There are certain distinct genre types that just don't seem to go together all that well. Sci-fi and comedy is one such convoluted construct. Unless your name is Red Dwarf, or William Shatner, there is very little to laugh about in the not too distant future. Action and romance also fail to gibe properly. The hero's ham fisted kiss of the dopey damsel in distress is usually met with groans, not gratuity by the pre-teen fan boy flock. Drama never really gets along within the musical, since the sight of someone singing about their flawed feelings tends to undermine the tragedy. And the disaster film usually has a hard time tolerating the western motif. After all, how many cattle can get caught up in a tornado before the ranchers flat out revolt? But the champion of all the supposed smash-ups appears to be that perennial favorite of supernaturalists everywhere, the horror film. That's right, our friendly neighborhood spookfest appears to get the vast majority of those inharmonious assemblages, and the results are usually pretty rank. Humor is always high on the list of creative courtiers, but the ends never justify the jest. The big "BOO" has also gone through the prison potboiler, the outdoor oater and sloppy soap opera with little or no success. Indeed, it looks like the paranormal is destined to always be the baneful bride's maid, never the bride!
Now, Troma is teasing us with its new clash of the concepts, the so-called Zombie vs. Satan Double Digital Creature Feature. In actuality, it's not some intermingling of the living dead with the Hellspawn, or a Freddy vs. Jason juggernaut. No, it's a combination of two frightfully original films, each one individually guilty of gilding the logistical lily just a little too much. With Wiseguys vs. Zombies, it's corpses against La Cosa Nostra in an all out battle for badass goombah bragging rights. In Meat for Satan's Icebox, it's people eating matched with sexual miscreance as a local town develops a taste, and a processing plant, for human headcheese. And wouldn't you know it...both of these awkward unions mesh with misguided pleasure, making everything said before about fear not fusing with other facets a complete waste of time (go figure).
A quick perusal of the DVD cover for this Troma title indicates that our main man of Manhattan mischief, the lovable Lloyd Kaufman, is exploring a new dynamic of digital filmmaking with this latest load of laser disc-ery. Inspired by that Danish demagogue of non-artificial production technique Lars Von Trier, Mr. K has developed his own doctrine of homemade moviemaking. And inspired by the heinous hound poopie this policy will probably forge, he called his insane ideal 'Dogpile 95 (after Lar's own similarly declared 'Dogma '95'). Hoping to take the world by storm, the fiercely independent filmmaker introduced his pro-camcorder policy at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival, and the results were...well, who gives a rats ass, since now we have our first official taste of this titanic talent treatise (even though Tales from the Crapper also called itself a "Dogpile '95" film, but that's another review).
For our first double dose of bargain basement bit rate cinema, we have a couple of real winners – and that's meant with all sincerity. Both Wiseguys vs. Zombies and Meat for Satan's Icebox utilize wildly dissimilar approaches, equally uneven levels of professionalism/plot development and a frantic yearning to be iconoclastic, to forge their fiercely independent visions. While one film is far better than the other, both movies manage to say something original and evocative about the genres they are freely frame checking. Instead of trying to tie them together (they are both too different in concept and execution), let's look at them individually and determine what makes this pile of polished puppy poo product so pleasingly fragrant:
Wiseguys vs. Zombies
When 'The Cuban' loses track of a rare military drug that was on its way to Miami, he calls on his old friend, Mr. Delbrone, to help him out. Owing the Latino lothario a favor, Delbrone puts his best men on the case – the overly high-strung Gus and the somber, sensitive Freddy Six Time. Their mission is simple: find the contraband, kill the thieves and return everything, including the corpses, to the Havana heavy. The first part of the plan goes off semi-smoothly. Our hitmen find their foils and ventilate them with extreme prejudice. But when a small town sheriff in South Carolina fails to cotton to these criminals' callous cockiness, it seems like the job has been permanently sidetracked. Little do they all know, but the bodies in the trunk are coming back to life. Seems the notorious narcotic resurrects the dead, and like any miscreant member of a violence gang, these guys indulged in some samples before being given their twenty-two round salute. Now they're reanimated and craving human flesh. With the entire town's population going goon, it's up to Gus and Freddy to save the day. That's right, the battle lines have been drawn, and the combatants are ready to rumble. Smack dab in the middle of nowhere, evil wages war with the heinous as it's time for Wiseguys vs. Zombies.
