Monday, April 16, 2018

"Don't Forget to Change Your Drawers" - Primal Rage (1988)

Few horror movie genres are more entertaining than 1980s Italian films shot in the United States with American actors. Some representatives of this genre aspire to even more than robust entertainment, and Vittorio Rambaldi’s Primal Rage (1988) is one of them that is, like Romano Scavolini’s Nightmares in a Damaged Brain (1980) before it, a story of political intrigue ripped right from the headlines. Primal Rage is the story of animal experimentation gone wild on a university campus.

Perhaps it is the film's political frankness that has failed to endear it to your universe's critics. Leofwine_draca, for instance, calls the film "one of the worst Italian movies I've seen....Credibility goes out of the window right from the start, when we are introduced to a wooden cast of actors playing teenagers and 20-somethings who couldn't act their way out of a paper bag if their lives depended on it." At 10K Bullets, Michael Den Boer writes, "The direction is lackluster, the actors just mundanely go through the motions and the dialog is deliriously awful." At Blueprint: Review, David Brook finds the film "a bit slow. The horror scenes are pretty naff and infrequent, which was the main problem. It didn't help that the copy we saw was cut and clumsily so."

Of course, these critics are entirely mistaken. Let us look at the film in detail so we can correct their mistaken "opinions" about this classic horror movie.

The film begins on a college campus, as a photographer on a motorized scooter shoots photos of women aerobicizing, the university tug-of-war team, and couples making out on a lawn a few yards from where the groundskeeper is cutting the grass with a tractor mower. (Who can forget such times?)

The narrative begins when a young woman’s car is being towed. She tries to reason with the tow truck driver, but he responds with something like, “It’s a red-ass world, honey baby” and she understandably has no response.

The woman, Lauren, is rescued by our scooter-riding photographer, Sam. Sam, a journalist, is working on a story about a university “monkey abuser,” the lightly mulleted Dr. Ethridge, whose research involves restoring lost brain cells. (Ethridge is played by the estimable Bo Svenson.)

When asked how much lost brain capacity Mr. Svenson’s new drug can restore, the professor informs us, “All of it. A hundred percent.”

His corporate funder responds, “Not bad.”

The experiment is not a resounding success, however, as the test subject simply grows angry, resulting in a threat of lost funding.

The filmmakers move from animal experimentation to another controversial subject when Lauren meets her new roommate Debbie, who is starting the semester late because she had an abortion. “Welcome to the real world,” says Debbie, an indication that the filmmakers are interested in creating more than just an escapist horror movie but an exposé of the reality of political issues.

The horror begins the next night, as Sam’s journalistic compatriot Duffy plans a raid on the monkey lab to expose evidence about animal cruelty. The suspenseful sequence begins as a university security guard patrols the neurophysiology building, radioing in his position with a walkie talkie whose antenna is at least six feet long.

Duffy breaks into his lab and finds a monkey in a cage, but Duffy’s flash photography seems to anger the animal, who easily breaks out of the cage and bites Duffy’s arm. This exciting scene is scored with a driving Claudio Simonetti track, put to wonderful use as the monkey smashes through a window and climbs atop a taxicab—and to somewhat less wonderful use when the monkey is struck by a police car, then tossed into the air to smash into the windshield.

Bo Svenson arrives at the scene of the accident. “This will set us back weeks,” he says sadly.

After a college math class, Lauren is astounded that her new roommate Debbie is able to calculate the number of diagonals of a hexagon. “My IQ is 184,” Debbie explains.

“Oh God, you don’t look—“ says Lauren, but she stops herself and says, “I’m sorry.” (We will never know how she was going to finish the sentence, unfortunately. Perhaps with a racist or anti-semitic remark. There is no way to know.)

Debbie responds, “It’s all right. Guys don’t make passes at girls with glasses.” (Apparently Debbie believed Lauren was going to say Debbie didn’t look like a girl with glasses.)

Later, Sam visits Duffy, only to find that Duffy, who does not admit to breaking into Bo Svenson’s lab, is sick due to an infected monkey bite. Sam sets Duffy up with Debbie, though Duffy is suspicious. “How many eyes has she got?” asks Duffy.

“Trust me,” says Sam, a little confusingly, “she’s more than your hands call for.” Sam tells his friend to shower. “And don’t forget to change your drawers,” he adds. “I’ll pick you up at eight.”

On their date, Duffy tells Debbie his philosophy: “Gonzo journalism’s kind of like eating a lot when you don’t have a colon, you know.”

“Meaning what?” asks Debbie.

“It means you never know how it’s gonna come out, you know.”

Later, Debbie and Duffy have a hear-to-heart conversation at the university swimming pool; when they kiss, Duffy gives her a tiny hickey. The next day, Duffy flies into a rage at the university clinic, attacking people and then running out to the quad, where for some reason a bubble behind his eye explodes with blood.

That night, Duffy runs around campus, picking up traffic signs with newfound super-strength and vandalizing cars for no apparent reason. He also begins shrieking like a monkey, so he is essentially in the same situation as Peter Parker, if Peter Parker had been bitten by a radioactive monkey.

Meanwhile, Sam searches for Duffy at Duffy’s house. He doesn’t find his friend, but he avails himself of Duffy’s darkroom to develop pictures of the test monkey, and Sam starts piecing things together, albeit slowly. He confronts Bo Svenson and Bo Svenson’s tiny rat-tail mullet, and the professor explains the monkey had an adverse reaction to a new protein. Sam threatens to call the police on Mr. Svenson, despite the fact that he has clearly done nothing even remotely illegal.

