One of the joys of the long dead Italian exploitation film industry was its so derivative nature – cheerfully knocking out quick cash-ins on global hits (or films that were expected to be hits), Italian producers and directors often came up with bizarre, demented hybrid movies that were more fun than the major studio movies that they were copying. There is a real joy to these films, some of which are ham-fisted re-runs of The Exorcist or Mad Max 2, but many of which just take the vague concept of a hit movie and run with it in strange directions.
George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead was a surprisingly popular choice for imitation – or not, given that it was co-produced with Italian director Dario Argento, who released his own edit – faster, louder, less political – to great success in Italy. It spawned Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2 (the Italian title of Dawn… being Zombi), a shameless bit of cashing in that became a worldwide hit in its own right, as Zombie (in the USA) and Zombie Flesh Eaters (in the UK). Zombies were big box office.
All this preamble leads us to Zombie Holocaust, which is remarkable in that it is a shameless imitation of an imitation – a rehash of Zombie Flesh Eaters, with the same male lead and same producer. But it is also a cash-in on the current craze for cannibal films, in the wake of Cannibal Holocaust. Hey, if you are going to rip off one film, why not rip off another at the same time? And so Zombie Holocaust manages to combine both genres in a gloriously trashy, ludicrous and outrageous movie.
Things become even odder in the Zombie Holocaust story when the film travels to America, where it is picked up by grindhouse distributor Terry Levene, who not only renamed it Dr Butcher M.D. (Medical Deviate) – a not uncommon practice with US exploitation distributors handling Italian product – but also chose to insert new footage at the start of the film, snaffled from Roy Frumkes’ work on the unfinished compendium film Tales That Will Tear Your Heart Out (Wes Craven also worked on the aborted project). Why he went to this effort is anyone’s guess – it adds nothing to the film, not even referencing Dr Butcher himself. Still, this new version was heavily promoted, with a Butcher Mobile driving the streets of New York, spilling blood and demanding that patrons attend the screening, where they were greeted with barf bags from nurses on entry. Let no one say that Levene didn’t do his best to make the film a hit!
And Severin, God bless them, have done their best to recreate this ballyhoo and general lunacy in their new Blu-ray, which comes complete with barf bag and two discs – one the original Zombie Holocaust, the other the Dr Butcher cut. Whichever you watch, it’s a wonderfully entertaining experience. In no way is the film good – but it’s great fun. Ian McCulloch, fresh from Zombie Flesh Eaters, is the lead, wandering through the jungle with a perpetual look of confusion / distaste on his face, as he leads an expedition to a mysterious island, in search of the Kito cult tribe who have been lopping limbs off corpses in a New York hospital. Along for the ride are sexy doctor Alexandra Delli Colli, sassy reporter Sherry Buchanan and other minor league players and native bit parts who are in the film simply to be killed and eaten in spectacularly gory ways. And this film is certainly a gore fest – possibly even more than many of its zombie rivals.
Responsible for the zombies that are roaming around this cannibal island is mad doctor Donald O’Brien (sadly not actually called Dr Butcher) who is performing brain transplants straight out of 1940s horror movies and cheerfully feeding the scalps to the natives, Sadly, they don’t seem to be especially appreciative of this gesture, especially when – in a great bit of plot fudging – they adopt Delli Colli as their naked queen (and who wouldn’t, to be fair?) and attack both the doctor and his zombie creations.
This is joyful rubbish, full of trashy performances enhanced with iffy dubbing, splendid dialogue (“The patient’s screaming disturbed my concentration so I performed removal of the vocal chords”) and ludicrous looking zombies. Sometimes, you just want to unwind with something utterly lacking in coherent narrative, production values or common sense, and for those days, Dr Butcher / Zombie Holocaust is just the ticket.
Severin’s release comes packed with the sort of extras that a film like this barely deserves, and very welcome they are. There’s a fascinating 30 minute interview with Terry Levene that you wish would be expanded to a full documentary, Roy Frumkes and Temple of Schlock’s Chris Pogialli touring 42nd Street and remembering how it used to be, the full footage from Tales That Will Tear Your Heart Out and Gore Gazette editor Rick Sullivan remembering the rise and fall of both his own zine and 42nd Street’s grindhouse theatres. The Zombie Holocaust disc has Italian-based extras including interviews with the still-befuddled McCulloch, Sherry Buchanan and director Marino Girolami’s son.
A remarkable package all round, this might – bizarrely – be one of the releases of the year.