Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Horror from Beyond the Grave

I think I’m going to delve into new territory for Honors Zombie. First, a milestone: The first Joe D’Amato film covered in these pages. If I ever track down Erotic Nights of the Living Dead, it won't be the last. It’s also the first straight-up Giallo film covered. Giallo for those of you who don’t know refers to a type of Italian film made from the early 1960s to the late 1970s that featured, in most cases: incredibly complicated murder mysteries, black gloved killers, sexually motivated violence, and a pulpy feel throughout. In Giallos you never know who to trust, who’s really the killer, and you’re almost never sure what why they’re doing it. Giallo comes from the trashy novels that the films plots were lifted from towards the beginning, whose pages were a sort of yellow color (Giallo in Italian: Yellow). Now I’m not sure if they turned that color because like American novels they decay quickly or they’re printed like that, so don’t quote me. Anyway, the Giallo started when Mario Bava made his lurid Blood & Black Lace in 1963 and ended, appropriately enough, when Lucio Fulci, who had failed to make it as a giallo filmmaker, made Zombie, setting off the new wave of Italian horror films. Soon after Zombie, all the giallo makers (Andrea Bianchi, Joe D’Amato, Dario Argento) turned their attention to making films about the living dead. There have been shades of yellow on these pages before (Zeder is nothing if not some twisted reimagination of the genre, what with its winding unintelligible plot; Revenge of the Living Dead Girls has a lot of the genre’s comically evil villains roaming around; Panic Beats, too has a bit of the Giallo spirit to it, but is a little too slick and supernatural to be confused with one of the originals). So let’s look at one that was a sort of preternatural fusion of the two from one of the world’s most prolific directors (I never said he was good, just prolific. What? He made like 260 films. You try doing that!)

Death Smiles on a Murderer
by Joe D’Amato

Like most Giallos, Death Smiles borrows from a prolific horror writer, in this case Edgar Allen Poe. First thing we see is a creepy blonde in period costume (I’m thinking this is probably supposed to be the early 20th century, but what do I know) fellow mourning over his dead sister. He flashes back to the time he forced her to have sex with him (she struggles at first, but seems ok with it after its been done), the time they frolicked in a field and then she ditched him for an old man. Then we flash back to the events that presumably surround her death. That we start with an incest flashbacks should tell you we’re in the hands of a true master of the obscene (Joe later got famous for making a movie where someone eats a fetus, so I guess this I shouldn’t complain. Especially considering we’re about to meet a Klaus Kinski character). So we next see a carriage speeding down a country road and it isn’t a bit surprising when it bollockses up a curve outside of a married couple’s country manor and the driver is killed. The carriage’s sole occupant is the dead girl from the prologue. She can’t remember anything, not even her own name; the crash did a number of her memory. The doctor that Eva and Walter von Ravensbrück call in for their new house guest (Dr. Klaus Kinski) will surely get to the bottom of this for sure; first order: Get undressed! Joe gives us the greatest voyeurism scene in history; Klaus watches as the amnesiac gets into her corset, and the maid watches Klaus watching the girl from the next room. We of course are also privy to the peeping as viewers, making this one delightfully, post-modern voyeuristic menagerie. Anyway, Klaus finds a medallion with her name on it, which happens to be Greta (Wyatt Doyle put it best on his commentary for the film, “If you want to bring something to Klaus Kinski’s attention, put it between a pair of breasts”). Klaus’s next test is, for some reason, to put a needle through Greta’s eye. Don’t ask me. As the maid prepares to leave, presumably because she recognizes Greta, she is tormented by visions of the brother from the prologue and is chased by him across the grounds. She ultimately gets murdered by someone carrying a shotgun, someone unseen.
Klaus returns to his laboratory with the body of the coachmen and he and his deaf mute assistant set about raising him from the dead (how’s that for a nonsequitor). I’d ask why there are rats and monkeys in the lab, but I doubt very much that even Joe D’Amato knew. Set dressing, I guess. Klaus stirs beakers and mixes steaming liquids for a few minutes before the dead man comes back to life and then someone unseen stangles him and his assistant to death. The zombies in the basement setpiece is one that I like to think Joe borrowed from The Bowery At Midnight with that other great European creep Bela Lugosi.

