It’s Italian Horror Week and I’m honored to be invited in for a piece of the brain pie here at DR. TERROR’S BLOG OF HORRORS! I hunted and picked and pecked through years of files to see what would fit in such a groovy 7 day topic, and then I realized something.
I love European Trash Cinema (thank you Craig Ledbetter). Italian Horror seems somewhat distant in my cinematic rear view mirror sometimes, though I’ve been enjoying the recent surge of re-issues on Blu Ray quite a bit. So, what to add? Then it hit me, Italian Horror is THE gateway to ETC! It was for me, thanks to the work of guys like Chas. Balun, who kindly gave me my first zine writing experience in Deep Red Alert writing about, what else, Lucio Fulci! It doesn’t get any more ITALIAN HORROR than that man’s filmography in my opinion. I’ve gone from the giants of Pasta Punishment to the smallest corners (I love Filmirage productions like Witchery) over the years and wanted to share what I found along the way. For years myself and group of friends, many of which were involved in the zines of the 80s / 90s, have chatted about a EUROPEAN TRASH CINEMA 101 book. Many of those would be Italian Horror films now that I think about it.
The Italians had a gusto that was tough to match. They hopped trends at times; they were daring and original at other turns. Exploitation met innovation and previous cycles such as giallo and even crime burrowed into the horror genre thanks to the directors that made many of the best loved horrors from Italy in the 90s.
So here we have a short series of lists that might give those looking for something new some signposts down the road. I went from seeking out Fulci films to leaping in triumph when finding later porn films featuring midgets in dildo helmets made by angry Italian directors when work dried up. THAT could be the result of your exploring the Italian horror genre! Or not.
Luckily for all of us, the diligent fandom of the 90s begat us an EXPLOSION of Italian terror when the DVD format first arrived, and though they have tapered off, it is still very easy to find many of the classics and watch as many minor masterworks are revealed month after month. Here are three starting steps, and I’m betting you may have seen a bunch of them. If you have then definitely proceed down the winding road to Freudstein’s Horror House and dig deeper. If not, you can find most of these at very inexpensive prices around the net. The lists will cover many subgenres that I think qualify as horror, which like anything else is a slippery slope. But what I have loved for many years about Italian horror films is that they are as fluid as the rich history of exploitation films from The Big Boot that came before them. So, let’s start simple. Each list will contain 9 films, because I hate top 10s. Also, they aren’t top lists at all, but films I think fit a nice progression down the rabbit hole to utter terror and ultimately a deeper appreciation of the thousands of trash films from around the world that await all of us. Because no matter how much I try, I’ll never exhaust my “GOTTAHAVEIT” lists.
Welcome to Italian Horror 101…and BEYOND!
Italian Horror 101 – 9 Tinglers to tickle your brainpan!
House By The Cemetery - To me, this is the ultimate ITALIAN HORROR FILM. It is weird and feels disjointed on first viewing. It smashes flesh and slings the guts all over the place, but also builds a weird atmosphere that has sucked me in for at least a dozen viewings over the years. Probably more. Dr. Freudstein is definitive MAD SCIENCE MONSTER and Lucio Fulci is playing with his full deck of talent in front of, and behind, the screen. Return to this film and each time you find a new corner to explore. It’s melancholy and maniacal. Bright and hideously dark with an ending that mixes a KILL ‘EM ALL mentality with a tiny bright spot of hope for the dead. It’s brilliant.
Suspiria – Dario Argento. Straight ahead horror. Brilliantly shot. Scored with nerve rattling resonance. Between us, I don’t think it is even close to the best film Argento has made, but it is a great introduction to the style of Italian shock. If a trip into a coven of colorized witch ghouls has ever had the power to grab a viewer, this is it. One of the best films to watch in a theater I’ve ever encountered. WITCH!!!
