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Grindhouse (2007)

by Steve Habrat

It is a damn shame that the double feature ode to exploitation trash of years past Grindhouse flopped at the box office. It is an even bigger shame that most audience members didn’t even try to comprehend what it was that directors Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino were trying to sell to the audience. The flop turned Grindhouse into a cult classic that, in a way, I’m glad avoided the mainstream and has basically been forgotten by most average moviegoers. More fun for fans of cult cinema. Grindhouse is one of the coolest movies of recent memory, a slaphappy revelry filled with blood, guts, zombies, fast cars, hot chicks, nudity, fake trailers, werewolves, Thanksgiving killers, machete wielding Federales, and more. Can you really argue with any of that? I didn’t think so. The way I see it, Rodriguez and Tarantino came up with an incredibly original idea, harkening back to the grimy double features of the 70’s and 80’s, and in the process, they tried to make going to the movies an event again. How people missed the point of having a little fun at the movies is truly beyond me.

The first half of this bonanza belongs to Robert Rodriguez and his gooey zombie flick Planet Terror. After an opening Go-Go dance from Cherry Darling (Played by Rose McGowan), the rural Texas town that she calls home suddenly is overrun with a nasty virus that turns the citizens from normal people into “sickos”, who crave human flesh. Teaming up with her ex-boyfriend El Wray (Played by Freddy Rodriguez), the syringe shooting Dr. Dakota Block (Played by Marley Shelton), and a slew of others, the group attempts to escape the deadly outbreak but they end up stumbling upon more than safety from the “sickos”. The second half of Grindhouse belongs to Quentin Tarantino and his car chase film Death Proof, which follows a group of hip gals who are involved in the making of a movie. They soon find themselves being tormented by a deranged stunt car driver named Stuntman Mike (Played by Kurt Russell), who enjoys killing young girls with his “death proof” muscle car. Stuntman Mike meets his match when some of the girls begin to fight back against him, turning the tables on the maniac and forcing him into a fight for his own life.

Being a double feature, no portion of Grindhouse is ever a drag but the case could be made that Tarantino’s Death Proof slams on the breaks of this speed demon. The madness hits white-knuckle territory in Planet Terror, which goes for the throat right from the very beginning. It easily outshines Death Proof and is entertaining from the opening Go-Go dance right down to the melting penises at the climax. That does not mean that I dislike Death Proof. Oh no, I absolutely love Death Proof but I feel like it should have been the first film shown and followed up by Planet Terror, which cranks things up to the max. To be honest, I hate separating the two films but it is almost impossible to evaluate Grindhouse without evaluating the films as separate pieces. I do, however, view the entire film, complete with fake trailers, to be one whole movie. It drives me crazy that the films were split up upon their initial release to DVD. I don’t think they hold up well on their own and they desperately need each other for support.

Rodriguez and Tarantino go to great lengths to replicate a night in an old movie palace on 42nd Street. They both digitally went in and scratched the prints up, making them look like two films from the 70’s that were discovered in a filthy theater basement. Rodriguez throws in a gag with a missing reel, creating a massive jump in his film that is added at just the right time. Rodriguez’s Planet Terror brings to mind the Italian zombie films that were favorites among grind house theaters in the late 70’s and early 80’s. He has continuously said that he found inspiration in Lucio Fulci’s Zombie and he throws in a nasty little nod to the film at the end. He also throws in nods to Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, Night of the Living Dead, Hell of the Living Dead, and more, none being left out of all the excitement. He also creates a new cult legend with Cherry, who ends up having one of her legs replaced with a machine gun. It is a nifty nod to Evil Dead’s Ash, who is also forced to replace a severed limb with a deadly weapon.

In Death Proof, things are a little more polished and clean, a bit strange when it set against the crude Planet Terror. Packing very few scratches but having chuckle worthy skips in the film; Death Proof is more of a slow build experience. It’s pure Tarantino, featuring tons of drawn out conversations while the camera circles the actors and actresses like a shark. Death Proof ends up a battlefield for Russell and costar Zoe Bell, who plays stunt girl Zoe. Bell, who was a stunt double for Uma Thruman in Kill Bill, shows off her acting skills and ends up almost stealing the show from Russell, who gets to radiate bad boy charisma every time that camera is turned on him. When Tarantino waves the checkered flags and begins the rough car chases, he proves himself to be a master when it comes to adrenaline pumping action sequences. Death Proof ends up borrowing from such films as Vanishing Point, the slasher genre, and is vaguely evocative of Faster, Pussycat… Kill! Kill! and Thriller: A Cruel Picture, allowing the film to morph into an exotic beast all its own.

