Thursday, June 9, 2011

Zombie Holocaust (Italy, 1980)

Zombie Holocaust

Dr Butcher, M.D.

Many a year ago, when I was an impressionable young lad who had to shave but twice week (vs. my decision nowadays to shave but twice a week), an advertisement in the local San Diego newspaper did lure me downtown to pre-Gaslamp Quarter Horton Plaza to see a film entitled Dr Butcher MD. (A few years later, at art school, going through a pile of back of some old art magazine at a friend's studio, I discovered that the mad man in the center of the poster to the film – seen at the bottom of the page – was cribbed from a photo of Salvador Dali – how fitting, I thought, and still think. A comparison of the two images, found on the net, is at the left.)
I remember that, as I stumbled out of that venerable grindhouse theater (that stood directly where the Horton Plaza shopping mall now stands – indeed a sorry-ass exchange of structures if there ever was one) and into the glare of sun-baked, then-homeless-inhabited Horton Plaza, I felt that my eyes and brain had been raped by a nonsensical, pointless, badly made, badly acted and badly dubbed excuse of a film that lacked any and all indication of any cinematic talent. Man, I hated that piece of celluloid flotsam, which I considered a total worthless piece of shit, and I bitched about at it at high school for weeks afterwards... But of course life continued and the film slowly drifted from my memory, much like everything about San Diego did after I finally left the small town.
But then, the other day at our weekly bad movie night, after we had finished the mandatory complaining about our respective other halves' most recent unreasonable demands, a pal o' mine gave me a nice beer (Pilsner Urquel – my favorite Czech Pils) and as we munched away on our yuppie designer potato chips (with "real" olive oil!), he popped in his most newly procured horror flick, a film whose title he had forgotten and we knew nothing about other than it was Italian (always a plus) and about zombies. The film soon revealed itself to be something entitled Zombie Holocaust, a name that sounded familiar but that I didn't think I had yet seen.
Already with the slow opening pan across the night-time NYC skyline and up to a lit window followed by a hatted, trench-coat-wearing figure in a darkened hallway that saws the hand off a fat corpse, I had a feeling of familiarity. Could it really be? Within minutes, when the Amanda Lear lookalike doctor Lori Ridgeway (Alexandra Delli Colli of The New York Ripper [1982 / trailer]) finally got onscreen, I knew: yes, indeed, it was Dr. Butcher MD. And the film was exactly as I remembered it: a nonsensical, pointless, badly made, badly acted and badly dubbed excuse of a film that lacked any and all indication of any cinematic talent. What can I say – I loved it! What a fucking great film!
A little on-line research later revealed that Zombie Holocaust is also known as Zombie 3, and that the Dr Butcher MD version of the film I saw as a spit-n-vinegar teen had a different soundtrack and a few different scenes, but truth be told I could notice no differences. Both versions, I would hazard to say, are enjoyably incompetent pieces of gore filmmaking that are so badly made and gory and narratively all over the place that it is hard to believe that Bruno Mattei isn't the director hiding behind the obvious pseudonym of "Frank Martin." But no, Frank Martin is the Anglo pseudonym of the unknown Italo low budget director Marino Girolami (1914–1994), the father of the much better known Italo trash filmmaker Enzo G. Castellari. Girolami specialized mostly in comedies but also made an occasional crime flick like the highly entertaining and sleazy Dirty Harry (1971 / trailer) inspired Violent Rome (1976 / trailer). That film, along with Zombie Holocaust, would seem to be Girolami's masterpieces.
Zombie Holocaust came into being because producer Fabrizio De Angelis figured that the best way to follow up on the success of Zombi II (1979 / trailer) and Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals (1977 / trailer) was to combine both subjects in one film – sorta. This time around, on that distant South Seas islands, the zombies – unlike the cannibals – never actually get around to eating anybody; they just shuffle about and do the bidding of the evil doctor that made them zombies by exchanging their brains.
As can be surmised by the previous sentence, the plot of Zombie Holocaust is a non-plot, and the film is heavily padded with scenes that do little to advance the non-story but do fatten the running time. In NYC, after the desecration of a number of dead bodies, a hospital worker is caught devouring a human heart. (His suicide is grand: watch his arm fly from his body when he hits the ground after his nosedive out a high-rise window, only to reappear attached in the next scene outside.) Dr. Lori, a doctor at the hospital who also happens to be an anthropologist, also happened to grow up on the same Moluccan island where the window-diver came from. Dr. Chandler (cult actor Ian McCulloch of Contamination [1980 / trailer]) reveals that similar acts of cannibalism have been happening at other hospitals, all by immigrants of the Moluccas. Accompanied by Chandler's assistant George (Peter O'Neal – in his only film ever!?!) and his obnoxious reporter girlfriend Susan (Sherry Buchanan of What Have They Done to Your Daughters [1974 / trailer], The Heroin Busters [1977 / trailer] and Last House on the Beach [1978 / trailer]), they all go, logically enough, to the Moluccan islands to find out, well, something. There they meet up with Dr. Obrero (Italo trash and spaghetti western mainstay Donald O'Brien of Run Man, Run! [1968 / trailer], Tough to Kill [1978 / trailer]), Keoma [1976 / trailer], Mannaja [1977 / trailer], Ghosthouse [1988 / trailer] and much, much more), the occasionally titular Dr. Butcher, though they don't know that yet. With four of the good doctor's men they continue their journey, finally ending up on Keto, the island they seek, whereupon their numbers steadily dwindle as the guides get devoured one by one. Do they return to the boat and leave? No, they go doggedly on, the result being that soon George becomes lunch, Susan loses her hair and her brain to the good doctor, Lori gets kidnapped by the cannibals where she willingly submits to nude body-painting session before being made queen of the tribe (sounds a lot like The Mountain of the Cannibal God [1978 / trailer] here, doesn't it?) and Chandler is tied down awaiting a brain exchange...
The gore is often and intense, and it really is the true heart of the film, a showpiece of 80s blood and guts excess. Some of it has aged rather badly, but most has withstood the test of time and looks way better than today's CGI. There is absolutely no tension in the film, but more than enough laughs intentional and not – particularly the scenes with Susan and Dr Butcher offer some extremely black humor (and gore). To say the acting variable is probably an understatement, but the thespian ineptitude fits well to the overall stupidity and senselessness of the scattered script. Dr. Lori gets naked a lot, too, which is definitely a plus, and Dr. Obrero/Butcher more or less walks away with every scene he's in due to his campy overacting.
Whether you see Zombie Holocaust or Dr Butcher, M.D., rest assured it will be an eye-opening experience. A definite must for anyone who claims to like bad films – they just don't make them like this anymore.

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