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Retro Review: ANTHROPOPHAGUS (1980) and ABSURD (1981)


(Italy - 1980; US release 1981)

Directed by Joe D'Amato (Aristide Massaccesi). Written by Luigi Montefiori. Cast: Tisa Farrow, Saverio Vallone, Zora Kerova, George Eastman (Luigi Montefiori), Vanessa Steiger (Serena Grandi), Margaret Donnelly (Margaret Mazzantini), Mark Bodin, Bob Larson, Rubina Rey, Simone Baker, Mark Logan. (R, 82 mins/Unrated, 91 mins)

One of the most legendary of all the Italian gore classics of the early '80s, though if you rented this at the video store back in the day, you probably wondered why. A banned "video nasty" in the UK, ANTHROPOPHAGUS was released in the US in the fall of 1981 by Film Ventures as the 82-minute THE GRIM REAPER, shorn of nearly ten minutes from its uncensored version. THE GRIM REAPER was missing almost all of the gore, including the two outrageously foul moments that were responsible for its notoriety. Directed by Italian exploitation journeyman Aristide Massaccesi under his most frequently-used of many pseudonyms ("Joe D'Amato"), ANTHROPOPHAGUS follows Lucio Fulci's ZOMBIE as the second Italian gore film in a row for American actress Tisa Farrow (Mia's younger sister) where her character ends up dragging people to a deserted island to their certain death. A group of friends on a Greek vacation end up giving a boat ride to Julie (Farrow, dubbed by Carolyn De Fonseca), who has some friends who live in a villa on a nearby island. Tarot enthusiast Carol (Zora Kerova) gets a bad feeling and of course, she's right. The villa is seemingly abandoned until they find lone survivor Rita (Margaret Mazzantini, who went on to become a renowned writer in Italy), a young blind woman who says a stranger has been prowling the island and reeks of blood. That stranger is Klaus Wortmann (George Eastman, who scripted under his real name Luigi Montefiori), a scarred, monstrous maniac with an insatiable taste for human flesh who starts picking off the travelers one by one.

ANTHROPOPHAGUS scores some points for atmosphere, and the massive villa is a memorable location, but the structure of the story is such that the characters have to spend an inordinate amount of time walking around and talking before the killing can start. The US version also eliminated some of the more repetitious dialogue scenes and helped speed up the pace, but honestly, without those infamous gore scenes, there's not much to ANTHROPOPHAGUS. Saving the most outrageous and offensive gut-muching splattergasms for the finale, Massaccesi and Montefiori have Wortmann--whose backstory includes accidentally killing his wife when he tried to eat their dead son when they were lost at sea--strangle the very pregnant Maggie (Serena Grandi, billed as "Vanessa Steiger") before reaching inside to rip out the fetus and eat it (in the US cut, he simply strangles her and it cuts away after he caresses her belly). In the climax, Julie and Wortmann end up in a well and she barely manages to escape before Carol's brother Andy (Saverio Vallone, the lookalike son of veteran Italian character actor Raf Vallone) reappears out of nowhere to swing a pick-axe into Wortmann's gut. The US cut ends there, but in the uncensored version, Wortmann's intestines spill out and he triumphantly begins to devour himself. Those scenes were enough to guarantee a spot for ANTHROPOPHAGUS on the Video Nasties list and they may have been all Farrow needed to see to decide she had enough: after co-starring with Harvey Keitel in James Toback's critically-lauded FINGERS just two years earlier before doing ZOMBIE in 1979 and Antonio Margheriti's THE LAST HUNTER (1980), she called it a career after ANTHROPOPHAGUS, retiring from acting at the ripe old age of 29.

