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If you look back over the history on this site, you’ll see that although there are literally dozens of postings in my “international weirdness” category by now, there’s one country that’s very conspicuous by its absence — India. That’s no accident. Truth be told, even though the Indian film industry is the largest in the world, Bollywood in general represents a sizable (as in vast and yawning) gap in my personal cinematic database. It’s not that I don’t care about sampling the numerous celluloid delights it has on offer, it’s just that there are so many that I almost wouldn’t even know where to begin.

Enter good friend to this blog Todd Stadtman, master of ceremonies over at Die, Danger, Die, Die, Kill! and a regular contributor to sites many (heck, most) readers here are probably familiar with such as Teleport Cityio9, and The Cultural Gutter, among others, who’s seeking to erase the dearth of knowledge myself and others shamefully find ourselves saddled with single-handedly with his impressive new full-color volume from FAB Press entitled Funky Bollywood.

Billing itself (quite rightly) as an exploration of “the Wild World of 1970s Indian Action Cinema,” this “selective guide” is a bona fide crash course in the classics and less-than-classics one can find on offer when one delves into the vastly populated (like the nation they hail from) smorgasbord of flicks from the heyday of curry-flavored exploitation, and is written in such an engaging and accessible style that it’s sure to appeal to “newbies” like myself,  while its simultaneous inclusion of a wealth of behind-the-scenes knowledge (not to mention a treasure trove of stills, poster art, etc. — all reproduced with the same care and exacting eye for detail that FAB has taken with previous cult cinema tomes like Robin Bougie’s Graphic Thrills and Steven Thrower’s Nightmare U.S.A., thus establishing their reputation as the “gold standard” for publishers of “this sort of thing”) and production details  will certainly shed new light on many a movie that even die-hard fans of the genre had previously been unaware of. I’m sure it sounds cliched as hell to say “there’s something in here for everyone,” but — there’s something in here for everyone.

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For newcomers like yours truly, though, this volume represents one heck of an eye-opener, since I’m not any more familiar with stars like Feroz Khan, Shashi Kapoor, Zeenat Aman, and Parveen Babi than I am with the films that helped establish their legend such as WarrantBulletShalimar, or James Bond 777. Just a handful of pages into Stadtman’s magum opus, though, was all I needed to convince me that I’ve seriously been missing out.

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Like many of you out there, a new movie obsession is probably the last thing I need, but it’s hard, when reading through Funky Bollywood, not to want to consume everything Stadtman surveys that you can possibly get your hands on. I’m still in the process of getting my feet wet (as a tip for the budget-conscious, I humbly offer up the fact that YouTube isn’t a bad place to begin your explorations), but with a book like this serving as my travel guide, I’m bound to find more out-and-out gems — as well as diamonds in the rough — than I would if I were flying blind. I’m especially appreciative of the pages the author devotes to the composers who provided the amazing psychedelic/psychotronic musical scores to many of these films, and can now proudly state that my ear can differentiate between the work of R.D. Burman and Kishore Kumar with relative ease.

Don’t fret, though — the good guys, leading ladies, heavyweight vilians, and directors who made Indian action, western, and spy films what they were during their heyday are all covered here, as well, and I think I can say with relative ease that even if you think you know everything there is too know about all of them, you’re going to be in for more than a few surprises and revelations here.

If you’re getting the impression that no stone is left unturned in this book, I’d say you’re spot-on in your guess. This is an exhaustive study that remains eminently readable — shit, downright fun, even — despite its being probably the most thorough-going examination of its subject ever committed to print (at least in English). It’s a relatively fine line that Stadtman has to balance here, providing enough detail to be of interest to veteran fans of the genre while eschewing the kind of “information overload” that can scare away those who are more wet behind the ears, but he does it well and makes it look easy. My hat’s certainly off to him and if and when I ever plunge into an immersive project like this of my own, I only hope that I can do it half as well as he has.

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Perhaps the greatest compliment I can give Funky Bollywood, though, is simply this — before I opened this book up, I hadn’t seen a single flick mentioned in it, and now I want to see them all. That’s the very definition of a  captivating read right there.

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Let’s be honest about something right off the bat : this whole “foodie” thing? It’s gone just too damn far.

I appreciate the fact that there’s a tremendous level of artistry and creativity involved in crafting a fine meal, absolutely, and that those who can do so possess a set of skills that often takes years to develop. And I’m also aware of the fact that many chefs are promoting a “farm to table” philosophy that eschews mass-manufactured “frankenfoods” in favor of providing their customers with fresh, healthy, locally-grown produce and the like. Good for them. But at the end of the day these guys  aren’t fucking rock stars, they’re cooks,  and eating out isn’t the grandest experience in the universe — nor should it be. Our relationship with food is entirely out of whack. If you pick up the free local “arts and entertainment” newspaper in your town — here in Minneapolis it’s City Pages, but pretty much every metro area of 75,000 people or more is cursed with one — you could, of course, be forgiven for thinking that there was nothing more important than your local culinary “scene,” but in truth it’s pretty damn tough for the average family of four (or more) to be able to afford to eat out at any of the places these rags spend countless pages gushing over even once a year, so by dint of sheer economic necessity the simple fact is that the “foodie” crowd in any given American city or suburb is much smaller than the people who have nothing else and/or better to do with their time would care to believe. In other words — this shit just ain’t all that important to everyday working people.

Oh, and while we’re on the subject of cold, hard, economic reality, let me mention two other things that the culinary establishment and its largely-unpaid sycophants would prefer not to mention : the overwhelming majority of the restaurants they’re talking about in any given review, blog post, or what have you will go out of business in less than a year, leaving a good number of “local celebrity” chefs, as well as their entire front -of-house and kitchen staffs (you know, the folks who do all the real work) scrambling to find employment in an industry that’s never going to be stable ; and most restaurant work doesn’t offer health insurance or 401 (k) pensions or anything of the sort, so good luck growing old in the food biz. I sincerely hope that all the “fresh, edgy” flavor-of-the-month chefs out there enjoy their 15 minutes of semi-fame whenever they happen, because most of them are going to end up with nothing (except for maybe a pile of debt if they’ve financed any of their business ventures out of their own wallets) when the ride is over, and those critics and bloggers who once sang their praises? There will always be some “new, exciting” place popping up to command their attention, while all those guys (and, to some extent, gals, but let’s be honest — the restaurant business, particularly in the kitchen, is still by and large a testosterone-dominated work environment) they used to talk about? They’re so yesterday’s news. Your long-term options as a chef are pretty narrow : either land a show on the Food Network (good luck with that), or find something else to do by the time you’re 45 or 50 — a point at which, by the  way, you’ll still be paying off your student loan debt from Cordon Bleu or whatever other ridiculously overpriced for-profit cooking school you attended.

On the one hand, this is kinda tragic on a purely human scale — the absolute implosion of the “food truck craze,” for instance, has probably had devastating consequences on a lot of families; but on the other hand, part of me thinks that the whole “foodie” thing can’t die out soon enough because there’s seriously something flat-out sick and wrong about the fact that  we even  have the nerve to critique our meals for being “over-seasoned” or “less adventurous than we were hoping for” or whatever nit-picky little things the food critics focus in on. But more on that in just a minute.

Since I’m on the subject of  critics — shit, don’t even get me started. That local freebie fishwrap I mentioned a couple paragraphs back? I have it on reasonably good authority that they pay their food “journalist” 40 bucks per review and don’t even reimburse their meal expenses anymore, which means that whoever is dumb enough to be writing restaurant reviews for them at this point (most seem to last about six months, tops, at the job) is actually coming out behind on the whole deal, given that you’ve gotta visit any given establishment 3 or 4 times in order to be in a position to have sampled enough dishes to critique the joynt. At least the food bloggers out there — who, rest assured, I will be savaging in the very next paragraph — that are doing the same thing most likely have other jobs, and are just whiling away at this shit in their spare time, because it fits their warped definition of “fun.”