Cannibal Ferox / Make Them Die Slowly – Umberto Lenzi is a fantastic director and made some amazing contributions to Peplum, Giallo, Eurospy and War films before the Italian horror boom of the 80s. But to me, he is a fantastic Crime film director. So, when the director of The Cynic, The Rat and The Fist buckles down to jump into the Cannibal Wars, he took a tough stance and brought in a great crime subplot that sends a group of unfortunate, yet ultimately scummy, victims straight into the hungry mouths of meaty madness. “Hey bitch, where’s yer stud?!” *SMACK* Lenzi smacks the audience across the face repeatedly, with visions of penile punishment, animal abuse, sexual sadism and, of course, some of the best gut ripping bits in the biz by Gino De Rossi and Giuseppe Ferranti. Italian horror included a lot of subcategories, and if I had to call one Cannibal film a “horror” it would be this one. Also notable is that it is a fine introduction to the amazing world of English dubbing. The dialog is outrageous and Nick Alexander and crew pull off a masterwork of offensive name calling. This one has it all.
Black Sunday – Mario Bava brings the great gothic chills in this milestone in Horror cinema. Using the framework of Gogol’s short story “Viy” the viewer is dragged into a world where a blood draining witch returns from the dead with a whole lot of anger to hammer in to those she will hold responsible for having the Mask of Satan nailed to her face! Barbara Steele is the very epitome of black and white beauty as the wicked Asa and the besieged Katia. This is a truly classic horror film and one of the baseline Italian horrors as well. Bava gives us the kind of terror that wasn’t much like the American monsters of the time (interestingly this started right around the Poe series from Roger Corman)—it’s as magical as horror comes. And the opening sequence still packs a vicious wallop! Grab some extra credit by checking out Ricardo Freda and Mario Bava ushering in the sound era of Italian horror with I Vampiri if you want even more classic horror mayhem.
Zombie – More Fulci! Even the big box purveyors of entertainment, Best Buy, know that a zombie battling a shark is cool, but that isn’t all Zombie has to offer. Designed to capitalize on Dawn of the Dead, Fulci and his crew instead created something much more unique to the time, a real zombie film with atmosphere and island mischief getting drenched in gallons of squirting blood and oozing maggots. With some ample Italian skin ‘n sin tossed in, you’ll be happy to share this one with any horror fan. But it doesn’t feel like a simple knock off, instead it jump started Italian horror AND the career of Fulci and some genre film stalwarts. You have probably seen this, but share it with friends that don’t know that Olga Karlatos is going to star in the legendary “Splinter in the Mind’s Eye” scene. They will either run screaming or love you forever. The recently released remastered in HD edition is eye poppingly good!
Demons – Lamberto Bava’s 1985 classick is a must for all horror fans, and another logic shattering, gut slinging, heavy metal screeching item that bellows ITALIAN HORROR RIGHT HERE at the viewer at every turn. With a masterful dubtrack, this saga of Pimps, Blind Bastards, Slutty Women and Helpless Victims besieged by “the damn movie” while they are all trapped in a mysterious theater is full throttle fun. The metal (and Go West?) infused soundtrack rides high over one of Claudio Simonetti’s best works and the energetic performances and gleeful gore will leave a dent in your skull. This is the Italian horror party film; if it works for you then you would be willing to drive all day and night just to meet the cast. I was. Don’t ask why a helicopter suddenly appears in the wrong place, just accept the ticket and enjoy all your trip to the Metropol has to offer!
