When it comes to humorous material, For Your Height Only pretty much writes itself. I wrote in the review of Nigahen about what I call the Something Weird Phenomenon — when a movie’s basic description turns out to be far more entertaining sounding than the movie itself. The Filipino action film For Your Height Only can be summed up as, “A three-foot tall midget superspy in a leisure suit uses a boomerang fishing hat, jet pack, and kungfu to tear a bloody path through the criminal underworld.” One would think, with a description that fabulous, that surely For Your Height Only would be another example of the Something Weird Phenomenon. It is a monumental feat, accompanied by angels blowing mightily upon trumpets of gold, that For Your Height Only manages to live up to and perhaps even surpass the expectations instilled in the viewed by so striking a summary.
OK, let’s talk some Dungeons & Dragons before we dig into the film review proper. It’ll help you understand the background which makes it possible for me to so love a film like Fire and Ice as much as I do. It’s also one of those inevitable subjects, and it’s best we get it out of the way now. Geeks and nerds will always bring it up. For us, D&D is sort of like heroin is to skinny rock stars. You go through a period of brief flirtation, end up heavily addicted to the point where it destroys your social life, and you sit around, all high on your drug, saying things that seem deep and philosophical to you but are really just idiotic, like, “Man, what if you put a Portable Hole inside a Bag of Holding?” or, “Man, wouldn’t it be cool if Gary Gygax was here right now?”
Then you go through a period of recovery, followed by a relapse, then finally get clean and spend the next thirty years talking about how you “used to do heroin” or “used to play D&D” to whoever has the misfortune of being in a position to have to listen to you. Possibly the only thing worse than people telling you stories about when they were stoned and stared at a wall for seven hours, or people reading you their erotic vampire fanfic, is crusty old farts telling you about how they used to roll the twenty-sided die — and yeah, try sidling up to someone in a bar one night and asking them if they’d “like to roll the twenty-sided die.” You’ll be lucky if your potential mate-date doesn’t yell, “Blee yark!” in your face and take you back to their keep on the borderlands to show you their collection of smoky crystalline dice that they store in a leather pouch they bought at last year’s medieval festival.
Speaking of which, when did it become acceptable to show up to medieval fairs dressed as an elf? Since when did that become an acceptable historic recreation of the times? I mean, a sprite or a kobold I could understand, but an elf? For that matter, when did camouflage pants and combat boots become acceptable attire? For God’s sake, man, where’re your jerkins??? I think if you’re going to dress up for a medieval fair, you should have to meet some minimum standard of historical accuracy. At the very least, you shouldn’t be able to wear a long Fruit of the Loom t-shirt with a belt cinched around it. It should be like dining at a fancy restaurant. You don’t have proper attire? Well, sir, please don this complimentary King Henry VIII robe. OK, hoi polloi I can excuse, but the people who actively take part in the festival events? It just doesn’t seem fair to me that some guy went out and forged his own full suit of plate mail armor, and then the guy next to him bought two rolls of Reynolds Wrap and a sheet of poster board.
But this is just one of those things, like how Paganism makes me mad because it’s all fruity sweetness and light hippies flitting about and saying “Blessed be!” and “Goddess bless you,” instead of doing what it was Pagans were busy doing before the sixties ruined it all, which was hitting people in the chest with giant battle axes then drinking blood from the cleaved skulls of their enemies. We didn’t “drum circle” the Romans out of Scotland, people.
I’m just saying that if you are dressing up for the Renaissance Festival, at the very least you should have to invest in a pair of those tan rawhide Robin Hood boots that were popular with the pickup-driving guys when I was a kid.
Still, I suppose it could be worse. Anime fandom seems to have been overrun by fat guys dressed as cats, where all they do is draw whiskers on their face and throw on some cardboard ears and a pipe cleaner tail. You know what that outfit is, buddy? That’s what the loser kid throws together for Halloween. Some people spend hours and hours crafted outrageously complex and detailed costumes to showcase their nerdiness. I think those people should be allowed to kick the ass of anyone who shows up dressed as a cat person, wearing normal clothes but with a cheap tail and ears taped to themselves. Likewise, the guy who makes his own authentic armor should be able to use his Morning Star of Clobberin’ +3 on anyone who show sup to a medieval fair wearing their normal clothes, but with a cape thrown on.
I mean, this is why Civil War reinactors don’t give you guys no respect, man.
So where was I? Sorry, I can get pretty worked up when a topic is this important. So yeah, like many other nerds, I dabbled in the black art of D&D. Funny, in retrospect, how hysterical people were over the evil of the game. If you remember, D&D was going to either turn us all into devil worshipers (also fond of just throwing cheap cloaks over their street clothes instead of going all the way and putting on red Danksin unitards) or it was going to cause the youth of America to become so lost in this amazing world of make-believe and fantasy that all concept of the real world would disintegrate, leaving us with a society full of people wearing fake elf ears and cheap cloaks. Hmm. I guess they were right, after all.
My flirtation with this world full of dungeons and dragons began at an early age thanks to the fact that an old boyfriend of my mother’s happened to be one of the early employees at TSR, so he funneled me a steady stream of the old basic and advanced box sets that came in the red and aquamarine boxes respectively. I guess I was in fourth grade when we put together our geeky little campaign, though back then D&D was considered less dorky and more dangerous, sort of like how video games were dangerous, then became dorky, and now are back to the point where thug kids host video-game related public access cable shows about them. For the most part, we’d gather at a friend’s house, cheat on our character sheets for a while, consult various charts, then play the game for half an hour (usually Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, because we liked to equip our characters with lasers and such) or so before retiring to play outside or watch a movie.
Four times out of five, the movie would be a barbarian movie not entirely dissimilar to the game of D&D we’d just abandoned in mid-campaign. Actually, there was a 97% chance that the movie would be Beastmaster. But we’ve covered that territory before, so if you need to hear jokes about Beastmaster and watching barbarian movies, go back and read one of our previous sword and sorcery movie reviews.
Somehow, the animated Ralph Bakshi feature Fire and Ice managed to slip through the cracks, though I can’t imagine it didn’t make the early 1980s cable TV rounds. It’s perfect late-night HBO fare. If I’d seen it back then, I would have embraced it whole-heartedly and probably proclaimed it the best thing I’d ever seen. Or something to that effect. Alas, it was never to be, and although Heavy Metal was inescapable at the time, Fire and Ice remained unseen by me until the recent DVD release allowed me to go back and see how Bakshi’s sword and sorcery cartoon had aged over the years.
In brief, Fire and Ice is the animated feature film equivalent of trying to buy saucy fantasy comic magazine Heavy Metal at age thirteen, praying that the B. Dalton check-out clerk doesn’t realize that the magazine is a veritable horn o’ plenty of naked chicks riding dragons around acid-trip landscapes that look like something the guy down the street would have airbrushed onto the side of his custom van. And then, if you do manage to score, you have to forever hide the torrid tome amongst your copies of Dragon magazine for fear that the big-breasted zebra-striped woman on the cover might otherwise arouse parental suspicion, resulting in them just happening to randomly open the magazine to one of the naughtier Guido Crepax stories.
Ralph Bakshi is a director and artist who was at the forefront of a lot of innovative new ideas, but he was always at the forefront in a way that would only facilitate his ambitions crashing and burning, only to have someone else basically hatch the same idea a few years later with great success. Bakshi first made headlines by directing a raunchy cartoon for adults named Fritz the Cat, forever destined to be picked up by accident by aging vaudeville fans who mistake it for Felix the Cat. At the time of the film’s release, the concept of cartoon movies for adults, packed full of cursing, drug use, and sex, was pretty alien, and it’s likely that more than a few ill-informed parents took their screaming, crying broods out for a fun day at the cartoon movie only to discover after the lights went down that they were in a grindhouse theater full of guys in raincoats jerking off to anthropomorphic cat women (if you’ve been to an anime convention lately, you’ve seen that some things never change).
Soon thereafter, Bakshi decided that what he wanted to do with his time was make an animated adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic Lord of the Rings trilogy. To realize his vision, Bakshi would rely on a technique called rotoscoping — that is, filming live actors, then tracing the artwork over them. Bakshi’s ambition was admirable, but it was a fair leap across the chasm from ambition to realization, and The Lord of the Rings failed to make the jump. The film is an uncomfortable mish-mash of questionable character design (ugly gap-toothed hobbits, Boromir the Viking, Aragorn the Navajo), impressive animation, and shocking lapses in the quality of rotoscoping that results in frequent shifts from animation to live-action actors who look nothing like their animated counterparts horsing around against heavily tinted backgrounds. It also didn’t help that funding was a major stumbling block, and Bakshi ran out of time and money two books into the three-book adventure.
Undeterred, Bakshi forged boldly forward, sticking to the fantasy formula for Fire and Ice, which was released in the immediate wake of Conan the Barbarian’s success and the launching of the sword and sorcery trend that delighted us for so many hours when we’d grown tired of using our imaginations to slay trolls and other beasts lurking in the pages of the Monster Manual and beloved Fiend Folio. Where Lord of the Rings held the promise of Bakshi merging his adult-oriented artwork with the world of Tolkien, the hook for Fire and Ice was that it was an artistic collaboration between Bakshi and one of the most famous pulp artists of all time, Frank Frazetta.
Frazetta rose to prominence as one of the most in-demand artists of the heyday of pulp fiction, gaining particular notoriety for his illustration of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, and while you can’t exactly claim that he invented fantasy artwork, he certainly defined it for quite some time, up until the point when Haji Sorayama started drawing hot, naked robot chicks and Boris Vallejo picked up the fantasy art gauntlet. But Frazetta was The Man for decades, creating a style that showcased beefy, axe-wielding barbarians in furry loincloths and big-breasted, big-booty women in tiny, tiny magical bikinis. It would seem, at least in the early 1980s, that his artwork would be a good match for Ralph Bakshi’s animation style. Something more adult-oriented, full of gibbering goblins, bare-chested barbarians, and buxom babes. Working from Frazetta character designs and the basic template of a fantasy tale as defined by decades of pulp fiction, and plagued as always by budget short-comings and a general lack of interest from audiences, Bakshi gave us Fire and Ice.
Fire and Ice involves a clash of two cultures. First, there is the evil, skinny blue guy Nekron, who would be played by David Bowie if this was a big-budget, live-action film. Nekron lives in a land of ice and glaciers and dreams of making the rest of the world as dismal and bleak as his North Dakota-esque ice kingdom. Standing in his way is the king of Fire Keep, who has harnessed the power of the volcanoes that surround his kingdom. Nekron’s scheming mother devises a plan to kidnap Teegra, the hot big-booty daughter of the king of Fire Keep, and thus force him to negotiate a surrender. But being evil, Nekron’s minions are mostly sub-human goblins who don’t seem to be very good at much of anything other than riding atop advancing glaciers while hooting and waving clubs. Teegra escapes (using the ever-effective “look at my nipples while I writhe about in the water” method of escape), gets captured, escapes, get captured, so on and so forth.
Meanwhile, a hunky barbarian named Larn survives Nekron’s attack on his village and takes to wandering the land, killing goblins whenever he happens to come across them. He and Teegra eventually hook up, and then a dude named Darkwolf, in a big wolfhead hood, shows up to do some damage as well. The whole thing ends with a wild assault-by-dragon on Nekron’s icy fortress.
It is by no accounts a perfect film. Bakshi relies once again on the technique of rotoscoping, realized here in infinitely better fashion than in the awkward Lord of the Rings. Although this is once again a film made by first filming live-action actors on a soundstage, then animating over the top of them, there are no points at which we just get tinted footage of the live-action actors. The actual animated look is consistent, and the rotoscoping provides for very fluid and realistic movement of the characters. Unfortunately, Frazetta relies heavily on moody shading and lighting, and in that sense, Bakshi’s animation falls flat — literally. There’s no real attempt, save for one or two scenes, at creating a sense of depth or lighting. Bakshi just doesn’t have the time and resources to achieve such detail, and thus Frazetta’s characters look less like Frazetta creations and more like Bakshi’s character designs from Lord of the Rings, but better looking. There’s also a funny part in one of the DVD extras where Frazetta explains that he always assumed that somewhere out there were women who looked like the women he drew, at least up until the process of rotoscoping, and thus needing to find a real woman to serve as the actress base of his design for Teegra, the booty-shaking daughter of the good king of Fire Keep.
