Saturday 3 October 2015

Anthropophagous (Joe D'Amato, 1980) DVD Review

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“It's not fear that tears you apart … it's him!” Formerly one of the most notorious 'Video Nasties' in the United Kingdom – where it was banned in 1984 at the height of the moral panic – Anthropophagous: The Beast, aka The Savage Island, is a flesh-devouring holiday in hell from Joe D'Amato (Love Goddess of the Cannibals, and the infamous Emmanuelle in America). However, even with it's grisly reputation, the film has some grander ideas at its core...

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“Well, are we going to this paradise?” Sauntering through the beautiful and ancient white streets of a Greek island, a young and carefree couple, packed tight into their arse-hugging jeans, have their hearts set on a relaxing afternoon at the beach – but their luck turns quick – and soon all that's left is blood in the ocean and a meat cleaver wedged into a splintered skull! Naturally, when a gang of hip, young cardigan-wearing things turn up on the island – tempted there by Julie (Tisa Farrow, Zombi 2), a student headed there for a summer job – the cards aren't in their favour. Quite literally.

“If you ask the cards about the future and don't get any answer, it means there is no future for the person who's asking them.” Filled with dread, card-reading Carol resigns herself to a bleak and impending fate when nobody believes her seemingly insane warnings to stay away from the island, which turns out to be abandoned … or so it seems. No sooner has heavily pregnant Maggie (Serena Grandi as Vanessa Steiger) sprains her ankle and been ditched by all of her friends – including her supposedly loving other half! – than the night closes in and the blood starts flowing.

“I can smell him, the second he comes – he smells of blood!” As if being stuck on an island with no means of communication or escape – with a de-consecrated church bunged in for good measure – wasn't bad enough, a traumatised Rita (Margaret Mazzantini as Margaret Donnelly) pops out of the shadows and starts babbling about a maniac on the loose who reeks of blood. With no solid answers and an abundance of bad omens sending out some seriously bad vibrations, these happy-go-lucky holidaymakers are being eyed-up as the next course on the dinner menu.

“There's an evil on this island, an evil that won't let us get away, an evil that sends out an inhuman diabolic power.” It may build slowly, but as soon as the titular beast shows up – with his crazed eyes and manky skin – each set piece gets gorier and exhibits some effective use of style, misdirection, and foreshadowing. Co-written by D'Amato and George Eastman (2019: After the Fall of New York), who also plays the man-eating savage, Anthropophagous boasts an impressive atmosphere in which a decidedly grim, not-to-mention tragic, backstory provides the backbone for something more than just blood and guts.

Wrought with all-consuming grief, the madness of the murderous rampage takes on deeper shades of thought. It's no worthy hand-wringer, but you could almost go so far as to force a metaphor for today's financial crisis in Greece (or any other recent stumbling of a nation). A beautiful and ancient land heavily reliant on tourism, with a rich few steering the ship, implodes into violence and self-consumption. Indeed, the Wortmann villa of the closing act – now shuttered – speaks of a prosperous past destroyed by the inevitable disaster that nature is capable of dealing out. It has become the haunted tomb of a now dead past, where sheets are hastily thrown about in order to avoid to truth beneath. Here, D'Amato and Eastman deal with a strong theme – man's ability to be monstrous – and express it literally.

“It's like a nightmare – what could have happened?” Unleashed by 88 Films – under their Cult Cinema Collection banner – in your choice of either DVD or Blu-Ray format, Anthropophagous has been remastered and is presented uncut in 1.66:1 widescreen with your choice of English or Italian audio options (the latter with subtitles). The print (reviewed here in the DVD release) is clear and free of damage, but isn't what you'd call remarkable either. Perhaps some of this could be levelled at the source materials and/or how the film was originally shot, but considering how scruffy the film has looked in the past (as glimpsed in a selection of variously-titled trailers) this is a respectable release. It's far from the glimmering brilliance of, say, Arrow's Blu-Ray treatment of Mario Bava's Blood and Black Lace, but you'll see – and hear – all the gut-munching horror quite nicely.

Rounding out the package is Calum Waddell's fantastically nostalgic documentary 42nd Street Memories: The Rise and Fall of America's Most Notorious Block. This feature-length dive into the sights, sounds, stories, and stars of the epicentre of grindhouse cinema is a real treat for all fans of the period – those who were there and those who wished they were there alike. Filled with entertaining tales of grit and sleaze from inside the various theatres, which exhibited eye-popping flicks to the ravenous masses (or to those just looking to sleep off a hangover in the air conditioning), 42nd Street Memories gives viewers a visceral taste of how things once were. Featuring the likes of William Lustig, Larry Cohen, Lloyd Kaufman, Joe Dante, 42nd Street Pete, and many more, it's worth the price of admission on its own.

“That monster's gonna kill us all.” While the absurdity of the Video Nasties era is almost laughable now – but not quite enough (see recent moral panics over videogames and the blithering idiocy of the perpetually offended) – D'Amato's film, albeit tamer by today's standards, still holds the power to shock and repulse. One infamous scene towards the end (no spoilers) must have been exceptionally disturbing at the time, all the more so as the moment still retains its grotesque power.

Overt instants of graphic gore aside, the film has that strange tone – a very particular feel – that speaks so clearly for this period in, and style of, filmmaking. Off-setting expectations as much as it feels downright silly (Julie calmly reading a journal in a room full of rotting corpses!), there's something about D'Amato's direction that inspires unease. At times he clues-in keen-eyed viewers to shocks to come, and at others he allows the camera to linger on the slow and lumbering beast so we might see fleeting glances of a lost soul, and the absence of humanity. The approach isn't always successful – a journey through a cemetery is overcooked with a strangely over-excited piece of music that smacks more of experimenting with a new synth sound toy than intended dread – but for the most part this is the real deal, a preserved relic from a bygone, yet much-loved and resurrected, era in exploitation cinema.

“Last time I was here I came close to drowning.” A little softer with age, and not as timeless or iconic as the gruesome early works of Hooper, Raimi, Craven et al, Anthropophagous nonetheless stands as one of those reliably middle-of-the-pack outings that is just weird enough, just gory enough, to sate those in the mood for something very particular from way-back-when. But do you want to know what's really weird? In Singapore this flesh-feasting gut-guzzler is rated the same as Downton AbbeyPG!

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