The Heroin Busters Blu-ray Review
Blu-ray Release: April 18, 2022 (with the Rogue Cops and Racketeers double-feature set)
Audio: Italian and English DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 Mono
Subtitles: English, English SDH
Run Time: 93:36
Director: Enzo Castellari
Rule-flouting cop Fabio (Fabio Testi) goes deep undercover, chasing a globe-trotting ring of drug smugglers suspected to be operating out of Rome. But can he and Mike Hamilton (David Hemmings), an Interpol agent with a hair-trigger temper, stay one step ahead of the criminals long enough to bring them down from the inside? (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
Every big-name Italian cult director of the 1960s and ‘70s dabbled across genres, as the for-hire gig life required, but tended to find their greatest success in one or two specific types of filmmaking. Dario Argento and Umberto Lenzi mastered the stylishness of the gialli, Mario Bava and Lucio Fulci redefined Gothic horror, Joe D’Amato had his shocks and sexploitation, but no one could do action like Enzo G. Castellari. He arrived onto the scene when spaghetti westerns were the rage and delivered a collection of solid, though rarely innovative films, including (but not limited to) Any Gun Can Play (Italian: Vado... l'ammazzo e torno, 1967) and Johnny Hamlet (Italian: Quella sporca storia nel West, 1968). He even made a solitary giallo, Cold Eyes of Fear (Italian: Gli occhi freddi della paura, 1971), before finding his niche while establishing the dominance of the poliziotteschi (or Eurocrime) genre with High Crime (Italian: La polizia incrimina la legge assolve, 1973) and Street Law (Italian: Il cittadino si ribella, 1974), both starring Franco Nero. The year before he perfected the Dirty Dozen Italiana formula with The Inglorious Bastards (Italian: Quel maledetto treno blindato, 1978), Castellari made one last poliziottescho called The Heroin Busters (Italian: La via della droga; aka: Drug Street and The Dope Way, 1977).
Poliziotteschi – a portmanteau plural of poliziotto/police and the suffix esco/esque (singular: poliziottescho) and sometimes called Eurocrime or ‘polizieschi all'italiana’ – was born out of attempts to repeat the box office receipts of William Friedkin’s The French Connection (1971), Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry (1971), and Sidney Lumet’s Serpico (1973), among other American New Hollywood cop movies (which themselves were inspired by French crime films of the ‘60s), but quickly grew into a reaction to a specifically Italian wave of crime and violence, known as Anni di Piombo or The Years of Lead. The Years of Lead ran roughly between 1969 and 1988, and included mafia warfare, political assassinations, failed neo-Fascist coups, and brutal clashes between far-left and far-right factions. The angst, anger, and bitterness felt by average moviegoing audiences during this tumultuous period led poliziotteschi down increasingly violent and sadistic paths that mirrored the turmoil and spoke to the audience’s fears, sometimes challenging their notions of authoritative corruption with real nuance and, other times, fulfilling their reactionary demands for Fascist cops wreaking vengeance on a cartoonishly evil criminal population.
The Heroin Busters has the misfortune of having been released in-between (arguably) Castellari’s best films – the nihilistic crime drama The Big Racket (Italian: Il grande racket, 1976), the esoteric late-stage western Keoma (1976), and the post-apocalyptic fad kickstarter 1990: The Bronx Warriors (Italian: 1990: I guerrieri del Bronx, 1982). In that company, Heroin Busters can feel like an also-ran, but, in the context of one final follow-up to High Crime, it works quite well, as if to represent the climax of his poliziotteschi career. The director and co-writers Galliano Juso & Massimo de Rita begin with an overly ambitious script that can’t quite connect converging plot points and seemingly lose interest in favor of increasingly elaborate technically flashy set-pieces, montages, foot chases, shoot-outs, and motorcycle crashes, ending in a light aircraft dogfight. Grand schemes stop making sense pretty early on and supporting characters are killed off somewhat unceremoniously when their storylines lose momentum, but, boy, does Castellari dole out an eclectic plethora of thrilling stunt sequences. For extra exploitation flavor, he also doubles down across the board on the sleaze-factor wherever heroin is concerned, including a junkie vomiting during withdrawal, extreme close-ups of needles sliding into radial veins, lesbian prostitution, and one addict who licks spilled dope off of a filthy toilet seat.
Fabio Testi is cast slightly against type as a free-wheeling undercover cop, likely inspired by Al Pacino’s portrayal of Frank Serpico. Testi tends to be good in whatever role he finds himself (and his acrobatics are top of the line here), but his particular charms don’t fit the sloppy plainclothes hippie as well as, say, Tomas Milián, who found fame and fortune playing two different comedic variations of Serpico with Er Monnezza and Nico Giraldi. That said, the bigger Hollywood influence is probably The French Connection, especially the way the action and suspense is staged. The majority of the supporting cast is recycled from The Big Racket, aside from David Hemmings, who, as Italian Crime Filmography, 1968-1980 (McFarland Press, 2013) author Roberto Curti notes, plays an almost identical character in Bruno Corbucci’s The Swindle (Italian: Squadra antitruffa) the same year. Hemmings isn’t afraid to get a little physical as he puts in another quality performance as a vulnerable man hiding behind a tough-guy persona.
