Quid hac re fieri inpudentius, quid stultius potest?
Seneca, Ep. 120: 17
The closing credits of Morituris (Latin, meaning “for those who must die”) include a dedication: “In Memory of Humanity”. OK, OK, I get it: horror films at their most serious are uniquely positioned to reveal uncomfortable truths about the way we live, and the emptiness of the values to which we pretend to adhere. They should occasionally deal with genuinely horrific images, instead of the typical monster-movie nonsense: there’s room in the genre for both Michael Hanneke and Michael Myers. But in the case of Morituris — whose credits go on to thank both Pier Paolo Pasolini and Uwe Boll — I don’t buy the moral argument. This is a thoroughly reprehensible movie that’s trying to hide behind a veneer of high-minded social commentary. I call Bullshit.
Morituris makes two strong claims in its advertising: it says it’s a return to the Old School of gory Italian horror, and it takes pride in basing its story on a genuine and bloody part of Italy’s ancient history. Of course, when you mention Old School Italian gore and archaeology in the same breath, the first thing that comes to my mind is Andrea Bianchi’s Burial Ground. In Burial Ground, the zombies were Etruscans — revenents from that death-haunted pre-Roman civilization. Bianchi’s film was cheap, badly scripted and shoddily produced; it even ripped off scenes from Lucio Fulci’s Zombie, which had been a huge hit the year before. The highlight of the movie was man-child Peter Bark chewing off his “mother”‘s breast. Sick shit, in other words… but relatively harmless. Burial Ground is the poster child for everything that was gloriously wrong with Italian exploitation horror in the 80’s, and the fact that it’s now available in Hi-Definition on Blu-Ray fills me with a perverted sort of joy.
When I first heard of Morituris, I was actually hoping for something like a Burial Ground for the 21st century. After all, it was Bianchi’s Etruscans who invented gladiatorial combat. But Burial Ground, sleazy and grotesque though it is, is good clean fun compared to Morituris, and if Morituris is remembered as fondly in 30 years as Bianchi’s appalling little film is, I hope I’m safely dead by then.
After a brief introductory credit (about which more, later) we’re given a prologue: a family consisting of a man, a woman, their two children (a boy and a very young girl) and the kids’ uncle are going for a picnic in the woods. The scene looks like it was shot on an old Super-8 home movie camera, though it’s immediately clear that no one could possibly be filming these scenes in real life.
As the mother, father and son get settled for their picnic, the uncle — a fat, greasy fellow who couldn’t look shiftier if he had the words SEXUAL PREDATOR tattooed on his forehead — surreptitiously leads the daughter off into the woods. When he thinks the two of them are alone, he circles her, whistling “In the Hall of the Mountain King” (because all child molesters model themselves after Peter Lorre in M… didn’t you know that? Believe it or not, Edvard Grieg actually gets a music credit for this).
Just as Uncle Creepy is reaching for his zipper, something comes up behind him.
We don’t see who or what it could be, but our relief at the interruption is short-lived: the next thing we see, after a brief cut-away of the parents wondering where the little girl has gone, is uncle and niece lying side by side in pools of their own blood. The rest of the family ends up slaughtered in the same way. All we see of the killer (or killers) is a glimpse of a brawny arm. The camera pans across some overgrown Roman ruins, until it comes to rest on an inscription carved into a stone plaque: HIC SUNT LEONES (“here are lions”).
It isn’t often that a prologue is followed by yet another prologue, but that’s what happens next: the title credits take us back an extra 2,000 years by way of partially-animated comics illustrations. It seems there were five gladiators… prisoners of the Roman colonies who were forced into the arena against their will. Rather than fight for the amusement of their captors, these gladiators broke their chains and escaped. Pledging themselves to Nemesis, the goddess of retribution and patroness of gladiators, the five men immediately began raping and slaughtering the ordinary citizens of Rome… impaling children, sodomizing women, generally behaving like the barbarians the Romans considered them to be. Eventually the soldiers caught up with them under a statue of Nemesis and killed them all. The five bodies were hurled into a pit, and over them was placed the stone bearing the words HIC SUNT LEONES… which I’m guessing was intended ironically: the Romans had nothing but contempt for gladiators who violated the rules of the arena. No matter how well the five may have fought, their actions would not have earned them any respect.
Fast-forward to the present-day. Two Eastern European girls have been picked up hitch-hiking by a trio of Italian men. The girls and the boys have hit it off, and are enjoying a leisurely car trip across country to a rave the Italians say they’re going to. Though the girls don’t speak Italian very well, they feel very safe and relaxed around the men; noticeable sparks seem to be flying between two of them in particular. For about a half-hour of screen time, we might almost believe we’re watching a movie about young people having a good time…
… except for the fact that we already know what the men are planning. The whole situation is being stage-managed via cellphone by a man known as “Jacques” back in Rome. Jacques and his acolytes consider themselves the heirs to the decadent Roman nobles. Being young and strong, and coming from wealthy and powerful families, they think the world exists for their amusement. And nothing amuses them more than to abduct, torture and kill young women.
Since we know this, the innocent banter in the car makes us profoundly uncomfortable. The slow pace of the car ride grates on our nerves, as we wait for the inevitable. We cringe as we see one of the girls growing ever more interested in the young mam sitting next to her.
When we get to the site of the supposed rave — which, of course, doesn’t exist and never did — we can only marvel and the smoothness of the boys’ plans. They manage a clever ruse that gets them possession of the girls’ only cell phone. Then they manage to get them drunk, and high… and separated just far enough from each other that neither realizes what’s happening until it’s too late.
