Monday, April 17, 2017

Retro Review: REVENGE OF THE DEAD (1984)

(Italy - 1983; US release 1984)

Directed by Pupi Avati. Written by Pupi Avati, Maurizio Costanzo and Antonio Avati. Cast: Gabriele Lavia, Anne Canovas, Paola Tanziani, Cesare Barbetti, Bob Tonelli, Ferdinando Orlando, Enea Ferrario, John Stacy, Alessandro Partexano, Marcello Tusco, Aldo Sassi, Veronica Moriconi, Enrico Ardizzone, Maria Teresa Toffano, Andrea Montuschi. (Unrated, 99 mins)

Mid '80s gorehounds had to be pretty pissed off when they saw REVENGE OF THE DEAD in a theater or a drive-in back in the summer of 1984 and into early 1985. With an ominous TV spot that hyped much but showed nothing, and poster art depicting zombies bursting out of the sewer through a sidewalk, accompanied by a prominently displayed and always-promising "This film contains scenes which may be considered shocking..." box in place of an MPAA rating, REVENGE OF THE DEAD looked to be the latest in a long-line of gore galore extravaganzas like George A. Romero's DAWN OF THE DEAD, the Lucio Fulci essentials ZOMBIE, THE GATES OF HELL, and HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY, Bruno Mattei/"Vincent Dawn"'s NIGHT OF THE ZOMBIES, and Juan Piquer Simon's Spanish-made chainsawgasm PIECES, among others. But the ad campaign and the promise of "shocking" gore scenes were all a misleading ruse that would've made any huckstering B-movie wheeler-and-dealer proud. Distributed in the US by the exploitation outfit Motion Picture Marketing, co-owned by mobster-turned-Christian motivational speaker Michael Franzese, REVENGE OF THE DEAD was a retitling of ZEDER, a thoughtful, intelligent study of the paranormal by Italian director Pupi Avati (THE HOUSE WITH LAUGHING WINDOWS) that had very little gore and even less in the way of onscreen zombies. Quickly dismissed by fans for its slow pace and lack of splatter--I rented it in the late '80s as an impatient teenager and shut it off halfway through out of boredom--REVENGE OF THE DEAD found some defenders as time went on. In the late '90s, it got a DVD release from Image Entertainment under its original ZEDER title and it finally began to be judged on its own terms by American genre enthusiasts, rather than for not being the zombie gut-muncher that MPM's US ads promised. ZEDER is back once more, significantly upgraded on Code Red's new Blu-ray, with reversible artwork for the nostalgic among us who still want to call it REVENGE OF THE DEAD, and its latest release makes a strong case for Avati's film being one of the unheralded classics of its era.

In 1956, a young girl named Gabriella (Veronica Moriconi) has psychic powers and is used by a team of researchers to help find the source of inexplicable supernatural occurrences in a house that have resulted in at least one murder. She's drawn to the basement, where the skeleton of one Paolo Zeder is found buried under the concrete floor. Someone exclaims "It's a K-Zone!"  Cut to 1982, as struggling, blocked writer Stefano (Gabriele Lavia of DEEP RED and BEYOND THE DOOR) is given a secondhand typewriter for inspiration by his wife Alessandra (Anne Canovas). The ribbon quickly fades and breaks and while unspooling it, Stefano is fascinated by the bizarre writings he sees typed along the used ribbon. It mentions the work of Zeder, a renowned metaphysicist, and his belief in K-Zones. Consulting an old teacher, Prof. Chesi (John Stacy), Stefano learns that K-Zones are a term given to places throughout history, often with geological similarities, that defy the natural laws of life and death, existing in a place of "zero time" where life and death are interchangeable, and though it's never been proven, an area that could theoretically allow a return from the dead

Through some old-fashioned detective work from his cop friend Guido (Alessandro Partexano), Stefano discovers the typewriter was previously owned by a priest named Don Luigi Costa, but a visit to Costa proves pointless as the rude cleric is hostile and uncooperative, refusing to discuss the writings on the typewriter ribbon. A return visit to ask one more question leads to the first instance of Stefano realizing something is up: he's informed by young priest Don Mario (Aldo Sassi) that Costa left the parish over a decade earlier and the man he spoke with was an impostor. The impostor is Giovine (Ferdinando Orlando), who's part of a French-funded research team that includes an adult Gabriella (Paola Tanziani) and Dr. Meyer (Cesare Barbetti), who led the 1956 investigation that uncovered Zeder's skeleton. With the backing of a sinister, high-ranking government official (Edward G. Robinson lookalike Bob Tonelli), Meyer and his team are attempting to prove the existence of K-Zones. Stefano grows more obsessed with Zeder's ideas and what Costa was writing, eventually finding out that Costa recently died, followed by a visit to the cemetery where Costa is interred only to find his tomb empty. Despite Alessandra's objections, his investigation leads him to the Milano Marittima area of the seaside town of Cervia, where Meyer's team has set up a top-secret lab in an abandoned building.

