The WTF Cinema of Andrea Bianchi
Andrea Bianchi is one of the most marginalized of the Italian exploitation filmmakers; perhaps deservedly so. His reputation is based on two key films: the giallo Strip Nude for your Killer in 1975 and the 1981 zombie flick, Burial Ground. While fellow Italian directors like Umberto Lenzi and Sergio Martino were making several films a year throughout the seventies and eighties, Bianchi managed to make about one film per year between 1972 and 1993, and most of these are barely watchable. Jay Slater refers to Bianchi as “a hack director”; a label that seems cruel as Bianchi aspired to be a hack director but never quite made that cut.
Bianchi’s films are a sleazy mixture of explicit sex and gore; and while for many, such is sufficient to deserve adoration, his films often include moments of the bizarre wherein one is shaken out of a bad-movie-numbness momentary to ask “whtatthefuck?!” We look around at the other people we’re sharing this movie with – friends, family, significant others (or even just at the empty spaces where friends would be if we had any) – to see if they too were struck by the films’ moments of strangeness. Did I actually just see that?! Italian cinema expert Peter Bondanella suggests that Bianchi might be a misunderstood master of parodying the exploitation genres’ conventions. Or maybe, as Donato Totaro diplomatically puts it, a “lesser-skilled craftsman”. To try and discover whether Andrea Bianchi is a misunderstood auteur or the “Ed Wood Jr.” of Italy, I want to go on a bit of a journey through a handful of Bianchi’s films – some well-known and others … not.
I want to start with one of Bianchi’s first films, What the Peeper Saw (originally titled Diabolica malicia in 1972; also known as Night Child and even Night Hair Child – I don’t even pretend to know what that last one means). Bianchi is directing under the pseudonym Andrew White (a common enough practice among European exploitation directors) alongside British director James Kelly; seemingly Kelly was responsible for the English language print and Bianchi the Italian print. The film has a reasonable cast for a European b-movie in the early 1970s – former Hitlerjunger Hardy Krüger plays Paul, a wealthy remarried widower, now married to the lovely Elise (Britt Ekland), awaiting the arrival of his deeply disturbed son Marcus (former Oliver star, Mark Lester). Early on in the film, Elise and Paul are at a party, and Elise moves through the kitchen to the outdoor patio to catch some air. The sequence takes no more than 20 seconds of screen-time. But in the background we see some very bizarre behaviour from the other guests: both men and women have a naked Black woman on the table and are molesting her with handfuls of fruit. This activity is not commented on by anyone, nor do we return to the action. Nor am I sure the fruit molestation is consensual. It’s an offhand moment, but certainly very weird.
Elise and Marcus begin a series of mind-games over the actual fate of Marcus’s mother: was it an accident in the bathtub or was it murder? In one sequence, Marcus threatens Elise with a cricket bat by swinging it in front of him as he moves towards her answering her questions about his relationship with his mother. We also find out that Marcus is a Chelsea supporter – I’m not sure what’s more frightening. But by far the strangest moment in the film is the game of quid pro quo Marcus plays with Elise: he’ll answer her questions truthfully while she takes off her clothes in front of him. The sexual mind-games notwithstanding, from the very beginnings of his career, Bianchi appears to be obsessed with incest; it’s a theme he keeps coming back to again and again across his films. Perhaps this is where some of the evidence of Bianchi’s authorship lies, in the inscription of this taboo played out with uncomfortable graphicness; a refusal to turn away or further repress those incestuous urges within us all.
Cry of the Prostitute (originally titled Quelli che contrano, 1974) stars Henry Silva as Tony Aniante, an American mob hitman brought in to find out who is stuffing dead children’s bodies with heroin for trafficking across the continent. Aniante does this by playing Yojimbo with the two warring families sparring off of each other. In one particularly bizarre sequence, Don Cantimo (Fausto Tozzi) invites Aniante over for dinner with him and his wife Margie (Barbara Bouchet). Dinner was apparently too banal for Margie, as she tries to seduce Aniante under her husband’s nose, by fellatiating a banana. “Lola”, the cross-dressing rapist in Exciting Love Girls, also deep throats a banana – apparently, Bianchi has a thing for fruit. Not put off by the hitman’s rejection, Margie surprises our anti-hero in the pantry later that night, naked except for the luxurious fur coat she’s wearing. Aniante takes her roughly from behind, having violent animal sex up against an eviscerated pig carcass. Despite the absence of incest themes in Cry of the Prostitute, Bianchi still offers us some bizarre visuals bringing together the separate themes of sex and violence. And having animal sex, up against a pig carcass, with someone in a fur coat, may very well be bordering on the satirical.
