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There's a lot going on here in terms of both style and content but, as a whole, this film doesn't hang together quite as well as Franco's earlier The Awful Dr Orlof. While Orlof successfully generated and positively revelled in its own skewed sense of the Gothic, The Diabolical Dr Z, set in present day (early 1960s) France, fails to find a comparable or consistent tone of its own: it comes on like a cross between an American B Movie from the 1950s and a stylish European Art Film from the 1960s with odd elements from then-contemporary British cult television shows thrown in for good measure.
Dr Z remains a decent little genre film, though, and parts of it are executed quite brilliantly: (....mild spoilers begin) a particularly well lit and atmospheric journey on a night train leads Dr Vicas (Howard Vernon) to his doom and a sequence where the automaton-like Nadia slowly stalks a terrified Dr Moroni through quiet back streets in the early hours of the morning, panicking him into straying into the wrong side of town, works well. Bergen's jailbreak, while actually resembling something more akin to a Second World War film or a spy caper, is also well handled and Nadia's nightclub performance as Miss Muerte makes for an interesting diversion (....mild spoilers end).
Most of the action set pieces revolve around casual and disturbing but stylishly presented acts of violence, a la period Brit TV shows like The Avengers. In fact, this case would have been perfect for the Avengers to investigate. Interestingly, some of Irma and company's wily methods slightly bring to mind those of The Abominable Dr Phibes so maybe Franco and Avengers/Phibes designer/director Robert Fuest unconsciously swapped some ideas over the years or shared an earlier influence? By contrast, the sequence where Irma fakes her own death is pure American B Movie stuff: the woodland lake setting and the soundtrack's switch to strange and distant organ music makes it play like a passing reference to Herk Harvey's Carnival of Souls. The Z-Ray machine itself resembles something from the early days of Dr Who: it consists of a control panel of flashing lights and an upright glass and steel operating table that has robotic arms which restrain the patient while rather nasty needles or bolts are fired into various parts of their anatomy.
The quality of the black and white photography is largely very good and the general look of the film is given a boost by the presence of several architecturally impressive buildings. Franco makes great use of these, and some equally interesting interiors, generally presenting them in stylish and attention grabbing ways. The quite excellent soundtrack, which features all manner of Jazzy phrases from the ultra smooth and cool through to the wild and blowing and almost avant-garde, as well as some atmospheric harpsichord pieces, is also a big plus. A really quite transcendent sense of complete synergy between the visual action and the soundtrack is achieved for a dizzy moment during a sequence where Bergen chases Nadia around a deserted theatre.
The acting is pretty good for this type of show. Blonde Estella Blain's icy attractiveness, and her detached yet predatory aura while under Irma's influence, beg comparison to Marilyn Chambers' appearance in Rabid. A hero of sorts is presented in Philippe (Fernando Montes), a former Medical School friend of Irma's who is also Nadia's boyfriend. Franco himself gets a look in, acquitting himself very well as the police inspector who takes an interest in the proceedings. Having difficulty fully concentrating on the case due to a lack of sleep that is blamed on his wife having recently given birth to triplets, he has a visiting English counterpart in tow as an observer. The English officer is a fun caricature brought to life by Daniel White who was also responsible for the film's soundtrack score.
This is a great presentation. The picture is generally sharp, there's not much in the way of print damage and the reproduction of the black and white photography is very good. The sound on both the English and French language soundtrack options is also very good with just a few isolated sections being troubled by a little 'crackle'. The English language subtitles read a little more intelligently than the English language audio version plays but the English dub-job itself is perfectly acceptable. Franco and a number of his collaborators provide interviews for the mini-documentary entitled The Diabolical Mr Franco. This is an NTSC disc but it is encoded for 'All Regions'
This film is a mystery-cum-thriller so I'll try not to reveal too much about its plot twists. There's nothing particularly notable about Death Walks At Midnight's content but it does endeavour to reject some of the more obvious generic conventions associated with the Italian thriller. (....mild spoilers begin) Valentina actually knows what the man with the gauntlet looks like from the start and, two-thirds into the film, she even finds out who he is and what he's called. Much of her time is spent simply trying to prove whether the mystery man has actually done anything. There's no evidence as such to say that he has but he still seems intent on silencing Valentina. All the while, a growing number of other odd characters introduce both themselves and a fair number of red herrings. The film's final third, in which all of these characters finally reveal who they really are, and how they are related to each other, is a fairly frenetic riot of activity which also introduces two completely new characters who are members of an international drug-dealing cartel (....mild spoilers end).
The script's inclusion of an organised crime gang angle allows producer/director Luciano Ercoli to neatly avoid some of the more sleazy and exploitation-like subplots and set-pieces that tend to feature heavily in Italian thrillers. And his adoption of an almost comic book or cartoon-like approach, along with the presence of some fairly campy acting, serves to further lighten the film's tone a little as well as helping to make some of the fairly outrageous plot twists found here just a little bit easier to swallow. Some of the violent set-pieces which bookend this story are disturbing and unpleasant but the relatively tame content of the film's middle section suggests that Ercoli was perhaps mindful of his wife's (lead actress Susan Scott) sensibilities and/or her public image when putting this show together.
But Scott's Valentina is no pushover: she's the type who speaks her mind and most of her dialogue driven scenes wind up with her shouting at somebody. Her love/hate relationship with Giovanni, while overplayed, is quite entertaining. And although she is initially terrified by most of the threatening situations that she stumbles into she's feisty enough to give as good as she gets when her back's against the wall and things get physical. Her aggressive attitude does keep landing her in trouble with her boyfriend but an overly-cute sequence in which the pair get to baby-sit for a visiting artist's kids reveals her mellow side.
Death Walks At Midnight possesses an unmistakably early Seventies vibe that some will find appealing and fans of that period's Modernist aesthetics will enjoy the stylish way that the Milanese locations and various groovy interiors are presented. Gianni Ferrio's loungey soundtrack score contains some fairly excellent pieces that are put to good use by Ercoli. This isn't a fantastic film but it does serve as yet another reasonably interesting example of the multifarious nature of popular Italian cinema's content over the years. The film will also interest anyone who has ever wondered what Spaghetti Western personnel got up to when they weren't in the saddle: the film's cast and crew features a veritable "who's who" of Italian Western stalwarts.
This is another good presentation. There's a bit of print damage in the form of small speckles and suchlike every now and again but these are not particularly intrusive. There's also a very faint, yellowish coloured, horizontal band present but this is only just noticeable during a few close-up shots. Otherwise the picture quality here is quite colourful and sharp. The sound is very good but a few sections do suffer from a touch of 'crackle'. There is a French language soundtrack option available on this disc but no English subtitles present to support it. There has been some speculation in fan circles concerning this film's original aspect ratio. The framing does look just a little tight generally but I only noticed a handful of shots where it could be described as being over-tight at the sides. Apart from these odd moments, any 'cropping' or 'zooming' which might have occurred is not really noticeably intrusive. This is a PAL disc but it is encoded for 'All Regions.'
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Diabolical Dr Z rates:
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Death Walks at Midnight rates: