Blu-ray Release: August 30, 2022 (Giallo Essentials: Black Edition)
Audio: English and Italian LPCM 1.0 Mono
Subtitles: English, English SDH
Run Time: 88:20
Director: Silvio Amadio
Note: As of this writing, this Blu-ray is only available as part of Arrow’s Giallo Essentials: Black Edition three-movie set along with Francesco Mazzei’s The Weapon, the Hour, the Motive (Italian: L'arma, l'ora, il movente, 1972) and Giuseppe Bennati's The Killer Reserved Nine Seats (Italian: L'assassino ha riservato nove poltrone, 1974).
Familicide with a sprinkling of Oedipal love is the order of the day when teenager, Nancy (Jenny Tamburi), returns home to discover the apparent suicide of her mother. She quickly comes to suspect that her stepfather (Silvano Tranquilli) and his mistress (Rosalba Neri) are to blame. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
As boutique home video labels continue to help us fill in the blanks in our giallo Blu-ray collections, we’ve started moving on from the established canon and principal filmmakers into obscurities made by directors who only dabbled in one or two gialli before moving on to more creative and/or profitable ventures. Silvio Amadio was one such filmmaker. Having worked steadily making war films, peplum epics, exploitation movies, sex comedies, and a single spaghetti western (For One Thousand Dollars Per Day [Italian: Per mille dollari al giorno, 1966]), he wrote & directed a class warfare thriller called Amuck (Italian: Alla ricerca del piacere, 1972), probably inspired by Umberto Lenzi’s An Ideal Place to Kill (Italian: Un posto ideale per uccidere, 1971), and helped set a precedent for gialli and gialli-adjacent movies where bored rich people manipulate people on the bottom of the social ladder into acts of brutality. The best of these is arguably Aldo Lado’s Night Train Murders (Italian: L'ultimo treno della notte; aka: Late Night Trains, 1975), but the idea eventually made its way into Umberto Lenzi’s brutal gore opus, Cannibal Ferox (aka: Make Them Die Slowly, 1981).
Amadio’s second, final, and much lesser-known giallo, Smile Before Death (Italian: Il sorriso della Jena, 1972), was released mere months later the same year and better fits the tone and narrative direction the genre had taken in the wake of Dario Argento’s Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970). It still presents wealthy socialites as secretly psychopathic grotesques, but the characters aren’t psychopaths this time; instead, they are fabulous, chic, and aspirational figures stuck in a bad situation. Smile Before Death is more plot-driven and hinges slightly more on the murder mystery aspect, rather than the perversions of its characters. That said, both films lean into their sexploitation contingent and neither is concerned with outdoing Argento’s body-count. In fact, the actual on-screen violence is incredibly tame, consisting of only two bloody, but not gory murders. Amadio instead earns his giallo credentials with gratuitous nudity and an overload of mod clothing, retro-futurist furniture, and bright colors. A lot of screen time is devoted to trying on hip outfits for bubbly fashion shoots, rather than scenes of madmen stalking and stabbing.
In all, Smile Before Death is an effervescent little exercise that is less like a typical ‘70s giallo and more like a dirty Nancy Drew mystery where the main character seduces the perpetrators and turns them against each other (oh my God, I just noticed the character’s name is even Nancy…). Assuming you can handle its often cutesy, cheesecake approach, it’s very entertaining and has a fantastic final twist. Jenny Tamburi (real name Luciana Tamburini) had a lasting career in sex comedies, nunsploitation, women in prison flicks, and made appearances in two other gialli, Sergio Martino’s The Suspicious Death of a Minor (Italian: Morte Sospetta di una Minorenne; aka: Too Young to Die, 1975) and Lucio Fulci’s The Psychic (Italian: Sette note in nero; aka: Seven Notes in Black, 1977). Co-star Rosalba Neri would’ve been the bigger draw at the time, following nearly two decades of peplum, sexploitation, spaghetti westerns, and Jess Franco movies, including 99 Women (German: Der heiße Tod; aka: Prostitutes in Prison, 1969), Marquis de Sade's Justine (1969), and The Castle of Fu Manchu (1969). This, Amuck, and Ferdinando Merighi’s The French Sex Murders (Italian: Casa d'appuntamento, 1972) were her only gialli.
I can’t find any evidence that Smile Before Death was ever released on North American VHS or DVD. There were PAL tapes from German (Austrian?) companies and some very iffy-looking, homemade DVDs available on ebay, but the best option for collectors was a bootleg rip of a widescreen broadcast on Italy’s Rai Movie channel. Earlier this year, it made its Blu-ray debut on a limited edition disc from Austrian company Cineploit (only 300 copies of four cover variations were printed), though I don’t know how the two transfers compare. Arrow’s disc features a 2K scan and restoration of the original 35mm negative and the results are presented in 1080p, 2.35:1 video. The entire film has a bit of a reddish/pinkish tint, especially in neutral tones, so I assume the footage had undergone quite a bit of chemical breakdown over the decades. On the other hand, Silvano Ippoliti’s photography is soft and warm throughout, so maybe this is the way the film is meant to look. Obvious print damage is limited to snowy grain during select sequences and a handful of scratchy/streaky bits. Black levels could possibly do with a small boost, but there’s no lack of crisp edges and strong contrast. Aside from the pink tint, the vivid colors pop beautifully.
Smile Before Death is presented with two audio options, English and Italian, both in uncompressed LPCM 1.0 mono. As a reminder, these movies were shot without sound and all audio tracks were dubbed. I tend to default to English in most cases, but I’m really torn this time, because the sound quality of the Italian dub is notably superior, especially where the music is concerned; however, the majority of the cast is also clearly speaking English on set. Even though few (if any) have dubbed their own performances (the ever-present Carolyn De Fonseca dubs lead Rosalba Neri), the English lip-sync is about as close to perfect as you’re gonna get on an Italian film from this era. The music is credited to Bob Deramont – a pseudonym for Roberto Pregadio – and the infectiously perky main title track that will be stuck in your head for weeks is scat-sung by Edda Dell'Orso, the voice behind Ennio Morricone’s “The Ecstasy of the Gold” from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966).
Commentary by Troy Howarth and Nathaniel Thompson – Howarth, the author of So Deadly, So Perverse: 50 Years of Italian Giallo Films (Midnight Marquee Press, 2015) and Thompson, owner/reviewer at Mondo Digital, compare Smile Before Death to similar gialli from the period and break down the evolving careers of the cast & crew, the creeping expansion of on-screen sex in ‘70s giallo, the connections between class and generational themes in Italian thrillers, and Pregadio’s music.
Smile of the Hyena (23:05, HD) – Film journalist and son of director Silvio Amadio, Stefano Amadio discusses his father’s work. Or so I assume, since the subtitles did not work on my copy and I do not speak Italian. Edit: Apparently the collection has been moved back to August 30th and the missing subtitles on this specific disc will be corrected.
Extended nude scenes (3:15, HD) – More footage of Tambiro and Neri that was shot, but never integrated into the film. It was also never dubbed, so it is presented without sound.
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.