They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. They also say stealing is a crime. Then there are those who feel that, when it comes to cinema, all borrowing bets are off and any planned plagiarism is merely the humble homage to a founding auteur. Or at least, that's probably the argument Adam Minarovich would give you, should he be required to confess to the amount of movie moment swiping he does in the incredibly bizarre Wiseguys vs. Zombies. As with any oddball combination, the thought of a Mafia-based crime drama fused with a blood splattered horror film just doesn't make sense. Both concepts operate on their own, distinct levels of cool: the mob movie in a manner of sick, twisted wish fulfillment, the cannibal corpse conceit as the final word in living dead terror. So melding the two should result in something strange, not sanguine. It's just hard to imagine the two ideals living comfortably in the same frame. And for a while at least, Wiseguys vs. Zombies bears this out. As we are introduced to the two crime lords – New York's Mr. Delbrone and Miami's 'The Cuban' – and hookup with the hitmen sent to fix the muddled drug deal, it's almost impossible to see this queer combination functioning at all.
Indeed, the first part of Wiseguys vs. Zombies is pure Pulp Fiction/Reservoir Dogs, from the diametric pairing of God-fearing, Bible thumping philosopher Freddy Six Times and trip wire titan with an itchy trigger finger Gus Mirabella, to the overlong interrogation torture set piece in Act One. All Minarovich needed was a random passage from one of the Gospel's and another Gerry Rafferty song to make his scene shoplifting complete. As with most moves featuring smart aleck thugs spouting pop culture trivia, the taint of Tarantino is all over the first 40 minutes of the narrative. Freddy is Jules, believing that his life is more than just a series of slaughters, while Gus channels a little of Vincent Vega's debonair dementia, even though he's more akin to Mr. Pink, or the Gecko Brothers in From Dusk Till Dawn. Once the road trip tenants strand the stooges in South Carolina (where the movie was made, which may explain everyone's obvious drawl) it's Sam Raimi and George Romero to the rescue as this flaky fusion turns into Night of the Day of the Evil Dead. Toss in a little Deliverance, a smidgen of Scarface and you've got something that should just flop around like a plugged pigeon, struggling until it dies its pitiful death.
In retrospect, Wiseguys vs. Zombies is a noticeable narrow margin call. For everything that's crazy or cool about the film (those undead brats running around like Ritalin addicted dummies are hilarious) there is an aspect that feels tacked on or just plain terrible (do we really need to see another Italian paisan channeling Travis Bickle in the mirror?). Minarovich is from the MTV stuttercam, Blair Witch handheld hackneyed school of lensing and his movie occasionally feels like a outré case of bed spins after overdosing on pizza and one too many viewings of Dead Alive. The Panaflex moves around so often and with so little concern for composition and framing that we half expect to see an ad for TRL at some point in the plotline. Had he locked down a few shots, had some faith in his performers and lent the cutting room key to something with a lighter touch, Wiseguys vs. Zombies would feel less like an amateur effort and more like an accomplished splatter job.
Another polarizing problem is the acting. Granted, picking on non-professionals for their lack of chops and limited line reading skill is akin to questioning an ape about his difficulty with long division. For everyone putting on the ham (Minarovich himself as the begins to grow on you groan-inducer Gus) there is someone struggling with sensibility (both Jeremy Busbee as the boneheaded Sheriff, and Catherine Brissey as Sadie, the stupid southern belle who takes a shine to Gus are just god-awful) or out performing in their own private movie (Freddy Six Times' William Palko is far too serious for this send-up). It would be easy to envision Wiseguys vs. Zombies with a far more accomplished cast, since Minarovich has crafted a kooky script they could really sink their SAG card into. As it stands, we play hit or miss with the performances, admiring the acceptable (our goat-loving lout Cletus is especially fun) and wishing the drowse inducing drones (both mob bosses are BORING) into the nearest cornfield, Anthony style.
And as for the zombies, well, retardation is perhaps too subtle a word to describe their look and/or effectiveness. Stumbling around like Jerry Lewis on Lithium and babbling incoherently like braindead barnyard animals, their makeup consists of a few layers of biscuit dough and a couple dozens containers of poster paint. The result is something that looks like a psychotic, hillbilly Cirque De Soleil. As with most bad movie monsters, we instantly fall in love with their inept insanity and determine to follow their erratic adventures to the bitter end. Naturally, we are rewarded for our efforts, and the prize is priceless. When our heroes finally figure out how to kill these creatures, their deaths are accompanied by the funny, fragrant sounds of flatulence. That's right, when our losers of the living dead eventually drop over, they rip the crackers with crazy abandon, meaning that every murder is a serene sophomoric ride into the russet gusset. Let's face it, you HAVE to love beasties that fart themselves to death.
