Monday, March 10, 2008

The Middle of the Road 1960s Zombie Film

Today's double feature is one of epically shitty proportions. I have a movie that Mystery Science Theatre tackled and one that they wouldn't know what to do with. Recently I found one of these films and it looks to be so forgotten that the title on the dvd doesn't match any of the titles on the IMDB. The only name in the cast is John Drew Barrymore (yes, those Barrymores) and he spends most of his time talking to a giant stone head. It's an Italian production about voodoo type zombies, but it takes place in Turkey, I think. It features some of the greatest b-stock ham acting and genre cliches I've ever seen. Both of these films have a hackneyed romance sub-plot, hypnotism, 'exotic' women who are just hideous, tarted-up 50-somethings. Like Barrymore towards the end of his life both films are in wretched condition after years of neglect (can't say it's unwarranted) and make less sense every second they continue to run.

War of the Zombies
by Giuseppe Vari
War of the Zombies underwent some strange name changes and I rather suspect that's because it underwent some serious content changes as well. The name Rome Against Rome was never an official title of this film, it was simply up to the distributors of the no-budget DVD package to translate it's original italian title Roma contro Roma into English. It originally ran in the united states under the name War Of The Zombies, but it wouldn't surprise me to learn that audiences were so disappointed that they insisted the name be changed to stop trying to fool people into seeing the thing. It also ran on American television years later as Night Star: Goddess of Electra. Now before I say that this particular title has nothing to do with the story, it may well have when it was still in Italian. The film makes just enough sense in English to make me think there wasn't some serious changes when it came time to dub this thing. Anyway...

Our story begins in Rome as the big red title card will tell us a few more times before closing time. After we witness a battle in which apparently everyone was killed, somebody comes around and starts collecting the bodies. Senators or some such official wants to know what happened at the massacre and so send an emissary called Gaius to investigate. Gaius is played by Ettorre Manni and I'm tempted to start making old-timey teen-heart throb posters that say Ettorre Manly because this guy is incontrovertibly masculine. Apparently he traded brains for braun because neither Gaius nor his escort know the first thing about war. They're caught almost instantly by a priest called Aderbad (this is John Drew Barrymore doing an Ivan The Terrible impression). Gaius is in luck however because the villains are right in the middle of a power struggle and one of his men has become unsatisfied with Aderbad's way of doing things and is about to desert. Gaius sees just enough of Aderbad's operation to know there's some bad mojo afoot. Gaius is convinced of this when one of Aderbad's servant girls Rhama refuses his advances. He wouldn't be a card carrying B movie man-of-action if he didn't try and screw someone who can't afford to refuse his advances. She says she is under the spell of the goddess they're all serving and insists verbally that she has no free will of her own (the oldest trick in the book, by the way). The deserter catches Gaius on his way out and lets him and his escort go. When asked about the nature of this encounter his escort tells him "This is Asia, Gaius." I guess technically it is, but the filmmakers never bothered to say whether or not they're in Thrace or Anatolia, so this could just be intentional ignorance or actual ignorance on the part of the screenwriters.

Anyway, Aderbad has been collecting the bodies of the dead Roman soldiers to revive for the sake of combatting the Romans to gain freedom. Gaius has that, a hypnotized girlfriend, corrupt politicians, his own unassailable manliness, and a glittery witch to contend with. This movie was something of a challenge for me because it showed me once and for all that I have respect for a film that so believes in its own horse's ass mentality that it never shies away even for a second. It's got Ivano Staccioli and Susy Anderson (among other former and future porn, nazi, cannibal, zombie, sword-and-sandel, mafia and assorted other rip-off genre film space-fillers) and John Drew Barrymore looking like he's on so many pills that he's possibly the only one who finds any of the movie scary. The scene where the zombie romans attack the regular romans is a real treat. They introduce it by having the legionnaires say something about the darkness that rides with them. Then they are seen with the film stock tinted blue. It's like selective day-for-night photography and it's truly astonishing. The colors here are akin to something Mario Bava might have opened one of his films with in the 60s.
I think what may have happened here is someone got hold of a straight sword-and-sandals film and then did some creative shading work and presto....a zombie movie. The film is essentially shot from one angle, making it look like the world's most expensive high school play. They must have blown their production load on statues and pyrotechnics and didn't have a dime to spend on film stock, cameras, or name actors. All of these things stacked on top of each other may account for why the world got together and like the characters in Sphere, agreed to forget about it. When all is said and done, however, I just can't find fault in it. It believes itself far too much for me to hate it. It was a festival of cliche and I still found it kind of charming. Listen to this snatch of dialogue between mad priest (scientist) and manly hero:

"You're a madman Aderbad, but you'll be destroyed by your madness..."
"...I'd like to demonstrate how stupid you are."

If that doesn't say classic...

