Movies Till Dawn: A Month of Monsters, Part 4 (Screaming Zombie Shark Edition)

738329206437Chosen Survivors” (1974, Kino Lorber) Grim sci-fi thriller about a cross-section of humanity which rides out the nuclear holocaust, only to fall victim to vampire bats that live in the caverns just outside their sleek underground bunker. The script by H.B. Cross, aka Harry Spaulding (whose c.v. includes “Surf Party” and “The Earth Dies Screaming” – see below), offers an intriguing premise with some grisly moments, but it’s also rife with improbabilities and pulpy dialogue, which the cast from America (Jackie Cooper, Richard Jaeckel, Alex Cross, Diana Muldaur) and Mexico (Pedro Armandariaz, Jr.) and director Sutton Roley do their best to shoulder. More impressive are the sterile interiors designed by Ernesto Carrasco (which Richard Harland Smith, in his commentary, rightly notes as looking like IKEA) and a chilly score by Fred Karlin (“Westworld”). Kino’s Blu-ray includes the aforementioned and typically top-notch commentary by Smith, who details everything from the history of underground shelters and other ‘60s and ‘70s doomsday pics to the diverse careers of the cast and crew. The original trailer is also included, along with spots for other end-of-the-world adventures in the Kino library, like “The Satan Bug.”

738329204013The Astro-Zombies” (1966, Kino Lorber) John Carradine is the former government scientist creating homicidal, solar-powered cyborgs in his ratty basement laboratory; Wendell Corey (in his last film role) is the government man on his trail, while a host of outré villains, including Tura Satana, Rafael Campos and Cassavetes compadre Vincent Barbi, eliminate each other in a race to claim Carradine’s skull-faced monsters. The best known of the late director Ted V. Mikels’ poverty-struck genre films – thanks to the Misfits’ track and the film’s ubiquity on VHS – “Astro-Zombies” is glacially paced, inanely scripted (by Mikels and Wayne Rogers of “M*A*S*H*”) and padded to bursting (curious about how the 134 looked like in 1966? Here’s your chance). But cult/bad movie devotees will appreciate the film’s kitchen sink aesthetic – a hodgepodge of monster movies, pulp science fiction, Cold War spy machinations and bathtub gore – and Mikels’ childlike (childish?) glee in playing with all of them in the same picture. That’s the impression made by his avuncular commentary track on Kino’s Blu-ray, which alternates between production stories (like turning down James Caan for a role) and bemused recollections. Former “Fangoria” editor Chris Alexander provides a second, more detail-oriented track; there’s also a third track of gags skewering the pic’s foibles by Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett of RiffTrax, and the breathless original trailer (“Kill, kill, kill!”)

738329206468The Earth Dies Screaming” (1964, Kino Lorber) Unseen aliens lay waste to a small English village with a gas attack and then a combined second wave of robots and reanimated corpses, which hunt down American test pilot Willard Parker and a handful of survivors. Terence Fisher, who directed many of the defining titles in Hammer Films’ catalog,(“Horror of Dracula”), helmed this black-and-white apocalypse thriller, which plays like a smaller-scale take on “The Day of the Triffids” and other science fiction efforts (detailed by Richard Harland Smith in his informative commentary). Science fiction was never a solid fit for Fisher’s strengths (though “Four Sided Triangle” has its moments), but he rises to the occasion in scenes pitting the survivors against the robots and blank-eyed zombies, which have a breathless tension missing from Harry Spaulding/Henry Cross’s script. The aforementioned commentary by Smith (which points out footage interpolated from “Village of the Damned) is the highlight of the Blu-ray, which also includes the original trailer.