Grindhouse would not be complete without the four spectacular fake trailers that have been tacked on and they end up surpassing the greatness of the two films. Tarantino and Rodriguez invited fellow exploitation enthusiasts Rob Zombie (The Devil’s Rejects), Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead), and Eli Roth (Hostel) to cook up some fake trailers and the results are sheer bliss for horror and exploitation fans. When I initially saw the film, my favorite was easily Roth’s Thanksgiving, which almost pushed the film into an NC-17 rating and it’s not hard to see why. It is so depraved and outrageous, it left me crossing my fingers that they would make it into an actual movie. In the multiple times that I have seen the film since seeing it at the local theater, I have grown like Wright’s Don’t the best. It is hectically comical and bizarre, actually turning out to be pretty frightening despite how weird it is. Zombie leaves his mark with the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink Werewolf Women of the S.S., a nod to Ilsa, She-Wolf of the S.S. Zombie’s trailer does pack one hell of a big surprise so do not even think about underestimating it. Rodriguez also contributes to the madness with Machete, which opens Grindhouse with a bloody bang, letting us know that Machete “gets the women and kills the bad guys”. Keep your eyes peeled for an awesome cameo from Cheech Marin.

Grindhouse is without question one of my favorite movies of all time. It is the embodiment of why I go to the movies and why I dedicate myself to them. It was nonstop entertainment and lunacy for three fucking hours! I smiled the entire time and happily went back to the theater for seconds and heavily considered thirds. It is a shame the film flopped at the box office, poorly timed with its release (Easter weekend) and languidly marketed, many scratching their heads over the trailer. It didn’t reach a wide audience because mainstream viewers were not in on the joke, missing the point that it was a double feature and the film was purposely bad. As a whole, Grindhouse has a spark that cannot be duplicated and in its wake, there have been a lot of imitators and a minor spike in interest in cult classics and exploitation sleaze. With the spike in interest, it is hard to say that Grindhouse was a dud and hasn’t lived on past its release, rallying new fans everyday to the wonderful trash cinema of past years. The beauty doesn’t stop there, as Grindhouse can also serve as a learning tool, one that introduces viewers to a specific era in cinema and sheds light on an era that was largely forgotten when the movie palaces closed their doors and the drive-ins disappeared. Despite all the intentional mistakes and low budget cheese, Grindhouse is a rare modern film that is perfect, making it a must-see cult-classic.

Grade: A+

Grindhouse is available of Blu-ray.

Thriller: A Cruel Picture (1974)

by Steve Habrat

Cruel is indeed one way to describe Thriller: A Cruel Picture, the ultra violent and ultra graphic tale of revenge from Swedish director Bo Arne Vibenius. The tagline of Thriller: A Cruel Picture describes it as, “The movie that has no limits of evil!” I think it is safe to say that the uncut version of the film has no limit on anything including unsettling drug use, slow motion brutality, and pornographic sex scenes that don’t cut away. Truth is, Thriller: A Cruel Picture ranks as one of the best exploitation films I have ever seen, and exploit it certainly does. The film puts the hero Frigga (Played by Christina Lindberg) through the ringer, exploiting the traumatic events that plague her (rape, forced drug use, addiction, prostitution, and revenge) and follow her around. When Frigga, or One Eye as she is often called, finally picks up a sawed off shotgun and begins hunting down all the people who have wronged her, you want to stand up and cheer her retribution on. We feel this way because director Vibenius shoves our faces in the explicit torment inflicted on her early on and even if we deem it obscene, it fuels our urge to root for her in the last forty minutes. Bravo, Vibenius!

Thriller: A Cruel Picture shows us the agony of Frigga (Played by Lindberg), a young girl who early in her life is sexually assaulted by an older man. In the wake of the encounter, Frigga is mute and withdrawn, living a fairly peaceful life in a small, secluded town. She grows up into a pretty young woman and one day, she misses a bus that is supposed to take her to a doctor’s appointment in town. As she stands at the bus stop, a suave pimp named Tony (Played by Heinz Hopf) pulls up and offers her a ride into town. He invites Frigga back to his apartment, drugs her, and then forces her into a life of prostitution and drug addiction. When Frigga resists, Tony stabs out her eyeball and begins calling her One Eye. As the fury builds in the mute One Eye, she begins attending karate classes and learning how to handle firearms. When she is ready, she takes to the streets and unleashes uncontrolled vengeance on the people who have wronged her. She soon finds the police bearing down on her, but that isn’t going to stop One Eye. Anyone dumb enough to get in her way finds themselves staring down the barrel of a sawed off shotgun.

