“Sometimes I make movies which don’t interest me too much and after, with the money, I make the movies I want to make.”
Joe D’Amato, quoted in Flesh & Blood issue 6
Italy’s king of sleaze, Joe D’Amato spent most of his career being generally dismissed as a talentless hack. He would eventually find a degree of critical acclaim – at least within the adult movie world – and financial success during the late 1990s as the director of a series of hardcore costume epics, only for his life to be cut short in 1999 when he died of a heart attack. Typically, he had little personal interest in the films that he was making at the end of his life – he was, as ever, simply following the money.
D’Amato – real name Aristide Massachessi – first entered the film industry in 1952, working as a stills photographer, and finally graduated to become a respected director of photography in the expanding Italian film world of the Sixties and early Seventies. Given the low opinion many critics have of his work, it’s significant to note that he was an acclaimed DP. He worked on a variety of Italian productions in the late Sixties and early Seventies, ranging from softcore romps like More Filthy Canterbury Tales in 1972 to the superior horror film The Antichrist, one of the more interesting Exorcist knock-offs to come out of Italy and directed by Alberto De Martino in 1974. In subsequent years, these two genres would come to dominate Massachessi’s directorial work.
The early Seventies saw Massachessi rechristen himself Joe D’Amato, a name that was less obviously Italian than his own without denying his nationality entirely – at the time, many Italian directors used Anglicised names to both help sell the films to US audiences and in their home country, where audiences were often suspicious of Italian genre films, expecting them to be inferior to American movies. Over the years, he would use several pseudonyms, including David Hills, and Peter Newton, but ‘Joe D’amato’ remained his chosen name for most of his career.
His move into directing was almost accidental. Both Bounty Hunter for Trinity and The Arena were largely helmed by him, but he went uncredited. In the case of the latter film, US director Steve Carver had shot the movie and was still credited with it, but D’Amato had handled much of the movie’s pivotal fight scenes himself, under the name Michael Wotruba, the name that the film was credited to in Italy. Such a graduation from cameraman to director was not unknown in Italian cinema – Mario Bava did much the same.
The first film to be officially directed by D’Amato was Death Smiles on a Murderer, an efficient slice of Giallo thriller that showed definite promise, and certainly helped set D’Amato on the road which he would travel for the next two decades. Right up to the point that the market for low-budget exploitation cinema essentially collapsed in Italy, he would spend much of his career alternating between gory horror and softcore sex movies – often blurring the line between the two. He’s still best known for his Black Emanuelle series, even though he wasn’t involved in the first, most successful two films. Hired to take over from series originator Adalberti Albertini, he suddenly found himself in control of a franchise that had a guaranteed international market (Death Smiles on a Murderer had failed to secure distribution outside Italy). Under his guidance, the series would become increasingly outlandish and bizarre, moving far away from the exotic travelogue format of both the first two films and the official Emmanuelle movies that they shamelessly ripped off. Under D’Amato’s direction, the films saw Emanuelle caught up in religious cults, snuff movies, white slavers and cannibal tribes – his instinctive love for the outlandish and outrageous taking the films into strange new worlds. The series also introduced him to Laura Gemser, who would become a regular performer in his films throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, working on both erotic and horror movies for him before retiring and then working as part of his production crew.
D’Amato proved to have a certain flair for softcore and attention-grabbing sensationalism, and these films would be his most successful. In fact, they dominated his work in the Seventies – he would often shoot several Emanuelle films (the ‘black’ being quickly dropped from the titles) in a year. He also tried his hand at a typically ribald Italian sex comedy (Ladies Doctor) around this time, but humour didn’t seem to be his forte. He seemed to be much more at home with brutal violence and grubby nihilism, and this quickly began to evidence itself within the Emanuelle series. The genuinely extraordinary Emanuelle in America combined the usual softcore (and brief hardcore) love-making scenes with a scene that borders on bestiality and some genuinely shocking – though of course staged – ‘snuff’ movie scenes. The latter remain some of the most realistic images of ‘snuff’ movies ever shot, and it’s unsurprising that several people have believed them to be real (the fact that for years they were only available on nth generation bootlegs probably helped too!). This wouldn’t be the last time that D’Amato was accused of filming real murder…
Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals was his final entry in the series and it was a significant pointer to where his career would head next. As much a horror movie as an erotic one – arguably more so, in fact – the film was extremely gory, and the first in a series of movies which capitalised on the success of Ruggero Deodato’s Ultimo Mondo Cannibale in 1976, the film that might not have invented the Italian cannibal genre but certainly the one that kickstarted a craze that ran into the 1990s. D’Amato’s film is one of the more palatable entries – it’s more interested in sex romps than animal slaughter for one thing and plays like a wild, if rather lurid old-school jungle adventure for much of the time.
