Thursday, June 7, 2018

Retro Review: SHOCKING DARK (1989)

(Italy - 1989)

Directed by Vincent Dawn (Bruno Mattei). Written by Clayde Anderson (Claudio Fragasso). Cast: Cristofer Ahrens, Haven Tyler, Geretta Giancarlo Field (Geretta Geretta), Tony Lombardo (Fausto Lombardi), Mark Steinborn, Dominica Coulson, Clive Ricke, Paul Norman Allen, Cortland Reilly, Richard Ross, Bruce McFarland, Al McFarland. (Unrated, 90 mins)

For fans of Eurocult cinema, Italian ripoffs are among the most essential and endearing offerings. The flood of imitations in the wake of huge hits like THE GODFATHER, THE EXORCIST, STAR WARS, DAWN OF THE DEAD, ALIEN, CONAN THE BARBARIAN, THE ROAD WARRIOR, and RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II only gained momentum in the 1980s when video stores needed product and Italy was offering a seemingly endless supply. Perhaps no other genre-hopping journeyman epitomized the concept of the shameless Italian ripoff more than Bruno Mattei, or, as he's known under his most frequently-employed pseudonym, "Vincent Dawn." Born in 1931, Mattei began his career as an editor in the late 1950s, usually on undistinguished and instantly obscure post-HERCULES peplum, and later, third-tier spaghetti westerns and 007 knockoffs. He's the credited editor on Jess Franco's COUNT DRACULA (1970) and would later work for Joe D'Amato on 1976's BLACK COBRA. By the late '70s, Mattei shifted into directing, with a couple of 1977 Nazisploitation outings with SS GIRLS and WOMEN'S CAMP 119, followed by some dalliances with nunsploitation (THE TRUE STORY OF THE NUN OF MONZA, THE OTHER HELL), zombies (HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD aka NIGHT OF THE ZOMBIES), post-nuke (RATS: NIGHT OF TERROR), women-in-prison (CAGED WOMEN, WOMEN'S PRISON MASSACRE), and even a Lou Ferrigno vehicle for Cannon (THE SEVEN MAGNIFICENT GLADIATORS). Mattei had a collaborative partnership with writer and future TROLL 2 auteur Claudio Fragasso, and the pair would frequently work as a team behind the camera, sometimes sharing credit with a pseudonym like "Stefan Oblowsky" on the nunsploitation films. In 1987, Mattei directed and Fragasso scripted the RAMBO ripoff STRIKE COMMANDO, their first effort for Italian producer Franco Gaudenzi. Gaudenzi's career in movies began with Mattei as part of the Joe D'Amato stock company, working as a set decorator, art director, and eventually assistant director on BLACK COBRA and the 1979 cannibal/necrophilia classic BEYOND THE DARKNESS. Mattei and Gaudenzi went way back, and when Gaudenzi formed his company Flora Film and became a producer based primarily in the Philippines, he had plenty of work for Mattei and Fragasso.

In his films for Gaudenzi, most of which were shot in and around Manila, Mattei really found his true calling as Italy's premier ripoff artist. He wasn't exactly new to the notion of swiping other people's ideas--HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD stole huge chunks of Goblin's DAWN OF THE DEAD score--but STRIKE COMMANDO really set the template for what the Three Stooges in the Gaudenzi/Mattei/Fragasso team would accomplish (with occasional uncredited script contributions from Fragasso's wife Rossella Drudi). STRIKE COMMANDO completely restages the finale of RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II, while 1987's DOUBLE TARGET was a somewhat less obvious take on the same material. Gaudenzi kept Mattei occupied during a busy 1988: STRIKE COMMANDO 2 is a Namsploitation outing that's also an unexpected riff on ROMANCING THE STONE, with Mattei and Gaudenzi somehow corralling a seriously slumming Richard Harris (who would later claim to be retired at the time the film was made) for a supporting role; ROBOWAR is an almost scene-for-scene copy of PREDATOR; and so enamored of the Namsploitation craze were Gaudenzi, Mattei, and Fragasso that they even cranked out COP GAME, a quickie imitation of the Saigon-set Willem Dafoe/Gregory Hines non-hit OFF LIMITS. As if Mattei's 1988 schedule wasn't already packed enough in the sweltering Filipino heat (everyone in these movies is profusely sweating at all times), he was even called in from the nearby set of STRIKE COMMANDO 2 by a desperate Gaudenzi to take over for a surly and ailing Lucio Fulci, who had just walked off of ZOMBI 3 with only 50 minutes of usable footage in the can. Mattei and Fragasso finished the film, which feels more Mattei than Fulci, even though the latter retains sole credit. But it's 1989's SHOCKING DARK that is perhaps the most jaw-droppingly audacious of Mattei's ripoffs from his furiously productive Gaudenzi era.