av052_1024x1024Blood Bath” (1966, Arrow Video) Possessed by the spirit of his murderous 15th century ancestor, crazed artist William Campbell stalks the streets and beaches of Venice, CA in search of victims to murder and then paint or encase in wax. Though as lurid and loopily plotted as any horror comic from the period, the real appeal of “Blood Bath” is in its history, which began in 1963 with an unfinished Yugoslavian spy thriller called “Operation Titian,” which Roger Corman purchased with the intent of re-shaping into a feature for American audiences. Francis Ford Coppola and Gary Kurtz (“Star Wars”) was brought aboard as production and sound supervisors, respectively, while Coppola’s “Dementia-13” stars Campbell and Patrick Magee were added to the cast for English-language appeal; while Corman disliked the final product, this version was eventually released to television as “Portrait of Terror.” Jack Hill (“Spider Baby”) was then hired to rework the footage; his take, titled “Blood Bath,” brought Campbell back, this time as a homicidal maniac, and added the Venice footage. Corman didn’t like this version either, and tapped Stephanie Rothman to take a pass at the material. Hindered by an inability to bring back Campbell a third time for reshoots, she solved the problem (but hopelessly confused the film) by having his character transform into a vampire – played by another actor – when struck by bloodlust. Corman liked this nearly incomprehensible version – also titled “Blood Bath” – enough to release it to theaters; amazingly, a fifth version, titled “Track of the Vampire,” was created when (mostly nonsensical) footage was added to pad the running time for television broadcasts. Arrow’s two-disc Blu-ray offers four of five versions – Corman’s reworking of “Operation Titian,” the TV edit “Portrait of Terror,” Rothman’s “Blood Bath” and “Track of the Vampire” (both co-credited to Hill) – and alleviates the need to follow (or understand) all the changes by including a featurette with Tim Lucas, who expands his article from the late, lamented “Video Watchdog” that traces the films’ convoluted history from start to finish in exhaustive detail. Hill and his occasional muse, the great Sid Haig, attempt to make sense of their contributions in interview segments, and there’s a gallery of behind-the-scenes photographs (mostly featuring Hill) and press material

91hecbk8iyl-_sl1500_The Shallows” (2016, Sony) Just 200 yards of ocean separate from former medical student Blake Lively from the white sands of a beach. But the distance isn’t the issue; rather, it’s a huge and aggressive shark, which has already made meals of three people, and seeks to add Lively to the menu by dislodging her from her sanctuary – a rusty, clanging buoy. Jaume Collet-Serra’s nature-gone-amuck thriller obviously takes its cues from “Jaws,” and while nothing here approaches that picture’s consistently high grade of rollercoaster frights, it’s a technically well made effort that makes excellent use of its Australian locations and some stellar special effects; Lively, too, is a savvy and determined heroine, and her pluck helps smooth over some of the film’s occasional lapses in logic or dips into overly familiar or maudlin material. Sony’s Blu-ray includes a slew of extras devoted to deleted scenes and the small army of special effects techs required to make its finned antagonist work.

And: Forgotten Weirdos of the Horror Films

Dr. Jekyll’s Dungeon of Death” (1979/82, Desert Island Films) The great-grandson of Dr. Jekyll (James Mathers) follows in his ancestor’s footsteps by concocting a serum (originally intended for bovine breeding!) that transforms test subjects into lunatics that beat each other senseless in martial arts matches. No-budget, San Francisco-lensed junkfilm hybrid unspools its premise with reams of marble-mouthed dialogue, delivered with unrestrained ripeness by Mathers (who wrote the film, natch); endless, backyard brawl-style fights break up the monologues but only push the proceedings into deeper, weirder waters. The picture is handily stolen by Jekyll’s “hopelessly insane,” lobotomized sister, Hilda (Nadine Kalmes), whose silent, googly-eyed performance encapsulates the film’s out-to-lunch aesthetic.mz-dvd-buybutton

About Paul Gaita

Paul Gaita lives in Sherman Oaks, California with his lovely wife and daughter. He has written for The Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Variety and The Fix, among many other publications, and was a home video reviewer for Amazon.com from 1998 to 2014. He has interviewed countless entertainment figures from both the A and Z lists, but his favorites remain Elmore Leonard, Ray Bradbury and George Newall, who created both Schoolhouse Rock and the Hai Karate aftershave commercials. He once shared a Thanksgiving dinner with celebrity astrologer Joyce Jillson, and regrettably, still owes the late character actor Charles Napier a dollar.
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