The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living And Became Mixed-Up Zombies
by Ray Dennis Steckler
How do I begin to talk about Ray Dennis Steckler? Ray Dennis Steckler was a writer, producer, director, assistant, editor, actor and cinematographer of some of the worst (and consequently most fun) schlock movies ever made. Whenever Ray Dennis appeared in movies it was under the conspicuous nom de plume Cash Flagg. He wrote, edited, and photographed under varied other ridiculous names including Cindy Lou Sutters, Michel J Rogers, Christopher Edwards, Sven Christian, Sherwood Strickle, Wolfgang Schmidt, Harry Nixon, Conrad Denke, Max Miller, & Sven Hellstrom. (Incidentally Steckler clearly wasn't the only interested in preserving his anonymity as other preposterous names appear in the cast list of The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living And Became Mixed-Up Zombies. To name but two: Atlas King and Son Hooker) The conspicuous number of women's names on this list and the fact that Ray's directed himself in a part in Incredibly Strange Creatures that called for a good deal of dancing, prancing, and spinning that I'm sure wasn't in the script leads me to wonder if Ray Dennis wasn't the first closeted homosexual b-horror director. It certainly wouldn't have been out of place given the character of the kinds of people who made these movies. Ed Wood was a transvestite, Coleman Francis was pretty much sexless, Doris Wishman had to have some kind of perverse nature because she just started making movies about naked people one day, Michael & Roberta Finlay were a married couple who practically invented the genre known as the Roughie, which consisted of pornography punctuated by scenes of graphic violence. These were not normal people when it came to sex and so it seems only natural that Steckler might join the ranks of sexual deviants behind the camera.

Incredibly Strange Creatures has two plotlines, both listless and lazy. One follows a female hypnotist who tells fortunes to make a living. On the side she bewitches men to do her bidding, which includes killing people who ruin the nightclub she runs by performing drunk. When she's finished with them she pours acid on their face and locks them in a closet. The other concerns a 30 year old teenage girl named Angela who's upset her mother by going steady with Jerry the ugliest hood in town. Jerry has a car and he's played by Ray Dennis Steckler. He's supposed to be a young man, but he looks like Max Schrek in Nosferatu. Jerry and his friend Harold drive Angela to a carnival where we'll watch them ride a rollercoaster for 10 minutes and not do much else. I get the feeling Steckler was trying to make a John Cassavettes type realistic beatnik film, but half-way through realized that horror sells better. The film mostly consists of dancing routines at Estrella's night club and footage of Jerry, Angela, and Harold doing absolutely nothing. Jerry eventually gets hypnotized into killing one of the nightclub gals and then accidentally strangles Angela at a family barbecue when he has a relapse looking at a spinning umbrella. Along the way there are a dozen or more full song-and-dance numbers, some of the most elaborately kooky Kenneth Anger-type dream sequences ever imagined for no budget in which our tortured hero sees a giant stone head talking to him (not unlike the kind Aderbad worships) and does a few twirls and ballet leaps through the air while being confronted with go-go dancers from the nightclub.

The film is comprised almost entirely of filler; so much so that when the zombies actually make an appearance I was truly excited to see the hokey bastards. Considering that Cash clearly didn't have enough forethought to write a script that amounted to more than 12 minutes of plot, the zombies look a lot better than they have any right to. There a number of pleasant, stupid surprises awaiting the viewer of this film; watching the camera zooming in and out on Cash's eyes whenever he's being hypnotized by Madame Estrella; seeing the plot get more and more muddied and then seeing Steckler handle it by shooting another dance sequence; watching Steckler run scared from the waves on a beach during the climax. It's likely that Dennis Ray had a partnership of some of kind with this nudie bar because if he couldn't afford real actors or sets there's no way he was going to spring for all those costumes or the rights to any of the music. the fact that one of these performers is listed in the credits as "Bill Ward as Himself" leads me to believe these people took their fourth-rate showbiz work as seriously as Steckler did his film career. The tagline of this movie makes it look like the music was intentional, that Steckler set out to make a movie that made equal use of night club performances and the hypnosis subplot, but it just seems so secondarily considered and has no connection to the plot. More likely is that like in most of these movies, they ran out of A roll and started using B roll as fast as they could. It's the only possible explanation for the lengthy dance sequences in Skydivers, The Horror of Party Beach, and The Astro Zombies. This is a trick Steckler used in almost everyone of his movies.
I look at movies like this and think: you had the money, a bunch of people willing to do anything you said, effects, a night club, props, permits...why didn't you just make a movie about a nightclub? Why not make a Killing of a Chinsese Bookie-type deal? People might have believed Steckler as a hapless pervert, whereas he falls flat on his face as someone that anyone could find attractive. Steckler could have made any film he wanted to, and he chose this. Directors of the 60s are the most troubling examples of men with vision. Ray Dennis, Coleman Francis, Ted Mikels, Herk Harvey, Del Tenney, Harold Warren, Roger Corman...They could have made ANY movie in the world and they gave us The Terror, Manos: The Hands Of Fate, Carnival of Souls, The Living Corpse, The Beast Of Yucca Flats and dozens of other shitty movies that are so completely devoid of anything resembling the trends of a Hollywood film. It's almost touching when you think of the things they were trying to do and that they wouldn't let anything (plotholes, lucidity, reason) get in their way. The only thing dictating their movies was the market and that's why we have so many horror films to view today. I guess I can't complain.

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