The Beginner’s Guide to Italian Exploitation Cinema

Fancy watching something a bit different this Halloween? Here's Craig's primer on Italian exploitation movies...

Italian genre cinema in the ’70s and early ’80s was pretty much the Wild West; lawless filmmaking without frontiers. Permits for location shooting were mythical, actors being abused or brought close to death was commonplace, animals were frequently harmed in the making and sometimes even the directors disowned their own content, disgusted by what they’d done. I’m not saying any of these things are “good” but it sure does make for some intense and bizarre filmmaking completely outside of any taboo or limit normally imposed.

Looking back now and trying to make sense of it all can be difficult. For one, many of its key personnel were insanely prolific. For another, many of its key personnel were actually insane. A collector of these movies can spend a lifetime digging through them and still have to accept that there will be plenty they’ll never see. A newcomer can find the whole thing daunting. If you’ve watched, say, Dario Argento’s much-loved classic Suspiria and want to look deeper, it won’t be long before you find yourself lost in a sea of beautiful impenetrable titles like Four Flies On Grey Velvet, The Iguana With The Tongue Of Fire, Five Dolls For An August Moon, or Short Night Of Glass Dolls, none of which really give you an idea of what to expect from the films themselves.

This list is by no means a list of the best Italian genre films and, of course, there are lots I could’ve included but didn’t. There’s a glaring omission of Westerns (which were, obviously, a staple of the era) purely on account of my personal lack of knowledge/enthusiasm where they’re concerned. I tried to keep repeat occurences of the same director as minimal as possible (and only did it in cases where the films in question were notably different in content) but I wanted to include films that I personally love that also offer as broad an overview as possible; from the high-end stylish murder mysteries of the early ’70s “giallo” films to the trashier, gorier pictures of the early ’80s exploitation cycle.

What’s particularly interesting with these is that several of these later era films were created as direct cash-ins on popular American genre films (Dawn of the Dead, Escape From New York, Last House on the Left, etc) but the end result was often far weirder, better and more interesting than the films they were ripping off.

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This is part of why these movies hold so much fascination. They were funded by companies out to make a quick buck from mindless grindhouse content that capitalised on existing trends, yet many of the directors at the helm were genuine auteurs. Most of the big names of Italian exploitation came of age alongside Leone and Fellini and were of a similar artistic calibre. Throwing “serious” directors at explicitly violent/sexual genre cinema is something that’s never really been repeated to this extent and it makes the era unique and enduring to a certain type of film fan. These guys were operating without rules but, Christ, they had talent. Give as many Oscars as you like to Luchino Visconti but he never had to stand in front of the Italian courts and present his international cast to a jury in order to prove that they were still actually alive (so convinced were the authorities by the murders in Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust) Now that’s neo-realism!

So for those who fancy going further into the dark, here’s the Den Of Geek Beginner’s Guide To Italian Exploitation:

Blazing Magnum (1976) (aka Strange Shadows In An Empty Room)

Dir: Alberto de Martino

This firecracker blend of giallo and poliziotteschi (Italian cop films) sees veteran tough guy Stuart Whitman playing Tony Saitta, a cop so monumentally filthy he makes Dirty Harry look like Bubble Boy. He’s particularly pissed off because someone’s poisoned his sister and Saitta won’t stop until he’s questioned every lowlife in the city.

In addition to his continual disregard for police procedure (basically replace every step in the handbook with “punch ‘em” and you have his methodology), there is a jawdropping prolonged karate fight with a group of transvestites and a breathtaking nine minute car chase that needs to be seen to be believed. Both cars get progressively destroyed in a series of long-take death-baiting stunts before rolling over and finally grinding to a smouldering halt. Saitta crawls from the wreckage, yanks the perp out of the other car, shoves a gun in his face and deadpans “I’m sorry about the scratches.” Magnificent stuff.

