Saturday, February 3, 2018

Retro Review: PANIC (1982)

(Italy/Spain - 1982)

Directed by Anthony Richmond (Tonino Ricci). Written by Jaime Comas and Victor A. Catena. Cast: David Warbeck, Janet Agren, Franco Ressel, Roberto Ricci, Jose R. Lifante, Miguel Herrera, Eugenio Benito, Ovidio Taito, Jose Maria Labernie, Ilaria Maria Bianchi, Fabian Conde, Vittorio Calo, Goffredo Unger. (Unrated, 93 mins)

"What you have seen might really happen...perhaps it already has!" - PANIC closing credits

Sent straight to late-night TV as part of a Cinema Shares syndication package, PANIC is an instantly recognizable staple of the 1980s video store glory days thanks to its gross cover art on the big Gorgon Video clamshell cover box. All these years later, it's still not very good and its minimal charms lie almost exclusively in sentimentality for a bygone era. Nevertheless, I'm all in favor of any obscure horror movie resurrected on Blu-ray, and Code Red's recent release is a huge step up from the dogshit VHS print that's been recycled on several budget "50 Horror Classics" public domain sets from Brentwood and Mill Creek. Despite the upgrade to HD and full color correction that makes it so you can actually see what's going on, PANIC remains a largely terrible movie, but it's the kind of junky, barely competent Eurocult flick that keeps fans of such stuff (like this guy--hey, I make no apologies; if you're reading this, you understand that this is the life we've chosen) always coming back for more.

Set in London but shot mostly in Spain and Italy (in this film's internal geography, there's an awful lot of dirt roads just around the corner from Buckingham Palace), PANIC borrows some of George A. Romero's THE CRAZIES and Umberto Lenzi's NIGHTMARE CITY with its accidentally leaked contagion, created by a pharmaceutical company cleverly called "Chemicale." They claim to manufacture aspirin and antibiotics, but they've been conducting secret experiments in biological and chemical warfare for the British government. A lab mishap makes some rats go insane and turns Professor Adams (Roberto Ricci) into an oozing, monstrous, murderous madman on a citywide rampage. The government is desperate to contain the situation, and Chemicale CEO Milton (Franco Ressel) tries to keep a lid on it, but Adams' altruistic assistant Jane (frequent Ricci star Janet Agren) refuses to play along, teaming with special agent Captain Kirk (David Warbeck) to boldly go where no man has gone before to find Adams. Meanwhile, the government is so concerned with keeping this quiet that they're willing to resort to "Plan Q," which is to basically drop a nuke on London. The film never specifies why Plans A-through-P wouldn't be sufficient.

PANIC is a film too dumb to explore the politically-charged DR. STRANGELOVE and FAIL-SAFE implications of its plot and little is made of a Prime Minister willing to obliterate an entire city to kill one contaminated scientist. Adams doesn't even appear to be contagious, since none of the people he encounters become infected. He even gets into a physical fight with both Kirk and London cop O'Brien (Jose R. Lifante), and nothing happens to them. PANIC also can't even keep track of its own subplots, with mention of an escaped guinea pig also being infected like Adams and growing to the size of a dog, but we never see the poor animal. Sure, there's a nice amount of gore (mostly missing from the Gorgon VHS, which was culled from a butchered TV print), the monster makeup on Roberto Ricci is appropriately icky, and all the usual suspects are on the dubbing crew (Warbeck's voice has been revoiced by the dulcet tones of the great Ted Rusoff), but PANIC, despite its video store ubiquity in those long ago days, isn't exactly a classic in need of reappraisal. The story is all over the place, plot threads are underdeveloped or abandoned entirely, the stock footage of London is haphazardly shoehorned-in, and despite a Variety announcement of its production commencing in the fall of 1981, it looks like it was shot several years earlier with its older cars and peculiarly outdated fashions with no indication that it's intended to be a period setting (of course, as sloppy as this film is, maybe that was the intent at some point). Indeed, many sources list PANIC's year of release as 1976 and one would almost be inclined to believe it, but the Variety announcement gels with a computer screen in the movie showing a 1981 date, and there's the fact that New Zealand native and Eurocult legend Warbeck stated in many interviews and convention appearances near the end of his too-short life (he died of cancer in 1997 at just 55) that Antonio Margheriti's 1980 Namsploitation classic THE LAST HUNTER was his first foray into Italian exploitation. PANIC was written by Spanish journeymen Jaime Comas and Victor A. Catena, both of whom have been involved in better or at least more reputable movies (they had a hand in the screenplay for A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS and are given story credit on the 1980 Charles Bronson CASABLANCA knockoff CABO BLANCO), and it's directed with a minimum of style or suspense by perennial Italian D-lister Tonino Ricci, under the pseudonym "Anthony Richmond."

Ricci (1927-2014) had a career that spanned several decades, beginning in the early 1960s with assistant director gigs on films like Mario Bava's ERIK THE CONQUEROR, and by the end of the decade, he started directing his own movies until 1998 without ever making a very good one. He dabbled in various genres with typically undistinguished results, like the 1969 macaroni combat outing SALT IN THE WOUND, the 1971 giallo CROSS CURRENT, the 1973 GODFATHER ripoff THE BIG FAMILY, 1974's bizarrely-titled ROBIN HOOD, ARROWS, BEANS AND KARATE, and a pair of interchangeable, late '70s Bermuda Triangle adventures with CAVE OF THE SHARKS and ENCOUNTERS IN THE DEEP. In the '80s, Ricci teamed with non-star-in-the-making "Conrad Nichols" (real name Bruno Minitti) on several films, including the 1983 CONAN knockoff THOR THE CONQUEROR, and a pair of post-nuke ROAD WARRIOR imitations with 1983's RUSH and and 1984's A MAN CALLED RAGE. The most high-profile film Ricci made--probably by default--is 1988's NIGHT OF THE SHARKS, one of the very few times he managed to secure a real Hollywood actor in the form of Treat Williams. Williams wasn't that far removed from ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA and an acclaimed turn in the indie SMOOTH TALK when he was somehow cajoled into appearing in a Tonino Ricci joint, but even with his presence, the dull SHARKS only managed a straight-to-video release in 1990. Ricci retired from filmmaking after the 1998 family adventure BUCK AND THE MAGIC BRACELET, with vacationing American actors like the POLICE ACADEMY franchise's replacement Guttenberg and oblivious HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE husband Matt McCoy and '60s and '70s TV fixture Abby Dalton mixing it up with DEMONS legend Bobby Rhodes and perennial Ricci bestie "Conrad Nichols."

Variety ad on 10/24/1981 with the breaking news
alerting the world to the existence of PANIC
(photo provided by William Wilson)

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