Mar 4, 2015

Death Warmed Over

Before a then relatively unknown Peter Jackson made his satirically grotesque splatter flicks like Bad Taste (1987) and Dead Alive (1992) aka Braindead, kiwi auteur David Blyth (Red Blooded American Girl, Wound) more or less single-handedly ushered in New Zealand horror cinema with his conspicuously convoluted yet undeniably addictive berserk celluloid monster Death Warmed Over (1984) aka Death Warmed Up aka Robot Maniac aka Neuro Killers aka Re-Animator I starring British actor Michael ‘Hercules’ Hurst, which is notable for being awarded the Grand Prix at the Fantasy Film Festival (aka ‘Festival International de Paris du film fantastique et de science-fiction’) by no lesser a filmmaker than Chilean-born auteur Alejandro Jodorowsky. While surely a genre flick influenced by everything from The Island of Doctor Moreau to George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) and everything in-between, the flick was not directed by a typical horror hack but by an iconoclastic auteur that was once considered New Zealand’s equivalent to Luis Buñuel. Indeed, before directing Death Warmed Up, Blyth was responsible for directing the queer avant-garde psycho-sexual short Circadian Rhythms (1976) and the rather underrated surrealist Buñuel-esque anti-bourgeois fantasy Angel Mine (1978), so it seemed somewhat unlikely that he would direct a splatter flick geared towards a more general audience. Of course, as reflected in its fairly overt homoerotic subtext and rather raunchy one-liners like, “I love the smell of blonde pussy in the morning,” Blyth’s hysterically paced horror flick is not exactly your typical completely mindless spatter show. Co-penned by Michael Heath who was previously responsible for writing the Kubrick-esque Ozploitation classic Next of Kin (1982) and the underrated kiwi cross-genre Ronald Hugh Morrieson adaptation Summer (1982) aka The Scarecrow, Death Warmed Up is like a car accident that you cannot help but stare at in disbelief as a work that seems like it was created by a collective of nihilistic methheads where the storyline is just as frenetic and erratic as the in-your-face steadicam-based cinematography. More or less completely overlooked in Blyth's native New Zealand where it was described in the press as a “depraved waste of taxpayers money,” the film would ultimately develop its most loyal following in Europe.  Probably the most notable fan of the work is Jodorowsky who indubitably paid the film its greatest compliment when he stated in an interview: “…the film appealed to me because of its irrational side. David Blyth creates an unexplained atmosphere from which we have to draw conclusions, and, in passing, he settles scores with his paternal archetype and with his sexual vision of the world. So what sets off a negative apocalypse is a sexual act between two adolescents; from the moment these two youngsters make love in an open, healthy manner, the world explodes as if in retribution. From all these points of view, this can be said to be a personal film, made with very little money, but one which multiplies its resources. I also divide directors into those who need several million dollars, and those who love the cinema so much that they make miracles on small budgets and multiply the loaves by putting all their efforts into the image.” Featuring an involuntarily parricidal hero, ambiguously gay mad scientist with a fetish for both bloody brains and blonde boys, pernicious mutant punk rockers, an old fat white chap in an unconventional form of blackface, and reasonably decent gross-out gore effects, Death Warmed Up is certainly what cult films are all about as a piece of wayward celluloid idiosyncrasy that plays by its own rules while also playing with outmoded horror cliches. 