It's just too bad that Minarovich wimps out in the gore arena. Though there is plenty of skeleton sap to go around, the blood is watery and weak (most people look like they're being gratuitously Gatoraided). Any killing, be it at the business end of a gun or the blackened teeth of a flesh fiend, has a delayed draining reaction (meaning an edit is needed to get the arterial spray apparatus in place post-injury). With more grue and gumption, Wiseguys vs. Zombies would have been a sleeper keeper – crappy thespianism and all. But as it stands, it's just a goofy good time consistently saved by the sound of people blowing gas out their ass.
Meat for Satan's Icebox
Poor little Cindy Cavatelli – boy, does this teenage bee-atch live one completely funked up life. After her mother died (an incident the child witnessed), she is left to fend for herself in the oddball enclave of Satan Place. This baneful burg is home to the local slaughterhouse, where something other than "cow" is on the menu. Seems Cindy's Mom discovered the secret recipe to the butchery's success – STRIPPER MEAT – and was murdered before she could tattle. Now this onery offspring is the subject of the abattoir's concern, with corrupt corporate leaders Cassandra and Maddox out to make the girl their main course. Unfortunately, there is no one around to help our drug addled adolescent. Her father is a perverted freak who gets jealous when his baby has sex with anyone...BUT HIM! Her overbearing Catholic School is more like a veal pen for potential by-product. And the only guy Cindy's age that likes her is a stranger from out of town who everyone thinks is GAY! (THE HORROR!). It will take all the will she can muster to avoid being the next unhealthy hunk of Meat for Satan's Icebox.
Like David Lynch if he actually had the balls to play out all the perversions he hints at, or a totally depraved update of Bob Balaban's brilliant Parents, Meat for Satan's Icebox is one madcap mofo of a movie. Determined to take its debauchery and profaneness up to Spinal Tap 11's of ludicrousness, this morally repugnant pseudo-snuff film just can't keep from taunting its audience. Just when you think it can't get any more malevolent, when you feel that the envelope of repugnancy has been pushed to the limit, director David Silvio kicks up the corruption by untold notches of nastiness. More or less guaranteeing himself a place in the preverts section of Lucifer's gated underworld community, Silvio relishes playing with aberrances as revolting as cannibalism, necrophilia, incest and torture. Between the blood and guts, sickened sexual suggestion and insane in the membrane mannerisms of this movie, we get one sordid slice of sleazeball cinema that should come with its own FDA warning label: "Caution: continual exposure to Meat for Satan's Icebox could prove fatal to one's sense of decorum and personal integrity."
As it did with Tales from the Crapper, Troma has again found a title that convincingly illustrates the company's ethical compass. This is pandering at its most surreal, an abhorrent atrocity in entertainment's clothing. And it is FANTASTIC! This film is everything that those pretenders to the throne of vulgarity think they are striving for. Nekromantik is like a walk in the prettiest park on the planet after wading through the weirdness of the Satan Place slaughterhouse. Bloodsucking Freaks is a visit from a dotarding maiden aunt compared to the putrescence on display in the father/daughter seduction – and yes, SEX - scene that ends the first act. Something as vile as Island of Death (famous for it's goat f*cking scene) or I Spit on Your Grave pales in comparison to the nauseating filthiness concocted by this film. Like a long lost masterpiece from the salad days of exploitation or a private screening of someone's failed Rorschach tests, Meat for Satan's Icebox borders on the blasphemous so often that the Pope is ready to excommunicate the entire enterprise, from creators to cast.
How a mind fashions something as fudged up as this is one of those major mysteries that Robert Stack sought out on his glass teat treat about plundering the paranormal. Surely, Silvio is someone's cruel case study, a student of the psychotronic cinema that took his lessons a little too seriously. Meat for Satan's Icebox is the kind of numbing narrative that makes you feel smutty for merely talking about watching it. When reflected upon later, a creepy sense of squalor waltzes up your spine, making you forget what a good time you had while initially experiencing the excess. This is the kind of heinous horror film that fans forgot could be made in this post-modern age of irony filled terror tales. Only in the game to shock and disturb, Meat is a mean, maniacal little movie that, once it gets started, never lets up for nearly two tainted hours. Abuse, molestation, rape and redolence drip from all the subplots. Perversions are matched and trumped as piss is sampled and flesh is consumed. Woman are worked over, as much for their sexuality as for their sniveling desire to stay alive, and everyone here exists in a Twilight Zone of zaniness that is only undermined by the often disquieting nature of their eccentric activities.