Set not in Gaudenzi's usual Manila stomping grounds but in a toxic Venice "after 2000," SHOCKING DARK has an elite Marine unit called "Megaforce" venturing beneath the city's canals to investigate the disappearance of another group of soldiers offed by mutant creatures. It doesn't take long to recognize that this is a blatant ALIENS ripoff. Not only are entire scenes completely recreated and played out verbatim (including one where a meter shows the creatures closing in on them and somebody yells "That's impossible, they'd already be here!" and another where two people are seen on a monitor silently waving for help but the mission's saboteur stealthily turns it off) but the characters themselves are exact replicas. There's the team of military badasses led by the hysterically raging Koster (Geretta Geretta, best known as the doomed Rosemary from DEMONS and credited here as "Geretta Giancarlo Field"), who's a composite of ALIENS' Vasquez and Apone; Sarah (Haven Tyler), a scientist and the Ripley-like outsider sent along as a consultant; young orphan and Newt stand-in Samantha (Dominica Coulson); and special ops badass Samuel Fuller (Cristofer Ahrens), an operative from "The Tubular Corporation," which sounds about as believable as Vandelay Industries, who eventually functions as SHOCKING DARK's Burke but in a completely different way. You see--and SPOILERS follow--SHOCKING DARK isn't content to just rip off one classic James Cameron film. It's also a knockoff of THE TERMINATOR, a mid-film twist hinted at by naming Tyler's character "Sarah." The mutant creatures eventually take a backseat once "Samuel Fuller" is exposed as a cyborg hellbent on sabotaging the mission. Though the film was made as SHOCKING DARK, it was eventually retitled by Gaudenzi and sold as...wait for it..TERMINATOR 2 (!), flashing back to the practice of Italian ripoffs being passed off as sequels to blockbuster American movies.

The real TERMINATOR 2 was still a couple of years away, but Gaudenzi's rechristening of SHOCKING DARK certainly did it no favors in finding US distribution, where it would've likely gone straight-to-court instead of straight-to-video. Long available on the bootleg circuit, SHOCKING DARK has finally received an official US release nearly 30 years after it was made, thanks to Severin's new Blu-ray, along with two other Gaudenzi productions, ZOMBI 3 and 1989's AFTER DEATH, directed by Fragasso and now commonly known as ZOMBIE 4: AFTER DEATH. SHOCKING DARK comes barrelling out of the gate and seems poised to become a new MIAMI CONNECTION or NIGHTMARE WEEKEND-level bad movie discovery of WTF? proportions. The ridiculous dialogue works beautifully in conjunction with the cast, comprised mostly of one-and-done American non-actors who were never seen or heard from again. Portland, OR-born model Geretta Geretta is probably the most experienced cast member (now a convention regular, she spent a significant amount of time in Italy in the '80s and also acted in Mattei's RATS under the name "Janna Ryann"), but she's killed off 35 minutes in. Fausto Lombardi appeared in several Italian B-movies from the early '80s on (RATS, HANNA D: THE GIRL FROM VONDEL PARK, the TOP GUN ripoff BLUE TORNADO). And Ahrens had some small parts in Italian genre fare but seems to have left the industry after 1999.

But as for the bulk of the remaining cast members--Tyler, Coulson, Cortland Reilly as the rad surfer-dude soldier Caine, and Bruce McFarland as the colonel at the command center--they all seem to be American college students who may have been in an exchange program or were just partying in Italy when they answered a casting call to be in a low-budget horror movie (even Coulson, who's supposed to a child but is probably in her late teens and is almost as tall as Tyler). Their inexperience as actors is only highlighted by the fact that this is one of the rare instances in Italian exploitation where the filmmakers are using live sound and not dubbing everyone over. None of the usual suspects in the dubbing world are present here. Nope, these deer-in-the-headlights newbies are bellowing their lines in an overwrought fashion and standing around looking confused (Tyler never seems comfortable and looks directly into the camera twice in one scene), with Mattei doing little to hide their obvious inexperience. Most of Mattei's films for Gaudenzi had some established name actors to provide even the slightest modicum of credibility--Reb Brown and Christopher Connelly in STRIKE COMMANDO, Brown in ROBOWAR, Richard Harris (Richard Harris?!?!) in STRIKE COMMANDO 2, Miles O'Keeffe, Donald Pleasence and Bo Svenson in DOUBLE TARGET--but there's no such voice of experience for the neophyte actors to look to here, only the performances of Sigourney Weaver and everyone else on a VHS copy of ALIENS that they probably had to share.

Eventually, SHOCKING DARK settles into a bunch of repetitive scenes of people walking down long corridors in the maintenance area under Rome's Termini Station, standing in for the Venice underground, with the possibility of playing a great drinking game for every time Coulson's character shouts "Sarah!" It's got some dull stretches, but the sheer chutzballs of its straight-up plagiarism of early James Cameron (what, no flying piranha?), and its final ridiculous twist in the closing minutes, is at times truly astonishing. It's also the kind of film that's so sloppy that it misspells Fragasso's usual "Clyde Anderson" pseudonym as "Clayde Anderson." Before long, stealing plots wouldn't be enough for Mattei. By 1995's belated JAWS ripoff CRUEL JAWS, he was swiping footage wholesale from JAWS, JAWS 2, and the slightly less-belated 1982 ripoff GREAT WHITE. This blew open new doors of duplicity for the veteran director. By the time of his final films--zero-budget, shot-on-video drek like 2004's THE TOMB and 2007's ZOMBIES: THE BEGINNING--Mattei was pilfering unlicensed footage from the likes of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM, ARMY OF DARKNESS, the 1999 version of THE MUMMY, and CRIMSON TIDE. Mattei died in 2007 at the age of 75, but the recent Blu-ray releases of SHOCKING DARK and WOMEN'S PRISON MASSACRE are doing their part to keep his dubious legend alive. Now all we need is a deluxe Blu-ray edition of STRIKE COMMANDO.

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