By the 1970s, the drive-in had become synonymous with two things: teenage sex in cars and Italian horror movies. Lord knows how many young women lost their virginity while Dario Argento movie Goblin-soundtrack cues echoed tinnily from the ominous gray speaker hanging on their half-opened car window. As some nubile victim got brutally murdered in splashy colors, American girls in backseats became women. And now, their children can enjoy the same film on DVD.
It's endlessly amusing to hear mainstream film critics complain about what we Italian film fans call "dream logic" and what they call "lazy incompetence." They don't understand it because, most likely, they're outside major cities for whom the "Tower of Babel" effect is unknown, so they don't appreciate the need for non-lingual story-telling devices, and they didn't see the film first at a drive-in while on acid or erection-enhancing stimulants purchased under the counter at a local pharmacy... If they only saw ZOMBIE or SUSPIRIA sober, they never really saw it at all... or saw too much of it, which might be worse. Cinema is not always meant to be studied under a magnifying glass, sometimes a movie needs to just be there, doing its own thing, providing you the scant light to pick the seeds out of your stash. An Italian horror movie wants to provide a nice canopy of gore and rock music for you to hide out under and get your freak on. It wants to scare you and rock you out, regardless of whether or not you speak its language or missed the first 40 minutes. If you decide to look up and pay attention, WHAM! it's instantly ready to pounce on your nerves and never let up. The last thing it needs is more cops and exposition and establishing shots. Meanwhile it's shocking enough to make sure your mom doesn't insist you take your little brother along, but with murders memorable enough to describe to them later.
From that standpoint, the strung together gross-outs of Lucio Fulci in films like ZOMBIE or THE BEYOND make total sense. There's an unspoken assumption in most drive-in fodder that viewers are going to miss at least 40% of what's onscreen (these films were made before VCRs and "pause" buttons); they're going to be off at the snack bar; looking for an elusive condom in the glove compartment, trying to get a chance to use it; or hanging with friends by the swing set under the screen, doing whippets and ripping one-hits and eating popcorn and getting ripped on copped 40s. Super loud rock scores function to drown out conversations from other cars, to reach you through steamy, cracked window panes and hormonal surges, cars coming in and out of parking spots next to you, or honking to each other, perverts creeping up to your windows and trying to peep through the passenger window and so much more. Lastly, the films need to work even for the kids watching the screen through binoculars from their bedroom windows uphill from the highway (as I used to do!)
That's all fine with Fulci and Argento. Their goal is to deliver a spookshow the way 2001 was a "Space Odyssey," or FANTASIA an animation extravaganza. No linear plot is needed when the theater space has become a show unto itself. But if you should decide to look up at the screen, the Italians promise there will be something sick up there to rivet your eyes... man, JAWS VS. ZOMBIES??? Whoa! What kind of exposition do you need for that? That's the Italian horror way and it served the automobile sexed-up American youth market quite well... .
Seen today in the privacy of our own homes on deluxe widescreen digital with booming 5.1 stereo, we're hip to every little flaw in the Italian horror mise-en-scene. Film snobs like me recognize and bemoan missing scenes or improper aspect ratio formatting while they dig little weirdnesses like the German language signs plastered around New Orleans for an Italian film (THE BEYOND). But at the drive-in, the mere fact that a film could be scary at all was testament to its over-the-top power. And you don't criticize your own nightmares for being nonsensical, especially if they're scary enough to wake you up, so don't do the same for these films, just let the room be dark, the drugs prescribed by a reliable physician and the volume loud enough to wake the dead.
MORE ACIDEMIC WRITING on ITALIAN HORROR:
Cinebollically, Dario: FOUR FLIES ON GRAY VELVET
"Argento's films--even at their worst--are never "safe" and always rich in moral ambiguity: Good guys are hipster artists driven to risk their friends' lives in finding the killer, more out of perverse fascination than genuine empathy for the victims; the killers have their reasons--usually mental illness caused by brutal child abuse, and police hardly matter, except as deadpan mashers waiting around on the sidelines with their pages of red herring exposition."
"Why Don't You Call Your Insects?" PHENOMENA!
"It takes all the hot topics of the early 1980s/late 1970s and mashes em up real nice for a tasty b-movie stew: chimps avenging their slain masters (with a razor found in the park trash can), THE SWARM-style bug attacks, CARRIE-esque telekenetic revenge against bratty schoolmates (replete with wind blowing the hair back ala FIRESTARTER), deformed Jason-like freaks, flaming lakes, beheadings, maggots, POV killers shots with a knife on a pole ala PEEPING TOM, etc., all scenically filmed around the base of the Alps in what wheelchair bound Donald Pleasance dryly refers to as "the Transylvania of Switzerland."
Get in my Arachnid Black Belly: BLACK BELLY OF THE TARANTULA:
"It would all be just much ado about nothing, except for the aforementioned Morricone score, which provides a cacophonic counterpoint whenever it can. You don't even need a story when Ennio is at the top of his game like he is here: all crumbling electric guitars, atonal mashes of the keyboard, deep breathing and and wheezy organs, he catches and balances the woozy mise-en-scene the way a patient friend might help a stumbling drunk to his car."
An Argento Family Reunion: MOTHER OF TEARS
"Having Asia Argento in the film is a major key to unraveling the mystery of how to make it an enjoyable viewing experience. She's a mess in this movie, looking weary and bemusedly resigned, like the cool older sister you drag through the haunted house you've made in the basement rec room, — the sort with candles and blindfolds, where you make them stick their hands in cold spaghetti and tell them it's brains. We did that a lot in the 1970s, and Argento's family probably did too."