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Massacre Mafia Style

Grindhouse Releasing // R // March 10, 2015 // Region 0
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted March 10, 2015 | E-mail the Author
"Tonight we eat, tomorrow we shoot!"

Okay, so it's no "leave the gun; take the cannoli". They do eat, though, and as far as shooting goes...yeah:

When I first laid eyes on the trailer for Massacre Mafia Style -- which is nothing but a couple of hit men slaughtering an entire office building of clumsily overacting extras, all to the bouncy tune of "Tik-a-Tee, Tik-a-Tay" -- I was hopelessly entranced. It's so slapdash and bizarre that I had to make it my mission in life to seek out the other eighty or so minutes of the flick. The truly wonderful thing about Massacre Mafia Style is that while it does deliver everything its trailer promises, there's a sincere and not-entirely-unsuccessful attempt at making a compelling crime drama as well.

Think back to how Howard Hawks was so wholly and completely repulsed by High Noon that he was compelled to make Rio Bravo in response. That's pretty much how lounge singer Duke Mitchell felt about The Godfather. He resented many of the stereotypes of Italians in movies and on TV, so he set out to make his own film about the mafia. Wearing basically every hat imaginable, Mitchell wrote, produced, directed, starred in, sang for, and even financed out of his own pocket what would go on to be called Massacre Mafia Style.

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Just when they thought they were out, Mimi (Duke Mitchell) pulls 'em back in! The days of the mafia had long been in the rear view mirror in Los Angeles. The cops can't be bribed, the judges can't be bought, and, eh, there's a lot less hassle with just going legit. Mimi, still reeling from the loss of his wife and unwilling to continue living in the shadow of his exiled father in Sicily, decides it's the perfect time to shake things up on the West Coast. Leaving his padre and young son behind, Mimi recruits his lifelong friend Jolly (Vic Caesar), and the two of 'em are hellbent on getting a chokehold on the prostitution and bookmaking rackets in La-la-land. Rather than ask for permission from what's left of the old guard, Mimi kidnaps one of the aging bosses (Louis Zito), mails a severed finger to Chucky's wife and son, and demands a quarter-million in ransom. After letting the guy go, Mimi and Jolly storm into his son's wedding and muscle their way into the organization. ("You lose a finger but gain a right arm!") He's tolerated for a while, largely because the old guard owes so much to Mimi's father, and paternal respect is a pretty heavy undercurrent throughout the movie. It's just that Mimi's watched too many gangster pictures, gunning down every son of a bitch who stands between him and supremecy of L.A.'s criminal underground. The old bosses have held onto what remains of their power by staying in the shadows and avoiding this sort of bloodshed except when absolutely necessary. What Mimi's doing...? Bad for business. Mimi finds himself caught in their crosshairs, and he's got the balls and the ballistics to fire right back.

Massacre Mafia Style hits all the notes you'd expect out of a grindhouse version of The Godfather: a blood-drenched passing of the torch from father to son, mob factions riddling each other with bullets, mafiosi screwing a small army of hookers, and -- why not? -- another Italian wedding where business can't help but get in the way. Duke Mitchell could've just shat out a mindless exploitation flick to ride The Godfather's coattails and let the cash roll in. The reason we're still talking about Massacre Mafia Style some forty years later is that Mitchell aimed a hell of a lot higher than that. He was determined to condemn the criminal underworld rather than romanticize shatter some of the stereotypes about Italians and organized celebrate the culture and familial bonds of his people. A far cry from a cynical cash-in, Massacre Mafia Style is instead surprisingly earnest -- with, okay, no shortage of racism, a staggeringly high body count, and Cara Salerno jiggling her exposed tits pretty much every time she's in front of the camera. I mean, this is a movie where Mimi electrocutes a wheelchair-bound guy in a urinal and way-too-literally crucifies a pimp who stands in his way.