(Italy - 1981; US release 1986)

Directed by Peter Newton (Aristide Massaccesi). Written by John Cart (Luigi Montefiori). Cast: George Eastman (Luigi Montefiori), Edmund Purdom, Annie Belle, Charles Borromel, Katya Berger, Kasimir Berger, Hanja Kochansky, Ian Danby, Ted Rusoff, Cindy Leadbetter, Martin Sorrentino, James Sampson, Michele Soavi, Goffredo Unger. (Unrated, 94 mins)

Conceived as a sequel to ANTHROPOPHAGUS, ABSURD ended up being an Italian ripoff of John Carpenter's HALLOWEEN with some elements of HALLOWEEN II thrown in for good measure. It's got the core duo of Massaccesi and Montefiori, with the latter again starring as a killer, though this time he looks like George Eastman rather than the heavily-made up monstrosity of ANTHROPOPHAGUS. Eastman is Mikos Stenopolis, a homicidal maniac being pursued through a suburban American town by a renegade Greek priest (Edmund Purdom) who's running church-sanctioned biochemical experiments for which Stenopolis is the chief guinea pig. He's taken to a local hospital after he accidentally impales himself on a spiked gate, but it's discovered too late that the priest's experiments have turned Stenopolis into an unstoppable killing machine whose body is able to regenerate dead cells. Stenopolis escapes from the hospital and after the initial killing spree, makes his way to the home of Bennett family, killing babysitter Peggy (Cindy Leadbetter) and leaving visiting nurse Emily (Annie Belle) to protect the children: irritating young brat Willy (Kasimir Berger) and incapacitated Katya (Katya Berger), who's recovering from a spine operation. All the while, the priest and rumpled detective Engelman (Charles Borromel) scour the town trying to find the escaped Stenopolis.

Unlike the Greek exteriors of ANTHROPOPHAGUS exploiting the exotic island location, Massaccesi goes all-out to make ABSURD look like it's taking place in an American town despite being shot in Rome. That would like explain why such an unusual number of American and British dubbing regulars have onscreen roles here, from actors like Borromel and black British actors Martin Sorrentino and James Sampson, who were frequently seen in Eurocult films of the period, to people typically confined to the dubbing studio, like Ted Rusoff as a surgeon and Ian Danby as the Bennett kids' father, who runs over Stenopolis at one point and is wracked with guilt over the hit-and-run, unaware that the same guy is trying to murder his family. The ruse doesn't always work, as neither Massaccesi nor Montefiori have any idea how Americans behave while watching the Super Bowl: he has the Bennett parents attending a party for "The Game," shown on TV via stock footage from Super Bowl XIV between the Los Angeles Rams and the Pittsburgh Steelers that was almost certainly not authorized by the NFL and has Rusoff handling play-by-play, plus all of the guests are wearing their Sunday best suits and dresses and eating big bowls of spaghetti. But he does get American genre cliches down, as evidenced when the irate Engelman sees who he's got to take on Stenopolis and grumbles "So this is the team, then? A priest, a detective near retirement, and a moron rookie of a cop? That's terrific." He stops just short of declaring himself "too old for this shit," and promising they'll kill Stenopolis "if we don't kill each other first!" The structure is essentially HALLOWEEN all over again, with unkillable Stenopolis a stand-in for Michael Myers, Purdom's priest this film's Dr. Loomis, with Belle and Leadbetter jointly filling the Laurie Strode babysitter-in-peril role. Massaccesi generates some serious suspense throughout, with his relentless overuse of the same library cues that would be heard throughout the legendary PIECES, and by setting Stenopolis' rampage in a disorientingly large house that's every bit as effective as the Greek villa in ANTHROPOPHAGUS, with lots of corners and hallways that allow Stenopolis to jump out from anywhere.

Titled ROSSO SANGUE ("blood red") in Italy, ABSURD is superior in every way to its semi-predecessor, with a more evenly consistent approach to its extreme gore scenes instead of just cramming all of them into the last 15 minutes. Unfortunately, it didn't get a theatrical release in America, instead belatedly turning up in video stores in 1986 in a Wizard Video big box as MONSTER HUNTER, complete with inaccurate artwork and a synopsis that proved no one watched it before summarizing it. It would turn up on budget sell-thru VHS years later as ZOMBIE 6: MONSTER HUNTER and Mya would release a flawed DVD in 2009 under the title HORRIBLE. It's one of the unsung greats of the Video Nasty gorefest days, with Eastman a memorable killer, some admirably brutal kills with everything from a drill to a head in the oven, and a delirious final shot that would've been a real crowd-pleaser had anyone picked this up for the grindhouse and drive-in circuit. ABSURD was just released in a region-free Blu-ray edition by the UK-based 88 Films, a definitive presentation that has the film looking better than it ever did during its VHS and bootleg days of old.

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