Zombie Holocaust / Dr. Butcher, M.D. – The Medical Deviate is ready to bring YOU a complete mishmash of popular horror genres, bringing cannibals, mad science AND zombies getting their heads ripped apart by an outboard motor! This is a big one, a stepping stone that will push you further down the dark well of European Trash Cinema, because when Enzo G. Castellari’s dad makes a demented masterwork, we all better listen! If you were renting VHS back in the 80s you had to have seen this one, and it has received quite a few upgrades over the years. Possibly the trashiest of the 101 films on these lists, you get some wonderfully low rent medical monstrosity, some stunning zombie designs (thanks to Maurizio Trani and Rosario Prestopino), plenty of sex appeal from Alexandra Delli Colli AND Sherry Buchanan (who would star in the sorta sequel to Starcrash later)…and good and evil portrayed by the iconic Ian McCulloch and Donald O’Brien. It’s kooky enough that you’ll never forget it, and I can still hum the score by Nico Fidenco on request. Possibly even in my sleep. The story that Enzo G. Castellari was considered to make Zombie makes me smile, because his dad went and made a movie that has some similarities to that (McCulloch and the ever awesome Dakar seem to have jumped from the Fulci film), but goes way further in cross genre groovie goulash.
Cannibal Apocalypse – This offers a little variety in your horror, director Antonio Margheriti was one of the best directors in the European Action market, and Cannibal Apocalypse takes that talent for action and sets it in a unique world of urban zombies spawned from a Vietnam Hellground! John Saxon stars as a burnt out Vet trying to find his way back into civilization. Remembering the conditions his friends had to survive, even prompting them to cannibalism, has him haunted. When he goes to help one of his insane buddies that makes him look as balanced as champion tight rope walker he finds “Charlie Bukowski” is back at his chomping ways—and is spreading a disease to create urban unrest and spontaneous flesh ripping. The horror is double layered; first you have the exciting action oriented bits with the infected on the run using big saws to get to the entrails they desire, which would be more than enough for any film. But then Margheriti and screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti (watch anything he wrote by the way) use John Saxon’s acting chops to have his character try to cling to sanity. When the babysitter arrives on the scene, can he resist her? Ask any veteran EuroSleaze fan about Cinzia De Carolis (who brings “the tuft” here) and see if they know her from the ultimate in “so a girl falls in love with a genetically enhanced snake while her caretaker, Ajita Wilson, guides her in the ways of womanhood” films, Libidine. Even while we are at 101, I want to plant these seeds… chase that down and stare in awe at just how much variety Italian horrors can provide. This film is great to take you out of the cemeteries and castles of the horror genre, and anything that sports an alternative title like INVASION OF THE FLESH HUNTERS and lives up to it is definitely a must.
Twitch Of The Death Nerve- Mario Bava again? Yes! I had to really think on this one, it would be more obvious a choice to go with his classic, Blood and Black Lace, but for our purposes I think this one works better. It’s a Giallo film, but starting in on Italian horror, this one is a must because of the often ballyhooed fact that it was an inspiration to the early Friday the 13th films. It’s a crazy Agatha Christie styled merry go round of carnage that Bava puts across in his own special way. You’ll feel at home here, and not only get what plays like an early slasher film, but also is a gateway to Giallo, Bava and even brings the great sounds of Stelvio Cipriani to your ears. I find that music in Italian horror is as important as effects and cinematography for the finished product. And this has a great score!
So, we have a 101 with Bava, gothic horrors, urban chaos, demonic possession, bad ass pimps, cannibal chomping and mad science… Strap in, because now things will get wilder, weirder and splattered in the Deep Red Sauce!
Italian Horror 102 – Islands of Blood, Jungles of Terror…and Nipples That Will Poke Your Eyes Out!
Anthropophagus – Joe D’Amato at last! If any Italian can hold the title “TITAN OF TRASH” it would be this director, producer, cinematographer and AVN Lifetime Achievement award winner. Anthropophagus is the startling tale of a man that becomes an insane cannibal and stalks some tourists around a villa. Would you believe he could be hungry enough to eat himself as the timeless poster by Enzo Sciotti depicts? You should. Anthropophagus is an interesting film, it has a somewhat poor reputation as being slow, and it does take a bit of time to get rolling after a face smashing first sequence, but D’Amato has a good cast that includes Tisa Farrow and Zora Kerova of Zombie and EuroSexBomb Serena Grandi in an early role to pass the time with, as well as using his best tricks to give the villa an evil presence. Also included is a weird one of a kind score by ElectroLounge Guru Marcello Giombini that dominates the visuals between explosive action. Once the ‘pophagus strikes, you’ll be in shock gore heaven. Yes, this is the film that has the great George Eastman performing a quickie abortion that you won’t forget, though it is the spooky crypt environment that really drives the scene over the top instead of the skinned rabbit. Eastman is a giant of a man, and a monster of a cannibal!
