Monday, August 1, 2016

Retro Review: DOCTOR BUTCHER M.D. (1982)

(Italy - 1982)

Directed by Frank Martin (Marino Girolami). Written by Frank Martin (Romano Scandariato). Cast: Ian McCulloch, Alexandra Cole (Alexandra Delli Colli), Donald O'Brien, Sherry Buchanan, Peter O'Neal, Dakar, Walter Patriarca, Franco Ukmar, Angelo Ragusa, Romano Scandariato, Roy Frumkes. (R, 82 mins)

One of the most notorious Italian gorefests of the 42nd Street grindhouse glory days, DOCTOR BUTCHER M.D. benefitted from an attention-getting ad campaign courtesy of its US distributor, Terry Levene's Aquarius Releasing. The Australian Levene became a successful B-movie distributor and theatrical exhibitor in NYC, with his office located just above the marquee of the Selwyn Theater on 42nd Street. He acquired the US rights to the 1980 Italian horror film ZOMBI HOLOCAUST, a low-rent gut-muncher that hopped on two trends at once with its inclusion of both cannibals (Ruggero Deodato's CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST) and zombies (Lucio Fulci's ZOMBIE). It even utilized some still-standing sets seen in ZOMBIE, courtesy of producer Fabrizio De Angelis, who also brought along co-stars Ian McCulloch and Dakar. Directed by veteran comedy filmmaker Marino Girolami (father of Eurocult icon Enzo G. Castellari) under the pseudonym "Frank Martin," ZOMBI HOLOCAUST was a serviceable entry in the gore galore cycle that followed the template of many Italian horror films at the time (opening 20 minutes set in NYC with some vintage location shooting before the action shifts to a jungle and/or tropical island) but suffered from a low budget, unconvincing latex and rubber effects, and some sloppy filmmaking, as evidenced by what is hands-down the greatest dummy death in film history.

When Levene got hold of ZOMBI HOLOCAUST, he wanted to make it look and sound more American. He bought a few minutes of footage from TALES THAT WILL TEAR YOUR HEART OUT, an unfinished and abandoned anthology film that began shooting in 1976. The mastermind behind TALES was Roy Frumkes, later to gain horror notoriety for his DAWN OF THE DEAD documentary DOCUMENT OF THE DEAD (1985), along with the Tenafly Viper-swilling cult classic STREET TRASH (1987), and his most high-profile mainstream gig, a co-writing credit on the 1996 Tom Berenger hit THE SUBSTITUTE. Levene and his editor Jim Markovic took a couple of minutes of Frumkes' footage--featuring Frumkes himself as a shambling zombie--and turned it into the opening credits sequence of BUTCHER, intercut with a couple of shots of ZOMBI HOLOCAUST's zombies, but having nothing whatsoever to do with Girolami's film (Frumkes is credited with "Title Sequence" on BUTCHER). Levene also whittled down some ZOMBI scenes for pacing reasons (Alexandra Delli Colli's character walking into her apartment and burning some incense, a long dialogue scene during the ride to the jungle compound of the villain), and replaced most of Nico Fidenco's far more appropriate score with one by NYC-based musician/inventor/producer Walter Sear, the owner of Sear Sound Studio and a pioneer in the use of synthesizers. Sear's work on DOCTOR BUTCHER M.D. will not go down as his finest hour, as his endless and amazingly tuneless assault of random bleeps, blips, and bloops sounds like an unsupervised kid fucking around on a Casio keyboard in Radio Shack circa 1982, undermining any kind of suspense that might've been building. At the same time, it's a key ingredient in what makes DOCTOR BUTCHER M.D. so endearing to fans of trashy movies. It's not like ZOMBI HOLOCAUST was a serious film--it was already a crummy movie with idiotic dialogue ("I could easily kill you now...but I'm determined to have your brain!") and laughable gore effects before Levene got his paws on it--but its Americanization into DOCTOR BUTCHER M.D. gives it much of its Bad Movie charm and takes it very close to the level of Eurotrash grindhouse Nirvana rarely rarely experienced with movies not titled PIECES. And when it was ready to go, Levene wanted the denizens of 42nd Street to line up, so he promoted the hell out of it in a very memorable way: with a trailer narrated by Adolph Caesar (two years away from an Oscar nomination for A SOLDIER'S STORY) that promised "DOCTOR BUTCHER M.D...Medical Deviate!," poster art that misled people into expecting a slasher film ("...and he makes house calls!"), and most effectively, by renting a flatbed truck and adorning it with DOCTOR BUTCHER artwork and driving it around Manhattan in the days prior to the film's release on May 7, 1982. The "Butchermobile," as it was soon dubbed, was seen by everyone and word spread like wildfire. DOCTOR BUTCHER M.D. was an instant 42nd Street legend thanks to Levene's canny marketing.

