Italian Grinders: Joe D’Amato Horror Retrospective Part 2 – Video Nasties
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.
Beyond the Darkness (Italian: Buio Omega; aka: Buried Alive,1979)
Following quick dips in the horror pool for Death Smiles on a Murderer (Italian: La morte ha sorriso all'assassino, 1973) and his erotic pseudo-horrors (see Part 1), D’Amato broke hard into real gorehound territory with Beyond the Darkness – full-bodied shock-machine, dripping with enough stomach-churning dread to eclipse most of its closest competition. And, while much of that dread is a byproduct of the films unrelenting perversity, one cannot neglect D’Amato’s technical control or visual contributions. At its heart, Beyond the Darkness is an impossibly depraved, fever dream version of Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). The story concerns the young, Norman Bates-like Frank (Kieran Canter) – an amateur taxidermist morning the sudden and mysterious death of his fiancé, Anna (Cinzia Monreale). Just as Bates preserved the body of his mother, Frank uses his skills to preserve the Anna’s body and attempts to carry on their romantic relationship. Also like Bates, he’s ‘forced’ to murder anyone who discovers his secret and he shares an unhealthy relationship with a maternal figure in his housekeeper and co-conspirator, Iris (Franca Stoppi). Though Iris isn’t technically Frank’s mother, D’Amato manages to ratchet up the oedipal context with footage of her breastfeeding him for mutual sexual gratification.
Technically, D’Amato was remaking Mino Guerrini’s The Third Eye (Italian: Il terzo occhio, 1966), a Hitchcock-inspired (a dash of Psycho, a pinch of Vertigo...) thriller co-written by Navajo Joe (Sergio Corbucci, 1966) and Nightmare City (Umberto Lenzi, 1980) author Piero Regnoli. Beyond the Darkness’ screenplay is even co-credited to Mino Guerrini’s son, Giacomo (along with Ottavio Fabbri). In both movies, an introverted male taxidermist (one of Franco Nero’s first, pre-Django leading roles) is driven insane when his housekeeper jealousy kills his betrothed. Both characters exhume the body, keep it in the bed beside them, murder potential lovers, are forced to rely on the housekeeper to dispose of the bodies, and fall in love with their dead fiancé’s doppelgänger sisters. There are key differences as well, most of which fill-in a backstory that is only hinted at in D’Amato’s more streamlined narrative. For example, the housekeeper murders the protagonist’s fiancé and mother, and neither character dies until 25 minutes into the 83-minute long movie. Being a mid-’60s production, The Third Eye opts to have most of the violence occur place off-screen. There is a particularly nasty taxidermy sequence, but the victim is a long-dead crow, instead of a human woman.
In an interview conducted for Luca M. Palmerini & Gaetano Mistretta’s Spaghetti Nightmares: Italian Fantasy-Horrors As Seen Through The Eyes Of Their Protagonists (Fantasma Books, 1996), the typically modest D’Amato credits the Bressanone villa location for the film’s creepy vibe, rather than his own photography, and differentiates Beyond the Darkness from other exploitation films (including his own) by pointing to its lack of “physical violence.” While this is patently false – there are two brutal murder scenes, followed by a furious hand-to-hand battle to the death at the end of the film – the statement points to a key conceptual choice. Like Lucio Fulci, who referred to his decay-obsessed films as “Artaudian” (after the avant-garde originator of The Theatre of Cruelty, Antonin Artaud), D’Amato isn’t as interested in murder as he is in the chemical and physical breakdown of the human body after death. It’s also likely that he recognized suspense was not his forte and decided to focus on the grotesquery and tone, rather than tension. Either way, the gore never feels gratuitous, because it is a vital component of the consistently oppressive atmosphere.
