Giving you a crash course in the early works of a largely underappreciated filmmaker
Most lifelong horror-movie fanatics discovered the work of Italian director Umberto Lenzi one of the following ways: Those of a certain age and proximity to urban theatres were drawn to the mondo-movie shocks of 1972’s The Man from Deep River/Sacrifice or, nine years later, the lurid theatre marquee of legendary grindhouse epic Make Them Die Slowly (better known as Cannibal Ferox to modern collectors and fans).
But if you’re reading this article, you most likely walked into a video shop one day and saw either Make Them Die Slowly or Nightmare City/City of the Walking Dead (1980) staring back from the horror shelf, daring you to rent it. Or you simply read about these blood-drenched gore films in Deep Red magazine, Shock Xpress, Splatter Times, or some obscure horror fanzine and realized your life would continue to be meaningless until you found a way to watch them.
One way or another, you watched them. And you discovered that Lenzi’s zombie and cannibal films share certain commonalities. Primarily, extreme violence and brutal, though rough-around-the-edges, gore effects. There’s also the post-looped English-for-English dialog replacement that lends Italian genre films their unique aural ambience. Finally, there exists a general silliness to Lenzi’s 1980s films resulting from rushed scripts and cynicism toward unsophisticated consumers of such content.
Thanks to all those factors, Umberto Lenzi’s reputation was solidified in our then-young minds: Italian trashmeister, inventor of the “fast zombie”, and father of the most dubious subgenre in all of cinema, the Italian Jungle Cannibal film. The highest compliment a lot of genre fans can muster when describing his work is “competent”. It’s an unfair reputation, but first impressions are hard to change and tend to colour every new bit of information that reaches our brains thereafter. As a reformed Lenzi doubter whose eyes have been opened, I will nevertheless do my part to give the man credit he is due for actually being a pretty good filmmaker.
Speaking of eyes, there’s a chance that, if you’re like me, you once rented the videotape of Lenzi’s 1975 film Eyeball, oblivious that:
1) the movie was a mid-1970s Eurocult flick, not an ‘80s slasher you had somehow overlooked.
2) it had been directed by the same notorious figure behind the aforementioned stomach-churning splatter films.
I admit I was not impressed with Eyeball at the time. “Where are the Tom Savini-influenced gore FX?” I wondered. “Where is the iconic, masked killer?” Where was … well, those are the only two things I cared about back then. We’re better informed today. It turns out Eyeball was the last of Lenzi’s eight giallo films, and it’s a satire. If you didn’t know what a giallo was back in the olden days, like I didn’t, and you were expecting a straight-up horror film, you would’ve been disappointed. Even today, genre fans are often let down if they venture into the gialloverse anticipating gory kills presented with American-style makeup FX. It’s important to understand that giallo films are a different genre with different conventions, tropes, and entertainment objectives. They are—
Wait a minute! Back up. Umberto Lenzi directed eight giallo movies? That’s three more than Mario Bava, and Bava invented the genre. That’s two more than Lucio Fulci, he of the notoriously brutal New York Ripper (1982) and the grim masterpiece Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972). Only Dario Argento, the undisputed king of giallo, matched Lenzi’s output. Could it be that we’ve been making determinations about Umberto Lenzi’s talent based on a small, flawed, late-career sample that doesn’t even consider his most prolific era? That’s a rhetorical question. We have been doing that.
If we want to understand Umberto Lenzi as a filmmaker, we need to evaluate his gialli first and then round out our knowledge with the mondo-cannibal and zombie films, not the other way. Although Lenzi’s poliziotteschi (Italian action-crime dramas) fall beyond the scope of this article, his Violent Naples (1976) and Gang War in Milan (1973) are fine examples of that genre and well worth seeking out. But today we’re here to accomplish two things: explore Umberto Lenzi’s giallo output, and stop filtering everything we see through our biases and preconceptions. The second one should be an easy fix (ha!), so let’s get the hard part over with and look at the gialli. It’s a fascinating journey that begins a year before Dario Argento re-invented the genre as we understand it today.
Premise: A wealthy widow (American actress Carroll Baker) flees the U.S. to live in seclusion at her late husband’s Italian villa. She soon meets two counterculture hippies (Lou Castel and Colette Descombes), and, out of loneliness, allows them to remain at the estate for company. They have other plans, however, and quickly lure the older woman into a debauched lifestyle. But to what end?
If you have a passing familiarity with giallo films, you might be thinking, “That doesn’t sound like a giallo to me.” I too have wrestled with my cinematic conception of the giallo genre in regard to Lenzi’s early films. Gialli, as established by Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace (1964), are supposed to be proto-slasher movies featuring a masked killer picking off victims in set-piece style kill scenes, right?
Not necessarily. Giallo films were inspired by giallo books, which were nothing more specific than lurid murder-mystery/detective novels. For a film to be called a giallo, there must be an element of mystery. There must be an element of deception. And some combination of sex and violence. Black-gloved killers and body counts became major tropes of giallo cinema, but not consistently so until the 1970s.