The success of Thriller: A Cruel Picture rests on the shoulders of Lindberg’s Frigga/One Eye, who conveys so much pain without uttering a word. As a girl she is violated, her innocence being robbed and when she grows up, she appears to be living a fairly conservative lifestyle. She is a sweet, small-town girl who is still haunted by the traumatic event in her past. When she meets Tony and is forced into prostitution, her growing pain and frustration is conveyed in the shrill buzz of the film’s score. The buzz is sharp and sudden, usually played during the graphic sex scenes. Her face is slashed with anguish and pain, yet her eyes are cold, plotting, and mapping out her plot to take revenge. One Eye’s silence is all the more chilling when she is dishing out revenge, making her seem disconnected from the violence she is unleashing. But One Eye isn’t satisfied with only taking revenge on those who wronged her. She takes aim at police officers that attempt to halt her rampage and anyone else who makes the mistake of stepping in her path. She becomes the vexing embodiment of desensitization.

Thriller: A Cruel Picture is not for the faint of heart or the uptight. The first half of the film shows some truly disturbing images of drug addiction, Lindberg really shooting up with a mixture of salt and water. Your heart will break every time she holds her hand out to Tony for her daily doses of heroine. You will flinch every time she inserts that dreaded needle into her arm. The uncut version of the film also features authentic sexual intercourse between Frigga and her customers. The camera slithers around the actors, making sure we know that this isn’t faked or staged. If you fear the film is pornographic, take comfort in the fact that these scenes are not particularly erotic. They are actually quite disturbing, especially complimented by the shrill buzzing score that conveys Frigga’s anguish. Early on, there is a scene that shows the viewer how Frigga looses her eye. After she attacks one of her customers, Tony bursts into her room and pins her on her bed. He then slowly lowers a scalpel towards the camera, the camera acting as Frigga’s perspective. The film then cuts to Frigga, the scalpel piercing her eyeball. This scene was filmed using an actual cadaver. Yes, you are really seeing an eyeball being violently dug out of a skull. It’s gruesome stuff. The violence here is not restrained in the least, the last act composed of quiet and lingering slow motion shots of One Eye’s victims meeting the blast from her shotgun.

To say that Thriller: A Cruel Picture is an acquired taste is an understatement. You really have to be someone who likes cult cinema to fully appreciate the film. I think it is unwarranted to write off this film as depraved and tasteless, as I found Thriller: A Cruel Picture to actually be one of the artier offerings of cult cinema. On the DVD box, Quentin Tarantino is quoted as saying Thriller: A Cruel Picture is “the roughest revenge movie ever made” and ended up being one of his influences for Kill Bill, channeling One Eye in Daryl Hannah’s Elle Driver. Worth a look for its artistic approach (chilling POV shots) and handling of its subject matter, many will find themselves lured back to Thriller: A Cruel Picture, eager to experience it all again. It does boast some truly outstanding sequences (the hand-to-hand combat scene in slow motion would drive Matrix fans nuts), addicting the viewer with its raw, undaunted execution (live rounds were supposedly used in the weapons). A classic among sleaze cinema that happily lives up to your expectations, exceeds them, and then aims a shotgun right in your face.

Grade: B+

Thriller: A Cruel Picture is available on DVD in both the regular theatrical edition and the uncut version.

Bloody Pit of Horror (1965)

by Steve Habrat

The trashy 1965 Italian giallo/exploitation horror film Bloody Pit of Horror makes a lot of promises with its gruesome title but misses the secret ingredient for a lasting exploitation classic. You’d think that the film, directed by Massimo Pupillo, would posses at least one nasty scene of torture or bloodletting that would back up the misleading title stamped across it. Well folks, Bloody Pit of Horror has no bloody pit of horror to speak of and frankly, not much of the red stuff at all. In fact, Bloody Pit of Horror is an artless work that is eye grabbing with it’s gaudy set pieces but off putting due to its poor dubbing, cheesy acting, and yawn inducing torture sequences. Shaved down to a measly hour and fourteen-minute runtime, the film is brief but that doesn’t make it painless. I can’t honestly say that anything really picks up when the violence erupts but it does become an unintentionally hilarious film set to a wailing jazz score.

Bloody Pit of Horror picks up with a group of sexy models and a photography crew on the prowl for the perfect gothic location to carry out a photo shoot for the covers of some trash horror novels. They stumble upon the secluded gothic castle in the countryside that they believe to be abandoned, deeming it the perfect place to stage their morbid photo shoot. It turns out that the castle belongs to a former actor named Travis Anderson (Played by Mickey Hargitay) who demands that they leave the castle. Just as the group is leaving, Travis recognizes one of the girls, Edith (Played by Luisa Baratto), who happens to be an ex-girlfriend. Upon learning this, he decides to let the uninvited guests stay for one evening and do their work. As the group explores the sprawling castle, one of the male models in the group is gruesomely killed and it seems that the murder was caught on camera. The group slowly learns that the castle is the home of a vengeful spirit known as The Crimson Executioner, who is accidentally unleashed and posses Travis. Travis begins donning the costume of The Crimson Executioner, rounding up members of the group, and placing them in elaborate torture devises.