For years, it was rumored that D’Amato had used stock footage from real autopsies and cremations to achieve the shocking post-mortem effects. The reason these effects stand-up may be tied to their austere and procedural nature, as much as the fact that D’Amato and company largely avoid the rubbery prosthetics tied to the late-’70s/early-’80s era. The filmmakers utilize reasonably convincing appliances for the various bite wounds, but the most successful gags are achieved using a combination of old-fashioned magician’s techniques, such as forced-perspective, sleight-of-hand, and basic chemistry. During the three key gore sequences (Anna’s embalming, a nosy hitchhiker’s acid bath, and a jogger’s cremation), D’Amato chooses his camera angles and edits so carefully that the audience can rarely notice the lack of continuity between shots of actors playing dead and shots of appalling graphic animal offal/bubbling food byproducts/melting plastics. Had he a bigger budget and a more experienced effects crew (D’Amato more or less takes credit for the FX himself during an interview included with the Severin Blu-ray collection, mentioning Fulci favorite make-up man Giannetto De Rossi as a “teacher”) Beyond the Darkness’ might have been more elaborate, but, given the state of the art at the time, they probably would’ve been less convincing.
There is understandable confusion surrounding the film’s title. The original Italian name, Buio Omega, ended up being translated to Blue or Dark Holocaust (omega has basically the same meaning in English and Italian – it’s just the last letter in the Greek alphabet). It was titled Beyond the Darkness for US theatrical release, then erroneously re-named Buried Alive for home video. Meanwhile, D’Amato produced, photographed (under the pseudonym Larry J. Fraser), and probably co-directed a movie with frequent collaborator Claudio Fragasso called La Casa 5 (1990). The La Casa title was meant to mark it as a fifth sequel to Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead, but calling it House 5 would create confusion in North America, because it would imply that it was a sequel to Steve Miner’s House (which actually has three sequels, two of which were attached to the La Casa series in Italy), so it was re-titled Beyond Darkness for home video stateside. Despite D’Amato taking part in both films, Beyond Darkness and Beyond THE Darkness have basically nothing else in common.
Anthropophagous (aka: Anthropophagous: The Beast and The Grim Reaper, 1980)
Beyond the Darkness is undoubtedly D’Amato’s horror masterpiece and a key film in the Italian genre canon (even if it wasn’t particularly influential), but he is almost certainly best known for his controversial Euro-slashers Anthropophagous and it’s pseudo-sequel, Absurd. Anthropophagous was co-written by D’Amato and star George Eastman (real name: Luigi Montefiori). It begins with a group of tourists arriving for holiday on a remote Greek island. When they arrive, they find the island abandoned and eventually discover that a lone cannibalistic madman (Eastman) has killed and eaten everyone in town. Soon after, the sun-baked madman begins to hunt them down, eventually chasing them into a dusty mansion, where survivors Julie (Tisa Farrow in the second of three roles in violent Italian B-movies, following Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2 [aka: Zombie and Zombie Flesh Eaters, 1979] and followed by Antonio Margheriti’s The Last Hunter [Italian: L'Ultimo Cacciatore, 1980]), Carol (Zora Kerova), and Andy (Saverio Vallone) make their last stand.
As is often the case, Anthropophagous’ popularity isn’t tied to its quality, but the controversy it courted soon after release. Like many Italian-made horrors of the ‘70s and early ‘80s, D’Amato’s movie found itself prosecuted and banned on home video in the UK as part of the British Board of Film Classification’s so-called ‘Video Nasties’ scare. But Anthropophagous wasn’t merely a random B-movie that found itself arbitrarily added to the DPP’s (Director of Public Prosecutions) banned list – it was a centerpiece of the moral outrage campaign. Specifically, a sequence in which Eastman tears a fetus from a pregnant victim’s womb and takes a bite was falsely categorized as authentic snuff, despite the ridiculous notion that a pregnant actress (who appeared in other movies) agreed to have her unborn child eaten or the fact that the fetus in question was clearly a skinned rabbit. Ultimately, baby-eating and a few other particularly juicy kills aside, Anthropophagous is a typical vacation slasher with a refreshing rural Greek setting. Detached from its reputation, it doesn’t come anywhere near the level of genuine, stomach-churning dread of oppressively relentless gore movies, such as Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980) or even Beyond the Darkness.
