Until the Lord of the Rings trilogy came along and ate up box office bon-bons like hungry Oliphaunts, the sword and sorcery/sand and sandal saga was the unsung halfling of the legitimate cinema. Now, some could argue that Tolkein's trilogy had very little to do with beefcake buffoons like Hercules and Machiste running around the old world countryside, but the two are as intertwined as Gollum's gnarled teeth. Oh sure, Russell Crowe helped Ridley Scott score big time with his ode to Roman NASCAR, otherwise known as Gladiator, and over the course of several decades, the occasional steroid induced muscleman portrayed life in the age of gods and protein bars as one big homoerotic spree. Between non-traditional monsters like Medusa, the Kraken and Harry Hamlin to obvious beasties like big bad spiders and crickets with a glandular condition, friend met foe in the foolish field of battle. For some, it meant immortality and glory. For others, it was a trip through a wart-covered Hell-beast's alimentary canal. And still, wizard's spell or seductress's neckline could get an audience to actually care. Heck, if it wasn't for all those drive-in dates during the 50s and 60s, and Saturday morning matinees, your average fantasy fable would have been a box office flop. The rationale behind this fact was simple: once you'd seen one pumped up pummel horse traversing the Greek Isles in a skirt shorter than Twiggy ever dared to bare, you've witnessed all the genre had to offer. That is, however, until you witness Lucio Fulci's Conquest. The notorious Italian horror director (who made a name for himself in other cinematic varieties before scoring with gore) helmed this homage to all things masculine, magic and make-believe with his own perverted personal panache. And thanks to Blue Underground, we can now view it in all its bizarre glory.
Ilias receives a magical bow from an ethereal old man – read one of several bearded gods – with an echo-enhanced voice. Our hero is told that, if he runs out of arrows, the sun will channel its UV violence into the archery armature and create sunbeam ballistics to smite his enemies. However, the magic is only operational when he becomes a man. So Ilias goes out looking for some unsuspecting butt to kick, the destruction of innocent life being the foremost means of masculinity back in the day. Instead, he runs into some perilous puppies of the plains, badass bow-wows with flea-scratching ferocity on their snouts. Seems that the wicked sorceress Ocron, who has the whole countryside fooled into believing she makes the sun rise and set by her own command (let's face it, when your malnourished and living in your own waste, you'll believe anything), employs the craven curs to do her unholy bidding. And what a miscreant mandate it is. The dog men capture and decapitate the local villagers so that old Ocy can crack open their skulls and suck on the gooey goodness inside. When Il takes on the mean mad mongrels, he gets his buffalo shot handed to him. Thankfully a nomadic mercenary named Mace, who swings a mighty pair of fur covered nun-chucks, comes along to help the lad. They determine to gang up on Ocron and her pack of pooches. But first they must battle various incarnations of the living dead. Apparently, this far off and mystical land is just crawling with corpses waiting to be reanimated.
Whenever a genre fan hears the name Lucio Fulci, a river of blood red gore caked with brains comes streaming into their mind's eye, viscera and maggots infesting ever last liquid slop pot drop full. From the pancake-faced living dead of Zombie to the befuddling bayou balderdash of The Beyond, Fulci favored films where wounds and goons are part and parcel of the storytelling language. Having never met an eyeball he couldn't impale with a sharp object in extreme close-up and deliberate slow motion, Fulci used guts and grue as a way to move terror out of the esoteric and back into the devil's vertebrae, where it belonged. Fulci formulated his own sub-genre of scary – the physiological horror film – and avoided coherent narrative concepts to make sure his nightmare images filled the screen. So it comes as a surprise to many fright fans that Fulci helmed Westerns, Comedies and even a perplexing peplum (the Italian demarcation for sand and sandal epics) called Conquest. Muscle clad men in Speed-O sized loincloths fighting fiends of unknown supernatural origin, while maintaining a sincere level of non-erotic male bonding just doesn't seem like the kind of subject matter that this Mediterranean manufacturer of the macabre would leap all over. But Fulci was always, first and foremost, an exploitation maven, and in 1983 with Conan barbarianing his way to international box-office gold, opportunity knocked. Time to rev up the rip-off machine and make bodybuilder bullstuff while the irony is hot (it was the Italians, after all, who invented these pec-fests).
And what a glorious cow-flop he created. Fulci's Conquest is a splendidly disjointed mess, an unstuck in time reinvention of the sword and sorcery saga into a montage of mostly meaningless images that still somehow add up to pure cinematic cheese. Mixing animal-skinned heroes with anthropomorphic archery skills into a strange simmering swamp of zombies, Chewbacca like dogmen, pasty-faced cave dwellers, topless temple tantalizing, as well as far too many sequences of senseless landscapes, Fulci creates his own private Idaho universe out of bushes, brackish water and bewilderment. Garnish the whole thing with a great deal of foggy camera work and you've got a movie that believes it is constructing a cosmic vista of everlasting luminescence. But the truth is far tackier. Conquest is like reading a previously highlighted copy of Mythology by Edith Hamilton except a black, not fluorescent, magic marker was used. It's Mount Olympus meets Mount St. Helens as any attempt at logic or lucidity is blown up and cast to the four foul winds like so much volcanic ash. Fulci fills the frame with so many mind-boggling and jaw-droopingly deranged ideas that it's hard to know which is more ridiculous: the rabid Rottweiler guys who resemble killer shrews (complete with augmenting bathmats and stuff); the unknown animal that flings arcane animated quills; or the dolphin rescue, which really has to be seen to be believed – and even then, it's almost incomprehensible.
Fulci is fudging with us hear, trying to impart the idea and the feel of a peplum without resorting to any of the genre's Cine-scope battles, grandstanding grappling or bodice-ripping romance. There are only two main women in this sordid chronicle: one is a local peasant lass who finds her gray matter on Ocron's severed serving plate, and the cranium cracker herself, and neither offers much pandering pulchritude. Sure, Sabrina Sellers looks fetching in gold leaf paint and very little else, but after a while, her encased-head histrionics grow dull (Ocron wears a full head covering of gold – when she has it removed, you'll understand why - YIKES!). Same goes for the oversized killer collies. At first, the Planet of the Apes style F/X works, just convincing enough to make us believe that these non-house broken Bowzers are evil entities. But just like most bad guys in the battle between good and evil, they have very little success at stopping our heroes. And then there are the main men of action here; Ilias (played with tussled haired hunkiness by Andrea Occhipinti) and Mace (Jorge Rivero, MST3K fan favorite for his role as Yuri, the ever-changing coiffure creep in Werewolf). Representing both sides of the same sappy coin (Il is good but naive, Mac is jaded but honorable) all these dimwits seem to manage during their tenure as skunk skin wearing warriors is silly psychobabble conversations, getting caught in obvious ambushes and pissing off the corrupt k-9s. They don't prevail or conquer so much as stumble into success.
Indeed, this all must have been part of Fulci's plan. Why create a sword and sandal – or in this case, bows and biceps – story is you have to play by the rules. Fulci wants us to bask in the glory of his visual splendor, to stare in awe-inspired wonder at this weird world he's created, and croon when he doesn't follow the steroid-induced stupidity of the 60s era Hercules hub-bub. Lucio likes playing with preconceived notions and nowhere is this more obvious than in Conquest. Oh sure, The Beyond takes the Gothic haunted house horror and channels it through a surreal series of set-pieces, and all of his zombie films have filtered the social commentary and symbolism out of the story to focus on good old-fashioned flesh feasting. So it makes sense that Fulci forgets all the basics of the flights of fantasy genre to drag his own delirium through the quagmire. The result is something truly original while completely complimentary to the type of movie it's more or less mimicking. This is not to say that every element in Conquest works. Fulci's camera never takes advantage of the wide-open spaces he's shooting in, instead employing far too many medium shots and close-ups. Also, the use of the diffusing lens, which renders the entire film like one big soft focus Massengill commercial, is equally unimpressive. It never attains the timeless effect Fulci is apparently going for. Instead, the entire movie looks awash in murky bong water.
