by Steve Habrat
One of the better cult films to be produced by legendary B-movie producer Roger Corman would have to be the 1975 dystopian satire Death Race 2000, an ever colorful grindhouse thriller that appears to have no shortage of eye-grabbing characters, gory death scenes, and black humor. Amazingly well spoken for this type of sleazy genre pic, Death Race 2000 is clearly a drive-in cheapie fueled by razor sharp satire, but it also gets by on the spirited lead performances from David Carradine and Sylvester Stallone, both who seem to be having the time of their lives as the rival racers. Maybe the charms come from the DIY approach that hovers over the entire project, from the cars that look like they had painted styrofoam additions super glued on to them, to the red candle wax blood that erupts from heads mowed over by smoking tires, to the hilarious backdrops that look like giant billboards painted up to look like a futuristic city. It all feels like it was made in a week and if you’re familiar with how Corman liked to work, you probably wouldn’t doubt it. Under director Paul Bartel, the cheap production design is never allowed to overshadow the white-knuckle action, thrills, and wit that rocket at you at about 150 miles-per-hour. However, the film does a tailspin in the final five minutes, with a blowout ending that just doesn’t seem to fit the rest of the movie. It has been said that the filmmakers weren’t sure how to conclude the film and it sure is obvious once you see how they warp everything up.
In the year 2000, the United States has been destroyed by a financial collapse and is ruled over by a Bipartisan Party, which has unified church and state. It has become the United Provinces; a fascist police state ruled over by the mysterious “Mr. President” (Played by Sandy McCallum). The public is kept entertained by the brutal Transcontinental Road Race, a gladiatorial battle that finds five colorful racers battling to score points by running down innocent civilians with their spruced-up race cars. The star of this show is the fan-favorite Frankenstein (Played by David Carradine), the government’s champion that is part man and part machine due to the horrific wrecks from past races. As the nation gears up for the 20th race, Frankenstein finds himself stuck with a new navigator, Annie Smith (Played by Simone Griffeth), who he is immediately suspicious of. As the three-day race commences, Frankenstein finds himself pitted against his jealous rival, “Machine Gun” Joe Viterbo (Played by Sylvester Stallone), who will do whatever it takes to beat the fan favorite. In addition to competing against “Machine Gun” Joe, three other racers, Ray “Nero the Hero” Lonagan (Played by Martin Kove), Matilda the Hun (Played by Roberta Collins), and “Calamity” Jane Kelly (Played by Mary Woronov), are all out to dethrone Frankenstein. As the race gets underway, the five racers find themselves attacked by a mysterious rebel group led by Thomasina Paine (Played by Harriet Medin), who are determined to put an end to the savage race once and for all.
Death Race 2000 begins with a montage of jingoism, as marching bands and fans clad in red, white, and blue congregate for the massive race set to The Star Spangled Banner. It seems harmless enough until Bartel slips in an image of a man waving a swastika flag in support of Matilda the Hun. From there on out, Death Race 2000 is a rubber-burning satire on America’s fixation with violent entertainment and the media that enthusiastically sells it. The announcers happily explain the point system directly to the viewer; smiling as they explain how many points a rundown infant is worth compared to a pancaked man or woman. Things get even more twisted as the widow of the first victim of the race is brought onto live television, simultaneously sobbing and laughing as she is rewarded with a lavish vacation, all because her husband was the first to be gruesomely rundown in the street. It is not hard to see that Death Race 2000 is skewering the media’s love of all things blood and guts, all as Frankenstein reminds us that it is all about giving the fans what they want. Bartel does lighten the mood with a few scenes of black humor, mostly coming from Stallone’s “Machine Gun” Joe and his constant frustration with both Frankenstein and his busty navigator Myra (Played by Louisa Moritz). The highlight scene comes when an innocent fan (who is minding his own business) mistakes the cocky “Machine Gun” Joe for Frankenstein. Joe retaliates by chasing the man down a river and flattening him. Now THAT is some black humor.
While the action and satire are both finely tuned, Death Race 2000 achieves its cult classic status through must-see (and when I say must-see, I mean it) performances from Carradine and Stallone. Carradine rocks as the partly mechanical man Frankenstein, who dons a leather mask and zooms from coast to coast in an alligator race car complete with massive fangs. You can tell that Carradine is having an absolutely blast strutting around in his black leather outfit that is complete with a cape that he enjoys twirling around. He is the ultimate man of mystery, at least to his die-hard fans. You’ll thrill as he is always one step ahead of his plotting rival “Machine Gun” Joe, a mush-mouthed brute bitter over living in Frankenstein’s shadow. Outside of Rocky, this is probably the best Stallone has ever been (Okay, he was decent in Rambo). He just looks so outrageous speeding down a winding country road in a car with two tommy guns and a giant knife mounted on the front. He nabs most of the black laughs while bickering with his bombshell navigator Myra, who acts like a giant space cadet. As far as Frankenstein’s navigator Annie Smith is concerned, she is mostly there to get naked and seduce him behind closed doors, but wait for a surprising twist with her character near the end of the film. Another stand out is the deliciously evil Matilda the Hun, who is absolutely wicked as she shouts about the master race while tormenting her fellow racers. And I can’t forget Don Steele as the massively annoying announcer Junior Brace, who just beams over carnage of the race, and Joyce Jameson as the obsequious television personality Grace Pander.