Casting is crucial to something like Meat for Satan's Icebox. With a convincing collection of characters to sell your weird ass wickedness, audiences will jest, not wince, at what is happening on screen. Amazingly, director Silvio comes up with a group of great performers, each one more than capable of bringing untold dimensions of debauchery to their prurient personas. Of special note is Diana Silvio (the director's sister? Wife? Mother?) as Cassandra, evil henchwoman and chief operating officer of the Satan Place Slaughterhouse. Oozing a kind of corrupt menace mixed with a seedy sexuality, she's the perfect prurient villain. In the dual role of Sheriff Hogg and his equally yucky sister, A.J. Torcaso channels Ed Gein and the Addams Family to more than successfully creep us the Hell out. Daniel Baxter's Maddox is a walking question mark – part sinister, part sentimental – making every appearance an exercise in angst-ridden action anticipation. And as the new kid who gets no respect, Dennis Kusluch II does a fine job of getting his ass kicked, over and over again. Even Troma's head honcho, Lloyd "The 'Roid" Kaufman shows up as a urine-obsessed gynecologist. His over-the-top tantrum in anticipation of some possible pee tasting is an amazing bit of buffoonery.
At the center of it all is Cindy, and as realized with relative success by Crystal Aura (there's a porn name for you), she's the anchor that has to hold our attention and gain our sympathy (or at least allow us to identify with what is happening). Cindy is an interesting heroine/anti-heroine in the story, a combination of sinner, saint, innocent and insidiousness that constantly keeps us off guard. At any given moment she can be helpless, hideous, wounded or wicked. Aura's particular physicality – broad with just a bit of baby fat – is obviously used to realize some of the film's seedier moments (all the incest/molestation/pedophilia is definitely disturbing) and it really does sell those more repellant parts. Along with her expert scream queen skills (this gal, along with all the ladies in Meat for Satan's Icebox can sure shriek show up a storm) Crystal also manages that delicate balancing act between audience appreciation and apprehension. Half the time we want her to escape the torment and torture. The other half of the time, we want as much pain to be brought upon her horrid head as possible. The fact that we invest so much emotion in the outcome of this narrative means that Meat for Satan's Icebox is working, and working well.
Yet perhaps the most satisfying aspect of this entire production is the reliance on good old-fashioned gore to jelly up the pavement. A movie as monkey lovin' macabre as Meat for Satan's Icebox needs to pay off on all its promises of flesh feasting, less we, the audience, demand some manner of reprobate rebate. Thankfully, blood bathes the screen in bilious buckets as heads roll and torsos explode in torrents of intestines. People have pieces of their bodies carved off and eaten raw, and several of the "items" in the slaughterhouse's product line are "prepared" in graphic detail. Director Silvio knows that independent cinema is hampered by a great many production and logistical limitations. But claret offers up instance film food value and he ladles it on with glee. In some instances, Meat for Satan's Icebox doesn't go far enough. We relish the garroting and long to see more. We enjoy the inexorable atrocities that make up the majority of the action and realize how readily it taps into our own bubbling bloodlust. Just like the rest of the movie, with its misplaced values and lack of compassion, the violence is just plain ugly – and we wouldn't want it any other way (how sick is that?). Meat for Satan's Icebox is some kind of modern classic, a film that fright fans will reference in the future as their pernicious initiation into the world of geek cinema. And what a fine example of said sideshow mentality it is.
Proving that even the most limited production protocol can lead to something sensationally sick or sublime, the Zombies vs. Satan Double Digital Creature Feature is another winner from Toxie's tainted talent pool. It instantly recalls the VHS vomitoriums of the 1980s while simultaneously channeling the DIY spirit of the 90s (Wiseguys) and the 60s/70s (Icebox). Of the two, Meat for Satan's Icebox is the real find. While it tends to go on for a little too long and offer up at least one ending too many, this is still a frighteningly original film that is, itself, not afraid to ruffle feathers and do just about anything for a giggle or a gross out. Wiseguys vs. Zombies, on the other hand, is far more flawed. Once you get past the first Tanrantino-inspired portion, and witness the Play-Do dementia of the gratuitously gassy corpses, the film finally finds its voice (it too could use an edit or ten). Yet these are mere quibbles in what ultimately are two terrific titles that both deconstruct and reinvent some favorite motion picture archetypes. If this is an example of what Dogpile '95 has in store for us, then it's time to call up as much hound hash as there is available. Wiseguys vs. Zombies and Meat for Satan's Icebox make a power pair of peculiar pictograms that will easily satisfy you appetite for fine movie cheese.
