Monday, July 30, 2007

A Bucket of Blood: or, If You Can't Beatnik, Killnik

Some nights you just aren't in the mood for a 98-minute horror opus from the seventies. You're tired, you're beat, you need to put the trash out, and you don't want to waste what precious time you have with an exploitation obscurity that may or may not be worth the effort. Such was the case the night I finally got round to watching Roger Corman's 1959 black-comedy classic A Bucket of Blood. Clocking in at a lean (almost anorexic!) 65 minutes (according to my treasure-trove of mmmmmovie goodness, the Mill Creek 50 Chilling Classics set--buy it now!), this mouldy oldie fit the bill. Even half-asleep I felt I could manage that runtime, and I'd always wanted to take a look at this little piece of Corman history, having heard a lot about it in the past, but nonetheless retaining a gaping, Bucket of Blood-shaped hole in my horror movie education. So I mixed up a G & T, settled back on the couch, and hit "play."

Instantly I was transported back through the swirling mists of time to the late 1950s--the glorious black and white cinematography, the cool jazz, and most importantly, the near-forgotten and deeply misunderstood Beatnik subculture. Right away we are thrust into this dark, smoky underworld, as on a stage in a carcinogen-obscured cafe a lusciously bearded beat poet extemporizes over (or rather under) the improvised noodling of a tenor sax. Though only a few of his lines get through, they strike to the soul of the human experience:

"I will talk to you of art for there is nothing else to talk about; for there is nothing else.

"Life is an obscure hobo bumming a ride on the omnibus of art. Burn gas buggies and whip your sour cream of circumstance and hope and go ahead and sleep your bloody heads off.

"Creation is, and all else is not. What is not creation is graham cracker; let it all crumble to feed the creator."

Aw hell yeah.

Yes, this little cafe, the Yellow Door, is a veritable Left Bank in one room, with artists, poets, sculptors and musicians all gathered together to get real gone and be-bop daddio. In this artistic Mecca the creative individual is the highest expression of perfection. As the bearded poet, Maxwell, puts it with characteristic cutting wit: "If you're uncreative, you might as well be in your grave...or in the army."

It's a sad fact that not everyone is creative, though, however they might wish to be. The case in point is Walter Paisley, the nebbish busboy at the Yellow Door who yearns to be accepted by the in-crowd of creative types, but whose timidity and lack of drive keep him shackled to the trays of dirty coffee cups. Hoping to change his position and impress one of the artistic women he's been pining for, Walter buys a lump of sculptor's clay and tries his hand at art. Unfortunately he has no talent, and in a fit of despair drives a knife into a wall, ostensibly to free his landlady's trapped cat from the drywall, but also to vent his frustration. That's not all he vents, though--he also vents the feline's ventricles.

Desperate to cover up his faux pas, Walter makes instead a faux paw--he covers the cat's corpse with clay, dries it, and takes it to the Yellow Door the next day. When his sculpture, "Dead Cat," receives the adulation of the in-crowd to which Walter has aspired, he finally seems on his way to acceptance and validation.

But the anxiety of the artist is this--you're only as good as your latest work. When Walter is unwittingly busted for heroin ("Junk! Smack! Horse!"), he just as unwittingly kills his accuser, the hard-edged cardigan-sporting undercover cop played by TV’s Burt Convy. Again in desperation, he creates a new masterwork: "Murdered Man." This one is received with even more outlandish praise, and even Maxwell the Poet calls Walter the savior of modern art.

"...and then this chick in full armor leaps out and starts makin' wise cracks!"

Everyone's a critic, though, and just when Walter begins to feel confident and accepted at last, a snotty blonde model tears him down and makes him feel small again. Enraged, he hires her to be the model for his next sculpture--when he murders her in his studio, his transformation from put-upon unlucky sap to calculated murderer is complete and chilling.

From there Walter goes into a downward spiral of Poe-esque proportions, and of course it's only a matter of time before his fraud is revealed. When his loved beatnik chick rejects him, his madness takes over, and an exciting and tragic conclusion is set in motion. The final image is both fitting and strangely moving--all Walter ever wanted to do was fit in.

Probably one of the best of Corman's early films, BoB has a fabulous script, fantastic cinematography, pitch black comedy, and wonderful performances nearly across the board. Think of the original Little Shop of Horrors, but much, much funnier and much, much scarier. Famous character actor Dick Miller IS Walter Paisley, and he absoltuely OWNS this movie, showing how unjust it was that in his long career he got so few chances to play a lead role.

In the first scene, before he speaks a line of dialog, Miller has already completely established Walter's character with just posture, facial expressions, mannerisms and reactions. We know what kind of person Walter is without having to hear him speak; we know him, we recognize him. Then, when he does speak, Miller's line delivery is invested with as much care and detail as his physical acting. His yearning for acceptance, his awkwardness, his desire to be more than he is--all these are convincingly and thoroughly fleshed out; and while we may smile at Walter's social ineptitude, we also feel for him, and really want him to succeed in his lofty aspirations. That empathy without ridicule is completely due to the masterful performance Miller gives.

Hail to the King, baby.