The plot, such as it is, deals with a Manhattan hospital morgue beset by a serial mutilator who's helping himself to the limbs and organs of cadavers. The culprit turns out to be an orderly with ties to a Caribbean cult that worships a cannibal god called Kito. This is deduced by nurse Lori Ridgeway (Delli Colli, credited as "Alexandra Cole" in the BUTCHER version, and best known for her performance as the doomed, high society nympho in Fulci's THE NEW YORK RIPPER), who also dabbles in anthropology on the side and even has a priceless Kito dagger in her apartment. That dagger is stolen and her apartment is ransacked, which sends her and NYC health department chief Peter Chandler (McCulloch), along with his associate George (Peter O'Neal) and pushy reporter Susan (Sherry Buchanan), to the Moluccas, a group of islands off the coast of New Guinea. They're welcomed by Dr. Obrero (Donald O'Brien), a famed researcher who's secretly been conducting brain transplant experiments on unwilling victims. Those victims have become his slave-like zombies, which eventually leads to a clash of zombies and cannibal natives, with the NYC interlopers caught in the middle, and with rare exception, becoming either a zombie or dinner. One could argue that ZOMBI/BUTCHER was imaginative in the way it combined two Italian horror trends in zombies and cannibalism, and it's interesting to see the initially threatening cannibals get scared off by the walking dead and eventually coming to the aid of the remaining New Yorkers when they're under attack by Obrero's zombies. But that's about all the credit one can give DOCTOR BUTCHER M.D. on any creative level. It's a rudimentary splatter movie that's entertaining for all the wrong reasons, and its attitude toward indigenous people is barbaric at best, as evidenced by George's stunning lack of sympathy toward their native tour guides. When one is brutally killed, the remaining two--dubbed by voices that make them sound developmentally disabled--are understandably frightened, to which George barks "Bury your friend here...and be quick about it!" When the last of the hapless guides is impaled, clinging to life and gasping his last final breaths, the Big Apple intruders gather around and basically shrug while impatiently waiting for him to die, looking more inconvenienced than afraid. O'Neal's George is a complete asshole, so it's actually a crowd-pleasing moment when he's attacked about halfway through and endures what's probably the film's grossest death scene, if you don't count Peter shredding a zombie's head with a small outboard motor.

I love DOCTOR BUTCHER M.D., and it's been hard to see in that form for quite some time. While a Paragon VHS could be found in any video store in the 1980s, since the advent of DVD, the only version readily available in the US was the original ZOMBI HOLOCAUST cut, released by Media Blasters in 2002. It featured the Frumkes footage as an extra, but did not include the drastically altered and rescored BUTCHER cut that caused such a sensation in Times Square in 1982. That's no longer the case, thanks to Severin's new two-disc Blu-ray set, which features both DOCTOR BUTCHER M.D. and ZOMBI HOLOCAUST, with each disc accompanied by a ton of extras--the best being an interview with the now 86-year-old Levene and a tour through 42nd Street history with Frumkes and Temple of Schlock guru and exploitation historian Chris Poggiali--plus a limited edition barf bag! It's as close to a definitive, Criterion-level last-word on all things DOCTOR BUTCHER M.D. as you're going to get, though Severin did make the curious decision to add a strange scene that was unique to the BUTCHER cut--McCulloch and Delli Colli encountering a couple of cannibals as she falls into a pit trap--back into the ZOMBI HOLOCAUST version. This scene isn't discussed on any of the bonus features, but sticks out like a sore thumb. McCulloch's clothes are darker than in the scenes before and after and his prominent bald spot, seen throughout Fulci's ZOMBIE, is clearly visible (it's covered with either a combover or a small hairpiece in the rest of the film), and Delli Colli's straight hairstyle is suddenly crimped. This scene was clearly shot after ZOMBI HOLOCAUST was made--did Levene commission it? Though this scene wasn't in ZOMBI HOLOCAUST, Severin put it there for this edition, and that's the only questionable decision of what's otherwise one of 2016's most essential Blu-ray purchases for cult horror fans.

The Butchermobile cruising the streets of NYC in 1982. 

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