And then the brutality starts.
What follows is very difficult to watch. Remember the girl who was flirting so sweetly with the boy beside her? After a tender moment, the young man bludgeons her to the ground, irrumates her, and then kicks her until she vomits up his semen. The other girl is held down and raped with a pair of scissors. And that’s just the beginning. I will say this for the film: what is shown in very convincing and ghastly, and what is not shown is even worse. The two actresses in particular are very good at conveying their agony, not only during the attack but for the remainder of the film. How they managed to maintain this intensity without damaging their psyches, I don’t know (the men are utterly believable, too; but somehow I think they had a much easier time of it).
Now, me? I do not find sexual violence entertaining. Even so, I might have kept the tiniest amount of respect for the film as a misguided and failed experiment — provided it had stayed with the course it had plotted for itself through scenes like this, and followed through with them. It doesn’t. Because just at the moment when the girls manage to effect a miraculous escape from certain death, the movie remembers it’s supposed to be a flick about undead gladiators.
From this point on, Morituris becomes a typical stalk-and-slash.
The gladiators themselves (once they show up) aren’t terribly interesting. There’s a Thraex — a “Thracian”, armed in the style of one of Rome’s many enemies (early on in the history of gladiatorial combat, these fighters probably were Thracian prisoners of war); a Murmillo, also known as a “Gaul”, traditional ring-rival of the Thraex; a Retiarius, who fought mostly without armor using a spear and a net; a Secutor, a heavily-armored sword-fighter; and, umm… umm… a fat guy with a hammer whose type I’ve never heard of. They’re imposing enough, I suppose: they’re played by very large actors, and their skin and armor are all painted a dead, dusty grey that blends them in eerily with the darkness of the forest. But it’s obvious that they’re just guys in makeup. Even the crappily-applied, wildly uneven makeup of Burial Ground was more ambitious than this. OK, sure, they have spooky teeth… but is that enough for walking corpses who’ve been dead for two centuries? When we finally get a look under their helmets, and we see that they’re just normal men, the effect is dispiriting.
But at least the gladiators are given their own listings in the credits. They may only be types, but their types are duly noted. That’s more than can be said of the living characters. Both the rapists and their victims are mixed up and credited as Moriturus 1 through Moriturus 5… as though there were no need to differentiate between them, or to dignify the women with names (and maybe it’s just my lousy Latin, but… masculine nouns for the women? Really?).
Effects master Sergio Stivaletti does a much better job with realistic bodily damage than with the makeup for his gladiators. But in spite of the cringe-inducing gore effects, the last part of the film is a tremendous disappointment. The gladiators fall into the usual Supernatural Menace clichés: they teleport; they get distracted at odd moments, just to pad out the chase… after the horrific scenes we’ve just witnessed, this empty-headed slasher film conclusion is completely unacceptable. And that’s particularly galling, considering Morituris was marketed as a movie about undead gladiators.
The opening credits of Morituris — as opposed to the title credits; this is a film with a lot of credits — begin with a quotation from the Roman philosopher Seneca, from his Moral Letters to Lucilius:
Nihil satis est morituris, immo morientibus; cotidie enim propius ab ultimo stamus, et illo unde nobiscadendum est hora nos omnis inpellit.Seneca, Ep. 120: 17
That is, loosely translated: “Nothing is enough for those who know they must die — indeed, who are dying even now; every day we stand closer to the edge, and our every hour urges us on to our downfall.” It’s certainly possible to see how this quote, taken out of context, might apply to a horror movie in which the bloodthirsty living come up against the bloodthirsty dead. But it seems as though the makers of Morituris failed to read the rest of the epistle, because the real meaning of Seneca’s words comes as a stinging indictment of the movie they actually made.
In his very opening sentences, Seneca gets to his point: “…nihil nobis videri bonum quo quis et male uti potest” (we can regard nothing as “good” which can be put to bad use); then, later, he says, “Maximum indicium est malae mentis fluctuatio et inter simulationem virtutum amoremque vitiorum adsidua iactatio.” (the strongest indication of an evil mind is the fluctuation and conflict between feigned virtue and a love of vice). That’s really what we have here: a movie that tries to disguise its delight over sexual brutality with a moralistic wag of the finger.
I have the same sort of problem with Wes Craven’s original Last House on the Left, to which Morituris is heavily indebted. As repellent as I find Last House…‘s middle section — the humiliation, rape and murder of the two girls — I would understand it, and even admire it for its unflinching view of real horror — if I thought that the last section of the movie fit what came before. Instead, I’ve always felt that the end of the movie was scripted and shot without a true understanding of how powerful that middle section was. Some of it rings solid and true — for example, the father’s growing realization that he must become a murderer, and the inept first steps he takes to assuming that role. But (for example) the fellatio-castration scene, grotesque and memorable though it might be, seems jarringly out-of-place to me. In particular, the final freeze-frame and closing-credits song seem to suggest the movie still has a grudging, thoroughly-misplaced respect for Krug, the rapist/murderer, as a free-spirited anti-hero.
Yet I’m willing to concede that Last House on the Left is mostly successful, and still defensible. I have no such feeling about Morituris. There was no need for yet another quasi-remake Last House… There was certainly no need to use it as a template for a pseudo-zombie flick, especially one that skimps on the “zombie” part.
“In Memory Of Humanity”? The film-makers are invited to re-examine their own. To put it in terms our undead gladiators might understand: Thumbs down.