Bloody Pit of Horror is only notable due to the madcap performance from Hargitay, an ex-Mr. Universe bodybuilder, who is so over-the-top, you have to see it to believe it. It doesn’t start out this way, as Hargitay is fairly controlled in the opening half-hour. Half the time, Bloody Pit of Horror seems like just a vehicle to showcase Hargitay’s tanned physique and juxtaposing it with a handful of gorgeous women known as “The Cover Girls”. This makes Bloody Pit of Horror come off like some bizarre fetish picture rather than a serious horror film (the girls emit orgasmic like sounds as they are tortured, none of their shrieks echoing with terror), which it boldly tries to be. Don’t fret, it’s not scary in the slightest, mostly due to how poorly the film has aged. There are several long, drawn out sequences where Travis babbles on about the importance of his physique as he oils himself up and flexes his pectoral muscles, Mind you, he does this all while he is trying to be menacing and intimidating. I half expected him to pick up some weights and start working out! Go ahead, I’ll wait while you laugh.

There is one scene in Bloody Pit of Horror that is somewhat inspired and memorable. A scene involving one of the models strapped to a giant spider-web as a giant fake spider slowly bobs towards her. The fake spider has venom in its fangs and if it reaches her, the fang will prick her and kill her. The room is guarded with several bow-and arrows that are rigged to shoot anyone who dares venture into the room and tries to aid the poor gal. One of the men attempts to try to navigate the room without triggering the traps to save the shrieking girl from certain death. It’s the only truly tense and arty moment that Bloody Pit of Horror has to offer. The rest of the film just sits stationary while the actors spout off ridiculous dialogue (“Only a CREEP would live here!”) and director Pupillo devises ways to strip the entire female cast of their clothing. He does this by creating elaborate torture devises that slowly rip away bras and cut up the girl’s chests.

Bloody Pit of Horror is a very colorful film, featuring eye-popping reds and greens for the viewer to marvel at (one of the very few things to marvel at, might I add). The cinematography is pretty good for a Z-grade picture, but I wish that the people behind the camera would have taken a few risks and given their work some movement and personality. It’s hard to believe the film operates in the same giallo genre as the work of Dario Argento (a director who wouldn’t emerge of the filmmaking scene until 1970), who danced with the camera every chance he got. Many of the grind house films of the time carried titles that made a lot of promises but never truly delivered on those promises and Bloody Pit of Horror happens to be one of those movies. As far as titles go, Bloody Pit of Horror ranks as one of the best, featuring a title that is infinitely better than the movie itself (The film has carried several titles over the years including The Crimson Executioner, The Scarlet Executioner, and Some Virgins for the Hangman, to name a few). There is one thing going for Bloody Pit of Horror—it acts as a cure for insomnia!

Grade: D-

Bloody Pit of Horror is available on DVD.

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965)

by Steve Habrat

When it comes to exploitation flicks and cult classics, I believe that none are more definitive than skin flick director Russ Meyer’s 1965 Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!. A shameless ode to drag racing, violence, sex, cleavage, ass-kicking, and, yep, you guessed it, go-go boots, this rip-roaring thriller is still just as hip and swingin’ as it was when it was released. When we consider the film now, the influence of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is everywhere and you may not even know it. Anyone who has ever seen Meyer’s romp can’t help but be reminded of it every time you see a dangerous female protagonist laying waste to some male tormentors. In many ways, maybe female action heroes should be worshiping at the altar of Faster, Pussycat! and have the iconic image of voluptuous Tura Satana’s Varla snapping a man’s arm tacked up in their bedroom. While it is hard to defend every single action of the women in Faster, Pussycat!, no one can deny that this isn’t a shriek of female liberation that came right on the brink of widespread female empowerment. These chicks shimmy to their own tune and man, if it isn’t a wicked and groovy ride.

A trio of curvy and snarling go-go dancers by the names of Varla (Played by Satana), Rosie (Played by Haji), and Billie (Played by Lori Williams) are roughing it out in the desert and hanging at a drag race track. While there, the innocent Linda (Played by Sue Bernard) rolls up with her speed hungry boyfriend (Played by Ray Barlow) and he makes the stupid mistake of challenging Varla to a race. “I never try anything! I just do it!”, she growls. After a close call on the tracks, Varla gets into an argument with speed demon and brawl suddenly erupts. During the fight, Varla ends up killing Linda’s boyfriend. The dancers decide to kidnap and drug Linda and flee the scene before anyone finds out. While on the run, they bump into a crippled old man (Played by Stuart Lancaster) and his muscular Vegetable son (Played by Dennis Busch). They soon discover that the old man is wealthy from a past accident and soon, the girls start plotting a way to make off with the Old Man’s money but as it turns out, the Old Man has disturbing plans of his own for the girls.