Death Race 2000 may toss around a few heavy ideas, but it never fails to remember its audience. Being an exploitation movie, Death Race 2000 provides tons of gratuitous nudity and violence, which is interesting because the film appears to be wagging its finger at violence for entertainment. There are plenty of gruesome deaths, which are all accompanied by the trademark 70s candle wax blood. In between these nasty moments, there are plenty of adrenaline pumping chases, fistfights, and even a nifty sequence that finds Carradine’s Frankenstein trying to outrun a rebel fighter plane unleashing bullets and bombs. Death Race 2000 also can’t resist stripping almost all the ladies of their clothing, especially Moritz and Griffeth, which will please most of the male viewers. Overall, Death Race 2000 could have been a victim of its own cut-rate production, but the less-is-more approach really allows the film to come alive. It may botch it in the final moments with an unlikely and frankly unsatisfying climax, but it is something you will ultimately forgive because the other seventy-five minutes are just so cool. Come for the nonstop action and stay for the seriously awesome performances from Carradine and Stallone.
Death Race 2000 is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
In the wake of George A. Romero’s zombie masterpiece Dawn of the Dead and Lucio Fulci’s surprise smash imitation Zombie, the walking dead became all the rage in Italy during the late 70s and early 80s. While most of these films were made on the cheap and focused heavily on gratuitous violence, there was still a few that managed to be pretty entertaining and stand out from the bunch. Perhaps the most warped of these standouts is exploitation director Andrea Bianchi’s Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror. Plot-less, artless, and wildly perverted, Burial Ground has climbed the cult classic ranks mostly due to the presence of Peter Bark, a 25-year-old dwarf that is onboard here as a young boy named Michael, who is sexually attracted to his own mother. This relationship certainly trumps every other “eww” factor in the film, but Bianchi has a few more tricks up his sleeve to shock and repulse. Burial Ground wastes absolutely no time jumping into the exploitation action, beginning with a little sex and nudity and then launching itself headfirst into non-stop gut munching. Those searching for a zombie film with a biting social commentary mixed in with the shuffling undead hordes better start looking elsewhere. This sucker is all about grossing you out.
Burial Ground begins with the bearded Professor Ayres snooping around ancient Etruscan catacombs near his home. As he investigates the catacombs, he accidentally sets off a mysterious device that unleashes a horde of shuffling ghouls that proceed to eat him up. A few miles away, three couples, Leslie (Played by Antonella Antinori) and James (Played by Simone Mattioli), Mark (Played by Gianluigi Chirizzi) and Janet (Played by Karin Well), and George (Played by Roberto Caporali) and Evelyn (Played by Mariangela Barbieri), arrive at Ayres’s mansion for a relaxing getaway. Also among the group is Evelyn’s young son Michael (Played by Peter Bark), a creepy little kid with a huge crush on his “mama.” Shortly after the group arrives, they all engage in a little afternoon delight and then they all take to the mansion grounds to do a bit of exploring. While taking in the idyllic scenery, the couples come face to face with the walking dead that have been unleashed by Professor Ayres. Terrified and confused, the group retreats to the mansion and begins boarding up all the windows and doors, but as day turns to night, the zombies reveal that they are not as mindless as the group initially thought and that they are actually very resourceful.
Right from the get-go, it is obvious that Burial Ground is more interested in spilling blood than giving any sort of clear explanation as to how exactly Professor Ayres woke these Etruscan cannibals up or why they are cursed to walk the earth as these monsters. Bianchi asks us to simply accept it and embrace the film for what it is—a cheap exploitation movie. The best part of the entire film is the zombies, which all wear some seriously nasty and detailed make-up. Much like the ghouls of Fulci’s celebrated Zombie, these zombies have worms dangling from empty eye sockets, jagged teeth protruding through their rotten lips, exposed bones, maggots slowly crawling out of gashes, and yellowish blood oozing from gunshots wounds. When they finally catch up to their victims, they rip their stomachs open and pull out a seemingly endless string of entrails. We are then treated to extreme close-ups of the decayed zombies chewing on various body parts as skin-crawling sound effects echo on the soundtrack. Unlike Fulci’s zombies, these undead nightmares don’t just rely on their bony hands and discolored fangs to get to their victims and rip them apart. These ghouls raid the gardening shack and pick up various weapons including axes, pitchforks, knives, and even a scythe to use on their meals. There is one eerie scene that finds the mansion maid sticking her head out of one of the mansion’s windows and getting her head chopped off by some scythe-wielding ghouls, who then all greedily grab for their blood treat. This particular scene is about as terrifying as Burial Ground gets.
