A Tale of Two Zombies – Dr Butcher M.D. & Zombie Holocaust

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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!

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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…

Mighty Meiko – Arrow Video’s Female Prisoner Scorpion Collection

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The Japanese genre of Pinky Violence movies is stuffed to the padded bra full of sex, violence and bad girls, and towering over all of them is a quartet of films made (incredibly) between 1972 and 1973. The Female Prisoner Scorpion movies are delightfully lurid, containing lashings of not only the sleazy elements vital to enjoying Women In Prison movies (violence, torture, rape, shower scenes and lesbian sex) but also qualities that show the filmmakers attempting to create something far above the norm, as they are shot full of quite stunning, delirious imagery – particularly in my favourite of the series, Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41.

What sets them even higher above the competition, however, is the presence of the star of the films, Meiko Kaji. Actress and singer Kaji has appeared in around 100 films since the early 1970s, including the Stray Cat Rock and the Wandering Ginza Butterfly series and the two Lady Snowblood films (as well as making an appearance in the second Outlaw Gangster VIP film). Her screen persona is that of the lone outlaw, and this is perhaps never more sharply defined than as Nami Matsushima, wronged in the first film, Female Prisoner # 701: Scorpion, by her crooked police detective boyfriend and sent to prison after she attempts to murder him when he allows several drug dealers to gang rape her (buckle up, these films definitely aren’t for the squeamish).

Matsushima is allocated the prisoner number 701 and must fight to exist in a brutal prison run by corrupt, lecherous and sadistic male guards, as well as contend with the attentions of her fellow inmates.

Alongside Kaji, the first three films stand out as a result of the beautiful and often surreal work from director Shunya Ito (the fourth, Grudge Stable, is directed by by Yasuharu Hasebe). Ito worked at the grindhouse and tokusatsu farm, Toei Company, for most of his career and won a Directors Guild of Japan New Directors Citation for Female Prisoner # 701: Scorpion.

Opening the first film with a lovely piece of barbed commentary, the warden of the prison is awarded a commendation for his work in rehabilitating prisoners just as the sirens wail, announcing an escape attempt by prisoner 701, who takes time to explain to her fellow escapee that she’s bleeding profusely as a result of her period before beating a tracker dog to death with a log. 701 is then herself beaten brutally with a rifle butt by the guard who foils her escape.

701 is placed into a grim solitary confinement as she begins to recall the events that led her to this point, and it’s here that Ito’s direction begins to truly shine, with an expressionistic, dreamlike sequence showing Nami’s seduction and abuse by her slimy boyfriend. With shots through glass floors, vivid, comic book lighting and the motif of red used from Nami’s deflowering to her attempted revenge, this may be exploitation, but it’s avant-garde exploitation as seen through the eyes of an artist that transcends to become the very best the genre can offer. Orange Is The New Black this ain’t!

It would be all too easy for Nami/701 to become an unlikeable victim, but both the story and Kaji combine to give us instead a character who endures with a glowering, righteous anger and rises above these terrible events to finally become “Sasori” (Scorpion), an appellation for vengeance and a symbol of female resistance in a world dominated by untrustworthy men (as well as equally untrustworthy women). Virtually silent, absolutely unbreakable and hell bent on exacting revenge, it’s impossible to tear your eyes from the screen whenever she appears and she brings a simmering star quality to this extreme but thoughtful and inventive saga.

The films that follow, Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41, Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable and Female Prisoner Scorpion: # 701’s Grudge Song offer a wild cinematic experience. It’s little wonder Quentin Tarantino, that wonderful magpie of outré movies, would be a fan of them – enough so that he used Urami Bushi, the recurring theme song from the Female Prisoner series, sung by Meiko Kaji herself of course, for his film, Kill Bill Vol. 2.

Now Arrow Video, the most essential of home video companies (alongside Criterion) have released all four films in an exquisitely packaged and packed box set. As well as brand new 2K restorations of all four films in the series presented both on Blu-ray and DVD, the set contains a treasure trove of video interviews and essays (with the likes of Japanese cinema critics Jasper Sharp and Tom Mes) as well as appreciations by filmmakers including Kazuyoshi Kumakiri (Kichiku: Banquet of the Beasts) and Gareth Evans (The Raid). There are archival and new interviews with director Shunya Ito and assistant director Yutaka Kohira, a new interview with production designer Tadayuki Kuwana, theatrical trailers and more.

The 4000 copy limited edition (the films are likely to be released separately at a later date) also contains a beautiful hardback book on the series, with writing by Chuck Stephens, Chris D and Yoshiki Hayashi, as well as a reproduction double-sided fold out poster of two original theatrical posters. The whole package is illustrated by striking, newly commissioned artwork by Ian MacEwan.

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I’ve been in love with these films since first seeing them almost a decade ago and I really cannot recommend them enough. Now Arrow have done a remarkable job, making any previous releases redundant and hopefully exposing them to a wider audience. If I were to nitpick (and I will) I would say it’s a shame Arrow didn’t include the two films in the less widely regarded New Female Prisoner Scorpion series, made in 1976 and 1977. While not as vital they do have their charms and it seems like a missed opportunity. Of course this is only the kind of first world problem likely to worry completists, and perhaps it’s simply an opportunity for another box set.

Meiko Kaji is a powerhouse in Japanese genre cinema and this set really is a fine tribute to one of her signature roles. You might say that prisoner 701 has finally gotten the justice she deserves.

