“Cult film” is a term that possesses next to zero weight in the modern cinephile vernacular. Thanks to the internet, the days of hand-labeled tape trading, rummaging through dollar bins at defunct video stores, and seeking out prints at local rep houses are pretty much permanently behind us. Sure, some regional screening groups (like Exhumed Films in Philly or Austin’s weekly “Weird Wednesday” series) are still keeping hope alive for those drawn toward the odd and obscure, and there are definitely titles that remain harder to come by (The Astrologer being a great example of a recent “secret handshake” amongst the devoted). But for the most part, any movie you desire is just a click away – either through legitimate screening sources or underground torrent sites devoted to filmic delights that never made the format jump. In short, a cult is no longer a cult if there’s no work involved in joining, ya dig?
Nevertheless, it’s not all doom and gloom for true rare cinema aficionados, as there are a few top-notch distribution labels working to bring HD versions of previously near impossible to see pictures straight to your Blu-ray player. From Jess Franco softcore to American Mondo docs, Severin Films (along with their '80s VHS experts Intervision) have proven themselves time and again to be some of the realest exploitation experts in the business, never content to just shit out a sixth edition of easily recognizable genre stalwarts hardened hounds already own two copies of. The movies they distribute are genuine artifacts from a bygone era, often cleaned and rescanned in order to provide the best presentation possible. In addition to home video, Severin recently partnered with the American Genre Film Archive to screen these restorations in the biggest houses possible. They’re a company making a concerted effort to please old school cult film fans, while also contributing to modern distribution platforms (almost all of their titles are currently available for free on Amazon Prime) that allow newbies to get in the game as well.
Here are four recently released titles that should whet your appetite, and hopefully inspire those intrigued to take a gander at the company’s back catalogue…
Burial Ground (a/k/a The Nights of Terror) [‘81] (d. Andrea Bianchi, w. Piero Regnoli)
Weapons grade sleaze cinema, Andrea Bianchi (Confessions of a Frustrated Housewife, Strip Nude for Your Killer) submerges us in the Italo rip-off cinema sewer with this obvious riff on Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2 (which itself is an infamous cash-in on Romero’s Dawn of the Dead). Three sets of swinging couples (and one woman’s developmentally disabled preteen son, played by twenty-five-year-old Peter Bark) arrive at a looming, old mansion where a scientist accidentally unleashed a curse that raises the dead. These shit-smeared zombies wreak havoc on the group’s fuck sessions, devouring brains and even wielding weapons as they devour the libidinous living. Heads are splattered in slow motion and nipples are bitten off in revolting, incestuous acts of pure carnage. Burial Ground is one of those great examples of Italian exploitation that never feigns respectability for a second. The whole thing smells of death.
The Killing of America [‘81] (d. & w. Sheldon Renan & Leonard Schrader)
The Mondo subgenre is fascinating, mainly because those who created its most notable entries actually committed the very same acts their films were supposed to condemn during their creation. In this regard, Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi were the most notorious. Godfathers of the shock doc format, they partnered with a sitting dictator during the production of Farewell Uncle Tom. While Sheldon Renan and Leonard Schrader’s The Killing of America never quite tips over into actually engaging in atrocities, the constant barrage of apocalyptic imagery in their anti-American screed becomes just as oppressive as the fascist acts it means to judge. Profiling racist massacres, spree shooters, serial killers, and everything in-between, the movie plays like an industrial education picture produced in Hell, never once letting up and only half-heartedly suggesting any sort of solution to the widespread slaughter of innocents. By the end, the viewer is completely exhausted, but The Killing of America is an undeniably potent work of pure exploitation; an utter shock to the system thirty-six years on.
The Survivor [‘81] (d. David Hemmings, w. David Ambrose)
Downright classical when compared to the rest of the movies on this list, David Hemmings (best known for his acting turns in Antonioni’s Blow-Up and Argento’s Deep Red) directs this Ozploitation adaptation of James Herbert’s pulp horror show with an eye for artful framing. Notable for being the most expensive film in Australian history at the time (thanks to its opening plane crash sequence), this tale of survivor’s guilt finds a pilot (Robert Powell) haunted by those he couldn’t save while simultaneously being investigated by regulatory officials befuddled by the disaster (think of it as a supernatural Sully). Meanwhile, a lonely psychic (An American Werewolf in London’s Jenny Agutter) is tormented by visions of the flaming wreckage and begins her own inquiries into the calamity. Together, the two make an unlikely detective duo, fending off numerous ghosts and shady government officials up until the frankly shocking twist conclusion. The Survivor straddles the Ozplo line of cerebral art house fare and grindhouse shocks, like its cousins Long Weekend and Harlequin. Ultimately, the movie never really commits to being one particular brand of entertainment, and ends up all the better for it.
Wild Beasts [‘84] (d. & w. Franco Prosperi)
Imagine Lucio Fulci putting a schlockier spin on the African big cat freak-out, Roar, and you’re batting in the same ballpark as Franco Prosperi’s Wild Beasts. The final feature film of the Mondo magnate’s career, the movie blends real animal violence (buyer beware) with an absurdist narrative. PCP gets into the water supply of a European city, causing a zoo’s attractions to lose their minds, break out of their cages, and begin attacking every other living thing they come into contact with. Tigers rip off faces, rats devour necking lovers, and a cheetah chases down a VW Beetle. One suspects there were no animal advocates on set, especially once the meat eaters are unleashed upon a pen full of farm stock. This is a wildly offensive swan song for Prosperi, proving that we lost a true trash provocateur when he put down his camera for good.
For more exploitation gems, be sure to check out Severin’s full catalogue here.