The Italian Exploitation Invasion: Sex and Death, 1969-2012

The bulk of Italian cinema is generally recognized by the average American viewer as little more than a number of classic neorealism features. Maybe a mafia movie made by a U.S. filmmaker of Italian descent. And the occasional film by that guy who paved the way for a classic Tom Cruise interview by going berserk and climbing over (and atop) seats at the Oscars that one time. But for the cult/trash film enthusiast, Italy is perhaps the best known supplier of gory guilty pleasures, sinfully sultry sleazefests, and some of the most rockin’ (or at least completely funky and groovy) soundtracks ever made. In fact, many contemporary American filmmakers owe much of their success to the Italians, and a few have even been so bold as to actually acknowledge the influence their films have had on them.

Having “discovered” the work and art of Mario Bava and Dario Argento during my impressionable teenage years – wherein sex and death weighed heavily on my mind – I have grown quite fond of Italy’s generalized filmic output. So much so that it is always a delight to see many of my old favorites – as well as completely unknown (to me) titles – being given new life on home video as I grow a wee bit older, wherein I’m happy to say I don’t think about death so much anymore. Except on Friday nights when all the college kids are out partying. Recently, a barrage of motion picture entertainment originally hailing from the same country that gave us Ornella Muti and great shoes wound up invading my stack of review items; movies that are variable in their content, but which all share a similar theme: exploitation.

We begin with what is undoubtedly the “classiest” act out of the lot: Scacco alla Regina, better known to English-speaking audiences as The Slave. Made in 1969, The Slave exhibits every single great European aspect of the time, from psychedelic music (courtesy Piero Piccioni) and imagery to beautiful mod fashions and hairstyles to the world of experimental sexuality. At the helm of this magnificent drama is director Pasquale Festa Campanile (the same man who brought us erotic comedies such as When Women Had Tails, The Sex Machine, and The Libertine, as well as the psycho road trip endeavor Hitch Hike), who maneuvers his exploitative exploratory craft with the greatest of ease and in as tasteful of a sleazy manner as possible.

Rosanna Schiaffino stars here as a rich spoiled model/actress who enjoys being the boss of her household and, more importantly, her staff. But it isn’t until a well-off Silvia (Haydée Politoff, Count Dracula’s Great Love herself) asks for a job that things begin to shift a bit. For you see, Silvia is not in need of work; she actually has everything one could want. Except, that is, for some sort of purpose. She’s bored, and her recurring acid trip-like fantasies of being dominated and humiliated by a group of eccentrics may just be closer to fulfillment than she ever dreamed possible as her new mistress ups the ante of their work relationship to a master/slave situation. Normally, films about bondage and sadism don’t hold much interest for me. But in the case of The Slave, I see a beautiful artistic side to the subject matter; something only a few filmmakers from the ’60s (also see: Radley Metzger) could pull off. It’s a title I heartily recommend for artsy film lovers as well as those of us who just like their movies a little on the wild side.

The folks at Mondo Macabro appease the subdued subs and masters in all of us here with a fine Blu-ray/DVD Combo release of this underrated European gem, which presents the film in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio with a gorgeous transfer. Apparently the film was never dubbed into English (shocker), so we only have the original Italian audio track, which is accompanied by non-removable English subs (heh) that look like basic .srt format captions. Special features include two interviews with critic Roberto Curti and fan/historian Justin Harries, bios for the film and its cast and crew (including low-res trailers for select folks’ other works), and a lengthy compilation of the many bizarre oddities Mondo Macabro has to visually whip you with (and which make The Slave look so much tamer than it already is by today’s standards by comparison).

Indeed, The Slave is a produce of an entirely different era, clocking in around the same time as the giallo genre, which really made its impact on film during the ’70s. But when the giallo began to lose its steam in the ’80s, Italian filmmakers moved onto that which today’s generation of cult movie lovers enjoy perhaps the most: horror. And there is perhaps no better example of just how on top of the world Italy was at this particular point in time than the 1985 splatter and slime epic Demons. Crafted by some of the then-reigning kings of horror such as Dario Argento and Lamberto Bava (Mario’s son) themselves, this balls-to-the-wall ride finds a group of people being invited to a special premiere at a new, mysterious Berlin movie theater. It’s a horror movie, of course, but one that actually comes to life once the film’s demonic presence starts to spread out to its horrified audience.