What really puts a bullet in the head of Burial Ground is the absolutely atrocious acting from nearly everyone who steps foot in front of the camera. The only two performers who really stick in the viewers mind are Bark as the Oedipal Michael and Barbieri as his sexed-up mother Evelyn. The adult Bark is absolutely hilarious and downright unsettling playing a child that is maybe eleven or twelve years old. He slinks around the mansion and bursts in on his mother and George as they have passionate sex. His mother’s response upon seeing Michael is to leap out of bed and barely cover herself in front of her bug-eyed son as he calls out “mama!” As if Bark wasn’t weird enough, Bianchi then dubs the man-child with a voice that sounds like an adult attempting to sound like a little kid. Over the course of the film, Michael’s relationship with his mother gets more and more bizarre as he reaches up her skirt and tries to expose her breasts during a zombie attack. If those scenes don’t have your jaw on the floor, Bianchi has one final shock for you in the final moments of the film. If ever there was an image that would burn itself into your brain and haunt your dreams for the rest of your life, it is this one. If you’re wondering why the 25-year-old dwarf Bark was cast as a child, Italian law stated that a child could not be cast in a film that featured such graphic content.
If it weren’t for the incestuous subplot between Michael and Evelyn, Burial Ground certainly would not have the rabid fan base that it does today. Sure the gore and make-up effects are solid but they alone would never have carried the film off into the land of cult classics. As if the lousy acting and poor plot weren’t enough to bring the film down, Bianchi approaches the project as if he could care less about it. The camera is almost always at a stand still and offering up a poorly lit and grainy medium shot of the action. It is clear that a good majority of the film’s budget went to the zombie make-up and gore effects and you can’t really blame Bianchi for wanting to show them off, but after a while, you get the impression that he is just filling out the runtime. Surprisingly, Bianchi does choose a dark path at the end, but he shoots himself in the foot when he stamps a quote over the final image of the film that is riddled with spelling errors. Overall, Burial Ground tries desperately to play to its audience and there are a few moments that are mildly entertaining, but as far as Italian zombie knock-offs go, you’re better off sticking with a Fulci zombie film.
Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror is available on DVD.
by Steve Habrat
If you want a prime example of guerilla filmmaking at its most bizarre, then you need to get your hot little hands on a 1982 film called Basket Case. Shot on a shoestring budget (director Frank Henenlotter actually shows his film’s budget in one specific scene of the film) in the grimy streets of early 80s New York City (it appears that 42nd Street is shown in the opening of the film), Basket Case is a seriously wrapped exploitation horror comedy. There is plenty of blood, guts, gore, and ear splitting groaning and screaming from our deformed Siamese twin Belial, sleazy settings to make you want to shower after watching it, and the most outrageous rape/sex scene you are ever likely to see. There is also plenty of black humor to keep you snickering to yourself, especially when Belial goes on one of his noisy rampages. Yet even at a scant hour and a half, the weird comic charms begin to wear themselves out and Basket Case just settles down in just plain weird and seedy territory with a particularly dark climax. The film has quite the passionate cult following and many even consider it a horror classic, which I think is going a bit far, due to the film’s reluctance to fully commit itself fully to serious scares. Every tense moment is broken up by a wink when it should have played itself straight to really creep you out.
Basket Case introduces us to the socially awkward Duane Bradley (Played by Kevin Van Hentenryck), who arrives in New York City with a handful of cash, some clothing, and a wicker basket under his arm. Duane checks in to the seedy Hotel Broslin, where he locks himself away in one of the rooms and studies over a mysterious file of medical papers. It turns out that that Duane was born with a grotesque Simaese twin named Belial growing out of his. When Duane was just a boy, his father was repulsed by Belial and recruited a few doctors to remove and discard Belial. When Duane woke up from his operation, he rescued Belial and vowed revenge on the doctors that separated them. All grown up and out for blood, Duane unleashes Belial, a deformed monster with claws and fangs, from his wicker basket to tear the doctors limb from limb. Their plot hits a snag when Duane meets a pretty receptionist named Sharon (Played by Terri Susan Smith), who he begins falling in love with him. Naturally, Duane’s feelings for Sharon enrage Belial and begin tearing the brothers apart. Meanwhile, the nosy guests of Hotel Broslin begin to suspect there is something strange about Duane and his wicker basket and they begin snooping around.
Even though Basket Case was not made with much, there is still plenty of dedication from the tiny cast and crew. The film itself is about as grainy as they come, giving it an almost documentary-like sense of realism even if the subject matter is the epitome of silly. Some of the early scenes of New York City are pretty interesting; especially the opening sequence that finds Duane wandering one of the neon strips of grindhouses, adult video stores, rundown bars, and twitchy junkies. Even the hotel that Duane calls temporary home was a real hotel, but certainly not one you would ever want to stay in. Your skin crawls at the very thought of what pests might be crawling all over you when you turned off the lights. Then there is the nightmare sequence, which finds a nude Duane running through the seemingly deserted streets of a city that claims to never sleep. Even though the film was made in the late 70s/early 80s, you still get nervous for the cast and crew, fearing that a junkie or mugger may leap out of the shadows that are claiming the streets. This nightmare scene is probably the scariest moment of the entire film, the only one that doesn’t seem to be chuckling at itself.
Then we have the acting, both from the cast of unknowns and from the little puppet Belial. Van Hentenryck does a fine job at being both a clueless sweetheart and a deranged psychopath. He shares some great moments with Smith’s Sharon, who genuine falls for his oddball charms, and Josephine (Played by Dorothy Storngin), a prostitute with a heart of gold who picks him up when he is at his lowest. Smith isn’t really given too much to do as the love interest, but she gets a memorable moment at the end when she finally comes face to face with Belial in the most discomfited way possible. Storngin is great as Josephine, barely flinching when Duane shares his dark past with her. Another standout is Robert Vogel as Anthony, the sweaty, no-nonsense manager of Hotel Broslin who is constantly scratching his head over the strange noises that ring out from Duane’s room. Then we have Belial, the blob-like monster that crawls around and claws his victims to shreds. For a puppet, he has plenty of personality and he can sometimes be weirdly cute when he throws his temper tantrums or hides in the toilet. Even though he is the bloodthirsty monster, he may be the most likable and sympathetic character in the entire film. When his relationship with Duane becomes strained in the final stretch, you wouldn’t mind giving the little guy a hug even if he may bite your face off.
While there are plenty of moments in Basket Case that are a good deal of fun, there are some moments that the viewer is left wishing the film would stop winking at them and keep a straight face. It doesn’t completely ruin the film, but I felt that it was definitely holding the film back from reaching its full potential. You do have to give Henenlotter credit for the way he slowly builds up Belial’s reveal, giving us little hints at what may be in that wicker basket until finally springing him on us. Just wait for the hilarious opening scene where Duane feeds Belial a bag of hamburgers. For you gorehounds out there, Basket Case has plenty of the red stuff to keep you happy, but don’t expect anything too elaborate. Overall, Basket Case is another shining example of less-is-more horror, something that Hollywood and the mainstream just doesn’t seem to understand these days. It does stand head and shoulders above most of the horror films you see today and it is a great film to show to your friends simply to see their reactions. You also have to admire the touching and tragic relationship between the brothers at the core of the film. While I don’t consider it the classic some horror and exploitation fans do, Basket Case is still a solid midnight movie.
Basket Case is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
One of the most controversial and shocking films to emerge from the 1970s is without question Michael Winner’s 1974 vigilante thriller Death Wish, a big studio production that seems like it would have been right at home in a seedy 42nd Street theater during the heyday of grindhouse theaters. At the time of its release, most critics waved off Death Wish, which was based off of the novel of the same name by Brian Garfield, as a tasteless and empty-headed exploitation film that advocates vigilantism. While the film certainly never judges Charles Bronson’s Paul Kersey, a liberal man who takes the law into his own hands after his wife is murdered and his daughter is sexually assaulted by a trio of drugged out street thugs, Winner certainly doesn’t make this transition from mild-mannered architect into cold blooded killer look easy or glamorous. About as bleak and unsettling as they come, Death Wish certainly isn’t as dumb as it has been made out to be. Star Bronson has said that he doesn’t believe that the film promotes an ordinary citizen taking the law into his or her own hands, but rather points out that violence just leads to more violence. No matter which way you choose to read Death Wish, I think we can all agree that this a film that really sticks with those who have seen it. It certainly isn’t a film that is afraid to shake the viewer up.
Shortly after returning from a sunny vacation in Hawaii, liberal architect Paul Kersey (Played by Charles Bronson) and his wife, Joanna (Played by Hope Lange), return to their upscale New York City apartment. The New York streets are a far cry from the sunny and peaceful beaches that the Kersey’s were lounging on. Crime runs rampant through the city streets and the police appear to be helpless to stop it. One afternoon, a group of street thugs break into the Kersey’s apartment and viciously assault Joanna and their daughter, Carol (Played by Kathleen Tolan). The attack results in the death of Joanna and Carol is sent into a catatonic state. Devastated, Paul and his son-in-law, Jack (Played by Steven Keats), slowly begin to realize that the police have little hope in catching the men who are responsible for this heinous crime. After receiving a gun as a gift from a satisfied client, Paul begins taking shooting lessons and then takes to the streets to hunt down muggers who hide in the darkened alleys. As the crime rates begin to fall, the police begin to secretly debate whether they should allow the vigilante to continue fighting back against scum or if he should be arrested for the killing spree.
