42nd Street Cinema

The Return of the Living Dead (1985)

"Send...more...paramedics" Greetings fiends, at last I have returned to the horror blogosphere. Choosing an aptly titled film to discuss, Dan O'Bannon's classic The Return of the Living Dead. I'm hoping there are people who occasionally check my little corner of the net and are still interested in reading my reviews.

Starring: Clu Gulager, James Karen, Don Calfa, Thom Mathews, Jewel Shepard and Linnea Quigley.

Zombies, everybody loves them. The Return of the Living Dead along with Night of the Creeps (1986) and Night of the Comet (1984) is perhaps one of the most fun-filled zombie flicks knocking around.

At the time of writing this review I discovered that although penned and directed by Dan O'Bannon, Return of the Living Dead was originally a book, written in 1977 by John Russo - the co-writer of Romero's seminal undead film Night of the Living Dead (1968). I haven't read the book but according to what I've looked at online, Russo's story wasn't followed and the film is a separate entity.

The plot outline is pretty straight-forward; two bumbling medical supply warehouse workers accidentally crack open a military canister containing a 'frozen' zombie and a chemical known as Trioxin. Located just across from the warehouse is a cemetery, needless to say the chemical makes it into the atmosphere and is rained down onto the nearby graves. The dead begin to rise and an unfortunate group of punk kids find themselves caught up in the ensuing madness.

In all honesty, it's unsurprising that this film gained such a cult following over the years. There are so many unforgettable scenes, hilarious characters and a killer punk-rock soundtrack to boot. I still remember watching this for the very first time when I was much younger and I never quite liked it as much as the Romero set of 'dead' films. However, after a repeated viewing it steadily grew on me and has become a favourite. Though it easily could have been Quigley's notorious graveyard strip scene that eventually swayed me.

I do think my initial dislike was down to the 'speed' of the zombies, petty, I know. It was probably my first exposure to 'fast' zombies and in retrospect, I think my younger self overlooked or simply misunderstood the 'splatstick' humour and just took ROTLD for a 'cheesy old movie'. Not realising how self-aware and tongue-in-cheek it actually is. Unlike the Romero canon, you cannot take this seriously and in all fairness to O'Bannon, he obviously wanted to distance himself from the former's work.

The level of comedic detail maintains the film's overall light-tone; ranging from obvious puns, such as the names given to both the medical supply warehouse 'Uneeda' and local cemetery 'Resurrection Cemetery', to the more subtle in-jokes hidden in the background. One of which can be seen while Frank and Freddy are in the warehouse office, if you look closely in the background there is a sight-test poster which reads "Burt is a slave driver and a cheap son of a bitch who is going bald too haha".

In contrast to this lighthearted tone, there are a handful dark and spooky scenes. One that has remained embedded in my memory is just after the paramedics have evaluated Frank and Freddy's condition, one of the medics climbs into the front of their ambulance, switches on the headlights and illuminates a horde of the living dead. The camera then sharply cuts to a side-view of the cab and before the paramedic has time to think, the passenger door is wrenched open and a zombie leaps in. This scene always manages to get under my skin. I'm not sure why, but it just gives me chills the moment the door is yanked open.

Another scene I picked up on after re-watching is when Ernie (Calfa) and Freddy's girlfriend Tina (Beverly Randolph) are hiding in the crawlspace above the mortuary from *SPOILERS SPOILERS* a now zombified Freddy. Calfa's character pulls out his gun and slowly aims it towards her head. His facial expression speaks volumes of fear, dread and disgust at what he is considering. Ultimately, the ending is considerably bleak too and not to mention a bit of an anticlimax.

I always quite liked the explanation Frank gives to Freddy about the origin of the canisters, notably the reference to NOTLD. As unlike films of today, which can make irritating references to other horror films simply for the sake of name dropping, à la Dead Snow/Død snø (2009), ROTLD manages to get away with linking itself to the Romero classic, without following any of it's traits - i.e. To kill the undead should be removing the head or destroying the brain, however that doesn't work here as the zombies in O'Bannon's picture are virtually unstoppable.

The Return of the Living Dead is a blast, with fantastic and memorable performances from each and every member of the cast. I think if I had to take my pick at who is my favourite character, it would be the short lived character of Suicide (Mark Venturini). His line to Trash (Quigley), "You think this is a fuckin' costume? This is a way of life." cracks me up every single time. His exaggerated line of "What the fuck?", upon discovering the zombie 'tarman' trying to break into a storage closet is an instant classic too and I'm quite surprised it hasn't been turned into an internet meme.