The script is fantastic too. Short as it is, it could have been an hour-long TV drama (and was in fact aired as such later on), but the ideas are rock solid and fully realized. Poe is invoked almost from the beginning, when the landlady's cat is trapped in the wall of Walter's grimy apartment ("The Black Cat"). Walter's subsequent descent into murder and madness is very much at home in the Poe genre, and at the pivotal moment in the film--when for the first time Walter commits intentional rather than accidental murder for his art--Miller again brings all the madness and desire and horror of the moment out using just his facial expression. It's a chilling moment, especially since until that moment Walter has been a comedic character; but it's believable too, because of the way it's set up and all that comes before.

Cinematography is another stellar area of this little gem. Shadows are used wonderfully throughout, especially in Walter's room. For instance, when the cat is in the walls, Walter bumps his head on the hanging light, setting it swinging. The swinging light as he kills and discovers the cat is very effective, the way the shadows deepen and recede. Later, when the doomed model undresses in shadow play in his room, another layer of Walter's need for validation--his loneliness and hopelessness with the opposite sex--becomes tangible. And all of the murder scenes are shot and edited masterfully, using cuts and shadow and images to show through suggestion what at the time Corman couldn't show explicitly--and as is often the case, being all the more chilling for it.

Oh, have I mentioned that this is a comedy? :)

Well, it is, but the comedy and the horror don't jar against one another; the comedy actually helps set up the horror, lulling you into a smile and then pulling the rug out. But even without the horror, this would be a successful comedic movie. Walter is funny and endearing, and the beatniks--oh, the beatniks!--are satirized mercilessly with cutting wit and occasional broad jokes. As a writer, one of my favorite examples of this was when Maxwell the Poet explains his theory on modern verse:

Maxwell: "One of the greatest advances of modern poetry is the elimination of clarity. I'm proud to say my poetry is only understood by that minority which is AWARE."
Beatnik: "Aware of what?"
Maxwell: "Of nothing, stupid! Just AWARE!"

Julian Burton
as the sage-like beatnik poet is just fabulous, and his supporting cast of hep cats deliver lines of self-important obliviousness with such a delicate touch that even while you're laughing you're wondering how far from the truth such portrayals really were. Another interesting thing here is how timely the satire of the beatniks still is--though the beat generation is long past, the parallels between these artistes and hippies, indie music snobs, or just about any other group of pretentious self-indulgent young folks just go to show that the more things change, the more people stay the same.

I'd be remiss not to mention great performances by the oddly-spelled Barboura Morris as Walter's beloved (her kindness and big-heartedness are appealingly genuine) and Antony Carbone as the owner of the Yellow Door who is morally conflicted when discovers Walter's "method" but can't ignore the business it's bringing him.

Really, BoB is just a classic on all counts: well written, well acted, well shot, well done. The comedy works, the horror chills, the satire bites, and Dick Miller PWNS. Three thumbs to heaven. Get hip.


Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Space Zombie Bingo, Or Perfection Does Come Cheap!

Star Wars. The Godfather. The Exorcist. Indiana Jones. Titanic. These are, arguably, movies that perfected their genre; movies that showed us what could be done in the realm of dramatic action or horror. They thrilled us, entertained us, and educated us with their near flawless execution. 1993's Space Zombie Bingo can now stand beside these movies as an example of perfection, at least within its own genre, that genre being “alien zombie movies with a budget less than that of a meal at McDonalds”. SZB has perfected this genre so completely that to try to make another movie within it would be a futile and ultimately laughable effort, a wasteful exercise that would get one banned from ever making a film again. What makes SZB so awesome? Let’s explore shall we?

Our film starts off with our narrator, Crisco. He is a nerdy type, wearing glasses and standing near a globe in some indeterminate location. Crisco informs us that a new menace threatens the earth: Alien Zombies! They were forced to flee their own planet and have chosen earth as their next living place, apparently. Arriving in saucers and using “unfair” weapons of “super-science”, they are here and must be dealt with. Crisco tells us the zombies are “Like a hideous, clown-like dwarf, molesting human destiny!" and leaves us with this ominous warning: "Audiences, leave the theater now, lest your bow3ls empty into your pants!"

The credits roll, and we are not disappointed as the music is by The Cryptkicker Five!! Cut to a scene of one of the oddest looking families I’ve ever seen eating a nice Sunday brunch on a blanket IN A F’ING GRAVEYARD! Suddenly alien zombies attack! For the layman out there who may not know what alien zombies look like, I’ll describe them: A tall humanoid, wearing a welding helmet that has antennae attached to the top, also wearing a full diving wetsuit and finally flippers on the feet. Terrifying!!

After dispatching the family, the zombies begin their feasting, only they feast on corpses that they dig from the graves! To say I lol’d at the mannequins being pulled from shallow graves would be an understatement. Crisco narrates: “These are not mannequins you see here but freshly dug corpses!” A tv commentator comes on, from Kill-TV “Where bodies count!”. He informs us that the zombies fled their own planet, planet Plankton no less, which was destroyed by its own lust! This will become important later, somewhat.