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! begins with a quick cut sequence of Varla, Rosie, and Billie scantily clad and thrusting away to music while a horde of cantankerous, animal-like males hoot, holler, and chant away. Meyer’s rapid fire editing within this sequence mirrors a boiling point before the title blasts across the screen and we see the girls speeding their hot rods down open road. Have they hit a breaking point? Has the male lust run its course? We have no way of knowing if the girls violent tendencies have erupted before, but judging by Varla’s hold on the group and her skills with a blade, she hasn’t hesitated to pull a knife on a poor chum before. Welcome to the off-kilter world of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, where we have images thrown at us that look like they belong in a banned pulp comic book. It’s a world where the law is only mentioned and never seen, girls strut freely in low cut shirts that left me fearful that if one made a quick move, there would be a lot more exposed than what already is. For those who watch the movie for that, you will be sorely disappointed. Meyer has commentary on his mind and not simply putting nudie cuties on display.

The performances that compose Faster, Pussycat! achieve a cult status of their own to match the film’s. You don’t forget your trip through Hell with Varla, Rosie, and Billie. Whether you are hanging on their use of slang or their sudden bursts of bloody beat downs, the girls never loose their underlying cool. They have everything under control even if everything appears to be fishtailing. Varla looks like she stepped out of a pin-up photo and decided to don a threatening black outfit that mirrors her rebel personality. She barks her dialogue in the faces of men who believe that women shouldn’t be running with the male pack. Billie, the blonde bombshell of the group, isn’t so much violent as she is bursting with sexuality that just simply can’t be contained. While she is manipulating, I never feared that she would stick a put a razor to my throat. Then there is Rosie, who appears to be Varla’s lover and sidekick, one who would put the finishing blow to what Varla started. She seems reluctant to get blood on her hands, yet she goes along with everything Varla orders her to do. Together the girls work together to manipulate and dominate, especially strong when their solidarity is firmly in tact.

Then we have the men of Faster, Pussycat!, who are not presented in the best light. The Old Man has a dictatorial grip on his meat-head Vegetable son. The Vegetable does the bidding that the shotgun wielding Old Man cannot, a bidding that is mostly capture and then rape.  The Old Man is appalled when he sees the girl’s outfits and vents his old fashioned conservative viewpoint when he says, “Women! They let ‘em vote, smoke, and drive—even put ‘em in pants! And what happens? A Democrat for president!” The Old Man represents what women ultimately lashed out and begged to be liberated from. The Old Man is purely the voice of oppression but the Vegetable represents the brute force holding the girls down. He is an empty headed police force for the Old Man, one that only begins to come around when coaxed or encouraged, but never willingly open minded. The Old Man also has another son, Kirk (Played by Paul Trinka), an intellectual who seems to level with all parties when they clash. He is the calm middle between the two towering, roaring forces.

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! does have its weak spots. Even at eighty-three minutes, the middle beings killing time by doing doughnuts and just kicking up a bunch of dust. Writer Jack Moran and Meyer work double time to keep things nice and spicy with the animated dialogue and the cartoonish characters. It’s the cartoonish touch that makes Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! the classic that it manages to be today. One look at Varla, with her embellished curves, and you can’t help but think she looks like the work of a comic book artist with a fetish for big breasts. Yet the pulp charm also masks the satire on display, an artistic choice that may put serious viewers off. In the end, if you can’t hang with these chicks, you may as well get out of the hot rod that is Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! before the ride hits white knuckle speeds. For audience members who like their films fast, sexy, and death defying, strap yourself in for one hell of an influential ride.

Grade: A

Maniac (1980)

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.

Grade: C-

Maniac is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Hell of the Living Dead (1980)

by Steve Habrat

Have you ever wondered what it would be like if Mondo cane, Cannibal Holocaust, and Dawn of the Dead were thrown into a blender and then the mixture was combined with vomit, maggots, inappropriate stock footage and horrible dialogue? You would have Bruno Mattei’s (or Vincent Dawn’s, according to the opening credits) Hell of the Living Dead, a Dawn of the Dead wannabe that is so desperate to be Dawn of the Dead, it even has commando heroes and lifts the iconic Goblin score from Romero’s masterpiece. A grind-house classic of the highest degree, Hell of the Living Dead is the anti-Romero, a film so blank, slapped together, and poorly dubbed, it’s a wonder it has even seen the light of day. Rising from the grave in Italy, this ziti zombie film is practically the definition of a guilty-pleasure midnight movie, only for those who are zombie fanatics.