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House On The Edge Of The Park (1980)

Dir: Ruggero Deodato

Designed to capitalise on Wes Craven’s Last House On The Left with the return of David Hess as a razor-happy nutter, House On The Edge Of The Park is one of several Italian imitations that improves on the original. Made amidst legal problems for both Deodato and writer Gianfranco Clerici, this is a raging, politically-charged fist in the face of the establishment. The plot involves Hess and his half-wit accomplice (exploitation mainstay John Morghen) being invited to a yuppie party primarily as the “entertainment.” Hess clocks on quickly, turns the tables and stalks the rich kids with a straight razor, beating, raping, and maiming them in a 90 minute torrent of violence and verbal abuse that leads to a volte-face ending that few will see coming.

It’s an imperfect film but its viciousness retains the power to shock, as does Deodato’s sparse, no-nonsense direction. He keeps the camera moving and right in the faces of the cast for most of the film, sustaining an atmosphere of claustrophobia and hysteria. Not an easy watch but a powerful film even some 25 years later.

Cannibal Ferox (1982) (aka Make Them Die Slowly)

Dir: Umberto Lenzi 

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Maybe knowing he was making the last ‘proper’ film in the flagging Italian cannibal cycle, Umberto Lenzi adopted a scorched earth policy with this one. He totally went for broke. There’s almost no atrocity left behind. The plot is nothing new as our usual American interlopers (a motley crew of journalists and coked-up diamond smugglers) wind up in the jungle, aggravate the natives and get killed and eaten for their troubles. The dubbing is dreadful. It’s not particularly well made by comparison to most others on this list. Everyone involved has pretty much disowned it (and this is hardly a bunch of choirgirls and altar boys we’re talking about). But man, this is harrowing stuff.

From the regrettable footage of animal violence to the close-up graphic sexual mutilation (male and female), there’s clearly no point where anyone stepped in and told Uncle Umberto “nah, this is too much”. With little preamble, Cannibal Ferox is 90 minutes of relentless attempts to alienate and upset any viewer’s sense of good taste. Even the dialogue is crude, vicious, spiteful and aggressive. Ferox isn’t a great film but it’s a cold, mean freak show that holds up even now for those seeking a true ‘video nasty’.

The Perfume Of The Lady In Black (1974)

Dir: Francesco Barilli

Genre stalwart Mimsy Farmer plays an industrial scientist whose grasp on reality loosens after a creepy friend talks to her about witchcraft. On account of said loose grasp, the film itself is at times very cryptic too. It’s not always easy to tell what’s real and what isn’t but the truly beautiful photography (Mario Masini frames each shot like a classical painting) and Farmer’s edgy performance hold the attention even through the most impenetrable sequences.

While repeat views are rewarded, anyone who’s watched this even once will tell you it’s worth staying until the end. The final reel is a true shocker as abstract, nightmarish and deliriously over-the-top as anything David Lynch has ever done. If you’re looking for something on the artier side of giallo, this is the one.

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Seven Shawls Of Yellow Silk (1972) (aka Crimes Of The Black Cat)

Dir: Sergio Pastore

A blind pianist overhears half a conversation about a murder plot and a bevy of models start dropping dead all over town. While the police (ever-useless in giallo films) are baffled because they can find no evidence to suggest the models died of anything beyond natural causes, our pianist hero suspects conspiracy and must solve the case before he becomes the next victim.

This may not be the best giallo but it’s almost certainly the most quintessential. Literally all of the key components of the form are present here: a black gloved killer, an array of stunningly dressed fashion models, insane green and red lighting, eye-popping art deco living rooms, a howling mad jazz score, wild camera zooms, an outlandish ‘locked room’ mystery, gothic European buildings, gratuitous nudity, gruesome murder. If you were playing Giallo Bingo, you’d get a “Casa Completo!” Most of all though, this is a solid, no-nonsense whodunnit script with an unusually satisfying reveal at the end.

Hell Of The Living Dead (1980) (aka Zombie Creeping Flesh)

Dir: Bruno Mattei

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I’ve included a lot of films on this list that I think are brilliant, made by exceptional directors. Hell Of The Living Dead does not fall under either category. The notorious Bruno Mattei (possibly the Uwe Boll of his time) made films that were enthusiastic but very low budget rip-offs of better films and this (clocking in at just under two hours) is his magnum opus. When a government project named “Operation Sweet Death” (nothing sinister here!) goes wrong, an eco-terrorist warns us “you will all die! You will die and be eaten! First they will kill you! Then eat you!” thus synopsising the rest of the film.

