Erotic Nights of the Living Dead

Luigi Montefiore, a.k.a. George Eastman, is instantly recognizeable as the Anthropophagus, the scabrous, fetus-eating cannibal in the movie of the same name. He also shows up as a supporting character in dozens of films, from post-atomic sci-fi flicks to the seemingly-endless Emannuelle series, to "legitimate" films like Fellini's Satyricon. He's such a common presence in Italian genre films that it's easy to take him for granted. And that's a shame: in his interview in Palmerini and Mistretta's Spaghetti Nightmares, he comes across as a perceptive and intelligent man who is devoted to his craft, no matter how low the budgets may get, or how crazy the scripts may be, or how many compromises have to be made to get the job done.

It's difficult to assess his abilities as an actor — I suppose when you're nearly seven feet tall, the kinds of roles you're likely to get in genre productions are rather limited. His credits as a writer are somewhat stronger, including as they do the legendary Spaghetti Western Keoma. Still, "Eastman" always brings a great deal of enthusiasm to his roles, even if he may have been groaning inwardly at the ridiculous things he had to say and do, or at the changes he had to make to his own scripts. When you also consider the fact that according to the IMDB, he's currently married to Laura "Black Emannuelle" Gemser, you have to conclude that Montefiore is really a pivotal figure in Italian exploitation.

And I continue to admire Montefiore, in spite of the fact that he's largely responsible for the fiasco we're going to review today...

Erotic Nights of the Living Dead is one of the relatively few occasions where the towering Montefiore got to play the hero, rather than the monster or the villain's colorful henchman. Montefiore wrote the screenplay, so he has no-one but himself to blame for the indignities he's forced to put up with. You might think he wrote the film just to have an excuse to play the main part in a thinly-disguised porn movie, but Montefiore insists he wrote and appeared in the film solely as a favor to his friend Joe D'Amato (Aristide Massacessi). He seems ill at ease in his role; in fact, he keeps his pants on all the way through the film — even during the sex scenes.

The film was made just at the time when director-producer D'Amato was starting to abandon any pretense of legitimate film-making, after which he devoted himself more and more to films like 120 Days of Anal, Cop Sucker and Raiders of the Lost Virginity. Tame as it is by today's standards, Erotic Nights... gives a good idea of what was to come for D'Amato: it exists in two versions, a soft-core version and an naughty version, both of which are now available on DVD from Shriek Show. Naturally, it's the naughty version we'll be considering here.

The movie's title is something of a cheat. True, there are some living dead people in it, though they don't play as large a part in the proceedings as you might expect. The title seems to imply some sort of connection to the George Romero classic, but it's really difficult to imagine a zombie film as unlike Night of the Living Dead as this one is... while Romero's film was a claustrophobic study in black and white, D'Amato's film takes place in vivid color under the wide Carribbean skies; Romero's film was as much a caustic character study about the living as it was a movie about the walking dead, while D'Amato's film uses its zombies to add a little variety to the meaningless sex scenes. But even the "Erotic" part is misleading: the sexy bits have the smoldering sensuality of Elmer Fudd singing "MacArthur Park" ("... Someone weft a cake out in the waiiiin...."). And honestly, even the "night" part is a bit of a stretch, since the crucial zombie-attack sequences are shot in unconvincing day-for-night (that is, the scenes are shot in daylight with heavy blue filters to simulate moon-lit darkness... Shriek Show acknowledges this by including some of the unfiltered footage as an extra on the DVD, entitled "Sunny Afternoons of the Living Dead"). But once you see how everybody treats everyone else in the picture, you'll see why a cheating title is completely appropriate.

The movie opens with Montefiore (as "Larry O'Hara") confined in a mental institution. He stares through the chain-link fence of the institution with that haggard, slightly deranged look that fits his face so well. There's an unidentified woman nearby who seems to have some sort of connection to him. Later, we see the woman sneak through the surprisingly-unattended corridors of the institution; another of the inmates, a young man who believes he has invisible rats swarming all over his arms, sees her and decides to follow her. We may be forgiven for getting a bad feeling about this, as we notice the young woman is obviously wearing nothing under her white smock. This could be the setup for some really tasteless exploitation... but it turns out not to be quite as bad as we might have expected. In the institution's abandoned laundry room, the girl (whose name turns out to be Fiona) meets up with Larry, who immediately tears off her dress... the two begin some desperate (and, mercifully, consensual) schtupping, while the rat guy — umm — takes matters into his own hands... invisible rodents notwithstanding.