-Castle of Blood – “Your blood will be our life!” This gothic masterwork from Antonio Margheriti and Sergio Corbucci is an excellent look back at the building blocks of Italian horror. Loaded with atmosphere, Barbara Steele again graces the black and white screen with her one of a kind presence. When a writer takes a challenge to stay in a “haunted” castle from Edgar Allen Poe do you really think that something bad isn’t going to happen? Of course it does! Georges Riviere is great as the lead, a hero that we can really pull for. Heck, even the ghost wants him to escape… but is there any escape at all once you meet the dead? This 1964 shocker is a film that retains its power to this day, be sure to seek out the uncut version available on DVD. Because even though it feels classic, the Italians were never one to shy away from tossing in lesbian lust and other naughty behavior! This also shows the scope of the real driving forces of behind Italian horror since you just watched Cannibal Apocalypse. Sure Margheriti was a lot happier doing this film instead of that one, but it is an interesting loop his career took. Dig in to this one and remember it well, because it is going to show up again later in a strange new form!
Cannibal Holocaust – Ruggero Deodato’s second trip into Cannibal Territory is one of the most virulent films on this list. Not only is at a hard edged assault on the viewer as we try to solve out “who are the real cannibals” by watching found footage of some civilized savages tormenting residents of the Amazon rainforest, but it was later co-opted into the “found footage” sensation that continues to this day! Though it opens with a classic jungle adventure film feel as a professor ventures out to find a documentary film crew (Deodato did Jungle films before, notably Gungala, The Black Panther Girl), it takes a nasty swerve when all that are found are remains and some footage the crew shot. It becomes apparent the crew wasn’t worth saving for the most part, as they engineered all kinds of horrors to supplement the already gruesome findings that happened naturally. From shocking tribal customs including ritual rape with a stone to infamous impaling, the crew isn’t satisfied as their own darker lusts for each other, and fame, take over. When the Amazonians finally strike back, the film is as scary as any found footage film has ever been. A grim film that features some excellent performances from Francesca Ciardi and Robert Kerman, a haunting score by Riz Ortolani and an atmosphere of violence in every frame of “found” imagery, this isn’t playing around. The animal violence is easy to criticize and is certainly reprehensible and impossible to defend, yet it elevates the film into a sickeningly dead on look at the incredibly popular Mondo films that were popular in the mainstream upon release. Deodato has done many other films, some of which I prefer to this, but Cannibal Holocaust is one of THE building blocks of Italian horror. It pushed the genre as far as it would go, and instead of being influenced by other films from around the world, it was something completely original. Not for everyone, but forgotten by nobody that has seen it, this film gives an appreciation for just how unique the Italians could make a movie under the guise of being just another exploitation film in an already popular cycle.
Burial Ground – OK, so we did Cannibal Holocaust. We need a break. Get ready for the trashiest and grooviest of the zombie films from Italy. Burial Ground takes the Gothic trappings of old and dumps about 70 gallons of Italian Slime Sauce all over it. Mind you that director Andrea Bianchi is THE maestro that provided us with Strip Nude For Your Killer, Malabimba (go watch that for extra credit) and the warped Maniac Killer. The guy knows TRASH CINEMA. After a nice little pre amble that sets up the dead to rise eventually we get a host of Eurotrashers doing their best to satisfy the darker side of sinema salivators. Most notable is the ultimate crazed cougar, Mariangela Giordano, as a mom on the hunt for a little extra hard salami during her trip. The only problem, her son Michael is a little different. He is played by the greatest man/boy ever to grace the screen, PETER BARK. That boy, he can smell death on cloth and he has a taste for mommy’s ample breast. And he knows that he can’t get them. Yet. Now, I’ve mentioned all the sleaze, but for horror fans that will take a back door to terror when some AMAZING zombies by Rosario Prestopino and Gino De Rossi hit the stage. These are some mean bastards, and you can expect all the Italian gut chomping that you demand when you settle in for a Pastapocalypse. But you get more. Not going to spoil everything, but until you see ZOMBIE TOOL SHED MASSACRE, you aren’t really complete as a budding Italian connoisseur de sewer. There is NOTHING I find hard to love about this film, and you can get it on Blu Ray.