Greta falls into life with the von Ravensbrücks and before long is sleeping with both of them. When Eva finds out that Greta’s sleeping with Walter, she goes mad with jealousy and bricks the younger woman into a room in the basement (thank you, Edgar Allen). And predictably, it doesn’t end there. One evening during a party, Eva sees Great among the guests. Eva flees to her bedroom pursued by a decaying Greta and then she is either thrown or jumps from her window to her death. Now, I was puzzled because I thought that Greta’s vengeangeful spirit had no one left to torment, but I was quite wrong. Who should show up for Eva’s funeral, but Walter’s father, the guy Greta left her brother for in the beginning. She exacts her revenge against him by locking him in a tomb with a zombie. So who’s left? Walter, the butler, and Greta’s brother, right? Can you murder someone in a flashback from a separate flashback?
Death Smiles On A Murderer is one crazy ass film. Joe D’Amato, Aristide Massaccesi to his friends, made all manner of sleaze film in his time under about 30 different pseudonyms so identity is a little difficult, especially when his films show up in severely cut editions, but every bad film buff worth his salt knows a Joe D’Amato film when they see one. It starts with imaginatively plentiful gore scenes lingered over far too long by his camera lens and ends with explicit sex. His films never got tame, they were just edited for international and television distribution. Those with 20/20 vision may recognize the sets from Death Smiles from one of Joe’s other films, Ator 2, or as it was called on Mystery Science Theatre 3000, Cave Dwellers. The stairs and the basement where Eva bricks up Greta were both in Akronas’ home. Anyway, Death Smiles is a budget conscious horror film (Klaus is in the film only briefly and he spends most of his time mixing test tubes, but he sure does mix them with purpose!), but it makes the most of what little it has. Berto Pisano's music is excellent and Joe's editing and camera work are pretty good considering he was working as the director while he was performing both of these functions.

The zombies are a welcome addition to the Giallo formula and they are the scariest part of the film; the scene in the tomb is really awesome. Joe’s excessive gore is really not that effective (the scene where a cat claws someone’s eyes out and the maid’s face getting shot off in the beginning are two good examples of what I call Ugly Italian behavior. They seem to relish in the truly disgusting murder of their fellow man and present stabbings almost pornographically. Murder and sex are treated way too similarly for comfort. For further viewing watch Suspiria’s opening scene or the murders by the furnace in Blood & Black Lace). The zombies are also just one more thing that Joe doesn’t ever explain. The nonsensical nature of the plot can help depending on how charitable you want to be to Death Smiles on a Murderer. The film is after all about an amnesiac and someone who goes mad with guilt. Everyone seems to be guilty of something (except Walter who is only guilty of being an ineffectual fop) so it makes sense that all the sinister goings on are presented like the hallucinations of a guilty conscience. When Greta returns from the dead to start killing people, we don’t know if she was dead all along or if it was a relatively new thing. We don’t know why does all the killing before her return from the basement, but by the power of deductive reasoning and the fact that Greta’s the only person left standing by the time the film ends she must be the one who did it. I was sure it was the butler, but I was proven wrong there, too, I think. One can reasonably assume that Greta steals Klaus’ zombie formula and uses it to her own ends, but why? Why does she need to take revenge on everyone? The only person who deserves it is the brother and he’s already gotten his comeuppance when we join the action, we just don’t know it yet. If this seems confusing, try watching the film, then you can join me in total oblivion and see what a blissful place it is. It’s a place that only exists at the end of Joe D’Amato films.

In the coming weeks I'll be visiting my all time favorite Giallos and giallalikes, including a story of a headless chicken factory, a truly mysogynist rollercoaster ride, and the best Christopher Lee film not made by Hammer.

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