Italian horror movies from the 1980s are a treasure trove of excessive gore, histrionic acting, and, above all else, plain weirdness. The lush colours and production design of the previous decade’s giallo period were, for the most part, jettisoned in favour of quick and cheap knock-offs of popular American horror movies. What they lost in artistry, they gained in mindless, trashy fun. So when I heard that Ovidio G. Assonitis, maker of Tentacles (think Jaws with an octopus) and Beyond the Door (think The Exorcist, but pants crapping insane), made a movie about a possessed steam train starring exploitation legend Bo Svenson and filmed in Soviet era Yugoslavia, I knew it would be something special.
Originally branded as Beyond the Door III, the fake sequel to Assonitis’ Exorcist rip-off is also known by the more apt title Amok Train. There are relatively few doors in the movie, but enormous amounts of a train running very fucking amok. It has less in common with Friedkin’s possession movie than it does John Carpenter’s Christine. Imagine a train driven by Damien from The Omen, hauling the Amityville Horror house, while passing through The Evil Dead woods.
A horror movie about a possessed train doesn’t really need a plot, but Amok Train makes the attempt anyway. It begins with a shy Beverly Putnic (Mary Kohnert ) preparing for one of those vaguely defined high school European field trips that were all the rage in 80s America. All the other kids tease her for being a virgin, and to be fair, she does have a large birthmark on her stomach that looks like the ancient Slavic symbol for “Virgin.”
Once in Yugoslavia, her group is met by Professor Andromolek (Bo Svenson, whose Slavic accent is only slightly less believable than the beefy 70s action star playing an academic). He takes the kids to an authentic Baltic village (circa: the Black Death), where it turns out that the trip was all an overly complex ruse to obtain a virgin who will bear Satan’s child. The kids hop a passing train to escape, but the entire machine is soon possessed by Satan (or Andromolek, or a witch maybe?), trapping the kids on a rolling abattoir.
Even knowing the title and the premise, there is no way to properly prepare for the escalating lunacy. Right from the start, the atmosphere is bathed in ominous, synthy doom. This isn’t an A24 slow burn, though. This movie means business. If a person is on screen for more than ten seconds, there’s around a 95% chance they will come to a bloody, ridiculously excessive end. On the way back from the airport, Bev’s mom gets a Final Destination style vehicular decapitation for no other reason than she had a speaking part. This is about 5 minutes into the film.
In American slashers, the nubile young victims usually get killed by doing something stupid, like slipping away from the group to have sex, playing a prank, or, lord help them, going skinny dipping. In Italian horror movies, kids die because they are in an Italian horror movie. Stupid, sensible, brave, cowardly, Italian horror does not discriminate. Especially when it comes to supernatural horror. People can die at any minute for no apparent reason. One second you are smooching your best girl, the next second she is barfing bloody maggots into your mouth and tearing apart her face. All bets are off.
Bo Svenson is 70s/80s exploitation cinema royalty (Snowbeast, Butcher Baker, Nightmare Maker, the original, correctly spelled Inglorious Bastards), and he eats up the role of Prof. Andromolek with a knife and fork. His first appearance practically screams, “I’m a Satanist and you are all going to die in weird, painful ways.” Whether he’s flirting with a crusty old hag or fawning over a Lucite-enclosed Dark Lord, Svenson is having a ball. Unfortunately, the other principle actors are as stilted as their prosthetic dummies, though not nearly as entertaining.
Not that any of this matters, because all we care about is the delicious, possessed train action. The train in question is one diabolical engine, a black steamer decked-out with reverse fins, horns, and a cow catcher (note: it is equally effective at catching human heads). It is also, on occasion, a model train. The kind you would buy at a toy store, or possibly a yard sale. One thing is for sure, director Jeff Kwitny has no time for answering questions. It’s never established exactly how one possesses a train, but within minutes the metal beast has swallowed a dude into its coal furnace, smooshed the conductor between two cars, and pulled the driver onto the tracks with its… uh, scarf? Okay, I don’t understand the mechanics of that one, but I can’t argue with the results.
Amok Train also features some of the most outrageously fun gore effects this side of a Fulci film. The characters are little more than human-shaped bags of blood and Amok Train is a juicer on wheels. The kills are too outlandish to be relatable, the characters are too shallow to sympathize with, so it’s guilt-free entertainment. In its most excessive gag, one of the kids is bisected by a snapped chain. If that wasn’t enough, his mangled torso falls onto the rails where he is also decapitated. I’m surprised the head didn’t end up impaled on a railroad crossing pole. Oh wait, that happens to someone else later.
Producer Ovidio Assonitis was smart enough to sink most of the budget into the working, full-scale train and the gore effects, but the shortcomings show up in other departments. The miniature shots featuring Lionel tracks and fish tank pebbles are less than realistic. Only about 3 in 5 of the Serbian extras can keep from staring into the camera and laughing. Also, the film opens with a “gypsy” giving the camera a tarot reading, but the cards are simply cut-out photos pasted onto black matte cardboard. I don’t mean to criticize; I’m sure someone’s 10 year old niece spent a long making them.
The movie unexpectedly moves away from the titular train for the climax, but it sets up a great chain of events where Beverly exploits the one glaring flaw in the cult’s Virgin Bride For Satan plan. Not to give any spoilers, but it may have something to do with the handsome yet atonal flute-playing monk who has been innocuously hanging out in the train the whole time. And this monk may or may not be revealed to be Marius, the Patron Saint of Boning. I believe his gospel was apocryphal, it didn’t come up much in Sunday school.