Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Absurd (1981) and the Hack Ideals of Joe D’Amato

The Hack Ideals of Joe D’Amato

These are examples of great auteurs of Italian genre cinema - Mario Bava, Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci and Sergio Martino; legendary filmmakers whose best works have and will continue to stand the test of time. Joe D'Amato is in an entirely different league to this bunch - champion of the Serie A Hacks League. The late D'Amato was born Aristide Massaccesi and he used his real name in 1969 when starting work as a director of photography and also served as an assistant director on various productions. As a cinematographer, was where he earned his main crust though proving to be very talented even working with Martino. In 1972 gaining enough experience Massaccesi moved into directing his own features. He used many aliases throughout his directing career more so than any other filmmaker in cinematic history as so not to put his cinematography career at risk but still used his real name providing the camera work for his own films and is also credited as such for his screenwriting work.

Seeing how the majority of what I have seen of his stonking 197 titles directorial body of work stinks like a wastewater treatment plant it is understandable that he did not want to tarnish his reputation in a field he enjoyed much employment. His approach to low-budget filmmaking was rushed productions with an emphasis on making a profit above artistic values even purchasing stock shots to insert into his movies. Italian genre cinema of the ‘70s and ‘80s was mostly about what product filmmaking can be made to exploit the North American box office hits of the period with rip-offs entailing copycat plots, characters, costume designs and settings rather than striving for original innovation and this is something Aristide Massaccesi a.k.a. Joe D'Amato revelled in along with a great deal of sleaze.

Directing under his most well known pseudonym of D'Amato there is the genre mash-up of 1977’s ‘Emanuelle in America’. This incorporated softcore pornography, hardcore sequences as well with most infamously a naked woman giving a horse a handjob and the last act features realistically gritty and disturbingly intense faux snuff film footage; a three act step in depravity each one more extreme than the previous. There is the mishmash of sexploitation and the cannibal movie with ‘Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals’ that followed the same year in which his real name of Massaccesi was used for the director’s credit and was made to ride the coattails of success of Ruggero Deodato’s first foray into the Amazon with the brilliant ‘Last Cannibal World’ released that very same year. While neither title is particularly good overall - an exploitative hodgepodge of what sold to the grindhouse and drive-in theatre crowds of the ‘70s -  these are two of Joe D'Amato’s (I will just refer to him as this from now on) better efforts that can be ably labelled as “entertaining”.

These two films are part of the Black Emanuelle series made to cash-in on the success of the French erotic Emmanuelle series that starred the late Dutch actress Sylvia Kristel in the first four entries. D'Amato directed three more I have yet to see and I am not really a fan of sexploitation anyway – ‘Emanuelle in Bangkok’ (1976), ‘Emanuelle Around the World’ (1977) and ‘Emanuelle and the White Slave Trade’ (1978). Pornography was where he was most prolific as well right up until the end of his career when he died of a heart attack. Sleazy dreck like his other sexploitation hybrids with other genres such as ‘Erotic Nights of the Living Dead’ (1980) and ‘Porno Holocaust’ (1981) are some of the very worst Italian genre fare.

There is also Joe D’Amato’s mockbusters such as his woeful Ator series that cashed-in on the success of John Milius’ classic 1982 sword and sorcery epic ‘Conan the Barbarian’ that starred a pre-Terminator Arnold Schwarzenegger in the title role. The first of which, ‘Ator the Invincible’ was written, shot, edited and distributed a mere months after the Millius and Schwarzenegger release became a huge hit. The next year using the pseudonym of Steve Benson, D'Amato took a stab at the post-apocalyptic sub-genre of science fiction with ‘Endgame - Bronx lotta finale’ starring Italian B movie stalwarts Al Cliver (best known for his work with Fulci) and frequent D’Amato collaborator George Eastman (starring in the film in review here). It is a knock-off of John Carpenter’s 1981 cult classic the endlessly entertaining ‘Escape from New York’ starring Kurt Russell in his most iconic role as anti-hero Snake Plissken and from later the same year George Miller’s ‘Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior’ with Mel Gibson in the equally iconic title role. ‘Endgame - Bronx lotta finale’ is forgettable worthless crap.