Hell of the Living Dead picks up at a research facility called Hope #1 in Papua New Guinea where a chemical leak and an infected rat cause the entire staff to be turned into flesh eating ghouls almost instantly. After the accident and the loss of contact to the facility, an elite SWAT unit led by Lt. Mike London (Played by José Gras) travels to the island where the research center is located. When the commandos arrive, they find the island infested with zombies and the local tribes in mass hysteria over the outbreak of this strange virus. After teaming up with a beautiful journalist named Lia (Played by Margit Evelyn Newton), the group sets off through the jungles to find Hope #1 and discover the secrets behind the mysterious chemical named Operation Sweet Death.

Hell of the Living Dead is a film so bad, so outrageous, and so asinine that it actually manages to be bareable in a weird way. It is almost like seeing a horrible car accident that you just can’t look away from even though you desperately want to. The film tries to pass itself off as a horror film but there isn’t a scare to found. Well, that is unless you find cross-dressing terrifying. Truth be told, there are a few scenes in Hell of the Living Dead that echo with slight potential. A zombie army descends on a secluded home in the jungle and it manages to be properly claustrophobic and eerie even if every character acts like a complete moron. Some of the shots of zombies staggering out of the jungle are slightly uncanny but quickly grow corny due to their uniformity.

Whether you’re shaking your head at missed opportunities or gaping at the dreadful dialogue the film is notorious for, the reason the film is at the bottom of the barrel as far as zombie films go is because it is so desperate to be Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, it even slathered its zombie extras in blue make-up. To be fair, Romero’s blue zombies were not intentional. Make-up artist Tom Savini wanted them to be a pale, grayish color but when they were photographed, they turned out blue. In Hell of the Living Dead, I feel like it was no mistake. The film brazenly lifts Goblin’s iconic score from Dawn of the Dead, completely out of place for this film. Mattei’s use of blue jumpsuit clad soldiers is also glaring noticeable. If you are new to zombie films and you begin with Hell of the Living Dead, it is best to shut it off and put in Romero’s epic classic instead of watching this. But if you are a seasoned pro when it comes to this stuff, my advice is to make a drinking game with your buddies. Call it “Spot the Romero Reference!”

Hell of the Living Dead has it all for the exploitation fans. It has senseless nudity, jaw-dropping gore, and copious overacting from elapsed actors. The film has also become infamous for its improper use of stock-footage that serves only to add a few more shocks to an already fairly deplorable experience. It doesn’t help that much of the plot is unintelligible either. Long forgotten by most, Hell of the Living Dead isn’t a film for staid film viewers. You’ll be turning it off in the first five minutes of its runtime. If you are like me and you get a kick out of forgotten Z-grade pictures like this, then seek out Hell of the Living Dead. I enjoy making the film a beer drenched double feature with Lucio Fulci’s Zombie, as it creates a nice balance between beyond awful and surprisingly respectable. Hell of the Living Dead falls into the beyond awful even if it does make the trash fan in me smile.

Grade: F

Hell of the Living Dead is available on DVD and yes, it is a part of my exploitation collection.

The Brood (1979)

by Steve Habrat

Leave it to Canadian horror director David Cronenberg, the man called the “King of Venereal Horror”, to make a film about freakish asexual dwarfs who attack and kill people. Cronenberg, who is most known for the Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis mutation gross-out The Fly, is basically an auteur of highbrow exploitation and body horror that eventually made transition into simply highbrow territory. The Brood is one of those highbrow body horror exploitation forays. The Brood is critical and certainly unkind to psychology and experimental science in the vilest ways possible. Cronenberg could be considered the ringleader of body horror, as he is a big fan of placing awful deformities on his actors, usually sexually suggestive in some way, shape, or form, an addition that usually sets his work apart from the rest of the horror pack. For those who are familiar with Cronenberg, The Brood is a bloody doom and gloom flick with a dark ending and a dead serious gaze that never breaks into a smile to laugh at itself.

Dr. Hal Raglan (Played by Oliver Reed) is an experimental psychotherapist who has created a technique called “psychoplasmics” which manifests traumatic memories on a patient’s body in the form of physiological changes. The changes depend on how severe the memories are. Raglan’s star patient is Nola Carveth (Played by Samantha Eggar), who is currently going through a messy separation from her husband Frank Carveth (Played by Art Hindle). Frank and Nola are also tangled up in a messy custody battle over their young daughter Candice (Played by Cindy Hinds). As Raglan treats Nola, he begins to discover how severely disturbed she is and as treatment goes on, her inner anger and rage manifests in small, dwarfish creatures that attack and kill those close to her. As Frank launches his own investigation into the mysterious deaths surrounding him, he learns how the creatures are being created and he discovers that Candice’s life is in danger if the experimental treatment is not stopped.

