A small compendium of Italian movies to help us survive the cornavirus pandemic
In these times of quarantine it is difficult not to recall cult movies about post-apocalyptic scenarios, such as the resurrected Contagion by Steven Soderbergh. The film starring Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow has strong coincidences with our real life new contemporaneity, as the virus that infects the world population spreads from Asia through a bat. The movie looks definitely realistic in all its aspects and, for this reason, it is particularly disturbing. I know, it might not be a good idea to watch it now, but… Seriously — don’t watch it unless you suffer from some mild form of masochism.
There are “lighter” movies like 28 Days After directed by Denny Boyle, in which the virus is modified in a laboratory and tested on monkyes which suddenly become very aggressive and contagious. 28 days after the monkeys are rescued by some animalists, the world — or perhaps only London, where the whole movie is set — turns upside down, becoming a desert full of strange creatures. You’re right, maybe it’s not so light, but belive me, it is a must-see movie. Then, there’s I Am Legend, based on the extraordinary novel written by Richard Matheson. The movie is, you know… Let’s say that the dog is nice, but [SPOILER ALERT] it dies halfway through the movie. I’ve saved you a trauma. You’re welcome.
Once upon a time, also Italian filmmakers used to make this kind of movies, usually disguised as poor Hollywood productions. However, handmade special effects, infantile plots and exaggerated violence made them unbelievably captivating. Especially the ones I’ll tell you about. After all, if Netflix continues to recommend mePandemic: How to Prevent an Outbreak, I don’t see why I can’t do the same. Maybe, some of these Italian movies will teach us how to overcome the apocalypse and how to survive the worst case scenarios. Or maybe not. What is certain is that they don’t make the situation worse, so here’s a few for you.
5) The Last Man On Earth (1960) by Ubaldo Ragona
The first film adaptation of Mathenson’s novel I Am Legend — known in Italy as Vampires — is also its most faithful reproduction. Shot in the Roman EUR district, an area famous for its villas and large avenues, the director Ubaldo Ragona tried to recrate an American atmosphere.
The Last Man On Earth was snobbed by both audiences and critics at the time of its release, labelled as second-class horror movie with a small budget and, on top of that, Italian. Only several years later the film was reassessed thanks to its staging and to the great performance of the lead actor, Vincent Price.
The movie has lots of flaws, especially due to the few available resources. However, we can still find references in other important movies, one for all Zombie by George Romero. The plot is quite linear. Robert Morgan appears to be the sole survivor of a pandemic that killed the majority of the human race, turning the rest of the world population into stereotyped classic fiction and folklore vampires. Blood-sucking, pale-skinned, nocturnal beings, but otherwise indistinguishable from normal humans. So Robert can quitely go out during the day, barricading himself inside his house at night. Blessed is he who can go out at least during the day.
4) Nightmare City (1980) by Umberto Lenz
Umberto Lenzi is one of the true masters of Italian cinema, and he gave us a hilarious film: Nigthmare City. A popular scientist comes to an unspecified town, but strange mutants who start attacking soldiers and civilians get off the same plane. The reason of their mutation is a radioactive leak — not a virus, thank goodness — that turns people into a sort of vampires. The journalist Dean Miller witnessed the scene, but he cannot report it on the news as it is censored by the military to avoid public panic. This all does nothing, as the monsters propagate quickly, killing or biting and thus mutating other people.
Like for The Last Man On Earth, there were limited means, but a lot of talent. Lenzi was a director who loved gratuitous violence. In this movie he could have fun, and we can perceive it. It is not a family film, but it’s surely a catching splatter that keeps you glued to the screen.
3) The New Barbarians (1983) by Enzo G. Castellari
Civilization has been destroyed by a nuclear war. Survivors live in a lawless world. The weak must submit to the strong. Templares are a biker gang of looters and killers spreading death and fear. Skorpion and his friends, Nadir and Genius, will try to kill the boss of Templares, tired of their ruthless abuse.
Does that ring a bell? Post atomic world, criminal bikers… Yes it’s Mad Max. Both the assumption and the set strongly resemble those of Miller’s movie, but Castellari takes it to another level. In The New Barbarians we can also find a lot of Italian spaghetti western, and at the end of the story there is a surprise — something that will remind you of a Sergio Leone movie.
Just like in Italian-stile westerns, Castellari claims authorship over his peculiar Sci-Fi style: cynical, desperate and peppered with violence, all this accompanies a linear tale in which the good guys are not so good, whereas the villians are not so evil.
2) Apocalypse Tomorrow (1980) by Antonio Margheriti (aka Anthony Dawson)
Do you remember Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 masterpiece, Apocalypse Now? Well, it doesn’t have anything to do with this movie. The only thing in common is Vietnam, which we see in the famous opening sequence where the soldier Charles Bukowsky has to rescue some comrades from a Vietkong jail. During the mission, one of the prisoners bites Bukowsky.
Some years later, the soldier leaves the asylum he had been locked up to get over his war trauma. In a movie theater he was seized with the impulse to eat human flesh, so he bites a woman. He will have to escape chased by the police and the army, and here begins the story.
The movie is a rising crescendo of tension and violence, but it is actually an interesting and reasoned metaphore about emigration and post-war traumas. At the same time, it’s violent, brutal, intense enough to be mentioned as an Italian masterpiece in its kind.
1) Zombi 2 (1979) by Lucio Fulci
Lucio Fulci is a true master of cinema. There is no doubt. He was capable of shooting several great movies, and Zombi 2 is one of his masterpieces. Don’t be deceived by the title: it isn’t the sequel of Romero’s movie. In fact, the plot hinges on the origins of the Haitian myth of the zombies. This movie is a real splatter and became soon a cult of its genre, earning the director the title of ‘poet of macabre’. Zombi 2 was a global success that prompted Fulci to continue with this style.
The beginning is already extremely disturbing: a mysterious ship docks in New York, a patrolman is killed by a zombie before his partner starts chasing it overboard, the dead patrolman’s body is taken to the morgue. Anne Bowles is questioned by the police, as the boat belonged to her father. She claims that he is conducting research on Matul, an island in the Caribbean. A newspaper reporter, Peter West, is investigating the story and, together with Bowles, they learn that her father contracted a strange illness on the island. They rent a boat and hire two guides, Brian Hull and his wife Susan Barrett, to reach Matul.
That’s it. There are movies about viruses, and others set in post-atomic scenarios, but also horror, Sci-Fi and Splatter films. Perhaps, none of these is a masterpiece — no, wait, Zombie 2 is an absolute masterpiece. In any case, these are movies made on a shoestring, but they still manage to strike you deeply with plenty of inventiveness and imagination. Their directors unexpectedly wrote the history of cinema.
Of course, there are other wonderful Italian horror, western, Sci-Fi, adventure B-movies which I should have brought to your attention. Let’s see if we survive this fourth week of quarantine, and I might recommend a few. In the meanwhile, watch these five little gems. You won’t regret it.
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