In keeping with the two-fold approach of these titles, Troma serves up an 'ebony and ivory' set of excellent transfers for the no-budget films here, each one containing their own problems and pleasantries. On the side of light is Wiseguys vs. Zombies. The 1.85:1 non-anamorphic image is filled with an almost overexposed sense of scenery, with white the primary pigment in its palette. True, this supersaturation of brightness does give the film a distinct mood and ambience, but it also drowns out a few details.
Getting cinematically frisky with the denizens of darkness, in more than one way, is Meat for Satan's Icebox. There are several sequences in this otherwise marvelous looking 1.33:1 full screen picture where the lack of available illumination screws up a perfectly good goring. And there are a couple of moments where the characters get lost in shadows that are far too deep.
Still for a couple of productions forged in blood, sweat, credit cards, spit and bird feces, the transfers here are no-budget beauteous and definitely raise the level of perceived mainstream moviemaking ability. While far from reference quality, Wiseguys vs. Zombies and Meat for Satan's Icebox look pretty damn good.
Happily, the sonic situation within each film is wonderful. Both are very consistent, offering crystal clear dialogue and scenario specific sound effects. The Dolby Digital Stereo also serves both original soundtracks well. In the case of Wiseguys, vs. Zombies, we can occasionally hear some digital compression and minor distortion in the orchestration recreation, but this is obviously a source issue, not a sonic standard of the DVD. Meat for Satan's Icebox, on the other hand, provides an eerie electronica score that sounds just great. While both films could use a little more ambiance in their atmosphere, and there is a lack of depth that is understandable given the limited funding factors, these are still two fine aural exercises.
Of the nine so-called bonus features offered here, only two have any remote connection to the films in this set – and then again, both revolve around our mafia vs. monsters matinee. A 5-minute behind the scenes clip fest shows how several of the more memorable moments were realized, as well as offering up some tricks for making your own damn movie (firecrackers make great gun shots!). The final feature is a trailer for Wiseguys vs. Zombies that does a decent job of selling the film for what it is. Everything else here is typically twisted Troma humor and merchandising mania. Debbie Rochon, the B-movie goddess herself, does make an appearance with Mr. Troma himself, Lloyd Kaufman, as part of a hilarious "generic" movie introduction that uses several silly conceits – and some equally dopey overdubbing – to mock a sincere, specific prologue presentation for these films. It would have been nice to hear from the filmmakers, especially Silvio or some of his cast, since they are not represented on this DVD at all. And as usual, it would be interesting to learn how each of these films came to Troma. Both movies deserve better than the near bare-bones treatment they get at the hands of the usually generous off-title manufacturer.
Reanimated corpses in the middle of a mob movie? Cannibalism as part of some bad taste twist on the erotic? Like peanut butter layered in anchovies or chocolate covered colostomy bags, the notion of mixing such devilishly divergent genres together in a single storyline seems as illogical as a high school sophomore's world view. Yet somehow, Wiseguys vs. Zombies and Meat for Satan's Icebox manages the rarified feat quite handily. Answering the carrion complaint that nothing new or novel exists in the horror film field, directors Adam Minarovich and David Silvio excavate untold tormented treasures with their wildly original takes on terror, while mining the still rich vein of independent filmmaking to save us constantly suckered scary movie fans from ourselves. Thanks to a plethora of putrid product throughout the late 80s and most of the 90s, individuals in love with fear and all its factors have had to wallow through some pretty thick bile to locate anything even remotely terrifying. But thanks to visions both vicious and vexing, combined with a little humor and a lot of blood, Wiseguys vs. Zombies and Meat for Satan's Icebox shows that there is still life in the old dark ride yet. Indeed, the Zombies vs. Satan Double Digital Creature Feature may signal a kind of rebirth of the no-budget spook show. Thank you, Troma, for proving that there is life in the homemade horror movie after all.
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