Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Vengeance of the Zombies (1972) review


Paul Naschy (Krishna/Kantaka), Romy (Elvira), Mirta Miller (Kala), Vic Winner (Lawrence), Maria Kosti (Elsie)

Directed by Leon Klimovsky

Bodies are stolen from a morgue and a stream of brutal murders baffle detectives. A Satanist plot is uncovered leading police to an evil witch doctor who uses voodoo to create zombies from the recently dead to carry out his hellish plans. The mysterious and evil maniac also uses Thugee Indian ritualistic style slayings to accomplish his goal of attaining immortality through the blood of his victims.

Delirious, confusing, hallucinatory and irrational describe this nutty Naschy movie. It's simultaneously awful but strangely alluring in it's complete disregard for logic and inability to focus on one idea for longer than a few minutes before plopping another plot contrivance into your lap. The above synopsis is the best I could make out for this one as there is always something new bombarding the screen. Naschy himself says in his excellent memoirs that he wasn't quite sure what he was thinking when he did this one. It is never boring, however. The character of Elvira played by Romy sums it up best with this dialog exchange at an 1:02 minutes into the film, "What's happening here?!! What's this all about?!!"

Naschy is the reason to watch as he plays three roles here. One as the Indian guru Krishna(!), another role as his scarred brother, Kantaka and also as the Devil in a nightmare sequence that is both surreal and unintentionally funny. In addition to the totally wacky storyline, the acting is pretty bad for the most part. The film is so frenetic and all over the place that this doesn't hamper the enjoyment of the film at all but adds to the campiness of the whole affair. The music almost sinks the production sounding like it was taken from a spy or detective movie. It's all jazz and seems woefully out of place especially when its played over all of the murder scenes. But this, too, adds unwittingly to the enjoyment of this unconventional zombie flick. Even still, the main theme is catchy, but the score belongs in another movie.

The make up effects are easily the most memorable portions of the movie. One scene recalls Ossorio's TOMBS OF THE BLIND DEAD (1971) in which a zombie rises from a slab inside a morgue to kill an unsuspecting attendant with a soda can(!) no less. A very eerie decapitation scene is the highlight of the film in which Elvira (the dubber pronounces the name Elvira, but the subtitles say Elvire) encounters an old woman in a basement standing up smiling. As she approaches her, she nudges her shoulder then her head falls to the side!

Another scene recalls RETURN OF COUNT YORGA (1971) where two bumbling cops are beset upon by three zombie women in a graveyard. The zombies are controlled by a strange man who wears an assortment of Halloween masks before each voodoo murder, or Thugee styled murder scene. It's almost like there were two different movies being made at once-one harboring the voodoo angle and the other a crime story which appears to have been slapped together rather haphazardly. Animal rights didn't exist in Spain either as there is a rather unsettling chicken decapitation during a Baron Samedi-zombie resurrection ritual.

Towards the end, Naschy attempts to explain the entire plot to Elvira but by then you're so numb by all the out-of-left-field shenanigans that making sense of the storyline at this point no longer matters. Then, to throw further kinks into the mix, a final revelation is revealed that seems to have been thrown into the audiences faces for the sheer hell of it. The final credits are a hoot with pics of the cast matched to their names in big, bold red titles with an even more weird and psychedelic end credit music playing.

This may not be a very GOOD movie, but it is a very ENJOYABLE one and I'd watch it again before I'd sit through the recycled gothic horror of NIGHT OF THE WEREWOLF (1980) a second time. Although WEREWOLF is the better movie, technically, it's not as fun, nor is it as original as VENGEANCE OF THE ZOMBIES (1972). I highly recommend it to Naschy fans only as it probably won't appeal to casual horror fans nor will it appeal to fans of Romero or Italo zombie gut munchers. Fans of zombie cinema may get a kick out of it as well just don't expect any flesh eating zombies here. Naschy appeared in another zombie flick the following year entitled BEYOND THE LIVING DEAD.