I just touched upon the tip of the iceberg here to showcase what an absolute hack Joe D'Amato really was but that is not to say he did not have talent as a director because some of his best and most well known efforts can be found in the horror genre with wholly original works. There is ‘Death Smiles on a Murderer’ (1972) starring the late great Klaus Kinski in a confusing yet beautifully shot (by D’Amato himself under his real name of Aristide Massaccesi that he also uses for the director’s credit for the first of only two times), scored, atmospheric and bizarre gothic period piece entailing dreamlike hypnotic imagery and erotic elements. There is my personal favourite horror movie of his Beyond the Darkness (1979) a flawed yet fine piece of gore cinema that uniquely concentrates on the destruction of the female body after death rather than during the murders and features one of Goblin’s best ever scores for a non-Argento film that greatly heightens its atmosphere. There is the abysmal 1980 crapper though 'Anthropophagous' again starring Eastman as a demented cannibal. I wrote in my review of Jesús Franco’s Bloody Moon (1981) – “… non-existent yet confused plot, non-characters, plodding pacing, a distinct lack of atmosphere and terrible unconvincing special make-up effects.” This leads nicely into the movie in review here...

Absurd (1981)

‘Absurd’ (original Italian title ‘Rosso Sangue’) a.k.a. ‘Horrible’ shortly followed ‘Anthropophagous’ the next year as a kind of non-sequel with George Eastman in a similar role and who is also on writing duties under the pseudonym of John Cart. Here he is a homicidal maniac again although as opposed to a ravenous cannibal he is a silent escaped mental patient in a fierce rage throughout the proceedings. His character is also from a Greek island that was the setting of the previous film and is disembowelled again except here it happens in the openings scenes rather than in the climax. There is a plot device of only being able to kill the antagonist by destroying the brain that is obviously lifted out of George A. Romero’s zombie survival manual and oddly enough the movie was marketed for a time as a sequel to Fulci’s 1979 so called cult classic ‘Zombie’ released under the title ‘Zombie 6: Monster Hunter’.

It is a cheap yet to an extent quite cheerful rip-off of John Carpenter’s 1978 slasher masterpiece and sub-genre template ‘Halloween’. Many tedious scenes bog it down, there is a distinct lack of suspense and tension and there is failed attempts at humour. It is made passably entertaining though by some standout effective moments with its gory and mean spirited set-pieces, Eastman giving it his all as a silent force of nature on a murderous rampage and an excellent energetic score by Carlo Maria Cordio that adds a great deal of atmosphere. 1981 was the most prolific and arguably strongest year of the slasher sub-genre’s Golden Age with such gems as ‘Bloody Birthday’, Bloody Moon, My Bloody Valentine, ‘Eyes of a Stranger’ ‘The Funhouse’, Friday the 13th Part 2, ‘The Burning’, ‘Happy Birthday to Me’, ‘Hell Night’, ‘Night School’, Just Before Dawn, Nightmares in a Damaged Brain, Halloween II and The Prowler. Joe D'Amato’s movie is a quick cash-in on the slasher boom by taking its structure straight out of Carpenter’s sub-genre innovator. There is its plot of an escaped mental patient with a priest played by British actor Edmund Purdom (of 1982’s cult classic Spanish slasher ‘Pieces’) as the Samuel Loomis type character in pursuit with police disbelieving of his warnings and a babysitter heroine trying to protect the children from a silent and indestructible "boogeyman".

Greek native Mikos (Eastman) is a madman on the loose. He is almost invincible due to some sci-fi themed nonsense about being given a healing factor by the Catholic Church in their sanctioned scientific experiment making him superhuman and it has driven him insane. In the opening scenes, the priest (Purdom) is hot on his trail pursuing him to an American town. As Mikos climbs over some railings into a family home, the priest catches up with him grabbing his legs and pulling him down onto the spikes of the railings, he disembowels him. After falling down unconscious in front of the family after breaking into their home, he is later revived in a local hospital with his wound healing miraculously as he self-regenerates that the surgeon describes as “absurd”.

Sure enough, Mikos wakes up and murders a nurse and escapes. The priest informs the police of the experiments but they are disbelieving at first of his warnings until they speak to the surgeon who performed his operation who confirms Miko’s rapid healing. The Priest then tells them that Mikos can only be killed by destroying his cerebral mass - a shot to the head or decapitation. Mikos attacks a motorcyclist but is knocked down by a hit-and-run driver. Regaining consciousness Mikos gets on the motorbike and follows the car to the driver’s home. Turns out the driver is the head of the family we saw in the opening of the film and he is off out with his wife to watch a football game around a friend’s house. They leave with a babysitter and the family helper their daughter who is confined to her bed due to a problem with her spine and their youngest their son who believes the “boogeyman” is coming back for them… and he has.

