By ROCCO THOMPSON
Starring George Eastman and Tisa Farrow; George Eastman and Annie Belle
Directed by Joe D’Amato
Written by Joe D’Amato and George Eastman; George Eastman
It’s been quite a banner year for fans of Italian sleaze thanks to Severin Films. In 2018 alone, the cult movie restoration studio has put out definitive editions of Umberto Lenzi’s EATEN ALIVE, a “Zombie Dark” Blu-ray bundle (featuring ZOMBIE 3, ZOMBIE 4: AFTER DEATH, and SHOCKING DARK), and Joe D’Amato’s lushly smutty EMANUELLE AND THE LAST CANNIBALS. Not content to rest on their blood-flecked laurels, Severin has just served up two more “classics” from D’Amato’s filthography, ANTHROPOPHAGOUS and ABSURD, in a package that’s one of their finest to date.
It may seem strange to the Italo-sleaze neophyte, but compared to his contemporaries, Joe D’Amato’s films have a reputation for being especially bleak and cruel. D’Amato (real name, Aristide Massaccesi), like every good journeyman Italian filmmaker in his day, was an easily adaptable opportunist—working steadily in any marketable genre until box-office interest dried up. Though he directed or co-directed somewhere in the ballpark of two-hundred films over his career, he’s best remembered for his mean-spirited sexploitation efforts and a handful of seriously sick horror flicks.
Chief among these is 1980’s ANTHROPOPHAGOUS (sometimes subtitled THE GRIM REAPER), a film that helped ignite the Italian gore craze that would grip consumers of low-budget genre fare for most of the ensuing decade. After a whiz-bang opening sequence in which a handsome couple is viciously murdered while sunning themselves, the story proper begins when Julie (Tisa Farrow, long-forgotten sister of Mia) joins a group of strangers on a journey to a remote island. Ignoring the protestations of tarot enthusiast, Carol (Zora Kerova), the group makes landfall and discovers that the isle has been forsaken by its inhabitants. As the party foolishly searches for clues as to what drove the islanders away, the answer comes-a-stalking in the form of Klaus Wortmann (George Eastman), a monstrous, speechless cannibal who begins picking off the interlopers one by one.
Though less well-regarded than his career-high symphony of depravity BEYOND THE DARKNESS (1979), the film is a grim masterpiece of the grotesque in its own right. D’Amato is often dismissed as the least talented of his country’s gore peddlers (he makes Fulci look like Fellini), but ANTHROPOPHAGOUS hits that sweet spot between derivativeness and inventiveness that makes these Italian genre efforts such distinctive pleasures to behold. Though not as accomplished as a film like ZOMBI 2 (which also happened to star the lesser Farrow sister), ANTHROPOPHAGOUS feels sticky and hot and fetid and gross in much the same way, and D’Amato creates such an oppressive atmosphere that any sniggers prompted by the production’s limitations catch in the throat by the time Eastman’s man-eater shows up.
ANTHROPOPHAGOUS is carried by the strength of its strong yet simple imagery. Plumes of blood blooming in bubbling sea water, the white stone buildings of the island, a wine-drenched woman erupting from a barrel while slashing the air with a knife…all of which comes before we even get to the good stuff! The centerpiece of course, is Eastman (a.k.a. Luigi Montefiori), B-movie actor and D’Amato mainstay, who only agreed to play the film’s villain if he was allowed to give the script a tune-up. He readily admits to being ashamed of having done the movie, but his ghastly screen presence is what makes it worth remembering. His oatmeal-faced monster is all wild-eyes and gnashing teeth, and a true shock to the system when he first appears. Eastman’s better-than-expected performance as the shambling freak—and his admirable dedication to chowing down on “pajata,” uncooked calf-intestines in the film’s infamous finale—marked ANTHROPOPHAGOUS as an essential film in the development of the spaghetti splatter subgenre, and possibly added the term “gutmuncher” to the extreme cinema lexicon.
