Italian Grinders: Joe D’Amato Horror Retrospective Part 1 – Death and Pornography
Because I am somewhat known for my writing on Italian genre films, I will be re-writing/re-edited some of my DVDActive.com work into a separate essay category known as Italian Grinders. These will rarely coincide with the theme of the month.
Among the many sleazelord kings of European exploitation cinema, two filmmakers stand apart for the sheer quantity of their output – Jesus ‘Jess’ Franco and Joe D’Amato. Both men worked for decades, through good times and bad, through ‘legitimate’ features and straight (though not always “straight”) pornography. But, while Franco has benefited from considerable critical reconsideration in the years before his death in 2013, D’Amato remains a black sheep in the Italian trash community nearly 20 years after his untimely passing. This sour reputation is, in part, well-earned by D’Amato himself and his largely lackluster output. From the beginning, he treated cinema as a job and rarely a creative outlet. This attitude led him to make movies as quickly and cheaply as possible; often using recycled scripts, casts, sets, FX shots, and pre-completed footage. D’Amato had fallen into his role as a director/producer almost by accident following a lucrative career as a cinematographer – a vocation in which he actually excelled and (reportedly) enjoyed (some of his greatest work as cinematographer can be seen in Massimo Dallamano’s outstanding giallo, What Have You Done with Solange? [Italian: Cosa avete fatto a Solange?, 1972]). He was so skilled in this regard that it can be used as a metric to measure how much he cared about a given project, since he ended up photographing most of his own work, usually under a pseudonym.
Death Smiles on a Murderer (1973)
The horror community best knows D’Amato for his strange, gore-soaked slasher variants and violent pornos. And, while all these films remain part of the exploitation pop-culture consciousness, thanks to their controversial content and loyal cult followings, their occasional slapdash execution (emphasis on occasional) haven’t endeared them to fans of the more consistent technical artistry seen in Mario Bava, Dario Argento, or Lucio Fulci’s best work (emphasis on best work). However, D’Amato’s second foray into horror, following a co-directing credit on Luigi Batzella’s The Devil’s Wedding Night (Italian: Il plenilunio delle vergini, 1973), Death Smiles on a Murderer (Italian: La morte ha sorriso all'assassino; working title Seven Strange Corpses, 1973) comes awfully close to earning class-A Gothic horror status with its convoluted tale of a hunchbacked wretch named Franz (Luciano Rossi), who lusts after his undead sister, Greta (Ewa Aulin), her illicit affair with an aristocrat named Dr. von Ravensbrück (Giacomo Rossi), and her revenge on the aristocrat’s murderous wife, Eva (Angela Bo).
D’Amato was proud enough of Death Smiles on a Murderer to make it one of the few films to be graced with his birth name, Aristide Massaccesi. He not only directed the film (alone this time), he also wrote its story, co-wrote its screenplay (along with Romano Scandariato and Claudio Bernabei), and acted as cinematographer and camera operator (as he often did on his own films). As the overlong title implies, Death Smiles on a Murderer was sold as an entry in the early, post-Bird with the Crystal Plumage (Italian: L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo) giallo lottery. It doesn’t quite check every box on that particular genre list, but still fits the mould with its many Edgar Allan Poe-inspired plot beats, use of flashbacks, and baffling storytelling choices. Its closest cousins are probably Mario Bava’s near-gialli gothic chillers, Baron Blood (Italian: Gli orrori del castello di Norimberga, 1972) and The Whip and the Body (Italian: La frusta e il corpo, 1963), but there are also potent comparisons to be made to the more arty French-produced sex-horrors of Walerian Borowczyk and Jean Rollin. Like those films, Death Smiles on a Murderer is deliberately paced and more interested in exploring dreamstate imagery than evenly distributing explicit content over its 88-minute runtime. What really sets it apart from the typical giallo template, however, are the mad scientist/supernatural resurrection plot points, in which a Frankenstein-like family doctor (played by Klaus Kinski) discovers an ancient Incan re-animation formula. This develops from a seemingly unrelated subplot into a central theme, as D’Amato slips further into established giallo conventions, such as roving P.O.V. shots and unsolvable murder mysteries.
Though quite tame compared to his later work, Death Smiles on a Murderer sets an early precedent for D’Amato’s sense of uncanny sensuality, wherein genuinely sexy moments (again, tame only when set against his future movies) are tinged with insidious subtexts. This keeps the audience on edge during titillating and dramatic sequences, and even helps to define the characters themselves when the screenplay is otherwise unwilling. Gore is seldom used, but the violence is quite intense for the era, including a face mutilated by buckshot, a prolonged strangulation sequence, a super-bloody facial slashing, a victim pinned to a wall through his shoulder, and a show-stopping climax where a man has his face ravaged by a cat. That last bit became a centerpiece of the advertising, donning the official poster in several countries, and was perhaps a partial inspiration behind similar sequences in Fulci’s The Black Cat (Italian: El Gato Negro, 1981) and Manhattan Baby (1982), though the latter featured birds in the place of a cat.