Hmmmmm — that sounds kinda familiar, come to think of it. In fact, if somebody wants to point a finger at me and call me hypocrite at this stage because “they’re just like you, only you talk movies and they talk food” they’d sorta have a point, but there’s a key distinction that needs to be made : a bad review from me ain’t gonna put Warner Brothers or 20th Century Fox out of business. The simple truth is that I just don’t fucking matter that much, but if one of these pretentious armchair culinary “experts” gives a new start-up eating establishment a negative write-up, it can have devastating consequences. It’s really no wonder so many of  these people have almost hilariously inflated opinions of themselves, because their opinions actually are sort of important. A local restaurant blog that gets the same sort of traffic my movie and comics blog gets — say, somewhere in the neighborhood of four or five hundred “hits” per day — can actually have an impact, even if it’s author is a fucking accountant who couldn’t find his ass with two hands the minute he got into a kitchen. These days, it’s true, everyone’s a critic — whether it be of movies, books, plays, comics, restaurants, you name it — but I operate by a very simple rule of thumb, and I know other movie bloggers who do the same thing : anything the “big guys,” or even modestly-distributed indies,  do is fair game, but when it comes to small, self-financed, shoestring-budget filmmakers — the kind of people who invest all their hopes and dreams and life savings into a project — I’ll tread a bit more carefully. I’m not suggesting that I muzzle my opinions, much less deliberately write a good review for a bad movie. No way. I may not be getting paid for this, but my conscience isn’t for sale at any price. Here’s how I (and others that I know of) operate : if you send me a “screener” of your low-budget, no-distribution-deal-to-speak-of,  independent feature and I like it, I’ll say so. If I don’t, chances are that I probably won’t even review it — unless it’s so obviously  and utterly without merit that somebody needs to tell you to find a new line of work. I’ve received numerous movies from numerous independent filmmakers over my 4 or 5 years of doing this, and I try to offer constructive criticism to them privately if I didn’t care for their efforts, provided their film meets the “absolutely starting from nothing” criteria I’ve just outlined. But I’m not gonna trash ‘em in public for something they have so much sheer hope riding on. I just don’t have it in me.

Does that make me fundamentally dishonest? I have no idea. But almost anybody with an HD camcorder thinks they can be a director these days, and I have no desire to rip their dreams to shreds unless they absolutely have it coming. I’d rather have some kid right out of college who sent me his shot-on-the-weekends homemade horror flick think I’m an asshole for not reviewing his movie that he gave me a free copy of than to have him think I’m an asshole for tearing it apart in a review that’s going to sit on the internet forever. Likewise, a small, locally-owned, start-up restaurant usually has more than enough to worry about in terms of just keeping the lights on and making sure the paychecks they cut that week clear the bank — and now they have to sweat some douchebag lawyer or real estate agent publicly trashing their place on their food blog or in a yelp! review? Please.

Wait, though! I’m not quite done alienating every single person that’s ever written a restaurant review online. I have one more thought to leave any and/or all of you with before I clumsily segue into our actual business at hand here — next time you, Mr. or Ms. wanna-be restaurant critic, look in the mirror, please consider the following : a good half of the world is starving as we speak. They’d run a mile through sweltering desert heat just for a  handful of dried beans and a cup of water. And you have the nerve to critique food based on its “presentation” or “originality” or “flavor profile” or “balance”? I think a good, solid “fuck you” from the entire continent or three full of people who wonder where their next meal is even going to come from, never mind what the hell it looks like, is in order at this point, don’t you? And make no mistake, the two circumstances are inextricably linked — they are going hungry because we have too damn much.

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How, then, to make the “foodie” trend even more nauseating, over-exposed, and frankly out of control than it already is? Why, make a movie about it, of course — all of which brings us (finally!) to 2014’s Chef,  which just landed in the instant streaming queue on Netflix (it’s also available on Blu-ray and DVD), and which purports to bring  Hollywood wunderkind Jon Favreau back to his “indie roots” or somesuch. Now, we all know that when it comes to pretentious, self-absorbed asshole-ism, that even  the “foodie” community still has a long way to go before it catches up to Tinseltown (although it’s rapidly doings its best to narrow the gap) — but this, we’re told, is a “personal” effort, and represents Favreau’s attempt to “back away” from blockbusters like Iron Man and “get back in touch with his inner storyteller,” or words to that effect.

Bullshit. If Cowboys Vs. Aliens hadn’t flopped so spectacularly, he’d still be churning out big-budget garbage — instead of, ya know, more modestly-budgeted garbage like this. In any fair and just universe, this yarn about a chef (Favreau) who finds himself “creatively stifled” by his boss (Dustin Hoffman) and quits to start up a food truck, then drives it all the way across country to bond with his son (Emjay Anthony) and sidekick/single employee (John Leguizamo), and accidentally learns along the way that said son’s mom (Sofia Vergara), with whom he’s had a rocky relationship in the past, is actually the love of his life, would immediately be dismissed as Lifetime Movie of the Week garbage. Throw in the fact that the asshole food critic (Oliver Platt) who helped precipitate his “getting back in touch with why he loved cooking in the first place”ends up bankrolling him to open his dream restaurant at the end (after Mr. Critic sells his blog for $10 million or something — a plot “twist” that should make even those unpaid “foodies” I was just foaming at the mouth about scoff at it for its utter ridiculousness,  unless they’re so breathtakingly narcissistic that they think shit like that really can happen to them) and, ya know what? The whole thing would probably seem so cliched that even Lifetime would take a pass on it after all.