Really, this is a bad movie but I cannot help but enjoy it for its better moments that make up for the sagging tedium that is littered throughout and is ultimately serviceable to the needs of a late night watch for slasherholics with beer n’ pizza. One of the titles to make the final 39 on the infamous and downright ludicrous DPP Video Nasties list it actually does have a fair deal of nastiness going for it with extreme prolonged set-pieces of graphic murder executed with some very nifty special make-up effects and is a step up from the dreadful work in the just previous ‘Anthropophagous’. George Eastman is not the most versatile of actors but here all he has to do is grunt, snarl, and pull maddening faces to covey his character’s maniacal psychotic rage and he really does add that mean spirited edge to these horrific sights. I am not going into detail about what is seen here as so to prevent spoilers for any of you who have yet to see this as these sequences are its main draw and not much else is. Another highlight is the score by Cordio who also provided the music for the fantastic cheese of ‘Pieces’ and one of Lucio Fulci’s very worst efforts where he just flat out gave up with the embarrassingly laughable ‘Anigma’ (1987). Here the composer really brings atmosphere to the proceedings that otherwise would be non-existent with a memorably frantic synth tinged piano soundtrack.

Much of the third act is spent with the father and mother around their friend’s house watching the ball game while he struggles with his conscience for committing a hit and run… that we could just not give a toss about. Oh yeah and the director cannot help but tell us here that the story is indeed set in America by having the camera focus largely on the game on TV as Joe D’Amato was striving to appeal to the American market for his movie shot in his native homeland of Italy. The thing is all the actors here are seen sitting around the TV eating plates of spaghetti… yeah because that is exactly what the Yanks do when a big football game is on they get out the minced meat and the bolognaise sauce and have themselves some Italian pasta spaghetti. These scenes are pointless going nowhere as all the parents do is turn up at the house in the final scene when it is all over. The final shots are particularly memorable though.

D'Amato cuts between these scenes and the action we actually give a fuck about at the home and he knows little to nothing about pacing and building suspense. There is the moment where the bed-ridden girl is trying to get up out of the bed to help her little brother (an annoying whining brat) who is banging on the door for help as Mikos is on his rampage but as she finally gets up, he comes bursting through the door. This should be on the edge of your seat thrilling stuff with an abundance of suspense and tension but the director simply did not know how to stage such sequences. The girl helpless in bed is reminiscent of Laurie Strode’s predicament in Halloween II (1981) and there is another part here that resembles its too climax (I am not going into detail again to avoid spoilers). Joe D'Amato’s film though was released in Italy the exact same month of the same year as Halloween II’s release in America so it has to be just a coincidence. For once D’Amato was not ripping off somebody else’s work. There are also failed attempts at humour between the two police detectives on the case with a grumpy veteran and a dopey rookie that only adds to the tedium.

‘Absurd’ is a mixed bag then but a mixed bag for Joe D’Amato means it is one of his better efforts. It is hampered by its boring pointless parts, the lack of suspense and tension is a downfall and the attempts at humour do not come over at all well. Although it does well enough with the brutality of its set-pieces that are well executed, Eastman hurtles through like a rabid dog from scene to scene carrying the movie on his big shoulders and Cordio’s score is a top class composition. Worth a watch late at night, if you are suffering from a bout of insomnia and are in need for some corny sleazy fun to help get you off.

** out of ****

Dave J. Wilson

©2014 Cinematic Shocks, Dave J. Wilson - All work is the property of the credited author and may not be reprinted or reproduced elsewhere without permission.


  1. Good to see a new post up (longtime reader but don't think I've ever commented before...) Will have to check this one out.

    Keen to read the NOES post when it's finished too! Keep up the good work :)

    1. Thank you! It's comments like this that are encouraging.

      Yeah 'Absurd' isn't particularly good but it's worth checking out.

      My ANOES feature review is definitely coming next. Should be up sometime next week.

      I then have three more unfinished articles to complete that I started before I put the site on hiatus including my late TCM 40th anniversary piece.