Next scene, obviously filmed at some aerospace outdoor museum (hey, free props!). Stepping off a plane as if he just landed in it, General Herpes Simplex strides forward to meet reporters. The lead reporter, dressed like a clown down to the round red nose and blue wig, peppers the General with questions, asking what he’s going to do about the zombie menace. “General! Are you soft on zombies, General? Are you playing footsies with the enemy?” The General reassures everyone that the military is on it, that their top man is going to solve this problem: Major Kent Bendover!

We are then introduced to Bendover as he arrives at a gravesite, freshly plundered by the alien zombies. Here we meet Barbie Q and her expendable boyfriend Hubert, who is quickly dispatched by zombies. Barbie is saved by Major Bendover and instantly falls in love with him, as Crisco illustrates with this memorable quote: “From the stench of the open grave, true love will always blossom!” Bendover has a plan to deal with the zombies… Operation Deep Fry. This consists of using atomic bombs to knock the earth out of its orbit and hurl it straight into the sun, the theory being that alien zombies can’t stand that much heat. When his plan is denied, he is instead launched into space to battle the zombie’s saucers directly. He manages to shoot one of them down before being shot down himself. He doesn’t die, however! Crisco informs us of why: “Due to his super-human physique and his YWCA membership, Bendover survives!”

Bendover’s troubles have just begun, however, as he is captured quite easily by the zombies, who take him back to their ship (presumably). He is tortured for a bit and finally the lead zombie declares: “Remove his s3xual organs and throw them away! No wait, replace his g0nads! I have a plan….” What a nefarious plan it is! Suddenly a female zombie comes in and unzips her wetsuit to reveal the most hideous zombie br3asts known to cinema. The following scene will haunt my memories forever. I can never wash the stain away, never!

Basically, the zombie chick rides Bendover like a rented mule, which doesn’t seem so bad, until we get a close-up, lingering shot of Bendover caressing her b00b, which SUDDENLY STARTS SQUIRTING A THICK WHITE LIQUID! Over and over it squirts, over and over again until your brain simply leaves your body for greener pastures. Having now coupled, the alien zombie is totally smitten with the Major (and who wouldn’t be?). They decide to escape together, which works quite well. Arriving back with his men, Bendover orders them to kill his new alien woman, which they do via a point-blank bazooka shot to the face.

Very quickly the General and Kent are in a car speeding towards a secret base that houses the only weapon that might destroy the zombies, a weapon called “Solarnite”. On the way there the General shoots down a zombie saucer using a small caliber pistol fired out the window of a speeding car. Deciding to use land-based pursuit, the zombies chase them using “The Deadly Zombie Death Pacer”, which actually is a real Pacer, orange in color, covered by shaving cream with a hand-made cardboard sign on the hood that says “Zombie Death Car”. I wish I were making this up, but I’m not that much of a genius!

After eluding the Death Pacer, the General and the Major hit another stumbling block: Mimes. Yes, mimes have decided to protest out in the middle of the road, holding a huge banner decrying the effects of Solarnite. The driver informs his passengers of the roadblock: “Mimes in the road, General. Looks like they are beautifully acting out a vision of a world of cooperation and happiness sir!” To which the General replies, “Mimes. Disgusting creatures. Run them over forthwith, driver!”. So the driver does this in what is probably the most mime death ever put to film.

Arriving at the base, Solarnite is deployed, which wipes out the zombies with much alacrity. Apparently zombies die via sweating shaving cream. Suddenly a broadcast is received from the zombie leader: “I shall release cosmic Q Rays!” The Q Rays have the unfortunately effect of EXPLODING THE EARTH! Crisco narrates the ending: “Do you believe our earth was destroyed? Can you prove it didn’t happen?!”

Cue ending credits.

The genius of SZB lies in the dialogue. I seriously haven’t laughed this often and this hard at a movie in a long while. Every line is delivered perfectly and is just so over the top ridiculous that you can’t help but laugh. The horrendous production values, which include terrible models and repeated views of the boom mic coming in at the top of the frame, make everything that much more funny. If ever there were such a thing as the perfect Troma film, this is it. I can’t recommend it highly enough, and there aren’t enough thumbs in the world to give it its due. Watch this, and be amazed!


Thursday, July 19, 2007

I Eat Your Skin: or, Gilligan's Island Meets Hell of the Living Dead

Every b-movie fan or trash flick afficianado worth his salt knows the story behind the drive-in pairing of the low-budget 1970 exploitation effort Phobia and the much less lurid jungle adventure Zombies, aka Voodoo Island. Poor little Zombies, though produced in 1964, sat on the shelf gathering dust for six years until distributor Jerry Gross picked it up to fill out a double-feature package with the aforementioned exploitation effort, which Gross (living up to his name) had imaginatively and profitably retitled I Drink Your Blood. Taking a cue from the success of the American and Italian flesh-eating zombie craze kickstarted by George Romero's now classic Night of the Living Dead, Gross slapped Zombies with the much less accurate but more alluring title I Eat Your Skin and shipped the enticing double feature out to drive-ins across the country.

As we all know, I Drink Your Blood went on to become the stuff of exploitation legend, the first movie rated X by the MPAA for its violent content alone. And I Eat Your Skin?

Well, it went down in history as "that movie that they paired with I Drink Your Blood."

