Color, 1980, 81/89m.
Directed by Marino Girolami
Starring Ian McCulloch, Alexandra Delli Colli, Sherry Buchanan, Peter O'Neal, Donald O'Brien, Dakar
Severin Films (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC), Media Blasters (Blu-ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9), 88 Films (Blu-ray) (UK RB HD), Dragon (DVD) (Germany R2 PAL), Umbrella (Blu-ray & DVD) (Australia R0 HD/PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
The massive success of Lucio Fulci's Zombie on the international horror scene led to a slew of European imitations throughout the early '80s, though few had a path as strange as the one originally released as Zombi Holocaust in March of 1980. An English-language export version was prepared as Zombie Holocaust, but by the time it hit American shores over two years later in May of 1982, it had undergone some serious changes and was now known as Doctor Butcher, M.D. (complete with poster art hilariously pilfering a shot of Salvador Dali!). The enigmatic Aquarius Productions managed to drum up heaps of publicity by sending a Butchermobile around New York and offering barf bags to patrons. The gambit worked and made the film a big hit, even if the actual film was a bit difficult to decipher. As it turns out, what was once a straightforward cross between the Italian zombie and cannibal subgenres had been trimmed down for faster pacing and outfitted with an opening title sequence culled from an unfinished New York horror anthology project, Tales That Will Tear Your Heart Out, specifically a segment directed by Document of the Dead director Roy Frumkes. Both versions earned more than their share of cult followers, though Doctor Butcher was largely forgotten after its VHS stint from Paragon Video. By contrast, Zombie Holocaust went from circulation on the gray market sourced from a Japanese laserdisc to a number of official releases with its original score and running time intact. Either way, it's a technically dubious but highly enjoyable chunk of sleaze that does everything it can to please audiences hungry for gore effects and nudity.
Structured very similarly to Fulci's film, our tale begins with someone repeatedly infiltrating the New York county morgue and taking off with random body parts. One of the parties responsible is soon caught in the act of eating flesh and pursued until he plummets to his death out of a window, leaving behind hints of ties to an East Indies cannibal god named Kito. Dr. Peter Chandler (Zombie's McCulloch) and medical/anthropology specialist Lori Ridgeway (New York Ripper's Delli Colli) team up with bitchy reporter Susan Kelly (Buchanan) to head to the remote island that's reputed to be Kito's main stomping grounds, and as soon as Lori doffs her clothes for a shower, she's confronted with a maggot-infested severed head in her bed with a bloody symbol of Kito drawn in her sheets. Aiding their quest is Dr. Obrero (O'Brien), who is far more than he first appears -- and as you can probably guess from the American title, he has a very bloodthirsty operation going deep in the jungle.
Visually undistinguished and very oddly paced in either of its incarnations, this sick puppy manages to overcome its lack of artistry by chucking every affordable element of commercial Italian horror hits of the time at the screen. Gut chomping, the obligatory naked painted white heroine, corpse dissections, machete attacks, gory scalpings, blood transfusions, fertility rites, dialogue like "Do you really think we're all that different from savages?"... you name it, it's in here. However, the tone of the two versions is quite different, as the Italian one features a typically percussive, tropical-flavored score by Nico Fidenco, integrating elements of the "Make Love on the Wing" theme familiar from his Black Emmanuelle films. On the other hand, the American version has a hilariously odd synthesizer score by Walter E. Sear, who also handled rescoring duties on The Beyond when it turned into 7 Doors of Death.
The first American DVD release of the film as Zombie Holocaust came in 2002 from Media Blasters, featuring an okay transfer for the time with drab colors but decent detail; only the usual English-language track is included. Extras consist of the Dr. Butcher trailer, the German trailer, a 5-minute "deleted" scene exclusive to the American version in which McCulloch and Delli Colli run afoul of a pit trap (seemingly shot during autumn in a completely different forest!), a 6-minute interview with cigarette-puffing effects artist Maurizio Trani about working with very limited staff and means on the elaborate effects, an art gallery, the original Tales That Will Tear Your Heart Out footage with Frumkes commentary, a gallery of Frumkes' personal photos from the production, a 15-minute Frumkes interview about the aborted project, and bonus trailers for Jungle Holocaust, Beyond the Darkness, Burial Ground, and Eaten Alive. The same transfer was also ported over (with almost identical extras) for a German release that featured the option of playing the film with that extra 5-minute scene clumsily cut back into the film, resulting in a major clash in image quality. Media Blasters later released the film as a Blu-ray in 2011, featuring the same extras and an HD master from the same source that pleased few thanks to its heavy noise reduction (resulting in little film grain, texture, or vibrancy to the image), duller color scheme, and minimal increase in quality over the DVD.
Released in the summer of 2015, the film's debut UK Blu-ray from 88 Films was the result of a crowd funding effort to do a new transfer from the original negative. The end result turned out to be something of a mixed bag, offering a notable increase in detail but featuring color timing that veers on the extremely yellow side for most of the running time; that means the skin tones have a heavy gold cast, and the color blue is almost entirely wiped out in outdoor scenes (with the day-for-night tinting in the climax also tossed aside). It's perfectly watchable and better than the SD options, but anyone expecting a pristine HD experience came away a bit puzzled. The DTS-HD MA audio options include the usual English track and what remains the only way to watch the film in Italian with English subtitles, reason enough for completists to spring for this release. The usual "deleted" scene and trailer are included along with a fun 48-minute Q&A with McCulloch at a Manchester convention appearance, conversing with a great deal of humor about his transition from aspiring English actor to butt-kicking Italian horror hero. However, the heftiest extra here is the 85-minute documentary Eaten Alive! The Rise and Fall of the Italian Cannibal Film, directed by Calum Waddell, featuring the expected assemblage of talking heads ranging from scholars like Shelagh Rowan-Legg and John Martin to the usual suspects like Umberto Lenzi and Ruggero Deodato (and a surprising appearance by Me Me Lai!) covering the disreputable subgenre's history as a descendant of neorealism and mondo films through its current resurgence in popularity. (It's also included on the Grindhouse Releasing Blu-ray of Cannibal Ferox.)
