Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Erotic Nights of the Living Dead

Erotic Nights of the Living Dead (1980)
Dir. Joe D’Amato

Written by George Eastman
“starring” Laura Gemser, George Eastman

This poster almost makes it look like a real movie. Don't be fooled.

“This film is slightly better than Porno Holocaust, but only slightly” -- The Void

“One of the worst if not the worst Italian zombie movie ever made" -- D. Kay, Zombie Movies: The Ultimate Guide

“The gore and porn parts are okay I guess, except in the porn department these really are much nicer looking women than usual.” -- reviewer, IMDB

I mean, George Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is obviously a stark, nightmarish classic which redefined an entire genre and created an enduring world cinematic icon in its stumbling, cannibalistic reanimated corpses. I watch it at least once a year on average, and last year even reviewed a lovingly animated version. But I think we all knew that despite it’s obvious strengths, something was missing. Something fundamental, something that nagged at us and flittered about the edges of our consciousness, intangible but persistent. I know it nagged Romero and co-writer John Russo; they spent the next 40 years making sequels and spinoffs, but never quite managed to figure it out. Neither could the legion of knockoffs, parodies, cash grabs, unofficial sequels and remakes that lurched after them.

Until now. It took him nearly a decade and almost 30 films of practice, but in 1980 it suddenly struck Italian pornograteur Aristide Massaccessi --aka Joe D’Amato, aka Raf de Pama, aka Alexander Borsky aka David Hills, aka Anna Bergman -- exactly what he had to add to take Romero’s formula and finally bring it to its final glorious evolution.

“Of course!” He said to himself, slapping his forehead. “Porno!”

As a lifelong practitioner of the pornographic arts, Massaccessi --better known by his more American-sounding working name, Joe D’Amato -- had been preparing for this moment since he first stepped behind a camera in 1969. After briefly working as a cameraman and eventually a director on some Italian B-movies (including two starring Klaus Kinski, no shit!) he quickly found his true calling: Z-movies. Be they knockoffs of popular American films, splatter flicks, mondo fauxumentaries, exploitation films or good old fashion porno, you can be sure our boy was there behind the camera (although not necessarily using his real name; by the time ENotLD came out in 1980 he already had a list of aliases that would make an international drug kingpin blush. He even once shot a movie using the name of Ingmar Bergman’s daughter to lend a touch of class to one of his more vanilla pornographic endeavours, true story). Prolific as a teenage hooker at a Vatican sex therapy retreat, D’Amato already had more than 30 films’ worth of experience under his belt before he finally got around to tackling the subject of a zombie porno.  

Actually I think this is the title that appears on-screen, but obvious "Erotic" is a much better word so we're sticking with that.

That experience must have paid off, because of the 9 films he made which came out in 1980 (PORNO HOLOCAUST didn’t come out for another year even though it was filmed at the same time) EROTIC NIGHTS has to be in the top five. Maybe even in the top three. Although that one SASSO NERO he made about the guy who heads to the tropics to spend some quality time with his genitals before they’re removed due to a deadly disease sounds pretty good, haven’t seen that one. And of course ANTHROPOPHAGUS came out that year, and that was the closest he ever came to making something which resembled a real film. Not good, of course, but sort of in some ways kind of like a real film, in the sense that Pinnocchio is more like a real boy than, say, a pile of camel puke. And SEXY EROTIC LOVE sounds very nice, almost like maybe an EAT DRINK MAN WOMAN arty sex film kind of thing. So obviously D’Amato had enough going on in 1980 to give some stiff competition to ENotLD. But anyway, it’s easily in the top half.

What this film is, is that there’s some guys who go to an island, and there are some ghosts or zombies and also a cat. Only, they don’t get to the island for almost a whole hour, instead they hang out in hotel rooms and have sex with various people. Or in one memorable slice-of-life type moment, a friendly bottle of sparkling white wine* (more on that later). Unfortunately none of the people are zombies, so your dreams of discovering whether or not you can be aroused by consensual necrophilia will go unresolved for now.