Although it fails to capture the nuance of Frazetta’s original artwork, Fire and Ice still boasts pretty good if standard artwork. It reminds me of how much I miss the look of hand-drawn animation. Computer-assisted artwork results in really smooth, really slick lines and shading. By comparison, something like Fire and Ice — which was really a stylistic throwback even upon its initial release — looks likes a series of animated sketches, with bolder outlines, rougher around the edges. But I really like that raw look, though I have nothing against the more refined lines of modern animation. The backgrounds are also highly stylized, almost impressionist, which means they look cool and were easier to draw. With more time and better technology, Bakshi might have been able to realize a more fully developed style of animation for this film, with more inventive lighting and shading, resulting in something that looks less like a bigger budget version of The Herculoids. But he didn’t have those things, and the end results are still enough fun for me to forgive him.
In fact, the entire film was completed by just a tiny handful of artists working from Frazetta’s character designs and Bakshi’s live-action stars, which makes the TV cartoon quality moments excusable and the more richly realized moments truly impressive. One of the artists was none other than Peter Chung, who animated the dragonhawk finale and would go on to create his own scantily-clad, impossibly-proportioned heroine some years later when he wrote and animated a little show called Aeon Flux.
The acting is, at best, workmanlike, but it suits the style of the film. None of the live-action actors were anyone especially accomplished, unless you count an appearance on Glen Larson’s Buck Rogers to be an accomplishment. Steve Sandor, who provides the voice of Darkwolf, is probably the most experienced actor of the bunch, having logged countless hours working on pretty much every television show that was made from Star Trek on. Luckily, the dialogue doesn’t demand much of anyone, so they all glide by pretty easily and without anything really sticking as a particularly bad acting job, though a few huffs and puffs during running scenes are looped in a little too loudly.
The script by Gerry Conway and Roy Thomas (the duo also worked on the script for Conan the Destroyer, and both together and separately, worked on a number of famous cartoon TV shows, including The Transformers and GI Joe) is pretty paint by numbers pulp fantasy. It doesn’t do anything you don’t expect it to do, and each of the characters depends on you recognizing a familiar pulp archetype. There is no back story for anyone. We have no idea who any of these people really are, or why they’re doing what they do. We don’t know who Nekron really is. We have no idea why Darkwolf shows up and joins forces with Larn. The extras tell us that an original draft of the movie explained that he was Nekron’s father, but that never shows up — nor is it even hinted at — in the finished product. The thing is, none of the characters really need a complicated (or even simple) back story, because the dependence on the target audience’s familiarity with stock pulp characters gets the job done. Nekron does the things he does because he’s bad. Larn is good. Darkwolf is cool and mysterious. Teegra is scantily clad (even for a fantasy film princess) in a thong and flimsy bikini top and has jiggling boobs and booty cheeks. If you need any more information than that, then you’ve missed the point of this type of throwback story, which is to show guys in loincloths beating up goblins, intercut with leering shots of Teegra’s ass as she crawls through the swamp.
I would imagine a movie like Fire and Ice appeals to a very select population of people. It was a failure upon its initial release, though like most Bakshi films it built up a cult following after the fact. Measured against modern fantasy films that take advantage of cutting edge computer animation (Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy being the benchmark), something as modest as Fire and Ice can’t really measure up, but you’re sort of making a mistake if you pit a small-budget pulp fantasy movie from 1983 against something of that stature. Older fantasy fans, however, will probably find a lot in Fire and Ice that appeals to them, especially if they favor old-style pulp storytelling and artwork. I thoroughly enjoy Fire and Ice, beginning to end, and find it consistently entertaining and fascinating, not to mention beautifully realized despite the typical Bakshi-project budget constraints. It’s a lot more enjoyable and successful as a piece of animated filmmaking than Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings, and the influence of Frazetta, while not completely realized, adds even further to the old-fashioned pulp novel feel of the movie.
It’s difficult to grapple with actually getting one’s head around a movie of this nature, which seems to have been made under the premise that if you took the combined gaudiness and sparkle of Saturday Night Fever, Xanadu, and that movie where Jeff Goldblum runs the disco and Marv “the Leatherman” Gomez dances in the parking lot, then all that would be missing was, you know, an extra little dash of sparkle and over-the-top camp value. And kungfu fights. Leave it to Bollywood to not only make a tacky, eye-searing, completely delirious disco film, but to feel like they need to jack it up on steroids, complete with the overwrought melodrama and breakneck shifting of genres that one comes to expect from a Bollywood production.
Doing a quick survey of Yahoo, Google, and the external reviews linked to from the Internet Movie Database will turn up a body of reviews almost unanimous in their disdain for this movie. Yor, The Hunter from the Future certainly isn’t an unknown movie, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a single person out there, even among aficionados of bad movies, who doesn’t feel that it probably should be an unknown movie. Sometimes it seems like the lone voice in post-apocalyptic wilderness is the guy who writes for www.antoniomargheriti.com, though even the film’s own director has publicly stated that the film is awful. Given that I am apparently one of the two members of the Yor fanclub, it behooves me to write a decent defense and review of this maligned slice of early eighties Italian exploitation.
The words “favorite” and “Yor” have, to my knowledge, never been uttered together before, not even on the internet where all things perverse and profane flourish. In a medium where you can probably find a website with pictures of people masturbating with donkey hoofs while a Nazi shoves live eels up their butt, you can’t find many people who will say anything positive about Yor, The Hunter from the Future. But unlike almost every other critic and film fan in the world, I come not to bury Yor, but to praise him — at least mildly. My initiation into the strange and exclusive cult of Yor came in the eighties, when a film like this would actually get released to theaters with a considerable degree of fanfare. Conan the Barbarian had just stormed on to screens, and the Italians apparently possess a magical ability to forecast which movies will ignite remarkable trends, then rush out scores of imitations mere days after the original inspiration is released. I suppose it has a little something to do with business acumen, and a lot to do with the fact that most of these movies had production schedules that closely resembled the gestation period of a fruit fly.
These were heady days for young men with very little sense of decency in their cinematic taste. In a drunken run that began more or less with the release of The Black Hole and TRON, youngsters of the era were subjected to a seemingly endless parade of generally delightful genre films that was only made all the more intoxicating the day a friend got cable television. Whenever people bemoan the sad state of modern movies and complain about how much junk is getting dumped on the market, I feel I should recommend they take a step back and re-examine previous years. The problem with movie hindsight is that it is terribly myopic. Decades removed from any given year, we tend to only remember the exceptionally good (and in a few rare instances, exceptionally atrocious) films, thus giving that year an inflated position. Living in a year, however, we’re exposed to every piece of crap that rolls out of the factory, and so the poor quality of our current time is much fresher and more evident than that of years past. It’s the same phenomenon that makes it look like foreign countries make better movies than we do. Since we’re only exposed to a select few foreign films every year, we tend to get the cream of the crop. But as anyone who lives in one of these countries can tell you, they manage to make just as many wretched offerings as we do. We just get filtered content.
The big difference between now and then is the budget. It used to be that rotten films were confined to the ghetto of low-budget quickie productions, while films with a larger budget invested in them had shown some degree of merit. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule, and just because a studio and critics thought a big-budget film might be good doesn’t mean it actually was. Things reversed sometime in the nineties though, and most of the good films had smaller budgets while the big-budget movies reeked of bloat, excess, and slapdash craftsmanship. Now we live in an era where people dump millions into films that previously would have been made on a shoestring. To tie this all together into a poorly wrapped package, the grandfather of providing A-list financing for B-list concepts was Dino De Laurentiis. It started for him in the sixties, working as a producer for cheap “sword and sandal” peplum films. Although Dino’s films probably weren’t budgeted any higher than their contemporaries, most of the ones that bear his name look and play much better than the rest of the pack. In 1968, he lavished French director Roger Vadim with a sizeable budget for the piece of psychedelic cheesecake sci-fi pop art known as Barbarella, and thus began the producer’s long love affair with throwing tons of money at silly concepts.
Now, what ties this in with Yor, The Hunter from the Future is the fact that De Laurentiis produced Conan the Barbarian. So yes, Italian moviemakers have a knack for latching onto a big trend and draining it mercilessly of its precious lifeblood. At the same time, most of the trends upon which they hop — Westerns, peplum, zombies — also have significant ties to Italy in the first place. A Fistful of Dollars may have starred Clint Eastwood, but it was an Italian film. Ditto Steve Reeves and Hercules. George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead sparked the glut of Italian zombie films that shambled through the eighties, but it was made possible by the financial graces of Italian director/producer Dario Argento. And Conan was the fevered brainchild of Oliver Stone, John Milius, and a whole bunch of pot (one assumes), but an Italian made it happen. So in some twisted way, the Italians deserve to be able to rip these films off. Or, you know, something like that.
Anyway, none of us kids got to see Conan in the theaters, though there were few who didn’t catch it on cable in between showings of Beastmaster. But we did get to see various, more family-friendly knock-offs, back in a time when family-friendly films didn’t have to include spunky children but could include cannibalistic mummies and loincloth-clad women. Among those was Yor, The Hunter from the Future. Undoubtedly still reeling from the time she took us to the drive-in to see Treasure of the Four Crowns, my mom wasn’t up for the challenge of taking a carload of kids to see Yor. I don’t remember whose mom got suckered into Yor duty, but I’m sure she curses us to this day, assuming she hasn’t completely blocked the memory. You know what, though? We loved it. We loved it more than modern kids love Harry Potter and Catch that Kid. You may have those movies, but we got to watch shit like Yor and Treasure of the Four Crowns, where people flew around on giant bats and had melting faces. Of course, we also had to endure our parents taking us to more acceptable kid-friendly movies, like that one where the kid from E.T. uses his BMX bike to evade trained KBG agents while soliciting cloak and dagger advice from Dabny Coleman. What was that movie called? Oh yeah, Cloak and Dagger. Actually, that was pretty good, I think.
Yor, the Hunter from the Future is by far the most ambitious, and thus goofy, of all the Conan knock-offs. It’s the only one with the audacity to rip off its shock revelation from Planet of the Apes while also ripping off the inferior Apes sequel Beneath the Planet of the Apes, with just as dash of Conquerors of Atlantis and Star Wars thrown in for good measure. You got a hero in a loin cloth, some technologically advanced mutant humans hiding away from the primitives, and a surprise ending (well, midway point anyway) in which we learn that the ancient land of cavemen and dinosaurs we’re seeing is not the ancient past or another planet, but is in fact a post-nuke Earth. Not surprisingly, star Reb Brown is no Charlton Heston and Yor, The Hunter from the Future is no Planet of the Apes. It’s barely even Goin’ Ape.
Yor begins as every movie should begin: with a peroxide blonde caveman bounding across a rocky terrain while synth-heavy prog rock screams madly in the background. Imagine how much better every movie would be with this opening. Kate and Leopold? Why not start it with a barbarian and thunderous prog rock, then move into the thing about the guy from Napoleonic times romancing Meg Ryan on the eve of her officially becoming a has-been? All those quirky indy romance movies films? Sure they’re cute, but who can argue the fact that these shoegazing coming-of-age soap operas would be more palatable to everyone if they included a couple shots of a oily barbarian with Flash Gordon hair fighting dinosaurs while unintelligible prog-rock anthems roared on gloriously in the background? The whole movie doesn’t have to be about that, because we already have that movie and it’s called Yor, the Hunter from the Future. But maybe they could do something where, say, Amy Adams is sitting in a malt shop (kids still go to malt shops, right?) or a quaint upper west side coffee shop talking about relationships, and then she goes, “Well, will you look at that?” And then we cut to a few minutes of a caveman using a giant bat as a hang glider or something, and then we can go back to the plot about finding romance and meaning in today’s hurried modern world.