It's perhaps understandable that IEYS was delegated to obscurity while its billmate continues to garner most of the attention. Filling out the bottom of the double bill, the flick had an almost impossible act to follow. Add to that its black and white photography, its 50s sit-com dialogue and its almost quaint attempts at shocking makeup and gore effects (not to mention the apalling and complete lack of actual skin-eating in the movie), and you've got a recipe for disappointment for all the moviegoers too drunk, stoned, or not otherwise engaged who might still be watching.

Still, it's a fate that's perhaps not entirely deserved. While no masterpiece, taken on its own merits I Eat Your Skin is a reasonably enjoyable little slice of Americana, with some fun quotable dialogue, outrageous cultural sterotypes, and enough action in its 80-some-odd minute run time to keep a b-movie fan entertained.

The film opens with a bang, with a very creepy-looking Baron Samedi-type figure overseeing a frantic voodoo ritual. While the natives convulse in their trance-state in the background, a bikini-clad light-skinned girl performs a seductive dance around the campfire. It's actually enthralling to watch even now, and would have been downright kinky by 1964 standards. Also of note is the fact that the crowd attending the ritual seem to be markedly multi-racial--Voodoo Without Borders, if you will. After a few moments of dancing and tribal music, the girl and a goat are sacrificed to the gods of Vodoun via a machete-swing jump cut. A very strong opening.

From there we jet through the art-deco credits (featuring music by Don Strawn's Calypso Band! that sounds like the theme for I Dream of Jeannie Goes to Africa) to a luxurious hotel somewhere in the Bahamas, maybe, where novelist Tom Harris (no, not THAT Tom Harris!) has a bevy of bathing beauties in his thrall as he recites a scene of what's basically softcore literary porn, an excerpt from his latest book, Hot Lips. When a jealous husband threatens Harris for driving his wife to distraction, we get a hilarious scene of the adultress and hubby going fully clothed into the hotel pool--always comedy GOLD in the 60s! A few minutes later Harris and his agent Duncan are in the car on the way to the airport, as Duncan wants his meal ticket to go to Voodoo Island with him (subtle, no?) to research his next book. When Tom demurs, Duncan wins him over with this bit of convincing argument: "Girls! Virgin natives, just waiting for some sophisticated swinger like you to come along and pluck them off the vine!" Sign me up! So they pick up the agent's wife, Coral (with twin toy poodles all packed) and off they fly in a little prop job to the uncharted island where Lord Carrington, their host, awaits.

Here Tom starts to come into his own and we begin to realize what an amazing man's man he really is. When the plane runs out of gas before reaching Voodoo Island (nice flight plan, guys), Tom--the novelist and playboy--shoves the trained pilot out of his seat and takes over to bring them down safely on the beach! Take that, FAA! Then, while Coral, Duncan, and the pilot wait on the sand, Tom goes into the jungle to explore. Before you can say Maynard G. Krebs he's being stalked by one of the living dead, whose horrifying makeup job consists mainly of dried mud and cotton balls. Still, this zombie means business, as he shockingly decapitates a villager with Mr. Machete to prove it! Tom's pistol does nothing, and he's forced to flee. Soon he finds Lord Carrington, who in full safari gear is out hunting "the homicidal maniac from the village." They go back for the rest of the crew, then it's time to swing at Carrington's pad.

Lord Carrington hosts a dinner for our protagonists, whereat we're introduced to Dr. Biladeu, a cancer researcher using irradiated snake venom to treat tumors (could he be...MAD?) and the doctor's lovely daughter Jeannie, who makes up in cuteness and spunk what she lacks in acting ability. When Tom discovers Jeannie playing piano we get another look at his impeccable suavity, as he lights a cig and asks, "What part of heaven did you fly down from?" That's right, a professional writer there, folks. It works, though, as soon Jeannie and Tom are necking in the jungle, only to be attacked by the undead again.

Undead, or having a spa day? You decide!

After shuffling the hysterical girl off to bed in the care of the completely sloshed Coral and Duncan, Lord Carrington tells Tom he fears the natives might want to sacrifice "a blonde virgin" to their Voodoo gods. Just like those savages to want to do that, what? Tom vows not to let it happen, but apparently by that he means he won't let Jeannie stay a virgin long--soon he's in her room, "protecting" her like a mad jackrabbit.

From there it's a short trip through a couple more voodoo rituals, some mondo science, and some 007-style voodoo espionage to discover that yes, Dr. Biladeu is a mad scientist, he's bringing the dead to life with his irradiated snake venom, and Lord Carrington plans to use the army of zombies to TAKE OVER THE WORLD! Dream big, kids, that's what I say! Of course Tom throws a monkey wrench in all that, the lab explodes taking a good chunk of the coastal shelf with it, and he, Coral, Duncan, Jeannie, and the mortally wounded and fully repentant Dr. Biladeu boat back to the Bahamas, where we get a humorous epilogue of Tom reprising his storytelling hijinx and Jeannie dumping him in the pool for it. Tragedy, followed by COMEDY! Roll credits! G'night, folks!