The key component here actually isn’t D’Amato’s typical mix of graphic sex and violence, but the film’s handsome production design, Piera Bruni & Gianfranco Simoncelli’s kaleidoscopic editing, and the director’s outstanding photography. D’Amato combines deep-set static shots with odd angles, almost nauseating fisheye effects, and (as any fan will expect) crash-zooms, that are disorienting in their own right, before Bruni & Simoncelli spin everything into dizzying expressionistic depths. While a big part of me – and I imagine many others – will always prefer the stomach-churning insanity of Beyond the Darkness (see part 2), Death Smiles on a Murderer’s technical strengths stand as an important reminder that D’Amato could’ve reached the talent level of Bava or Argento, had he been more invested in his work. Barring that, a few more well-financed, sexy period pieces and he could’ve matched Franco’s pedigree.
Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals (1977)
In 1974, French director Just Jaeckin made a groundbreaking softcore porn film based on Emmanuelle Arsan’s famed erotic novel, Emmanuelle (pub. 1967). Along with Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972), John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy (1969), and Gerard Damiano’s Deep Throat (1972), Jaeckin’s film helped to propel the porno chic era, in which X-rated films (Deep Throat aside, largely harmless by modern XXX/NC-17 standards) were considered viable cinematic art alongside major Hollywood productions. Given its particularly simple premise, Emmanuelle was prime material for official and unofficial sequel treatments. Italy’s most well-received entry in the ‘franchise’ was Bitto Albertini’s Black Emanuelle (note that they removed one letter ‘m’ from the character’s name to avoid copyright battles), which was built around the unmistakable charms of Indonesian-Dutch actress Laura Gemser, released in 1975, and followed by (at least) 17 so-called sequels over an 8-year period.
D’Amato arguably got the most mileage with the Black Emanuelle character. He teamed-up with Gemser to make a total of five movies, each of which were bolstered by combining softcore antics with elements from other fashionable exploitation subgenres. Emanuelle in Bangkok (Italian: Emanuelle nera – Orient Reportage, 1976), Emanuelle Around the World (Italian: Emanuelle – Perché violenza alle donne?, 1977), and Emanuelle & the White Slave Trade (Italian: La via della prostituzione, 1978) saw the title character traveling throughout the developing world to witness and report on Mondo-like vignettes of “strange cultural practices” and save human trafficking victims between sex scenes. Emanuelle in America (1977) was, generally speaking, a typical D’Amato/Gemser joint, but its choice of unique exploitation elements were particularly shocking. The first of these, beastiality (as seen in an often-censored sequence where Emanuelle watches a woman masturbate a horse), is such a jaw-dropper that the other trend-chasing component can go overlooked. The entire film builds to an unexpectedly distressing scene where Emanuelle – who is investigating a resort island where wealthy women pay outrageous fees to realize their carnal fantasies – stumbles across a snuff film. The footage lasts only a matter of minutes, but is so repulsive and convincing enough to very nearly match the disturbing qualities of Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980), with which it shares a faux-found-footage aesthetic.
Emanuelle & the Last Cannibals (Italian: Emanuelle e gli Ultimi Cannibali; aka: Trap Them and Kill Them, 1977), as the title would indicate, introduced flesh-eating Amazonian tribes into the mix, in order to cash-in on Umberto Lenzi’s The Man From Deep River (Italian: Il paese del sesso selvaggio; aka: Deep River Savages, 1972) and Ruggero Deodato’s Last Cannibal World (Italian: Ultimo mondo cannibale; aka: Jungle Holocaust, 1977). It is the one D’Amato Black Emanuelle movie that comfortably fits a horror classification. Cannibal films are such an insular genre that the majority of them actually share a basic plot line. Emanuelle & the Last Cannibals’ plot, for example – credited to D’Amato and Romano Scandariato – follows the same narrative lines as Sergio Martino’s Mountain of the Cannibal God (Italian: La montagna del dio cannibale; aka: Slave of the Cannibal God, 1978), Umberto Lenzi’s Eaten Alive! (Italian: Mangiati vivi!; aka: Doomed to Die, 1980), the first half of Cannibal Holocaust, Lenzi’s Cannibal Ferox (aka: Make Them Die Slowly, 1981), and even Marino Girolami’s zombie/cannibal mashup, Zombi Holocaust (aka: Doctor Butcher, M.D., 1980). This story pattern states that, following some kind of frightening/murderous event in America (almost always New York City), a group of white folks (plus Emanuelle, in this case) venture into a rainforest (for instance, the Amazon) in search of a different group of white folks that went missing and are presumed to have been eaten by the natives they wanted to study/exploit/plunder. Also, as usually happens, Emanuelle & the Last Cannibals’ early, city-set scenes are amusing crime movie pastiches that have more entertainment value than the meatier jungle-set scenes.