I think it would fit thematically, because it illustrates how in earlier, more barbarous times, life had so much more significance because times were so tough. We had to live full and hearty lives filled with adventure and passion and synth-rock orchestration, because we never knew when a monkey-man mummy was going to leap down from a perch in the woods and hit us in the face with a rough-hewn stone axe. Removed from that sort of immediacy, Amy Adams’ life is less vital, less passionate, and thus she has a hard time forging a meaningful relationship with modern men who are too wrapped up in banking or computer programming to ever take time out of their busy schedule to love a woman or shoot arrows into a rampaging dinosaur’s eye. But as the cavewoman Ka-Laa notices as she watches Yor bound mightily from boulder to boulder one fine, sunny day, Yor is not like other men.
Yor lives in “Barbarian Times,” and comes from “the high mountains.” I have a feeling Antonio Margheriti was pretty high in the mountains himself when he co-wrote this script. Yor spends his days scrambling over rocks and saving some cockeyed Jack Elam looking guy named Pag (Luciano Pigozii) and sexy cavewoman Ka-Laa from screaming, roaring, huffing, house-size dinosaurs that somehow manage to sneak up behind people in the woods. Most people can’t sneak up behind other people in the woods without at least stepping on a twig, but what do I know? I’ve never been stalked by a dinosaur. Thankful for blond, loincloth-clad Yor’s randomly showing up and saving them from a dinosaur (shades of Fire Monster Against the Son of Hercules), Pag and Ka-Laa invite Yor back to their village to eat “the choice meats” and watch women drape themselves in cargo nets and spin around. The difference between Yor and the rest of the inhabitants of this primal world is immediately evident. He has mastered hair bleaching and body-waxing; they possess tangled brown hair. He is clean-shaven while the rest of the men sport scraggly Mujahadeen beards. Only Ka-Laa’s grooming prowess and hair teasing ability rivals Yor’s. It is obvious he is “not like the others.”
Unfortunately for Yor’s new friends, everyone is a musical theater critic, and a neighboring, even more primitive tribe of hairy blue cavemen pillage the village and put an end to the twilrling rope dress dance, fulfilling the basic requirement of any sword and sorcery film that someone’s village get pillaged, preferably fairly early in the film. It’s likely that Pag’s tribe was slaughtered on account of their phenomenally stupid “twirling rope dress” dance, but even if not, there’s no arguing with the notion that the world was better off minus a tribe full of people who were continuously sneaked up on by snorting, stomping, bellowing dinosaurs.
Only Yor, Pag, and Ka-Laa survive the slaughter. Yor decides he wants to find out the origin of the strange metal medallion he wears, and thus discover the mystery of his own past. Pag and his big-haired daughter join Yor on his quest. What else are they going to do? Their village was just destroyed. Along the way, they’ll fight more dinosaurs, some monkey men, and Yor will grab a giant hairy bat-monster and use it to hang glide through a cave while the prog rock music screams out in joyous ovation to his heroics. Whenever Yor does something especially heroic, like hang onto a giant bat, we’re treated to a thunderous explosion of prog rock glory that would be very much at home on Rick Wakeman’s Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, the ice ballet for which was considerably less corny than Yor.
Yor eventually discovers a blonde woman living amongst the diseased primitives of the wasteland, and he is shocked to see that she possesses the same funky medallion as him. In her cave are other people, frozen in ice, and more clues to Yor’s origins. As they quest about the prehistoric future, they slowly unravel the mystery of the disco medallion Yor wears, and they discover a group of advanced humans living in a space-age facility on an island. What mystery is this? As Yor draws closer to the truth, your mouth will be agape at the final, shocking revelation. These aren’t prehistoric times at all! This is…the future! But who are these strange men in Ming the Merciless cloaks, and what manner of magic weapon do they possess that can issue forth a slow-moving neon pink dollop of light that can kill a man? Gods, such sorcery! It turns out these are the last remaining survivors of a once-proud and technologically advanced civilization that was destroyed by nuclear war. All the pieces fall into place when Yor’s medallion is revealed to be a recording of his family history. Why is Yor not like the other men? Because he is the child of one of the advanced survivors, a group of rebels who sought to overthrow the “Overlord” and were victims of a spaceship crash that left young Yor and that other blonde woman stranded in the post-apocalyptic wasteland. But Yor survived yet, and grew strong and heroic, and where his father failed, Yor shall lead another band of advanced survivor rebels in another bid to overthrow the Darth Vaderish Overlord, who seeks to obliterate all life and replace it with a new race — half-android, half-Yor.
If you think a mad scheme like that is going to cause Yor to have to do all sorts of crazy shit that demands prog-rock synth ovations, then you’ve been paying closer attention to this movie than most people. Amid it all, various people get on the space-age facilitiy’s loudspeaker and wax philosophic at great lengths on assorted points pertaining to topics such as the folly of man, the worth of man, the future of man, and overloading the atomic reactor. Yor’s “message” is, needless to say, half-baked and completely ludicrous, but heck. How many other sword and sorcery movies from the time even made an attempt at having a message, however cliche it may have been? You know, I was all for nuclear proliferation, brinksmanship, and the whole arms race until Yor, The Hunter from the Future opened my eyes and really made me think about how man harbors a tendency to abuse power he doesn’t fully comprehend.
Athough Yor isn’t a time-traveling barbarian movie in the strictest sense of how the intellectuals and academics of the world define “time-traveling barbarian,” it’s close enough to lump it in with the little sub-genre that erupted in its wake. Hard to believe that Yor could start a trend within a trend, but as one of the early entries in the sword and sorcery genre, it gets the dubious credit of having inspired the other time-warp barbarians like Beastmaster II and the dreary Time Barbarians. Ancient warriors traversing the fold of the space-time continuum in much the same way Conan trod the sands of the earth beneath his sandaled feet may be historically questionable (it’s more historically viable to have barbarians traveling into space, like in the Gor movies or the second Lou Ferrigno Hercules movie. Or was it the first one? Whichever one where he goes to the moon), but it made good financial sense. Most of the cheap barbarian movies that came out in the 1980s required little more than some fake swords, fake armor, and only a couple locations: usually, a forest, a rocky desert, and at least one castle chamber that could probably be rented cheap from Roger Corman. But you could save even more money by sending your barbarian forward in time, almost exclusively to modern-day Los Angeles. Then you only needed a few barbarian outfits and probably only one or two forest shots before you could throw a goofy “time portal” effect up on screen and spend the remainder of the film simply following your muscleman around the parking garages of LA.
And there in lies the truly admirable — and I use that term loosely — thing about Yor. It isn’t happy living within its means. Time Barbarians was cheap, and they knew better than to do much other than have some barbarians in the woods and then stage a fight in a rented warehouse. Yor, on the other hand, has dinosaurs, monkey monsters, bat hang-gliding, a city of tomorrow, mutants, messages about the folly of man, the twirling rope dress dance, laser battles, a robot army — basically, enough stuff for the entire Star Wars series, all crammed into one cut-rate Italian fantasy/sci-fi action film. Almost none of these things are realized well. The dinosaurs are OK so long as they don’t have to do much beyond swing their head back and forth. The fight choreography is sluggish and seems designed to maximize the number of times Reb Brown is shot from a low angle, jumping through the air to allow his loincloth to flap up and give the world a cheeky show. The city of the future (actually the past, I suppose) is about on par with the cut-rate “future city of the past” from the cheapskate Battle for the Planet of the Apes, which means there’s some matte paintings, and then the whole thing was filmed in a pump factory somewhere, with some red and blue blinking lights attached to the pipes and metal railing. And don’t even mention the laser effects, which result in an animated beam that moves about as fast as someone walking across a room.
But that doesn’t stop Yor, which was based on a comic strip I assume looked a lot like a comic out of Heavy Metal magazine, from pulling out all stops and attempting to serve up a visual extravaganza that is far beyond its hope of ever successfully achieving. It’s a naive movie on many levels. Though Margheriti obviously knew he was making something bad (the original version of Yor is a four-part mini-series that rarely, if ever, aired), the film itself doesn’t seem aware of this, and it never seems to think it’s doing anything other than telling one of the most important stories of all time. The lack of wink-and-nudge self-awareness is refreshing from today’s standpoint, seeing as how we’re buried under an avalanche of self-referential “ironic” movies that think they’re the first ones to ever be so clever. But Yor plods along with a blissful earnestness that makes it charming in a weird way. It’s also naive in that it really is fairly kid-friendly. There is no nudity, unless you count the disturbingly frequent Reb Brown buffalo shots (I am not a man who is afraid of male nudity, but that angle just isn’t appealing no matter how buff you are). There’s a lot of killing but very little bloodshed. And Yor is a decidedly classical hero — well, respective to the standards set by this film. Let’s just say he’s a nice guy who does the right thing, as opposed to the grittier, lustier anti-heroes that populated saltier barbarian fare.
The acting is pretty bad, and there’s a reason that Reb Brown never became a household name like Sam Jones. Still, it’s not as if Reb is a total unknown, at least among the sorts of people who who would refer to Sam Jones as a household name. I mean, Reb Brown may not be Sam Jones, but at least he’s not Dack Rambo. Reb starred in such direct-to-the-bargain-bin favorites as Strike Commando (yes, I own it), Roboforce (yes, I own it), and Space Mutiny (yes, I…oh, never mind). He appeared in another perennial sword and sorcery hit, Sword and the Sorcerer, though not in the lead. His brush with respectability came with an appearance in the film Uncommon Valor. He’s probably “best known” for his turns in a couple abysmal made-for-TV Captain America movies and the film Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf, which, oddly enough, I don’t own even though it’s one of my favorite awful movies. His first film was, I believe, Sssss (give or take an “s”), and to tie this all in with Conan once again, he was in Conan director John Milius’ 1970s surfing movie, Big Wednesday. What’s really scary is that I am writing all this from memory, with no help from the imdb or any other source. So yes, with that amount of information, I believe I qualify as a Reb Brown biographer.
Reb has the sort of good looks you expect from a guy who isn’t too bright (whether or not he’s actually bright, I don’t know, but he has managed to sustain a career). He’s the good-hearted football player who falls for the cute, brainy girl with glasses and tries to impress her by making an earnest attempt to understand poetry (also an apt description of Yor the movie). He might never understand Longfellow, but he’ll valiantly defend the brainy girl’s honor against her nemesis, the mean football player with the catty cheerleader girlfriend. Since I mentioned the movie in passing earlier, allow me to once again make a connection only I would make: he’s a lot like fellow bleach-blond superior caveman Reg Lewis, star of the sixties caveman/Hercules peplum adventure Fire Monster Against the Son of Hercules. There’s a good-natured, everyman goofiness about him that takes the edge off the muscles.
He’s not an especially good actor, but he’s not required to do much more here than look muscular (but not bodybuilder muscular) and hang-glide on a giant bat, so that’s fine. His main squeeze Ka-Laa is played by one-time Bond girl Corrine Clery, who has a massive list of Italian film and television credits to her name (those, unlike Reb’s, I had to look up) but is best-known for her turn in Moonraker as “that woman who flies James Bond around in a helicopter then gets killed.” “Artful erotica” fans might remember seeing her naked in the title role of The Story of O, and less artful erotica fans might remember her from Lucio Fulci’s Devil’s Honey. It’s hard to judge her acting here since she’s dubbed, but she goes through most of the movie with a slightly dazed look, for which you can’t really blame her.
Completing the core cast is Luciano Pigozzi as Pag. For years, I thought this role was played by Jack Elam. Looking back, I realize that Pigozzi is more like Jack Elam crossed with Lucio Fulci. Whatever, he has more Italian genre credits than a sane man can count, including countless appearances in many of Margheriti’s other films, often under his Americanized name Alan Collins. Margheriti himself was rechristened Anthony Dawson whenever his films came to America. As if anyone cared whether or not the director of Yor was Italian. Pigozzi has his “stooped old man” bit down pretty good, but like everyone else, he’s dubbed and has pretty inane lines anyway, so judging acting is moot. At least he has more facial expressions than Reb and Corinne. Everyone else in the movie is either a caveman or a future man, and they’re primarily there to die, be menaced by dinosaurs, get shot by slow lasers, or make monotone speeches about the aforementioned folly of man.
