Orgy of the Dead

Color, 1977, 85 mins. 10 secs. / 87 mins. 13 secs.
Directed by Roberta Findlay
Starring Tara Chung, Jennifer Jordan, Jake Teague, Jeffrey Hurst, Marlene Willoughby, Michael Gaunt, Crystal Sync, Clea Carson
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), Alpha Blue Archives (DVD) (US R0 NTSC)

A A Woman's Tormentfascinating pioneer of exploitation A Woman's Tormentcinema whose reputation has been steadily rising for the past few decades, Roberta Findlay progressing from producing, shooting, and sometimes acting in her husband Michael's now-classic roughies in the '60s to become a fascinating cinematic voice in her own right. Though she shared director credit on a handful of softcore titles like Mnasidika and Take Me Naked, she really became prolific during the '70s wave of mainstream theatrical play for hardcore films. Sometimes credited as "Robert Norman," she was largely uncomfortable shooting explicit sex but used the commercial obligation to experiment with her own ideas about storytelling and visual language, which makes some of her films like Fantasex, Anyone But My Husband, and the delirious Angel Number 9 markedly different from their peers. Findlay's roughie background really came to the forefront with one of her most notorious films, A Woman's Torment, which is really better described as a twisted, gory horror film that occasionally hits the brakes for sex scenes. Still shocking today, it packs a transgressive punch and features a number of still-startling visual ideas.

In an upper-middle class Long Island community, two couples find their lives mingling through both social get-togethers and some infidelity on the side. Otis (Teague), a sexually insensitive psychiatrist, is totally oblivious to A Woman's Tormentthe obvious discomfort of his wife, Estelle (Jordan), when they're in bed, and his sneaky relationship with Frances (Sync) is falling apart as well as she goes back into A Woman's Tormentthe arms of her own husband, Don (Hurst). However, that drama is nothing compared to what's going on upstairs with Frances's sister, Karen (Chung), who's mentally deteriorating and causing disruption about whether she should be put into a mental institution. One night when she overhears a domestic squabble, Karen packs up a suitcase and takes off for a family beach house where she makes herself at home and promptly has hallucinations about a masked attacker as she showers. That violence filters into real life when electrician "Larry the Lineman" (Gaunt) shows up and triggers her homicidal urges during a sexual encounter that crosses the line, but that's just the start of Karen's nightmare as the property starts to fill up with corpses.

Featuring an unhinged central performance by newcomer Tara Chung (a mysterious figure who only made two other films), this shocker is obviously riffing on Roman Polanski's Repulsion with its insane leading lady offering very few words and displaying symptoms of several stripes of sexual psychosis. However, the beach-side atmosphere, heavy splashes of blood, A Woman's Tormentand occasionally dreamy artistry (including a very Jean Rollin-esque finale) give the film an identity all its own, with Findlay obviously putting far more effort into A Woman's Tormentthe dialogue scenes and shock moments than the sex scenes (which is betrayed by one of the worst fake money shots in movie history, complete with visible tubing). In fact, one of the era's hottest up and comers at the time, Marlene Willoughby, not only keeps her clothes on but puts on a wild outfit as a snooping neighbor who barges into the house at the worst possible moment. You'd be hard pressed to pinpoint much in the film as erotic, with Chung's frenzied self-gratification in the shower and on the beach coming off as quite terrifying and unlike anything a male filmmaker would have tried to pull off at the time. Adding to the atmosphere is a strong, melancholy music score by regular Findlay composer Walter Sear, resulting in a film that's tough to shake off if you catch it in the right frame of mind.

The first DVD of this title out of the gate was the usual gray market treatment sourced from VHS (presumably the scarce Select-a-Tape edition) by Alpha Blue Archives in 2006, as part of a Cult 70s Porno Directors Findlay release along with The Tiffany Minx (both utterly awful video quality). Fortunately the 2017 dual-format Blu-ray and DVD package A Woman's Tormentfrom Vinegar Syndrome (transfered from the original negative) offers a major rehabilitation A Woman's Tormentfor the film and looks really gorgeous throughout. A handful of shots are intentionally grainy, and they've been left intact here; colors look strong and accurate, and the beach landscape shots in particular look very impressive and beautiful in HD. The DTS-HD MA English mono track also sounds excellent, and optional English SDH subtitles are provided.

In a nice surprise, it turns out the film was actually shot in two distinctly different versions; a non-explicit cut with many alternate and extended shots is also included and runs just over two minutes longer. Of course, with the hardcore footage gone and substituted with milder, shorter takes, that means there's actually far more additional material here than the running time difference might indicate. Anyone who felt the film could have used more character development and spooky moodiness will find that in spades here as the film plays more like a bona fide horror movie here (with a heavy dose of angst-y melodrama, of course), and in many respects it's an even stronger piece of work.

A new audio commentary with Findlay moderated by Casey Scott (for the soft version) is a relaxed and chatty track that solves the ongoing mystery of Tara Chung's ethnicity (Puerto Rican or Dominican, and A Woman's Tormentcompletely bald by choice under her wig), the use of Findlay's A Woman's Tormentown eyes (and sometimes her back) for some of the creepier cutaways after Chung vanished from the production, the challenges of shooting at the house on Fire Island with heavy gear far away from ferry ports from Long Island, her theories on framing, her lack of skill at shooting sex scenes, the rare honesty of Caballero Video, and more. Next up is a Findlay Q&A (22m39s) from an August 30, 2017 screening at the Quad Cinema in New York, again moderated by Scott (just after they completed their commentary), covering legal wrangling over her films, more about Chung's baffling departure, her facility with coming up with good camera angles and in-camera effects on site, and her path to distributing her films on her own terms for the adult theatrical market. Finally, "Wrath of a Woman's Torment" (16m8s) features Gaunt, a.k.a. Michael Dattore (who can also be spotted in Lucio Fulci's City of the Living Dead), reminiscing about Findlay and Sear, getting stuck on Long Island Sound one night after shooting, and feeling great affection for Sync and Willoughby as well as best friend Robert Kerman (a.k.a. R. Bolla), who can be spotted briefly as a party guest. The reversible sleeve features two poster art options, both indicative of the horrific, potent nature of the film itself.

Reviewed on October 17, 2017.