George Eastman: Absurd Anthropophage

by Arthur B

George Eastman's performance is a highlight of not one but two early 1980s video nasties.
~
Among the various movies added to the so-called “video nasty” list in the UK in the 1980s, few have as as much in common as Anthropophagous and Absurd. Both are projects by expert trash merchant Joe D’Amato, and both have George Eastman in almost identical costuming. And both are incredibly grim, though in mildly different ways...

Trigger warnings would be appropriate at this point: both of these involve cannibalism and murder, one involves violence against a pregnant woman, one involves violence against a disabled person.

Anthropophagous


As with many of the video nasties, this one was released under a whole swathe of different titles; the print 88 Films seems to have used to prepare this high-definition rerelease actually has the title “The Savage Island” appear during the opening scenes. The film kicks off with a young German couple exploring a delightful Greek island, with a lovely old village and decent beaches. As the man sunbathes, the woman spots a boat sitting apparently abandoned just off the beach. She swims over there, only to be shocked by what she finds therein - the occupant being the eponymous anthropophage, who after slaying her makes short work of her blissfully unaware friend.

At this point the acton shifts to a group of friends sailing about the Grecian archipelago in their rented yacht. Encountering photographer Julie at one of the tourist sites they visit, they agree to let her join their party, since she needs to sail to a particular island - the same one the German pair were visiting - to catch up with some friends of hers. (Hitching a ride with Maggie and company is the only viable way to get to there, since the island has no regular transport service.)

When they arrive at the island, it’s immediately apparent that something is horribly wrong; the village streets which were so jolly and bustling in the opening sequence now seem quite abandoned, aside from the occasional munched-on corpse. Just who is responsible for the island becoming so deserted, and what welcome to they have in store for these intruders? And what trashy, grindhouse fate does director Joe D’Amato have planned for heavily pregnant Maggie’s unborn child?

By the time he made Anthropophagous, Joe D’Amato was an experienced hand at the exploitation movie racket, though earlier works had tended to be softcore porn pieces. This first attempt at straight-up horror (as opposed to the horror-porn pieces that preceded this and would follow it until D’Amato definitively shifted gear away from smut) was written by D’Amato in conjunction with regular collaborator George Eastman, who also appeared in the film as the title character.

Between their directing, writing and acting talents, D’Amato and Eastman have been responsible for an awful lot of trash, but Anthropophagous actually benefits from a more imaginative script than the basic premise promises and a better than average performance from Eastman. Although the film tends to rely more on jump scares and gory setpieces for its thrills, there’s a certain dreadful horror in the actual explanation as to why Eastman’s character is the way he is - he’s not the result of any supernatural or super-scientific incident, it isn’t some sort of revenge thing, and he isn’t just intrinsically mentally ill, setting him apart from almost every other spree-killer in horror fiction.

Instead, he’s the victim of a very believable accident and the choices that followed it - after he’s shipwrecked with his family, they end up slowly starving under the baking sun, and after their child dies he and his wife end up in a heated argument about whether to eat the body in order to save themselves. After the fight turns violent, the newly-minted anthropophage is driven beyond his limits by the combination of the guilt of killing his wife, the awful necessity of eating both her and his child to survive, and the unrelenting sun; the combination of these factors leaves him both physically disfigured and mentally scrambled. Part of what’s so nightmarish about the character is this awful possibility that he just doesn’t realise what he’s doing - that this constant cycle of killing and eating he’s in just comes down to him constantly reliving the crisis on the boat, unable to recognise that he’s no longer in danger but operating on pure adrenaline and panic. Eastman’s mostly-wordless performance here neatly sells this idea, with the only time he really seems to actually process thoughts about something rather than operating on pure instinct being the infamous climax, in which after being disembowelled he gnaws on his own entrails gazing at his slayer with a look of sheer, pissed-off defiance.

The rest of the story consists of a range of genuine surprises, as when one of the few survivors of the rampage - the blind daughter of Julie’s friends - makes a dramatic entrance, and predictable scares competently delivered, like when one of the guys locks the blind girl in her bedroom to keep her safe only for a flash of lightning to reveal that he’s just locked the cannibal in the room with her. The performances from the rest of the cast are a bit ropey, and the film has few qualms about getting ridiculously gorey; there’s one particular section which people sensitive about pregnancy-related issues may well prefer not to watch. Still, both D’Amato and Eastman would be involved with far worse movies, and as far as B-movie horror trash goes it’s pretty effective.

Some of 88 Films’ editions of the movie include the bonus feature 42nd Street Memories. Strung together from talking heads interviews and extracts from various B-movies that have featured the titular street over the years, it’s a long love letter to one of New York’s most infamous attractions - a string of cinemas that in their heyday offered everything from the latest Hollywood efforts to the most extreme grindhouse trash (plus an epic amount of porn), coexisting awkwardly with a major centre of sex work and drug dealing. For the most part the talking heads come from the world of film, alternating between reminiscing about the place and dredging up all the sleaziest anecdotes they could about the place. The story of 42nd Street is interesting largely as a microcosm of the wider cinema market, particularly the way it declined as a result of the combination of home media and big business really putting the pinch on independent cinemas and making it impossible to run such a thing on such valuable real estate.

