Our review of Island of Death (1976) (Blu-ray), published May 29th, 2015, is also available.
The lucky ones simply got their brains blown out (meaning the audience, of course).
Hear that sound? Wait…listen carefully…do you hear it? Come on, it's right there…just below the whisper of the wind and the rattle and hum of industrialized society. You mean you really can't hear it? Okay, listen…let's try this little experiment: clear your mind of all thoughts…erase the busy day from your stressed brain…let your subconscious float off into the ether…there…there you go. Now…listen…can you hear it now? Of course you can…it's that most awful of noises, like the crackle of zombie bones or the gnashing of sharpened teeth…but it's far more sinister and despicable. See? Of course you hear it now! You feel foolish for even thinking you couldn't. And you know what, you're right about what it is too. It's that fraudulent symphony of dissatisfaction, it's the screams of the mentally anguished as they ride the rollercoaster of dashed expectations and overactive imaginations up and down the track of hype. It's the communal groan of a public tricked into thinking that a foreign exploitation film from 1975 could possibly be the vilest putrescence ever put to celluloid since Snuff or Ghost Dad. For unleashed upon an unsuspecting, but properly pre-sold populace, is the Greek geek gross-out fest entitled Island of Death. Far from being the most controversial movie ever made, it does hold the distinction of being one of the most depressing and repulsive bits of cinematic pig slop thrust onto the digital medium in a while. And those noises you hear? They're the wail of the bamboozled banshee, otherwise known as your average DVD consumer.
Facts of the Case
A "married" couple, Christopher and Celia, arrive from London to spend some time in Mykanos, an island off the coast of Greece. Christopher is an avid photographer. After arranging a place to stay from a homosexual storeowner, they begin to explore the quaint village. That night they attend a party and meet many of the locals, including an elderly rich woman and a lesbian pub worker. The next morning, Christopher has sex with a goat and slaughters it. The couple runs into a French painter in a cafe. They play a perverted sex game with him (they pretend to be cousins and Celia solicits the artist). They meet him the next day at the church where he is working. After ravishing Celia, Christopher shows up and crucifies the poor sod in the church courtyard. While still in agony, they poison him by forcing him to drink paint. The gay man invites Christopher and Celia to his engagement party. After the soiree, they show up in the couple's bedroom. Celia kills the young lover with a gunshot in the mouth. Christopher chases the storeowner down the back streets of the town, a sword in hand. He disembowels him. During each crime, the couple has taken pictures of their horrible deeds. They go back to their home and develop the photos. Christopher enjoys masturbating to them.
Apparently, the couple has committed similar atrocities in Britain. A detective tracks them down in Greece. They surprise him in the private plane he has hired. They tie a rope around his neck and take off into the air. Though he hangs on for dear life, he eventually falls to his death. Christopher arranges a rendezvous with the socialite. He urinates on her and then, after an aborted attempt at sexual congress, he beats her to near death and then decapitates her with a bulldozer. Celia no longer enjoys this life of crime. Some hippies sexually assault her. Christopher kills them both. He gets angrier and decides to use Celia as bait to kill the lesbian (who is also a heroin addict). After a torrid seduction, he gives the junkie a lethal overdose and then burns off her face with a homemade blowtorch. A novelist interested in the deaths on the island links Christopher to the lesbian's death. The police give chase and Christopher and Celia end up on a sheep herder's ranch. The simpleton rapes Celia and throws Christopher in a pit of lime. Celia, amazingly, likes her new agricultural lover. She refuses to help Christopher, who it turns out is her brother, and he dies in the lime as rain causes it to turn caustic. Celia explores sexual passion with her farm hand. The end.
That's right. They just don't make 'em like that anymore. Who can we thank?
It would be nice to think that, someday, when he least expects it, someone is gonna sneak up behind Tobe Hooper as he sits in his palatial estate and sips wine coolers and throttle the bocephus out of him for starting this whole neo-realist movement in horror films. Oh sure, we could wander backwards down the time line and try to hurl some bloodshed blame at the passing visage of Herschel Gordon Lewis or Wes Craven. After all, they've festered up the cineplex pretty well with their docudrama-esque gallons of guts extravaganzas. But honestly, it wasn't until the Tejas two-stepper devised a marriage of Ed Gein to Black and Decker and dressed it up in a butcher's apron covered in the grue of vivisected victims that the average hack auteur found an outlet for his own inner woodworker. So many atrocious movies have been made in the shadow of that cannibalistic lumberjack unruliness known as The Lone Star State Saw Shenanigans that Hooper has to take some responsibility for all the sincerest form of flattery going on. But it won't happen, just like we'll never know the secret ingredient that makes Cinnabon so dang-burn addictive or why people keep hiring Carrot Top. As time and destiny move on, any idjit with a digital camera and a squeeze bottle full of red printer's ink will be creating their own homage to that delightful dismemberment diorama.