The auditorium’s many patrons quickly begin to regret accepting that free pass as everyone from total strangers to their own family members start morphing into murderous creatures. The terror mounts when they discover that the very doors of the cinema have been inexplicably cemented up since their admission – and the survivors must figure out a way to escape the confines of the cinema. Urbano Barberini (who later wound up as one of Daniel Craig’s tournament opponents in Casino Royale) is one of the determined unfortunates, while cult favorites Bobby Rhodes and Geretta Geretta say to hell with stereotypes and bring to life the most memorable pimp and prostitute ever committed to film. A magnificent assortment of ’80s rock tunes including Billy Idol, Mötley Crüe, Rick Springfield and Saxon blast away throughout the gory fun, which is highlighted by a group of cocaine-snorting punks and a completely out-of-left-field climax that features one of cinema’s best deus ex machina moments.

Truly, Demons is an all-time favorite. I have probably seen it more times than most other horror films from the period, and adore its sheer insanity to the hilt. Alas, the sun can’t shine on the same dog’s ass every day (or something like that), and when the same filmmakers returned to helm Demons 2 (1986), the results weren’t nearly as entertaining – even if Bobby Rhodes did return as a completely different but just as outrageous character and Dario’s internationally famous daughter Asia made her film debut. This time, the action is set in a highrise apartment complex. While most of the tenants party it up to the sounds of The Smiths, The Cult, Dead Can Dance, Love and Rockets, and Gene Loves Jezebel (another good soundtrack, though not as killer as the first), a TV premiere of a special about demons results in an actual demon emerging from the analog tube set (one of the film’s best moments).

From thereon in, Demons 2 tries its best to live up to the first film, even downright copying it at times. It may be hard for the non-Italian horror movie-savvy individual to fathom a movie about hellish forces spawning from forms of motion media being not as good as it could be, but it definitely happens here. It’s still a good bit of bloody fun, though. Synapse Films originally released both movies on Blu-ray as highly collectible special limited editions in 2013, and now return to make cities our tombs once more with movie-only versions available on Blu-ray and DVD with equally-beautiful transfers. The discs present the new (improved) color transfers Synapse painstakingly supervised as well as the original trailer for each title. Demons also sports the coveted alternate English audio soundtrack produced by Ascot Films in the ’80s for the US theatrical release (wherein the late great Nick Alexander redubbed several voices).

Two years after the release of Demons, a lesser-known Italian director by the name of Mario Gariazzo – who had dabbled in just about every genre of exploitation film possible during his thirty year career as a director (his Close Encounters-inspired UFO tale The Eyes Behind the Stars is a rather creepy favorite of yours truly) – wrote and directed a minor sex thriller entitled L’attrazione. The 1987 Italian equivalent of the type of late night TV fare certain cable networks would later capitalize on in America, recently released to DVD here with the silly moniker Top Model, the filmstars French beauty Florence Guérin as a fashion photographer who, as the story opens, is taken from behind by an unknown friendly (?) stranger in a private train cabin.

But as to whether or not this encounter was fantasy or reality is something Mario bello feel no need to immediately reveal. Instead, Ms. Guérin travels to the palatial home of a rich businessman (Marino Masé, the hilarious cop from Luigi Cozzi’s epic Alien cash-in, Contamination), where she requests the wealthy man and his wife (Martine Brochard) permit her to host a photo shoot for attractive young women (including Geretta Geretta) in their underwear (and less). Needless to say, our benefactor agrees immediately, but asks the photographer to stay behind when the deed is done to engage in another deed: a game of chess, wherein for each capture, the loser of said loss is required to perform an act for the other. Heck, had I been given the opportunity to play this particular system of the game, I would be headlining in my own demented production of Chess by now!