As opposed to the vast majority of the Video Nasties, which are so shoddily made that they’re nearly unwatchable, Anthropophagous can be quite fun and is a good example of D’Amato actually exerting some creative effort. Its obvious problems aren’t the tastelessness of his shocks or its lack of budget, but its excess of listless filler. While the censors and moral guardians focus on its extreme gore, many Italian horror fans actually remember it for its long boring streaks. I’m not going to downplay the problem D’Amato’s needless time-stretches cause (he could’ve easily trimmed 11 minutes and still had a feature-friendly 80-minute runtime), but I do hope that the film’s bad reputation in this regard has faded a bit, because, if you can make it through the spotty first hour, the final act is a relentlessly entertaining stalk & slash that actually outperforms the majority of North American slashers in terms of suspense and imaginative violence. Then, it ends with perhaps the greatest villain death in slasher movie history (it’s a toss-up between this and Jeff Lieberman’s Just Before Dawn, 1981). D’Amato even finds a perfect spot to stick a flashback to the killer’s tragic backstory, leading me to assume that the final 30 minutes represent the bulk of his and Eastman’s script.
Anthropophagous’ popularity helped propel D’Amato’s career for nearly two more decades. It was a truly independent production, largely financed by of two of D’Amato’s own companies – Produzioni Cinematografiche Massaccesi International, created in order to distribute 1980’s dark hardcore porno, Sesso nero, and the freshly-minted Filmirage, which was co-founded with frequently collaborator Donatella Donati. During interviews for Spaghetti Nightmares and Roger A. Fratter’s two-part documentary, Joe D'Amato Totally Uncut (1999), the director theorized that, between the many hats he (and others) wore on the production, the location shooting, and use of 16mm film, it was his cheapest non-porno to shoot. This led to substantial profit – a great deal of which went back into Filmirage’s pockets to fund more of of D’Amato’s own films, as well as a number of other directors’ mid-’80s horror work. In short, even Anthropophagous’ detractors should probably appreciate it for part in financing Michele Soavi’s 1987 solo directorial debut, Stage Fright (Italian: Deliria; aka: StageFright, Aquarius, and Bloody Bird).
Absurd (Italian: Rosso Sangue; aka: Horrible, 1981)
D’Amato continued his short, but prolific stint as a gore movie maker with a pair of gore/porn hybrids, Erotic Nights of the Living Dead (Italian: Le notti erotiche dei morti viventi, 1980) and Porno Holocaust (1981), jumped back on the slasher bandwagon with Eastman once again in tow as writer and star. Their follow-up, Absurd, theoretically began as a direct sequel, as clear from occasionally referenced alternate titles Anthropophagous 2 and The Grim Reaper 2 (it was also resold as a bogus fifth sequel to George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, 1978, at one point under the title Zombi 6: Monster Hunter) and the fact that the killer is played by the same guy (Eastman). He also begins this film disemboweled and clutching his intestines, but this is an homage to the last movie (where he dies with guts in hand), since the cause of injury is completely different. Eastman (who has the only story and screenplay credits this time around, despite claiming in interviews that he didn’t have enough time to actually write a complete treatment) and D’Amato quickly abandoned the idea of another distinctly European variation on the slasher for a more straightforward aping of the basic traditions and clichés developed by John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980), and the largely Canadian-made mad killer movies that were squeezed out in between. However, being Italian boys at heart, the duo still managed to infuse Absurd with a multitude of European eccentricities.