The movie was made on location in Turkey, so there are quite a few Turkish performers sprinkled into the mix, including recognizable names like Aytekin Akkaya, who appeared in the beloved Turkish sci-fi kungfu extravaganza The Man Who Saved the World (aka “The Turkish Star Wars”) alongside Turkish matinee superstar Cuynet Arkin, as well as playing Captain America (just like Reb Brown!) in the curious 3 Dev Adam, in which Captain America and Santo the masked Mexican wrestler team up to defeat the murderous, chain-smoking Spider-Man, who likes to shove women’s faces into outboard boat motors (which is much better than what happened in Reb Brown’s own Captain America movies). Akkaya also worked with Margheriti again on the decent Indiana Jones cash-in Ark of the Sun God, starring David Warbeck. So really, when you think about it, Yor is an amazing multi-national nexus point of exploitation movie talent.
Margheriti was one of the most prolific directors working in the Italian exploitation genres, and amid all the movies made so he could pay his bills, there are actually quite a few gems. Some are simply delightfully bad, while others are genuinely good. And his moody, atmospheric Gothic film Castle of Terror is a bona fide horror classic. His specialty eventually ended up being action, though like any Italian exploitation director, he’s worked in pretty much every genre and scored a memorable (if not always good) film in each one, including science fiction (Wild Wild Planet), peplum (Hercules, Prisoner of Evil), Eurospy (Lightning Bolt), western (And God Said to Cain), and giallo ( Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eye), but his specialty became cheap action films in the 1980s, often working with David Warbeck to knock off Vietnam war movies or Indiana Jones adventures. Even in his worst films, Margheriti infuses the proceedings with energy, and while his statements betray the fact that he really has no love for Yor (I think No Love for Yor might be the title of his autobiography), the movie still benefits from his touch. Special effects are bad, acting is bad, and the script is daft, but Margheriti is still professional enough to make sure he turns in a technically competent directorial job (decent lighting, no boom mics in the shot, etc).
As for that theme song — I loved it when I was young, and I think it’s still thoroughly rousing and utterly absurd, boasting all the theatrical bombast of Queen’s work for Sam Jones’ Flash Gordon movie (a Dino De Laurentiis production!), but relying less on guitars and more on synthesizers. Years later and farther down the road of no return, I’m a little more familiar with the stable of guys who wrote music for Italian genre films. My first guess, given the vocals and the over-the-top synths, was that this was probably the work of Guido and Maurizio DeAngelis, one of the most prolific score writing teams in the Italian film industry. They always relied pretty heavily on synths. A quick check of the credits revealed that, yes indeed, the DeAngelis duo was responsible. This correct guess coupled with my disturbingly exhaustive knowledge of Reb Brown’s filmography should really make me worry. Anyway, beyond the theme song, the rest of the score is pretty standard “future synth” stuff. They didn’t have the money to try and mimic Conan’s even more bombastic “barbarian brass” orchestration. Guido and Maurizio DeAngelis have written some spectacular scores for some spectacular films. This isn’t one of them, but man! That theme song!
Most people list Yor among the worst movies of all time. It may have even won some awards to that effect. All I can say is that if this is the worst movie you’ve ever seen, then you haven’t seen enough movies. I admit I have a soft spot for the hunk of junk, the same “saw it in the theaters” soft spot that makes me crack a warm smile even for a film like Treasure of the Four Crowns, and I still find myself enjoying Yor far more than I should. The revelation about the past being the future is not exactly as stunning as that first time you see Chuck Heston stumble upon the Statue of Liberty, but I don’t figure anyone goes into Yor expecting stunning revelations. You go in because you want to watch cavemen do somersaults and have laser battles with robots.
Release Year: 1983 | Country: Italy | Starring: Reb Brown, Corinne Clery, John Steiner, Carole Andre, Luciano Pigozzi, Ayshe Gul, Aytekin Akkaya, Marina Rocchi, Sergio Nicolai | Writer: Robert Bailey and Antonio Magheriti | Director: Antonio Magheriti | Cinematographer: Marcello Masciocchi
Music: Guido and Maurizio De Angelis | Producer: Michele Marsala | Original Title: Il Mondo di Yor
Many people will list Plan Nine from Outer Space as the undisputed king of movies considered so awful they’re wonderful, and I’ll give the devil his due. That’s a damn fine film. But if I were to update things a bit, I wouldn’t hesitate to install Zombie 3 as the new reigning king of bad film. Mere words fail to capture just how truly entertaining this horrid piece of tripe is. For those who don’t know the story, Lucio Fulci raked in the big bucks with his tropical island romp Zombie, and like any decent director taking orders from a greedy producer figured why not cash in on the success and do a sequel. The proposed Zombie 3 was troubled from the get-go.
Fulci was entering a particularly cranky stage in his life, a frame of mind that was only exasperated by his failing health. The script for Zombie 3 was thin, even by Fulci’s standards, little more than a vague treatment which Fulci expected to hash out and make up on the spot. When it became apparent that Fulci’s increasingly bad health and cantankerousness were going to conspire to make sure that wasn’t going to happen, screenwriter Claudio Fragasso and director Bruno Mattei were called in to patch things up, which is sort of like calling in the Three Stooges to fix your leaky plumbing.
Fulci turned in a film that was well under the minimum requirement for a feature-length presentation, but he insisted that this was the complete film. Exactly what he shot and how much of it remains in what was eventually released is a source of constant contention. Some sources attribute as much as two-thirds of the film to Fulci while others claim scarcely more than fifteen minutes of his material was used in the final cut. In interviews, Fragasso has attempted to tidy up the record and give credit where credit is due, dissecting which scenes were written and filmed by Fulci and which were dreamed up by he and Mattei. In the end, it seems more of the film belongs to Fulci than was originally thought, but in terms of his commitment to the vision and the overall feel of the film, this is a Fragasso/Mattei affair.
“A Fragasso/Mattei affair” is probably the scariest thing about this movie. Both men are notorious and celebrated for working fast and cheap, churning out lowest common denominator grindhouse fodder with complete disregard for just about anything but getting the job done. Fulci, at least, had his artistic vision, however cracked it may have been. The directorial work of Bruno Mattei, on the other hand, lacks any distinguishable characteristic unless you count “intolerably awful.” And while Fulci’s films often sacrificed narrative cohesion and logic in favor of surreal spectacle, Claudio Fragasso’s scripts lack the same qualities but simply because he was in a hurry. However misguided you may thing Fulci’s artistic direction was, if indeed you think it was misguided at all, you can at least recognize that he had a vision when compared to someone like Fragasso, who was simply sloppy and inattentive. Not that that translates into his scripts, daft as they may be, being any less fun. He is Fulci stripped of artistic pretense and charged instead with giddy don’t-give-a-damn pulp sensibilities.
Being a patchwork film from three different people, it’s no surprise that Zombie 3 has very little to hold it together. At times, it seems to switch from one film to an entirely different film as it wavers between the “soldiers running amok” action scenes shot by Fragasso and Mattei and the moody “pokin’ around in the decay” scenes presumably shot by Fulci. Technically, it has nothing to tie it officially to Zombie other than Fulci’s involvement, but it’s not so hard to draw the films together. In Zombie, it was suspected that voodoo was the cause of all the living dead troubles, but Menard dismisses that as superstition and indeed we’re really never given any reason to believe that there’s not some natural or man-made reason for all the restless corpses. In Zombie 3 it’s stated obviously in a hammy prologue full of helicopters and shouting and running about that all the zombie action is being caused by a biological weapon that was accidentally unleashed when a terrorist attempted to steal it. Personally, I’ve never quite understood the whole “zombie-ism as a weapon” thing even though it’s been used as a way to explain where the zombies come from in countless films. What kind of weapon is a zombie or zombie virus? Sure you’ll decimate your enemy’s population, but then it will spread to the next country, and the next, et cetera. You can’t control the zombies, and just because you drop them off in Iraq doesn’t mean they’ll stop at the Turkish border. There just seem like better ways of going about conquering people.
The film starts off on a tropical island, much like Zombie, although this is a different tropical island with more people. Some scientists are carting around a super deadly biological warfare canister Does it get stolen by a terrorist? But of course. And naturally, the terrorist drops it and it opens up, because all biohazard material is transported in thin glass vials. You ever notice these canisters of biotoxins and plagues seem to pop open easier than your average bottle of aspirin? Someone should teach the military about the virtues of “To open, push down and twist.”
Before too long, the terrorist — who flees to a high-profile luxury inn rather than trying to actually hide out or catch the first boat out of town — is infecting people with the virus, which turns them into flesh-eating zombies. Yep, always with the flesh-eating, aren’t they? The military moves in to contain the outbreak but bungles the job. They burn the infected bodies, which releases the toxin into the air. Didn’t these guys see Return of the Living Dead? The heat also makes the virus more powerful, much to the surprise of the scientists involved. Now, granted I haven’t had a chemistry class since high school, and even back then I didn’t do so hot, but it seems to be that of all the tests you can run on a substance, seeing what heat does to it is one of the most basic things you’d do. Wouldn’t that be like the first test you run? Well, not these scientists. Pretty much everything surprises them, and like all horror movie scientists they spend the entire film yelling, “We need more time to find an antidote!”
The zombie plague gets out, and soon enough, you got zombies all over the place. A group of soldiers on leave team up with some sexy ladies in an RV and get attacked by infected birds. I guess this is one of the only films where something other than people gets affected by zombie-ism, and maybe it explains what might happen to that shark in the first film, although it still doesn’t answer the question of if zombie humans only eat other humans, do zombie sharks only eat other sharks. Anyway, they load up their wounded, proclaim their need for immediate medical attention, and go to an abandoned hotel. Because when you think emergency medical attention, you think abandoned hotel. They take it one step further by leaving the wounded at the hotel and sending some healthy guy to get the doctor. Wouldn’t it make more sense to put the wounded in the plush RV and drive them to the doctor instead of going to the hospital and bringing the doctor back?
Never mind. People are getting wounded all over the place, and all the wounds fester and bubble the way we like it, causing one of our heroes to utter, “That’s not pus. It’s something much worse.” While poking around the abandoned hotel, they find a crate of machine guns and flame throwers. Now this may seem silly until you remember that down in the tropics they are always having revolutions and coups, so I figure most places have a cache of automatic weapons. Finding the weapons makes one of the guys utter the line, “Good! We’ll need those!” even though at this point they have absolutely no idea anything at all is going wrong other than some birds got ticked off at them. They have seen no zombies, and no one’s even threatened them. But they still strut around wielding their newfound toys, and well, so would I.
And then the zombies come. Some of the zombies do the slow zombie shuffle we’ve come to expect. Some of them haul ass and use machetes. There’s really no consistency among the living dead. Some of them moan and creep about, and others are able to hold down jobs as popular morning DJs. This is one of the only films where you’ll see a zombie just haul off and kick someone’s ass. None of that mindless groping and grasping. No, this guy assumes a boxing stance and whips out the right hooks and some aikido submission holds. You’re a piss poor fighter if a zombie makes you tap out. Some of the other zombies hide in closets and on top of pillars. It makes for a dramatic entrance, but you gotta wonder what the hell these zombies were thinking. Was that zombie perched up on top of the pillar for hours and hours in hopes that someone might happen by so he could jump down on them? Did the zombie crawl in the kitchen cabinet of an old abandoned hut out in the jungle just giggling about that one day when someone might come and stand next to it? I won’t even talk about the zombie hiding under the pregnant woman in the hospital.