However, the award for the best release of the film easily goes to the wildly extravagant two-disc Blu-ray or DVD set from Severin in 2016, which heaps on more extras than you'd get on a respected Federico Fellini title. Disc one presents the original U.S. version of Doctor Butcher, M.D. for the first time in decades, and it's great to finally have this crazy cut back in circulation with a fresh new transfer. The added footage looks about as good as it could, considering it's from a student film with lousy lighting, while the rest has been largely assembled from a new transfer of the feature from the Italian negative. (More on that below in disc two.) As for extras, the 31-minute "Butchery & Ballyhoo: An Interview with Aquarius Releasing's Terry Levene" is an amusing trip though his distribution career starting with "unbridled nepotism" through the glory days of Times Square with his titles like Julie Darling, Make Them Die Slowly, Barbed Wire Dolls, The Concrete Jungle, The Bodyguard, and Bruce Lee Fights Back from the Grave, not to mention some white coater porn and legal wrangling over Deep Throat. He also touches on the "despicable, disgusting" Beyond the Darkness, the difficulty of selling his cannibal films outside of the theatrical market, and even marketing a Truffaut film. "Down on the Deuce" (22 mins.) casts a nostalgic look back at the movie palaces of 42nd Street with Frumkes and Temple of Schlock's Chris Poggiali strolling around the area and pointing out where the major exploitation theaters originally operated. It's quite entertaining, not to mention a little surreal seeing discussions of Dr. Butcher, Diane Arbus, and Night of the Juggler in front of Starbucks and posters for Lord of the Dance. The 8-minute Frumkes footage from Tales That Will Tear Your Heart Out is presented in its entirety, with Frumkes commentary over the silent footage. In the 12-minute "The Butcher Mobile," early fanzine creator Rick Sullivan of Gore Gazette fame recalls his rivalry with Bill Landis, his contentious appearance on The Morton Downey Jr. Show, and his stint as a barker for the Butcher Mobile alongside Michael J. Weldon and Gary Hertz, as well as his big mistake of throwing some Traci Lords titles in with his VHS gray market business. In "Cutting Doctor Butcher" (10 mins.), editor Jim Markovic chats about working for Levene at Aquarius and getting the challenging gig of creating Doctor Butcher from two very different films after gigs on titles like Duel of the Iron Fist. Also included are the classic original trailer, a pair of video promos for the VHS release, and a Hertz step-through essay, "Experiments With A Male Caucasian Brain (...and other memories of 42nd Street)," about the sinister allure of a movie haven demolished by the crack epidemic and corporate takeovers.
Disc two features the original European version of Zombie Holocaust, presented for the first time in HD in the extended version with that extra pit scene integrated back into the feature in prime quality. It also restores the original 35mm credits, which have been digitally imitated on prior editions. The DTS-HA MA English track sounds great, but the big news here is the transfer itself, the healthiest the film has ever looked on home video. All the original film grain is kept intact (which isn't necessarily a pretty thing during that harsh, nasty-looking New York footage), and the color timing is far more natural and impressive with normal skin tones, blue skies, and blood that's now the correct shade of red. Fans should be very, very happy. As for extras, McCulloch is up at bat first with "Voodoo Man" (8 mins.) in which he explains how he first got into acting and landed his big Fulci role without even auditioning, which led to a brief but memorable stint in Italian films that also included the "silly" Contamination and this film, which he still hasn't seen a single time. Another Zombie vet, makeup effects artist Rosario Prestopino (City of the Living Dead, Burial Ground, and Demons) covers his career in the 23-minute "Blood of the Zombies," with his work on this film with Giannetto De Rosi including latex work to achieve the brain experiments on Buchanan, working with plywood machetes, and painting flowers on a naked Delli Colli. This interview was shot by Freak-O-Rama in 2007 shortly before his death.
Credited as "Frank Martin," director Marino Girolami is the father of filmmaker Enzo G. Castellari, who gets a nice 7-minute piece discussing how his family started out in the film business in and out of Hollywood after his dad's career as a chef and a champion boxer! Conducted via Skype, it's a nice and illuminating piece with the man behind such films as Keoma and The Inglorious Bastards. The bitchiest and most abused character in the film gets her turn next with "Sherry Holocaust" (24 mins.), an Italian interview for Nocturno as Buchanan explains how she as born in the United States but went to Italy for a career starting with My Name Is Nobody. She refers to this as a "somewhat difficult experience" due to the extensive makeup effects for her big operation scene, though she enjoyed the actors and playing make believe in the jungle. She also touches a bit on some of her other films including Tentacles, Crawlspace, and Eyes behind the Stars. A new, completely different Freak-O-Rama interview with Maurizio Trani, "Neurosurgery Italian Style" (4 mins.), offers some more thoughts on the director, whom he felt wasn't all that suited to effects-heavy films but gave them all plenty of leeway to come up with some gruesome concoctions. A 3-minute filming locations featurette compares the locales seen in the opening act of the film with their sometimes very different appearance today, and you get a very different side of McCulloch with a 1964 recording of him singing "Down by the River!" Also included are the European English and German trailers. Tucked away at the bottom of the extras menu is an option to play the Italian-language version of the film, albeit minus subtitles. Easily one of the most essential HD-era Euro horror releases to date.
88 FILMS BLU-RAY FRAME GRABS
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