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Life and Death of a Porno Gang, The

Synapse Films // Unrated // August 14, 2012 // Region 0
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted August 20, 2012 | E-mail the Author
I vomited at some point during the first couple reels of The Life and Death of a Porno Gang.

Honestly, I'm kind of proud of that. Although I generally keep my distance from extreme cinema, I've still managed to endure the likes of Salò and Lars von Trier's Antichrist. Disgusted, repulsed, mortified...? Sure, sure, sure. Salò even
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left me gagging, as any movie with explicit coprophagia is likely to do. The Life and Death of a Porno Gang is the first to actually trigger that release, though. Too bad the press sheets have already been printed 'cause this is the sort of movie where "I vomited" is kind of a selling point.

Marko (Mihajlo Jovanovic) has put together a hell of a package for his feature film debut: an ambitious horror/fantasy drawing deeply from local mythology. Genre flicks don't really do any meaningful business in Serbia, no, but the infusion of local lore should change all that, plus a fright flick ought to rake in plenty of money internationally. He has a script, storyboards, conceptual art, and even a budget all mapped out; Marko just needs someone adventurous enough to pick up the tab. No one bites. Marko tries settling for porn, taken under the wing of the producer who corners the Serbian adult industry (Srdjan Miletic). Cane gives his protégé one single commandment to follow: no artsy shit. After Marko goes behind Cane's back, fritters away a bunch of the guy's money, and has a sociopolitical horror/porn with soil-fucking and zombie junkies to show for it, then...well, he's almost immediately on the mob's bad side. Cane's influence ensures that Marko's next endeavor -- the Balkans' first pornographic stage show -- doesn't make it through opening night either.

Marko and his porn troupe take their show on the road, fucking for farmers in backwater villages in the most depraved, demented ways imaginable. It's hardly enough. They're constantly being run out of town, and as admired as their shows are by the scattered few able to experience them, they're not even pulling in enough money to scrape by. One of Marko's admirers makes him an offer, though. Marko is empowered to
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push the envelope as far as his imagination will take him, and he and his performers will have all the money they'll ever need. All they have to do is serve a small but astonishingly lucrative market: snuff. Marko doesn't even have to think of it as murder; find people on the brink of suicide, offer them a sizeable stack of money to take care of their families after they're gone, and allow them to die grisly deaths on-camera. Marko quickly discovers he can't say no, setting his troupe on a dark and destructive path straight to Hell.

My revulsion with the likes of Salò and Antichrist doesn't just stem from the presence of such extreme imagery; it's that, after a point, there didn't seem to be a whole lot to either movie beyond their interminable, explicitly graphic parades of self-indulgence. The most disturbing moments of The Life and Death of a Porno Gang stand right alongside anything either of those other two movies deliver, including what seems like several minutes straight of vomiting, a transvestite fellating a horse, double penetration, and no shortage of sex and graphic murders. It's just that this Serbian faux-documentary doesn't lose sight of the fact that there's an actual film underneath it all. In fact, its most
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unwatchable imagery arrives fairly on; if you're able to stomach The Life and Death of a Porno Gang up to the point where the troupe puts on its first show, the rest of it's relatively smooth sailing. Blood-drenched and semen-stained sailing, sure, but smooth sailing just the same.

The Life and Death of a Porno Gang is, in fact, a character-driven film. Each member of the porn troupe is brought to life with remarkable depth and complexity. Their struggles and relationships matter, and that -- not the fucked-up imagery -- is ultimately what propels The Life and Death of a Porno Gang along. Director Mladen Djordjevic has assembled a supremely talented cast, and it's essential for a film posing as a documentary that the actors not appear to be acting; the artifices can never show, and here, they don't. The cast infuses the film with a haunted soul that's unrelentingly engaging. The Life and Death of a Porno Gang has much to say about exploitation in every sense of the word, and it's no coincidence that it's set against the backdrop of Slobodan Milošević's final months of power. The handheld DV camerawork lends the film an essential sense of immediacy, and that's deftly accomplished without compromising the skill and precision of the photography. The Life and Death of a Porno Gang does a brilliant job blurring the lines separating reality and illusion, to the point where I suspected that at least part of the audience of the troupe's sex shows might not have been in on the 'joke', that the footage of one particularly grisly war atrocity may be genuine, and that maybe that wasn't simulated sex after all. The extreme imagery is often realized with pronounced artistic strokes, with the sex shows sometimes playing like a XXX version of La Strada and the film's most memorable murder making more inventive use of a chainsaw than Tobe Hooper ever could've imagined.

You will be pushed to the brink by The Life and Death of a Porno Gang, but as repulsive and horrifying as its extreme imagery so often is, that never threatens to overwhelm the intelligence, artistry, or humanity at the film's core. Recommended.