Death Wish certainly takes its good old time getting to Paul’s killing spree. His slow descent into bloodthirsty madness is eerily realistic, especially when he dashes home after claiming his first victim and then vomits over what he has done. His revenge doesn’t come easy and I’m glad that Winner points this out. It is painful to watch his hope die as he the police fail to deliver any answers. It makes sense that Winner lingers on Paul’s emotional turmoil, because if the film jumped right into the killing spree, the film would be wildly redundant. When the film erupts in its fits of violence, it will make the hair on your arms stand up. The sequence between the street thugs and Paul’s family will have your stomach churning and you may even cover your eyes once or twice, especially when Carol is sexually assaulted. The scenes where Paul confronts muggers on the New York streets are tense and unpredictable, as Paul throws himself into vulnerable situations, only to reveal a pistol and blow the bad guys away. It is truly terrifying the way Paul begins to enjoy his work, faintly smiling when he hears news reports where ordinary citizens praise his work and even offer up their own tales of brutally fighting back against the unruly crime. One story about a little old lady stabbing a thug with a sewing needle was particularly disturbing.
In addition to the controversial subject matter, Death Wish also contains a classic performance from Charles Bronson, the mumbling hardass with a mustache. Bronson’s Paul is a seemingly peaceful and loving family man, a man who was a “conscientious objector” in the Korean War. He appears to have a great relationship with his son-in-law, who is quite fond of calling Paul “dad.” Even when Paul begins to really loose his marbles, he seems like he is coolly in control of his appalling actions. After his first squeamish night, he develops an insatiable love for punishment. Keats gives a jittery performance as the twitchy Jack, who is constantly looking to Paul for some sort of reassurance. He paces and slicks back his hair as he pours over the comatose Carol, desperate for her to be the person she once was. Vincent Gardenia shows up as NYPD Lt. Frank Ochoa, the man tasked with tracking down the vigilante and bringing him to justice. I was genuinely captivated by his confliction over bringing Paul in for his nightly actions. Also keep a look out for a young Jeff Goldblum as one of the thugs who breaks into Paul’s apartment and Denzel Washington as a mugger who makes the mistake of trying to stick up Mr. Bronson.
Despite being released in 1974, Death Wish still resonates today, especially when you turn on the news and hear about mass shootings and other unspeakable acts of violence tearing through America. It’s message is certainly troubling, especially since it refuses to ever criticize the trigger happy Paul. Yet when viewed as a portrait of a man consumed by grief, Death Wish is about as haunting as they come. You weirdly root for Paul to make his escapes from the scenes of his crimes and when one thug stabs him, things really get intense. It is incredibly difficult to believe that Paramount Studios, a major Hollywood Studio, was behind a film that is loaded with this much unblinking violence. The real shocker hits about fifteen minutes in with the prolonged torture of Paul’s family, a scene that more than once crosses into exploitation territory. It is tough to find Death Wish entertaining but it certainly is a thought provoking reflection of the violence in all of us that you can’t pull yourself away from. A gritty and unforgiving vision that I would certainly consider one of the most disturbing movies you are ever likely to see.
Death Wish is available on DVD.
by Steve Habrat
You know a film means business when an innocent little girl is brutally gunned down while trying to get an ice cream cone in the film’s opening moments. Hell, if a little girl can get killed that early on, then that means anyone can get bumped off next! Welcome to the world of 1976’s Assault on Precinct 13, the second feature length film from John “Halloween” Carpenter. Regarded as the film that launched Carpenter’s career and viewed by many critics as one of the best exploitation films of the 1970s, Assault on Precinct 13 is one mean, unflinching picture of violence that would have been right at home in a dingy theater on 42nd Street. Partly inspired by the Howard Hawks 1959 western Rio Bravo and George Romero’s 1968 debut Night of the Living Dead, Assault of Precinct 13 is perhaps one of the most unusual crime thrillers you are ever likely to see. A complete product of its time, Assault on Precinct 13 is an appropriately gritty and bleak vision of urban decay that the police are virtually powerless to contain. The film also appears to be extremely aware of how lucrative the horror film was during the 1970s, as Assault on Precinct 13 is infested with surprisingly thrills, chills, and gore that is a little too unsettling.
Assault on Precinct 13 begins with a handful of members of the ‘Street Thunder’ gang getting ambushed and gunned down by several LAPD officers. The next morning, a group of gang warlords all swear a blood oath of revenge against the police of Los Angeles. Meanwhile, newly promoted CHP officer Lieutenant Ethan Bishop (Played by Austin Stoker) is assigned to take command of the old isolated Anderson precinct building, which is closing its doors for good in the morning. Later that evening, a prison bus that is carrying three dangerous inmates stops by after one prisoner becomes ill on their trip to Death Row. It turns out that the bus is transporting the well-known convicted murderer Napoleon Wilson (Played by Darwin Joston), who is extremely dangerous and unpredictable. As the night goes on, a terrified citizen comes bursting into the station mumbling about the death of his daughter. Bishop discovers that several heavily armed gang members have followed the man to the station. These gang members open fire on the station with powerful silenced automatic weapons, killing many of the people inside the station. Unable to get help due to the disconnected phones, Bishop is forced to join forces with Wilson, secretary Leigh (Played by Laurie Zimmer), and another prisoner named Wells (Played by Tony Burton) until help arrives to contain the relentless waves of gang attacks.