This is a fun flick, with more quotable dialogue than I can transcribe, some smirk-worthy sit-com acting (Coral, the drunken, shopping-obsessed, over-sexed, innuendo-spouting housewife is a hoot from word go), and enough old-style stereotypes to keep you laughing or cringing, depending on your mood. (The natives want white women, for instance, they're referred to as simple and childlike, and they're used as experimental subjects with no more thought than if they'd been mice; the women are weak and in constant need of protection, the men are the only competent creatures..white men, that is...I could go on.) The voodoo dance numbers are actually really well staged and shot, and a lot of fun if you can get into the groove. And the explanation of zombism, as a side effect from the use of a poisonous narcotic, even presages The Serpent and the Rainbow! Del Tenney, call your lawyers already! There's continuity flubs, dumb plot points, nonsensical set designs (why does the lab's secret door have a bar-lock on BOTH sides?) and out-of-nowhere developments aplenty, so sit back and enjoy.

Though in today's age of diversity it's hard to get behind the "fear of the Other" and the "civilization vs. savagery" tropes that movies like this buttered their bread with, this is still a groovy, fun little time capsule with enough entertainment packed in to keep a b-movie fan happy. I give it a solid 2 thumbs. Worth a look. Just view it as a lost Gilligan's Island episode, where the Castaways meet the Living Dead, and you'll be fine.


Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Vengeance of the Zombies: or, Groovy Ghouls and Naschy Rules

Everyone is looking for that one thing that will make him happy, that will provide him with the inner peace he needs to finally stop all his striving and struggling and just enjoy the mystery of being. For some, that thing seems to be money. For others, it's love. Still others seek achievement in a chosen field, such as voodoo or Eastern mysticism. And for others, the only thing that will let them truly enjoy life is the freedom from the worry of death. In the low-budget 1973 Spanish horror masterpiece Vengeance of the Zombies, we get a view into all these disparate but interconnected struggles, and in the end are left to question what we, the viewers, truly need in order to be happy.

Our story opens with two such poor, struggling souls, a middle-aged man and his wife who are the caretakers of a run-down London cemetery. They are not happy, for they have erroneously concluded that the route to true happiness runs through is Monetary Gainsville, and the avenue they have chosen to arrive there is grave-robbing. Give them points for leaving the beaten path there, anyway. But alas, as they bicker acidly at one another in a very well-furnished dining room about whether to rob the grave of a recently murdered socialite (just buried that afternoon), we can tell that their struggles are misdirected, money will not save them, and they will know only tragedy rather than true happiness. Sure enough, when they break into the tomb to steal the jewels from the fresh corpse, a mysterious villain locks them in the crypt and performs a strange ritual whose immediate effect is to raise the theft victim from the dead for a bit of posthumous vengeance on her would-be robbers. Not five minutes into the movie, and already one zombie has had her revenge. Score!

Next we meet Elvira, a naive-if-no-longer-young socialite, friend of the murdered and resurrected corpse from the first scene. Elvira, like so many of the idle rich, is seeking the deeper meaning of life through wacky mysticism. She and her friend (let's call him Antonio, I forget the character's name), a psychologist and expert in the paranormal who often works with Scotland Yard, are on their way to a seance held by an Indian guru named (what else?) Krishna, played by the inimitably handsome and beefy Paul Naschy.

Krishna offers Elvira inner peace and happiness through meditation and hot-coal-handling, but Antonio is skeptical. He hasn't time to talk his friend out of listening to the guru-or-charlatan, however, as he's very urgently needed offscreen. When later that night Elvira is attacked in her house by her dead friend and a masked assailant wielding an axe, in a massacre that leaves her father and butler among the dead (not counting the already dead among them), the stress and trauma convinces Elvira to travel to Krishna's country estate for spiritual cleansing and perhaps a little Kama-Sutra with the guru.

However, a helpful-if-not-Chamber-of-Commerce-mindful station agent meets her at the train to tell her the town she has come to is EEEEEVIL, and was once the haunt of Satanists who held their black masses and sacrifices in the very house where Krishna now preaches peace and love. Soon a fire-scarred henchman arrives to take Elvira to Krishna's house and silence the ticket seller. Mystery thicker than the, London fog abounds.

From there things only get more complex. Another horrible murder occurs in London, one more socialite down (after showing a rather bounteous if aged set of maracas). Elvira is plagued by 70s freak-out style dreams wherein Krishna-as-Lucifer and an undead station agent threaten her with pointy objects. A morgue attendant is murdered with a soda can (!) by his recently-risen charges, while the mysterious masked figure looms, apparently seeking his own bliss in a compicated vengeance/voodoo ritual that will somehow grant him immortality. Antonio is called in by Scotland Yard to help solve the mysteries of these socialites who keep getting murdered and whose bodies then disappear. A houseservant who wants to warn Elvira about something is disposed of in a most grisly manner. More zombies show up. Antonio, on his way to Krishna's to meet Elvira, runs down another bicycling houseservant of Krishna's and later ends up necking with her by the river over the broken remains of her bike. It all comes to a head in a genuinely surprising turn of events with the introduction of a motivation I admit I'd never have guessed. Even the deus ex machina is not your average machine and has a surprising combustion under in its pistons.

There's so much to love about this movie, but chief among its many virtues is its wildly entertaining 70s jazz soundtrack, doubtless one of the front runners for "most gleefully inappropriate movie soundtrack ever." An early ax-murder gives a taste, as the skull is cleaved to the tune of wicka-wicka guitars and Hammond organs. You'll be tapping your toes as you cover your eyes, and it just keeps getting better the longer it goes on.

