Diabolical Dr. Z BD Review (originally published 2018)
Irma Zimmer (Mabel Karr) is the daughter of a visionary scientist (Antonio Jiménez Escribano), who has developed a morbid system of mind control. After the slightly mad doctor's death, Irma carries on her father's work and uses a telepathically-controlled exotic dancer with poisoned fingernails (Estella Blain) as an instrument of revenge upon three doctors who mocked Dr. Z's theories. But can Irma eliminate the names on her hit list before a pair of detectives (Daniel White and Jess Franco) expose her plot? (From Redemption’s official synopsis)
Before he was shoveling zero-budget exploitation and hardcore porn onto the grindhouse and straight-to-video markets, Jess Franco was a pretty well-respected and influential filmmaker, especially for his early contributions to European horror/thrillers. Along with French and American counterparts, these films set a precedent for other poppy, modernist genre films and stood in contrast to the ‘traditional,’ Victorian-set monster movies coming out of England, Italy, and Franco’s home country of Spain during the ‘60s. The Diabolical Dr. Z (aka: Miss Muerte, Miss Death, and Miss Death and Dr. Z in the Grip of the Maniac) is, by my estimation, Franco’s best and most emblematic film of this era. Its mod-chic look and knowing camp appeal also makes it one of his most accessible features. Armed with a comparatively sizable budget, Franco builds upon the themes and imagery he developed for his first big hit, The Awful Dr. Orlof (Spanish: Gritos en la noche, 1962), which is technically a semi-prequel to this film, due to the mention of Dr. Z being a student of Dr. O.
I bet you didn’t know there was an expansive Francoverse, did you?
Though the credits claim their screenplay is based on a book by David Khune (one of the director’s many pseudonyms), Franco and (Academy Award-winning writer) Jean-Claude Carrière (who only one year later adapted Belle de Jour for Luis Buñuel) were actually loosely adapting Cornell Woolrich’s The Bride Wore Black (pub: 1940 and ‘officially’ adapted to film by François Truffaut in 1968). Franco then recycled some story elements for The Blood of Fu Manchu (1968) and She Killed in Ecstasy (1971), as had Terence Fisher and Anthony Hinds when they made Frankenstein Created Woman (1967). Of course, everyone, from Woolrich through Franco, was inspired on some level by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (pub: 1818) and James Whale’s seminal film versions – Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Other key influences on Diabolical Dr. Z include pulp comic strips/books, the expressionist work of Fritz Lang, and Georges Franju’s genre-twisting horror work (Franco borrowed regularly from Eyes without a Face  for this film, as well as Awful Dr. Orlof, Faceless , and others).
Not surprisingly, the story and characters are secondary to Alejandro Ulloa’s gorgeous black & white photography, Antonio Cortés’ creative and mega-hip set/production design, and surprisingly gory special effects. In fact, Franco tailors the plot to fit these settings and the characters are more simply defined by their costumes than by their actions or dialogue. This seemingly randomized narrative structure may alienate some viewers, who will either find it laughable or taxing in its straight-faced weirdness. However, those of us who [i]can[/i] appreciate Franco’s particular foibles would not have it any other way. The visuals are striking enough to maintain the short runtime and the constantly shifting, loosely knit storyline never grows stale or repetitive. Moreover, fans will recognize Diabolical Dr. Z’s occasionally avant-garde imagery as a forerunner to the director’s more psychedelic and blatantly erotic ‘70s fare. The brief, yet indelible “Miss Death” burlesque exhibition scenes, in particular, are dry-runs for the elaborate and dreamy tableaus of the most defining film in Franco’s several-hundred-film career, Vampyros Lesbos.
I don’t know if Diabolical Dr. Z was ever released on US VHS, though it seems likely that it would’ve at least popped-up on one of those grey market ‘budget’ tapes with a generic cover, possibly under one of its many other names. DVD versions included anamorphic discs from Mondo Macabro in the US and Subkulture Entertainment in Germany (a limited edition release), but this Redemption Blu-ray is the first available HD release in any market. Because their logo is among the opening titles, I’m going to assume that this 1.66:1, 1080p transfer was struck/mastered by Guarmont, which is good news, given the company’s reputation and Redemption’s hit & miss streak on Blu-ray. Ulloa’s stark, shadowy, black & white photography is beautifully rendered with what appears to be accurate (sometimes heavy) grain levels and significantly stronger edges than its standard definition counterparts. Details are sometimes limited by the depth of focus and other film-based qualities, but do not exhibit major digital compression effects. Its Gradient quality is about as clean as the grainy, dark footage can possibly allow and black levels are strong. Basically, the only shortcoming is the occasional presence of haloes along high contrast edges, which, again, might just be inherent in the original material.
This Blu-ray includes both the original English and French dubs in uncompressed, LPCM 2.0 mono. The English dub is slightly incomplete, due to differences between the American and international cuts of the film. The missing sections have been replaced with French language inserts. Like most European genre films from the period, the film was shot without on-set sound, then dubbed into various languages for international release. The actors appear to be speaking a number of languages throughout the film (which would make sense, given the French, Swiss, Spanish, and Italian lineage of the main cast), yet very few seem to have dubbed themselves, so the lipsync is awkward in either case. Outside of their language differences, the two tracks also have slightly distinctive tonal qualities – the French dub is a bit rounder and bassier, while the English dub is sharper with slightly more naturalistic dialogue. French composer Daniel White, who wrote music for Franco over a period of six decades (and appears in the film as a police detective), supplies a fitting, jazz-infused chamber music kind of score that sounds nearly identical between the tracks.
Commentary with Tim Lucas – The co-author of Obsession: The Films of Jess Franco offers his typically academic slant here, covering the making of Diabolical Dr. Z, its connections to other films, and the cast & crew’s careers. He also does his best to explain the more inexplicable sections of the plot.
When coupled with Vampyros Lesbos (available on Blu-ray from Severin Films), Diabolical Dr. Z tells you almost everything you need to know about the genre-twisting, erotic world of Jess Franco. It’s an acquired taste for sure, but not one as difficulty acquired as the truly, objectively awful movies Franco made into the later ‘70s and ‘80s. This Blu-ray debut looks about as good as we could ever expect this particular movie to look on home video. It features two solid, uncompressed soundtrack options and an outstanding commentary track from author/expert Tim Lucas.
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Full-sized versions can (currently) only be accessed by right-clicking/ctrl-clicking the images and opening them in a new window/tab. Note that there will be some JPG compression.