Blending horror and science fiction, Cronenberg makes a slow building and icky creep-out that is not for the squeamish. Cronenberg has an eye for truly repugnant deformities, a talent I would have never thought I would be praising but Cronenberg does it better than anyone else. Even though The Brood is basically an exploitation film, it understands that there should be a brain in this grotesque creation. Though Cronenberg never outright suggests it, I’ve always found the architecture in his films, usually scientific institutions contrasting in a cold, natural settings to be a subtle commentary. The wooded setting usually engulfs these institutions, a subtle suggestion that perhaps a natural treatment is the answer to scientific gambles. I have noticed this in Scanners and Rabid but it seemed incredibly heavy-handed in The Brood. This choice also adds a surreal apocalyptic touch, always suggesting isolation and no true safe place to hide from the evil that has been unleashed. It’s this visual cue that separates The Brood from the rest of the exploitation horror pack. Cronenberg encourages us to work through our inner turmoil on our own without the help of an outside third party.

The Brood is not ashamed to feature expert acting from its leads. Everyone is convincing, a rarity in films of this sort and another reason why The Brood is much better than most films of this kind. The final showdown between Frank and Nola is hypnotic, a battle of words and pleas with just enough gore to satisfy those watching The Brood simply for that reason. You won’t be able to pull yourself away from the exchange and you’ll be frustrated when Cronenberg’s camera cuts to other scenes of action. The film also contains a restrained performance from Oliver Reed who never goes full baddie and adds a few layers of regret both in his scientific work and himself for what he has unleashed in Nola. Reed’s performance parallels the direction from Cronenberg himself who is never in a hurry to show us everything. I admire the way he makes the audience wait for the pay-off and, I admit, I never mind waiting for the freak show to emerge when I’m watching a Cronenberg film. He usually crams his frames full of gratifying acting from his leads and fascinating story lines.

The Brood features a wallop of a final shot that will majorly freak you out and that, my dear readers, is a promise from this horror buff. This is an otherworldly horror flick that won’t scare you right off the bat but rather have you thinking back to it long after you have seen it (I just love films like that if you can’t tell). I rank The Brood as one of Cronenberg’s finest cinematic efforts, sitting comfortably next to Rabid, Scanners, The Fly, and Eastern Promises. The film lacks a huge price tag, which I think adds to Cronenberg’s own temperance and actually aids the film in its rise to a crescendo of terror in the final frames. With a premise and monsters that could have been laughed off the screen in the first attack sequence, The Brood miraculously keeps its cool and shrouds itself in grotesque horror and perplexing mystery, revealing plot points at just the right time and meticulously planning its next move. To those on the prowl for a good horror film you have never seen, you can do much worse than The Brood.

Grade: B+

Cannibal Holocaust (1980)

by Steve Habrat

Of all the shock films, exploitation movies that bathe in depravity, and hardcore cinema I have seen in my life, no film has been as extreme as Ruggero Deodato’s 1980 Italian shocker Cannibal Holocaust. It is, in many respects, the best exploitation film I have ever seen because it is the one that goes all the way. In school, many people talked about Faces of Death, a staged exploitation film that supposedly features footage of real death scenes clipped together. Clearly, no one had ever heard of Cannibal Holocaust. This film features it all from authentic animal slayings, some of the most graphic sex scenes I have seen in a motion picture, rape, castration with a barely visible cut in the film, gruesome dismemberment, cannibalism, intimidation, and decadence. What is most shocking is the display of tainted ethics from the individuals who should be the cultured. Instead, the civilized are the savage monsters, the ones looking to draw blood, destroy, and exploit. I will warn you that after you watch Cannibal Holocaust, you will not ever be the same.

A film you will never find just tossed on the shelf of your local Best Buy or Barnes & Noble, Cannibal Holocaust is not exactly the easiest film to see, but it is out there and you can find it, but be prepared to do a little digging. I saw the film a couple of years ago on DVD and I never shook seeing it. I was disgusted by the real footage of animal killings, done in such cruelty it almost made me loose my lunch. When I stumbled upon the film on DVD and out on the shelf for purchase at FYE, I happily shelled out the money to own what is one of the most notorious films in the history of cinema. When the clerk saw what I was buying, she looked at me in disbelief and asked, “Are you sure you want this?”

“Yes”, I replied taken aback.

“Have you ever seen it?” She flipped it over and examined the back. Her face was contorted in repulsion at the fact she was touching it.