As near as I can tell, the plot involves Mark Shannon (real name Manlio Certosino, which I choose to believe is literally translated as “Certified: Manly”) as mustachioed rich guy douchebag John Wilson, who I think wants to build a hotel or some crap on a tropical island which I believe is named “Cat Island,” which makes sense because as I mentioned before there is a cat there, on the island. Wilson hangs out at his hotel, and eventually hires local skipper Larry O’Hara (noted Anthropophagus George Eastman, who also wrote the film) to shuttle him out there so he can take a few pictures of the land, check out the cat, whatever. You would think it would take about 40 seconds of screentime to establish this, but instead it takes almost an hour because they have to establish certain key plot points, for instance that the two male protagonists enjoy having sex with women. Actually I’m not sure if that is even established in the case of Eastman’s character, because although we frequently find women --overcome by his Han-Solo-by-way-of-Chewbacca animal magnetism -- stripping naked and writhing about on top of him, he never does take off any of his clothes, and that includes both his pants and shoes. I’m not sure if this is some sort of metaphor for frustrated male id, or if it just means George Eastman is so fucking manly he can successfully have penetrative, satisfying sexual encounters through the zipped fly of his skinny jeans, but either way it seems kind of odd, particularly when you remember that Eastman wrote the script. Ok so you’re not an exhibitionist, no problem, but why insert yourself into a bunch of sex scenes if you’re not going to... you know... insert yourself? Seems weird.

Fortunately, despite Eastman coming off as conservative as a Mitt Romney stag party, plenty of other people in the cast pick up the exhibitionist slack. In fact for much of what might generously be called the first act, the camera loving focuses all it’s attention on Mark Shannon’s admittedly noteworthy genitals as they’re subjected to various stimuli. It’s kind of weird that he gets so much lovin’ because he’s established early on as an asshole and pretty much comes across as the movie’s main villain. I mean, who wants to watch the arrogant douchebag enjoy a long series of resplendently varied sex scenes with numerous proficient Italian hookers and eventually the woman who just happens to be in the next hotel room over (hey, does that make her the girl next door?) Maybe D’Amato feels like even if we don’t like the guy we can still respect his talent enough to enjoy watching him work, sort of a porno Hans Gruber. But this approach probably worked better when the film was projected in grainy filmstock in a shady downtown theater, because in your home in full color widescreen DVD remastered glory, you can’t help but notice the worrisome scabrous nodules which adorn his sex organ like tiny plane silhouettes on the side of a fighter jet. What I’m saying is although the proportions of this fellow’s johnson might justify the big screen treatment, the quality doesn’t necessarily bear that value proposition out. Or to put it another way, it’s hard to enjoy the sex scenes because the dude’s got big weird warts on his doodle and it’s impossible not to notice.

By the way, sorry, Grandma, if you’re reading this, I really should have mentioned before now that this is probably not one of the reviews you should read if you’re just a well-meaning relative who wants to see what I’m up to these days. Please disregard this review and read the one on NIGHTS OF CABIRIA instead, thanks. Definitely don’t read the upcoming section about the champagne bottle stripper, I’m serious, you don’t want to know I watched that.

So anyway. Since you brought it up, while our intrepid land developer is showering and rolling around on the bed with various upstanding young ladies, the skipper is holed up in an otherwise empty strip bar, watching with bemused curiosity as an impressively-endowed dancer plies him with her art. Since we know Eastman’s not into taking his pants off, it seems a little tedius at first to watch the entire stripshow, especially since it has to follow a hardcore coke-fueled exotic hotel three-way. But this lady is not to be outdone by a couple hygiene-conscious tag-team hooker amateurs. She has a trick up her, uh, well, not sleeve, exactly. After what seems like an eternity of halfhearted swaying, she ups the ante by grabbing an unopened bottle of what appears to be some variety of sparkling white wine. Champagne bottles have long been second only to fireworks and trains entering tunnels in the annals of orgasm metaphors, so no surprise when she sets it down, crouches over it and gingerly gives it a few obligatory humps. But anyone can have sex with an unopened champagne bottle. And it’s not like she has a wine key or anything, so I don’t see where this could... oh dear merciful god, is she really...? She grasps the, and then. And then it froths out, and... I can’t do this. Suffice to say if this was not done with special effects it involved the world’s worst yeast infection and a kegel strength that borders on threatening. Most worrisomely of all, the cork never reappears. As far as I can tell, she just absorbed it, like some kind of bottle-opening stripper amoeba.  