Oh sure I will. So they go to the hospital, and everyone has been evacuated except for one perfectly alive pregnant woman. For some reason, they left her behind. I guess no one wants to deliver a baby while running from zombies. That’s just too television sit-com. And for some other reason, the zombies don’t eat her. They just sort of hide around her, waiting for someone else to come in. That way, they can burst through her stomach for a big shock. Of course, it would be easier for the zombie to just get out from under the table or something, but what the hell? What fun is a zombie rolling around on the floor when he could pop up through a pregnant woman’s stomach? I like to imagine him and his zombie chums laughing and going, “This is going to be so cool!” as they all squat down in their hiding places and wait for someone to happen along.
What else have we got? Why would you pull into an abandoned gas station, where rags are hanging from the sign and all the windows and doors are boarded up, then wander around inside, amid all the rubble and cobwebs, going “Is anybody here? Hello? We need help!” I mean, the place was boarded up! What about a boarded up building covered in trash and cobwebs makes you think someone might be in there hiding, refusing to acknowledge you until you recount to them your entire story up to that moment? When I see abandoned, boarded-up buildings, the first thing that pops into my mind isn’t “Why I bet a helpful person is in there waiting to lend a hand to someone with a story like mine!”
And then there’s the flying zombie head in the refrigerator. No scene in any movie has ever made me lose my lunch, but I lost it during this scene. Not because it’s gory; just because, well, a zombie head was sitting in the refrigerator and comes shooting out when someone opens it, and then it goes flying all over the damn place. I thought things like that only happened in Hong Kong horror films! Ironically, a number of Fulci fans have pointed to the sheer lunacy of that scene as proof that Fulci himself had very little to do with the film. After all, why would the maestro of moody gore put in such a ludicrous gag? It turns out that in interviews, Fulci himself claims responsibility for the flying zombie head, and not only does he claim responsibility for it, he’s damn proud of it and seems to think it one of the best things he’d ever come up with. So it’s not so much proof of his lack of complicity as it is proof of the fact that he was really out of his gourd when making this movie.
This is all a pleasant climax to a scene in which a couple people leave the group to go look for food. Because you know, when you are in an abandoned hotel in the middle of the jungle, you never know when they might have some Vienna Sausages they forgot to take with them. So they get attacked by the zombie head, which reminded me of an episode of The Three Stooges where a skull falls on an owl and the owl goes flying all around, so there’s this skull with little wings sticking out the ear holes fluttering all about and messing with Shemp. It really did crack me up back in the day. Anyway, six hours after they leave, no one ever bothers to question what might have become of the people who stepped into the next room, nor what all that shrieking and shooting might have been about.
Meanwhile, this one dude is still driving to the hospital. This island must be the size of South America. He leaves in broad daylight, and by dawn, the idiot is still driving to the hospital. Amid all this, some other soldiers are marching around in those biohazard suits, shooting anything and everything that moves. If nothing else, there is plenty of shooting. To Zombie 3‘s credit, it is action-packed. No scenes of people thinking about stuff or contemplating the end of the world. Nope, they’re just out there shooting at the living dead and getting eaten. Zombie 3 is both one of the worst zombie films I’ve ever seen and one of my favorites. Rarely do the elements of incompetence come together so beautifully as they do in this gory masterpiece of ineptness. It may not make your top ten list, but I guarantee that you’ll have one hell of a time watching it, that you’ll watch it again, and that you’ll make all your friends watch it.
The zombies and make-up effects are a real let-down after de Rossi set the bar incredibly high with his still-unmatched work in Zombie. Even Tom Savini’s creations for Day of the Dead pale in comparison to Zombie‘s shambling mounds of flesh. Zombie 3, on the other hand, tends to go more with the “slap some red paint and oatmeal on them” style of effects, which fall dramatically short of being satisfactory, even by Z-grade film standards. The same goes for the acting, the dreary score, and just about everything else. There are a few scenes of moody interest, but they’re quickly undercut by the stupidity of the script, which is, coincidentally, the only real thing this film has going for it.
When Lucio Fulci came back from the hospital and saw what happened to the film, he screamed, tried to make them take his name off it, and then died a few years later. I don’t know if that last one is actually related to this film, but I’m sure Zombie 3 didn’t help. Personally, I don’t see why Fulci would hate it so much. It’s not much worse than some of that crap he made. I mean, dude, you made Murder Rock! Zombie 3 makes no sense, has bland characters, cheap zombies, lots of gore, and a plot that seems to have been assembled by third graders on crystal meth. I would think Fulci would have liked it.
Release Year: 1988 | Country: Italy | Starring: Deran Sarafian, Beatrice Ring, Ottaviano Dell’Acqua, Massimo Vanni, Ulli Reinthaler, Marina Loi, Deborah Bergamini, Mike Monty, Rene Abadeza, Mari Catotiengo, Roberto Dell’Acqua, Claudio Fragasso, Robert Marius, Bruno Mattei | Screenplay: Lucio Fulci, Claudio Fragasso | Director: Lucio Fulci, Claudio Fragasso, Bruno Mattei | Cinematography: Riccardo Grassetti | Music: Stefano Mainetti | Producer: Franco Gaudenzi
It’s no secret that since the tail-end of the 1990s the Hong Kong film industry has had a rough time. After being gutted by gangsters for decades and plagued by the most rampant video piracy in the world resulting in films being available on bootleg VCD before they even opened in theaters, Hong Kong’s once illustrious cinematic juggernaut found itself on thin financial ice. Big stars were either getting to old to perform as they once had or were simply packing up and heading for the greener pastures of America. The new generation of stars, culled primarily from the ranks of teen models and pop idols, did little to spark interest in the new generation of films.
If I say “post apocalypse film,” then chances are, one of two things will pop into your mind. If you are my age or younger, or slightly older for that matter but not by much, then it’s entirely likely you’ll immediately picture Road Warrior and its many imitators often of an Italian origin. Pink mohawked men running wild in the desert atop supped up dune buggies while a stoic hero in leather mumbles and saves some band of peaceful folk trying to re-establish civilization. If you’re older, or more in tune with the length and breadth of exploitation film, then you might also drum up less-than-fond memories of those old 1950s atomic paranoia films, or the more interesting sci-fi films set after such a war had devastated the world and left it populated by nothing but nubile, sexy young women and virile, two-fisted scientists from the 20th century.
What you won’t think of, I’m willing to bet, is a gritty Japanese yakuza film set in the years immediately after the end of World War II, but that’s exactly what Battles Without Honor and Humanity can be construed as. It is, after all, taking place in the wake of the one atomic war we’ve actually had, and you can’t get more post-apocalyptic than Nagasaki or Hiroshima after the Bomb. And while you may not, thankfully, spy any pink-haired men in assless leather pants or bodybuilders in a Quiet Riot mask imploring a bunch of people in shoulder pads and burlap sacks to, “just walk away,” and while there may be no rolling deserts in sight, there are roving gangs of hooligans in leather jackets wreaking havoc on the innocent. The only real difference is that in the postwar chaos of Hiroshima, no hero emerges to defend the honor of the downtrodden. Everyone is too desperate, too defeated, too decimated to worry about heroism or honor – a state that seems foreign and inconceivable in a nation preoccupied with such notions. Here the hooligans are no better off than the citizens, and everyone is wracked by a panicky confusion that manifests itself either as defeatism or rage. This being a yakuza film, we’ll focus on the group of people who react with rage.
But if this is a post-apocalypse film of a different color, it is also a yakuza film quite unlike most anything that had come before it, and that difference stems entirely from the challenges facing postwar Japan, when survival suddenly seemed a hell of a lot more important than honor. Honor was paramount as a theme in yakuza films. Always there is the righteous gangster with an impeccable sense of honor and loyalty who stands in stark contrast to his foil, who will inevitably be the yakuza or samurai who has turned his back on “the code.” Even among thieves, there is still honor. Maverick director Kenji Fukasaku, however, would put an abrupt and bloody end to the classically romantic notion of the honorable gangster. After all, it is and always has been a load of crap. But no number of backstabbers, internal wars, hits, or squealers ratting out their fellow gangsters to the police seemed able to tarnish this idea of honor bound warriors abiding by a code of fair play, loyalty, and decency.
Fukasaku’s films sought to debunk this myth by portraying the yakuza as what gangsters and criminals often were – petty, vindictive, deceitful, and ready to exploit any vice if it’ll increase their power or the size of their bank account. He never dismissed the notions or any of the other conventions that were expected of the yakuza film as set down by the great icon Takakura Ken, who starred in dozens of post-war yakuza films that all seem to start with him being released from prison. Fukasaku knows the genre inside and out, and he makes sure he includes each of the clichés – the main character fresh out of prison, notions of honor, someone cutting off a pinky, so on and so forth; Once they’re in there, however, he twists them around wildly and turns them inside out in a way that hadn’t been done since yakuza genre deconstruction got its start under Seijun Suzuki in films like Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill. At the same time, however, he hasn’t set out to simply make a movie full of seedy characters in sunglasses shooting each other and selling drugs to little kids. At the center of it all is the motivation, the reason, these men have abandoned honor, and that is the war.
It all comes from a long lineage and the yakuza film’s peculiar position as one of the true Japanese cult genres. Samurai films were obviously Japanese, but they were also easily adaptable to other genres – as a good many Western has proved. And although they had in them the ideals of honor and loyalty, there were also swashbuckling sword films that could be, at least on the surface, translated into any number of other genres, such as sci-fi or fantasy. Yakuza films, on the other hand, are often so obsessed with the esoterica, Japanese tradition, secret codes, handshakes, and minutiae of their subject matter that it can’t be repeated without losing almost all its meaning. Strip it away, and you just have another gangster films, and while yakuza films were, on the surface, gangster films, they were also something quite different. There aren’t very many action-oriented shoot-em-ups in the yakuza genre. Most of them are fairly slow-moving, and that’s because most of them aren’t about the crime as much as they are about the criminals and the counter-culture they inhabit. A yakuza film without it isn’t a yakuza film; it’s just an action film. At their core and below the violence and gruff men shouting at each other, these are movies about a culture with roots stretching as far back as the Tokugawa Shogunate that first unified Japan and introduced to it a whole class of disenfranchised wandering samurai, or ronin, who basically lost their jobs when the petty warlords and regional masters become obsolete under the one government, one country system.
Suddenly, and in a way that eerily mirrors the post-bubble Japan of the early 21st century, these men who thought they’d been guaranteed jobs for life as noble samurai were out on the streets with nowhere to go and no one in need of their skills. Bands of ronin started forming their own societies, some acting almost like local police defending villages from marauders and greedy officials (like the chaps in Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai), others acting like local thugs. These bands of ronin eventually became known by the name yakuza – Japanese for the unlucky 8-9-3 combo in dice gambling that means you just lost. The early yakuza films dealt primarily with these historic and usually heroic samurai. 1927’s Chuji’s Travel Diary was the first of the bunch, but others quickly fell in and began writing the rules by which the genre would play. After World War II, however, yakuza films were more or less banned under the thinking that, to keep the Japanese from standing up to fight again, you had to strip them completely of their dignity and take away anything that might showcase that famous fighting spirit. Hey, it was MacAurthur’s idea, not mine.
The result, of course, was the desperation we see in the beginning of Battles Without Honor and Humanity. When we first meet our rowdy bunch of central characters – and there are a lot of them, with plenty more on the way, so you better keep a flow chart handy – they are bitter hustlers trying to stay alive in the turmoil and madness of post-bomb Hiroshima. Ostensibly, our main character is a young hustler named Shozo, played by yakuza film staple Bunta Sugawara. Sugawara became one of the most recognizable and beloved faces in the yakuza films of the 1970s, thanks in large part to his partnership with director Kenji Fukasaku. Shozo and his mates live in a world without a future. They’ve just survived the most horrific single attack man has ever seen (and no, I’m making a pro- or anti-atomic bomb statement there – I think proponents and opponents of dropping the bomb on Japan can agree at least on the fact that it was a pretty big deal), and in the aftermath, they find themselves at the mercy of an occupying force determined (so the story goes) to strip them entirely of what little dignity they may still retain. In such an atmosphere, honor and humanity was a distant consideration to simply staking out a claim, and if the myth of the yakuza code had ever been real, it was certainly killed in the atomic blasts.