It’s shot in Europe but set in New Guinea. To convince you, Mattei includes about 20 minutes of nature stock footage (but didn’t do enough research to include animals actually indigenous to New Guinea). He also includes footage of starving natives eating maggots from their dead, which is in horrendously poor taste. He steals Goblin’s score directly from Dawn Of The Dead (they never gave permission).

I mean, really, this is a graceless and only semi-legal mess of a picture yet there’s a giddy joy to be had from the sense that anything goes. It’s very gory and the cheap and dirty aesthetic gives it a disturbing edge. The cast are good value too. Franco Garofolo’s performance as a SWAT commando who slowly loses his mind is brilliant. He looks 100% insane by the end of it and Margit Newton’s excuses for nudity are the most gratutious I’ve ever seen (her tough journalist character heroically whips off her clothes in order to “blend in with the natives” – none of the men do). Whatever else, the uncomfortable mix of farcical comedy, extreme violence, cheap titillation and depressing political incorrectness makes for a film that, while never “good,” is compelling to the very last frame (which, naturally, is out of focus).

The New Gladiators (1984) (aka Warriors Of The Year 2072)

Dir: Lucio Fulci

Although a lot of auteur Fulci’s latter-day films have a bad reptuation (and, arguably, his heart wasn’t in much of it), New Gladiators is an enjoyably gory stab at dystopian sci-fi that mirrors a lot of what’s currently popular in young adult fiction. Here, we have a future-Rome where the Colosseum once more is home to gladiator fights; this time on Mad Max style motorbikes!

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The sets (a mix of painted backdrops, miniature models and neon backdrops) are flamboyant and the action flies thick and fast, as the great cast (including badass Fred Williamson, legendary Italian whipping boy Al Cliver, and spellbinding runway model Eleanora Brigliadori) fight their way through a Hunger Games style arena full of mechanical traps. The story’s pretty strong, full of cool twists, and holds up now as a weirdly prophetic allegory about computer dependency. This isn’t high art, I know, but it’s good friendly violent fun nonetheless.

2019: After The Fall Of New York (1983)

Dir: Sergio Martino

Having spent the ’70s making artful, superior gialli, Sergio Martino, like most of his peers, hit the 80s making knock-offs of more popular American features. Never one to slack off though, Serge has a ball with this utterly surreal homage to Escape From New York, Mad Max 2, and Planet Of The Apes.

His leather-clad hero Parcifal (Michael Sopkiw) must journey into post-nuclear New York to rescue the last fertile woman on earth but, standing in his way are (wait for it!): foxy blondes; a cave full of midgets; sewer-dwelling rat eaters; radiation victims who vomit green goo; talking monkeys who dress like dandy buccaneers; a crazy mutant that knows kung-fu; a band of conquistadores on white horses; PVC-clad cyber-Nazis (who actually use the line “ve have vays of making you talk”!); and some killer cyborgs. Throw in a drag race with missile launchers and honestly? Who is this not pleasing? This is dumb as they come but it tries so hard to entertain, you’d have to be missing a soul not to respond with love.

Anima Persa (1977) (aka The Forbidden Room)

Dir: Dino Risi

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Another melancholy slow-burner about mental collapse, Anima Persa was made by legendary Italian director Dino Risi shortly after his successful Scent Of A Woman (1974). Despite sharing leading man Vittorio Gassman, this is a very different picture but it shows the calibre of director happy to work within genre at the time. Anima Persa is about a young painter named Tino (Danilo Mattei), sent to live with his aunt and uncle in their fading mansion on the canals of Venice. Something’s clearly not right (in true gothic fashion, he soon discovers a madman living in the attic) and, as Tino uncovers the tragic past of his family, we’re sucked inescpably into their world of deep perversion and grief.

Catherine Deneuve plays the aunt and has scarcely been more mesmerising. The photography captures the neglected beauty of Venice in a way that’s thematically perfect and while the final twist could’ve felt contrived in the hands of lesser gialli, here it’s set up well enough to carry serious emotional weight. A menacing yet moving film that really deserves to be up there with the greats.