Without any attempt at transition or explanation, the movie suddenly takes us back to the days when Larry was a reasonably sane charter boat captain. We first see him with a husband and wife, who've hired his boat and his services for their vacation. While the husband gives his full attention to his fishing gear, Larry gives his attention to the pretty young wife... and that's about as savory as things are likely to get in a Joe D'Amato film.

If our Larry seems a little slimy, we're soon introduced to a character who makes him look noble by comparison: John Wilson, a womanizing American architect who's come to the Carribbean to begin development of a huge resort. Wilson is a little surprised to find the business of securing land for his resort has proceeded much faster than he'd expected. His government contact informs him that his request has been approved for a 20-year lease on a deserted piece of land known as Cat Island. In fact, the local government is extremely anxious for him to get started. The authorities seem to be saying, "Here! Take it; please, just take it now!" ... which, coincidentally, is just what all the female characters in the movie seem to be saying, too. Anyway, once Wilson leaves with his paperwork, the government official looks around furtively, then pulls a curious stone fetish figure out of his desk drawer...

(One interesting thing about this government official: he talks and talks and talks, but his lips rarely move. Perhaps this is how people in government manage to say things without really saying them; or perhaps the agency that did the English dubbing on the film got paid by the word... who knows?)

If Montefiore never takes his pants off for the duration of the film, Mark Shannon has a difficult time keeping them on ("Shannon" is the actor who plays Wilson; his original name, according to the IMDB, is "Manlio Cersosimo"). In short order, he's got two hookers naked in the shower with him. Let's leave them to their soapy shenanigans while we cut to some of the local folk that same night. One tells another that... a certain thing... has been spotted in the area again. The second man calms the other, saying he knows what needs to be done to protect them. He sends the first man to warn all the neighbors to stay indoors, while he takes out a strange, palm-sized statue — the same type of statue the government official had earlier — and places it among some ritually-arranged candles.

(It's strange that this fellow's hand-carved stone figure should look so exactly like the one the official had. You might even suspect it was the same one...)

As he begins to light the candles, we catch sight of a dark figure, swathed in a blanket or a robe, which is walking stiffly and silently toward him. The man doesn't notice the shadowy thing behind him as he concentrates on the candles. He fails to notice that one of the candles has blown out, and is so intent on his job that he also fails to notice the shape until it's got him in a head-lock. The hooded figure tears the man's thoat out with its teeth and leaves him to bleed to death on the ground.

Meanwhile, back among the tourists, we find the vacationing couple at their hotel-casino. The husband is now as involved in his poker game as he was in his fishing, so the wife goes off to find Larry at his boat, so they can pay some games of their own (insert your own "poker" pun here... in fact, go on and insert your own "insert your own poker" pun here). Since Larry's pants seem to be welded to his body, it's up to the girl to provide all the voyeuristic thrills for this scene. If you're an aspiring gynaecologist, this is your lucky day, as D'Amato's camera captures her with clinical precision.

As for Wilson, he and his two partners have adjourned to the bed for some hard-core hijinks ("... aww the sweet gween icing fwowing do-o-o-own..."). It's here, thanks to D'Amato's camera placement, that we get to see that Mark Shannon has several enormous warts on his testicles. This is supposed to be a movie about cannibal zombies, but by far the scariest thing in the movie is Shannon's scrotum. The second-scariest thing is probably his flapping tongue, but let's not discuss that. This scene also concludes with the movie's only money shot (though it seems the conversion between lire and dollars wasn't particularly favorable that day).

After Wilson's had his fun, he asks the two bimbos — bimbi? — if they'd like to come with him to see the island. Sure, they say, if he's paying. But when he tells them which island he's going to, they panic and run out without even taking their money for the evening. Wilson goes running into the hotel hallway after them, clad only in a towel and clutching a fistful of dollars. This is how he's discovered by the woman in the room next door, who greets him with one of the film's attempts at a classy pick-up line: that's just how she likes her men, she says, with "no clothes and a big wad all ready."

Larry has already caught a glimpse of this woman already... and so have we: she's the girl from the opening sequence in the mental institution. It should come as no surprise to anybody that Fiona's going to turn out to be a money-hungry slut like every other girl in the movie. Sigh.

In the morning, Larry and his client's wife are bidding each other a tender farewell at the boat when they catch sight of something awful in the water. It's the shrouded zombie from earlier, floundering in the bay just next to the boat. Larry reacts to the sight of this unhealthy-looking thing by bashing its head in with an anchor. When the police come by, they have an inkling what the thing is, and immediately absolve Larry of any guilt in its death. In any case, the maggot-ridden corpse seems to have been dead far longer than a few minutes. An immediate autopsy is ordered; the medical examiner refuses to believe the stories his attendants tell him about walking dead people, so naturally he ends up zombie chow. Here the zombie shows the supernatural power, so common among low-budget monsters, of being able to rip someone's throat out without breaking the skin.