A number of Paul Naschy films were released remastered and restored through Tripictures in Spain. These US releases are representative of those releases although these versions utilize the English language versions (the Spanish versions with subs are also included) with alternate scenes to the Spanish counterpart.

DVD availability: BCI/Deimos Entertainment

Night of the Werewolf (1980) review


Paul Naschy (Waldemar Daninsky), Julia Saly (Countess Elisabeth Bathory)

Directed by Jacinto Molina (Naschy)

The Countess Erzebeth Bathory de Nadasdy, along with her brother and Waldemar Daninsky, are executed for their satanic crimes. Several hundred years later, three young women are traveling in the Carpathians and end up at a mysterious castle. One of the girls is a satanist who wishes to resurrect the Countess using the blood of her female companions as the sacrifice. Meanwhile, two graverobbers open the tomb of Waldemar Daninsky and remove the silver dagger from his chest bringing him back to life. The revived Bathory plans to unleash the Devil unto the world with Daninsky as her minion, but is against being her slave again. Waldemar does battle with the vampire queen in the hopes of freeing himself from the werewolf curse.

Naschy directs his eighth appearance as Polish wolfman, Waldemar Daninsky in what is essentially a remake of WEREWOLF SHADOW (1971; aka WEREWOLF VS. THE VAMPIRE WOMAN). There is also re-creations of scenes from some of his previous wolfman movies. What is interesting here is the amount of gothic atmosphere on display which definitely enhances the lackluster werewolf attack scenes; the weakest aspect of the film save for the finale. The scenes of Daninsky attacking various villagers are lazily handled but this is amended for the ending when the wolfman battles it out against Bathory.

The make up is very good this time out most especially for Naschy's wolfman character. The scene where the Countess is resurrected is an R rated re-staging of the same scene found in Hammer's DRACULA- PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966). As per most of Naschy's movies, he adds multiple monsters to this film, too including a Mummy/Zombie servant which is exactly like the one in WEREWOLF SHADOW (1971). Also repeated is the story conceit that only love can free Daninsky from his curse. This concept is present in a number of the other wolfman movies Naschy starred in.

Considering the wealth of recycled material on display, the only real reason to watch this movie is for the gothic trappings and cinematography. The photography really is quite striking possessing a nightmarish quality about it. Naschy is, as always, vigorous in his creature role and always fun to watch. However, it's not quite enough to warrant repeated viewings. Another recurring problem here as in other Naschy films I've seen are the odd and often abundant plot holes that seem to crop up in regular interims. Naschy's fans are really the only ones who will enjoy and appreciate these films. The women are also beautiful and like the Hammer films, you get to see plenty of girls in their diaphanous gowns wandering creepy and often times cobweb encroached hallways and musty tombs.

Naschy counts this as one of his favorites and one of his best films. It did win several awards as well as accolades for Naschy's performance. Previously released in the US in a cut form under the title THE CRAVING, I saw the film years back on VHS and didn't care for it at all. Seeing it again now, it's better but nothing overly special and I doubt I will be looking at it again anytime soon. It's never boring in the slightest and the moody theatrics give you much to look at, it's just that you've seen it before and done better.

Daninsky was Naschy's favorite character and below are the Daninsky werewolf films. Sadly, one of them is believed to no longer exist...

LAS NOCHES DEL HOMBRE LOBO (1968; the only remaining remnants of the film are some stills)
BUENAS NOCHES SENOR MONSTRUO (1982) Not Waldemar but Naschy plays a werewolf
EL AULLIDO DEL DIABLO (1988; aka HOWL OF THE DEVIL; the character appears in a dream sequence)
LICANTROPO (1996; the return of the Daninsky character; aka LYCANTHROPUS)

A number of Paul Naschy films were released remastered and restored through Tripictures in Spain. These US releases are representative of those releases although these versions utilize the English language versions (the Spanish versions with subs are also included) with alternate scenes to the Spanish counterpart.

DVD availability: BCI/Deimos Entertainment

Hunchback of the Morgue (1972) review


Paul Naschy (Gotho), Maria Elena Arpon (Ilsa), Rosanna Yanni (Elke), Maria Perschy (Frieda), Vic Winner (Tauchner)

Directed by Javier Aguirre

Gotho, an abused and very sad man who also happens to be a hunchback, is in love with a young lady (Arpon). She is terminally ill and Gotho stays by her side all through the day. After she succumbs to her illness, a scientist claims he can bring her back to life if Gotho would help him in his experiments by supplying him with cadavers. The scientist creates a monster festering inside a vat full of viscera. Realizing the mad doctor has no intention of bringing his loved one back from the dead, Gotho destroys the lab and struggles briefly with the creature before both fall into a vat of acid.

Considered to be Naschy's masterpiece, the film is visually striking if nothing else. Like so many other Spanish horrors, the narrative is muddled and bewildering. Naschy is excellent in the role of the hunchback, Gotho. The scenes where children throw rocks at him, or is verbally abused by adults are quite poignant. The big problem is that Gotho is too quick to lop off someone's head or sever limbs from torso's for the audience to feel much sympathy for him. At the outset you see Gotho slicing off limbs from dead cadavers in the morgue he works in. These scenes are at odds with the ones that are supposed to create compassion for his character. If the film had only built up to the gory acts through Gotho's numerous scenes of ill-treatment at the hands of his persecutors, the film would have been more powerful and the characters more involving. But then, this is an exploitation movie and it definitely delivers the goods. Naschy did in fact win several awards for his performance beating out actors like Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing at various film festivals around the world. An exuberant moment for Naschy no doubt considering the reverence he holds for both esteemed British actors.

Naschy talks of Lee on the commentary track exclaiming how unapproachable he is/was, and how Lee hates to talk about his many incarnations as Dracula. Lee would seem to have made peace with his disgruntled feelings towards his famous vampire role but even so, Naschy doesn't speak very kindly of him despite his respect for Lee. An interesting note on the commentary track, Naschy talks about Lee's involvement and touring with heavy metal bands, those two being Manowar and the Italian metal group Rhapsody of Fire.

Getting back to the movie, the set design is exquisitely gothic and suitably nasty matching the grim tone of the picture. The score, although extremely repetitive, is quite good. There is also plentiful gore; more than the usual Spanish horror movie although Naschy's THE MUMMY'S REVENGE (1973) is also loaded down with gore. The effects are good for the time. One scene in particular revolves around Gotho actually cutting away on a real bonafide corpse. Naschy says in the commentary that he was given permission to sever the head by the morticians but he could only perform one cut before becoming queasy. Another scene that is most talked about involves Naschy being attacked and bitten by live rats. This notorious scene cuts rather quickly so it is difficult to see anything but Naschy did have protective clothing on and had to be vaccinated afterwards. Not only relegated to Italian cannibal movies, animal cruelty extends to Spain as the rats in this sequence are burned alive by Gotho with a torch.

Rosanna Yanni, who was also in Naschy's splendidly gothic, but nonsensical COUNT DRACULA'S GREAT LOVE (1972), is involved with Gotho in a minor "romantic" subplot that is never really explored although a sequence involving the two making love revealing Gotho's paper mache hump is missing from this version, supposedly no longer in existence. This title has long been available from bootleg outfits with one listing the film as having "lots of hunchback sex". We do get a very brief glimpse of one of Yanni's assets here but if you blink, you'll miss it. I suppose Naschy fans will have to wait for a more complete version to surface. This German DVD from Anolis is lovingly packaged with plentiful extras, but at 78 minutes, the film still feels short despite the abundance of blood and guts thrown about.

Maria Perschy is wasted here and has little to do. The pretty Maria Elena Arpon, Virgina in TOMBS OF THE BLIND DEAD (1971), also has little to do here as Gotho's doomed love interest. She's only in the movie for a brief time before playing a corpse the remainder of the film. She was apparently a trouper allowing the rats to crawl all over her face and body during the catacombs scene where the rats descend on Gotho.