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Guess what, though?  Even with all that naked heartstring-tugging (gosh, why is the kid shooting one-second video clips with his phone once a day? Why, so chef daddy can sit down and watch them all,  spliced together,  at the end, of course) and glaringly obvious forced parallels between his character’s “arc” and his own “journey as a filmmaker,”  Favreau still isn’t finished offending our sensibilities in his duties as writer and director, because he’s thrown in a healthy dose of racism and sexism, to boot! On the sexist front,  Scarlett Johansson is utterly wasted (and speaking of wasted, Robery Downey Jr. pops up just long enough for you to say “hey, look! It’s Robert Downey Jr.!”) in a role that relegates her to being a piece of fuckmeat to occupy Favreau’s time until he gets back together with Vergara, while Vergara herself is saddled with playing the same “sexy Latin lady with a sassy attitude” that every single director seems to assume assume  is all the more she can handle; and on the racist front, we’ve got Leguizamo as the loyal (he quit along with his “master” while a turncoat — played by Bobby Cannavale — stayed behind at the restaurant) Hispanic sidekick who’s just so happy to be working for his boss that he’s more than willing to let him take the credit — and the cash — for a Cuban sandwich food truck  (the very same  truck that “revitalizes” the boss-man’s career, family, love life, and fortunes) that is, for all intents and purposes, his idea. Yup, everyone knows their place in this flick, alright.

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Seriously, friends (assuming I have any left) — Chef is, if anything, even worse than the brief synopsis I’ve just provided you with would lead you to conclude. It’s two hours of the most focus-group-tested litany of tropes slapped together in such a way as to give off a vibe of faux-“indie credibility” that it in no way actually earns. It’s the kind of film that thinks it’s being “edgy” when it peppers its soundtrack with reggae and a capella versions of worn-out R&B standards. It’s a desperate — and frankly pathetic — attempt by a guy who’s afraid that he may have worn out his welcome at the big studios  to reassert that he’s still “relevant” after all, and only succeeds in demonstrating that he probably never was. It’s a movie about gourmet food, sure, but all Favreau is really serving audiences here is a big ole’ shit sandwich.

 

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Even if you only have my word to go on here, trust me when I say that I don’t impress easily, especially when it comes to movies. Yeah, sure, there’s plenty of stuff I like (and, as longtime readers of this site can no doubt attest to, plenty more that I don’t), but even most of the flicks that I give a “thumbs-up” to are of the “well, ya know, it’s good for what it is” or “sure, you’ve seen this a million times before, but this is still a reasonably clever new take on things” variety. It’s not really all that often I call on a filmmaker to, say, stand up and take a bow or anything.

And on that note — Gerard Johnstone, stand up and take a bow.

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Don’t know the name? Rest assured that within a few years, you’ll be hearing a lot more of it, because Hollywood is bound to take notice of talent of this caliber. Johnstone is the writer/director behind 2014’s Housebound, an unassuming, unpretentious, horror/comedy gem from way down under that’s just been added to the instant streaming queue on Netflix (before it’s even available on DVD and Blu-ray, at least here in the US) and that proves New Zealand has more going for it in cinematic terms than just Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth Empire. Yeah, okay — while some of the blood-n’-guts humor and quirkiness on display here certainly are reminiscent, tonally speaking, of the just-mentioned Mr. Jackson’s earlier works, there’s a dash of Gormenghast and Addams Family in here, as well, and to call the end result a “unique concoction” is at once both absolutely true and an understatement of near-criminal proportions.

On, then, to the particulars : serial juvenile delinquent Kylie Bucknell (Morgana O’Reilly) has run afoul of the courts one too many times for a person of her relatively tender years, and has found herself sentenced to nine months’ house arrest at her ancestral home situated along the picturesque Twin Coast Highway. It’s smack dab in the middle of nowhere (as far as she’s concerned, at any rate — having been there, I kinda like the area, myself), and to make matters even worse, her possibly-delusional mother, Miriam (Rima Te Wiata — there’s a good Kiwi name for you) is waiting to welcome her daughter home with less-than-open arms. Oh, and the joynt’s haunted, too.

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Or so says mommy dearest, at any rate — too-cool-for-school Kylie isn’t buying it. But then, of course, things start going bump in the night fairly shortly after her arrival, and now she’s not so sure. And this is the point at which I assure you that, no matter what you might think right now, you’ve actually never seen anything quite like Housebound.