By this time if you’re an astute viewer you’ll notice that although the “Erotic Nights” part of the title is obviously meant to be taken literally, the “of the Living Dead” part doesn’t really seem to be backed up by the facts. It’s true, there is a scene about 20 minutes in where a gentleman whom we’ve never seen before and will never see again is bitten by a disheveled youth who may or may not be a zombie, but it’s over in only a few seconds and hardly seems worth mentioning in the title. It sort of seems like a better title might be “EROTIC NIGHTS OF THE CHEAP MOTEL ROOM” for much of the runtime, but remember, this is a Joe D’Amato movie, and the guy knows how to let something build gradually. So in-between the porn, there are short scenes which do not exactly further the plot, but seem to possibly be laying the groundwork for some kind of plot which might come along later, if the zombies ever do show.

Well, never underestimate Joe D’Amato’s wild, borderline-suicidal disregard for consistent tone, because like EMANUELLE IN AMERICA before it, this one sort of gradually shifts from a fairly dull porno to a halfway-acceptable something else, not quite not a porno but more of a thin pastiche of horror movie patched together with softcore sex scenes. It never exactly stops being a porno, but after the first half the sex scenes gradually get tamer until it eventually just sort of forgets about them. This is a good thing on one hand, because I’m not sure we could stand looking at that dude’s warthog-faced member much more before giving up on sex forever and committing to reproducing by asexual budding. But on the other hand it’s a bad thing, because after more than an hour being lulled into a false sense of security by Hitchcock-esque long take zoom shots of half-interested fellatio, we now have to deal with the vestigial evidence of a plot.

Turns out Cat island is the home of an elderly dude with an alarming growth on his head (what is it with this movie and unsightly growths? Is this a metaphorical theme I’m just now picking up on?) and his attractive companion (daughter?) Laura “Emanuelle” Gemser, who is possibly a were-cat, or something. They offer our intrepid heroes some vague warnings about something, and stand about on the beach looking concerned while that douchebag Wilson takes photos of them from about a foot away. Tourists, jesus. Then Laura Gemser keeps turning up places and taking her clothes off and making out with people on or near the beach, including that girl from the next hotel room over who I forgot to mention comes with them for some reason and a fully-clothed George Eastman and his magical sex-proof jean. Then there are a bunch of context-free reaction shots of a cat. And then, zombies. Or ghosts, or something.

Judging from their clothes, I think they're zombies of an orange-jumpsuited army killed by James Bond on his way to the supervillain's hideout. Island lair, it makes sense.

The ghouls in question first show up to just kind of stand around on the beach wearing mysterious peach shaws in the balmy day-for-night gloom. Honestly given how little anyone except the champagne stripper seems to be trying here, the zombies are better than you might expect; actually they kind of remind me of those zombies from SHOCK WAVES in their desire to stand around intimidatingly, except they’re not Nazis and they’re in a movie which probably couldn’t even afford John Carradine, let alone Peter Cushing. Anyway, against all odds it actually does sort of evoke a creepy atmosphere, which then sort of stumbles --without seeming to really mean to-- into one or two legitimately respectable zombie sequences. I’m serious, this lumbering clusterfuck of repetitive and unappealing cheapie sex scenes actually ends with a decently memorable zombie setpiece where our heroes encounter a horde of ragged undead and even indulge in a few goopy practical effects. Hey, living dead! The title checks out!