 Like Death Warmed Up itself, the life of protagonist Michael Tucker (Michael Hurst) very much resembles a nightmare, or at least it does after he kills both of his parents. At first, Michael is just your typical New Zealand Anglo-Saxon schoolboy, but things change when he goes by his father’s work one day and witnesses his neurosurgeon daddy Professor Tucker (David Weatherley) getting in a heated argument over dubious research with his unhinged megalomaniac partner Dr. Archer Howell (Gary Day) who believes his brain surgery experiments can extend human life despite the fact that his experiments on rats concluded with the rats dying with major brain lesions. To Michael’s horror, Dr. Howell spots him during the argument and then later chases the boy down and awkwardly recommends that he take a shower, homoerotically stating, “You’re all sweaty. Let's get you cleaned up.” While Michael showers, Dr. Howell admires the young boy’s unclad body and then out of nowhere shoves a huge needle filled with some strange serum into the boy’s bum, thus making him homicidally crazy. Ultimately, Dr. Howell gives Michael a shotgun and drops him off at his home where he rudely interrupts his parents' carnal pleasures and proceeds to shoot them dead, even symbolically blasting a hole where his mother’s vagina used to be in what one might describe as brazenly anti-Oedipal behavior. For his unconscious crimes, Michael is locked up in a mental institution, even though he was not in control of his actions. Needless to say, when all is said and done, the protagonist wants his revenge and he will have it, but it will ultimately come at the price of everything, especially his sanity, but also love and a long well lived life. 

 Flash forward seven years later, Michael has been released from the loony bin and has a sort of ‘Nazi chic’ makeover as reflected in his charming bleach blond Hitler Youth haircut and matching eyebrows. Meanwhile, Dr. Howell, who previously received a grant from a heinous sounding group called the Rothschilds Foundation, has fully realized his dream as a sort of evil corporate mad scientist and now owns a gigantic hospital-cum-prison called ‘Trans Cranial Applications’ (TCA) on a luxurious island. Needless to say, Michael decides to pay Dr. Howell a visit on the island, but he also absurdly decides to bring his girlfriend Sandy (Margaret Umbers), as well his best bud Lucas (William Upjohn) and his girlfriend Jeannie (Norelle Scott). To get to the island, Michael and his friends take a ferry on which they run into some mutants, including a rather sickly fire-crotched hunchback with a somewhat lycanthrope-like appearance named Tex Murno (Bruno Lawrence), who was apparently the first victim of Dr. Howell’s surgery. When Lucas decides to piss on a random car, he and Michael soon find themselves fighting two mutants named Spider (David Letch) and Jannings (Geoff Snell), who ultimately get their asses kicked by the Aryan studs. Spider and Jannings are both ‘patients’/‘employees’ of Dr. Howell and they will ultimately be spending most of their time attempting to hunt down Michael and his friends. After finally arriving on the island and getting in a road battle with Spider that ends with the baldheaded punk mutant getting run off the road, Michael drives his friend into a bizarre local town where he spots his nemesis going to a place called ‘Ranji Gandhi & Sons Fruitery’ owned by a goofy Indian (played by Jonathan Hardy in ‘brownface’) whose eyes practically pop out of his head when he talks. While Michael and his friends have a fun little time at the beach where the two male leads sport super gay speedos (Michael Hurst seems like he has an erection), things ultimately begin going down hill for the group, who will soon be battling giant mutants at a mad scientist’s somewhat kitschy compound, which seems like it was designed by Steve Strange of the New Romanticist group Visage. 

 At Michael's recommendation, the friends decide to hang out in some underground tunnels where they soon find themselves being chased by Spider and Jannings on motorcycles. When one of the mutant goons runs into Lucas’ girlfriend’s Jeannie, she hits her head on concrete and is severely wounded. Luckily, loverboy Lucas takes his revenge and ultimately causes Jannings to impale himself on a pole. When Spider brings half-dead Jannings by Dr. Howell’s compound and the good doctor refuses to help, the sinisterly goofy mutant decides to seek his revenge. Indeed, Spider frees dozens of large mutant ‘patients’ at Dr. Howell’s compound that immediately begin brutally murdering everyone in sight, including cute chicks in futuristic new wave uniforms. Eventually, a group of the unruly monsters led by Spider begin attacking Michael and his friends at a bar, but eventually Dr. Howell’s Chinaman sidekick and a group of militaristic medics show up and force the friends to go back with them to the hospital where the homicidal havoc is raging on. To make a long story short, Jeannie gets burned alive after throwing radioactive material at a mutant, Lucas is killed after taking an axe to the gut from Spider, and Michael finally gets his much desired revenge by repeatedly stabbing Dr. Howell in the stomach with a scalpel in a discernibly fetishistic way. Before he is killed, Dr. Howell states to Michael in a homoerotic fashion, “I had a vision…You were a part of that vision.” After killing Dr. Howell, Michael and his much suffering girlfriend Sandy leave the madhouse, yet the protagonist seems all the more deranged despite killing his nemesis and he even gets violent with his lover when she attempts to comfort him. When Sandy tells Michael, “It’s over,” he responds by curiously remarking, “It hasn't even begun” and by driving to the site of a group of cars and trucks in flames where he is ultimately killed via electrocution after a power line falls on him. Undoubtedly, to say Michael is a tragic protagonist would be an understatement. 