At its core, this actually ends up being a murder mystery, and while the leap from “haunted house story” to “whodunnit?” isn’t too large no matter how one measures it, the way Johnstone goes about it is fresh and amusing enough to be downright invigorating (if you’re in the right mood), and he slyly throws in a more-than-generous helping of twisted humor along the way with so much ease and charm that you can’t help but fall in love with the whole vibe he’s creating no matter how stubbornly you may be trying to resist. So don’t. Just go with the flow.

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Is it flawless? Hell no, but what is? There are a number of (blood) red herrings here, some of which feel a little bit forced (though most don’t), and the pacing can get a bit wonky at times, but any shortcomings are more than made up for with flat-out terrific lead performances, superb atmospherics, witty and intelligent dialogue, and a number of genuinely clever and imaginative twists and turns. It’s not often you get a chance to say “well, didn’t see that one coming,” and Housebound gives you the chance to say it numerous times.

How good is it? For me, the answer to that was “good enough to watch a second time just a day later even though I already knew exactly what was going to happen.” How many mystery-themed movies can you say that about? So drop what you’re doing and watch it already — please! You’ll thank me later. Or, probably, sooner.

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Don’t let that poster art fool you : it may be a direct swipe from Lucio Fulci’s City Of The Living Dead (or, if you prefer, The Gates Of Hell) ,but 2007’s  Zombies : The Beginning —Bruno Mattei’s second of a planned direct-to-video, Filipino-lensed undead trilogy— concerns itself solely with ripping off  James Cameron’s Aliens once the (video) cameras are rolling. Which, yeah, is kinda weird considering it’s a zombie  flick, I suppose, but what the hell, Bruno (or “Vincent Dawn,” as the credits once again tell us here) had done it before — specifically with his 1990 production Shocking Dark — and if there’s one thing he was an old pro at by the time of this, his final film before a brain tumor took his life, it was doing the same thing over and over again. I’m not even one to rock the boat much when I’m feeling perfectly healthy, so far be it from me to knock a guy who was at death’s door for his steadfast refusal to break from old habits.

More or less functioning as a sequel to the previous year’s Island Of The Living Dead, we begin here by completely contradicting the ending to that film and discovering that Sharon (Yvette Yzon — who, we learn in due course, is actually a “doctor” of some sort) is, lo and behold, alive and semi-well, after all, except for these nightmare visions she’s having of being attacked by hordes of shambling corpses. As luck would have it, though, she’s both back on her feet and back at work soon enough, thanks to the fiercely amoral Tyler Corporation, who rescue her from her new life at a Buddhist (I think, at any rate) monastery when they tap her to lead an expedition to find out what happened at an island colony they lost contact with that was beset by some “unknown” tragedy.

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Of course, Sharon already knows what that tragedy was, the suits at Tyler already know what that tragedy was, and, crucially, we already know what that tragedy was — but if everybody just gave up at this point, they wouldn’t all decide to go find out what happened, and we wouldn’t have a movie to watch. So, it’s time to get a paramilitary crew together and go get killed by zombies!

It’s all here, Ellen Ripley fans : zombie fetuses ripping out of their less-than-willing mothers/hosts, zombie babies on bloody murder sprees, secret corporate labs harvesting zombies as bio-weapons, evil company overlords who would much rather see everybody die than have their secrets revealed — all done with far less style, panache, and, most importantly, money than Cameron had at his disposal. If Aliens is, in the words of its director, “40 miles of bad road,” then this is 40 miles of really bad road. Quick question — can you guess how Sharon finally lays waste to the entire zombie “hatchery” at the end? Sure you can.

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None of which should be confused for me saying that Zombies : The Beginning isn’t all kinds of shitty, low-grade fun. It absolutely is. In fact, whether due to its higher body count, more free-flowing bloodshed, or more bald-faced thievery (actually, it’s probably down to a combination of all three), I had more fun watching this than I did Island Of The Living Dead. It almost feels like Bruno was determined to go out with as much bang as his limited bucks would allow, and you have to respect him for that.

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As is the case with its prequel (yeah, I know, the title here makes this one sound like it’s the prequel, but it’s not), Zombies : The Beginning  has recently been released on DVD from Severin Films via their InterVision Picture Corp. on-paper “subsidiary,” and features a nicely-remastered anamorphic widescreen picture and stereo sound, along with the original trailer, a roughly five-minute promo reel, and an on-camera chat with screenwriter Antonio Tentori rounding out a small but welcome package of extras. I grabbed a copy off Amazon Marketplace brand new for ten bucks, and at that price, I really have absolutely nothing to complain about here. Sure, Mattei was just fulfilling his role as consummate Italian cinematic “borrower” one more time with this one, but he gives it his all, and I freely admit that’s plenty good enough for my (yeah, low — you got a problem with that?) standards.

