Cat in the Brain (1990)
by Steve Habrat
If you’re one that has ever sat through an entire Lucio Fulci film, you understand that the Italian horror director was something of an acquired taste. The “Godfather of Gore”—as he is often referred to—took great pleasure in painting the movie screen red with globs of entrails, buckets of candle wax blood, jellied brains, rotting skin, and showers of wiggling maggots, something that he was often criticized for. Surely, a man that crafts ultra-violent films such as these must have, well, a cat fiercely clawing, scratching, and chewing away at his brain! Near the end of Fulci’s long and varied career (he made everything from comedies to gialli to spaghetti westerns), he released Cat in the Brain (aka Nightmare Concert), a meta-gorefest that finds the cult filmmaker reflecting upon his gruesome body of work and the toll those gory films had on his psyche. Strung together with horrific snippets from his earlier gialli and horror films, Cat in the Brain is surprisingly well rounded and clever for a film that threatens to act as a sort of highlight reel for Fulci’s most revolting kill scenes. Yet the splatter master smartly builds a thought-provoking thriller around these recycled sequences, and the end result is a standout release from the twilight of his career.
Cat in the Brain finds Fulci playing himself, Dr. Lucio Fulci, a horror director who is well known for his ultra-violent genre films. One day, after filming a particularly nasty sequence involving cannibalism and a questionable steak, Fulci decides to go to a nearby upscale restaurant for lunch. Upon arriving, Fulci orders up a steak, but his appetite is quickly curbed when his mind wanders back to the gruesome sequence that he was filming just moments before. Some time later, Fulci suffers another flashback after glimpsing a gardener slicing up some logs with a chain saw. The flashback triggers a nervous breakdown that prompts the horror director to seek out the help of a local psychiatrist by the name of Professor Egon Swharz (played by David L. Thompson). Swharz suggests that Fulci try hypnotism to aid with these terrifying flashbacks, but as it turns out, Swharz has a much more sinister plot in store for Fulci. Swharz plans on committing a number of heinous murders and using the hypnosis to trick Fulci into thinking he committed the murders, pushing the already fragile director to brink of madness.
With Cat in the Brain, Fulci is fiercely aware of his fan base, composing a grand old opera of sex, violence, and depravity almost exclusively for them. It also finds the director recognizing the fact that he wasn’t exactly held in high regard in many circles, as he was often attacked for the exploitative nature of his horror films. In response to the criticism, Fulci conjures up a tidal wave of carnage that features chain saw mutilation, beheadings, cannibalism, melting faces, surging guts, a cat gnawing away at a brain, and various other segments of bloodshed that will have his devout fans floating on cloud nine and his harshest critics groaning is disgust. While there are various points of Cat in the Brain that send a chill or two (a certain graveyard sequence comes to mind), the endless barrage of grindhouse violence seems to be Fulci’s way of taunting his critics—looking them square in the eye and saying, “You thought my pervious work was vicious? Well, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!” Of course, his response comes off as light-hearted and comical, as he presents himself in the opening credits as a perverse mad scientist hunched over a pad, conjuring up various death scenes to use in future movies. This transitions into a close up of a cheesy-looking cat devouring Fulci’s glistening brain matter, a ravenous and cartoonish madness that just can’t be tamed.
Then we have Fulci’s sympathetic performance as himself, a role he seems to take great pleasure in playing. In between his bouts of insanity, Fulci portrays himself as a nice guy who is just doing his job. To his friends and neighbors, he is simply that guy who makes those horror movies, yet everyone seems to have a general fondness and respect for the artist. When that cat starts hissing and clawing around upstairs, Fulci really gets to have fun with people’s perception of him. When directing a Nazi orgy, he presents himself in a misty medium shot as he manically whispers orders to his bare-naked cast members. Other times, he is stricken with disgust over the visions he suffers from, clutching at his heart like he is fending off a sudden heart attack. The stand out scene comes when he wanders around a friend’s house in terror, gasping at visions of the friend’s family members getting chopped, stabbed, sliced, and diced like a couple of Thanksgiving turkeys. (This sequence also appears to feature a bloody tribute to the shower sequence in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho) The puppeteer behind Fulci’s madness is David L. Thompson’s Professor Swharz, a grinning madman who hypnotizes the poor director into thinking he is on a killing spree. Thompson is surprisingly creepy in the villainous role, a sadistic psychiatrist who uses other people’s demons to his advantage. One thing is certain; Fulci doesn’t think much of shrinks.