Soon after, Wilson and Fiona go to hire a boat to take them to Cat Island. The only one who will take them is the foreigner O'Hara, since the local people dread the place. The island gets its name from a legend that the dead walk there, under the orders of a sinister black cat ("Well," says Esme, my own black cat, "they may be as dumb as living humans, but at least they understand the proper order of things."). Whatever the truth of the legend, in any case it seems that bad fortune and an epidemic wiped out the only fishing village on the island many years ago. O'Hara agrees to take the pair out to the island the next day, allowing Wilson and Fiona time to continue making their whoopee, and time for O'Hara to visit a stripper friend of his who opens a bottle of champagne without using her hands. If you know what I mean.

(Yuuuuch. This goes to Number Three on the list of really disturbing images I'd rather not have seen...)

When the trio get out to the island, they discover that it's not completely uninhabited. There is an old man there, accompanied by a girl (Laura Gemser) who claims to be his granddaughter. They warn the visitors to abandon their plans and leave the island immediately. Wilson, being the stereotype American capitalist swine, makes a complete jerk out of himself, but O'Hara, being slightly less repulsive and amoral, makes a more favorable impression. The old man later gives O'Hara a little stone talisman just like the one we've seen pop up before.

Wilson has some of the swagger knocked out of him when he takes a look at some of the photographs he's taken of the island. The native girl has disappeared from all the pictures. Still later, he's astonished to see that the grave markers in the old village cemetery have changed positions from photo to photo. Wilson believes the old man has used his witch-doctory nonsense to confuse him... but we might suspect the director is making excuses for the fact his cemetery scenes are really being shot in two different locations: one a genuine island graveyard, and the other a patch of sand — absurdly close to the shore, where the water table must be about eighteen inches down — that's more convenient to the main shooting locations.

Our heroes experience some strange earth tremors, which have supernatural characteristics like the zombie in the autopsy... we hear them, and the characters comment on them; but there are absolutely no other noticeable signs that anything is going on. There's not even a "Star Trek"-style attempt to wiggle the camera. We also get to see the legendary black cat prowling around the beach, growling under the grave markers. There's a hint that the cat and the native girl may be the same. And while we're thinking of the girl, at one point she appears to Fiona while Fiona's sunbathing alone on the beach. Wordlessly, the native girl un-does Fiona's bathing suit, and... umm... well... they roll around on the dune, pretending to be aroused (you know, I may be wrong about this, but somehow I think this is the wrong way to convince someone to leave).

Fiona, for her part, spends most of her time playing games of sexual politics with her two wannabe Alpha Males. After a while, O'Hara gets sick of watching Wilson and Fiona bonking in the cabin — Larry, we feel your pain — so he goes off and paddles his own little dinghy... back to the island. There, in the afternoon sun   moonlight, he finds the mysterious girl waiting for him. They wade into the ocean together; he rips off her skimpy sarong, though he keeps his pants on (as usual). As the two of them flail about in relatively-tame ecstasy, the walking dead begin to file silently out of the trees and onto the beach. At the height of passion, O'Hara cathes sight of the zombies standing on the shore. At that moment, the girl simply disappears from his grasp. What's happened to her? Was she a ghost? Did she turn back into the cat? I wouldn't think she'd transform while she was still waist-deep in the water. If she did, she'd be one wet pu--

Ohhhh, no! No, no no! Not on your life! This movie isn't going to get me to stoop all the way down to its level. Not quite yet, anyway.
Anyway, O'Hara remembers the talisman the old man gave him. When he holds it out in front of him, the zombies slowly turn and march back beyond the trees. All this has been too much for poor O'Hara, who faints at the water's edge. He also magaes to lose his talisman, which appears later under the paw of the black cat.

By this time, all three of the intruders want to leave. The boat and the weather apparently have different ideas. Wilson goes back to the island, where he intends to sweet-talk the native girl into dropping whatever enchantment she's put on them and helping them leave. You can imagine how ghastly his attemps at "sweet-talking" turn out to be, especially since there's nowhere in the vicinity he can get a bottle of Thunderbird... but the girl appears receptive. She tells him, though, that she doesn't fool around in the daytime. She prefers the moonlight. She tells him to come back in the evening, when she'll be ready for him.

Oh, boy, will she be ready for him.

When Wilson does return, he goes to the empty village storehouse. There he finds O'Hara's lost talisman, standing among some ritually-arranged candles. The candles suddenly light themselves... You might think that would give him some kind of hint that something supernatural was going on, wouldn't you? But the ever-obtuse Wilson just picks up the statue and tosses it casually to the ground. Once the figurine hits the sand, it transforms into the black cat, and springs back at Wilson with its claws outstretched.