Stefano's dogged pursuit of the truth has echoes of any number of protagonists in earlier Dario Argento films, and while their styles are different, Avati's film often feels like a '70s giallo with a decidedly paranormal bent. Avati lacks the style and flash of Argento, but he makes up for it by establishing a deeply unsettling tone throughout, one that grows positively suffocating the more Stefano gets in over his head and has no idea of the power of the conspiratorial forces he's up against (and the whole bit with the secret discovered on an old typewriter ribbon is the best idea an in-his-prime Argento never thought of--almost like something the alchemist Varelli would've done in INFERNO). ZEDER/REVENGE OF THE DEAD is about a quarter century ahead of its time in terms of the ominous "slow burn" Avati lets simmer to a boil throughout. Perhaps one reason the film plays so much better today than in the zombie flesh-eater days of the 1984 grindhouse is that it's finally caught up to the slow-burn ethos that's so prevalent in the horror genre today. Budding genre filmmakers of today would be wise to study ZEDER if they want to see how slow burn is done right (based on one early scene in IT FOLLOWS, I'm willing to bet that film's director David Robert Mitchell is a ZEDER fan), and when Avati finally gets the scares going, the attentive viewer is so paralyzed by dread and a palpable sense of doom that the effect is terrifying. Riz Ortolani's bombastic and incredibly loud score--which sounds like Goblin produced a mash-up with some unused PSYCHO cues from Bernard Herrmann--helps as well, even though it seems at odds with the film's generally low-key mood. There's one good jump scare early on, but the other memorable moments throughout are the kind that creep up on you and stick with you for long after the movie's over: Avati's use of shadows; the scene in the gym swimming pool that's a blatant shout-out to Val Lewton and the 1942 CAT PEOPLE; what Stefano sees when he looks through a telescope into the abandoned building; and the devastating finale that's caused many to wonder if Stephen King stole a major element of this for his novel Pet Sematary or if Avati ripped it off from him--King's novel was published in November 1983, and ZEDER was released in Italy in August 1983, so the similarities are likely pure coincidence.

In recent years, there's been a surge of interest in urban exploration of abandoned structures (often termed "ruin porn"), especially "dead malls" that sit vacant and make for eerily fascinating photographs and YouTube videos (check out the work of photographer/videographer Seph Lawless for a great primer on the subject). To that end, ZEDER has one of the all-time great horror movie locations in the abandoned Colonia Varese, once a resort for the Fascist Youth Program in the 1930s. It became a hospital for German soldiers and a place to detain Allied POWs in WWII before being dynamited by the Nazis in 1945. Abandoned and left to the elements since the end of WWII, the Colonia Varese is an unforgettably striking location and delivers probably the most memorable performance in the film just by being there. Home to squatters in recent years, the building has been deemed a nuisance and talk of its demolition has been going on for some time. It still stands as of now, but if nothing else, let ZEDER serve as the definitive celluloid document of this fascinating example of fascist architecture-turned-ruin porn, with Avati turning a troubling monument to a dark part of Italy's past into one of the scariest places you'll ever see in a horror movie, a real-life house of horrors that should be as iconic a location as the fictional PSYCHO house and THE SHINING's Overlook Hotel or actual places like DAWN OF THE DEAD's Monroeville Mall and the EXORCIST steps in Georgetown. Dismissed 30-plus years ago for not being something it never should've been sold as in the first place, ZEDER/REVENGE OF THE DEAD has very quietly built a small but devoted cult following over the years. It's a unique and ambitious film that gets better and reveals deeper layers with each viewing, and with it looking better than it ever has on Code Red's Blu-ray (it also features new interviews with Avati and Lavia), the time has come for ZEDER to take its rightful place among the masterpieces of Italian horror.

in Toledo, OH on June 22, 1984

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