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Spare Us the Cutter: Ian McCulloch's Video Nasties

  Considering Ian McCulloch made his name as far as horror fans went with a trio of Italian shockers, it’s appropriate that he should have made his debut in a chiller, way back in 1966 with the Roddy McDowall vehicle It! That was an updating of the old Jewish legend of The Golem that had been adapted into a well-regarded silent movie in Germany, but as it turned out, what director Herbert J. Leder conjured up was not quite as prestigious, indeed when it wasn't dragging its heels it was positively absurd. McDowall played a museum employee who revives the stone creature and sets it on his enemies (and a bridge) in pursuit of job security and blonde bombsell co-worker Jill Haworth, only to be blown up by an actual atomic bomb in a remarkable display of overdoing it. Oh, and for no reason that's explained he keeps his mother's mummified corpse around the place for company, and not because Leder had seen it in another, more famous film, oh no.

But where was Ian? He was stuck in a supporting role as the stock assistant detective, called on to stand next to his boss and nod or answer the occasional telephone, he wasn't even in attendance for the finale. His next notable horror was The Ghoul almost ten years later, another supporting role as one of the Hooray Henrys who descend upon Peter Cushing's isolated country mansion and are picked off by the thing in his attic, who happens to be TV's Bullman Don Henderson, the ghoul of the title. It's a sad little film, not least because the grief of Cushing's character was genuine as it had brought back memories of his late wife, which can make it an uncomfortable watch for non-fright reasons, and the nineteen-twenties setting was notably different from the Hammer movies it was too late to cash in on. But better times for McCulloch were around the corner when he agreed to take the lead in the BBC's new science fiction serial Survivors.

Technically he was one of three leads as Carolyn Seymour and Lucy Fleming shared those duties, but he was the leading man to all intents and purposes. The story took the form of an apocalypse that would become increasingly popular in fiction as the millennium approached, and afterwards for that matter, as a deadly virus escapes from a top secret laboratory (as seen at the start of every episode in the explanatory opening titles) and wipes out most of the human population of the world. But, you guessed it, there are survivors as the title indicates, and McCulloch's Greg Preston was one of those, a man of means and just the sort of resourceful hero a crisis like this would need. Creator Terry Nation was keen to keep the sense of the past society lost forever, but to progress the other talents on the programme recognised that some stability had to be reached for, and thus he left it behind in a huff, as did McCulloch when he didn't like the direction it was heading.

He returned for the last series briefly to wrap up Greg's plotline, but what had happened meanwhile in Italy was Survivors had really captured the mood of the nation, and McCulloch was now a star there. Sensing an opportunity, he gladly headed over to the Continent to capitalise on that fame, and this was where things got tricky. Not straight away, but after he had filmed three Italian horrors they quickly became notorious, and none more so than his first, an unofficial follow-up to George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead, which had been titled Zombi in Italy, thus director Lucio Fulci concocted a Zombi 2 as a cash in. But this apparently throwaway item of trash horror had real legs, and thanks to its imaginative, some would say ridiculous, content of violence it fast became a cult movie among those who would not believe what this was trying to get away with in terms of pushing back the boundaries of what was allowable on the big screen.

However, it wasn't the big screen that was being worried about back in Blighty, it was the burgeoning realm of home video that was the cause celebre. While McCulloch had been sunning himself shooting what would be renamed Zombie Flesh Eaters for the British market and presumably at least having a nice holiday as he worked with some of the grottiest undead ever seen, somehow even less palatable than Romero's bloodthirsty masses had been, the moral guardians of the day were growing concerned at the audience for these gory exploitation flicks. To be more precise, with no age restrictions on who could rent these from often independent video stores, schoolchildren were taking these shockers home and watching them, almost on a dare, to see who could withstand the most repulsive material.

Of course, not all of Fulci's movie was repulsive, much of it was plain ludicrous in a fashion that suggested all concerned were not entirely recognising how silly they were being as they pushed envelopes. The most celebrated example of that was the scene where the wife of Richard Johnson's scientist who is battling the outbreak of zombies ends up with a long shard of wood plunged into her eye when one of the undead pulls her towards a broken open door, of which there was no doubt was nightmarish as an image and emblematic of the sort of visuals that started the video nasty craze, not to mention perfect for recounting in the playground the day after you'd watched it. But what were we to make of the bit where in a riposte to Jaws, an underwater zombie sinks his teeth into a hapless shark? Not so coincidentally, both films were linked by their "See the bit where...?" value in conversations ever after. That Fulci had swapped Romero’s vague science for vague voodoo added a Third World unease only lending proceedings more impact.