 

 

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Toward the end of his life, Italian Z-grade maestro Bruno Mattei hit upon a novel idea — he would return to the genre that spawned his biggest success (Hell Of The Living Dead) with less money, a videocamera, and no really new ideas to speak of, and hope that lightning would strike not just twice, but four times — because “Vincent Dawn” (as he’s credited internationally on many productions, including this one)  was planning a straight-to-video zombie trilogy this time around, to be shot entirely in the Philippines, utilizing primarily local “talent,” and incorporating a mix of both practical and cut-rate (to be kind about things) CGI effects.  Sounds like a winner, right?

Unfortunately, he only lived to see two of these films get made, and while both are a far cry from Mattei at his best — which, let’s face it, is still nothing close to the dictionary definition of “good” — they’re still reasonably entertaining if you attach a “for what they are” prefix to that statement, so let’s dive right in and take a look at both of them in order, shall we?

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First up we’ve got 2006’s Island Of The Living Dead (or, as it’s know in its native tongue, L’Isola Dei Morti Viventi), a rather standard-issue “weird adventure” tale about a group of freelance treasure hunters who, having lost a big score due to simple (and, frankly, mind-numbing) incompetence at the story’s outset find themselves adrift at sea until they stumble upon a hitherto-uncharted island that pops up out of nowhere through the fog one morning. Deciding to have a look and maybe loot whatever locals there may be out of whatever valuables they might have, they end up discovering the place is cursed with a living dead plague that dates back to the days of the Spanish conquistadors. An admittedly confused mish-mash of both ghost and zombie genre tropes that somehow manages to keep you semi-riveted (even if it’s mostly to see what sort of horrendous dubbing atrocity you’re served up next) ensues,  and while there’s very little (polite-speak for “nothing”) to distinguish this flick from numerous other bargain-basement Fulci rip-offs, the simple fact  fact  is that Mattei, as he was wont to do, is so naked in his open plagiarism that it’s downright fun to watch him go about his shameless business.

Consider : not only is this movie’s title the exact same one that our guy Lucio’s Zombie was released under in several non-pasta-consuming markets, but the opening scene of that generally-regarded-as-a- masterpiece is re-hashed a full three times here before Bruno finally realizes that we probably get the message. I know imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and all that, but to be that out-and-out bludgeoned by the same damn thing over and over again marks anyone  who sits through the full 90-minute runtime of Island Of The Living Dead as a true celluloid sadist.

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Still not enough for ya? Okay, rest easy, because you can be sure that Zombie‘s  famous eyeball-gouging is repeated here, as well, with the law of diminishing returns fully and clearly in effect. The lighting and shot composition employed throughout is brazenly and unashamedly Fulci-on-a-(tiny) budget, as well, and one gets the feeling that it’s really only lack of money preventing Bruno from aping his predecessor’s famous shark-vs.-zombie underwater fight scene while he’s at it.

Needless to say, don’t sweat the characterization or performances or anything of the sort here — among out intrepid crew of freebooters, one named Sharon (played by Yvette Yzon) is given marginally more attention than the others, but you know the drill — they’re all just here to die in increasingly spectacular fashion as events progress. As long as you don’t ask for any more from them than that, you can live with the fact that none of them appear able to do their jobs particularly well.

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It’s probably a reach to say that anyone was exactly clamoring for this brutally cheap gore-fest to make its way onto DVD, but tough shit — Severin Films has seen fit to release it anyway under their InterVision Picture Corp. sub-label, and this time they’ve even managed to toss a few extras into the mix to accompany their admittedly-well-restored (with anamorphic widescreen picture and stereo sound) main feature. It ain’t much, but the original trailer, a five-minute promo reel for international territories, and a 20-or-so-minute “behind-the-scenes” featurette consisting primarily of interviews with producer Giovanni Paolucci and screenwriter Antonio Tentori are fun and welcome additions to the proceedings.

All in all, if you take the same attitude going into watching this thing as its makers took while producing it — “what they hell? Let’s see what happens, it’s not as if we’re doing anything else, anyway” — you’ll probably have at least a modestly good time with this one.

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You know the old saying : if it walks like a duck, and it quacks like a duck, it must be — well, a duck. And there’s no doubt that the first issue of Marvel’s new Howard The Duck monthly definitely features a walking, talking,  intelligent, permanently-down-on-his-luck duck from another planet, which is — at least on paper — exactly what Howard is and always has been. But he’s also a lot more than that, and that’s what makes Howard The Duck #1 so much less.

