Tag Archives: 1980s

ZEDER (1983) – A REVIEW BY RYAN MARSHALL

Circa 1956, young Gabriella is brought to the estate of Dr. Meyer, who believes that the girl harnesses supernatural powers and intends to put them to good use during one fateful night. After accompanying her to the basement, where she begins writhing about on the dirt-covered ground and is then attacked by something unseen when left alone, Meyer deduces that the area they’ve stumbled upon is what is known as a “K Zone” upon realizing that the man who infamously studied them, Paolo Zeder, was buried underneath the house some years ago.

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Favoring petrifying ambiance over surface-level schlock, though impartial to entertaining the latter when apt, Pupi Avati’s horror films are characteristically infused with a kind of sinister, otherworldly energy; as if the man responsible for them always has one foot in reality and the other in the spirit world. In this sense, ZEDER (aka REVENGE OF THE DEAD) is straight from the heart of its maker, being (among other things) a film that deals directly with those disconcerting voices from beyond and why they are necessary to a superior understanding of our surroundings.

Following such a uniquely enigmatic opening, we are introduced to Stefano (Gabriele Lavia), a young novelist living in present day (1983) Bologna. He comes home one day to a surprise anniversary gift from his wife Alessandra (Anne Canovas) in the form of an old typewriter which he can’t help but test drive that same evening. Upon closer inspection of the ribbon housed inside the apparatus, he discovers an essay written by the aforementioned Zeder and becomes increasingly obsessed with the man’s studies.

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Similarly to Avati’s masterful giallo THE HOUSE WITH THE LAUGHING WINDOWS, the unlikely hero often feels alone in the world. Whenever Stefano attempts to inquire about Zeder and his finds, even the most reputable members of society turn him away; and when he decides to take matters into his own hands, they tend to get a bit dirty. He must be careful who he talks to, for their lives may be endangered if he does so.

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Without showing too much, Avati manages to get deep under your skin; take the K-Zones, for instance, which have something to do with reanimation, and yet that specific “something” is never explored in explicit detail. However, it’s undoubtedly better off this way. The horrors of ZEDER, beautifully rendered as they are, seem rooted in paranoia and guilt on a profoundly national scale; the film is like an exorcism for all of Italy, albeit one where the cleansing of body and soul is secondary to the painful possession of Avati’s fellow countrymen and how they attempt to evade it. While Stefano pursues the mystery at hand, Gabriella (now an adult) and Meyer scheme – it would be unwise to trust that anyone, even those closest to you, are not in on it in some way. It’s an angry, poignant, and indeed genuinely frightening state of affairs – assuming one is enticed by implication.

European horror films tend to wear their imperfections on their sleeve, and ZEDER is no exception. Franco Delli Colli’s (RATS: NIGHT OF TERROR, MACABRE, STRIP NUDE FOR YOUR KILLER) cinematography is luscious, Riz Ortolani’s score is typically fierce, the make-up effects – particularly for the undead – are refreshingly subtle, and yet there are flaws to be found in Amedeo Salfa’s editing. On a whole, the film flows exquisitely – but once in a while there’s an abrupt transition which threatens to soil an otherwise divine experience; and although this is easily redeemed, it can’t help but pale, if only slightly, in comparison to its aforementioned cinematic brethren as a result.

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But oh, what sights Avati has to show you. From the abandoned soon-to-be-hotel which marks the high point of Stefano’s journey and the dusty tunnels running underneath to the young couple’s sleek, secure apartment, it’s remarkable how distinctive each location feels and how well the director utilizes them throughout. One feels alienated regardless of where they find themselves; the world is wired by phantoms. As is the case with some of the best, this is a film about man’s relationship with time and place in unison with his personal affairs; while the romance at the center of the story gives it a much-needed emotional backbone, it’s ultimately a vision of our ever-changing landscape and how we choose to confront those sudden transitions.

Admittedly, this could potentially disappoint viewers expecting a gorier, more straight-forward zombie yarn, but what a thing to behold. Avati has contributed something that goes far deeper than exceptional genre cinema, knowing all too well that mystery and tragedy alike account for many of the things in life which are most difficult to swallow. Some questions cannot be answered, or so the director seems to conclude at the end of this macabre tale. We can only seek so much truth before we bump up against our own limits.

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CHRISTMAS EVIL (1980) – A REVIEW BY RYAN MARSHALL

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There are more than a few sleazy stocking stuffers out there for those who prefer to take their holiday-themed cinema with a dash or two of unadulterated dementia, but few are as distinctive and genuinely unnerving as Lewis Jackson’s CHRISTMAS EVIL aka YOU BETTER WATCH OUT. Often (understandably) mistaken for a slasher pic and perhaps even better known for being championed by John Waters as the infamous trash connoisseur’s favorite Christmas movie, one might innocently stumble upon this gem and be pleasantly surprised when it turns out to be equally perceptive and perverted rather than simply the latter.

Harry Stadling (Brandon Maggart) saw mommy kissing Santa Claus once as a young boy and hasn’t been the same since; understandable, seeing as immediately following the incident, Harry runs up to the attic and cuts his hand on the glass from a broken snow globe. This fateful night gives way to an adulthood that could be described as unconventional at best and utterly unmanageable at worst. Harry finds it difficult to balance his public and private lives, working an often demoralizing position at a local toy factory by day and counting down the days until Christmas whenever he’s at home.