Absurd


Although presented in some markets as Anthropophagous 2, Absurd is not so much a sequel to Anthropophagous so much as it's Eastman and D’Amato doing their take on Halloween - there’s really no plot connection to the original, and the only real link is that George Eastman is still playing a murderous murderguy from Greece out for murder, and there’s a shot quite early on of his intestines hanging out of a wound in his belly to remind us of the close of the previous movie.

We open with Eastman, not in the makeup yet, being pursued by someone who looks extraordinarily like Ronald Reagan. It isn’t - it’s Edmund Purdom, playing a priest who despite his major role in kicking off the action isn’t actually named in the script. He is on the trail of Eastman, who this time around is an ordinary Greek chap called Mikos who’s been subjected to scientific experimentation by the Church, who apparently wanted to turn him into Wolverine because… I dunno, because the Pope is a big X-Men fan?

Anyway, they’ve given him a mutant healing factor, but a nasty side-effect of the process is that it’s driven him murderously insane. Mikos is wounded during the chase, but makes it to the home of the Bennett family, who naturally enough call an ambulance for him so that he’s taken to a local hospital. There, he revives, with a fixation on getting back to the Bennett house so he can reward them for their help the only way he knows how: by murdering them all! It soon comes down to a game of cat and mouse between Mikos and Katia Bennett (Katya Berger), who’s been confined to her bed in order to treat a spinal condition.

As in Anthropophagous, the movie attempts to make Eastman’s character’s mental disintegration understandable, even if we’re appalled by the actions he takes as a result of it. There, it was his awful castaway experience and the combination of the traumatic acts necessary for survival and massive brain damage from sunstroke which combined to do it; here, of course, it’s dubious medical experimentation.

It’s notable that the first people we see Mikos unleash his violence against are medical personnel, and that it doesn’t happen until he sees the Father in the hospital; given the nature of the experimentation on him, it’s completely understandable why Mikos would conclude that he’d been delivered back into the hands of his abusers, and therefore take any means necessary to get away. His campaign of violence against the Bennetts may in turn be a sort of twisted bid for revenge, perhaps inspired by a belief that they were in on the conspiracy against him, and perhaps his attack on a slaughterhouse worker along the way might be interpreted as being indicative of the grim conditions of the experimentation labs he was confined in.

Nonetheless, the one scene which really sells the idea that Mikos is operating as much out of fear and rage is the bit where he spots the Father in the hospital, where to Eastman’s credit he really does manage to look truly, genuinely terrified.

In the English dub, at least, the action is supposed to take place in America, but it seems unlikely that Mikos would have been able to get all the way to the US under his own steam and it’d make more sense to just set the thing in Italy. (Plus there’s the fact that no American biker gang would ever be seen dead riding the little Italian bikes the bikers here use.)

Then again, it is entirely possible that Mikos has suffered increasing behavioural deterioration, and previously had it together enough to sit through a trans-Atlantic flight without going on a murder spree. In discussing his condition, his doctors mention that his brain expanded over the course of their observations before and after surgery, and the Father explains that he doesn’t regenerate his cells perfectly; from this you can infer that each time his healing factor kicks in, he suffers a sort of progressive dementia as a result of pressure on the brain and his brain cells themselves being replaced by mutated cells - still, for B-movie purposes I think it’d be better if this had been stated more clearly.

As it stands, of course, the American setting seems to have been a deliberate bid to pander to the US market, with folks having noted numerous aspects in common with Halloween. Eastman is your local nigh-indestructible Michael Myers, of course, and the Father is your local equivalent of Dr. Loomis. (Given that Donald Pleasance was happy to do awful Italian B-tripe like The Pumaman and Warrior of the Lost World at around this time, I do wonder whether D’Amato sought to cast Pleasance in the role - though clearly if he did, he didn’t succeed, possibly due to Pleasance’s Halloween II commitments getting in the way.)

It’s in the latter half of the film, though, that the Halloween mimicry really gets into high gear - you’ve got the kids at home with a babysitter, you’ve got Eastman doing a silent killing spree, and you see an apparent abandonment of any attempt to set Mikos’ acts in the context of the awful things that have been done to him. (There really isn’t any compelling reason beyond a huge coincidence for him to have gone back to the Bennetts). You also have talk of the Boogeyman in the script, and a kid running around in a Halloween mask for good measure, and a babysitter left defending the kids against the killer’s outrages.

Things end up in a more original space once you hit the point where Katia has stabbed out Mikos’ eyes with her drawing protractors, leading to an interesting scenario where Katia, with mobility difficulties due to her long period of confinement in bed, must stay ahead of Mikos, who is faster and stronger than her but blind.

The early kills are imaginative, as are the special effects used in realising them, though some have dated badly; for instance, there’s the killing of the slaughterhouse worker by driving his head into a power saw, where in the shot of the saw going in it looks like his head has been replaced by a large slice of ham which has fake blood poured on it when the saw goes in, and then in a subsequent shot where the slaughterhouse worker’s wearing a prostheric to simulate his wounds the saw blade is clearly missing.

Eagle-eyed Italian horror fans will note Michele Soavi, who would go on to direct the last truly great movies in the classic run of Italian B-horror, in a small role as a biker.
~

bookmark this with - facebook - delicious - digg - stumbleupon - reddit

~
Comments (go to latest)
at 08:26 on 2018-12-19
No comments on this article. Why don't you post one?
In order to post comments, you need to log in to Ferretbrain or authenticate with OpenID. Don't have an account? See the About Us page for more details.

Show / Hide Comments -- More in October 2018