometimes it seemed to defy coincidence. I first heard about Dawn of the Dead when I was around eleven years old. My dad purchased me a horror magazine that contained a list of the 50 Scariest Movies Ever Made. I had to have it. I was drawn to monsters and horror films after having seen Dracula, Frankenstein, and Night of the Living Dead at the tender age of about five years old. One evening, my brother-in-law at the time was flipping through the horror magazine and everyone seated at the dinner table was yakking about horror films. As he flipped through the pages and the debate about what was the scariest film of all time raged on—everyone had their own opinion, my sister and mother both argued it was The Exorcist, as my mother said she would leave the room when the TV spot would play on the tube—he suddenly halted on Dawn of the Dead. He turned the magazine around to face the dinner table and asked if anyone there had seen it. Everyone shook their heads and said no. He then began to describe the film to everyone, saying the film actually showed its characters having their stomachs ripped open and the innards devoured. I was mesmerized.
A few weeks later, on Halloween night, I spent the night at my sister’s apartment. My brother-in-law suggested that we order pizza, grab some caffeine heavy soda, hit the video store, and rent some classic horror movies. A triple feature (now you have a clue where my undying love for double and triple features of gritty, scratchy classic horror films on Halloween comes from)! He told me to pick one out and I ended up with Salem’s Lot in my hot little hands. I had seen a picture of the main vampire in the film and was cast under the spell of his glowing yellow eyes. I thought he was really spooky. My sister grabbed Se7en, another movie I had never seen and was mostly unfamiliar with. My brother-in-law suddenly exclaimed, “OH AWESOME! Dawn of the Dead! This is the movie I told you about!” I was apprehensive. I didn’t know if I was ready to see people getting ripped limb from limb. All while eating pizza, might I add. He insisted that I had to see it, as it was the sequel to Night of the Living Dead and it was a must-see.
We saved Dawn of the Dead for the last movie we watched that night. It began with Se7en, bridged with Salem’s Lot, and ended with me pinned to the big comfy chair that I sat in while I watched a man’s head explode, bikers have their stomachs torn open as easily as someone rips a piece of paper in two, a zombie get the top of his head chopped of by helicopter blades, and multiple gunshots to ghouls heads that leaked rotting brains. All in shocking color. I liked Se7en and Salem’s Lot, but Dawn of the Dead made it hard for me to sleep that night. Only two other films have affected me the way that film did and I have made it my quest to seek out other gore heavy horror films in a personal quest to see if I still hold on to some sort of sensitivity to extreme gore within a film. To this day, the closest I have come to being repulsed is while watching Cannibal Holocaust, a film that upon it’s purchase, the cashier asked me if I was sure I wanted to purchase it. I replied yes, that I collect gore heavy exploitation films and I make it a point to see as many in my lifetime as possible. She said okay and bagged the purchase. It didn’t compare to seeing Romero’s masterpiece the first time. I am beginning to think that nothing ever will compare to the life altering moment. Seeing Dawn of the Dead also made me realize that I truly loved movies and I never wanted to be without them.
Two years went by between my viewings of Dawn of the Dead. I never forgot the movie and I always thought back to it. The horror of being surrounded by an endless sea of zombies desperately wanting to eat your brains was horrifying to me. Even the tagline “When there is no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the earth” frightened the bejesus out of me. Then, by chance, after one of my friends loaned me a recorded version of Romeo & Juliet on VHS, I noticed that the label on the side stated that there was another film on that tape. Dawn of the Dead ’78. I made it another double feature the night I received that tape. I had originally wanted to see the contemporary update of the Bard’s tragedy, but I ended up wanting the film to hurry up and end so I could scare myself again with the blue tinted zombies desperately trying to find a way in to the Monroeville Mall. Dawn of the Dead and I had found each other yet again. It was a match made in horror movie heaven.
I watched Dawn of the Dead several times while I had that tape. I lost count at how many times I studied it, marveled at it, and pulled the covers a little higher over my head the night after watching it. The next time I found myself blessed with a copy of the film was when it was getting the special edition treatment on DVD. A four-disc set that contained the original cut, the director’s cut, and the European version, which was slimmed down to focus more on the action and gore than character development, was finally bestowing itself upon fans. I still to this day don’t care much for the European version of the film. I like the characters, Roger, Fran, Stephen, and Peter. Peter, next to Batman, is the ultimate bad ass in my eyes. Thank you, Ken Foree, you are a living God. One Saturday, my friends and I took a trip to the mall and we began exploring the FYE that was still thriving at that particular time. I always moseyed over to the horror section to make a mental note of which horror movies to see or which ones I had to add to my rapidly growing collection of fright flicks. On that day, I found the four-disc collectors edition of Dawn of the Dead. The set wasn’t supposed to be released until that coming Tuesday. I could barely control my excitement. I immediately snatched it up and dashed to the register. I emerged from the mall that day as one of the happiest human beings on the planet. I finally had my own, glorious copy of my favorite film. I probably resembled one of the consumer-obsessed zombies of the film that wonderful Saturday, but I didn’t care. I spent that night watching the documentaries, watching Romero lovingly recall making the film, and flipping through the comic book that came with the elaborate set. I still to this day will not lend the set out to anyone for fear it will get broken, stolen, or dinged up. My version is still as perfect as it was the day I brought it home before anyone else had it in his or her careless possession. We were together forever. And Dawn of the Dead could scare me all it wanted to.
I’ve chosen to avoid breaking apart the actual film for this review simply because, like Night of the Living Dead, it has been analyzed over by countless other film historians and critics. Heck, if anyone was to doubt that I don’t fully understand this film inside and out, just contact my old roommate who watched the film with me one evening over a couple of beers. He experienced as I enlightened to the tiny details one may not pick up on while seeing it for the first time. The film is sensory overload. There are still moments that creep me out big time while I watch in a daze. Stephen aka Flyboy (Played by David Emge) being stalked by a zombie through the boiler room of the mall ranks as one of the most traumatic. Or how about Frannie’s (Played by Gaylen Ross) encounter with a Hare Krishna zombie hell-bent on sucking the meat from her bones? She doesn’t even have a gun to blow the ghoul to smithereens. Or how about the blacked out final siege, which finds countless characters getting chewed to bits. It’s tense, peculiarly claustrophobic, and inexorably unpredictable. Romero only lightens up once through the whole thing, when he literally hits his zombies in the face with pies. Don’t get too chummy, his brief sense of humor quickly turns back into a stone-faced glare and the horror explodes at the viewer.
The film is multi-layered and extremely influential. It seemed appropriate to me that it would be remade in 2004, as we are now, more than ever, obsessed with consumerism. Romero was ahead of the curve and it seems like many don’t want to give him the credit he deserves. The master has also described this film’s approach as more of a comic book than it’s predecessor. While it is heavier on the action, it still manages to scare the shit out of you once or twice. I understand that today it is unintentionally funny, as many will get a few belly laughs over the blue zombies and obvious make-up lines. But if we take the film on it’s own terms, as a serious, pensive, and pulverizing, we can find much to shake our very core. Entertainment Weekly called this film “Devastating”, and I have to agree. With it’s bleak ending (not as bleak as Night) and carnage it leaves the viewer steeped in, you will walk away from this in pieces. Romero chews you up, spits you out, and puts you through the wringer. Just like one of his zombies would do to you if they had their way. It’s also what any good horror film should do to its viewer. Dawn of the Dead is an undisputable masterpiece that is a must-see for anyone who loves zombie films, and more importantly, worships at the altar of horror. Grade: A+