This movie may or may not have something to say about colonialist ambitions and the ultimately alienating voyeurism of Western hegemony. I almost hate to bring this up, but if you’re the sort of person who’s into that kind of thing, there’s bunch of odd things here just begging you to analyze them. That douchebag Wilson is in town to buy up a tropical paradise (which is already inhabited by the natives, of course) and turn it into some skeezy motel and golf course. And what does he do while he’s waiting to ravage this island paradise? Stays inside a motel room and get serviced by two hookers and a promiscuous nearby gold digger. He spends basically the whole movie making sure that he’s kept in completely impersonal sexual pleasure by anonymous hangers-on who he can control because of his wealth. When the natives (who he’s about to displace with his hotel) try to warn him about the danger, he barely even bothers to ignore them -- even though they appear as flesh and blood, they might as well be ghosts to him. Heck, the island might as well be uninhabited for all the interest he has in anyone there; all he sees is a resource to exploit that he has the inconvenience of having to actually look at for a few days. He represents the rapacious forces of colonialism, imperiously sweeping in to take whatever can be bought, conquered or stolen to increase his power and his hedonistic pleasure.

Yeah, they actually lit a stuntman on fire for this movie.

Seen in this light, Eastman’s skipper character takes on an interesting color, too. We see that he’s made a little niche for himself renting his boat (which also appears to be his home) to rich foreigners and their trophy wives, who he lusts after. Although he doesn’t necessarily respect the stunted masculinity of these men, it’s clear that he envies their lifestyle and their power to control (particularly women), and there’s an uncomfortable tension between his own masculine power and the servile role he plays to these other males, who compensate for their lack of physical prowess with status symbols of their virility (frequently represented by the many, many women we see have sex here). Little wonder, then, that his own encounters with women mime the sex act, but never reach climax. He gets to mimic the pleasures of being a rich colonialist, but he’s separated from their conquests through the medium of his working-man’s jeans, which he can never remove. Or maybe he’s just a really, really big advocate of safe sex, I don’t know, what am I, psychic?

While Wilson’s capitalist projects seem to offer him a path upwards, he’s ultimately denied the pleasure which their power allows and is rejected from that world. On the other hand, he gets to watch the champagne stripper --another person rejected by the power structure, and perhaps even representative of the natives-- produce her own pleasure, and in the case of the champagne literally absorb that pleasure into her body. He can only watch, however -- be it the native’s easy ability to create and absorb natural pleasure (represented by their appreciation of their beautiful homeland) or Wilson’s didactic drive to hedonistic control, the skipper is bound to be a voyeur rather than a participant. He’s trapped between the two worlds, at first desiring the false gratification of colonialist hegemony which is forever denied to him, and then gradually coming to understand the corrosive effects of that hubis, when the zombies (the ancestral specter of the dead, rising to protect their home) start coming after them.

I couldn't find any other images from this movie that don't have explicit nudity in them, so here's a picture that comes  up when you search "happy kitty" instead. 

Of course, that’s all pretty simple, obvious symbolism, and it wouldn’t be a Joe D’Amato film without an additional meta-level commentary on the whole proceedings. In EMANUELLE IN AMERICA, it was the final encroachment on the fourth wall at the end, as her journey through the world of filmed sex turns on its head and we see that she, in fact, is the one being filmed. Here, it begins with a short sequence at the beginning where George Eastman, apparently in a mental hospital, has frantic animalistic sex** with a nurse in a hallway as some psycho watches and jerks off. It’s just one scene and then we cut to the main “plot,” and more than two hours later you’d be forgiven if you assumed the movie had just forgotten about it like the handful of other unrelated scenes which pop up from time to time. But no, at the end of the film --after Eastman and that random chick have escaped the zombies-- we return to this scene, and find orderlies pulling the two lovebirds apart as Eastman freaks out, apparently insane.

This brings up several possibilities. Is the whole thing a weird sexual fantasy in the mind of a guy who was already insane? Perhaps a comment on the fetishization of power dynamics signified by the implied class conflict of the film’s narrative? Or is this intended to suggest that the experience itself drove them insane? The authorities, perhaps, have found Wilson’s gnawed-on body and assume Eastman and that other chick are responsible -- placing the blame on the working class instead of the inexorable forces that Wilson’s hubris have unleashed against him. Or, maybe the simple tension of the false capitalist paradigm*** against the fading native naturalism just causes the guy to snap, and the whole zombie experience itself genuinely is a product of his broken mind.