At least Island of Death—or Devils in Mykanos or My Mother the Car, or whatever the director wanted to call it originally—acknowledges the fact that it rips off Hooper's hopeless horror saga, mining its mix of mayhem and meat loving for potential box office bonanzas. This is a movie with the sole intent of out-goring, out-debauching, and as a direct result, out-grossing (both figuratively and literally) all other murder motion pictures. The fact that it incorporates several of the most disturbing and distressingly degrading moments in the history of film is beside the point. It's the fact that it does it so seriously, without a single wink or nod to the audience, that makes this excuse for entertainment that much more reprehensible. There is no joy in Island of Death, nor could their really be, given the subject matter and the way it is approached. There is nothing thrilling about seeing people or animals abused, debased, and slaughtered, not even if it's that stupid Geico lizard. At the heart of this for-a-buck muck is an amoral moviemaker, hoping to stir up a little controversy (and a lot of green stuff) with his putrid Pervert's Progress through five or six of the seven deadly sins. The pure mercenary gonads of director/writer Nico Mastorakis are to be pitied, not scorned or admired. He set out to make a disgusting movie, and he succeeded in a spray of stinky bodily fluids.
But let's get a few things straight, right off the bat: this is not, by any stretch of the imagination, the worst or most controversial movie ever made. Recent import fare from Asia and Germany, like Nekromantik and the Guinea Pig series make Island of Death look like a frolic with H.R. Pufnstuf on his warped Living Inlet. True, it is incredibly mean-spirited and soulless, but there have been worse images in mainstream Hollywood hokum. (No? Ever seen Harvey Keitel naked?) If one wanted to extrapolate why Island of Death is singled out as being the World's Most Widely Banned Movie and the subject of massive censorship, the answer is obvious: It's all in the tone. Murder is treated in a Hades-don't-give-a-heck matter-of-fact fashion, and sexuality is mixed with degradation and violence to produce an uncomfortable, unflinching, and fairly uninteresting look at evil and insanity.
Just because the movie is uncompromising doesn't make it any more entertaining. In reality, Island of Death will be a very long, prickly hour and forty-seven minutes for the average or timid viewer. Many will turn it off after the morning-after goat sex scene. Others will leave as our lunatic lothario urinates all over a society matron before she pleasures him orally. All the sex scenes end in death. And one look at the grinning Greek cartoon crazy playing the dutch dooring sheep herder will give even the most jaded jerk a good jolt of jarring jaundice. All the death scenes spur moments of misplaced passion. Eventually the movie laps itself and turns pedestrian, making the cruelty and inhumanity downright boring. If for no other reason, desensitizing an audience to atrocities through the art of tedium renders Island of Death exceptionally sinister.
Island of Death is that cult standard, one in a long line of "I dare you" movies. Like Lucio Fulci's Gates of Hell (otherwise known as City of the Living Dead) and John Carpenter's The Thing, this is the kind of carnival sideshow cinema that asks you to pay your two bits and gawk at the wickedness and misfortune laid before you. It dares you to look away and knows that you won't. Island tells no compelling tale and offers only glimpses of storytelling competence. It's all in the delivery system. Give it enough of a build up, and frat boys and quilting bees will be challenging and cajoling each other into a game of entertainment chicken, double-dog-daring one another to sit through this snide sludge without flinching or upchucking their Macho Burrito. But nothing here can match the artistic brutality of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. There are no performances, just hired hands going through the machinations of mayhem required to get their screen credit. The only memorable directing technique is the use of a random fisheye lens, which distorts the depicted disease even more so. While some could argue that this is a deformed commentary on Western Civilization and religious ethos spilling over and onto local indigenous culture, there is no thematic underpinning to suggest it is anything more than an exercise in sickness. Call it Naturally Bored Killers or Male Model Goes Nutzoid, but the end result is still the same. Island of Death may indeed have something to say about our sex and violence drenched human mindset, but it drowns its possible persuasion in a sea of nauseating depravity.