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That head-on collision of Duke Mitchell's heartfelt celebration of Italian culture with 42nd St. sleaze is a key part of what makes Massacre Mafia Style so memorable. It rarely hits the marks that Mitchell aims for, no, but I'd rather watch a movie that swings for the fences and misses than one that takes no risks and reaps no rewards. It's all too apparent that much of the cast is made up of Mitchell's friends and family rather than seasoned pros, making for some pretty shaky acting. As much as the radio spots crow about the Academy Award winning post-production team, it's kind of choppily edited, and there are some really jarring, abrupt cuts here, complete with audio dropouts. The storyline spans a couple of decades but the passage of time is never really felt. The whole kidnap-the-don scheme doesn't exactly make any sense. Why do Mimi and Jolly need the equivalent of a million-plus, adjusted for inflation, to get themselves started in the pimp/bookie intimidation business? Why are they so dead certain that the old bosses would roll over for them, especially when these two upstarts just cost one of 'em a finger and crashed his kid's wedding? Rather than stomping all over what Massacre Mafia Style is going for, that sloppiness is instead part of its charm. The same goes for Duke Mitchell, who isn't exactly Brando but has a hell of a presence on-screen just the same. (Doesn't hurt that Mitchell gives himself all the best lines, including two lengthy monologues!) He's front and center in pretty much every last frame of Massacre Mafia Style, and there really aren't that many actors who can carry an exploitation flick entirely on their shoulders. Despite his inexperience as a writer, Mitchell also has a knack for pacing, refusing to squander a second of Massacre Mafia Style's lean 82 minute runtime.

Duke Mitchell is a force of nature, and his intense passion and steel will resonate throughout every last frame of Massacre Mafia Style. Its reach exceeds its grasp, yeah, but the parts that work manage to work really well, and the parts that don't work...well, somehow they wind up working anyway. I love it: not in some snarky, so-bad-it's-good, MST3K riffage kind of way, but pure, unadulterated fandom. Not for everyone, no, but for anybody who's managed to make it this far in the review: Highly Recommended.

The screenshots scattered throughout this review really don't do Massacre Mafia Style justice. In motion and from a more typical viewing distance, this high-def presentation is almost surreally gorgeous. Its sheen of grain is warm, natural, and remarkably filmic. I can't get over how detailed and insanely well-defined the image is, and those distinctively '70s brownish-orange earth tones are reproduced flawlessly. Speckling and assorted wear and tear are far too light to ever intrude as well. Though not a revelation in the same league as Grindhouse's The Swimmer, I'm still in awe of how spectacular the rough-hewn, fiercely independent Massacre Mafia Style looks in high-def, and it easily ranks among the best-looking slices of '70s exploitation on Blu-ray.

You're in, or you're in the way...or maybe you're on a dual-layer Blu-ray disc, the same as Massacre Mafia Style. This presentation has been dished out at an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and encoded with AVC. This combo pack also includes an anamorphic widescreen DVD.

Massacre Mafia Style's 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio mono soundtrack leaves similarly little room for complaint. I probably wouldn't have noticed the very light crackle in the background if I hadn't been keeping an ear out for it. The music and sound effects are reproduced as well as I could ever hope to hear from a forty year old exploitation flick. Dialogue is generally reproduced adeptly, with a sibilant edge that pretty much falls in line with my expectations. One quick exchange during the opening rampage sounds a bit wobbly, and there's a brief spike in background noise as Liz and Mimi chat in bed late in the movie, but otherwise, Massacre Mafia Style's audio holds up astonishingly well.

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For all intents and purposes, the lossless soundtrack is it as far as audio options go. A two-channel Dolby Digital mono track (192kbps) isn't listed in the menu but can be accessed with the 'Audio' button on your remote, but there's no real reason to do that.

Calling this a "special edition" doesn't come close to telling the whole story. The scores of extras on Massacre Mafia Style have been curated with an archivist mentality, serving as a loving tribute both to the movie and especially to Duke Mitchell himself. This is a release so definitive that it includes a scan of all sides of a cancelled check to the MPAA to secure a rating. Hell, its extras have extras. Unexpectedly, though, this release of Massacre Mafia Style loses the audio commentary from Jeffrey Mitchell's self-released DVD limited edition.
  • Like Father, Like Son (43 min.; SD): Although this documentary shares the same title that Massacre Mafia Style had when it first bowed in theaters, its central focus isn't necessarily what you'd expect. "Like Father, Like Son" is a tribute by musician Jeffrey Mitchell to his father, with Massacre Mafia Style discussed for just a few minutes near the tail end of the doc. Joined by family friends Frankie Ray and George Jacobs, Mitchell speaks about Duke's sometimes violent reign as "Mr. Palm Springs", how his take-no-shit personality kept him from advancing as far in his career as he maybe could have otherwise, that shortlived and generally insufferable partnership with poor-man's-Jerry-Lewis Sammy Petrillo, and his tumultuous friendships with the likes of Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. Mitchell from there speaks about his own career as a musician, kicking around in a genre that his father looked down on. When the conversation eventually turns towards Massacre Mafia Style, the most interesting thing is getting to meet Duke's intended co-star, who happens to have been Sinatra's valet and couldn't exactly pass for Sicilian. It's a bit of a drag that Massacre Mafia Style gets so little attention, but I still really enjoyed this look back on the life and career of Duke Mitchell, and it's well worth setting aside the time to watch.

