As a little girl poor Mariale (Evelyn Stewart) saw her father shoot dead her mother alongside the latter's lover then turn the gun on himself. Now grown up, a still-tormented Mariale lives cloistered inside her ancestral castle where stern, controlling husband Paolo (Luigi Pistilli) makes sure that Osvaldo the creepy manservant (Gengher Gatti) administers her daily medication. Paolo does not want any visitors to unsettle his wife's already fragile sanity. Unbeknownst to him however Mariale invites a group of old friends who arrive unannounced, ready to party. Among the guests are glowering macho Gustavo (Edilio Kim), his funky black girlfriend Semy (Shawn Robinson), sexy party girl Mercedes (Pilar Velázquez), bickering jerks Sebastiano (Ezio Marano) and Jo (Giancarlo Bonuglia) and most notably, Mariale's suave, sensitive former lover Massimo (Ivan Rassimov). It is Massimo in whom Mariale confides her suspicion that Paolo is slowly poisoning her, drop by drop, day by day. That night after touring the castle's creepy, cobwebbed interiors, the guests stage a riotous costume party. As events slowly get out of hand the evening turns to murder...
Italians supposedly rate Romano Scavolini one of cinema's great mavericks. Yet for British horror fans he will always be the hack responsible for Nightmares in a Damaged Brain (1981), among the most risible Video Nasties of the Eighties. Curiously although Scavolini still proudly defends that mess he is more scathing about his first horror movie: A White Dress for Mariale, also known as Spirits of Death, and is quoted as describing it as "a film best forgotten." Which is odd as despite some flaws and unintentional silly moments (as in the intro where nude, bullet-riddled pop star Gianni Dei moves to conceal his (according to showbiz legend: enormous) genitals as he snuffs it) it is a much more polished showcase for Scavolini's abilities as an ambitious and imaginative filmmaker. Working as his own cinematographer, as he often would, he conjures a dreamy, disorienting tone that befits this slow-burning psychological giallo. Images of sylvan beauty contrast with gothic interiors swathed in delirious décor, possibly influenced by Roger Corman's Edgar Allan Poe films or most certainly Mario Bava who would tackle similar themes in Lisa and the Devil (1973).
The plot shares some similarities with Sergio Martino's Poe-influenced Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972) right down to the presence of Luigi Pistilli as yet another haunted aristocrat tormenting a jittery, neurotic wife. A good portion of the film tests viewers' tolerance for lengthy scenes where 'decadent' Italian swingers hurl florid insults at each other. Gustavo's frequent racial slurs directed at the uninhibited Samy are especially reprehensible as is the inescapable Italian exploitation ingredient of misogyny (with women slapped left and right), but at least the script has characters acknowledge them as such. Unusually the film presents saturnine Ivan Rassimov, more often the epitome of screen evil, as the liberal voice of reason though even Massimo is chastised for moral lapses by the inscrutable Mariale. As events progress she exposes Gustavo as a coward, Jo as an impotent brute, Mercedes as insecure, etc. Portrayed by blue-eyed ice queen and giallo staple Evelyn Stewart, whose real name was Ida Galli, Mariale is an interestingly ambiguous anti-heroine. Elegant but unfathomable and seemingly intent on dragging her guests into her own personal nightmare.
Scavolini physicalizes Mariale's torture psyche through horror movie imagery: cobwebbed rooms, disfigured dolls, slithering snakes and fetid zombie-like mannequins. Events take a turn for the bizarre when the guests don ridiculous fancy dress (and Mariale slips into her titular white dress) for a Bacchanalian reverie. Whereupon the film fragments into surreal vignettes midway between Federico Fellini and Luis Buñuel only with less pointed sociopolitical subtext. It does not start bumping people off until the last twenty minutes but does so in rapid succession and a variety of creative ways, uncomfortably saving the nastiest, bloodiest demise for its lone black character. Singer Shawn Robinson essays her only film role here. She was better known for crooning on soundtracks composed by the great Piero Piccioni. Co-written by Remigio Del Grosso and Giuseppe Mangione, the script fashions a condescending allegory about the romantic attachment to the aristocracy blinding Italians to their destructive influence on society. It boils down to a yet another variation on Ten Little Indians with a predictably gloomy denouement but is sporadically interesting.