The Heroin Busters, like The Big Racket, which it has been coupled with for this Blu-ray debut, never had an official US VHS debut. I can’t even find a lot of evidence that it was bootlegged before Blue Underground brought it to DVD in 2006. Arrow’s Blu-ray debut was remastered from a 2K scan of the original 35mm camera negative. Despite sharing director and star, Heroin Busters is a less stylized film than The Big Racket. Giovanni Bergamini’s cinematography is more naturalistic with softer overall edges and shapes, due to diffused lighting. L'Immagine Ritrovata scan is also a little rougher than the same company’s crisp Big Racket, but not in a way that damages the intended grain structure. It’s mostly a side effect of that plush and raw photography style. Despite not sharing The Big Racket’s vivid color schemes, the transfer is still very busy in terms of hue variety, thanks to flamboyant ‘70s fashion and production design.
The Heroin Busters is presented with English and Italian mono dub options, both in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio. As per usual, Italian films of this period were almost always shot without on-set sound and all language options are dubbed, so the choice between English and Italian is mostly one of taste. International casts were not rare and it was common for actors to speak their native language on set. The Heroin Busters is a unique case in which multilingualism is built into the story (the heroin ring crosses multiple countries) and English makes for a convenient middle ground, so a surprising number of cast members appear to have acted their parts in English (in most cases, incidental Italian words, like “pronto,” are kept in). Additionally, good-sport David Hemmings dubs his own performance (as he often did), so I really think you get the most from the English dub. Sound-wise, the Italian dub might be a little softer, but they’re very similar overall. The soundtrack was composed and performed by Goblin, best known for their Dario Argento scores. This particular prog-funk-rock score was recorded the same year as the group’s defining Suspiria (1977) and Zombi (aka: the Argento cut of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, 1977), and it is among their most underrated efforts.
Commentary with critics Adrian J. Smith and David Flint (2022) – In this companion piece to their Big Racket track, the Italian genre connoisseurs, Smith (horrorpedia.com/moviesandmania.com) and Flint (editor of Sheer Filth!: Bizarre Cinema, Weird Literature, Strange Music, Extreme Art; FAB Press, 2014) have fun discussing the careers of the cast & crew (with lots of emphasis on Hemmings), the historical and genre context surrounding The Heroin Busters, the shock value of the drug abuse scenes, Castellari’s occasional use of documentary style, and the oncoming ‘softening’ of the poliziotteschi.
Endless Pursuit (24:00, HD) – Co-writer/director Enzo G. Castellari speaks briefly about some of his other films, but this interview really sees him digging into the making of Heroin Busters, from the logistics of shooting on-location internationally, to staging stunts and action, casting and working with the cast, and Goblin’s music.
Drug Squad (16:03, HD) – Star Fabio Testi also talks about shooting scenes around the world, taking inspiration from Serpico (but not re-creating him), behind-the-scenes adventures, and the climatic plane chase, where he was allowed to do some of his own flying.
The Drug Dealer (21:05, HD) – Actor Massimo Vanni recalls researching his role, working with Castellari once again, other cast members, and the physicality of the action scenes.
How They Killed Italian Cinema (20:12, HD) – Editor Gianfranco Amicucci chats about the challenge of cutting some of Castellari’s footage together (particularly the plane sequence), the structure of action movies, his technique, behind-the-scenes arguments/fights, and the (frankly unsustainable) work ethic and politics of the Italian film industry, then and now.
A Cop on the Set (23:51, HD) – Retired real-world poliziotto & criminologist Nicola Longo wraps up the staff interviews with a look at his career, work as an on-set advisor, flight training (he was also ex-Air Force), his friendship with Testi, and some of his adventures as a cop.
The Eardrum Busters (38:40, HD) – In this appreciation and career retrospective of Goblin, DJ/musician/collector Lovely Jon breaks down the techniques and roles of each member of the band (including the members present for their ‘70s soundtrack work and future incarnations), musical influences (Pink Floyd, Yes, classical music, et cetera), various phases in the band’s history (Cherry Five, soundtracks, standalone Goblin albums, Easy Going, Demonia, et cetera), history with Dario Argento, and Arctic Monkeys’ use of/homages to Goblin’s music. He ends the featurette with a breakdown of audio snippets from Heroin Busters.
Image galleries – Posters, Italian fotobusta, German lobby cards, German pressbook
Limited Edition box contents:
Disc one: The Big Racket (plus extras)
Disc two: Heroin Busters (plus extras)
Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the films by Roberto Curti and Barry Forshaw
Reversible sleeves featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Colin Murdoch
Twelve double-sided, postcard-sized lobby card reproduction artcards
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.