Anyway, a lot to think about. This film’s pretty shitty, but it’s got titties and a few zombies, I dunno man check it out if it sounds good.

*I don’t remember the vintage, but I’m not gonna risk assuming it was actually from the Champagne region of France.

**Again with his pants on, but at least they’re sweat pants here instead on jeans, I can borderline see  that working.

***Pro tip: If you want to talk like a jackass, you’re going to want to throw the word “paradigm” in there.


  1. Well, now I'm more glad than ever that I didn't watch this with you guys. Not only did I avoid what sounds like a borderline unwatchable mess, but I also avoided the "what does it all mean" discussion of the subtext afterward.

  2. Dear lord, how many words was this review? I'm surprised you squeezed so many out of ENotLD! I mean, don't get me wrong; I laughed, I cried, I found myself. But wow. It just kept going. Bravo!

    That said, a few points of interest:

    1) I totally did not realize this was legit a pornographic film when we got together to watch it. I mean, I would have watched it anyway had I known, but it definitely took me by surprise after the first 11 or so dick shots that you, Alex, Andy, and I basically organized a night to watch a (relatively) high-production-value porno together. I mean, I know I *shouldn't* be surprised at that. But for some reason I just thought they were being quaint with the word "erotic" at first.

    2) I like that we decided it was necessary to re-wind and watch all the sex scenes again once Cat got home. I believe it was she who pointed out the genital warts that are now burned upon all our retinas.

    3) "porno Hans Gruber" made me think of another title one could use if just decided to add "erotic" to the title of an already well-established movie in order to make a porno version: DIE EROTIC(ALLY) HARD. I mean come on (<- no pun intended). That movie writes itself.

    4) I shouldn't read your reviews of anything from Joe D'Amato's body of work at the office when nothing I'm supposed to be working on should be making me stifle that many laughs.

    5) I think it's pretty standard now that when you're watching a Joe D'Amato film, you should take the title and assume that maybe 1 or 2 key words will actually present themselves in the movie and the rest of the words were drawn out of a hat to make a complete phrase, and do not actually have anything to do with the plot. Like how in EMANUELLE IN AMERICA, Emanuelle never actually goes to America.

  3. Mark "The genital wart" Shannon is the boss of STD cinema.

    1. Ahhh!!! I know they weren't really all that knowledgeable about STDs back then but didn't anyone at all see that warty weenie and just say "oh HELL no"??? Why anyone would let something like that come into contact with any of their exposed skin is just crazy. That thing should have been tied to a stake and burned. I wonder how many people he ended up infecting with nasty warthog of his. BLECH! I'm gonna go dump some bleach on my dick for a while. Ya know, just in case that guys balls touched anything in the Chicago area.

  4. Man, when I wrote this one back in 2013, I figured maybe 20 people would ever read it. Now that it has over 2000 hits, I genuinely feel a little bad for making fun of this guy's dong in such a public manner. As far as I can tell, he's still alive (he'd be 78) and his dubious-sounding it.wikipedia article ( claims that although he retired from acting in 1983, he appeared in an Italian soap opera as recently as 2006. So I can't help worrying that he'll someday stumble upon this review and get really bummed out.

    So Manlio, if you read this, I'm sorry for making fun of your penis back in 2013. You've definitely done more with yours than I've ever done with mine, so I'm hardly in a position to criticize. By way of apology I'd like to include a rebuttal from that same Italian wikipedia article which claims (as brokenly translated by google): "[Mark} was the first porn star Italian. Although it has a penis of exceptional size, it has always been appreciated by its partners for the kindness with which you approcciava [sic] in turn the hard scenes." It also includes his penis length in the helpful wiki info box (said to be 18 cm, though I see no citation). Again, my sincerest apologies to you, Mr. Cerosimo, and I hope there are no hard feelings.