Assault on Precinct 13 longs to be a western and it doesn’t make any attempts to conceal that fact. The film pairs an outlaw and a lawman together, forcing them to set aside their differences to make one more heroic last stand. The film is basically Rio Bravo given an urban facelift and loaded with a hell of a lot more gore (and less Dean Martin). Yet Carpenter isn’t content with just producing a modern day western. He borrows aspects from Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and molds the film into a hair-raising siege film where countless silent antagonists try to force their way into the station to brutally murder the terrified individuals inside. Even Carpenter’s protagonist, the African American Bishop, is eerily similar to the gently reassuring Ben from Night of the Living Dead. The film has been called one of the ultimate exploitation films from the 1970s, one that is absolutely unforgiving and extreme. A little girl is horrifically gunned down after being in the wrong place and the wrong time. Several police officers meet a messy end, seemingly powerless to stop this senseless onslaught. There are very few rays of hope in this unpredictable beast, especially as the small group’s numbers rapidly dwindle at the hands of the cold, emotionless killers.
The real shock of Assault on Precinct 13 is how natural the acting is, free flowing as Carpenter’s camera follows the actors along. Stoker is the star of the show here, playing the unassuming good guy who just wants everyone to make it out alive even as he is sometimes powerless to make sure this happens. What is also surprising about his character is how quickly he trusts Wilson, which adds to his appeal. Wilson, on the other hand, seems grossly misunderstood and you get the sneaking suspicion that he isn’t as viscous as he has been made out. Even still, in the scenes that he gunning down countless charging gang members, he wears a beaming grin on his face as bodies go tumbling through the air. Yet for all the joy he seems to find it taking lives, he never once seems threatening to the innocent people around him. Burton’s Wells is a guy who has had a long, hard life that was riddled with bad luck that doesn’t appear to be changing. Zimmer’s Leigh is one tough chick whose skills with a gun would make One-Eye from Thriller-A Cruel Picture smile. There is also a faint spark of attraction between her and Wilson, which, much like the events around them, is hopeless to pursue.
Assault on Precinct 13 does hit a few bumps in the dialogue department but everything else is so good that you will be willing to overlook them. Much like some of Carpenter’s best work, Assault on Precinct 13 is such a great film because it is heavy on atmosphere, especially the beady-eyed capriciousness that one cannot easily shake. It also allows us to get to know our characters, especially the ones we immediately presume to be bad which gives the film a bit of depth that is highly unusual for an exploitation film. Most characters in these films aren’t given much personality, making us indifferent when they ultimately bite the dust. Ultimately, Assault on Precinct 13 ranks up there as one of Carpenter’s finest and most satisfying films in his body of work. This is an explosive, tense, grainy, and very mean urban thriller that is all the better because it lacks escapist polish. This is one that exploitation fans will want to revisit again and again.
Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
Who doesn’t love a good revenge flick? How about some revenge served up from a bunch of voodoo zombies? If revenge at the hands of zombies sounds like a good time to you, check out Sugar Hill, one of the most unique grind house/exploitation/blaxploitation films I have ever seen. Mind you, Sugar Hill isn’t the type of zombie film where the ghouls shuffle about the swamp and chew on human flesh at random. No, Sugar Hill’s zombies suddenly appear, wearing bulging silver eyes, covered in cobwebs, and stalking their victims with machetes and what not. They also have a puppet master, two to be exact, who commands them to slay their victims. A so-so little mash up of a horror film mixed with a gangster picture, Sugar Hill doesn’t really scare you or gross you out, its just absurd and partly amusing. The problem is the film dries up about half way through and begins to be a bit wearisome.
After the murder of her affectionate boyfriend at the hands of some white gangsters, Diana ‘Sugar’ Hill (Played by Marki Bey) looks to a voodoo queen named Mama Maitresse (Played by Zara Cully), who conjures up the Baron Zamedi (Played by Don Pedro Colley), the Lord of the Dead, and his army of undead killers. Sugar asks Baron Zamedi to aid her in her quest to avenge the death of her boyfriend. He agrees and they begin tracking down the gangsters who have wronged her, each one meeting a nasty end at the hands of his undead hit men. As the bodies pile up, a local cop named Valentine (Played by Richard Lawson) begins to suspect there may be more to the murders than just a simple gang war. As he gathers more evidence, he begins to suspect Sugar and the supernatural may have something to do with the bizarre slayings.
