In the mad, bad days of 1970s exploitation films, anything would go when it came to filmmakers and distributors attempting to satiate the cinematic hunger of the crowds who would flock to the grimy theatres and fleapits of 42nd Street. Any craze or genre would be leapt upon with gusto and promotion of the films would go to any length to pull in the punters – even completely changing one film to make something different!
Such was the case with Zombie Holocaust, directed by Marino Girolami, the father of Eurocult icon Enzo G. Castellari. Girolami’s film, made in 1980 under the pseudonym Frank Martin, is a budget-challenged take on Lucio Fulci’s classic Zombi 2/Zombie Flesh Eaters, which also throws in elements from the then popular cannibal genre, including such films as Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust.
The paper thin plot involves an unfortunate Manhattan morgue which is having problems keeping its occupants’ limbs from going missing. It quickly transpires that these dirty deeds are being carried out by a member of a Caribbean cannibal cult. A nurse, a health department chief, an annoying reporter and her friend soon go on a foolish excursion to a group of New Guinean islands where they run afoul of a mad doctor, zombies, cannibal natives and Jack the Ripper (that last one might not be true). Much spilling of blood and guts ensues.
While the film wins plus points for its canny combination of two popular genres, it’s something of a mess. It distinctly lacks the verve of Fulci and Deodato’s works, and it definitely won’t win any anthropological awards for its depiction of indigenous people, but taken in the right light (and possibly aided by rigorous consumption of alcohol) Girolami’s film is nothing if not entertaining.
Zombie Holocaust did the rounds in Europe and finally landed in the U.S., on the desk of Terry Levene, who acquired it for his Aquarius Releasing distribution company, renaming it Doctor Butcher M.D. (Medical Deviate). In an attempt to make the film seem less Italian and more American, Levene took some footage from an unfinished film, Tales That Will Tear Your Heart Out (directed by and starring Roy Frumkes, who would go on to script films such as The Substitute and the cult horror comedy Street Trash) and slapped it on the opening reel.
The footage, featuring Frumkes himself rising from the grave and wandering around like a Friday night office worker at closing time, is unconnected to the rest of the movie (despite some flash cuts of Girolami’s zombies appearing for no good reason).
But these additions, along with some trimmings in the original film’s running time and some wild promotional stunts (including misrepresenting the film as a slasher movie and hiring a truck splattered with Doctor Butcher artwork which drove around Manhattan in the run up to the film’s release) made enough of a difference to ensure that this cut would become a runaway smash on 42nd Street and a staple of the VHS gorehound’s diet in the 1980s!
However, the Levene Doctor Butcher cut has remained difficult to see, but this has now been remedied as dedicated cult label Severin have given both films the kind of gold star presentation usually reserved for somewhat less trashy sensibilities by the likes of Criterion!
Zombie Holocaust and Doctor Butcher M.D. arrive as a two disc set, with both cuts having been fully restored with 2K scans using the original negative elements from the Aquarius Releasing vaults, alongside an almost insane amount of supplementary material. Severin give us an in-depth interview with Aquarius head honcho Terry Levene, who regales viewers with a history of the company’s successes via films such as Deep Throat and Make Them Die Slowly/Cannibal Ferox. We’re also given a guided tour of The Deuce, the area of New York around 42nd Street which once housed some of the most notorious grindhouse cinemas and sex emporiums. Our tour guides include the previously mentioned Roy Frumkes, and Severin have also included footage from Frumkes’ film which made up the beginning of the Doctor Butcher M.D. cut.
There are a gaggle of interviews with interested parties, including star Ian McCulloch, effects maestros Rosario Prestopino and Maurizio Trani, Doctor Butcher M.D. film editor Jim Markovic, Enzo G. Castellari (who discusses his father) and more, including theatrical trailers and, for the first lucky 5000 copies ordered directly from Severin, a wonderful Doctor Butcher M.D. vomit bag (I have one and it’s a tacky, wonderful delight). There are major Hollywood productions which haven’t been given this much love and attention to detail on home video.
The film, indeed both versions of it, might be cheap and nasty fun, but Severin’s disc is first class all the way and will no doubt feature on many top disc lists for 2016. Take a number and get yourself comfortable, the Doctor will see you now…