Another thing worth note is the otherworldly atmosphere the director and cinematography give the zombies. Granted, the makeup is your basic white-facepaint with dark circles under the eyes, but the zombie women pull some convincing rigor-mortis grimaces that make them look incredibly strange and more than a little unnerving. Furthermore, the zombies are filmed only in slow motion, lending a unique alien quality to their movements and interactions with the other characters.

The cinematic highlight is the dream scene featuring Naschy as the devil, an episode that will haunt your nightmares. Biblical demons, Hindu golden women, undead train system employees, and the burn-victim henchman are just a few of the hellish components of this Boschian revelry. Effectively creepy while at the same time grin-inducing, you don't know whether to laugh or scream. And with his pointed nose, piercing eyes, and rock-solid eyebrows, Naschy makes a very convincing Satan, you must give him that.

I mean, seriously. Just LOOK at him!

As to the effects, it's mostly just buckets of blood poured down a face or spurting from a prop knife drawn across the neck, but there's one real show-stopping effect late in the movie that pulled an involuntary "Holy shit!" from my throat. You'll know it when you see it. There's also some great cinematography in a scene in a meat packing industries office-building/warehouse/ceo fuckshack, where a guard must go down a long hallway of colorful hanging meat, never sure what lurks just beyond the next carcass...

And then of course there's the unintentional comedy. In addition to the hilarious yet oddly compelling soundtrack, there's a host of other "they can't be serious" moments. For instance, apparently everyone in England decorates their homes with plaques displaying real weapons that their servants keep honed to razor-sharpness; grave-robbing pays well enough to keep a nice house with a tasteful china cabinet and place settings; station agents are the anti-chamber of commerce; if Kali worship is good, then voodoo AND Kali worship AND satanism's even better; soda cans are deadly weapons; Scotland Yard accepts the existence of zombies much more quickly than you'd think they would; car accidents are great ways to meet chicks--and many other bits of wisdom peppered throughout.

Other things to look out for:
  • The most compliant strangling victim in history
  • The shortest fatal strangulation by garrotte ever filmed
  • A great "What? Oh shit, another guard!" take from the villain
  • A blinking corpse (must be a muscle reflex)
  • The "you thought I'd saved you, huh? You fools!" ending
  • An early-career cameo by "V" from V for Vendetta!
Vengeance of the Zombies is a movie that truly has it all, a treasure trove of enjoyment from both the "so bad it's good" side and the "hey, that's actually pretty good" side. So in the end, as you ask yourself, "What is it that will make me truly happy?" the implied answer is unmistakable: "More movies like Vengeance of the Zombies!"

For filmic competence, 1.5 out of 3 thumbs. For sheer entertainment, 3 out of 3 thumbs. Average: 2.25, with another half point added for this being the movie that introduced me to the wonders of Naschy, for which I can never be grateful enough. , bringing us to a 2.75 thumbs rating. Don't delay, watch this one today. You'll be glad you did. So saith Krishna!

Word to the wise: Deimos Entertainment just released a slam-bang special edition DVD of this fun flick, available at Best Buy in a two-pack with the equally excellent Naschy flick Night of the Werewolf, a steal at $20 for the lot. If you're even slightly curious about Naschy, you need to pick up these DVDs NOW.


A Word about the MMMMMovies Reviews and Rating Scale

First of all, MMMMMovies is really more an essay site than a review site, growing as it has out of conversations between the Duke and myself about movies we watch and like. Therefore, in most reviews, spoilers abound. Caveat Lector.

As to our rating scale, the Duke and I do not rate cultural worth or technical brilliance; rather, we rate the movie for its watchability, meaning whether we had a good time watching it for whatever reason (see the mmmmmanifesto). To do this, we utilize the Alonzo the Armless scale, giving the movie zero to three thumbs. Here are the meanings of the range of ratings:

  • 0-1 Thumbs -- Nearly unwatchable, even in a "so bad it's good" way. Avoid.
  • 1-2 Thumbs -- None too good, but with a few redeeming qualities that prevent its being a total waste of time; the type of thing you might enjoy, if you enjoy this type of thing.
  • 2-3 Thumbs -- Eminently entertaining, and definitely worth at least one look. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll scream "What the fuck?" The kind of movie we're all about here.
  • 3+ Thumbs -- Occasionally a movie is so chock full of awesome we have to go out and get other thumbs to rate it properly. These are the MMMMMasterpieces. Not to be missed. (Usually reserved for the films of Paul Naschy and Jose Mojica "Coffin Joe" Marins.)
As to the explanation for the rating--3 thumbs because it's good, or because we laughed so hard at its buffoonery we felt giddy and drunk with it?--well, that's what the long text review is for. Get reading!


The Vicar Visits the Duchy: or, FAQ You, Buddy!

Wherein the Vicar and the Duke discuss the reasons behind this blog, amongst other topics of great import and interest to the common movie-going rabble.