Sugar Hill is the only feature film to be directed by Paul Maslansky, the man who acted as producer of such films as Raw Meat, Police Academy, and Return to Oz (What a variety, huh?). Maslansky directs Sugar Hill cautiously, limiting himself when it comes to the gore and butchery, ending up with a surprisingly conservative film. For a ridiculous zombie exploitation film, the film has very little carnage for the violence-hungry viewer. The film does touch on every trait that makes up the blaxploitation film including hit men, gangsters, racial slurs, white antagonists, and using the South as a backdrop. The film also explains that the undead hit men are the preserved bodies of slaves brought to America from Guinea. This is perhaps the only thought provoking aspect of Sugar Hill, undead slaves rising from the graves and knocking off vicious white men, but the film never attempts to elaborate on this aspect.
Sugar Hill does have some above average performances for such a goofy mash up of a film. Credit should go to Marki Bey and Don Pedro Colley, both who seem to be having a lot of fun playing with monsters. I did root for Bey and her I’m-not-gonna-take-it-anymore attitude. She is sometimes a bit soft for a swirling ball of fury but you can’t help but root for her when she drops a gangster into a pen with a slew of hungry pigs and bellows, “I hope they’re into white trash!” Don Pedro Colley laps up his role as Baron Zamedi, giggling through such lines of dialogue like, “Perhaps a drink on the house, sir. My particular special, a drink that I’m famous for… The ZOMBIE!” He sometimes sounds like a southern, African American version of Bela Lugosi as Dracula, especially when two ghostly brides accompany him. He’s camp wearing gold teeth and black smudges around his eyes to let the audience know he’s dead. It’s Bey and Colley that add a little bit of flavor to a mostly bland film experience.
And what about those zombies? The zombies are the coolest part of Sugar Hill, popping up like ghouls in a fun house, grinning wildly as they stare at their target. The unsettling touch of bulging silver eyes are the most terrifying part of Sugar Hill, giving the ghouls an alien-like effect. The zombies are hilariously slathered in make-up that attempts to make them look bony and emaciated, but they look like they should be in a Day of the Dead parade. Half the time, it is impossible to really see what they do to their victims and they mostly just stare at a shuddering gangster. One poor sap meets his end during a spooky massage (Death by massage! Now THAT is a first!!) while another is forced to stab himself to death when a voodoo doll catches fire, a death the zombies had barely anything to do with. You can’t help but get the feeling that sometimes the zombies are in the frame because Maslansky thought they looked cool.
Don’t look to Sugar Hill for a really deep experience. The film has fun with itself at times (A severed chicken leg trying to murder a baddie!) but is ultimately too flat too often. Sugar Hill becomes an early example that the mixing of two drastically different film genres is not always the wisest decision. Sure, it takes some confidence to really believe in your premise and I will give the filmmakers credit for attempting something different, but the zombie genre and blaxploitation genre go together like oil and water. I’m always game for a bloody revenge flick especially if it is an hour and a half of absurdly bloody retribution. Sadly, Sugar Hill never really lets loose.
Sugar Hill is now available on DVD.
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
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.
Hell of the Living Dead is available on DVD and yes, it is a part of my exploitation collection.
Happy Thanksgiving from all of us here at Anti-Film School! We hope you have an awesome Turkey Day. Enjoy the trailer below from Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s Grindhouse!
NOTE: Anti-Film School does not claim ownership of this video.
by Steve Habrat
Although it is not technically a genre of cinema, the “grind house” film has become something of it’s own breed. I don’t mean the recent underground fascination with them. The fascination with this trashy form of film sparked out of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s 2007 cult hit Grindhouse and 2010’s follow up Machete. Or how about this year’s Hobo with a Shotgun? I’m also fairly convinced you’ve seen the commercials for recent video game House of the Dead, which oozes with sleaze and depravity, the type that ran rampant in grind house theaters. The influence from those down and dirty pictures from the late 1960’s to the late 1980’s is everywhere and some do not even realize it. One of the most notorious films that played in “grind houses” was the unflinchingly graphic rape/revenge romp I Spit on Your Grave, a film that is the true definition of the word vile. And yet in a way it’s hard to totally dismiss the film because it puts in overtime to earn the reputation that it has. Released in 1978 and the brainchild of Israeli director Meir Zarchi, I Spit on Your Grave can be viewed from many different angles. It could be seen as a female empowerment flick, a criticism of masculinity, or just gleefully exploitative. Stemming from a movement in cinema that I absolutely love, I Spit on Your Grave was one of the toughest films to get through, featuring a gang rape sequence that is agonizingly long and revealing. It pushes the viewers buttons and after witnessing what our delicate protagonist goes through at the hands of four animalistic hillbillies, you can’t help yourself but root for her to exact revenge on her tormentors. You’ll feel this way even if you loathe the film.
