Auditions at the prestigious New York dance academy run by demanding dance diva Candice Norman (Olga Karlatos) are disrupted when a psycho-killer murders talented frontrunner Susan (Angela Lemmerman) in the shower, using a distinctive large golden hatpin. Surly, nut-nibbling Lieutenant Borges (Cosimo Cinieri) and his cerebral sidekick Professor Davies (Giuseppe Mannajuolo) investigate but prove conspicuously unable to stop the ongoing slaughter. Meanwhile, Candice is tortured by nightmares wherein she is pursued and murdered by a mystery man (Ray Lovelock) wielding a golden hatpin. Upon discovering his real-life counterpart is down-on-his-luck model-turned-actor George Webb, Candice does what any sensible woman would do namely enter into a sexual liaison with the man she suspects is the killer.
Following his acclaimed run of zombie movies and subsequent split from the talented creative team of writer Dardano Sacchetti, cinematographer Sergio Salvati and special effects supervisor Giannetto De Rossi, Italian horror maestro Lucio Fulci stumbled through an array of genres trying to reignite his career: sword and sorcery (Conquest (1983)), post-apocalyptic science fiction (2033 Rome: The New Centurions (1983)), erotic thriller (The Devil's Honey (1986). In 1984 Fulci and producer Augusto Caminito hit on what must have seemed like an ingenious idea to combine the giallo with the Eighties dance craze spawned by Fame (1980) and Flashdance (1983). To no-one's surprise, save perhaps their own, the result was another disaster - too campy for horror fans, too weird and blithely misanthropic for dance enthusiasts.
Handling the all-important soundtrack duties was prog rock legend Keith Emerson, fresh from collaborating with Dario Argento on Inferno (1980). Emerson's disco ditties drive some genre critics up the wall, but given Eighties dance music has made something of a comeback in recent times, younger viewers may be more inclined to enjoy them. Set to catchy songs like "Streets to Blame", the reoccurring spectacle of beautiful dancers gyrating in leg-warmers and skimpy leotards is not unpleasant. Janna Ryan plays a Debbie Allen-style harsh-but-fair dance instructor while Olga Karlatos even delivers a variation on Allen's famous Fame speech ("You kids are gonna be big, but first you gotta pay...")
It is amusing to see the grumpy old man of Italian horror try to "get down with the kids" by including break-dancing and roller-disco sequences. Fulci was not yet the spent force he became by the decade's end and brings a degree of style to the dance numbers with skilful staging, lighting, editing, notably when sweat-sheened Janice (Carla Buzzanca) performs an eye-opening tribute to Jennifer Beals and arguably tops the Flashdance star. Oddly, the dance scenes are more distinctive than the murders. However, none of the dancers receive an onscreen credit. Fulci seemingly regards them as anonymous aerobics dolls that dance for our pleasure then die. Smarting from criticisms of his risible The New York Ripper (1982), Fulci dials down the gore but still ensures the gorgeous victims disrobe before being pierced through the breast in grisly close-up. Which is either indicative of his misogyny or willingness to deliver the exploitation goods, depending on how you look at it.
Fulci brings his usual grouchy view of young people as shrill and whiny and show business as a backdrop for sleaze and depravity, implying most of the dancers have been moonlighting as prostitutes. Ignoring the camaraderie that often binds dance troupes, he dwells on the bitchy in-fighting and dog-eat-dog mentality, underlining his contempt through the strangely bemused figure of Lieutenant Borges who dismisses them as "a school full of sons of bitches" and theorizes the killer might be someone who just hates dancers ("He has my heartfelt approval"). Indeed, Borges proofs a veritable fount of wisdom with his sagely views on art ("It's like a disease... that makes them born liars!") and women ("One learns the hard way with the ladies"). Later when Candice challenges one male character that he thinks all dancers are sluts he replies: "You think I'm wrong?" It is worth noting though that Fulci himself cameos as a casting agent who remarks showbiz folk "aren't as immoral as everybody thinks we are", though the unfolding plot proves otherwise.
While Fulci keeps his young characters at arms length and regards them with distaste (aren't they his target audience?), the plot focuses on the older characters whose shrill soap operatic problems fail to engage. Italian horror fans will recognise regulars like Karlatos (who got a splinter in her eye in Fulci's Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979) and played Prince's mom in Purple Rain (1984) - you tell me which was worse) and Ray Lovelock, plus Claudio Cassinelli as studio director Dick Gibson, Christian Borromeo as Susan's slimy boyfriend Willy (what's with all the phallic names in this movie?) and Al Cliver as a cop.
One of the last Fulci movies to feature really decent production values, the New York locations add a layer of glitz. However, carried over from New York Ripper is Fulci's vision of American society populated with obnoxious weirdos including possibly the screen's only unsympathetic disabled child (Silvia Collatina) who coolly snaps photographs of her babysitter being murdered. Karlatos gives the strongest performance in spite of her awkwardly written character and an unsatisfying ending that riffs on Fulci's earlier, superior A Lizard in a Woman's Skin (1971). Things conclude with a strange quote from John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle (1950): "Often crime is a distorted form of human endeavour." Uh-huh...
Italian director whose long career could best be described as patchy, but who was also capable of turning in striking work in the variety of genres he worked in, most notably horror. After working for several years as a screenwriter, he made his debut in 1959 with the comedy The Thieves. Various westerns, musicals and comedies followed, before Fulci courted controversy in his homeland with Beatrice Cenci, a searing attack on the Catholic church.