Even by the standards of Italian crime films, Cry of the Prostitute is extremely violent. During a particularly bloody gang-war shoot out, the Casemi matriarch, Carmela (Patrizia Gori) puts the head of one of the Cantimo soldiers into a band-saw, with appropriate splatter effects across her face. The film ends with a beaten and bloodied Aniante standing off against the Casemi clan in a sequence which has more than a little bit of the spaghetti western to it. What this sequence demonstrates, at least to me, is the strong connection between the spaghetti westerns and the Italian crime films; if the action was contemporary, it was a crime film; if the action was set 100 years earlier, it was a spaghetti western – but the scripts and iconography were almost inter-changeable.
Made in 1975, Strip Nude for your Killer (original title Nude per l’assassino) tries to up the ante for sex and violence in the giallo film. A series of gruesome murders around a fashion photographer’s studio is investigated by one of the photographers and possibly chief suspect, Carlo (Nino Castelnuovo) and one of the models, who is likely going to be one of the victims, Magda (Edwige Fenech). Strip Nude seems to polarize critics: Peter Bondandella refers to the film as “first-rate” and notes
… by the time Bianchi shot the film, the giallo conventions established by Bava and Argento and elaborated upon by a number of directors in the early 1970s had become well codified. Strip Nude for your Killer makes the often implicit connection between the thriller and the ‘sexy’ film very explicit and deals with a number of themes (abortion, lesbian sex, frontal nudity) that were treated much less openly than in other earlier thrillers (Bondanella, 2009, p. 403).
Danny Shipka, on the other hand, refers to Strip Nude as “one of the sleazier gialli out there,” and notes “the film is only meant to titillate, which shows how far the subgenre had sunk by the end of the ‘70s”.
There’s a sequence, about the middle of the film, where the owner of the studio, Maurizio (Franco Diogene), tries to seduce one of the models, Doris (Erna Schurer) in his apartment. When she resists his advances, he hits her and throws her onto the sofa and begins to rape her. Doris acquiesces and consents for a quickie; but Maurizio can’t achieve an erection. Doris tries her best to help him, but she eventually just starts to get dressed and calls for a taxi. Maurizio is embarrassed, not because of the attempted rape, but because he couldn’t get hard, and tries to give her money for a cab. She refuses the cash, as she’s not a prostitute, and leaves. Maurizio, sad and dejected, wanders over to a set of drawers in his apartment and pulls out an inflatable woman doll, who apparently is the only woman who “understands” him. Now, either this sequence is the epitome of violent misogynist cinema, or a very clever commentary on pathetic Italian machismo. Bondanella seems to suggest the latter as he notes “a certain sense of humor in the script”. Either way, Bianchi gets to return to his beloved incestuous themes here: the killer was in a lesbian relationship with her own sister.
Bianchi’s follow up to Strip Nude, 1976’s Confessions of a Frustrated Housewife (originally titled La Moglie di mio padre) returns the director to the incest themes more centrally. In fact, the Italian title translates better as “The Wife of my Father”, reflecting the romance between a frustrated Laura (Carroll Baker) and her step-son Claudio (Cesare Barro). Laura’s wealthy husband, Antonio (Adolfo Celi), claims impotence, but is still able to function with his many mistresses. And in frustration, Laura begins to look outside the marital home for sexual pleasure. Antonio even suggests that Claudio and Laura spend more time together, so he can have more fun playing around himself.