One cannot deny the restoration attention paid to Island of Death by Image Entertainment. Offered in an open matte full frame transfer (the original aspect ratio), the image is struck from the director's own personal negative and was painstakingly and lovingly restored (about the only positive emotion connected with this movie). Though filmed in the decidedly flat, vague composition style of most European cinema, Island of Death looks fantastic. The colors are bright and sharp and there are no defects to speak of. On the downside, the soundtrack is so overmodulated and undermastered that dialogue is lost, while irritating Euro-Vision-Trash pop songs play in full-fledged distortion in the background. When a viewer has to reach for the remote several times to adjust the volume up and down, there is a serious flaw in the aural aspect of the DVD. If one wants to hear the ersatz pop tones in all their non-buzzing banality, simply more over to the extras menu and freak out your ears on such woeful wastes of song styling as "Can You Call It Love" and "Destination" (with such wonderful lyrics as "grab the sword/kill them all") as they play along to selected clips and scenes from the movie (and you thought Christina Aguilera's last video pushed the limits of filth in musical performance—ha!).
But hands down the best thing about Image's DVD of Island of Death is the riveting 27-minute interview with director Nico Mastorakis. Upfront, forthright, and completely honest, he spares us the agony of sitting through his movie for another grueling hour and forty of commentary by addressing everything you ever wanted to know about the making of this miscreant mess (but were too moralistic to ask) in a quick featurette. He admits it was made for money. He assures the audience that there was no animal abuse or killing in the film. He divulges special effects secrets. And he tells fascinating stories of the cast and crew. Most unsettling is the offhand comment that actor Bob Behling was "similar" to his character in the movie. A confused, possibly closeted homosexual model in Greece, Behling later killed himself in a particularly gruesome manner. Mastorakis gives us all the juicy gossip and war stories of creating one of the most contemptible works of cinema ever, but he never lets us forget the profit margin minded reason for the film's creation (and even the release of this DVD package). Island of Death is all about dollars in decadence. It succeeds in sickening spades.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There is nothing wrong with Geek Cinema. Handed down from the traditions of P.T. Barnum and numerous carnie cattle calls, there is nothing here so awful, so serious or real for that matter to require outrage or work you into a livid lather. Just like the physical oddities and calamities of creation that rut around the sawdust sections of a striped tent terror show, Island of Death provides a chance to stare into the abyss of man's inhumanity to…well, to just about everything on the planet and hopes you are entertained. Just like those faux Faces of Death flicks that claim to offer filmed images of the last minutes of life, Island of Death is all supposition and very little payoff. But it's still a stark, demoralizing thriller swimming in twisted psychological waters and rotten with perverted pleasures, and it's not everyday that you get to see a film tackle such issues as homophobia, golden showers, and incest with such stark surrealism. It may make your stomach turn or compel you to cleanse your calloused hide after a single viewing, but you cannot deny its impact and its power. Island of Death is a movie about degenerates and their compulsion to kill. And it's a very real, very visceral examination of the subject.
Nothing hurts your amusement meter more than a movie that fails to live up to its hyperbole. When something is the funniest comedy in the history of cinema, it better have you peeing your pedal pushers or soiling your shorts, or it's just a lot of yak. Likewise, a film advertised as the scariest exercise ever better start giving you your heebie jeebies from reel one, or it too turns into a bloated bag of blather. Island of Death manages to depress your delight dial so monumentally that a greased Lou Ferrigno in a pair of Speedos couldn't muscle it back into motion. While it is a true fick suck of a motion picture, it is also a tame, tepid trash pile. It can talk the talk, but when it comes to even attempting ambulation, it falls like an elderly shopper at Lane Bryant.
In the long history of "believe it when you see it" cinema, many films have spun the same shame story. And many, like Nekromantik, have more than lived up to the chuck factor. But poor Island of Death is all barf and no bite. It's just a series of more and more debaucherous acts in search of a purpose and an audience of pot-puffing cinematic daredevils willing to give it a spin. As it plays, that sound you will hear is the disheartening thud of expectations crashing back to reality. Island of Death may be the most banned movie ever, but only if you define the word "banned" as meaning "loaded with crap." This is one tourist trap that should be avoided at all costs.
Island of Death is sentenced to Salo for the annual 120 Days in Sodom. It will then be forced to date Jörg Buttgereit. Though upfront about his actions in this matter, director Nico Mastorakis is sentenced to an acting school and then will be required to work 600,000 hours of community service, cleaning up the pools of puke his nauseating exercise in exploitation created.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Image Entertainment
• Director's Interview
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