Which was what informed McCulloch's other Italian zombie movie as he donned the safari suit for Zombie Holocaust the following year and little wonder when it was filmed in the same place and indeed on the same sets once it reached the Tropics. Fulci wasn't on board for this one, though with the huge profits Zombie Flesh Eaters eventually made it was little wonder he was stuck filming horror for the rest of his career, and where there's a hit there are countless imitators, especially in the Italian industry of this time, so McCulloch was recruited once again to remind viewers of what they appreciated in that previous effort. Although this was widely banned across Europe for its eventual relentless bloodshed, technically it wasn't a video nasty since it wasn't on the official list of titles to be prosecuted, not that this stopped police seizing a video copy and doing just that at the height of the moral panic. Nevertheless, because of its associations it is always linked with the illegal material.

This time the excuse to leave New York was not down to an apparently deserted boat in the harbour that hid a zombie that would, as we saw in the Fulci work’s final moments, infect the whole city and possibly the whole world. Nope, things were smaller scale here, less apocalyptic which would seem to go against casting the star of Survivors when that type of plot was what he was best known for in their target market. Far from a zombie holocaust, this was more a zombie local unpleasantness after it has been established who has been removing body parts from a hospital morgue and, as we discover, eating them. You'll have twigged from that information this was less an undead yarn and more the bastard offspring of the flesh-eating shenanigans, the Italian cannibal flick, though there were zombies that showed up later on, created by mad science rather than infection or the supernatural. These shambling monsters don't even bite anyone!

That was left to the cannibals, negotiated by McCulloch's investigator accompanied by the doctor from the hospital with an interest in solving the case; she was played by Alexandra Delli Colli, who predictably was around to take her clothes off in a native ceremony, a la Ursula Andress in Mountain of the Cannibal God only with more body painting and less grue. The island they wound up on was lorded over by Donald O'Brien, our mad scientist who thinks nothing of performing brain transplants with very little reason, or indeed appreciation from his reluctant patients; he was called Dr Butcher in the American print, heralded by a sensationalist advertising campaign (vomit bags, a Butchermobile to race around New York City) that made more profits than a grindhouse movie might have done. Indeed there were a bunch of titles for this, but what mattered to the audience were such sights as McCulloch mashing up a zombie head with an outboard motor or a couple of clips of an actual autopsy, lest this get too tasteful. Where life is cheap!

This left one more horror for him to appear in before the offers dried up, and that was director Luigi Cozzi's Contamination, a shameless rip-off of Alien which in a curious way looked forward to another trashy sci-fi epic, the far more expensive Lifeforce of five years later. The part everyone loved – or was revolted by – was when John Hurt fell victim to a creature bursting out of his chest, so Cozzi and his team devised a similar special effect, only this time without the creature. See? Totally different to the Ridley Scott megahit. Alas, that was the only weapon in their arsenal and well aware of that they tended to repeat it over and over with different actors and extras with what cumulatively became mildly hilarious. That was another appeal of these to the horror fans: that you could have a really good laugh at what was after all simple exploitation that always went for the cheap shock, and the cheaper it was the funnier it became. This was true especially of Zombie Holocaust and this, though there was inevitably more to it than that.

There was the dubbed dialogue too, which would often hit genuine heights of lunacy, as when the New York cop Marino Masé investigates the alien egg infestation and is tied up with the Colonel Louise Marleau who was taking care of the case from the military end. She is - gasp! - a woman and Tony the cop regrets that he never made any romantic progress with her, to which she responds with a kiss, to which he responds "That was the most fantastic thing that has ever happened to me!" and sounds like he means it, too. You could say it was sweet, even, but Cozzi's approach as it was with his previous science fiction hit cash-in Starcrash remained curiously innocent, as if influenced by those beloved fifties fantasy flicks of his childhood and was translating that to his career as an adult. McCulloch, curiously resembling comedian and game show host Alexander Armstrong in looks and delivery, was there for the exotic locations, Colombia in this instance, as he didn't mind too much if the script wasn't up to much, he was there to enjoy himself and that he did. He had an authoritative air that operated neatly with the Italian ideas of what a leading man should be, though for a change he could exhibit a little range with his role here as a traumatised ex-astronaut.

Or at least he's introduced after too long a wait as an alcoholic wreck thanks to his terrible experiences on a Mars expedition, and the Colonel whips him into shape, the shape we're familiar with at any rate (being a strong woman in an Italian movie, she naturally gets slapped by him at one point). Before that we had a recreation on bigger scale of Zombie Flesh Eaters' Mary Celeste-style drifting ship, only this one contains eggs bound for New York, and when they burst and the goo hits someone the terribly scientific bacteria cause their guts to explode. Oh, and a poor little lab rat too. There was an alien conspiracy to, er, explode the population of the planet's guts that McCulloch's co-astronaut is behind, which led in Invaders from Mars style to a meeting with "The Alien Cyclops", a poorly animated puppet for that extra bit of unintentional mirth, and once it's all over, you might not have taken it seriously but you may well have been entertained. After this, McCulloch had episodes of Doctor Who and Bergerac to look forward to before trying his hand at other things, then going on to charm fan conventions with many anecdotes. Now the fuss has died down, he doesn't regret his Italian excursion, and why should he? As long as they were diverting, that's what mattered.
Author: Graeme Clark.


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Last Updated: 31 March, 2018