When, in 1951, the Japanese regained much of their freedom as a nation, period films were back in action, but most of these were samurai films. They were the best way for the Japanese to recapture their lost glory and start to rebuild a sense of self-worth. Honor, nobility, self-respect – these were the things that made the samurai movie tick. And loyalty – loyalty was essential, both to the samurai and to the mid-century Japanese who were trying to forge a new nation and establish a new government unlike any they’d had before. The era of shoguns and emperors had given way to the Japanese Diet, or parliament, and democracy.
If there weren’t many yakuza on the screen, then it was compensated for by the fact that so many of them were involved behind the scenes. Bored with turf wars among themselves and with the Chinese and Korean minorities who formed their own gangs, the postwar hooligans saw money to be made in the newly revitalized Japanese film industry. Many of them became involved as scouts, producers, and a few even became studio heads. Eventually, of course, yakuza films started creeping back onto screens, this time set primarily during the period of rapid modernization just prior to World War II and involving a heroic gangster usually stubbornly clinging to traditional Japanese clothing facing off against corrupt gangsters who had usually sold out and started wearing Western style suits – very similar to what we’d see again in the 1970s when Hong Kong kungfu films invariably featured a guy in that traditional Chinese shirt and pants and slippers kicking the crap out of a bunch of thugs in bell bottoms and those Little Rascal caps.
When the yakuza films started toying with a more modern, post-war setting, the films were still richly melodramatic and steeped in nostalgia for the old ways. Takakura Ken became the poster boy for the new yakuza film and starred in more than a sane person would want to count. By the end of the 1960s, the social upheaval that was engulfing much of the world was just as strong in Japan as anywhere else, and people weren’t buying these sentimental doomed heroes bound by codes of honor and love. Seijun Suzuki had started messing with the truisms of the yakuza film, but his wild pop-art experiments were more a rebellion against assembly line, characterless filmmaking than they were against the yakuza genre itself. The real hit on honor-heavy yakuza films came in 1967 with the release of Junya Sato’s Organized Violence starring Tetsuro Tanba (best known to Western audiences as Tiger Tanaka from the James Bond film You Only Twice) and Sonny Chiba. In 1973, Kinji Fukasaku upped the ante with Battles Without Honor and Humanity, a cutthroat, unflinching, and decidedly unromantic look at the world of post-war gangs in Japan.
At the center of the maelstrom is Bunta Sugawara, a former matinee idol turned iconic bad boy and sporting a severe flattop and all-around stern, militaristic look. After striking back at some rowdy American GIs, typically portrayed as loud-mouthed, swaggering, and ready to beat up or rape anyone in sight, Bunta’s Shozo goes to prison, where he becomes blood brothers with another inmate, Hiroshi, played by Tatsuo Umemiya. When he gets out, Shozo is taken under the wing of the boss of Yamagumi Gang, but he quickly learns that the yakuza world is not as it was, if it was ever that way in the first place. His boss is a coward, ready to backstab at the drop of a hat, and equally ready to cower and sob if he can’t get a sucker punch in. Shozo is bewildered by the array of gangsters all fighting amongst themselves and jockeying for political alliances and territorial gains. It gets to the point where so many players are introduced and so many loyalties switch back and forth that it soon becomes impossible for the viewer to keep everything straight – which is precisely the effect Fukasaku is going for, as it mirrors perfectly the feelings of the confused and frustrated Shozo, who wanders through this madness in a half-dazed state, harboring still some notion of loyalty and honor that manages, paradoxically, to both make him the center of attention and marginalize him completely, to keep him in the crosshairs but also safer than most. When an old friend makes a dramatic power play, Shozo is caught between him and his old boss, who is hardly worthy of Shozo’s continuing loyalty.
Battles Without Honor and Humanity was based on a book by journalist Koichi Iiboshi chronicling the history of the real life Mino gang. As such, the film rings especially factual in its documentation of dirty yakuza life, playing at times almost like a series of yakuza home movies. The film is brutally violent but not action-packed. The drama between the character, and the stripping away of every lofty romanticized delusion regarding the yakuza and the yakuza film are the film’s primary weapons. When the violence does come, it is fast, ugly, and street-style. You’ll see no white-clad gangsters with two guns leaping through the air in balletic slow motion. Instead, there is only sweating, grunting, screaming, and blood. Fukasaku employs a lot of street-level hand-held cameras – something that was in vogue at Toei Studios, owing mostly to the fact that they were cheap, easy to use, and resulted in faster shooting schedules. The effect was often detrimental to the film, as in many of the Sonny Chiba karate flicks whose action was undermined by blurry, shaky handheld camera work. Here, however, it serves to throw you into the thick of the action and further confuse you and make you relate to Shozo and makes the movie feel even more like a piece of guerrilla documentary filmmaking.
Although the sheer number of characters keeps you from ever becoming too emotionally attached to any one person, Shozo included, it’s still an emotionally engaging film. It’s the entirety of the situation that pulls you in, the mere act of watching these people pull themselves – and ultimately, their entire country – out of the ashes only to self-destruct once the hard part was over. It’s a common occurrence that continues to play itself out on a daily basis. It’s easy to find unity when there is a common struggle, but once the struggle has been surmounted, once the battle has been won, people find it’s even harder for them to hold things together. The experiences in the desolation of Hiroshima pulled these men together, and the increasingly secure and prosperous times that followed tore them apart. The peace, as they say, is always harder to keep than to win. Compare these post-war yakuza, then, to something like the criminal gangs and militias of Chechnya. Like the yakuza, they banded together against a common enemy, in this case the Russian army and the utter ruin visited upon the country of Chechnya.
Like Hiroshima after the bomb, Chechnya has been reduced almost to ashes, its infrastructure shattered, its people hopeless and angry, and its future even bleaker than that of Japan at the close of World War II. Gangsters became politicians became resistance fighters and military heroes, and after years of bitter struggle the inhumanity of which may be unparalleled in the 20th Century, even by the standards set by such atrocities exhibitions as Sierra Leone and Pol Pot’s Cambodia, the Russians finally withdrew, claiming a bogus victory in the war and leaving the Chechens with a wasteland to rebuild. Unfortunately, the men who proved so valiant, fearless, and admittedly bloodthirsty and brutal in (and out of) combat could not rebuild the nation they defended. The war had been their element, but peace and rebuilding proved too much. In the end, at least for Chechnya, it didn’t matter, since as soon as Vladimir Putin was elected president of Russia, he made a point of resuming hostilities with a shocking ferocity that should leave the world aghast if the world ever bothered to pay attention to some bunch of mountain rabble with ties to fundamentalist Islam. The bitter cold of the Caucasus Mountains seems an odd place for jihad, accustomed as we are to seeing it played out on the sands of the Middle East. But then that whole area where the Middle East collides with Europe and Asia is a fascinating, confusing, and endlessly tumultuous corner of the world that few people seem to understand or take much interest in.
That nations are often built on the backs and from the sweat and blood of criminals is a frequent theme in history, and indeed most human history is little more that a chronicle of criminal acts committed in the name of god, king, and country. Martin Scorcese’s Gangs of New York sought to examine that very piece of the history of New York in particular and the United States as a whole, as did Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather before it. Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honor and Humanity does the same for Japan, and later entries into the series would trace the development even further, going so far as to make the claim, perhaps not outrageously, that much of Japan’s emergence as a global economic power is the result of the machinations of driven but corrupt criminal gangs. For the first entry in the series, we see simply their emergence from the war and subsequent failure to work cohesively without the immediate threat of US occupation. Left to their own devices, boredom sets in and brings with it violent internal conflict and turf wars. They were born of chaos and need chaos to survive. If there is no external threat to unite them, after all, then they will create an internal one to rip themselves to shreds.
Fukasaku’s film is not completely devoid of the yakuza genre trappings; it simply presents them so that it can dispel them. Indeed the beginning, in which Shozo is sent to prison and we meet him again as he is released after some brief scenes while incarcerated, could be the opening to any of a number of Takakura Ken films. The only difference is that there is very little in the way of nobility to any of it. Takakura Ken was always a majestic figure who radiated righteousness and honor even as a criminal. He was strong, confident, and trustworthy. Bunta Sugawara, however, plays his part with a sullen shiftiness. He never radiates confidence of nobility as much as he does awkward discomfort and confusion. Both actors and characters steep themselves in the melancholy, however, and Bunta’s Shozo might ultimately be what one of Takakura Ken’s yakuza figures would be like if he came out of prison and was faced with the ream world of organized crime, where men hardened by the experience of the war had little use for outdated romantic notions of the noble yakuza.
Fukasaku plays with other genre conventions as well. The obligatory pinky-chopping scene (chopping off a finger being the traditional way to atone for some offensive transgression of the code in the yakuza world) is played for laughs on an almost slapstick scale. Shozo, like Takakura Ken’s many yakuza characters, leaves prison to find the world is not as he left it, but rather than standing in stark contrast to it like one of Ken’s Walking Tall-esque gangsters, Shozo becomes a participant in it, maybe not as active as others, but a participant none the less. And no, he won’t be making any moving or eloquent speeches. If Takakura Ken was the Elvis of the yakuza film, then watching Bunta Sugawara must have been like The King seeing The Beatles for the first time.
By the time the final shots are fired and the groundwork is laid for future films, the viewer is exhausted, physically and emotionally, partly from the not-so-simple task of trying to keep straight all the betrayals and factions that come into play in this battle between the Doi and Yamagumi gangs. Besides Shozo, who is relegated almost to the role of spectator, there are very few people for whom to root, no honorable yakuza. There are only backstabbers, petulant childlike bosses, and the occasional visionary who wants to run the yakuza like a corporation and reap huge profits as a result – the road that would eventually win out, as it was. Bunta Sugawara remains, through it all, a solid presence with a deadly gaze. In effect, he’s seeing things the same as we see them and is just as confounded by it all. His performance is one of subtlety, which is often how people try to describe a bad performance they don’t want to call bad. Chuck Norris, for instance, is more bad than he subtle. Clint Eastwood, on the other hand, was subtle and deadly good at it. Bunta is more Clint.
If the film has any weakness, it’s in some of the period costumes. The film is set in the 1940s and early 1950s, but some of the cars and fashions on display are without a doubt early 1970s. It’s a good idea not to sweat a detail like that. Kinji isn’t Akira Kurosawa after all, who demanded that whole sets on Tora! Tora! Tora! be destroyed and rebuilt because the shade of paint on the battleship wasn’t historically accurate. That might be why Akira Kurosawa was replaced on that film by.hey, Kinji Fukasaku! So just let the big collars and ’70s shades slide. The film is trying to accurately dissect the yakuza, not the fashion trends that surrounded them.
Battles Without Honor and Humanity is a demanding film, especially for audiences who don’t speak Japanese or aren’t familiar with the intricacies of the yakuza genre. People looking for knockdown, wall-to-wall action are going to be disappointed. The action here come sin spurts and is ugly, unchoreographed, and very real. First and foremost this is a drama and a societal study, a philosophical film but stripped of lyricism and poetry. It is more like the streetwise wisdom delivered by some old crank. After all, you don’t sit down to watch Goodfellas or Miller’s Crossing for the action scenes. This is crime drama, and as crime drama and modern day film noir, it’s complex and engaging on multiple levels and remains one of the best and most unconventional yakuza films around. It does require a lot of the viewer, but then most good films do. Unlike many films in the crime genre, it can’t be enjoyed on a purely popcorn level. It’s not one of those movies where you can just sit back and enjoy the ride. You have to actively engage it and work at it, and even then it’s the film’s point that sometimes you’re going to be lost, just like Shozo.
If you aren’t interested in the yakuza as a social phenomenon or cultural study and not just as an action movie cliche, then Battles Without Honor and Humanity won’t do much for you. Not that the movie is dull or lacking in action, but it’ll seem that way if you were expecting something more.modern, I suppose. Guys in sharp suits posing and doing Hong Kong style kungfu fights, that sort of thing. Even contemporary Japanese audiences don’t seem that interested or able to grasp what a film like Battles Without Honor and Humanity was attempting to accomplish. This is a completely brilliant film, and like most brilliant films, it just isn’t dumb enough for some people.