Tenebre – This is my favorite Argento film, and while it is a Giallo it is very much in the horror vein as an author of thrillers finds those around him dropping like nastily dispatched flies. No small synopsis does the film justice, but I once described the film as the height of Argento creating art. It is like installing a stainless steel urinal, hand crafted, into a busy train station. It shines brightly and is constantly drenched by the waste products that the characters that pass by dump into it. Nobody is safe, sanity is definitely not something that will survive and if you want gore, you get it. Best not to ruin any twist or turn, but if you have seen the film, it definitely is an incredibly rewarding film to return to. You’ll notice new shifts and stylish flourishes. The music is perfection, the direction is astonishing and wonderfully self absorbed enough to carry the viewer around the outside of a building just because it can be done, the performances are striking and each actor carries multiple loads as the film creates a collapsing pocket of misbehavior and mayhem unlike any other. It’s a definitive Giallo, but when the final shot hits your eyes you know that you have witnessed horrors for each character that has been unlucky enough to pass through this film. Bonus, you’ll never look at a lesbian that cheats on her girlfriend with a guy in a white t-shirt the same way again. I promise. Watch this one. Rewatch this one. EXTRA CREDIT—See if you can find EVA MAN and see the bottom part of the topless flashback woman in this film. I assure you that you will feel your eyes boggle out of your head. NUFF SAID!
The Beyond – Ah yes, Lucio Fulci! Horror wouldn’t be the same without him, but the giant wave of Italian horrors in the 80s definitely wouldn’t have been possible without the crack team assembled by Fabrizio De Angelis to make these zombie films! The Beyond is a great film that takes the earlier more dead ahead formulas and tosses in a load of strange and surreal elements that range from the haunting (Cinzia Monreale standing blind on a desolate stretch of road) to the psychedelic flesh melting of the wicked Schweick as he returns to bring Hell closer to earth and rip open the 7 Doors of Death. If you haven’t seen it I’d like to point out the Chas. Balun named “daylight through a little girls head” shot to lure in the gorehounds (worked for me) and then stay for the incredible score, the wild visions of otherworldly torment made on a budget and especially the against all odds heroics of David Warbeck and Catriona MacColl. You’ll scratch your head at times, and wonder at the effects at others, but if you spot Warbeck loading his gun by sticking bullets down the barrel you’ll know why this is a wonderful romp into splatter and strangeness. A singular entry in zombie movie history, it is a strange ride through a funhouse version of Lovecraft and Romero that is worth taking more than once.
Stagefright – Michele Soavi went from frequent Eurotrash victim (Fulci killed him, D’Amato killed him and the beating goes on) to director most notably with Dario Argento helping him along with The Church and his late in the game and utterly unique Cemetery Man as one of my favorite cinema stories. But Joe D’Amato gave him his first helming gig and he helped create an amazing piece of Italian slasher cinema that still thrills me with every viewing. If you want to bridge the gap between Italy and the US for horror of the time, this one isn’t a bad way to do it. But, you also get John Morghen (killed previously on this list by de-penising and brain hacking). A simple premise of a psycho on the loose from a mental institution smashes headlong into the “characters getting knocked off in a closed environment” trope with a ton of style and mayhem galore. Think Halloween if the cast wasn’t teenagers but insane dancers (because as the first number tells us, “streets to blame”)—and toss in more gore and a much more style heavy final two reels. Soavi took raw skill and the seasoned production of D’Amato assisted by getting a great cast together and a top notch score by Simon Boswell with Filmirage stalwart Stefano Mainetti to power the slim concept and make it big fun. Besides, you have a giant Owl Headed guy with an ax running about, you have to love that!