The Life and Death of a Porno Gang really needs to be reviewed under a different set of rules. See, the movie was shot natively on DV, so there's not a real high definition presentation to be mined out
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of it. Under the supervision of director Mladen Djordjevic, this footage was upconverted from its native PAL to 1080p24 and filtered to mask some of the seams. So, if you judge this Blu-ray disc the way you would pretty much everything else on the format, it's not particularly sharp, it's woefully lacking in detail, and, yeah, there's an awful lot of digital noise reduction. On the other hand...well, considering all those black marks, this Blu-ray disc looks pretty damn good.

The Life and Death of a Porno Gang really does look much, much better in motion than the screenshots scattered around this review would suggest. It's far more watchable than the untreated trailer elsewhere on the disc. Maybe it's just because the source material is at a lower resolution to begin with, but I found the noise reduction on The Life and Death of a Porno Gang surprisingly unintrusive from a normal viewing distance. I guess some purists might still scowl at all the processing that's been done to the original photography, but it was a laborious process tackled with Mladen Djordjevic's thumbs-up, and Synapse Films apparently didn't do tweaking of their own from there. For what it is, The Life and Death of a Porno Gang looks a hell of a lot better than what I walked in expecting it to be.

The AVC encode for The Life and Death of a Porno Gang spans both layers of this BD-50 disc. The presentation is slightly letterboxed to preserve the movie's intended aspect ratio of 1.85:1.

Presented in its original Serbian, The Life and Death of a Porno Gang boasts a 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio stereo soundtrack. In keeping with its homebrew documentary conceit, it's hardly some sort of smolderingly intense sonic experience or anything, but the audio does its job perfectly just the same. The film's dialogue is consistently clean and discernable, and the music interspersed throughout packs a reasonable wallop. I'm not really left with a whole lot to gripe about here: this lossless soundtrack is exactly what it ought to be.

Optional English subtitles are enabled by default.

  • Made in Serbia (101 min.; SD): One reason to pick up The Life and Death of a Porno Gang on Blu-ray rather than DVD is that this disc is a double feature. Director Mladen Djordjevic's documentary Made in Serbia is oriented around porn addict Nenad Bekvalac. He spends seemingly every waking hour devouring pornography from other countries, but Serbia's own rickety porn industry has no real appeal to him. Bekvalac sets out to correct that by hammering out a porno
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    that'll fit his vision and do Serbia proud, only...well, he doesn't know how to do that, exactly. Riding alongside Serbia's premiere pornographer and getting to know several performers from all walks of life, Bekvalac soon learns just how much Serbian porn means to the people on both sides of the camera.

    It's a really amateurish production, with some conversations that are at best recreated and at worst fabricated, and a boom mic is bobbing around the top of the frame for half the flick. If you're skittish about this sort of thing, be warned that Made in Serbia is teeming with explicit footage of hardcore sex, although...well, if you have a problem with that, you probably shouldn't be watching a porn doc. I wouldn't have thought this would have appealed to me at all, but I found myself fascinated by the human element of Made in that's frequently sad and quietly well as the way the documentary places all of that in the context of community. It's not just about the porn itself but the friends and families of the people who make it. Well worth a look.

  • Deleted Scenes (18 min.; SD): There are four deleted and extended scenes in all, including an alternate version of Marko's sociopolitical horror-porn short, his camera operator walking off the set of the plumber porn flick, and a good bit more time spent with Dragan as the troupe camps just outside of his native village. The shortest of these additions is a politically leaning conversation about the impending election, placing side-by-side Serbia's troubled past and the promise held by its future.

  • The Making of The Life and Death of a Porno Gang (28 min.; SD): The making-of doc on this Blu-ray disc largely shies away from the talking heads routine. It's mostly candid footage of the cast and crew between takes, and...well, it kind of goes along with that truism that the more gruesome and intense a movie is, the more of a blast everyone has putting it together. There are also lengthy looks at rehearsals, Mladen Djordjevic's direction, and how the snuff footage was executed.

  • Trailer (2 min.; SD): Last up is a theatrical trailer.

The cover art is reversible to reveal the more explicit artwork painted onto the porn troupe's bus. Oh, and The Life and Death of a Porno Gang is an all-region release, so if you're reading this from Eastern Europe, I guess that means you have a greenlight to import it.

The Final Word
The Life and Death of a Porno Gang is a grueling, unrelenting experience, but its startlingly extreme nature serves a purpose. Don't mistake it for mindless torture porn; this is an artfully crafted film with an unmistakeable intelligence and a soul to match, ultimately proving to be every bit as rewarding as it is challenging. Of course, chances are that you will be wholly and completely repulsed by The Life and Death of a Porno Gang, as if its title alone weren't enough to clue you into that in the first place. Still, if you have an adventurous spirit and a cast-iron gut, Synapse's special edition Blu-ray release very much comes Recommended.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I think I'm supposed to start on a review of Lady and the Tramp II: Scamp's Adventure...
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