Conquest is still a fabulous disaster, nonetheless. It doesn't provide the fixed design for what makes most heroics of the he-man guiltily pleasurable, but it can and does fulfill a strange missing element of mirth in mythological motion pictures. It bends the rules of reality to make a world wholly unlike our own. There are no recognizable landscapes or discernible civilizations in this film. People live off of and are part of the fat of the land. Among all the portentous omens and ominous prophecies, sprinkled in among the pus-sucking ants and exploding body boils, is a nonsensical narrative that is not supposed to suggest anything other than the link to the next set piece. Fulci's formulaic approach to film, the lull and lavish manner of movie making, is in full effect in Conquest. It is a mere series of sequences that hint at horror, insinuate imagination and suggest the resemblance to sword and sandal epics of the past. Fans of his puke-inducing output, weaned on a tainted tit for blood and body parts may find this peplum pandemonium too disorganized for its or their own good. Others will simply stare in stupefying disbelief as actors dressed as dogs bark orders and sniff around for clues. If you want your mythos campy, stick with Herc and his hunks. If you desire your dioramas to be steeped in reality, give Ridley's world a whir. But if you want to take a chance on something truly unhinged, it's Lucio Fulci's Conquest all the way. One look at this kitschy clash of the titans will have you wobbly in your wineskin for days.
OK, do NOT adjust your set, write to this critic and/or Blue Underground to complain or think you've suddenly been stricken with Diet Dr. Pepper induced glaucoma: Conquest is supposed to look this weird. The Big Blue U has dug up a pristine, perfect copy of this film and it looks fabulous – that is, if you can get past Fulci's foggy fascination. Every inch of the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image is as dense as a reality show cast member, loaded with soft focus effects and diffused dimensions. Nothing is crisp or clean and there are a lot of subtleties smothered in cinematic sauce. But any and all reference materials checked and double-checked swear that this is how the film is supposed to look. It was part of Fulci's plan from the very beginning. So if you want a home theater quality transfer that highlights every blade of grass in a field or inch of back hair on a gladiator, Fulci's fooled you with his nebulous picture parameters.
Offered in English only (RATS! Zombie came is Italian and Western versions) and saddled with a simple Dolby Digital Surround Stereo mix, Conquest has a couple of key aural issues. First, the manic music from Goblin guru Claudio Simonetti can occasionally drown out the dopey dialogue. While his score is electronic eclectics mixed with classical gas, its sheer volume can overcome the other atmospheric elements here. Also, the Surround is rather channel shortchanging. Very few effects deviate from side-to- side and most of the conversations stay front and centered. Some individualized sonics make their way into the audio elements, but for the most part, this is glorified mono with far too many volume variables.
The Big Blue U is usually right on the money with their bonus content, but Conquest feels very light in the extras department. A couple of trailers, a poster and still gallery and a text bio of Fulci are not incredibly DVD fulfilling. This movie is such an anomaly in the beloved director's later career that some explanation seems necessary. While fans will rejoice that they can finally toss out their horrible, full frame VHS atrocities of the title, digital denizens will feel cheated by the lack of additional elements on the DVD.
For many, Lucio Fulci can be a hard director to get a handle on. Mixing the gore-soaked sentiments of Umberto Lenzi with the artistic whimsy and wild flights of imagination like Dario Argento, his occasionally incomprehensible narratives bask in a wicked world of darkness, disgust and the living dead. He treats his scenes of death like romantic close-ups and lavishes the frame with as much mind-numbing grotesqueries as possible. This is why Conquest may be a decent introduction to fans that aren't quite ready for throat ripping and eyeball gouging. It contains many of the director's signature surreal moves while avoiding many of his mean-spirited excesses. It provides more amusing moments of motion picture miscalculation than dozens of derivative sand and sandal epics. Fulci avoids all the weightlifter wantonness to show that, in the realm of the fantasy film, the fantastical is of primary importance. And he really tosses on the weirdness here. So if you want to see carpet-covered dogmen die in fuzzy slow motion, if your idea of fun is witnessing a school of plastic dolphin heads rescuing a crucified underwater warrior and you get all plump in the peplum over a nekkid chick doing the bronzed watusi on a bed of snakes, then Conquest is right up your aqueduct. While it may not celebrate the traditional heroism of men in deerskin diapers, it does know how to create substantial sharp cheddar fun. And in the undernourished world of sword and sorcery, any cheese is better than none.
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