The scientific jargon makes little sense and it's never made clear why the mad doctor wants to make a creature out of a tub full of guts in the first place. This bit of the storyline is very similar to FRANKENSTEIN and it was not unusual for Naschy to combine various monsters from the old Universal movies he loved so much. The monster itself looks remarkably similar to the one seen in the nutty Shaw Brothers exploitation classic THE OILY MANIAC (1976).

Naschy is still appearing in movies today. In the tradition of Christopher Lee having appeared as Dracula more than any other actor, Naschy has played a werewolf (and a Polish werewolf at that!) more times than anyone else. His movies may be wildly illogical and provide little else aside from visual entertainment, but Naschy obviously has passion for what he does. His performance here is one of the best he ever delivered despite the uneven way his character behaves which is at odds at making the audience feel for his plight. HUNCHBACK OF THE MORGUE (1972) is definitely worth seeking out for fans of Paul Naschy and sleazy European horror cinema in general.

This review is representative of the Anolis region 2 DVD from Germany. There is an English audio track in addition to Spanish and German language tracks. The commentary track with Paul Naschy has English subtitles.

DVD availability: Anolis Entertainment (Germany; R2), Tripictures (Spain; R2)

Horror Express (1972) review


Christopher Lee (Sir Alexander Saxton), Peter Cushing (Dr. Wells), Telly Savalas (Captain Kazan), Alberto de Mendoza (Father Pujardov), Julio Pena (Inspector Mirov), Helga Line (Natasha)

Directed by Eugenio Martin (as Gene Martin)

During a cold winter, Professor Saxton (Lee) is transporting an ape man frozen in a block of ice by train back to England for study. Along the way, the creature thaws out and several corpses are discovered with their eyes turned completely white. It is soon learned that the apeman is not responsible for the gruesome deaths, but a body-hopping alien. The otherworldly being was frozen inside of the creature and uses various individuals as hosts taking knowledge and traits needed in an effort to build itself a ship to make it back to its home planet. Both Professor Saxton and Doctor Wells (Cushing) combat the creature and its army of revived corpses in order to keep the monster from reaching civilization.

A fascinating and ahead of its time sci-fi/horror amalgamation that is also one of the most fitfully entertaining 90 minutes of frightful fun you're ever likely to come across. Lee is perfectly cast as the cold, arrogant atheist professor Saxton. Cushing is also in fine form although a bit against type as Lee's unwitting partner in the whole affair. Cushing plays a somewhat horny old fellow who tries on several occasions to get in the pants of a beautiful spy (Line) masquerading as one of the passengers. Cushing even gets to indulge in some brief Frankenstein style surgery as he performs a make-shift lobotomy on one of the victims. Wells surmises that the memories of the victims have been wiped away upon the discovery that their brains are completely smooth, "like a baby's bottom", as one of the characters puts it.

Speaking of the characters, they are all (for the most part) so good and well drawn that they accentuate the quirky story in a way not normally afforded these movies. There are also several minor subplots going on that never take precedence over the main story at hand and you learn just enough about them to maintain interest in their activities.

One of the best aspects of the story is that the alien only "steals" the minds of those it deems intelligent enough to learn any knowledge that will assist in it's ability to build a ship to get home. One of the characters is a demented priest whom, once the identity of the thing is revealed, naturally assumes it is the devil(!) and then proceeds to "switch sides" so to speak. The nutty priest asks the creature if it plans to kill him and the alien retorts that the fool has nothing in his mind of any use. Towards the end, obsessed with the thought of seizing such power, the unhinged man of the cloth beckons the creature to come into him when the host body is fatally wounded.

One of the most startling scenes has Saxton and Wells remove an eye from one of the casualties. They extract some fluid from the orb and place it under a microscope. They see the last image the person, or thing saw before they died. The apeman's eye reveals dinosaurs and a glimpse of the Earth from space!