Contamination (1980)

Dir: Luigi Cozzi

Fun-loving Luigi Cozzi (Starcrash) cashes in on Ridley Scott’s immensely popular Alien with this wonderfully affectionate sci-fi/horror crossover. A real “see it to believe it” film, Contamination starts with a shipment of alien eggs transported from Mars to New York (yup). When the boat reaches the harbour, it’s empty. How come? Well, it’s because if you get any goo from the eggs on yourself (and believe me, these things are gooey), YOU EXPLODE.

Yes. EXPLODE. Totally. From the guts out. Often replayed in slow motion. A tough talking army colonel, an alcoholic astronaut and a wise-cracking cop try to save the world from these bad eggs but the odds are stacked against them as more and more keep appearing in the unlikeliest of places…

While Contamination takes it cues from schlocky ’50s B-Movies and plays partially for laughs, it’s surprisingly well made. There are some slick action sequences, a lot of cool location shooting, an excellent musical score from Goblin and the body explosion FX are rad. It’s the kind of film that could never be made now to this kind of standard and, whether you love or hate its ridiculousness, there’s no question it was done with a lot of love for the genre.

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Anthropophagus: The Beast (1980) (aka The Grim Reaper)

Dir: Joe D’amato

Both director D’amato and George Eastman (screenwriter/eponymous beast) felt uncomfortable about this one. It was made quickly and cheaply in a dark period for Eastman (in part to help pay some gambling debts) and they thought they’d maybe taken things too far. If the guys behind movies like Porno Holocaust are saying that, you know you’re in for something special! For the most part though, Anthropophagus takes its time. A group of tourists travelling to a remote Greek island find it more remote than they’d expected and soon come face to face with the reason…

The island feels genuinely eerie. The film has an ominous, humid mood that’s broken (literally) by a summer storm, then suddenly a flood of seriously nasty gore. Eastman’s performance as the bug-eyed cannibal killer is unforgettable and Tisa Farrow – one of my favourite actresses of the era – makes a classic “final girl”. As slashers go, this is one of the weirdest, spookiest and darkest. The infamously sickening ending (which I won’t spoil) is tough to shake and, surprisingly, has never been imitated (to the best of my knowledge).

Hitch Hike (1977) (aka Autostop Rosso Sangue)

Dir: Pasquale Festa Campanile

Pasquale Festa Campanile may be the only director on this list with an Oscar on his mantle (for co-writing Four Days Of Naples) but years later, he would somehow go on to spew up Hitch Hike, one of the most nightmarish and psychologically gruelling grindhouse films of the era. Franco Nero (the original Django!) and Corinne Clery (from Moonraker) play a dysfunctional middle-age couple who pick up a hitch-hiker. Given that he’s played by David Hess, you can probably guess that rape and violence are both on the agenda, but this is a far cry from the tawdry exploitation of The Last House On The Left (whose success was, naturally, used heavily in the marketing here).

It’s a bitter, existential road movie that mixes character study and gender politics with gritty visuals and psychedelic sleaze to dizzying and unpleasant effect. A harsh film but one of exceptional quality.

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The House With Windows That Laugh (1976)

Dir: Pupi Avati

Pupi Avati was one of the more restrained directors working in the genre at the time and it’s puzzling, from watching films like this, why he was never more highly regarded by the mainstream. The House With Windows That Laugh is a sombre, beautifully filmed giallo with gothic sensibilities and a fierce political allegory at its heart. It tells the story of Stefano, a restoration expert invited to a remote island to work on a painting of St Sebastian that’s been uncovered on the wall of an old church (don’t worry – he’s way better than that Spanish woman who did the Monkey Jesus).

Turns out this fresco was originally by a local artist known as the “Painter of Agony,” whose horrible past intertwines with Stefano’s present. There’s an eerie atmosphere that provides a suitably oppressive sense of doom as the mystery (one of the strongest and most unpredictable of the genre) unfolds. This is a well written, intelligent and great looking movie all round. But even if you (somehow!) don’t like the rest of it, Stefano wears a dapper array of lovely shirts, ties and sleeveless jumpers that you can marvel at throughout.