Jennifer Hills (Played by Camille Keaton) is a short story writer who ventures to the country to shack up in an isolated lakefront home to work on her first novel. Jennifer appears to be a much more liberal woman, sporting silky, transparent sundresses that illuminate her near perfect figure, also showing the viewer she is not wearing underwear. She stops off at a rundown gas station and meets three local males. She chats innocently enough with the gas station attendant Johnny (Played by Eron Tabor). She also meets the shirtless duo that is Stanley (Played by Anthony Nichols) and Andy (Played by Gunter Kleemann). After arriving at her secluded getaway, she is greeted by the mentally challenged grocery store delivery boy Matthew (Played by Richard Pace), who is an innocent, friendly virgin. Matthew takes a liking to the flirty Jennifer and he runs off to tell his savage pal Johnny, who encourages Matthew to pursue Jennifer. When Matthew doesn’t, Stanley and Andy pluck her from her home while she sunbathes, drag her out into the woods, and proceed to gang rape and beat her. They then tell Matthew to kill Jennifer. Matthew shakily fakes her death and several weeks later, Jennifer heals and returns to exact revenge on the savages who violated her and terrorized without mercy.
I Spit on Your Grave has to be one of the most hated films ever made, one that enraged critics and audiences upon its release (For a good seething review, check out Roger Ebert’s famous take on the film) and one that still upsets to this day. It stuns me that this film is sold at Best Buy where a younger viewer can easily obtain it. In an interview on the DVD, Zarchi says he was inspired to make this film after his real life experience of stumbling upon a woman who had been raped and aided her in getting help. It’s good to know this tidbit of information, partly because it relieves the viewer of the suspicion that this film was made out of some sick fantasy. Zarchi’s camera does seem infatuated with Keaton’s physique. He shows every angle of every unmentionable; giving the film it’s exploitative ambiance. Any excuse to get her in the nude is fully embraced here. The grind house films were heavily interested in gratuitous nudity and explicit sex, some of these films branded with an X rating. And just like the multiple grind house films before it, it brings along its fair share of gore and voyeuristic violence. One misconception of grind house cinema is that all of these films were hyper violent. This is true to an extent, as some boasted jazzy, hardcore titles that made lots of promises but never really delivered the gore that audience’s lusted for. Two prime examples would be 1978’s Halloween, which was a grind house slasher film that lacked little to no gore and 1974’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which contained very little of the red stuff. I Spit on Your Grave has plenty to satisfy the gore hounds.
Weighed down by infinite amounts of hammy acting, mostly from its male players, Keaton is the one that really brings the fire. She does her best to avoid being reduced to a hot piece of flesh. She’s a broken ass kicker that is ready to bring the wrath of God upon the monsters that crossed her. Her crowning moment comes during the shocking castration scene, where she lures one of the men into a bath with her and while fooling around, she reaches under the bathmat and pulls out a hulking blade and, with one clean cut, severs the man’s own weapon. She then gets out of the tub and leaves the bathroom, locking the door from the outside as he shrieks in pain and at the act done upon him. She then puts on a classical record, sits down and relishes in the agony just behind the bathroom door. She stares off just past the camera, her eyes conveying a cracked soul yet illuminated with the burning flame of revenge. Who could blame her? Later, she burns the man’s clothes and as she does, she is illuminated in red, a color that engulfs the entire project. Dark red has been said to symbolize rage, determination, and wrath, all which Jennifer brings down on the men. Earlier in the film, light red and some pinks dominate, which symbolize friendship, passiveness, and love, which all radiate from Jennifer. The color scheme is very film school, something that would seem at home in a student film, yet it is probably one of the artist qualities that I Spit on Your Grave has.
The men of I Spit on Your Grave are the scum of the earth, even the mentally challenged Matthew. It is revealed that Johnny has a wife and two children, which makes his act even more disgusting than it already was. Even the men that seem honest and true are animals and capable of inflicting horrible acts. Andy and Stanley both leap around the woods like primates, hooting and hollering with glee in their wanton dance. Yet when Jennifer bears down on them, wielding an axe, they both quiver and cry, stammering, “It wasn’t my idea! Johnny made me do it!” The “It wasn’t my idea!” is an excuse thrown around quite a bit in I Spit on Your Grave, saying that men never truly want to own up to their actions. Matthew’s death is the only one leaving us feeling disheartened, as he is a character who is somewhat unaware of his actions and who tried to do the right thing when the gang rape was taking place. It does not excuse all of his behavior, as he stills has blood on his hands too.
I Spit on Your Grave was remade in 2010, further driving the underground fixation with genre trash. The remake of the film never shook me up and was a largely overlooked upon release. A sign of the times if I have ever seen one, highlighting the desensitized attitude that has been driven into American audiences. The 1978 I Spit on Your Grave is still a much more shocking film, partly because the remake has echoes of torture porn and Saw coursing through its dirt caked veins. Love it or hate it, it still marks the viewer, never allowing them to forget what they have seen. I found the film had a major artistic handicap, resorting to said film school techniques, all which prance around and bellow thoughtful. It’s definitely an empowering film to women, even if the excessive violence is up for debate. As a piece of grind house cinema, it ranks among the best of them, wallowing in all the filth that made this genre what it is today.
I Spit on Your Grave 1978 is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.