(La Conquista de la Tierra Perdita)
I make no secret of my respect for Lucio Fulci. I'm not going to make any exaggerated claims about the quality of his entire output, and I'm not even going to claim that even his best films are classics of world cinema. But I will point out that in his wide and varied filmography, in each commercial genre he worked in, Fulci managed to make at least one film that stands among the very best Italy has ever produced1. Specifically, Beatrice Cenci is a remarkable costume drama; Massacre Time is one of my very favorite Spaghetti Westerns; Don't Torture the Duckling is one of the most significant gialli ever made, with Sette Note in Nero/The Psychic, though a lesser achievement, still one of my favorites; while the four infamous zombie films Fulci made from 1979 to 1981 -- Zombi 2, City of the Living Dead, The Beyond and House by the Cemetery -- are entirely unique, and deserving of their cult status.
As much as I admire the man and his movies, I will be the first to point out that nothing he made after 1981 is remotely as good as the best of his earlier films. I'll go even further than that: at least a third of the movies he made after House by the Cemetery is barely even adequate. And while 1982's New York Ripper and Manhattan Baby show obvious signs of decline, the two films Fulci made in 1983 are -- in my opinion -- the worst of all.
Conquest is the one Fulci film I find almost unwatchable. Like its successor, The New Gladiators, it's not completely without interest: there are some good moments both in the script and the photography, if you're willing to endure the rest of the movie to find them. But in both films, bad judgment gets in the way of the good ideas, to the point where even a committed fan like me needs to struggle to keep watching.
Conquest begins with an effect that must have sounded good in theory. We first see a barren stretch of coastline, shot through some kind of fog filter. Then shadowy, semi-transparent figures appear over the landscape. A young warrior is about to go out into the world, and a mystical old man is giving him some advice. He tells the young man about the dangers and hardships that face him on his journey; handing him a magical bow, he tells him a story of a hero who shot arrows from the sun. Or something like that. Then, as the young man begins his journey, the figures fade away again, and the credits start.
You can imagine what the idea must have been: having the actors appear at first to be ghostly, half-seen figures gives the impression that what we're about to see happened a very long time ago. It also gives us the sense that all human endeavor, no matter how heroic, passes away; only the land remains. There's just a small problem, though: it looks awful. It looks like a mistake, like an accidental double exposure. The scene also goes on too long, and by the end we've seen much too much of the technique.
Claudio Simonetti's bland synthesizer score doesn't help things any. It's exactly like the music we've heard in dozens of other bad movies; and just as in all those other bad movies, the soundtrack is too loud and grating to be ignored.
After the irritating prologue, things get even worse. The headache-inducing photography of the opening scene was no accident. Almost all the rest of the film is shot through a scrim, giving a hazy, indistinct quality to the picture. You'll find yourself squinting to figure out what's supposed to be going on -- but squinting won't help. Twenty minutes into the movie, and I can almost guarantee the viewer a migraine. And that's just from the look of the movie. I haven't even mentioned the dialog and the special effects yet.
You see, there's this evil sorceress called Ocron, who is always naked except for her golden mask. I have nothing against naked sorceresses, but it's really difficult to establish her character when we can't see her eyes or her face for the duration of the movie. Anyway, Ocron has cast some sort of spell to harness the sun, to make it obey her bidding. She plans to use this spell to subjugate all the primitive, prehistoric extras the film has provided her.
Ocron's army of henchfolk consists mostly of shabby-looking wolf-men. The wolf-men like to rape and pillage the poor pasty extras, braining them with clubs and tearing them into bits. Ocron herself likes human heads, out of which she sucks the brains2 (hmmm... even if the "wicked sorceress" racket gets boring, she seems eminently qualified to work in today's pop music industry!). Since Ocron and her warriors are associated with the sun, they're frequently shot with the sun directly over their shoulders. This little trick makes the image washed out and overexposed, as well as hopelessly fuzzy.