D’Amato takes his sexploitation rep seriously, so he and Scandariato adjusted the prototype to fit more sex and nudity than you’d typically see in a cannibal movie. Like any porno, fornication drives the plot, to the point that a sex scene occurs about every five minutes (at least until the final act, where it’s more like one every 10 minutes). These don’t include anything as crude as horse masturbation, but there is enough male-on-female grinding, sapphic heavy-petting, implied oral sex, solo masturbation, and casual nudity to sate an X-rated audience in 1976. D’Amato’s commitment to softcore shenanigans and devotion to the Italian cannibal formula peaks during the end of the first act, when he literally intercuts copious love making with shots of the cast visiting various New York City landmarks (in the middle of it all, Emanuelle has one last fling with her current beau on the beach beneath the Brooklyn Bridge). However, the apex of the film’s ludicrousness is the sequence where Emanuelle takes a standing bath in a tropical lagoon, while a cigarette-smoking, sunglass-wearing chimpanzee looks on. You know, one of those famous Amazonian chimps – the ones that know how to use lighters.
For better or worse, Emanuelle & the Last Cannibals really isn’t a gore movie and its most violent episodes are comparatively mild. Its ick factor tends to be tied to the concept of the atrocities, rather than the actual juiciness of said harm. For example, the film opens with Emanuelle working undercover in a mental hospital, where she sees a patient bite off a nurse’s breast, but we only really see stage blood smeared over the actress’ exposed chest, followed by another actress chewing on what appears to be steak. After that, gorehounds have to then wait until nearly the 50-minute mark, when our heroes stumble across a gutted native tracker. Things pick up during the final 30 minutes, where, one-by-one, our adventurers are impaled, beheaded, cut open, and eaten. Again, the gore is largely implied via split-second glances at costume shop props, aside from two gnarly (though unconvincing) gutting deaths and an elaborate, but ultimately almost bloodless scene where a character is bisected when rope is pulled over his midsection. The most revolting (and convincing) sequence is a brief snippet of black & white footage where supposed African cannibals slice off a man’s penis. Not too surprisingly, these shots were borrowed from a Mondo-style pseudo-documentary that D’Amato made with Bruno Mattei called Notti porno nel mondo (1977).
Emanuelle & the Last Cannibals is every bit as culturally insensitive as its counterparts – and its racism might actually be more offensive, considering the title character’s non-white heritage – but it does score points for avoiding animal slaughter. Aside from stock footage of two caiman fighting and a pre-killed boa being shot in the head, on-screen barbarism is reserved for the humans. Considering that D’Amato tended to prefer cinematography to directing, it’s not surprising that Emanuelle & the Last Cannibals tends to look better than most corresponding movies (in defense of other filmmakers, few seem to have really cared about their cannibal projects, aside from maybe Deodato). It’s still clearly shot very quickly and on a shoestring, but D’Amato takes a few extra minutes to find interesting and evocative shots. These cinematic habits, along with Gemser’s effortlessly cool, statuesque screen presence, help to propel the film beyond the doldrums of D’Amato and Scandariato’s by-the-numbers script.
D’Amato made one more erotic cannibal hybrid, Papaya, Love Goddess of the Cannibals (Italian: Papaya dei Caraibi, 1978). It did not star Gemser and wasn’t branded as an Emanuelle movie, but it does costar Sirpa Lane as another investigative journalist and generally follows the same generic Italian cannibal plot described above. He also co-directed two mockumentaries with Bruno Mattei starring Gemser, the aforementioned Notti porno nel mondo and Emanuelle & the Erotic Nights (Italian: Emanuelle e le porno notti nel mondo n. 2, 1978). Some of his other Gemser collaborations – Black Cobra Woman (Italian: Eva nera, 1976), Pleasure Shop on the Avenue (Italian: Il porno shop della settima strada, 1979), Sexy Erotic Love (aka: Porno Esotic Love, 1980), and Erotic Nights of the Living Dead (Italian: Le notti erotiche dei morti viventi, 1980) – were rebranded as Black Emanuelle movies in some countries. As censorship slackened, he became better known for his XXX efforts and recycled his Last Cannibals concepts by crossing hardcore violence and hardcore sex for zombie horrors, culminating with Erotic Nights of the Living Dead and Porno Holocaust (Italian: Orgasmo Nero II, 1981). These were shot back-to-back with the same cast & crew and are essentially the same movie.