While Cat in the Brain’s self-reflexive structure seems a bit disjointed and slightly puzzling in places (Would you expect anything less from the “Godfather of Gore?”), Fulci still manages to produce a final product that effectively blurs the lines between what is a hallucination and what is real. This makes Cat in the Brain seem like a playful horror exercise, one that simultaneously toys with the viewer like a ball of yarn, while advising other horror directors who may have suffered light trauma from their violent work to opt for a sunny vacation with a pretty girl over a trip to the dreaded psychiatrist’s office. Another admirable aspect is the fact that Cat in the Brain is able to overcome the trap of acting as a highlight reel. It actually takes on an identity all its own, as Fulci meshes the gooey clips seamlessly with his freshly shot footage. Overall, Cat in the Brain is far from Lucio Fulci’s best work, but as a late-career effort from a man who was past his glory days and grappling with deteriorating health, it’s something of a high point. This is a delightfully deranged and darkly hilarious horror rendition of Federico Fellini’s celebrated art-house classic 8 ½, with an overflowing ladle of sex and sleaze drizzled on for extra zing.
Cat in the Brain (aka Nightmare Concert) is available on DVD.
Cannibal Ferox (1981)
by Steve Habrat
Among the many subgenres that make up the exploitation catalogue of the mid-1970s and ‘80s, the most ferocious and merciless is undoubtedly the cannibal films that first emerged in 1972. Started by Italian splatter director Umberto Lenzi with his film il Paese del Sesso Selvaggio (The Man from Deep River), the jungle cannibal movement hit a barf bag high with director Ruggero Deodato’s infamous 1980 bloodbath Cannibal Holocaust, easily the most stomach churning of the bunch with its traumatizing sequences of violence, sex, and animal cruelty, all laid out in plain view to make you recoil in disgust. From the dingy grindhouses on 42nd Street to the uproar it caused in Milan, Cannibal Holocaust was a major hit with audiences, prompting Lenzi—the director who started it all—to respond in 1981 with Cannibal Ferox, an equally repulsive but tremendously cheesy venture into the jungles of the Amazon. Released into American grindhouses and drive-ins under the menacing title Make Them Die Slowly, Cannibal Ferox will certainly have audience members with weak tummies burping back their lunch over the extreme special effects, but like most Italian exploitation films of the time, the film is brimming with goofy dubbing, mild overacting, eye-rolling dialogue, and a trumpeting score that only adds chills when it shifts over to a moaning electric guitar. It’s a gross out that you just can’t stop chuckling at.
Cannibal Ferox begins on the mean streets of New York City, with a drug addict looking for a heroine dealer named Mike Logan (played by Giovanni Lombardo Radice). Upon arriving at Mike’s apartment, the buyer bumps into two mobsters who demand to know where Mike is. As it turns out, Mike owes the mobsters $100,000 dollars, but has apparently high-tailed it out of town to avoid paying up. Meanwhile, anthropologist Gloria (played by Lorraine De Selle), her brother, Rudy (played by Danilo Mattei), and their free-spirited friend, Pat (played by Zora Kerova), arrive in the Amazon jungles to prove Gloria’s theory that cannibalism is a hoax. Shortly into their adventure, the trio bumps into Mike and his severely wounded partner, Joe (played by Walter Lucchini). Mike and Joe frantically explain that they were attacked by a cannibalistic tribe and that a third member of their party had gruesomely perished in a nearby village. The group eventually stumbles upon the village where the third member of Mike and Joe’s group met a grisly end, but the village now seems largely deserted, with only the elderly remaining. The group decides that they will camp out in the village until they can get help for Joe, but after Mike and Pat attack and kill a young native girl, the younger villagers return to exact horrific revenge.
When Cannibal Ferox first arrived in America, the posters and VHS jackets proudly declared that it was banned in 31 countries due to the extreme violence within the film—something that was sure to stir up some hype and lure viewers into the dilapidated theaters that dared to show it. Furthermore, swapping the title Cannibal Ferox for the more lurid Make Them Die Slowly also added another layer of icky intrigue. While time hasn’t exactly been kind to some of the ultra-violent Italian exploitation films from the ‘70s and ‘80s, the special effects of Cannibal Ferox haven’t softened up in the slightest. For those with the an iron stomach, the film treats to you to two castrations, a gouged-out eyeball, one character having hooks shoved through her breasts and then strung up to bleed to death, a group of natives slicing into the chest of one fallen character and chowing down on his innards, and another character having the top of his head sliced off with a machete and the villagers lining up to grab at handful of his brains like they were picking from a bucket of popcorn. For fans of the cannibal genre, it delivers, but when held up to the unflinching “found footage” approach that Deodato took to Cannibal Holocaust, it pales in comparison. Yet Cannibal Ferox gets an extra bump due to the real animal slayings that are guaranteed to upset the uninitiated. Determined to match Cannibal Holocaust every step of the way, Lenzi goes berserk with the animal cruelty to the point of disturbing even the most hardened of exploitation viewers.