After a hard day of oppressing the locals, Ocron and her wolf-men share some sort of odd hallucinogenic drug, which they shoot up each others' nostrils with a reed. During one of her drug-induced trances, Ocron has a peculiar vision (though Ocron is identified with wolves through the whole film, she also has some strange connection with snakes; a big one slithers up from between her legs as she goes into her vision). She seems to see a warrior without a face. The warrior is carrying a bow, a weapon which is unknown in Ocron's world; but instead of arrows, the bow shoots shafts of blue light. Ocron dreams one of these blue rays rips a bloody hole through her solar plexus.
The warrior is (naturally) our hero, Ilias, who comes bumbling into Ocron's territory in search of manly adventures. He first runs into a cave girl bathing by a river. When the girl is, er, menaced by a deadly snake (insert derisive sound here), Ilias kills it with his bow and arrow. Rather than express her gratitude, the cave girl tosses Ilias a winsome look, and then scampers away.
Ilias is about to follow, when he discovers that he's not alone. Out of the reeds jump Ocron's cronies, and Ilias discovers that four or five arrows are no match for some twenty thugs. Just as Ilias is about to be overpowered by wolf-men, something happens to scatter the attackers. It's not clear at first why the goons are flying through the air, but gradually the camera calms down and shows us the movie's second hero, Maxz (pronounced "makes"). Maxz wields a pair of bones like nunchakus; in the embarrassingly choreographed fight that follows, he makes short work of Ocron's warriors.
Ilias tries to thank Maxz for saving his life, but Maxz tells him he was only interested in saving the bow Ilias carries. Maxz is a loner, an outcast from his tribe who carries a brand on his forehead. Though he hates humans, he is able to communicate with all forms of animals. In spite of his misanthropy, Maxz seems to sense that Ilias isn't like other men...
Hey! Wipe that smirk off your face;
that wasn't what I meant at all!
(Where was I?)
Ahem, Maxz senses that Ilias is a good man, if a little naïve, and so he determines to teach the young man how to survive in Ocron's territory.
Maxz has no qualms about killing a stranger to steal his food. As he and Ilias sit down to eat the animal they stole from the dead man, Ilias asks him why, if he loves animals so much, he will still eat one. Maxz shrugs: "I didn't kill it," he says. A deep thinker, our Maxz. Meanwhile, one of Ocron's men staggers back to camp with Ilias's arrow in his leg. Ocron immediately connects Ilias with her dream, and sends her creatures out to find him and his magic bow.
Maxz introduces Ilias to yet another sort of manly adventure: he takes the kid to a cave full of willing women. Maxz may have no use for men, but women are apparently a different story. Actually, the women in this movie have even less identity that usual in a Fulci film. They have no lines, and their purpose is mainly to be decorative until they're massacred in various brutal ways. Anyway, in the cave Ilias finds the girl he rescued from the snake back at the beginning of the film. Clearly, she likes him, and the two sneak off for a little companionship while Maxz dozes by the fire.
You might expect this was the beginning of a new sub-plot, as the young hero finds the girl he needs to rescue from the clutches of evil. Or something. But this is a Fulci film, after all. The girl caresses Ilias's face and makes him shut his eyes... but in place of the kiss he and we are expecting to follow, Ilyas opens his eyes to see the girl being turned into hamburger by Ocron's wolf-men.
The girl's death has as little impact on Ilias as a bus wreck does on a TV news reporter. Actually, he has no time even to think about the her death, as he's hopelessly outnumbered by wolf-men. It's up to Maxz and his animal friends to save Ilias's bacon yet again.
Ocron is infuriated by the failure of her plan. To make sure Ilias is stopped, she summons the spirit of the Wolf King, Zora. Zora takes the form of a man covered from head to toe in golden armor plates. He looks great in the poster art, but in reality he's less than awe-inspiring. He also suffers from the same problem as Ocron: since we can never see his face or even his eyes, he comes across as a very bland villain. Ocron promises Zora her soul if he will destroy Ilias. She drops to her knees in a very suggestive pose, and Zora agrees to help her (wouldn't you?).