  • Matt Cimber and Jim Lobianco (10 min.; HD): Exploitation slinger Matt Cimber and actor Jim LoBianco speak about the production and marketing of Massacre Mafia Style, including its fragmented production schedule, its extremely low budget, the staggering level of violence, and how it stacks up next to The Godfather.

  • Duke Mitchell Home Movies (52 min.; SD): Nearly an hour's worth of home movies -- some of which Duke Mitchell incorporated into his multimedia lounge act -- are included here. There's also a live performance and a little more of Mitchell as Jimmy Durante. Every bit of it is backed by Mitchell's music, by the way.

  • Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (74 min.; SD): Massacre Mafia Style doesn't brag it about it, but this is actually a double feature, complete with Duke Mitchell's starring turn in one of the most excruciatingly unwatchable movies ever made. Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo parrot Martin/Lewis' schtick while marooned on Coca-Cola, the tropical island lair of Dr. Zabor (Bela Lugosi). Mitchell gets a little too cozy with one of the cuter natives, so your friendly neighborhood mad scientist transforms the guy into a gorilla. Despite not getting a high-def spit-and-polish, the public domain Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla is still lavished with a shockingly terrific presentation, not that it makes this nails-on-chalkboard comedy any less painful to endure. This disasterpiece has its own set of extras, including a two-minute trailer and a high-res gallery with a few dozen images.

  • An Impressionistic Tribute to Jimmy Durante (37 min.; SD): Decked out with a felt hat and prosthetic schnozzola, Duke Mitchell does a pretty spectacular Jimmy Durante impression throughout this unaired TV special. Most of the special was shot on video, but some exteriors were shot on 16mm for a splash of color. That 16mm footage has been rescanned in HD in a separate feature, clocking in at six and a half minutes in length, and it looks amazing:

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  • Still Galleries: A couple of extras have their own galleries apart from the five listed under this heading. The first of this bunch revolves mostly around black and white shots, closing with scans of daily production reports, a guide to Italian slang that's also offered as a DVD-ROM extra, and that canceled MPAA check mentioned way up there. This gallery has around 61 stills, as does a separate gallery of color photos. The "Theatrical" photo album features around 34 shots of marquees, press clippings, and vintage ads, including one next to a plug for Fellini's Amarcord which I love a little too much. "Home Video" showcases video art from all across the globe, including concepts and works-in-progress for this Blu-ray release's painting. This one's around 32 images deep. The last and largest gallery is centered around Duke Mitchell himself, spanning his entire life and career, including palling around with Frank Sinatra and Henry Fonda. There are around 85 images in all throughout this final gallery.

  • Filmographies: Filmographies are listed for both Duke Mitchell and Cara Salerno. The latter is particularly intriguing since it has a few additional bells and whistles of its own, including a trailer for the no-budget sci-fi softcore flick Space Thing and a couple dozen topless photos of Salerno.

  • Trailer and Radio Spots (5 min.): Massacre Mafia Style's legendary trailer is presented here in glorious high definition. Also on the promotional end of things is a set of five radio spots: two as Like Father, Like Son, two shorter clips as Massacre Mafia Style, and a set of audience testimonials that plays up the mixed reaction to all that hyperviolence.

  • Easter Eggs: There's at least one Easter Egg lurking on the main menu that's well worth the extra click or two to unearth.

  • DVD-ROM Extras: See? This is why combo packs can be handy even if you're HD-or-die. Plopping the DVD into a PC reveals two treatments, two scripts in full, and a set of largely handwritten narration notes. These are all high-quality scans of the original material too.

Massacre Mafia Style comes packaged in a Criterion-style transparent case, which incidentally is the reason its release was delayed. Coupled with the newly-painted cover art, this is an unbelievably striking package. David Szulkin has penned a similarly impressive set of liner notes that offer that much more insight into the man behind Massacre Mafia Style. Again, this is a combo pack, so you get a shiny new DVD out of the deal too.

The Final Word
It's Mario Puzo on 42nd St.: the grindhouse Godfather. Even though Massacre Mafia Style struggles mightily against its low budget and the inexperience on both sides of the camera, it's hardly some cheap, lazy cash-in on Coppola's box office juggernaut. This is clearly a passion project, and that fervor -- that compulsion to capture Italian culture, to sneer at mafioso stereotypes, to honor what family ought to mean -- elevate it to something more than just another exploitation flick. ...and if that's not your thing, there are enough tits and a stratospheric body count to distract you. There are more than enough extras to ensure that you get your money's worth too. Highly Recommended.
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