It was a major hit at the time and made Kinji Fukasaku’s career. It’s odd that until the release of Battle Royale, the director was best known in the West for the movies that least defined his oeuvre. Sci-fi quickies like The Green Slime were hardly Fukasaku’s calling card, but since the yakuza films, and especially the kind of yakuza films Fukasaku was making, were and to some degree still are fairly inaccessible to most audiences, it’s Green Slime and Message for Space for Kinji. Or at least it was until, as an aged man with failing health and nothing to lose, he set Japan — and this time a good portion of the rest of the world — afire again with Battle Royale, another movie that seeks at its heart to pick away at Japan’s notion of itself as an orderly and honorable country in much the same way a chicken in Battles Without Honor and Humanity picked away at the dismembered pinky of a disgraced yakuza.
Films like this would later become some of the most popular films among real-life yakuza, who would gather in old theaters and watch them and pine for the days when crime was nasty and tough and violent instead of white-collar and dull and corporate. It probably has a lot to do with films like Battles Without Honor and Humanity being so grounded in the reality of the situation and with the fact that many of them involved real gangsters. Heck, Noboru Ando was a real life yakuza who eventually starred as himself in a series of more or less autobiographical film adventures about his seedy life. It’s the ultimate irony that these guys would get nostalgic for a type of film that made a point of dismantling nostalgia, romantic for a film that strove to strip away any notions of romanticism from its subject matter. It’s also a sign that when Kinji Fukasaku made this film, he was doing more than making a film; he was documenting an entire culture and way of life.
And we were doing so well! Most movie studios can’t sustain the quality of a film series beyond two films — and quite a few have problems even getting that far. It was no small feat, then, that Hammer managed to produce not one, but two consistently good series. Their Dracula and Frankenstein films set the benchmark for quality horror during the late fifties and throughout the 1960s. And you know, they almost made it to the finish lines with both of them. The Frankenstein series featuring Peter Cushing as the titular mad doctor lasted six films, with only the third film being a misfire, and not a very bad misfire at that. By the time Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell was released, it was clear that the series was at its end, both creatively and financially. Still, it managed to go out with a dash of class, and the final film features the second worst monster in the series (the honor of worst, in my opinion, goes to Kiwi Kingston’s shrieking slapdash Karloff wannabe from Evil of Frankenstein) but one of the best stories and finest performances from Cushing. Even if the final film was not a financial success, everyone involved could hold their heads up high and be proud of all six movies.
And then there was the Dracula series starring Christopher Lee.
Last time we saw the prince of the undead, he was impaled on a cross and turned into that pink sawdust bus drivers sprinkle on the floor when kids throw up. For just about anyone, even the common vampire, that would signal the end, once and for all. But this is Dracula we’re talking about, and if Dracula Has Risen from the Grave proved to be a financial success for England’s Hammer Studio, then you could bet good money on the fact that they’d find yet another way to bring the Count back from the dead, even if he’d been impaled on a cross and even if series star Christopher Lee was back out on the streets again telling anyone and everyone who would listen that the Dracula movies were awful and he would absolutely, positively, under no circumstances ever play Count Dracula again. Anyone who knows the cycle knows that means that the next film in the cycle, Taste the Blood of Dracula, stars Christopher Lee as the titular count, and that in turns means we’d have to read even more quotes from Lee about how he was practically forced to do this film, but that he’d sure as heck never do another one.
This lavishly colorful and thoroughly enjoyable comic book romp features what is without a doubt one of the most wonderful moments in all of cinema, if not the most wonderful. Having just completed a major heist, our cool-as-liquid-nitrogen anti-hero, Diabolik, returns to his sprawling, space-age underground lair full of cool pop art furnishings, where he and his staggeringly beautiful girlfriend, Eva, proceed to make love on a gigantic rotating bed covered in piles upon piles of the money he’s just stolen. When I was young, and even not so very long ago, I always looked at this moment as the goal to which all people should aspire. Our lives should be like this, lived with ferocity and daring, panache and style, sexiness and suaveness. I swore, on that day, that I would work tirelessly toward such a destiny, never resting until I too could collapse into my rotating bed covered in cash and roll about with the woman of my dreams.
As it stands right now, rather than going out drinking with socialites, rubbing elbows with countesses, and dancing the night away in a fancy club before stepping out to steal priceless emeralds and sapphires (I always preferred those stones to diamonds), I spent the evening sitting at home drinking bourbon, watching Secrets of New York, and cutting out little color cover printouts for all the VHS tapes I’m finally converting to DVD-R in the name of conserving precious space in my ever-shrinking Brooklyn apartment. And while I could, if nothing else, cover a bed with money, the denomination would be pennies, and making love on a pile of pennies may be someone’s bag — but not mine. Diabolik would weep for me. Or rather, he would ignore me and laugh heartily before bounding off to live his dreamlike, lusty life of adventure and romance. Make no mistake about it. Though I may try to dress well and stay in slightly acceptable physical condition (though tonight’s dinner of bourbon and cake could put an end to that), I’m still pathetic in my own special, lonely way. Diabolik would look at the whole thing I call a life and shake his head in amused disbelief as he hopped in his Jag and drove off to go punch a criminal kingpin then make sweet love to his woman all night long. Rather than let this get down however, I simply double down on my efforts and try harder.
The 1960s were defined by different things to different people, and while some saw the paramount of the decade as a bunch of scruffy hippies wallowing in the mud for a few days in upstate New York, I always looked at the defining moments of the decade as the films Barbarella and Danger! Diabolik. That or the violence at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Or, um, the start of American involvement in the Vietnam War. Or the Bay of Pigs. Or maybe the assassination of the Kennedy Brothers and Martin Luther King, Jr. Or the arrival of The Beatles. No, it was Barbarella and Diabolik, if for no other reason than they were the exclamation points at the end of an era of which I am particularly fond, that being the carefree Swingin’ Sixties that brought the world pop art, slim cut mod suits, mini-skirts, go-go boots, lots of spy films, and that cute pixie haircut sported by Twiggy. Not since the 1920s and the era of the flapper and the dandy has an era appealed to me so deeply.
Although born a shade too late to enjoy the proceedings, it’s the time with which I most closely identify and still attempt to recreate in my own impoverished and pathetically un-daring way. With the escalation of the war in Vietnam and ensuing civil unrest and violence, not to mention the whole hippie movement destroying any vestige of standards in the realm of courtesy, manners, social grace, and dress (I say that assuming it will be taken by hippies as a compliment; if not, I apologize — I have nothing but affection in my later years for the flower people), there was really no way the swingin’ era could survive. Being care-free was taboo, even though hippies tended to spend a large amount of time smoking pot, dropping acid, and staring at their hands. Likewise, adhering to a uniform anti-code of dress became the standard. I won’t argue that increased social awareness is a boon to an individual, though I would argue against anyone who claims those who defined the latter portion of the 1960s were any more politically aware than those who came before them who were seen as shallow because they enjoyed go-go dancing more than that weird wavy-hand dance.
I know many of you enjoy the ultra-casual, anything-goes world in which we live thanks in part to our hippie forefathers, but I can’t count myself among you. I don’t wear a shirt and tie because I have to; I wear one because I want to. I like it. It’s comfortable to me. Granted, I didn’t always hold this sentiment, and there was a time when I could deliver a wild-eyed sermon against the chains of suit and tie oppression as well as any other young punk rocker. But as you get older and start having more important things about which to worry, such as how you’re going to get that rotating bed covered in money and a delicious European partner in crime to accessorize it, you realize that punk, casual, mod, hippie — everything is as much a fashion uniform as anything else, and there really is no sin in putting a little effort into things. The only sin, really, is in wearing pleated, relaxed-fit Dockers. In this, there can be no leniency.
By the release of Danger: Diabolik!, the mod era was well on its way out, and what better way to send it off than with a duo of eye-popping, self-indulgent cinematic flings? In 1968, director Roger Vadim gave the world a zero-G striptease by his then-wife Jane Fonda, who was without a doubt in her prime as far as bombshell status is concerned (and she looked damn good defiantly power saluting the police mug shot photographer, too). Dino De Laurentiis, famous for throwing big budgets at low-budget genre ideas, produced this phantasmagoric Technicolor acid trip adapted from a French comic strip about a sexy space agent plying the galaxy in search of missing scientists and lustful encounters. It was such a hoot that De Laurentiis decided more of the same would be in order. Again he turned to European comic strips for his source material, this time setting his sights on Diabolik, the ongoing saga of a master criminal who confounds both the police and the established criminal underworld.
On paper it was supposed to be a spiritual if not narrative follow-up to Barbarella. De Laurentiis snagged Mario Bava to direct, and it couldn’t have been a better choice. Since his first film in color, Bava had been a master at playing with light and creating surreal atmospheres even on the tiniest of budgets. Films like Blood and Black Lace (1964), Planet of the Vampires (1965) and Kill, Baby…Kill! (1966) continue to influence films to this day thanks to their bold, convention-bucking use of color and lighting (not to mention violence). With Diabolik, Bava would be allowed to indulge his sweet tooth for candy-colored psychedelia equipped with a budget that dwarfed anything with which he’d previously been supplied. Not that the bigger budget mattered to him. In fact, though De Laurentiis granted Bava some $3 million for the film, Bava brought it in right around $400,000. You’d never know it. The film looks like he spent the full budget, and one can only imagine how out-of-this-world it would have been had Bava not been so conditioned to make the most of every single cent — or lira, or whatever currency applied.
French star Jean Sorel (Short Night of Glass Dolls, Lucio Fulci’s One on Top of the Other) was slated to portray the suave super-villain/anti-hero Diabolik, while the beautiful Catherine Deneuve (Roman Polanski’s Repulsion) was to star as his partner and lover, Eva. Mere days into the production however, Bava determined that Sorel simply wasn’t right for the part. He was replaced by John Phillip Law, who had starred as the blind angel Pygar in Barbarella and would go on to appear as Sinbad in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. Law was a jaw-dropping hunk with near inhuman good looks, but he was never the greatest actor on the block. Still, since the idea behind Diabolik was not style over substance but rather, as with Barbarella, style as substance, he fit the bill perfectly and certainly looks the part. His reserved – some would say wooden – acting style clicks nicely with the character, a man so far removed from traditional human morality that he seems at times almost unable to act human, sort of like how the Sidhe are described in fantasy literature.
Casting woes continued however, as Deneuve refused to do the nudity required for the aforementioned “making love on a pile of money” scene. Bava had always thought more of concealing than revealing. While there is certainly plenty of flesh both male and female on display in the scene, there is no actual nudity per se, as in no one sees the earth-shatteringly taboo bare bottom or nipple. All the areas proscribed by or moral watchdogs as naughty were suitably and strategically covered by piles of money. But the scene had to be shot with both actors in the buff and Deneuve balked. She was quickly and, for us viewers, blessedly replaced by European starlet Marisa Mell. Nothing against Ms. Deneuve — we do love her — but like John Phillip Law, Marisa Mell was practically born to play the part.
Mell is every bit Law’s physical match. A beauty so great as to cause folk to drop to their knees and weep. As the sophisticated and liberated sidekick to the devil-may-care Diabolik, I can imagine no one else better than Marisa Mell. A serious auto accident in 1963 had left her partially disfigured, and after years of rehabilitation and reconstructive surgery, she emerged looking like some incredible kind of goddess, with the only lingering side effect of her accident being a quirky upturn at the side of her mouth which, just about everyone agrees, amplifies her beauty tenfold. Nothing is more boring and predictable than perfection, after all. It is most unfortunate that her life would take a drastic downturn not too long after this film. She was relegated to B and C-movie status then more or less forgotten, making ends meet by posing in a nudie mags and reading poetry to try and supplement what was, by most accounts, rather a wild lifestyle. In the end, she died from cancer in 1992, relatively penniless. A melancholy note, but still she exists on screen in this movie as one of the great and timeless images of grace and beauty. It is that way that I think she is best remembered, as a stunning woman with an impish and playful curl to her lip.