Lenzi’s major influence for Orgasmo AKA Paranoia was not Mario Bava but Alfred Hitchcock. Orgasmo resembles Hitchcock thrillers such as Strangers on a Train (1951) and Dial M for Murder (1954), in that a helpless character is under threat from some sort of nefarious manipulator. Stir in nudity and graphic violence, and a pinch of cynicism, and you’ve got an early Umberto Lenzi giallo.
I’m not for a moment suggesting Orgasmo approaches the historical significance or influence of Bava’s seminal Blood and Black Lace, but the film does display a deft directorial touch building tension as effectively as it does. From a storytelling standpoint, it’s easier to string together set-piece kills than it is to assemble a character-driven slow burn. Once all preconceptions have been cast aside, it becomes clear that Orgasmo is a well-made film directed by a skilled filmmaker.
So Sweet … So Perverse (1969)
Premise: A married businessman (Jean-Louis Trintignant) becomes obsessed with his beautiful new upstairs neighbour (Carroll Baker) and is determined to save her from an abusive boyfriend (Horst Frank). However, he doesn’t know what he’s really getting into, and neither does the audience.
What begins as a relationship melodrama slowly morphs into a thriller in which deception is laid upon deception. Casual fans looking for a black-gloved killer with a straight razor and a mounting pile of corpses won’t get either (not in the commonly understood sense at least). What they will get is a carefully crafted, character-driven mystery that grows darker with each chapter.
Echoes of Hitchcock resonate. Blonde beauty Carroll Baker is Lenzi’s Kim Novak (or Tippi Hedren, Janet Leigh, Eva Marie Saint, etc.), and the similarities to Vertigo (1958) should be apparent to anyone who has seen both films. The story structure of So Sweet … So Perverse shares a major parallel with that of Psycho (1960) as well: the protagonist changes midway through the film. Shh. Spoilers.
A Quiet Place to Kill (1970)
Premise: After being injured in a crash, a race-car driver (Carroll Baker) receives an invitation from her cad ex-husband (Jean Sorel) to recuperate at his Mallorcan villa. She arrives only to find him married to a new woman (Anna Proclemer) with an attractive adult daughter (Marina Coffa) from a previous marriage. Before long, she becomes entangled in a murder plot. But is she meant to be the victim … or the killer?
With all the fast cars, beautiful coastal scenery, and pretty people flashing across the screen, one half expects a Connery-era James Bond film to break out at any moment. While we do get plenty of sexy intrigue, this is a giallo, and Lenzi’s aim is tension and suspense. The Italian director does a masterful job turning the screws when the evidence piles up against the murderer. We want the killer to be caught, right? Or maybe we don’t. A very Hitchcockian manipulation.
A Quiet Place to Kill AKA Paranoia (and no, that’s not a typo) features terrific casting. Carroll Baker is tops as the reckless, hard-drinking, love-starved race-car driver, and Jean Sorel lays on the charm as her playboy scoundrel ex. The supporting cast members each bring a distinct charisma to their respective roles to keep the screen chemistry sizzling. I’m surely in the minority saying this is the director’s best giallo, but the combination of tension, heated melodrama, sexy cars and exotic coastline, and good old sex and violence make it a winner.
You’ll have to overlook the piss-poor car crash sequence at the start of the film, though. I guess they ran out of money and couldn’t afford to stage a stunt?
An Ideal Place to Kill (1971)
Premise: Two counterculture hippies (Ray Lovelock and Ornella Muti) fleeing from the Italian police seek refuge at the remote estate of a lonely older woman (Irene Papas). At first, they think they are in control, but they soon realize their “victim” has her own mysterious—and manipulative—agenda.
If that description sounds like an echo of Orgasmo’s plot, you’re right. But this time, the counterculture hippies are the protagonists, not the reclusive older woman. If you were to watch both films back to back, however, one thing would become clear: Umberto Lenzi has a low opinion of hippies. Aside from their attractive appearances, these “heroes” are hard to like. As Hitchcock did with the murderous Norman Bates, Lenzi still manages to make you care about what happens to them.
After watching Lenzi’s three previous gialli, it’s easy to imagine Carroll Baker in the role played by Irene Papas. No quibbles with Papas’ performance, but stylistically the four gialli seem like a quadrilogy of sorts. Baker’s presence would have sealed it.
An Ideal Place to Kill AKA Oasis of Fear is the last of the director’s giallo films done in his homegrown style. He held out for a year against the army of black-gloved killers splashing blood across Italian theatre screens following the global success of Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), but Lenzi’s work was about to take a major stylistic turn.
Seven Bloodstained Orchids (1972)
Premise: A slasher is murdering women and leaving a grisly signature at the scene of each crime: a silver half-moon pendant. One of his would-be victims (Uschi Glas) fakes her own death to throw the killer off course, but can the maniac be fooled so easily?