And then we have the performances, led by genre regular Giovanni Lombardo Radice (Cannibal Apocalypse, City of the Living Dead), billed here under the name John Morghen. Radice brings some of the same screw-loose intensity that he brought to Cannibal Apocalypse. Here he is a greedy, coked-up madman who seduces Pat with powder, and gets his jollies from tormenting the natives. He’s a miserable piece of humanity meant to represent the savagery that brews and festers in bowels of civilized society. Radice is top-notch, even when his villainous side threatens to go over-the-top, but his downfall, which was out of his hands completely, comes from the atrocious dubbing and dialogue added in postproduction. As Joe, Mike’s wounded partner, Lucchini is surprisingly reserved when propped up next to the insane drug dealer. His compassionate side bleeds through when he witnesses Mike’s true savagery emerge in the most appalling way imaginable, making him a sympathetic character consumed by Mike’s personal demons. Kerova’s Pat is largely asked to run around with her shirt open and add a bit of sex appeal to this mud and blood show. Yet there is something fascinating about watching her get sucked in momentarily to Mike’s uncontrollable rage, and the results of her flirtation with the dark side have grave consequences. Mattei is slightly stiff as Rudy, the good guy who tries desperately to make a break for it and save his friends. De Selle overacts her role as Gloria, the anthropologist determined to prove that cannibalism doesn’t exist. Wait for her hilarious plea with a native savior gruesomely impaled on a wicked-looking jungle trap.
Like most grindhouse knock-offs made to capitalize on another film’s popularity, there are aspects of Cannibal Ferox that are glaringly cheap or unintentionally hilarious. On the whole, Cannibal Ferox lacks the realistic polish of Cannibal Holocaust, seemingly made in a hurry so that Lenzi could claim the cannibal movie throne from Deodato. The score from Roberto Donati and Fiamma Maglione is nice and sleazy, opening with a smile-inducing siege of funky trumpets and slapping urban jazz as Lenzi’s camera spirals around the concrete jungle of New York City. It’s definitely something you wouldn’t expect to hear in a film like this, and it certainly never matches the eerily calm and dreamy synthesizers that the late Riz Ortolani used to set the scenic stage for Cannibal Holocaust. Things fare a bit better in the score department when we step off the beaten path and venture deep into the jungle. It is here that we get static guitars that effective make your arm hair stand on end. And then there is the dubbing and dialogue, both of which keep earning their share of unintentional laughs over the ninety-minute runtime. Overall, while it provides plenty of sleazy thrills for horror and exploitation fanatics, and it thoughtfully reflects on how the depraved actions of one can have devastating penalties on so many others, Cannibal Ferox spends way too much time mimicking the far better Cannibal Holocaust. You’re left wishing that Lenzi, the godfather of the jungle cannibal movies, had taken a few artistic risks to further the genre along.
Cannibal Ferox (aka Make Them Die Slowly) is available on DVD.
by Steve Habrat
In the 1980s, the horror genre was besieged by an array of drive-in and grindhouse slasher movies. Among the numbers were hockey-mask clad madmen, scarred dream-world psychopaths, and slumber party massacres, but the bad boy of them all had to be 1982’s Spanish bloodbath Pieces. Directed by Juan Piquer Simón, Pieces is one of the most savage and downright hilarious slasher movies from the movement—one made all the more likable through its flaws in logic and it’s seemingly insatiable bloodlust. Boasting the gruesome taglines, “It’s exactly what you think it is” and “You don’t have to go to Texas for a chainsaw massacre,” Pieces goes for the jugular vein with its violence, never cutting away from the skin-shredding brutality and chainsaw carnage that fills the screen. It’s a treat for those who absolutely adore their exploitation films with geysers of gore and an abundance of topless babes sprinting around as a chainsaw growls just inches behind them. While it may not be nearly as terrifying as Tobe Hooper’s 1974 masterpiece The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Pieces is a extravagant effort that continues to win over cult horror buffs with its ominous synthesizer score, fluid attack sequences, cheese-filled dubbing, and shriek-inducing climax that leaves your jaw cemented to the floor.