Beyond The Darkness (1979) (aka Buio Omega)

Dir: Joe D’amato

This is a bizarre one and I toyed with not including it on account of the fact I think you might have had to have gone quite ‘deep’ into Italian exploitation before you can deal with this, but it’s worth mentioning because there’s nothing else quite like it. D’amato casts porn actor Kieran Canter as Frank, a millionaire playboy consumed by grief when his girlfriend (Cinzia Monreale) dies. Unable to face life without her, Frank steals the body, embalms it and keeps it in bed with him at his villa out in the country… Happily ever after, right?

Not quite. Like a Horace Walpole novel gone very wrong, Beyond The Darkness blends high camp soap opera with some of the most stomach-turning gore and perverse sex you’ll ever see. It flips moods on a dime from poignant to hilarious and isn’t in the least bit believable but it somehow takes you down with it into the murk – you feel like crying and laughing, even though you’re not always sure which one or why. The brain-blistering score by Goblin is one of their best too. Not an easy watch if you’ve a weak stomach but a very special, unique feature nevertheless.

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The Night Child (1975) (aka Perche?!)

Dir: Massimo Dallamano

The original Italian title (translated as simply “WHY?!”) is the howl of pain at the centre of this very dark, yet subtle chiller. Nicoletta Elmi (a prolific, brilliant child actress of the era) plays Emily, a young girl whose father is working on a documentary about “diabolical art” (never a good idea in these movies). He takes Emily and her nanny to a remote part of Italy in search of a rare painting that may or not be cursed. Taking one look at this Bosch-like monstrosity (a panorama of wild-eyed peasants, women on fire and demonic apparitions), there’s a good bet that it’s cursed as hell, and Emily finds herself possessed by its hypnotic allure.

Although created to be a quick cash-in on The Exorcist, in the hands of reliable auteur Dallamano, this becomes very much its own piece with little similarity. It’s a slow, serious horror film about broken families, with a sense of grief and sadness that builds and then erupts at the tragic finale.

Demons (1986)

Dir: Lamberto Bava

A group of people get trapped in a cinema while watching a movie about the apocalyptic prophecies of Nostradamus (“Their cities will be your tombs!” etc). Unfortunately a mask being used to promote the movie turns out to be a cursed artefact and before you know it, bug-eyed monsters are dribbling green slime and tearing people limb from limb in every direction. Yow!

By 1986, Italian genre cinema was well and truly on the decline with only a handful of the old guard still active and their work heavily neutered by the demands of the TV channels funding much of it. Demons is an anomaly; a batshit-crazy splatterfest that amps everything up to the highest volume. Producer Dario Argento and director Lamberto Bava (son of the legendary Mario Bava, who kickstarted pretty much all of this stuff way back in the 50s/60s) have never felt like they’re having so much fun. From the ear-shredding 80s metal soundtrack to the illogical Escher-esque layout of the cinema, this is a jubilant celebration of frenzied audio-visual excess, and one of the last great Italian horror films.

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Delirio Caldo (1972) (aka Delirium)

Dir: Renato Polselli

One of the hidden gems in the giallo cycle, Delirio Caldo (Hot Delirium, as a literal translation) lives up to the hysteria of its name. Jayne Mansfield’s ex and former bodybuilder Mickey Hargitay plays Herbert Lyutak, a police psychologist on the trail of a murderer… who happens to be himself. Confused? You will be. Especially when it’s (soon) revealed there are two killers on the loose at the same time, both with the same MO.

Delirio Caldo is faster-paced and more outlandish than most – a cross between Dexter and Dynasty with added S&M – but it’s really brought alive by the central performances. Hargitay can’t act in the conventional sense but he invests so fully in Lyutak as a character, it’s a grimacing, gurning, howling marvel to behold. Rita Calderoni, as his long-suffering wife, is genuinely great. She matches Hargitay’s hysterics but gives the film a depth and class that it maybe doesn’t deserve.