Alas, in this instance, there’s much more afoot than anyone wants to let us in on. And while some of the film’s ideas of sensuality would be wholly out of place even in a hardcore variant of The Slave (Marino takes a clay molds of Florence’s breast and promptly pours champagne into it!) the twists and turns of this erotic thriller sometimes seem too forced or too foreseeable, the endgame [ta-dum] does offer up a fun play. Plus, we get to see Ms. Guérin shed all of her clothing on a regular basis (all of the glorious minge benefits included; sorry folks, but I think pubic hair is sexy). One 7 Movies brings us an English subtitled version of this rarely seen good for at least one potential masturbatory viewing title with no special features and a heavily Photoshopped menu of our lead actress. The print is obviously from a video source, but it’s pretty good overall.

Once the 1990s rolled around, cinema found itself changing the world over. In America, we took the liberty of remaking foreign movies and producing numerous adaptations of literary legal/political/fantasy thrillers en masse. Meanwhile, in Italy, the film industry began to wane considerably. Filmmakers like Dario Argento continued to find work, though the work they yielded was of a significantly lesser quality from every aspect. Another individual whose creativity diminished was an artiste whom many will argue never had a lick of talent to begin with. The late Bruno Mattei built a career during the ’80s making cheap rip-offs of more popular (usually American) movies, usually with his frequent producer/collaborator, Claudio (Troll 2) Fragasso. As time marched on, Bruno’s projects had become even cheaper – to the point where they were almost unbearable.

And two excellent examples of his latter-day copyright infringers are represented here with Mondo Cannibal and In the Land of the Cannibals, both of which were filmed in 2003. These two very very late entries to the classic Italian cannibal movies – a subgenre that is perhaps best known for controversial offerings like Cannibal Holocaust and Cannibal Ferox – were shot back-to-back in the Philippines with much of the same cast and crew (story goes they only set out to make one film, but were rushing through so fast they figured “Aw, what the heck!”). In fact, Bruno’s apparent attempt at an uncalled-for resurgence of movies that have outraged people for decades on account of their graphic nature and actual on-screen animal cruelty blatantly rips off those very movies the taboo category is known for.

Reportedly, these films were produced for the Japanese home video market. If this were true, it would account for Mattei’s returning to the unnecessary usage of animal cruelty. As for the gory goods, however, the impossibly low budgets of these two truly terrible movies can’t hold a candle to their predecessors. In fact, Cannibal Holocaust itself would come be a serious contender for an Oscar with our very snobbish Academy were it to appear alongside of these god awful flicks. I am an adamant fan of Bruno’s earlier work, back from the days of partial budgets and movies actually being shot on film, but the miserable production values on these are comparable to late ’90s Italian soap operas. Indeed, these shot-on-video atrocities represent a genuine nadir of Italian exploitation filmmaking. And that’ssaying something.

Laced with some of the worst acting ever (if WWE performers were to star in a Joe D’Amato XXX-rated historical epic, it would seem like Laurence Olivier in Shakespeare compared to this), well-worn prop guns and plastic clubs, scenes and chunks of dialogue stolen wholesale from other movies (really Bruno, you had to rip-off Predator…again?), and English dubbing (overseen by the late great Ted Rusoff, amazingly enough) that not only casts would-be voice actors who know not where to place an emphasis but dares you to listen – just as the movies themselves dare you to watch them – Mondo Cannibal and In the Land of the Cannibals are two examples of trashy Italian cinema that are best left unseen. They honestly have nothing to offer; even moments we would have laughed ourselves silly over in a movie from ten years before are just plain painful to observe here. Heck, even the nudity is a letdown.