It would make a fantastic Halloween double-bill with Fred Dekker's Night of the Creeps or even something like the Stephen King / Romero collaboration Creepshow (1982).

New Blog To Check Out - "Pickled Cinema"

Hi guys, quick update regarding a new blog to hit the internet recently, run by long time friend and frequent collaborator, Nigel (Italian Film Review). His new blog is called Pickled Cinema, since exhausting the best of Italian cinema has to offer, Nigel is now writing about films from all over the planet, including Euro-cult, Asian and American horror/exploitation.

Check it out at http://pickledcinema.blogspot.com/ and be sure to add it to your blog-roll!

Apologies for the absence. I, myself, will hopefully return with reviews for you in the near future...

The Grapes of Death (1978)

Revisiting the comfort of 70s Euro horror, I've chosen to talk a little bit about Jean Rollin's The Grapes of Death/Les Raisins de la Mort.

Starring: Marie-Georges Pascal, Félix Marten, Serge Marquand, Mirella Rancelot and Brigitte Lahaie.

The Grapes of Death sits somewhere in between Romero's The Crazies (1973) and Jorge Grau's Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (1974), in as much as...The 'zombies' in Rollin's picture are more akin to the infected citizens of The Crazies, when compared to other shuffling-undead movies.
Grapes also shares a similar social commentary based narrative, found in both of the aforementioned films, although given the pesticide contagion, is a tad closer to Grau's work.

The dreary autumnal landscape and scenery is also reminiscent to that found in Dawn of the Dead (1978) or Fulci's The House by the Cemetery (1981). Personally, I quite like the change in seasons being used to reflect death in horror cinema, visually conveying a greater sense of sadness or depression and acting as a cold reminder that death, is quite literally surrounding the surviving group of protagonists.

The story is centred around Elisabeth (Pascal), a young lady who is traveling by train to see her fiancé. However, on her way there, her friend is murdered by a madman, who's face is covered with pus-spewing abscesses. In a blind panic, Elisabeth flees the train for the countryside, to try and find her way home, unfortunately for her, she discovers that the countryside has become overrun with people baring facial sores and homicidal tendencies.

Grapes' narrative possesses a dreamlike quality, a trait prominently found in 70s Euro horror, mainly due to the the randomness in which the events unfold. From the moment Elisabeth is first attacked on the train and escapes into the sprawling French countryside, the events that follow are unravelled in such a fashion that it borders on sheer insanity.

Rollin effectively creates an intense and oppressive atmosphere throughout The Grapes of Death, as Elisabeth and her 2 male cohorts are relentlessly and mercilessly pursued by hordes of the infected and to be honest, there is a lot to love about this film. What it lacks in the dialogue department is vastly made up in the visuals, it is a beautifully shot film that is home to many memorable and fiendishly twisted scenes. Including the cruel fate of poor blind Lucie (Rancelot) at the hands of her once loving carer.

In my opinion this is what Euro-horror is all about.

Papaya: Love Goddess of the Cannibals (1978)

As I find myself growing tired of the wintery climate, I'm taking a short trip to the tropics with Joe D'Amato's Papaya: Love Goddess of the Cannibals/Papaya dei Caraibi.

Starring: Sirpa Lane, Melissa Chimenti, Maurice Poli and Dakar.

By now, anyone reading this blog should already know I have a penchant for the films of Joe D'Amato. Whether they be good, bad or downright obscure, I'm bound to find some perverse enjoyment in his work and perhaps dear reader, you do too.

But, if you came here expecting a gore drenched shocker along the lines of Ruggero Deodato's Last Cannibal World/Ultimo mondo cannibale (1977), prepare yourself for a little disappointment. As Papaya is more akin to the steamy softcore romps found in D'Amato's Emanuelle film series.

The narrative of Papaya is somewhat more environmentally conscious when compared to other cannibal-related films, similar to Bruno Mattei's Zombie Creeping Flesh/Virus (1980), it deals with the exploitation of the Third World. Though, this plot device becomes largely forgotten about in true D'Amato style by the unnecessary scenes of nudity and/or accompanying violence. Although, in this instance the latter is severely lacking, save for the gratuitous pig gutting and Voodoo sacrifice sequences. I would assume that this film got marketed as a cannibal film purely to piggy back on the success of the then-recently emerging 'cannibal-boom', since the it only has roughly 2 scenes of actual cannibalism.