For the roll of Diabolik’s foils on both sides of the law, Bava had experienced French actor Michel Piccoli as the dogged Inspector Ginco, and the robust Adolfo Celi, still relatively fresh off his memorable turn as the vastly enjoyable villain Emilio Largo in the James Bond film, Thunderball (1965), as the flamboyant Mafia boss Valmont. It was as solid a cast of character actors as Bava had ever had. He plucks them down into a world that isn’t quite real. One of Bava’s great strengths, and the element that perhaps made his horror films so successfully eerie, is his ability to warp the familiar, to twist the mundane into something foreign and menacing. Here, he’s pulling the same stunt, but purely for laughs. The world of Diabolik is not the world in which we live, though it bears a striking resemblance. It is instead a campy pop-art extraction. Money is transported in bags marked with huge dollar signs on the front, for example. Stylistically it has the most in common with Bava’s previous Blood and Black Lace and forthcoming Five Dolls for an August Moon and Four Times that Night, both of which revel in trippy modernist fashion and psychedelic over-indulgence. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the characters from any one of those movies show up in the other, though Diabolik is in my opinion the most realized artistically and conceptually. It is also Bava at his most impish and playful, with only a slight hint of the blackness that would inform the humor of his later Bay of Blood.
The story, as stated earlier, was adapted from a long-running European comic strip, or fumetti. Although I’ll admit to being a comic book reader in my youth, with intellectual fare like G.I. Joe and the ten thousand or so Spider Man titles that littered the 1980s being at the top of the list, I don’t really count myself among the legion of comic book fans. I have little interest in them now other than academically, and even the ones that people insist I’ll like because they’re intelligent and mature, leave me cold and a bit disappointed. Even the ones where people tell me, “no, this one is different,” still fall flat. It’s not that I deny their power or their artistic merit, even if I find some of the obtuse attempts to appear more “adult” by adding more violence, sex, and cussing, to be monumentally tedious.This is not an absolute statement, mind you. every now and then I do run across one I love– Brian Wood’s DMZ, for example — but I am by no means someone to whom one should turn for authoritative opinions on the medium.
That said, these European comic strips from the 1960s seem like they would have been a lot of fun. Considering they birthed such chain-smoking, sexy anti-heroes as Diabolik, Barbarella, and Modesty Blaise, all clad in skintight fetish gear, I guess I would have been a fan. Having never read any of the original Diabolik comic strips, but having at least glanced over some English-language plot summaries, I don’t think the storyline for the movie is lifted from any single episode, though bits and pieces may have come from all over the comics. The main characters certainly come from the comic strip, and here we get to watch them as Diabolik goes through a series of heists that get him on the bad side of both the police and the old crime syndicates – the establishment, basically. Chief of police Ginco sets a number of traps for Diabolik, but each time Diabolik outsmarts the inspector and makes his getaway with the loot. When one of his heists angers crime lord Valmont, Ginco hatches an unholy alliance with the mob to finally catch this thorn in both their sides.
Each heist is more or less a little self-contained episode building toward Ginco’s plan to melt down the whole of France’s gold reserve in order to lure Diabolik into a trap. The heists are exciting and outlandish, this again being a fantasy world in which the standard laws of common sense and logic do not apply. In his quest to steal a priceless jeweled necklace, Diabolik defeats the inspector’s trap by pulling the ol’ “stick a photo in front of the security camera” gag. He later smuggles the jewels to safety by fashioning them into bullets, using them to kill an opponent, then posing as said opponent’s relative to collect the jewels after cremation. Obviously, there are some logistical problems with this plan, not the least of which would be fitting jewels into a revolver, but this is a comic book world.
We’re not meant to take anything seriously or worry about realism. This is part of the reason it’s also easy to accept Diabolik as the hero of the story even though he is, without a doubt, a villain. He kills cops. Not corrupt cops, but regular guys just doing their job. He has no concern for anyone but himself and his one true love, Eva. When he dynamites the nation’s tax records, he doesn’t do it out of any sense of Robin Hood-esque duty to the poor and oppressed masses. He simply wants to screw with The Man — which leads to one of the film’s funnier moments, in which the Minister of Finances (a cameo by British film staple Terry-Thomas) makes a public plea to all the outstanding citizens to come forward and voluntarily pay the taxes they owe. Comedic touches like this, along with the purposeful disregard for realism, keep the movie light-hearted and chipper even when our main character is committing acts of a most heinous nature.
It’s not that Diabolik is immoral, however. If anything, he is adamantly amoral, completely rejecting the standards by which society judges the concepts of good and evil. He’s not an evil person. In fact, he’s quite likeable, almost childlike, even when he’s clad in a skintight white leather outfit and scaling a castle wall to rip someone off. At his heart, he is 1968. He is the social upheaval, the youthful rebellion that was engulfing countries across the globe. It’s no coincidence that the two forces most opposed to him are established law and established crime – two sides of a coin in which Diabolik sees no difference. They are the old guards; the outdated, out-of-touch generation whose lack of modern sophistication and intelligence is best exemplified by the fact that Valmont’s gangsters dress anachronistically, looking like something out of a 1930s mob movie.
They don’t understand Diabolik’s approach to crime, his use of modern technology and embracing of modern ideals. Likewise, on the other side of the coin is Inspector Ginco, a man who seems to respect Diabolik in a way, just as Diabolik respects him. In fact, it’s possible that Ginco could catch Diabolik, best him, if only the inspector could break away from the established way of thinking. Unfortunately, he is a man too mired in the old ways, and thus destined to be one step behind Diabolik. If only he could escape the constant supervision and micro managing of the bureaucrats, Ginco could make real progress. In a way, Ginco must envy Diabolik his freedom of thought.
It is in this way, more than through the story itself, that Diabolik achieves the depth so many people seem to claim it lacks. It is a tale of a super criminal versus the cops on one level, but on a deeper level it is a tale of the generation gap, of the culture conflict between young and old that characterized the late 1960s. Diabolik and Eva are the new way, feared and misunderstood by their elders. They are the iconoclasts, perhaps more symbols than actual people, as is Valmont. Ginco is the man in the middle, who knows things and times must change but not by the methods employed by the amoral and self-serving Diabolik. He is, despite being the supporting character and foil to Diabolik, the most sympathetic and human of all the characters. He is, in effect, most of us, dissatisfied with the establishment but still committed to some sense of orderly progression and society.
The relationship between Eva and Diabolik is further example of the film’s hidden but most definitely present depth. They are in love, deeply and passionately. Ginco seems to forego romance in favor of duty, and Valmont can see women as nothing more than playthings to be insulted. But Eva and Diabolik are liberated and modern. They are sexually attractive and have an insatiable appetite for one another, but they are also in love. Diabolik steals for Eva, but Eva does not stay with him because he steals; she stays because she loves him. Stealing is simply what they do, a game, and an amusement. Another way for them to thumb their noses at the generation that does not understand them. Their relationship is strong, and they are willing to sacrifice for one another. In the face of a world that wants to rub them out, they always have each other. Sometimes, they have each other on a rotating bed covered in money. So Diabolik is not an example of style over substance as much as it is, as I mentioned earlier, an example of style as substance. The liberated pop-art lifestyle of Eva and Diabolik is a stark contrast to the buttoned-up, confining world inhabited by Ginco and Valmont.
Not that the style lets itself be overshadowed by the substance. They walk arm in arm, and even if you disregard anything Diabolik might have to say, there’s no denying its look. That Mario Bava pulled this off on a self-imposed minuscule budget is staggering. With the possible exception of Barbarella and some of the wilder Bond adventures from the 1960s, few films look as sleek and sophisticated as Diabolik. The fashion is impeccable, and for a man like me who has endless admiration for the mod styles of the 1950s and 1960s, it’s like some crazy kind of dream come true. Every outfit donned by Marisa Mell is gorgeous enough to make you cry, especially when it’s draped upon someone as beautiful as she was. Likewise, Diabolik’s fetishistic head-to-toe leather outfits are beautiful, leaving as they do only John Phillip Law’s intense and deep eyes visible.
Their underground lair is a sight to behold, as are the old Jags they both drive. I love me a good Aston-Martin, but if I had to chose, I’d go for a ’67 Jag. They’re just about the coolest cars ever manufactured. Ahh, I hope they come in automatic. Diabolik is, indeed, a mod-futurist fan’s dream, even more so than the more outlandish Barbarella. After all, someone out on the town dressed as Barbarella would turn heads but ultimately look just kind of silly; someone out dressed in the mod fashions displayed by Marisa Mell would simply look breathtaking. Someone dressed in Diabolik’s leather catsuit is probably on his way somewhere special.
This isn’t the type of film where you fret over the details, and if you do you’re just going to miss the point. Like I said, it exists in a fictitious comic book world. It’s not meant to be any more realistic than any other superhero/villain movie or comic book. What does count is the pace of the story, and Bava keeps things moving along at a fair clip. It’s not an action-packed movie, not by today’s standards where something big must explode every five minutes in between a sequence involving bikini girls freak dancing. But it is expertly and briskly paced, with a light-hearted tone that keeps you from worrying too much about the fact that the man we’re supposed to love is a murderer and a thief. Ultimately, of course, Diabolik is a criminal and must pay for his crimes. The film’s ending is vague in its resolution but absolutely fitting. Ginco must prevail, after all. The exuberance and reckless abandon of youth must be tamed. And so we are left with Diabolik encased in a coffin forged out of his own indulgence, a gold plating from which he cannot escape…
…or can he? We’ll never really know. De Laurentiis was so pleased with the fact that Bava brought the movie in $2.6 million under its $3 million budget that he practically begged for a sequel. Unfortunately, the reportedly mild-mannered Bava could not bear the oppressive and often dictatorial producer so no sequel ever came about. We are left then with the final shot of Diabolik imprisoned by his own greed, laughing either slyly or maniacally, protected by his special suit from the molten gold but unable, as far as we can tell, to escape. His rebellion, after all, was not perfect. And while the establishment is able, at least for the time being, to contain Diabolik and his socially challenging threat, while they may suppress it, it’s unclear as to how long that will be the case. It could always resurface. It is a beautiful tongue-in-cheek ending, one that even works quite cleverly in conjunction with the fate of Valmont, who finds himself on the more fatal and literal end of greed.
Although it would seem, at first, to be a major departure from Bava’s greater body of work, most of which up to the point had been gothic horror and giallo, Diabolik still manages to cover most of the director’s pet themes and thus fits quite perfectly into his oeuvre. Diabolik is an outsider who rejects what those around him see as established common sense. Appearances are, as always, deceiving at their very best. Diabolik’s use of disguises and his foiling of Ginco’s trap by using a photograph of an empty, peaceful room are the most obvious examples. And like most of Bava’s anti-heroes, Diabolik eventually gets his comeuppance.
For my money, Diabolik is an unabashed success on all levels. The art design is without parallel. The script is crisp, witty, and fast-paced. The universe Bava creates is wild and enjoyable. And the performances – yes, even John Phillip Law’s – are wonderful. It is the ultimate super-villain movie, with a villain so charismatic that you forget he isn’t the hero. Campy, clever, and never taking itself as seriously as some dim-witted critics seem to think it does, Diabolik is one of the best, if not the best, European comic book/fantasy/sci-fi films, not to mention of the most breathlessly beautiful and fun films of the 1960s.
Release Year: 1968 | Country: Italy | Starring: John Phillip Law, Marisa Mell, Michel Piccoli, Adolfo Celi, Claudio Gora, Mario Donen, Renzo Palmer, Caterina Boratto, Lucia Modugno, Annie Gorassini, Carlo Croccolo, Lidia Biondi, Andrea Bosic, Federico Boido, Tiberio Mitri | Screenplay: Arduino Maiuri, Mario Bava | Director: Mario Bava | Cinematographer: Antonio Rinaldi | Music: Ennio Morricone | Producer: Dino De Laurentiis