 Unfortunately, not only was the original 16mm print of Death Warmed Up apparently accidentally burnt by a careless intern at the film vault where it was kept, but a second 35mm blowup was also lost, hence why all the DVD releases of the film look like they were transferred from VHS. Interestingly, Death Warmed Up would not have ever been made were it not for a tarot reading given by none other than Alejandro Jodorowsky. Indeed, apparently director David Blyth was so obsessed with Jodorowsky after seeing El Topo (1970) at the NZ Film Festival that he traveled to London looking for the filmmaker-cum-guru and found out through some friends that he was living in Paris. Upon arriving in Paris, Blyth found Jodorowsky at a shop called Arcane 22 and was told after receiving a tarot reading that he should immediately go back to New Zealand and begin working on another film which would ultimately be Death Warmed Up. In a strange yet rather fitting instance of happenstance, Jodorowsky ended up being the President of the Jury when the film competed at the Paris Fantasy Film Festival where it won the Grand Prix. Notably, Jodorowsky would later state regarding Blyth and his film, “I could understand someone disapproving of David Blyth's film, saying that it was a curious film, not Cartesian enough, with blood in it, idiotic, but nevertheless I don't think I'm wrong in saying that this director is going to have an interesting career in film. In fact I told him, when I read the Tarot for him, that he was going to become very famous, and very rich, and that he would go and shoot in the United States, where people would do their utmost to deprive him of his vision.” While Blyth never really became that rich or famous, he did go on to work in Hollywood where he was most certainly deprived of his vision, hence why he would be forced to direct episodes of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and various other completely commercial works that one would never expect to be directed by the kiwi Buñuel.  Luckily, Blyth eventually decided to leave Hollywood and move back to his homeland where he began directing experimental documentaries and brutal arthouse splatter flicks like Wound (2010), which is arguably the director's most subversive and grotesque work to date.  Admittedly, the first time I watched Death Warmed Up, I had a rather hard time getting into it and had to turn it off after 30 minutes or so, but after becoming fairly familiar with Blyth's oeuvre I wisely decided to give it another try and now can confess that I am a converted fan.  As a truly bizarre and idiosyncratic sci-fi-horror that is like The Island of Doctor Moreau as savagely raped by Liquid Sky (1982) and Class of Nuke 'Em High (1986), albeit with creepy cocksucker undertones, Blyth's movie is pure and unadulterated celluloid trash that could have only been sired in the 1980s and I mean that in the best possible way.  After all, any film featuring a curious combination of seemingly unrelated ingredients, including naughty nurses in fetishistic New Romanticist-esque uniforms, hilariously vulgar Indian racial caricatures, ambiguously gay mad scientists of the twink-obsessed sorts, murderous mutant punk rockers, and a sunny paradisaical island, among other things, is worthy of any truly enterprising cinephile's time.

-Ty E


Tony Brubaker said...

Death to all pansy queer filth, the bloody disgusting woofters.

Tony Brubaker said...

I want to bugger that nurse, what a gorgeous little darlin` that is (as the bird was 30 years ago when this film was made, not as the slag is now obviously).