Seven Bloodstained Orchids couldn’t be more different in style from its predecessor and still belong to the same genre. Lenzi (or his producers/investors) surely recognized that his Hitchcockian strain of giallo cinema was dead and the black-hat-and-gloves slasher strain had killed it. Thus, the filmmaker went all in with murderer POV shots, a high body count, and knifings and power-tool killings.
Furthermore, instead of being portrayed as clueless side characters, the police take center stage. The film is fast-paced, humourless, and plot driven and is absent the colourful melodrama that featured so prominently in the Carroll Baker entries. Many cite Seven Bloodstained Orchids as Lenzi’s best giallo. I disagree, but I understand why fans embrace it: It’s his most hard-edged entry, and he proves himself adept in that style.
Knife of Ice (1972)
Premise: A mute woman (Carroll Baker) in a small town becomes increasingly paranoid as a black-gloved slasher picks off the people around her one-by-one. Is she next?
Following Seven Bloodstained Orchids, Lenzi reunited with Baker, his favourite leading lady, for one more go at the genre. By now, the director had moved on entirely from his Hitchcock-influenced approach and accepted, though perhaps not embraced, the proto-slasher style that largely defined the genre by 1972. Knife of Ice is a well-made and efficient giallo, but it does not bear as much of a personal stamp as Lenzi’s and Baker’s earlier collaborations.
If nothing else, Lenzi demonstrated great adaptability, as a top journeyman director must. And all the popular Italian genre directors, aside from Dario Argento, were journeymen. Even the legendary Lucio Fulci, who only achieved name recognition late in his career, was a journeyman. Fortunately for Fulci, his brooding nihilism finally found a loving home in the zombie subgenre that arose following the success of Dawn of the Dead (1978).
Premise: A man (Robert Hoffman) meets a woman (Suzy Kendall) on the beach under rather unusual circumstances: she appears, at first glance, to be a dead body washed ashore. Despite this, they hit it off. But then she starts acting weird, and then everyone starts acting weird, and then people start dying, and suddenly he’s not sure if any of it is real or a dream.
In yet another abrupt stylistic shift, Lenzi moved toward surrealism. It’s nearly impossible to figure out what’s happening over the first hour of Spasmo. Characters die, and later they’re fine. People disappear and later reappear. Mannequins pop up in strange places. Is our protagonist dreaming? Hallucinating? Being set up via some convoluted scheme? I’m still not sure any of it makes sense by the end, but I do know Spasmo is one of Lenzi’s most stylishly shot, visually interesting films. He must have absorbed a dose of Jodorowsky before setting off in this direction.
Premise: Travelers on a bus tour of Barcelona are being picked off one by one by a deranged slasher with a peculiar habit of removing each victim’s left eye. Should the tour group cancel the rest of the trip? Only if they can get a refund.
Without context, and without having seen Lenzi’s other gialli, a casual viewer is likely to find this film quite silly. The vacationers seem none too concerned that people are dropping dead all around them and that they could be next. Ridiculous red herrings abound, and the dialog and character interactions are comically over the top.
Well, that’s because it is a comedy. Or a satire at least. It’s easy to look at Eyeball and throw the “Eurotrash” label at it. It’s easy to cite the film as evidence that Lenzi is a poor storyteller. But when you experience the entirety of Lenzi’s giallo output, it should be clear he’s mocking the genre for how lowbrow it had become by 1975. In just about every archival interview I’ve seen with the filmmaker, he wears a bemused smirk while he regales us with stories what it was like trying to work in an Italian film industry that offered little time or money to shoot and was often beholden to the whims and desires of international investors. With Eyeball, he’s taking the piss out of it, as they say.
And that’s partly where Lenzi’s trashmeister reputation comes from. He displays—and many of his later films convey—the “piss-off” attitude of someone who is talented and intelligent but could never achieve recognition or the breakthrough success needed for artistic or creative control. He had directed 25 films before Argento directed one, yet Argento achieved star status instantly. Lenzi is instead most famous/notorious for one gore-drenched, meanspirited, cynical grindhouse flick that bears none of the pace, cleverness, or style of his early giallo and action-crime films.
Of course, Argento is a blockbuster director for a reason. He’s an auteur with vision and has an instantly recognizable style. Lenzi is not on Argento’s level. But many fans tend to categorize things in black-or-white terms. Argento is great. Fulci is great. Bava is great. Everyone else is Bruno Mattei.
Umberto Lenzi is so much more than Bruno Mattei. A rudimentary understanding of shot composition and coverage, visual storytelling, and editing should make the talent gap screamingly obvious. You don’t have to like Lenzi’s movies to see that; you just have to look. Hmmm. Maybe that’s what Eyeball is about. If you only see what you expect to see, based on your preconceptions and bias filters, what use is that juicy orb sitting in your skull? If it offends Umberto Lenzi, he plucks it out.