The Vicar of VHS arrived fashionably late for his appointment with the Duke of DVD, the iron-banded wheels of his carriage ringing like bells as the coach crossed the drawbridge and shuddered to a halt in front of a studded oaken door that was old when the Inquisitors knocked politely centuries ago. The Vicar, resplendent in his mantle of office and his peaked pontifical cap, pulled his fur-lined cloak about his shoulders as he edged through the laboriously opening panel. The Duke, dressed in purple velvet knee-breeches and a jaunty waistcoat over a ruffled silken blouse, his fingers glittering with sapphires and emeralds, held out his hands to his old friend as the door slammed ominously behind them.

"Good evening, Duke!" said the Vicar. "What a pleasure to come in from the cold to the warmth of your ancestral home once again. And may I complement you on the new portcullis! I bet that cost you more than a few ducats, no?"

“A mere pittance my good man," the Duke tut-tutted. "Please, come in! Have a seat! It has been too long.”

As the Vicar fell back into an overstuffed leather-bound chair, an albino raven perched on top of its high back ruffled its feathers and uttered a single word: “Life.” A hooded servant entered silently through a hidden door; he prostrated himself next to each chair, offering a tray laden with goblets of an 1807 port. The Vicar and the Duke shared a silent swirl and a nose followed by a sip. Finally the Duke turned to the Vicar and says:

“Vicar, there is a question I have been mulling of late when the moon is full and unnameable creatures wander the battlements. Why is it that we love movies which some mere mortals would refer to as 'bad'?”

“A fascinating question, Duke, and one which I have had occasion to consider recently. You remember young Stellan Skwingelflinglockenspiel, son of the late Deacon? Well, after Mass last week he approached the altar, a query of great import furrowing his young brow, instilling his features with a care beyond his years. I put him at ease and finally he came out with it. ‘Vicar,’ he said, ‘I don’t see why the congregation should waste its time with crap like Paul Naschy and obscure Italian giallo and shot-on-video relics from the previous century. After all, we could be edifying our movie-going souls with stuff like Scorcese, Spielberg, Kubrick, Michael Bay! Wouldn’t that be better than this…this trash?’ “ The Vicar laughed. “He's a saucy young rogue, just like his departed father! Hah!”

The holy man sipped his palm-warmed port. “Of course I immediately had him excommunicated and thrown into the Crypt of Horror.”

“A just punishment for such heresy, no doubt,” opined the Duke, turning to place his goblet upon the back of a kneeling servant. “I recall some five years ago, when as you’ll remember I journeyed into the south of Romania, to a small village called Ravenholm, in search of a rare Naschy film entitled Una Libélula para cada Muerto, which I had reason to believe was in the possession of a rather rotund bandit leader in those parts. After overseeing the, um, pacifying of the town’s populace, and after selecting a few juicy morsels from the parade of young virgins that had been arranged for me by my men, I began to ponder what makes us, nay drives us to go to such lengths for movies considered lesser by others.”

The Duke paused here, not for dramatic weight but because a female servant, wearing only the sheerest gauze gown, the backlighting exposing her naked silhoutte in the style of a black and white Bava film, had silently entered the room. She turned on her heels in front of The Duke and bent at the waist fully, her hands clasping her ankles. The Duke leaned forward and, without touching her, used the back of his hand to test the warmth wafting from her loins. Cupping his hand, he scooped the air toward his nose, inhaling her base scent. “You will do well, return to the others,” said the Duke to her. “Anyway, I believe it must have something to do with the art, as it were, of creating something from nothing. A comparative nothing to be sure, for how can a budget of mere hundreds of thousands stack up to one of hundreds of millions?”

“You strike deep into the bowels of the problem, as always, my dear Duke, but also probe and prod about the sphincter of the solution. I refer you to the doctrine of the Glorious Failure, which I elucidated at length in my last revision of the Holy Texts. To wit, ‘It is better to reach for the stars and miss, than to strive for a pile of crap and attain it.’ What so many fail to appreciate in the so-called trash films we love is the artistic drive behind them, the sheer power of will and effort that got them made and distributed in the first place.

"These filmmakers are men and women who had a vision, a dream, and did not let anything deter them. They may have lacked the equipment, the funds, or yes, even the basic talent needed to realize their perfect visions fully, but still they let no obstacle stand in their way. There’s something nakedly admirable in that, if properly appreciated."

“Indeed!" laughed the Duke, leaning forward in his chair like a schoolboy offered a candied plum. "To coin another maxim, I always prefer a fascinating failure to a boring success."

“And the ideas these filmmakers pursued!" enthused the Vicar. "Some were no doubt ordinary folks, but now and then we discover primitive geniuses, even madmen! Filmmakers whose passion and determination suddenly arrests you with one successful image or scene, one idea that tears at the very fabric of your mind! I find such discoveries so much more rewarding than basking in the expected excellence of a multi-million dollar blockbuster. I’m sure you can think of corroborating examples. The cinema of the esteemed Mr. Marins, for instance.”

The Duke steepled his fingers and pursed his lips slightly while nodding sagely at the wizened Vicar. “Yes, you bring up many valid points. I am drawn back again to the wisdom expressed in your series of lectures for the University of Dunny On The Wode entitled “A Pelican Shat In My Hand: Observations On The Decline of Western Civilization” in which you regarded societies love for all things hollow as nothing more than an attempt to reconcile their already hollow existences. This can be applied to film as well, in which the Michael Bays of the world throw in heaps of masturbatory CGI effects to distract us from the fact that their films have no soul, no substance. The films of Herr Marins, for instance, and despite their low budgets, are infused with so much blackened soul that one can scarcely stand the awesome drifting about the theater in waves.”