Halloween is the key template, beginning with the dynamic relationship between a silent, unstoppable killer and the man burdened by the knowledge of his madness. In Carpenter’s film, the killer was a troubled boy who grew into an even more troubled man and his nemesis was his one-time psychiatrist. D’Amato and Eastman add Catholic and sci-fi twists, by making the good-guy nemesis a guilty Vatican priest (Edmund Purdom) who helped to create the killer during a botched, church-sanctioned scientific experiment (?!). Unlike Michael Myers, who, until later films, was a mysterious, pseudo-supernatural force that didn’t need to be explained, Mikos is impervious to impalement, disemboweling, and gunshots specifically because the Church’s biochemistry division (?!?) designed him that way. Absurd then recycles the disabled victim gimmick from Anthropophagous, replacing a blind woman with a paralyzed girl (Annie Belle) who miraculously isn’t really all that paralyzed when it’s convenient. However, by the final act, Absurd’s disabled victim grows into a stand-in for the North American brand of Final Girl, who survives the killer’s attacks via emotional fortitude, precocity, and surprising physical strength. It’s possible that D’Amato and Eastman were attempting to do something similar with Anthropophagous’ blind heroine, but opted to make sure their star actress survived the ordeal, instead. The one other Halloween-ism Absurd borrows is the big event occupying everyone’s attention. They trade the largely American holiday (Halloween, naturally) for an all-American sporting event, namely the Super Bowl. Despite the authenticity of including footage from the actual 1980 game, they do little to disguise the laughable Italian stereotypes. The people watching the game sit in white-plastered villas and eat nothing but piles of red sauce spaghetti.
Absurd is less grotesquely creative than its counterpart and its vague Rome as America setting is a step down from Anthropophagous’ more compelling Greek island backdrop, but it makes up for this ambiguous nature with a much larger body count and cruel streak that, despite all of his notoriety as an exploitation machine, D’Amato rarely revisited. During his mostly head-based rampage, Eastman drives a surgical drill through a nurse’s temple, rams a slaughterhouse janitor’s skull into a jigsaw, strangles a biker (future Cemetery Man director Michele Soavi), pickaxes a babysitter from scalp to jaw, and shoves a physical therapist/secondary babysitter headfirst into an oven, then stabs her with scissors when she turns up alive and almost gets the drop on him. Other gore delights include Mikos’ aforementioned exposed guts, which are surgically shoved back into his body. There’s less filler this time around, as well, though D’Amato once again ends the film on its strongest point, when the still injured heroine stabs Mikos’ eyes out and silently sneaks around as he blindly and angrily gropes the air. She eventually rectifies the situation by brutally hacking his head off and presenting it to her parents.
D'Amato's Porno Horror/Thrillers:
Emanuelle's Revenge (Italian: Emanuelle e Françoise le sorelline, 1975)
Emanuelle in America (1977)
Papaya, Love Goddess of the Cannibals (Italian title: Papaya dei Caraibi, 1978)
Erotic Nights of the Living Dead (Italian: Le notti erotiche dei morti viventi, 1980)
Porno Holocaust (1981)
Caligula...The Untold Story (Italian: Caligola...la storia mai raccontata, 1982)
D'Amato as Cinematographer:
A Quiet Place to Kill (Umberto Lenzi; Italian: Paranoia, 1970)
What Have You Done to Solange? (Massimo Dallamano; Italian: Cosa avete fatto a Solange?, 1972)
The Killer Is on the Phone (Alberto De Martino; Italian: L'assassino... è al telefono, 1972)
The Devil's Wedding Night (co-directed with Luigi Batzella; Italian: Il plenilunio delle vergini, 1973)
The Antichrist (Alberto De Martino; Italian: L'anticristo, 1974)
D'Amato as Producer:
Stage Fright (Michele Soavi; aka: Deliria, StageFright, Aquarius, Bloody Bird,1987)
Killing Birds (co-directed with Claudio Lattanzi; aka: Zombi 5 – Killing Birds, 1987)
Ghosthouse (Umberto Lenzi; Italian: La Casa 3, 1988)
Witchery (Fabrizio Laurenti; Italian: La Casa 4, 1988)
Hitcher in the Dark (Umberto Lenzi; Italian: Paura nel buio, 1989)
Metamorphosis (George Eastman/Luigi Montefiori, 1989)
Deep Blood (co-directed with Raffaele Donato; Italian: Sangue negli abissi, 1989)
Beyond Darkness (Claudio Fragasso; Italian: La Casa 5, 1990)
Troll 2 (maybe co-directed with Claudio Fragasso, 1990)
Troll 3 (co-directed with Fabrizio Laurenti; aka: Contamination .7, 1990)
Door to Silence (Lucio Fulci; Italian: Le porte del silenzio, 1991)
* Note that, even in cases where he isn't credited as co-director, D'Amato possibly worked behind the camera.