Mondo Cannibal and In the Land of the Cannibals are now available on home video in the USA from Intervision Picture Corp. Both titles are presented in their original 1.33:1 SOV presentations complete with their illiterate English credits (wherein Bruno Mattei hides behind the aliases of Martin Miller or his regular nom de plume, Vincent Dawn) and badly dubbed audio tracks. Trailers are included for both features. I should point out that In the Land of the Cannibals appears to be edited in several scenes, though most of Mattei’s final films could be cut out of existence altogether for all I care (although I am secretly, masochistically hoping his last two zombie movies will show up stateside, too).

Moving back to the much more pleasurable subject of sex, we find ourselves in the very capable hands of Italy’s most prolific cigar-chewing female buttock aficionado, Tinto Brass. Best known in America for the man who set out to make the Penthouse version of Caligula an epic erotic classic before Bob Guccione decided to make it into a sleazy porn flick (the end result being what we all know and usually hate the film for today), Brass is a staunch believer in the words of Sir Mix-a-Lot. He likes big butts and he cannot lie – and Cult Epics’ Blu-ray set Tinto Brass: Maestro of Erotica Cinema presents four of the director’s latter-day works: Cheeky! (Trasgredire, 2000), Black Angel (Senso ’45, 2002), Private (Fallo, 2003), and Monamour (2006).

Staying true to his oft-quoted saying, “Pornography is there to give you an erection. Erotica is there to give you emotions”, this peek into the Brass section of Italy’s orchestra of filmmakers offers up such unlikely plots as a fascist officer’s unhappy wife’s affair with an SS officer during World War II (Black Angel) to an anthology piece of assorted odds and (ahem) ends in Private, this 4 Blu-ray repackaging of previously-released titles also includes alternate English audio options on three of the feature films and their own amount of special features, plus the set includes a bonus documentary on DVD. In fact, the set – much like the assets of Tinto’s leading actresses themselves – is such a tight fit that the included slipcover is the only way to close the damn thing, as the larger-than-average Blu-ray snapcase Cult Epics have firmly packed everything in isn’t quite enough!

Lastly in this line-up we set our sights on one of the newest films I’ve seen from Italy in a long time. After seeing the type of tripe the likes of Argento have made in recent years (his god awful Mother of Tears instantly comes to mind) since the fall of the country’s filmmaking ventures, I began to think it was a lost cause. But having sat through Crazy Dog (Canepazzo), a 2012 film from independent filmmaker David Petrucci, I have to wonder if all hope truly is lost. While he is still a bit wet behind the ears, Petrucci exhibits signs of being the type of guy who could go back in time to the ’70s and become a big hit. With proper training and a time machine, of course.

In the instance of Crazy Dog, Petrucci delivers an entertaining (if highly predictable) thriller. Marco (Gian Marco Tavani) was only a young boy when the notorious serial killer Cane Pazzo took his father’s life in 1983. Now a grown man with too many unanswered questions, Marco seeks out retired criminologist Chinna (Marco Bonetti) who initially put all the pieces together when the elusive murderer finally ended it all after a long, drawn-out crimespree. Via anachronistic flashbacks, Chinna tells Marco about a young reporter (admirably played by the relatively new actor Giuseppe Schisano) who also let his burning inquiries get the better of him, and who wound up teetering on the edge of madness as a result of his determination to discover the identity of the man they called Cane Pazzo.

Reportedly inspired by a real life serial killer (though I have been unable to find any information on the subject, not that I guess it matters in this case), Crazy Dog features a cameo appearance by the previously mentioned Tinto Brass as well as the one and only Franco Nero (cinema’s first and only Django), both of whom are featured in flashback segments as victims of the madman. Sure, the film was undoubtedly inspired by 2007’s US hit Zodiac, but it’s not like this would be the first time the Italians took something the Americans made and went it from there (see: just about anything listed or referenced above). Another release by One 7 Movies, the Italian-language production is presented here in a good presentation with removable English subtitles, the original Italian trailer (which has no subtitles, weirdly enough), and a photo gallery.

And there you have it folks, a grand selection of Italian exploitation movies ready for your painful or pleasurable (sometimes both) viewing experiences. Enjoy.

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Luigi Bastardo

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