Ocron's persistent attacks on Ilias have backfired in a way; where once Ilias was wandering aimlessly, looking for that vague sort of Heroic Experience that would make a man of him, he now has a mission: to end the tyranny of Ocron. In spite of Ilias's pleas, Maxz refuses to join him in the attempt. It's none of his business, he says. However, in spite of his attempts to stay neutral, it's always Maxz who comes to the poor kid's rescue, even when Maxz's own life is put in dire peril.
For example: one of Zora's plans for disposing of Ilias is to attack him with wave after wave of magic arrows. These arrows are the worst effect of the film: they're simply drawn or scratched onto the film. They may not look very impressive, but it turns out that they carry a wicked payload: when Ilias is struck by one of the arrows, it poisons him and makes him break out in horrible blood blisters.
Not only must Maxz weather the barrage of deadly arrows along with his little buddy, he's also the only one who can save him once the poison takes effect. It just so happens there's a magical plant Maxz knows of, which can counteract the poison in Ilias' bloodstream. However, it grows only in a wild and dangerous swamp. So Maxz puts the delirious Ilias in a raft and paddles for the mysterious swamp. Amazingly enough, the bog where the plant is found turns out to be even foggier than anywhere else. Maxz plucks a few branches, but his way back is blocked by a crowd of Mud Zombies. Just when it seems Maxz will be overpowered by the Mud Zombies, he discovers that he can kill them by impaling their slimy bodies on logs.
Ilias, whose boils are now crawling with vermin, comes out of his stupor just long enough to see Maxz standing over him. Much to his surpise, Maxz then attempts to kill him! All at once, another Maxz appears and fights him to the ground. The two identical figures struggle for a while, until one gains the advantage and begins strangling the other. Demonic laughter fills the air, and the fallen Maxz is revealed as none other than Zora. The armor-clad figure disappears from under Maxz's hands.
There is a moment, as Maxz and Ilias sit at the edge of the swamp by night, where the photography suddenly becomes crystal clear... where there is no fog filter to blur the action, or get in the way of the beautiful night sky. It's gorgeous, but it's also infuriating. If only the rest of the movie had been shot with such clarity! From this point in the movie, though, things take a decided upturn. It's still awfully dim in this world, but at least the action starts to pick up; and the plot twists and revelations of the last half-hour of the movie almost make up for the indignities of the first part of the film.
When he has recovered from the poison, Ilias decides that heoics are not for him. After all, he's had his ass kicked in every single battle so far. He offers Maxz his bow, and sails off for home. But Maxz isn't finished dealing with Ilias's misfortunes: no sooner has the kid started on his way home when Maxz stumbles into another trap. Out of their hiding places in the side of a cliff come a tribe of horrible whistling rock people. Not only do they look like half-finished statues, they're also covered with spiderwebs. They capture Maxz and demand to know what's become of Ilias.
Ilias, in the meantime, has started to get some second thoughts about leaving the hero business. After all, his village headman had told him the way would not be easy -- remember the prologue? So Ilias turns around and goes back, just in time to try and save Maxz's skin, instead of the other way 'round.
Ilias returns to find the rock people have crucified Maxz at the edge of a cliff. His bow magically restored to him, Ilias finds that he no longer needs arrows. By coming back to the action, Ilias has become a true hero... which means he now has the ability to shoot bolts of blue energy from his bow. Of course, this is still Ilias we're talking about here, so the rescue doesn't go very well. Sure, he pots rock people left and right, but not before Maxz, still tied to his cross, gets shoved off the cliff and into the water.
Just when all seems lost for Maxz, along come a pair of friendly bottlenosed dolphins, who nibble off his restraints and buoy him up to shore. This is ridiculous, I agree, but it is reasonably well shot. The prosthetic dolphin muzzle that does the nibbling is integrated pretty closely with the actual dolphin footage.