Truth be told, what made Howard such an instant overnight sensation in the 1970s is the simple fact that he was nothing more than a conduit for the social, political, and philosophical observations of his co-creator, legendary comic book scribe Steve Gerber (who later became involved in a protracted legal struggle against Marvel for ownership of the character). Howard’s other creator, artist Val Mayerik, left the building much earlier than Gerber did, but the duck “trapped in a world he never made” continued on reasonably well without him. Once Steve was out of the picture, though, the character never recovered — and certainly never sounded quite right ever again.

Which isn’t to say that the new creative team of writer Chip Zdarsky (best known for his work as the artist on Image Comics’ hugely popular and successful, Matt Fraction-penned Sex Criminals), penciller/inker Joe Quinones, and colorist Rico Renzi don’t give a solid effort here — it’s just that their hands are completely tied, and they’re stuck in a “no-win” situation. When Disney bought Marvel, one of the first things they did was dictate numerous changes to Howard’s physical appearance, feeling that he looked a bit too similar to another famous duck that was the property of the House of the Mouse(Gerber himself responded to these mandates by turning the character into a rat for nearly the entire duration of the 2002 six-part series from Marvel’s since-shuttered “mature readers” imprint, Max Comics, that represented his final go-’round with his signature creation), and now what we’re stuck with is an iteration of Howard that doesn’t look, feel, or sound anything like what we’re used to — and on top of that Marvel editorial seems to have decided that the story fans purportedly “want” to see in these pages is one that explains how a duck-turned-private eye ended up in the possession of The Collector at the end of the Guardians Of The Galaxy film.

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To that end, the main thrust of Zdarsky and Quinones’ debut installment is taken up with getting us from point “A” — Howard in a New York jail cell — to point “B,” which is Howard in an outer space jail cell. He picks up a new human female sidekick along the way (longtime love interest Beverly apparently being out of the picture now), and has some reasonably entertaining run-ins with both The Black Cat and Spider-Man (in fact, Zdarsky scripts the out-and-out funniest Spidey scene in years), but all this manages to do is showcase how much better a handle the creators have on their guest stars than on their actual protagonist. Howard always bitched about his sorry lot in life, and does plenty of that here, but he was at his best when waxing existential on the utter pointlessness of life in general, and that’s an element that his “kinder, gentler” 2015 version is sorely lacking (along with his former trademark cheap cigar).

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A rather forced “montage” scene  at the exact halfway point of the book (as depicted on the page below) doesn’t help matters any, either, and while I certainly commend Marvel for being willing to roll the dice on “quirky” fare in a way that their Distinguished Competition seem to be shying away from in the advent of their “New 52″ relaunch (although that may be changing when DC rolls out a host of new titles in June), it seems like the commercial failure of more “off-beat” recent series like She-Hulk (who re-emerges as a supporting player in this very book) and the criminally under-appreciated Superior Foes Of Spider-Man is giving the publisher something of a case of cold feet. They apparently want to continue to try to push the envelope in a more humorous direction, but they’re just not willing to go quite as far as they were a year or two back, with the end result being a re-launched Howard title that feels like it’s very tightly controlled by editorial.

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Does it have its moments? Sure, absolutely. And it’s well-drawn (and colored) throughout. A reader who’s brand new to the character — as in, one who hasn’t even seen the George Lucas-produced movie, much less read the original comics — and who is primarily interested in answering the question “who was that crazy duck guy at the end of Guardians?” might, indeed, find  a fair amount to like here. But for anyone else with even a passing knowledge of who Howard is (or at least who he used to be)and what he’s (or, again, was) all about, this first issue offers no reason to stick around for the second and beyond. If Marvel wants to have an anthropomorphic “funny animal” character other than Rocket Raccoon and Squirrel Girl as an active part of their universe, they should just let Zdarsky and Quinones — who would probably be up to the task — create a new one. It’s not simply a case that Howard without Steve Gerber isn’t Howard — it’s that he flat-out can’t be.

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You’d think that any character that’s been around since 1940 would be at least a marginal “fan-favorite” — after all, it takes a certain level of popularity just to stick around that long — but in the case of The Black Hood, a super-vigilante from Archie Comics, you’d be wrong.

Not that I’m sure ol’ Hoodie doesn’t have some sort of fan following, mind you — any character that’s been around for over 70 years is bound to pick up at least a few adherents even if it’s entirely by accident — but there aren’t many, and whenever he’s come back to the printed page (most recently in the early ’90s for a 12-issue run as part of DC’s failed !mpact Comics imprint aimed at younger readers, which licensed a good number of Archie-owned properties) it hasn’t been for long. Could that be about to change? I’m sincerely hoping so.