“Indeed. And furthermore I—
Here the Vicar paused, noticing that the servant serving as his footstool had dared to lift his eyes from the stone block on which his nose should rest. He brought a polished hard leather heel down on the base of the rogue’s skull, and all was again as it should be. “As I was saying, I don’t mean to imply that one shouldn’t watch the films of Stanley Kubrick, Larry Clark, and the esteemed and venerable Herr Herzog. These men, and other men and women like them, are true artists and give the intelligent filmgoer something to challenge the mind and infuse the soul. I only mean to say that enjoyment of their artistry should not be so damnably exclusive! Because I love Aguirre: Wrath of God, does that mean I should denigrate the imaginative buffet of entertainment that is Scream Bloody Murder? I think not. There is no virtue, in my view, in refusing to allow oneself to be entertained.”

The Duke nodded. “Truer words have never been spoken. I believe the crux of the issue at hand is the fact that the typical, um, cattle don’t allow themselves to be entertained except by that which has already been defined as acceptable fare. Anything deemed deviant by the so-called glitterati instantly becomes a focus for inhibition of enjoyment. I’m sure that you would agree that films by such gods as Marins, Naschy and Lloyd Kaufman evoke enjoyment and enlightenment on many different planes, be they intentionally 'bad' cinematic techniques or through simple mistake on the part of an earnest filmmaker.”

The Duke let his hand trail downward, sweeping through a low-rise basin filled with gypsy tears, the soothing touch brought a slight smile to his face. Neither man so much as flinched as a sudden bestial roar from outside a nearby window reverberated throughout the chamber, causing a priceless vase to fall from its perch, only to be caught before it hit the floor by a mute servant, who silently replaced it before resuming his position by the door. The Duke’s face assumed a thoughtful expression as he flicked the tears from his fingertips. “I think you could also agree that any movie that brings things to such a crescendo of awesome as to be epic in every way, discounting its peasant beginnings, is worthy of praise, no?”

“Indeed. With the so-called ‘lesser’ films one sometimes has to work with the director, meet the writer more than halfway, forgive (nay, celebrate!) countless continuity flubs and bits of incidental idiocy, not only suspend one’s disbelief but send it hurtling into orbit! But let it not be said that I am a fancy-pants afraid of such work. No, I find that in most films, if you’re open to them, there will always be something that will make you smile, shriek, shudder, or laugh out loud in ridicule. But whether you’re celebrating the admirable ambition of a less-than-talented dreamer, reveling in the sleazy exploitation images of a perverted madman, or guffawing at the ineptitude of a bumbling buffoon, are you not still entertained? ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?”

The Vicar’s brow darkened, and his lips curled into a sneer. “Of course, there are those that just don’t even try. And that, my friend, is unforgivable. In fact, I tell you that in my church there is only one unpardonable sin, only one commandment that must not be broken.” He stood, stretching his arms out Christ-like, and intoned so deeply that the bare nipples of all the servants in the castle, both male and female, were hardened with the vibrations of his mellifluous voice:

“Thou mayest be stupid. Thou mayest be clumsy. Thou mayest be a bad writer or inept cameraman. Yea, all these indulgences I grant unto thee. But children, heed my words: THOU SHALT NOT BE BORING.

He relaxed and sat down again, leaving the servants quivering like so many inchoate heaps of raspberry Jell-O. “Passion is necessary. If the filmmaker cares, it shows. If he does not, it blows.”

The Vicar glanced at the antique grandfather clock near the fireplace, its gilded wooden gears oiled with the blood of extinct reptiles. “I must be returning to the vicarage soon. However, let us agree to inform each other of each new ‘bad’ movie discovery we make, and to expose its entertainments—intentional or not—to your subjects and my congregation. After all, the latest blockbuster needs no pimping from us, as a thousand bubble-headed town criers will sing their purchased praise from the very rooftops; we need not add our voice to those. And a well-considered masterpiece—Herzog’s latest, or Michael Moore’s Sicko, for instance, similarly needs not our approval to bolster its success. But these gems buried in the mire, these diamonds in the swamp of obscurity, these glorious failures and unsung successes—the people must be told.”

And with that the Vicar rose swiftly and joined arm-in-arm with the Duke. They swept through the door and down the stone walk, or so it appears to be at first glance--though here and there an up-turned “stone” reveals itself one of the actual human skulls upon which they tread. They chatted amicably, as old friends do, about various trivialities, such as the availability of a fabric woven from the strands of a rare blonde baboon from lower Mongolia, and the lapis lazuli-encrusted pitchfork that the Vicar had gifted to the Fel-Guard Captain who had foiled an assassination attempt last Brumalia. Arriving at the Vicar’s ebon coach, the Duke bid farewell and pivoted smoothly in a swirl of ermine and scarlet to return to his keep, as the Vicar’s coach sped off into the night, pulled forward by a cadre of undead horses.


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