After the touching reunion, Ilias and Maxz camp out in a cave. Unfortunately, there are tunnels underneath the cave, and up through them come Ocron's warriors. They reach up and drag Ilias down into the darkness. Now, this scene has drawn a lot of flak because it seems to take a ridiculously long time for Maxz to react to his friend's screams. What's actually happening is slightly different: Fulci gives us Ilias's abduction as one long sequence, showing us his fruitless struggles until he is overcome. We are not shown Maxz's reaction until Ilias's sequence is finished, making it seem as though a long time has passed. Actually, Maxz's reaction seems to be taking place immediately after Ilias's abduction, but typically for Fulci, the timeline is slightly out of kilter.
Maxz searches through the darkness for his friend. He seems to be attacked by some bats, but as he moves to defend himself he realizes that the bats are trying to help him. The bats lead him to the place where Ilias has been left...
... but it's too late. Ilias has been decapitated.
That's right: the boy-hero is dead. The kid who, in any other similar film, would have turned into a mighty warrior by the end, is now out of the picture. Ocron is ecstatic, now that Zora has fulfilled his promise and her dream can not come true. However, as she goes to gnaw the brains out of her enemy's skull, the head opens its eyes.
Back in the cave, Ilias's disembodied voice instructs Maxz to burn his body, and then anoint himself3 with the ashes. This way Ilias will live on in Maxz. It's only fitting; after all, Maxz has been the reluctant hero all the way through. Now, armed with Ilias's magic bow, Maxz takes on the challenge to destroy Ocron. In Maxz's place, Ocron sees the faceless warrior of her dream. She tries to hide deep inside her mountain lair, but Maxz's glowing arrow passes straight through the rock. The arrow enters Ocron's eye, splitting her golden mask and revealing her face for the first time. It turns out that she's been wearing the mask for good reason: she's actually a withered, skull-faced zombie! Maxz magically appears in Ocron's chamber and shoots again. This time, the arrow passes bloodily through the witch's chest.
Zora, the Wolf King, has not forgotten the promise the sorceress had made in exchange for Ilias' death. The dying Ocron transforms into a wolf, and runs off to the wastelands where Zora, in his wolf form, waits for her.
Someday, I expect this movie will be released on a widescreen DVD; and at that point maybe the superior image quality will make me re-evaluate Conquest. The story isn't all that bad, especially not as sword and sandal flicks go; the dialog is terrible, but we've come to expect that sort of thing. By comparison to the other post-Conan movies produced all over the world, Conquest is a pretty strong film... not that this is saying much. Still, from my repeated viewings of the VHS version, it looks to me like Fulci and his crew took every opportunity to ruin their movie. As I've already mentioned, most of the photography is intolerable, and the music is a huge disappointment. On top of that, all the Bad Guys are de-personalized behind inexpressive rubber masks. This isn't a movie; it's a chore.
But what maxz... er, makes it all so infuriating is that under all the fog and sun-glare, there's some great stuff going on. For crying out loud, we've got Mud Zombies and naked cave girls! We've got magic glowing arrows, and people being torn in half, and a nude witch who eats brains on the half-skull! We have fantasy movie conventions being flouted at every turn! This would have been a splendid movie if we could see any of it.
And if the music were better.
And if the actors were better.
And if the pacing of the first hour was better.
And if the actual dialog was better.
By contrast, consider The Barbarians & Co., made by Ruggero (Cannibal Holocaust) Deodato four years later. This was also a blatant Conan rip-off, if a disturbingly late one. While Conquest did its murky best to subvert its genre, Barbarians is nothing more than goofy, brainless fun. But you can see Deodato's movie. It's the story and the acting, rather than the visuals, that give you a persistent headache. If only the two films could have switched styles, then at least one of them would have been watchable.
1. I don't know Fulci's comedies, so I'm thoroughly unqualified to talk about them.
2. After one decapitation, the action and the music suddenly come to a halt; and in the silence, the lead wolf-man passes the head awkwardly to Ocron with a sheepish "Urk".
3. Anointy... nointy.
Sorry; I just couldn't resist. Isn't that a great word: anoint? I wish I had reason to use it more often. I feel the same about festoon.