The film hauls itself along at a snail's pace, further padded out by unnecessary dialogue between Lane and Poli. In fairness to D'Amato, his background work as a cinematographer shines throughout, scenes are perfectly framed and the camera work is crisp.
He succeeds in creating a moody atmosphere, specifically in a scene wherein Lane and Poli stumble upon a seemingly deserted shantytown, as the couple investigate further, a horse-drawn carriage passes them by, missing its human occupant. A scene which might actually hold weight in a straight laced horror film, is in this instance, simply overlooked.

Perhaps the only saving grave is Melissa Chimenti's portrayal of Papaya, the seductive Island beauty. As she appears to be the only character in the entire film who has...character. Sirpa Lane, most well known for her scandalous performance in Walerian Borowocyzk's The Beast/La bête (1975), holds a persistently perplexed expression in almost every scene and Maurice Poli remains smug and nonchalant throughout, even during the film's sex scenes.

I think most genre fans yet to see this will be let down by it, but if you like me, are willing to endure a D'Amato picture, I would assume you already know what you're in for.

1 Star

Christmas Evil (1980)

Seasons greetings, time to get festive with a yuletide slasher. My choice for this year is Lewis Jackson's Christmas Evil, also known as You Better Watch Out, which I personally believe to be a better fitting title.

Starring: Brandon Maggart, Jeffrey DeMunn, Dianne Hull, Andy Fenwick, Brian Neville and Joe Jamrog.

The idea of a 'killer Santa' verges on sheer ridiculousness, Christmas Evil, however remains somewhat serious, except for a few campy lines of dialogue, the bulk of the picture is quite a chilling tale of psychopathy and helplessness.

The story is essentially about a lonely chap named Harry Stadling (Maggart), who's completely obsessed with Christmas and the concept of Santa Claus.
As in almost all instances of slasher films, the antagonist generally suffers from one form or another of childhood trauma and Christmas Evil is certainly no exception.
In the opening minutes of the film Harry's backstory is unveiled, as we see a mother and her two sons watching Santa deliver presents to their home, unknown to the children it is really their father pretending. After they have both gone to bed, one of the two children, Harry, goes back downstairs and sees his father, still dressed up as Mr. Claus, engaging in some PG-13 romance with his mother. But, the scene is so tastefully shot that's conveyed more romantically than smutty or mentally damaging. Though, after what he has seen the young Harry retreats to his room, smashes a snow globe and deliberately cuts himself with a shard of the broken glass. Now, without being a qualified psychologist I find it questionable as to why anyone would be traumatized by such a thing.

The narrative then skips forward to a 'present day' Harry, unmarried and living alone in a small house. Incidentally, he works at Jolly Dream toy factory, where he is mocked and belittled by his colleagues, even though he holds a higher position than them. Director Lewis Jackson is wastes no time establishing Harry's mental condition, when he's shown to be scrutinizing the children of his neighborhood, before writing down the names of who's been naughty and who's been nice in specifically marked books.
As Christmas draws nearer Harry's mental state steadily declines, at first it begins quite innocently as he glues a fake white beard to his face and dons a full Santa suit. However, things become more deranged when he begins breaking into people's houses...

Christmas Evil is a bit of an oddity, it's nowhere near as strong as Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984), but certainly holds a distinct charm. I believe that said charm is predicated wholly on the complexity of Harry's character. He's not a clean, glorified killer. Instead he appears to be an already disturbed individual, who's been pushed around too many times and has just 'lost it'.
He makes mistakes, including one humorous scene of him attempting to fit down a chimney. I'd go as far as comparing his character somewhat to the character of William Foster, portrayed by Michael Douglas in Falling Down (1994).

Yet, towards the end of the film I found Harry garnering quite an amount of sympathy from myself, I couldn't help but root for him to get revenge against his co-worker who took advantage of him.
A lot really has to be said for Brandon Maggart, as he carries most of the film on his own acting abilities. But, I feel that because of the film's slow pace and sparse killings and lack of gore, it may not appeal to newer/younger audiences.

2 Stars

The Sister of Ursula (1978)

Enzo Milioni's drawn-out giallo entry, The Sister of Ursula/La sorella di Ursula.

