Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Portrait of the Zombie as a Paradigm

Anyone who's up on their pop-horror can tell you that zombies are very much their own subset of film and alternative culture. They're a genre, a 'paradigm' to quote Stephen King. And while people have caught onto it recently, I could tell you the approximate time that zombies became a paradigm. It was when Joe D'Amato released two pornographic films in 1980 and 1981 that resulted from the same weekend of shooting in the Dominican Republic. One, Porno Holocaust, was unremarkable. The other proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that George A. Romero's creation had taken on a life all its own.

Erotic Nights of the Living Dead
by Joe D’Amato
John Wilson is a tycoon interested in developing a little Caribbean island no more than a mile long called Cat Island. So he goes down to the tropics with Fiona, an associate of his, to look at the land. They charter a boat from local Larry O'Hara and scope the place out. In their downtime O'Hara and a skulking old man (apparently the island's sole inhabitant) fills them in on the local lore about Cat Island - it's supposedly haunted. The locals all believe it and don't want Wilson poking his nose into their affairs, their customs or their curses. A thin woman (D'Amato's favorite female Laura Gemser) appears to the small party and warns them to take off. Funny thing about that girl, she doesn't show up in any of the pictures Fiona took of her. Then she finally shows up one night and makes out with O'Hara in the surf of Cat Island and gives him one final warning while they're watched from the shore. But when those rather undead looking chaps in headwraps start killing folks, O'Hara starts to think that maybe his client can go screw himself, regardless of the women or money he brings with him.

Say what you will about Erotic Nights of the Living Dead, when someone makes a pornographic play on your creation, that is when you've arrived. Erotic Nights was released in 1980, just after Dawn of the Dead and Zombie and that whole mishigas, which makes it both a crucial part of the zombie boom and as I stated above, proof positive that zombies were here to stay. The film itself is, as porn horror goes, actually not half bad. The plot is ordinary but uncharacteristic for zombie films; there are no voodoo ceremonies, no natives dancing, in fact the film actually takes some time out to blame whitey for meddling in the business of locals; the only thing we have that resembles a villain (aside from the titular living dead) is Wilson the capitalist. The hero is the layabout O'Hara (played by the film's writer, frequent D'Amato collaborator George Eastman right around his turn as the villain in Anthropophagous). Laura Gemser is a bit more believable as an apparition than as an investigative journalist because that far-off gaze and skeletal figure are finally in line with her character.
In fact, this porno is actually a much better movie than half of the zombie-come-lately films of the 80s. It's better than Hell of the Living Dead, Burial Ground and Zombie 3 put together and the living dead are actually a little unsettling, as opposed to the goofy zombies that show up in those films. The sex ranges from tasteless to "if you must" and weirdly doesn't really interfere with the plot, which makes this one of the more committed fake movies I've ever seen. Joe's trademark craziness is of course present which makes for some peculiar visuals to be sure (there's a bit with a champaign bottle I'd rather not describe that has Joe's name all over it). Considering this was the ultimate way to both cement Romero's name in the history books and the way to prove that he was the progenitor of filth, we could have had it a lot worse. Just take a look what Joe did with the rest of his Dominican vacation.

Porno Holocaust
By Joe D’Amato

Some researchers (including Eastman and a few other Erotic Nights cast members) charter a boat to test an island for radiation following a series of tests in waters nearby. When they're not having sex with each other, their being hunted and killed by an enormous deformed mutant who used to be a local boy. His weapon: an enormous irradiated phallus. I wish I could say the plot called for more, but I'm afraid this rather lifeless affair was a necessary evil. I think Joe gave all his time and energy to Erotic Nights and then had some leftover film stock so they went back to Cat Island and made this. Weirdly though, of the two films, this is the film that's gotten ripped off. From Devil Hunter to Entrails of a Virgin, the roving sex demon set piece has actually been reproduced a few different times on a few different continents. How's that for piece of mind?

I'd like to take a moment and thank Ruggero Deodato for using the word 'holocaust' in 1979. In three short years following his Cannibal Holocaust, we had a Zombi Holocaust, a posthumous Jungle Holocaust, and a Porno Holocaust - I bet the Jewish Defense League was just as pleased about that as I am. Look, I like Joe D’Amato (why do I feel like I need to take a shower?) and this is not up to his standards. The horror is far from horrible and the sex far from sexy; Porno Holocaust feels entirely too uncomfortable, lazy and burnt-out; it's like it was left in the sun too long. A sex film that feels this forced and awkward should probably never have been made. There isn't even much camp value to be found in Porno Holocaust's 113 minutes. That's right! This film is nearly two hours long, it's called Porno Holocaust and it's dull as sin. There's a conundrum for you. Of course a bigger one might be what kind of person sits still for that long to watch a sex film for academic purposes (like the man who reads Playboy for the articles, I've sat through pornographic films with the eye of a scholar culling themes from Proust for a thesis).
So I finally saw Erotic Nights of the Living Dead. I'm glad I saw it (fucking yikes) and less glad that I watched its snoozefest of a slutty sister film, though I can't say I'll be returning to Cat Island anytime soon.