Color, 1974, 95m.
Directed by Mario Bava
Starring Riccardo Cucciolla, Aldo Caponi, Lea Lander, Maurice Poli, George Eastman
Kino Lorber (Blu-Ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC), Anchor Bay (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), Lucertola Media (Germany R0 NTSC / WS (1.60:1)

Rabid Dogs

Following the turbulent experience of Lisa and the Devil and its mangled transformation into an Rabid Dogsexorcism film, director Mario Bava faced a confusing time in Italian cinema in the mid-'70s. Horror and suspense films were fading fast at the box office (with the jolt of Deep Red still over a year off), and the public had a much bigger appetite for violent crime films and silly sex comedies. With that in mind, he embarked on his only action crime film as a director, one that would turn out to be the most mysterious and troubled of them all: Cani arrabbiati, or Rabid Dogs, a low budget riff on Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat with most of the action contained within a moving car during a sweltering Italian afternoon. The darkly cynical attitude of Bava's Bay of Blood resurfaced again here with a vengeance, this time without much in the way of dark humor to make it more palatable, and the end result proved to be perhaps the most vicious and modern of all of his output.

Unfortunately, it would take decades for the public to finally see what ultimately emerged as a vital film in Bava's filmography. The producer went bankrupt during the final haul of production, with the film seized among his assets and left incomplete until 1997 when one of the actors, Lea Lander (who previously appeared in Blood and Black Lace), spearheaded an effort to get it released. In 1997 a DVD appeared in Germany from soundtrack company Lucertola Media, region free and NTSC in an obvious bid to pitch it to American fans, with Video Watchdog's Tim Lucas hammering the translated Italian dialogue into shape for American consumption. The disc became a major hot item as the home video industry was transitioning from VHS and laserdisc to DVD, spurring many horror and cult fans to finally dive in and buy DVD players to see this formerly lost holy grail of Italian filmmaking.

The lean, mean storyline charts the aftermath of a violent robbery in which three criminals -- Blade (Caponi, aka crooner Don Backy), Doc (Poli from Papaya, Love Goddess of the Cannibals), and the hulking Thirty-two (Joe D'Amato regular Eastman) -- wind up taking three hostages during their bullet-riddled getaway. Riccardo (Cucciolla) has a sick young boy with him, and Maria (Lander) becomes more nervous as they're all confined in her car tearing out to the countryside. With roadblocks going up and the police hunting the area, the group are bound for a brutal destiny with more than a few surprises in store.

A terrific film from start to finish, Rabid Dogs is a troubling reminder of how many potentially great films have been hobbled by the forces of fate over the years, either languishing unreleased or only reaching audiences in hopelessly compromised versions. All of the actors are excellent (albeit in an aggressive and borderline operatic style that may bother some), and Bava does a masterful job of using very little money and a confined setting to create a sweaty, bloody Rabid Dogsatmosphere of corruption and dread. Composer Stelvio Cipriani, who had worked with Bava on Bay of Blood and Baron Blood, contributes a marvelous, jittery score, perhaps not in its polished complete form given the film's history but very potent nonetheless.

The Lucertola release managed to tackle the film's incomplete status by adding a main titles sequence with newly shot footage of a silhouetted sobbing woman standing in front of a red curtain, an image whose significance only becomes clear much, much later. The transfer was taken from the only source available at the time, looking very desaturated and brown with a non-anamorphic presentation presented as open matte as possible with very tiny black bars at the top and bottom ( as well as very tiny English subtitles.).

In the early 2000s, producer Alfredo Leone (who worked with Bava on several of their '70s films) obtained the rights to the film and arranged for Rabid Dogslimited theatrical screenings of a new edition, now entitled Kidnapped, prepared with the participation of Bava's director son, Lamberto (who helmed the two Demons films and the great A Blade in the Dark). They added new cutaways to the interior of the building during the robbery as well as shots of the police at work trying to follow the car's whereabouts, with a distraught woman at the station adding another wrinkle. Cipriani also composed a completely new score for this version, and there's really no polite way to describe it: the new score is an atrocity. It's a drab, cheap, synth-laden mess that makes the film feel like a made-for-TV production, with a sappy ballad tacked on at the end to really hammer the insult home. Most of the changes are unnecessary but at least inoffensive, but the handling of the final scene really flushes the whole film down the toilet. The original shocking, downbeat closing shots have been replaced with a new resolution akin to a bad soap opera, and coupled with that horrific song, it's easy to see why the rough but powerful Rabid Dogs cut is still the one almost all fans go to for repeated viewings.

Both versions were included on the 2007 DVD from Anchor Bay, with vastly superior video quality. The Kidnapped version looked excellent as one would expect, while the Rabid Dogs cut featured a dynamic new main titles sequence designed in a manner similar to those stylized giallo trailers from the '70s (especially Bay of Blood). This is easily the most satisfying version of the film as it retains the first (superior) Cipriani score, looks excellent, and presents the original ending, albeit in degraded image quality since the surviving elements for that bit weren't kept in the same condition. Tim Lucas provides a very informative commentary for the Rabid Dogs version, covering its two presentations, production history, and participants in great detail. Also included was a 16-minute featurette, "End of the Road," with Leone and Lamberto Bava talking about the film's bizarre history and their intentions behind the creation of the Kidnapped release. This disc was also included in Anchor Bay's second Mario Bava set devoted to his 1970s output.

Then we get to the 2013 reissue from Kino Lorber, which raised a lot of questions as its street date kept getting pushed back. The end result hints at more than a few issues behind the scenes as the final Blu-Ray and DVD contain only the revised Kidnapped version, with the Rabid Dogs cut nowhere in sight. The sole extras are bonus trailers for Black Sunday, Baron Blood, Lisa and the Devil and House of Exorcism, and while it's obviously a major letdown to only have the inferior Kidnapped version available now, it's worth noting that the image quality is excellent and a significant boost over the SD versions. Just be prepared to cover your ears through the whole movie and turn it off before the last scene.

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Reviewed on June 30, 2013.