“Yes, I saw it a few years ago and I’ve never forgotten it. I collect films like this and it is a must own for my collection. I am a huge fan of grind house cinema, gore flicks, and hardcore exploitation movies.”

“You have an iron stomach and a strange hobby!”

I am very proud of my copy of Cannibal Holocaust. Call me sick, twisted, in need of a shrink, whatever you want, but it is one of my most prized DVDs I own and I will NEVER loan it out. I don’t want the awesome insert that folds out into a print of the original Italian poster to be ripped, torn, or desecrated. I don’t want either of the two discs in the set to be scratched, ruined, or exposed to dust. I don’t want the awesome slipcover that declares it is the “The Most Controversial Movie Ever Made” dinged up in any way. My copy of this horrific film is pristine. Truth is, there is actually one documentary I saw that topples Cannibal Holocaust called Death Scenes, a newsreel of real death footage spanning from World War II to the early 90s. Death Scenes should never be sold to the open public due to some of the footage included in it. That was a film I almost turned off, especially when the film showed us (with haunting sound) a horrific car wreck from the 1950s, the body horribly mutilated as what I am assuming is a surviving passenger or perhaps family member (?) screams and cries as the body is pulled from the twisted fist of steel. Be comforted that there is one film out there that can out shock Cannibal Holocaust.

Cannibal Holocaust follows a group of documentary filmmakers as they set out to film indigenous tribes in the Amazon Basin. These tribes, it turns out, happen to be cannibals. The documentary crew consists of Alan Yates (Played by Carl Gabriel Yorke), Faye Daniels (Played by Francesca Ciardi), Jack Anders (Played by Perry Pirkanen), and Mark Tomasco (Played by Luca Barbareschi). After no word from the crew, New York University anthropologist Harold Monroe (Played by Robert Kerman) sets out to find and rescue the crew. All that he returns with is their film canisters, which the media is anxiously waiting to air. After a screening of the footage, the film depicts horrors that no one could have imagined.

The film’s unblinking and alarmingly real violence caused quite a stir throughout the world when Cannibal Holocaust began its theatrical run. The film premiered in Milan and shortly after its debut, the courts seized copies of the film and had Deodato arrested for murder. He avoided a life sentence by presenting his actors in court and proving his innocence. The film has been banned in multiple countries since its release, further adding to the hype around it. Yet Deodato has not made a brainless ode to gore. No, he has offered up a critique on the violence lurking in what appears to be the most civilized of human beings. It also attacks the media for their relentless hunger to slap violence on television and make a spectacle out of it. The film also acts as a found footage film, one of the first films to inspire copies like The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, and more. The way the cameraman refuses to put down his camera and help his crewmembers being pulled apart right in front of him is so authentic, it will scare the ever-living hell right out of you. It has been said that Deodato was inspired to make the film one day while his son watched the news and he noticed the way the journalists focused on violence and carnage.

The film also equates sex with violence, suggesting that we get sexual pleasure out of the violence. One graphic scene finds two of the crew members having sex on the ashes of a burned hut, which the crewmembers are responsible for. This is a sequence in motion picture history that I personally was never able to quite shake from my brain. It made me sick, squirm while seeing it, and actually cover my eyes. The worst part is the crew makes the tribe watch as they act out this vile display. The film also wields a bizarre hypnotic effect on the viewer, partly from some dreamlike camerawork and the swirling synths that compose the memorable soundtrack. Credit should be given to Deodato who pushes the boundaries of repulsive imagery while keeping your eyes on the screen. You will want to look away but you won’t be able to. It has been said that spaghetti western director Sergio Leone sent Deodato a letter praising the realism of the film.

While I hail Cannibal Holocaust to be a rhythmic film that still resonates to this day, this is not a film for everyone. Know your limits, your sensitivity, and understand that this film should not be approached as just another ordinary horror film. It is the furthest thing from ordinary or simple. It never pulls a punch and I laud it for never even batting an eye at what it chooses to show you. If animal cruelty upsets you (I have a dog of my own and I have to say some of the violence towards animals really upset me.), stay far, far away from Cannibal Holocaust. Ranking as the second most upsetting film I have ever laid eyes on and chosen to subject myself to, I have to say it wins as a classic among exploitation pictures. The special effects crew has pulled off a mesmerizing bit of trickery with the violence, sometimes lacking no cut whatsoever. One of my film professors once told me, “If the film sparks any kind of intellectual conversation or debate, the film is not a bad one.” This statement stuck with me as I watched this film. Cannibal Holocaust should and does spark discussion, debate, and lures out emotions you never thought a motion picture would make you tackle.

Grade: A- (Be aware that just because I gave this an A-, you should still approach with extreme caution)