Nightmare City – The 102 Italian Horror Party film! Umberto Lenzi has crafted some amazing films in his career, this one may not be the artistic zenith of that body of work, but I go back to it often. Why? Well, it is a straight up ZOMBIE film that isn’t afraid to be a little goofy and features a wonderfully demented dub track by Nick Alexander and crew. Now that we are 102n together, I can’t stress how much fun you’ll have with Mr. Alexander over the years, always look for his credits until you just know the voices. Nightmare City features aggressive zombies, a strange structure that will make you either throw your hands up in gleeful laughter at the end or hurl your popcorn at the screen. Maybe it’s the aerobicide sequence, maybe it’s Hugo Stiglitz looking all harried as he solves the mystery of the undead… or maybe it is just that it’s a sub 90 minute flick that sticks all the right elements into a perfect pasta dish of sanguine slaughter. I’ve never been able to shake that this was the Lenzi film made just before Cannibal Ferox. Talk about a pace change!!
Buio Omega / Beyond The Darkness - Closing out our 102, you can take your party hat off and settle in with one of the grimmest, grimiest and downright noxious Joe D’Amato film in his long list of achievements. Buio Omega was released back in the big box video days as BURIED ALIVE and I can remember exactly where I was when I first saw it. Kieran Canter plays Frank, an unbalanced guy that loses his girlfriend (played by Cinzia Monreale who we just saw in The Beyond). Sad of course, but it would appear she died thanks to some voodoo from the evil housekeeper Iris (in a fantastic performance for the ages by Franca Stoppi). Iris likes Frank a little too much… And Frank is not ready to give up his girlfriend. So, he keeps her at home. And he kills people when the madness of his life gets to great. And then, someone that looks just like the corpse in his bed shows up, very much alive. For now. Sick, demented, twisted and violent, Buio Omega never lets up in putting across a really nightmarish ambience that slinks into your memory like the score by Goblin. It’s not fun, but utterly essential as both horror and exploitation. Cannibal Holocaust gets more love, but if I want to show the “UUUGHHHHH” of Italian horror films off, this is what I go to. Interestingly, it is also a very close tribute to another film made years before, but we’ll get to that next.
Thanks for coming along, I hope that this will encourage some horror fans to try the Italian way, and then descend down the ladder of European Trash Cinema. If you have seen them all, maybe this will encourage you to try something I really love. Look at them again in the context of all the films you have seen since, the Italian horror film is something I love to think of as an organic whole since it is not so large that it becomes unwieldy. Each creator, actor, musician, cinematographer, technician and even story meshes into a whole that is truly a great place to explore and rediscover.
I hope to see you all for ITALIAN HORROR 201 as ITALIAN HORROR WEEK rolls along, thanks for inviting me Doc Terror!!
DAVID ZUZELO is a dad, writer and trashfiend. He writes the blog Tomb It May Concern which he describes as "One man's journal through the swamps of mangled media! From Jess Franco and Lina Romay to Christina Lindberg to the art of Eurocine. Cinema For The "Aware" Audience!" He has also co-authored a book called Tough to Kill which features a series of in depth reviews of Italian action movies. We will be featuring an article on Tough to Kill later this week as well as touching on four or five different features from the text. Please check out David's writing on this amazing blog (although make sure you covers the kiddies eyeballs... he's got some amazing nudie pics of some truly gorgeous women) and get your paws on Tough to Kill which is as fun a read as it is informative. Pick it up HERE.