The Man Who Saved The World Saved!

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For lovers of cinema, and in particular genre cinema, the realm of Turkish exploitation films, sometimes referred to as Turksploitation, is one of the most vibrant (and frequently hilarious) corners to poke around in.

Unencumbered by trivialities like copyright law or lack of budget, these anarchic, freewheeling films, mainly produced in the 1970s and 1980s, often feature 100% unofficial characters such as Spider-Man or Captain America, and almost always star manly men and voluptuous women, accompanied by “borrowed” snippets of music scores from the likes of John Barry, with little regard for staging, editing or indeed, a story.

What the films lack in narrative cohesiveness however,  they more than make up for in sheer exuberance and unfettered energy. A night spent with 3 Dev Adam (Three Mighty Men), Supermen Dönüyor (Turkish Superman) or Seytan (Satan) – a virtually shot for shot ‘remake’ of The Exorcist – will likely leave your jaw on the floor at both their sheer audacity and their flair and verve! You could never accuse these productions of being dull or uninteresting!

So it’s exciting news that one of the most infamous of these movies, Dünyayı Kurtaran Adam (The Man Who Saved The World), more familiarly known as “Turkish Star Wars”, has itself been saved!

Available for many years only in a quite dupey-looking version sourced from VHS, the last remaining 35 mm print has just been rescued by Ed Glaser of the Neon Harbor production company, with a great deal of help from noted Turkish film journalist and film enthusiast Ali Murat Güven.

In the autumn of 2015, Güven, owner of the Turksploitation label, Aztek Film Production & Distribution Ltd (their first DVD release of Operation Codename: Long Live the Fatherland is imminent), bought the print from a retired cinema projectionist in Anatolia, Turkey, who had lied to the distributor in order to keep it. Now Güven has sold on the print to fellow enthusiast, Glaser, which is good news for the rest of us as he hopes to scan the film for future digital posterity.

Featuring Turksploitation superstar Cüneyt Arkın, Dünyayı Kurtaran Adam uses wholesale blocks of special effects footage from Star Wars and borrows chunks of the music scores from Star Wars, Planet of the Apes, Moonraker, Flash Gordon, Raiders of the Lost Ark and the original Battlestar Galactica TV series, and then spins off into its own uniquely demented storyline involving swordfights with a gargantuan sword, a man who trains with huge boulders tied to his legs, another man with two brains (most definitely not Steve Martin) and a whistle that attracts skeletons.

“A 35mm print of ‘Turkish Star Wars’ is the holy grail,” says Glaser, “not just of rip-off films, but all cult film. There are no negatives, and the few other prints of the film ever struck have been destroyed. My goal is to get this one scanned to preserve it for posterity — and hopefully screened in a theater for other fans like me.”

While this isn’t quite up there with finding a copy of the pre-studio mutilation of Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons, Güven and Glaser’s efforts represent an equally welcome contribution to film history. And you definitely won’t find a man with two brains in Welles’ film!

Keep watching the (Turkish) skies for more news on this as it develops!

Pure filth – Thundercrack! (1975) Blu-ray review

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Imagine a film that mixes elements of Psycho, John Waters’ trash epics and Douglas Sirk melodramas and then ladles all that up with lashings of full-on, 1970s moustached and hairy-assed porn. The existence of Curt McDowell’s Thundercrack!, the infamous 1975 perverted noir underground comedy means you don’t have to imagine such a beast.

Thundercrack! became my very own Moby Dick (pun very much intended) when British customs officials seized the print of the film on both occasions I attempted to see it at London’s Scala Cinema in the mid/late 1980s (or at least that’s what we were told by management, maybe it was just a bit of good, old fashioned carny huckstering), but now anyone can indulge themselves in the comfort of their own home with Synapse Films’ 40th anniversary blu-ray edition.

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When a disparate group of strangers are stranded at the old, dark house of a bereaved and off-her-rocker widow, the stage is set for a deranged psychodrama of extraordinary proportions and a night of psychological game-playing and rampant sex ensues. Men, women, dildos, penis pumps, vegetables and escaped circus animals engage in down and dirty shenanigans, with pubes and cum filling the screen and making sure you’ll never look at a cucumber in the same way again. Mix all this with pickled brains in jars, death by locust, the fear of girdles, the curse of enlarged testicles and some wonderful, feverish storytelling and lighting effects and you know you’re witnessing something unique and unforgettable.

Pitched at a constant, heightened state of near-hysteria, the film is full of cracked performances and hilarious, ripe monologues (delivered even in the midst of blowjobs), and the sheer, joyful tastelessness of this perfect parody leaves you in no doubt that Thundercrack! was never intended for the dirty mac brigade but rather as an almost artistic attempt to push some boundaries for the more imaginative (not to mention brave) viewer.

Synapse worked closely with the director’s sister (and one of the film’s stars) Melinda McDowell, for this anniversary edition and the effort shows. It’s a beautifully put together disc, with the film looking and sounding as good as it’s ever likely to, and packed with a gaggle of great extra features including a documentary, a director’s commentary (taken from audio interviews) and outtakes from the film. Really, it’s a miracle that we would ever live to see this film treated with such respect and care on home video.

I worried that there was no way this film could possibly live up to almost thirty years of expectations. I’m happy to say that McDowell and company proved me wrong, shocked me on the sofa and left me feeling delighted, entertained… and grimy as hell.