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I’ll be the first to admit that when Archie announced their new “mature readers” line of books, Dark Circle Comics, I was skeptical. Yeah, they’ve been making huge creative strides as a publisher in recent years with their “Death Of Archie” storyline and the phenomenally successful zombie-themed Afterlife Wih Archie, but still — it’s fucking Archie, ya know? How grim and gritty could they possibly be willing to get?

As news about Dark Circle continued to percolate over the past year or so, I actually became even less interested, since it sounded like, rather than going with new characters and ideas, they’d be reviving their old Red Circle Comics super-heroes (incidentally, how many times has Red Circle been relaunched over the years — five? Six?) one more time, and that the only currently-running series under that imprint, Mark Waid and Dean Haspiel’s The Fox, would be migrating over to the new line despite the fact that it was arguably the best “all-ages” adventure series on the market. All in all, it looked to me like a very good comic was going to be “darkened up” for no other reason than to make it fit in tonally with a couple of other books that were probably destined to have a short lifespan. Not a smart move.

Or so I thought. Then I picked up The Black Hood #1.

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Don’t know anything about this character? Don’t worry, neither did I — but I do know a little something about series writer Duane Swierczynski, who’s making something of a name for himself as comics’ latest “not afraid to get down in the gutter” true crime-inspired writer a la Brian Azzarello, Andrew Vachss, etc. As his recently-concluded five-part series for Dynamite, Ex-Con, shows, this is a guy who knows the streets — and furthermore, knows how bring them to life on the printed page with such authenticity and realism that even the most sheltered, snotty suburbanite would have to concede that his work captures the desperation and violence of a life spent fighting for every next minute in a world where nothing is promised, much less guaranteed. When I caught wind of the fact that The Black Hood was gonna be his baby, that was enough for me. I was in.

Artist Michael Gaydos is a name I’m not familiar with, though, I must admit — and that’s my loss, since, as the pages reproduced above ably demonstrate, this guy flat-out brings it.  Together with colorist Kelly Fitzpatrick, who seems to be popping up in all the right places lately (see my recent review for Dark Horse’s superb new mini-series Neverboy),  they create a visual style for this comic that’s obviously got a very heavy noir influence (as well it should), but strips away the glamorous and stylized element of danger to show us the hard reality of life on the margins, and in the trenches, of inner-city urban warfare.

I mentioned no previous knowledge of The Black Hood was necessary, and that’s because we’re getting a whole new iteration of the character here, one with probably the most realistic origin for a costumed crimefighter you’re ever likely to see — namely that he’s a guy who’s gone completely fucking nuts. Our ostensible “hero,” Greg Hettinger, is a Philadelphia beat cop who, in pursuit of the original Black Hood, ends up in the middle of a fierce gunfight and finds hot lead tearing into his face at precisely the wrong moment — when he’s about to pull the trigger on his own weapon, causing him to subsequently fire blindly and accidentally kill an innocent. When he wakes up from a coma some months later he’s both a killer and permanently disfigured — and his mental state, as yours or mine most likely would under similar circumstances, begins to deteriorate pretty quickly. In fact, it’s not so terribly long until that titular Black Hood starts looking pretty good to him as a means of continuing his crime-fighting career while making sure no one will recognize his now-ugly mug. Only this time, of course, he’s not on the taxpayer-funded payroll, and is working strictly freelance —

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Yeah, okay, this debut installment is pure set-up, but shit — what first issue isn’t? The point is, it’s a set-up that’s pretty well a stone-cold lock to ensure that you’ll be back for more. It reads well, looks fantastic, and packs a definite punch. There are six different cover variants — I’ve included the main cover by Gaydos as well as my personal favorite (and the one I bought, naturally) by David Williams and Fitzpatrick, but there are some other really good-looking ones from the likes of current “king of covers” Francesco Francavilla,  and Howard Chaykin and his now-seemingly-permanent colorist, Jesus Aburtov, to choose from, as well — adorning this book, each with a suitably stylized-yet-grimy look, and it appears that Archie/Dark Circle is determined to put some real promotional muscle behind this book to make sure it finds an audience.

It shouldn’t prove to be too difficult a task. Work this solid speaks for itself, and I think it’s safe to assume that I’m far from the only “instant convert” to Swierczynski and Gaydos’ dark new religion of the streets. The next 30 days can’t go by fast enough, bring on The Black Hood #2 — or I must just have to get violent.