Pieces picks up in 1942, with a young boy named Timmy assembling a puzzle of a nude pin-up girl. As he quietly and harmlessly snaps the pieces together, his mother walks in and erupts in anger at the boy, threatening to burn the filth Timmy is playing with. In retaliation, Timmy grabs an axe and proceeds to gruesomely hack his fuming mommy up into bloody bits. The police and a concerned neighbor soon show up on the scene and find the seemingly terrified and innocent Timmy hiding in the closet. Many years later, a bloodthirsty madman is running loose on a college campus in Boston. As the body count rises and the campus shudders in fear, a hardboiled police lieutenant, Bracken (played by Christopher George), partners with an enthusiastic college student, Kendall James (played by Ian Sera), and a beautiful undercover agent, Mary Riggs (played by Lynda Day), who is on campus posing as a tennis star, to identify the murderer before more bodies turn up. As the group investigates the horrific crime scenes, they discover that the shadowy killer is claiming various severed limbs from his victims and assembling a macabre work of art.
As unintentionally hilarious as Pieces may be, much of the film’s appeal is drawn from the rivers off blood and gore that flow forth from the screen. About as exploitative as you can get, Pieces contains unflinching violence that is off the charts—opening with a hair-raising attack with an axe, and following it up with a nasty beheading, a very messy pool encounter, a simultaneously goofy and savage attack in an elevator, a waterbed stabbathon that splashes blood all over the audience, and a topless chase that culminates with a chainsaw tearing a poor girl in two right after she wets herself out of fear (According to some members of the cast and crew, the poor actress actually did urinate due to a real chainsaw being shoved into her face. Simon must have loved the hell out of reaction, as he left the girl’s accident in the film). To give the film an extra gross-out edge, Simón instructed his crew to use pig carcasses for specific scenes, adding a blunt-force realism to the up-close-and-personal shot of a buzzing chainsaw separating a girl’s lower half from her top half. While much of this carnage is stomach churning, overblown, and about as gratuitous as you can get, the real shock comes in the final moments of the film, when Simón effectively reveals what our silhouetted antagonist has been up to with those body parts he has been claiming. The surprise won’t be revealed here, but it’s a stitched-up science project/warped work of art that acts as the cherry on top of this strawberry sundae. And just when your heart slows to a normal rate, Simón springs one more surprise that is gloriously out of left field, vaguely channeling the final supernatural minutes of 1980’s Friday the 13th.
And then we have the performances, all of which are extremely over the top, made even more ridiculous through the ham-fisted dubbing that Simón applied in post-production. Ian Sera is fine enough as our curly-haired hero, Kendall, who gets involved with the case after one of his gal pals bites the dust. He develops a fast friendship with Lt. Bracken, who practically makes him an honorary police officer in seconds, and a far-fetched relationship with Lynda Day’s Mary, the gorgeous undercover agent who struts around campus as a tennis pro. Much of Day’s performance relies on her good looks, but her unforgettable “bastard!” moment is pure cheese you can’t help but chuckle at. Together, they dash from crime scene to crime scene, as squeamish cops recoil is disgust and vomit all over their shoes. Christopher George ultimately blends in with the woodwork as Lt. Bracker, the veteran cop that is always one step behind the killer. Hulking actor Paul L. Smith stops by as Willard, the suspicious groundskeeper who pummels a room full of cops and grins maniacally to himself as he cleans the chain of his chainsaw. Another shady cast member is Edmund Purdom, who is present as the campus dean, an oily suspect in the morbid case.
While Pieces aims at being a nauseating slice of terror, this little exploitation gem works much better as a sleazy little laugh riot. The synthesizer score sets the spooky stage nicely in the opening credits, but that gritty sense of unease is quickly sacked by a skateboarding chick smashing into a mirror, a leering glimpse at a aerobics/dance class set to a pure 80s robotic tune, the killer attempting to “conceal” his chainsaw on a cramped elevator, and Day’s nighttime encounter with a wandering kung-fu instructor who ate some “bad chop suey.” And then there is the bottomless pit of female nudity, which is certain to keep male eyeballs ogling at the screen. Any chance that Simón gets, he’s coaxing his female victims to shed their tops as they run for their lives from the figure pursuing them. Overall, the horror may be scarce, portions of it may not make a lick of sense, and the performances are borderline embarrassing, but cult fanatics and exploitation aficionados are guaranteed to adore Pieces simply because it is a 90-minute orgy of excess. This is one of the sickest and most fun grindhouse movies around.
Pieces is available on DVD.