Also meanwhile, Debbie, who you will remember was bitten by Duffy, feels like she has the flu, but nevertheless starts walking around campus. Coincidentally, she is accosted by a trio of ladies’ men who shove her into the back seat of their convertible and force feed her a can of beer. Then they take her to their dorm room for a disturbing attempt at gang-rape.

Fortunately, the bite from Duffy has given Debbie super-strength as well, and she takes care of the would-be rapists, knocking them unconscious and biting them for good measure.

As the situation grows tense around the university, Lauren, like all typical college women, walks around campus with her books in the middle of the night for no apparent reason. Feeling as if she is being followed, she picks up her pace and starts running. Then she is startled by a man we have never seen before who bears a startling resemblance to MST3K’s Dr. Clayton Forester. “You left this on the table,” he says, though he has nothing in his hands, and he does not give her anything.

Later, in a tense sequence, Sam returns to Duffy’s house, only to find Duffy has returned, looking a bit like a monster.

Duffy, unable to control himself, hands Sam a pistol. “Kill me,” Duffy says.

Sam kills Duffy.

Then Sam finds Lauren and tries to explain the situation to her. They find Debbie’s clothes in piles around her apartment. Then they find Debbie, who mindlessly attacks them, but they manage to knock her unconscious with a small alarm clock.

With Bo Svenson’s help, Sam and Lauren move Debbie’s unconscious body to the lab—by unceremoniously stuffing her in the trunk of Mr. Svenson’s convertible.

In the lab alone with the semi-conscious, infected Debbie, Mr. Svenson begins an evil monologue: “Debbie, I’m sorry dear, but it’s too late to save you. However, there’s so much I can learn from you. Think of it, Debbie. You could be making major medical history. Future victims worldwide could owe their recoveries to you.” Mr. Svenson does not last much longer, as Debbie breaks free, bites him, and pokes a needle into his eye.

Meanwhile, the would-be rapists hang around an apartment wearing skeleton costumes because, though there has been no indication of this previously, tonight is Halloween.

After disassembling a car door in a parking lot, the infected rapists rampage through campus. They pull the scalp off an overweight student dressed as a baby, then rip the throat out of a student dressed as Dracula and hang another student from a basketball backboard.

Like all other movies featuring university Halloween parties, this film includes an extended rock music performance, this one by a band called ??? singing their hit “Say the Word.”

The three rapists spread out at the Halloween party. One catches sight of Lauren and chases her through the university, though she is saved temporarily when the infected Debbie finds her.

Another rapist chases Sam through the gymnasium. When Sam turns a corner, he bounces off a small trampoline in storage.

When the rapist catches Sam, Sam impales him with a well-placed strut from the trampoline and runs under the bleachers to escape another of the skeleton-costumed villains.

Sam rather cold-heartedly kills the student by pushing the button that automatically closes the bleachers. Thus, Sam has murdered two of the villains in the space of less than two minutes.

When Lauren is attacked by the remaining rapist, Sam takes care of him with an axe.

Lauren spends the rest of the night in tears, though it is not clear whether it is because she was chased and attacked or because her new boyfriend Sam is clearly a highly effective serial murderer.

Of course, in the finale, Lauren is found by the last of the bite victims, Bo Svenson. Although it would seem this confrontation should be the climax of the film, it is handled rather quickly, again by the murderous Sam, who throws a surprisingly floppy-legged Mr. Svenson off a dorm landing to his death.

Mr. Svenson’s death is humorously punctuated by the implication he fell onto a sprinkler head, and water begins spraying out of his mouth.

“Let’s get out of here,” says Sam wittily, and he and Lauren drive off campus to the upbeat strains of a wonderful pop song whose name and artist I did not catch because the songs listed in the credits did not seem to correspond to the lyrics of the song. In order to make my oversight up to you, I will transcribe the poetic lyrics to the song:

“You paid the price, this victim of love
A pawn in the game I lost from the start of
Promises I swore I could keep
Just crumble and fall, resistance is weak.

Then don’t go asking the same threads away
Moonlight and magic to light every day
Oh, I can’t believe I’ve come back for more
But I need you now, just like before.

Say the word. I’ll be there.
The lessons I learned, I don’t really care.
Say the word. Rescue me.
Hold me tonight in your arms. Set me free.”

(I must say I find rhyming "love" with "of" in the first two lines to be particularly clever, and I wish I could credit the talented songwriter.)

Unsurprisingly, Primal Rage has a fine pedigree, as it was written by Umberto Lenzi, scored in part by Claudio Simonetti, and its special effects were coordinated by Carlo Rambaldi, the father of the film's director Vittorio Rambaldi. whose next film Decoy (1995) would star Peter Weller and Robert Patrick. The Rambaldis' involvement in the film is clear from its appealingly visual sense of the absured, most prominent in the Halloween costumes worn during the campus party, all of which are bizarre and creative, though realism is slightly strained by the fact that all the costumes seem to have been designed by one very creative individual.

Primal Rage also features Bo Svenson (who is still not Bo Hopkins) in an unfortunately small role. Mr. Svenson, in fact, could be seen as the hero of the film, as his research was attempting to do great things for humanity and animalkind, and was only a threat due to the interference of the journalist Duffy who incorrectly assumed Mr. Svenson was conducting illegal experiments.

In the end, we can put Primal Rage on the shelf with Nightmares in a Damaged Brain, Barracuda, and The Bees as films with insightful political messages that are shockingly good stories as well. As ever, we must turn to Umberto Lenzi and the Rambaldi family for an edifying dose of social awareness with our thrilling, humanistic entertainment.