Telly Savalas has a minor, but memorable role as a sadistic cossack who, after a wire gets out about the trouble on the train, has the locomotive stopped. He and a cadre of soldiers board the train and summarily harass the passengers. Captain Kazan (Savalas) proceeds to shoot the inspector, host for the alien. With no choice left to the intergalactic visitor, the thing takes up residence within the welcoming priest. At that time, the alien proceeds to kill all the soldiers. In the very taut final moments, Saxton and Wells attempt to derail the train over a cliff stopping the alien creature for good. The thing brings the soldiers back from the dead and they pursue the remaining survivors through the train cars.

The score by John Cacavas is also very memorable and can be heard, at various times during the movie, being either whistled, played on the piano or in some other fashion by miscellaneous individuals. The score has some cues that have been used in numerous kung fu pictures and the soundtrack is available on compact disc.

Obviously taking inspiration from past sci-fi pictures, the film must have been seen by John Carpenter as some elements are strikingly similar to his remake of THE THING. The alien creature requiring a host body to survive absorbing that individuals entire being is the most obvious riff. Furthermore, the original source material for THE THING remake was the novel, 'Who Goes There?', which also had the alien creature assuming the identity of its victim. Also reminiscent of Carpenter's film, the train passengers must be tested by Saxton and Wells in order to find out who is human and who is the alien. The similarities between the two films is palpable.

In addition to the horror and science fiction elements, there are numerous funny scenes and dialog exchanges. One in particular has Saxton trying to get a ticket to board the train and the consternation brought upon by the austere ticket master. Saxton's retaliation is quite funny. The first 15 minutes or so is a bit of a running gag as Saxton has endless trouble on the train as he constantly has to explain himself to prying passengers. Another funny moment follows shortly thereafter when Saxton invades doctor Wells' room after Wells has anticipated a nightly fling with the beautiful young woman that occupies the bunk.

Another amusing scene has the creature (disguised inside a host) questioning Wells and Saxton proclaiming that either one of them could be the monster. Wells replies, "Monster...? We're British, you know." Another great scene has the alien in a train car alone with Lee. It begins asking many questions of the confident professor. You get the feeling that any moment the thing will make Saxton its next victim and just as it appears the alien will make its move, one of the characters enters and unknowingly saves him.

Directed with an assured hand and an air of professionalism (on an obviously low budget) by Eugenio Martin who also helmed the Italian western BAD MAN'S RIVER (1972). On that film, Martin utilized a nice miniature steamboat which was sometimes composited into the scenery. Here, a miniature train is used for the main location of the action. This same miniature was used in the spaghetti western PANCHO VILLA (1972) which also starred Savalas as the title character.

During this time, Peter Cushing's wife had recently passed away and it was extremely difficult for him to appear in a movie during this time of mourning. After his wife died, there was a noticeable difference in Cushing's appearance. He lost weight and his face became very gaunt. At first, he didn't want to travel to Spain but relented begrudgingly. However, after arriving in Madrid, Cushing, still overcome with grief, was adamant about abandoning the production. Thankfully, Christopher Lee talked him into carrying on and it turned out to be a most therapeutic trip for the heartbroken gentleman of horror. Cushing never lets his anguish show and gives his all to his role.

Like most foreign films, the sound was dubbed in later and Lee, Cushing and Savalas dubbed their own voices. One of my favorite movies from childhood, I first caught HORROR EXPRESS, like so many, on SHOCK THEATER. The now OOP DVD from Image is the best version out there. There are numerous dupes on various labels and I'm sure at least one of them utilizes the Image version. The disc also has a music only track and a fold-out cover replete with liner notes on the film. A heartfelt thank you to both Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee-- without their participation, horror fans may not have seen one of the greatest collaborations between two of Britain's most famed actors of fantastic cinema.

This review is representative of the Image DVD. This title has been available for years on various other labels but the Image disc is the best quality so far.

DVD availability: Image Entertainment
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