Starring: Barbara Magnolfi, Stefania D'Amario, Vanni Materassi, Marc Porel and Anna Zinnemann.

By the late 70s the giallo had undergone numerous transformations, from the depth of Bava's Blood and Black Lace/Sei donne per l'assassino (1964) to the stylishness of Argento's Animal Trilogy (1970-1972). The giallos that followed mainly focussed on pushing the levels of sex and violence through the roof and leaving the good story telling behind. Unfortunately The Sister of Ursula belongs in that latter group.

The plot is a fairly basic setup, beautiful sisters, Dagmar (D'Amario) and Ursula (Magnolfi) are residing at an extravagant hotel while searching for their estranged mother, incidentally at the same time a mysterious killer has begun to brutally slay promiscuous men and women in and around the hotels grounds.
Perhaps the only reason this film gets any attention is due to the killers lewd choice of weaponry, as aside from that and the beautiful scenery, The Sister of Ursula is a pretty forgettable giallo title.

The acting is more or less what one would expect, in terms of style and direction, it's somewhat basic and suffers from terrible pacing issues. Unlike other giallo films, the scenes of dialogue are overly protracted, which is more of a nuisance than a hook in this instance, as The Sister of Ursula is far from a 'smart' film. Overall, when compared to similar work of that era it really struggles to hold its ground.

I suppose that in all fairness, The Sister of Ursula works well as a sleazy erotic giallo and a bit of a disappointment.

2 Stars

Nightmare (1981)

Romano Scavolini's Nightmare. More formally known to us residing in the UK as, Nightmares In A Damaged Brain.

Starring: Baird Stafford, Sharon Smith, C.J. Cooke, Mik Cribben and Scott Praetorius.

Banned upon its initial VHS release amidst the Video Nasty scandal, Nightmare has had its fair share of censorship and controversy. A distributor was sentenced to 18 months in prison after refusal to edit 1 second worth of footage. Since then, Nightmare's home video releases since have been sporadic, including a number of US VHS tapes, which do feature an uncut print in terms of violence and gore, but are missing scenes of dialogue. The film also had no legitimate DVD release aside from a pre-cut version put out in 2005, in the UK.

The other major piece of controversy surrounding Nightmare is, as I'm sure you all know by now, the involvement of Tom Savini. His name is featured on both the film's poster and credits, there are also a number of production photographs featuring him. However since, Savini has publicly denied working on the film. One would have to speculate that Savini was purely on set to serve as a consultant to effects artist, Ed French and that, Scavolini and/or his producer used Savini's name on the poster and credits as a marketing ploy in order to sell the film.

The plot in Nightmare closely follows the story of a psychopath, à la Lustig's Maniac (1980), named George Tatum (Stafford), who is discharged from a mental hospital, after supposedly being cured through a 'major breakthrough in behaviour control'.

Thrust out onto the dirty streets of downtown Manhattan, George's mental health quickly relapses, feeling from New York to Florida. He begins to stalk single mother, Susan (Smith) and her 3 children. One of whom is growing up to be a little terror himself.

One thing I particularly liked about the character of George is how distanced he is from other slasher antagonists. He's not a remorseless indestructible monster, hacking and bludgeoning his way through promiscuous teenagers. But a man, haunted by the memory of murdering his parents. We also learn that George feels remorse and a confusing sexual gratification from his murderous acts.
The correlation between sex and violence in Nightmare is strong. From the get go, the whole reason as to why George is disturbed, is from witnessing his parents engaging in mild BDSM foreplay as a child. Mistakingly believing that his father was being harmed by his mother, the young George grabs an axe from the shed, beheads his mother, before quite literally 'burying the hatchet' in his fathers head.

Scavolini wraps up Nightmare with an ambiguous ending, neatly tying up one story strand and leaving another wide open. Without spoiling the whole plot, the ending allows the viewer to speculate the future of C.J.'s character.

Scavolini's Nightmare is by no means a standout slasher film, performances are adequate and from a stylistic standpoint, it's fairly basic. That said, there are some excellent and rather vicious murder sequences.
I believe Nightmare is surrounded by something of a mythos. In a sense that, it's become more written about than actually seen. However, much like Meir Zarchi's I Spit On Your Grave (1978), it possesses a memorable and scuzzy charm that's difficult to shake off.