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This is soon proven to be far, far more than merely a vice for the deeply disturbed introvert. Harry seems to envision himself as Santa Claus in the flesh, and as such, he not only works hard to perfect his costume before the big night but also keeps detailed records of the good and bad kids on the block. It all gets to be more than a bit creepy real quick, and when Christmas Eve comes around, Harry has slipped out of reality and into the deepest depths of decline, completing his transformation into Saint Nick in order to spread holiday spirit far and wide. What begins as an odyssey built on good cheer soon descends into a bloodbath as Harry finds himself unable to cope with the general (adult) public’s apathy toward his favorite holiday, culminating in an intense closing act straight out of FRANKENSTEIN.

Jackson’s film is a decidedly peculiar one; imperfect, for sure, especially when indulging in the kind of grotesque theatrics that have led viewers to label it as a “slasher” film over the years. But when one considers genre trappings, it is perhaps the film’s ability to transcend them which makes it so genuinely bewildering. Above all else, this is a character study – a sad and scary one at that – and we’re trapped inside of Harry’s sick, delusional head for the entire duration. It’s so close to our waking reality (or at least up until the bat-shit insane finale), that there’s no shame in squirming when Jackson wants us to.

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Exploitation films – and even better, intimate studies of the fractured human psyche disguised as exploitation films – are undeniably at their best when supported by a great deal of talent both in front of and behind the camera, and this is where CHRISTMAS EVIL is at an advantage. The weight of Harry’s off-kilter world is one of intricate pleasures thanks to the gorgeous cinematography of Ricardo Avonovich (Murmur of the Heart, That Most Important Thing: Love, Missing), which renders the character’s madcap gift-giving and murder spree as previously internalized phantasmagoria and provides all that came before with the distinct savor of morbid normality. There’s also some clever editing on display throughout, and Jackson’s direction is both efficient and composed; only in a few brief moments do we get a glimpse of a film from a man who isn’t completely in control of his vision.

This mostly refers to the more visually horrific sequences, which include but are not limited to a toy soldier’s sword skewering a human eyeball (enough to make Lucio Fulci blush) and throat slashing by way of the golden star at the top of a Christmas tree. It could certainly be argued that these moments succeed in enhancing the film’s “weird” factor, which is already way off the charts to begin with, but in context they are not only abrupt but over-the-top in a way that would suggest they were hardly the first thing on Jackson’s mind. The conclusion to this macabre tale, in which Harry burdens his poor brother Phil (Jeffrey DeMunn) and his family while on the run from an angry mob, also feels slightly rushed. Luckily, the director’s heart is in the redemption of his dysfunctional misfit, and he finds the perfect way to cap it all off.

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While CHRISTMAS EVIL will hardly be everyone’s cup of spiked eggnog, it comes equipped with more than enough heart, humor, horror, and genuine pathos to hold its own even against the inevitable naysayers. It is a fine film with an ambitious concept, one that it does not always execute tastefully, but one that is nevertheless explored in a consistent, satisfactory manner. Maggart is so good here that you find yourself surrendering to his solitary psycho; as ugly as his actions may be, we know Harry only has the best intentions deep down, which in itself inspires quite the palatable moral dilemma. Jackson’s film may unabashedly deal heavily in steaming coal, and its exterior may at first appear to be a needlessly nasty one, but through its own unique cocktail of extremism and empathy it achieves a kind of strange humanity, one that allows it to thrive beyond the realm of mere curio. For all the talk of it being an anti-Christmas picture, it certainly does its best to keep the spirit alive in its own wacked-out way. Quite the exquisite feast of discomposure, and a terrifically twisted treat for all sorts of adventurous parties.

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JOHN IRVIN’S THE DOGS OF WAR — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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John Irvin’s take-no-shit war drama The Dogs of War is the sort of action picture rarely made these days — unsentimental, lean, and thoroughly engrossing (David Ayer’s underrated Fury feels cut from the same cloth, as do portions of Antoine Fuqua’s compromised Tears of the Sun). Gritty, violent, masculine, and shot with rugged panache by director of photography Jack Cardiff, this 1980 mercenary adventure has received the Blu-ray treatment from the fine folks at Twilight Time DVD Label and if you’re a fan of unpretentious, straight ahead war films, then check this one out. Christopher Walken and Tom Berenger deliver intense and extremely effective performances, with a surly and gruff supporting cast which included Colin Blakely, Hugh Millais, and Ed O’neil. Irvin would later direct the outstanding Vietnam film Hamburger Hill, 80’s classic Raw Deal, and the underrated Michael Caine thriller Shiner. According to the internet, Michael Cimino did a re-write on Gary DeVore and George Malko’s terse and disciplined script. The opening action sequence, which plunges the viewer into the middle a full scale Central American war-zone, is outstanding, especially for the days of zero CGI, with all sorts of for-real pyrotechnics and incredible stunt-work. The final act is essentially a battle, with some ridiculous fire-power on display. Geoffrey Burgon’s pulse-pounding score was more than up to the task. This is one of those excellent films that may have snuck through the cracks that’s totally worth re-discovering.

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