All at once, zombies pour out of the shadows! Wilson knocks the head off one with a machete, but he's a little disconcerted when the severed head tries to nibble his toes. Though Wilson tries to stand and fight, he soon realizes he's better off running.

Outside — but not too far outside — Wilson runs into the native girl. Remember: he's got a pack of unstoppable zombies right behind him, and this girl has obviously drawn him into a trap. But Wilson seems to have only one thought in his head where women are concerned... and while we're on the subject of "head", that's precisely what the girl offers him. If we had any doubt that Wilson's an imbecile, he removes it by pulling out Ol' Warty... and he promptly loses it. Let me point out here that the girl doesn't exactly bite off his Manlio, à la Last House on the Left; rather, it seems she grabs ahold of it with her teeth and rips it off his body. Wilson faints from the shock, or perhaps from the sheer tastelessness of it all, and the zombies move in to finish the job.

Back on the boat, Fiona's been using Wilson's departure to have a little treacherous fun with O'Hara ("... after all the wuvs of my wi-i-i-ife...). They're interrupted when the dinghy Wilson took comes floating back and bumps against the boat. Realizing something may be wrong, the pair grab O'Hara's rifle and row back to shore.

Now that Wilson is dead, there are really only two people left in the cast to be menaced; so naturally, this is the moment when the dead decide to come out in force. The scenes of the shrouded corpses rising from their shallow graves are eerie enough, though you can't help but notice that their sluggish movements help pad out the movie's running time. Eventually, an impressive number of zombies climb up out of the sandy ground and go shambling off through the palm forest... the wrong direction. No sooner have the dead moved off when Larry and Fiona come up from behind them and notice all the empty graves. At this point it's easy to imagine the sound of a hundred bloodless palms smacking a hundred hollow foreheads, and a sepulchral "D'OH-H-H!" echoing over the island. The zombie legions do an abrupt about-face and come stalking back toward our survivors.

O'Hara has one last confrontation with the native girl. He still has a chance to live, she says, if he can avoid the zombies... otherwise, he'll end up like Wilson. At this point, Wilson (or rather, what's left of him) comes staggering out of the forest. O'Hara knows what must be done: he shoots the zombie-Wilson in the head.

(Seen any George Romero movies recently, Larry? Uh-huh. Then would you mind telling me how you let yourself get so far into this mess??)

So off go our two survivors, running through the trees, while the zombies prove themselves to be much better at hunting their prey than they were before (heck, I'm a shambling mess when I first get up, too). Just as Larry and Fiona come running toward the camera and past a tree, a zombie suddenly leans out from behind the very same tree and tries to grab Fiona by the throat. There's no other place for the zombie to have been hiding — he had to be on the other side of the tree as the fleeing pair approached it. Yet they didn't see him. Either the zombies are really good at camouflage, or this is a really stupid movie.

You'll have guessed from the prologue that no matter how long the chase goes on, and no matter how many zombies keep popping up out of the ground, Larry and Fiona do make it off the island. Or at least their bodies do; their minds are a different matter. Still, their insanity turns out to be a mercy when the Coast Guard finds them alone on the island, with Wilson lying half-eaten with a bullet in his head. Still, it's a little disheartening to think that the zombies seem to be less efective the more of them there are... early in the movie, one zombie killed two people; later on, a handful of zombies (with the help of the girl) killed one person; and at the very end, a whole army of zombies failed to kill anybody at all. That means the total body count for this Italian zombie-gore flick is... three.

Three. That embarrassing statistic alone damns the movie more effectively than the endless, tedious sex scenes. Sure, there are one or two reasonably-effective shots of the zombies stalking their prey, but even these have a tendency either to go on too long, or to peter out with no effective conclusion. Come to think of it, the words "peter out" could be used to sum up the failings of both aspects of the film. They aimed for sexy horror; they ended up with horrible sex.

Notti Erotiche del Morti Viventi failed at the box office, but this didn't stop D'Amato from releasing a very similar film, Porno Holocaust, a few months later. Porno Holocaust was shot at the same time as Erotic Nights..., using the same locations and the same cast (minus Gemser, alas), but with a closer relationship between the sex and the horror. While the two aspects of Erotic Nights... seemed at odds with each other, Porno Holocaust featured a zombie that kills with its penis. I haven't seen D'Amato's later movie, and I'm in no hurry to find it; but I think I might prefer its intentionally disturbing sexual imagery to the thoughtless smarm of Erotic Nights...

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