The end of the 1970s and early 1980s saw D’Amato establish himself a director to watch out for in the horror genre – you can take that any way you like, as fans were either keen to see his latest film or keen to avoid it – he was never exactly respected by most horror fans at the time, even though he quickly became something of a cult figure with the emergence of home video and a new generation of Video Nasty kids who were impressed by his lack of restraint on all levels. His films from this time are, in retrospect, a mixed bag. One of the most interesting and least seen is Porno Shop on 7th Avenue, which may sound like a sex romp but is, in fact, a brutal, sleazy crime film with more than a few nods to the likes of Last House on the Left and its Italian imitators such as Night Train Murders and The House on the Edge of the Park. Papaya was another sexy jungle shocker, with the emphasis this time on voodoo, and Beyond the Darkness was a remarkably sleazy study of murder and necrophilia. This film once again saw D’Amato attacked for crossing the line, this time by allegedly using a real corpse during an autopsy scene. The rumours were just that, but the film’s reputation was made by such sucurrilous stories.
Like the work of many Italian directors of the period, D’Amato’s horror movies reached new heights (or plumed new depths, depending on your viewpoint) in gore. His two most notorious films of the time were Anthropophagous and its sequel Absurd. Both these blood-drenched shockers would branded ‘video nasties‘ and banned in Britain, and years later, Anthropophagous made newspaper headlines and prime-time TV news shows when British police claimed – without any evidence or, indeed, any understanding of special effects and fictional narratives – that it showed real footage of a woman being forced to give birth and the premature foetus then eaten! Absurd indeed…
D’Amato also continued with his Last Cannibals experiment of combining erotica with splatter during this period. The title of Erotic Nights of the Living Dead says it all, and things reached their natural conclusion in Porno Holocaust, which mixed hardcore sex and hardgore violence in ways which would be unimaginable now. The mix didn’t necessarily work – the film manages the remarkable feat of being incredibly dull despite the explicit sex and violence. Rather better is his Caligula knock-off, Caligula – the Untold Story, which matched that film’s mix of lavish historical drama, graphic violence and explicit sex even if it was rather less impressive as a film.
At the time, many fans were surprised to see D’Amato shooting hardcore, but in fact, he’d been quietly making porn films for the domestic Italian market since 1980. Few of these films were seen outside Italy, and none were particularly great – D’Amato having shot them simply for money. Indeed, he proved himself more than capable of switching genres as tastes changed. With the market for both softcore and horror drying up, D’Amato surprised many people by showing an affinity for sword and sorcery films. His two sci-fi movies of 1983 (2020: Texas Gladiators and Endgame) had failed to impress anyone, but Ator the Fighting Eagle was a surprising international hit – it was one of the last Italian exploitation films to have a major impact in the US market. It would spawn two sequels during the brief period that the Conan-inspired genre was popular, and while not exactly a masterpiece, it stands head-and-shoulders above every other Italian barbarian romp of the time.
The remainder of the 1980s were spent shooting glossy softcore titles. The dying market for these films had been given a shot in the arm with the success and notoriety of 9½ Weeks, and D’Amato struck box-office gold again with his blatant imitation, Eleven Days, Eleven Nights in 1985. In fact, D’Amato’s glossy but no-nonsense film was far superior to its overblown Hollywood inspiration and proved once again that he was had a genuine affinity for this sort of thing. The film was so popular in fact, that foreign distributors would often change the titles of other D’Amato films shot at this time to create instant sequels – Top Model became Eleven Days, Eleven Nights 2 simply because it shared the same director and star (Jessica Moore). D’Amato had more success with Dirty Love (again inspiring sequels, both real and false), The Pleasure, Lust, Blue Angel Cafe and The Alcove before the softcore boom once again exhausted itself. Less popular were his horror films of the late Eighties. Killing Birds and Frankenstein 2000 failed to secure international distribution, even on video, for years. D’Amato did, however, have considerable success in the genre as a producer, giving Michele Soavi his first break when he produced the young director’s first (and best) film Stagefright, and he would go on to produce several more horror movies that had successful international home video releases. But the global market was changing, and Euro horror was proving increasingly hard to sell to the all-important US market. Worse still, his trademark softcore films were no longer making money either. Ever the pragmatist, D’Amato simply moved into an area he knew offered the chance to make money, and which he had a natural affinity for. He began to make a series of hardcore epics, often based on famous figures from literature and history. Often working in collaboration with Italian porno king Luca Damiano, D’Amato built a sizeable reputation with these costume dramas, shot on 35mm film – and although he didn’t take the adult film business too seriously, the acclaim heaped upon him must have been satisfying for a man more used to being described by critics as “the worst director in the world”. The films were all international hits, even cracking the notoriously insular US adult market, and soon D’Amato was shooting one feature a month. Like much Italian porn, his films were films – despite his production speed, he never shot on video until the end of his life, when it became unavoidable. This relentless schedule from a director who was no slouch in the 1970s and 1980s has made him one of the most prolific filmmakers of all time. It was probably, in fact, this frenetic workload that contributed to his untimely death from a heart attack, aged 60. He was working on the post-production of no less than five features when he died.
It was notable that the cult movie world genuinely mourned the loss of Joe D’Amato. Critics may have sneered at his work, but the fans knew better. D’Amato made some of the weirdest films ever, never took himself too seriously and had a genuine love for the genres he worked in. He remains a much-missed figure on the scene.
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