Although there are several versions available all with different (exclusive to that cut) footage, you can’t go wrong with any of them. Anchor Bay have a great DVD out with both the American and European cuts but there’s also a longer, nastier French VHS version that Polselli favours as his cut of choice. Whichever one you watch though, Delirio Caldo is a filthy dirty classic.

Your Vice Is A Locked Room And Only I Have The Key (1972)

Dir: Sergio Martino

Probably my favourite giallo, Your Vice (etc) is so rigidly structured that more seconds are wasted just reading the title than are squandered on filler in the movie. Veteran actors Luigi Pistilli and Anita Strindberg play Oliviero and Irina, an alcoholic writer and his long-suffering wife living in a bleak gothic villa. When Oliviero’s sexpot niece (impossibly glamorous giallo poster girl Edwige Fenech) shows up to stay with them, trouble comes in tow.

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There’s graphic sex, violence, heavy sadomasochistic themes, a black-gloved killer on the loose, a cat named Satan who may or may not be key to the mystery, and enough crossing, double-crossing and triple-crossing to satisfy the even most jaded (yellowed?) giallo buff. The simmering atmosphere is underpinned by a sumptuous Bruno Nicolai score and impeccable performances from the three leads. Like a Roman tribute to the classic southern melodramas, this is a masterpiece. And that title! It just keeps on giving.

The Beyond (1981) (aka The Seven Doors Of Death)

Dir: Lucio Fulci

When Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead hit big, the Italians cashed in. Beginning with Zombie Flesh Eaters (which I’ve already written about here on Den of Geek), Lucio Fulci created a cycle of zombie/occult horrors that culminated in the abstract nightmare of The Beyond. There’s very little plot and even less that makes easy sense. Catriona MacColl inherits the Seven Doors hotel in New Orleans and tries to renovate, despite warnings from sinister locals that it was built on the one of seven gateways to Hell. Horror abounds. She spends many scenes painting and decorating but the hotel remains a crumbling mess and this is perhaps key to the themes Fulci explores here.

Like all his films from the era, The Beyond addresses his anxieties about mortality. No matter what anyone does in The Beyond, death is inevitable. You can’t renovate the body as it hurtles towards the void any more than MacColl can make something good from the sinister Seven Doors hotel. Shot in the brownish colours of decay, The Beyond is single-mindedly bleak. Even casting all interpretation aside, it’s nightmarish to watch; maybe the purest “horror” film of all, as it’s just one unfathomable act of elaborate supernatural violence after another with little logic to tie it together. It’s sheer chaos and the haunting finalé (accompanied by one of Fabio Frizzi’s greatest scores) is unforgettably eerie.

Cannibal Holocaust (1980)

Dir: Ruggero Deodato

The fact that Deodato had to appear in court to prove the film wasn’t “real” is a great story that we can all laugh about now, but it’s also a testament to how fierce his ability as a filmmaker was. Cannibal Holocaust‘s entire point rests on the idea of truth and reality and the manipulation of both, something he clearly managed to do so successfully it very nearly destroyed his life and career. This story of four young and beautiful documentarians trekking into the jungle and the film cannisters that they leave behind kickstarted the entire “found footage horror” genre and it’s still a scarier, more intense experience than anything that’s imitated its style.

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Before we even know who the main characters are, we’re introduced to them as dead bodies all strung together in one mass of picked-clean remains, hanging from a tree, very far from home. The recovered footage showing how they met such a grim end is far more devastating than anyone expected… Photography and editing throughout Cannibal Holocaust is stunningly inventive. Riz Ortolani’s rich, poignant score adds an off-kilter emotion and the actors (not least of all the “natives”) take the material seriously.

None of the cast have any inhibitions and Deodato drags almost all of them naked and screaming through the mud for their art. Gianfranco Clerici’s screenplay is fast, sharp and savage. People have shot films that sound more extreme and perhaps feature more onscreen sex or violence than Cannibal Holocaust but this remains more powerful, transgressive, and brutal than almost all of them. What makes it is the fact that it’s done so well, with such intelligence and compassion and genuine anger. That makes it real. That makes it mean something and makes it bruise. The ultimate Italian exploitation film.

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