Of a far lesser degree of influence and importance, D’Amato’s ABSURD (1981) again stars Eastman as a bloodthirsty (though, less literally), unstoppable killer, a la Michael Meyers. Initially conceived as a sequel to ANTHROPOPHAGOUS (and sold under titles as disparate as ZOMBIE 6, HORRIBLE, and, most confoundingly, MONSTER HUNTER) D’Amato does away with the eerie ambience of that film in an attempt to replicate the style of the American slasher with fairly middling results.
After a science experiment gone awry, Mikos Stenopolis (George Eastman) winds up on an operating table with his guts hanging out. The hospital staff quickly learn that he’s an escapee driven mad by a procedure that gave him absurd regenerative powers from the priest (Edmund Purdom) who helped create him. After coming to and murdering a nurse, the mutant lunatic flees to wreak havoc on the Bennett household. With their parents away at a dinner party, imaginative brother Willy (Kasimir Berger) and bed-bound sister Katia (Katya Berger) are left to contend with the invincible killer.
Utterly lacking the tension, restraint, or scares of its influences, ABSURD still manages to entertain despite its myriad flaws. The HALLOWEEN connections are minimal, though the hospital setting immediately calls to mind that film’s first sequel, Purdom’s priest is an oddly anemic stand-in for Dr. Loomis, and Willy is constantly whining about “the boogeyman.” In contrast to his ghoulish performance in ANTHROPOPHAGOUS, Eastman looks practically studly here: his handsome face unobscured and his hard, tanned body on display in the film’s early minutes. Why D’Amato chose to forgo a mask is anyone’s guess, as, from his denim pants to his shiny belt buckle to his silk shirt, Eastman looks less like a slasher villain and more like Italy’s answer to Kris Kristofferson. Still, he manages to bring his grit-toothed, bug-eyed flare to the role, and it’s fun to see.
Where ANTHROPOPHAGOUS’s silences and more reserved moments are full of foreboding, ABSURD goes totally limp when Eastman is offscreen. Willy is a good deal cuter and a lot less infuriating of a kid hero than THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY’s legendarily awful Bob, and the final showdown between the bedrest-weakened Katia and Stenopolis drums up some much needed drama, but it’s a rough road to get there, full of aimless wandering, well-dressed Italians eating pasta, and extended inserts from an American football game…for some ungodly reason. Still, it’s an amusing B-side to D’Amato’s more famous effort with Eastman.
Both former video nasties come uncut on Blu-ray for the first time ever in the U.S., and both discs feature 2k scans from the original film negatives. ANTHROPOPHAGOUS has been transferred from a 16mm negative, meaning the film has a certain softness that absolutely adds to its allure. There’s a fair amount of damage present, but for this type of film, it brings a nostalgic grindhouse grittiness, and even helps the visual interest in some cases. ABSURD’s image is far more pristine and stable than the film deserves, but anyone who ever yearned to see the hair follicles on Eastman’s broad chest in greater detail (just me?) will be happier than a pig in shit.
Both discs come with a heaping handful of special features, including an archival interview with D’Amato and two insightful conversations with The Grim Reaper himself. The first 2500 copies of ABSURD include a bonus soundtrack CD. Both films feature reversible wraps and can be purchased individually, but fans will want to purchase the combo which comes with a beautiful slipcase to house them. Two different pins, a T-shirt, and a ridiculously delightful Klaus Wortmann plush (with removable entrails!) are all offered by Severin as awesome add-ons to this already killer package.
Somewhat anomalous in Joe D’Amato’s smut-stuffed filmography, sex-free gore monstrosities ANTHROPOPHAGOUS and ABSURD are essential additions to the library of any fan of Italian genre cinema. What D’Amato lacks in artistry, he more than makes up for in sheer commitment and workmanlike skill: pushing the limits of onscreen violence with real animal innards that are smeared, twisted, squashed, or munched on 6’9” exploitation cinema titan George Eastman with shocking aplomb. Severin brings these early 80s splatter pics up-to-date in a drool-worthy double package that practically demands a place of honor on any gorehound’s shelf. Feast on them!