If Confessions of a Frustrated Housewife seems rather tame for the director of Strip Nude for your Killer, he more than made up for it with his 1979 erotic-gothic possession film, Malabimba; a picture Danny Shipka refers to as “a sick little puppy [of a film]”. Bimba (Katell Laennec, in her only film role) is the teenage daughter of the Karoli family, a decaying aristocratic clan. During a séance at their castle, the evil spirit of Lucretzia is contacted and begins to possess young Bimba. Before the young girl goes full-on Linda Blair, Lucretzia has fun possessing Sister Sofia (Mariangela Giordano), the family nun, and teaches this “Bride of Christ” how to masturbate. Lucretzia’s main purpose in the film is to give sexual licence to the various Karoli women, particularly young Bimba. At one point in the film, Bimba makes an appearance at a cocktail party, like Regan does in The Exorcist, but instead of urinating on the floor, Bimba flashes all the guests her body.
The biggest WTF moment in the film, however, comes when Bimba seduces her paralyzed uncle, Adolfo (Giuesspe Marrocco). As was typical of the time, Italian erotic films would be produced in both soft- and hard-core editions; that is, special inserts (you’ll forgive the pun) were filmed of hard-core penetration and cut into the existing film to make a hard-core edition. If the cultural mores in a particular community or from a specific board of censors viewed pornography negatively, the softer edition would be distributed instead. Bimba’s seduction of the paralyzed Adolfo begins to have an effect, and Adolfo begins to become aroused (probably for the first time in years). Bimba begins to fellatiate her uncle – and this is where the hard-core shots are inserted, most likely filmed elsewhere and with different actors. A blow-job from a teenage niece is too much for the elderly Karoli, and his heart gives out. But he does die with a smile on his face. While the incest between uncle and niece is certainly explicit, more implicit is the affection between Bimba and her widowed father, Andrea (Enzo Fisichella). Malabimba seems to suggest that the various possessions Lucretzia is responsible for – Sister Sofia and Bimba – merely awaken and exploit existing desires, including Bimba’s desire for her father. Perhaps I can extend this idea further, suggesting that Bianchi, like Lucretzia, is merely exploiting the desires in our society; that it is us who are sick – mala – not just Bimba in our repression of incestuous and carnal desires. Or not.
And this is the context in which Burial Ground was made in 1981 (originally titled Le notti del terrore, and also known by the direct translation of the Italian, Nights of Terror); Bianchi’s own contribution to the zombie filone or cycle of Italian exploitation cinema. And, love it or hate it, even without Strip Nude for your Killer or any of Bianchi’s other films, Burial Ground is so outrageous as to cement Bianchi’s reputation. The film opens with Professor Ayres (Renato Barbieri), opening up an Etruscan tomb and reciting an ancient prayer that awakens the zombies. Donato Totaro observed that the dry Etruscan dead owe much of their appearance to Armando de Ossario’s Blind Dead Templar Knights from a series of Spanish films ten years earlier.
George (Roberto Caporali) and Evelyn (Mariangela Girodano), along with their son, Michael (Peter Bark), have recently bought the villa under which the Etruscan graves were excavated by Professor Ayres. Joining them for the weekend are two other couples and a skeleton crew of domestic servants. With no phones installed, when the dead start attacking the villa, these nasty bourgeoisie have no place to go or get help from. Burial Ground is a full bodied bloody gut munching film, which is probably what its reputation is based on; and the dismemberment and disembowelment starts surprisingly early in the film, with little extraneous plot. The maid (Anna Valente), for example is slowly decapitated by scythe-carrying ghouls. Leslie’s death (Antonella Antinori), looks almost like a shot-by-shot recreation of Lucio Fulci’s famous eye-splinter sequence from Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979), almost as if Bianchi is challenging Fulci suggesting that anyone could do that.
But beyond the gore, Burial Ground is most notorious for the creepy Oedipal incest between Evelyn and her ten-year old son Michael; Peter Bark, who plays Michael, is clearly much older than ten, and of restricted growth, to give him the height of a much younger boy. In a sequence which is probably the nadir of Bianchi’s incest motifs, Michael wants to suckle at his mother’s breast and even tries to run his hand up her dress. Michael accuses Evelyn of not loving him anymore as he runs off to his doom. At the film’s end, as zombie Michael approaches his mother, she gives him her breast to suckle and he bites a massive chunk out of it. As Johanna Vuckovic notes, “What else is there to do during a zombie apocalypse but make sexual advances on your mother”?
Jay Slater, noting that Burial Ground is “a particularly unpleasant film to watch”, also suggests that the film is “simply a tasteless excuse to show people ripped to pieces and eaten at a time when it was popular at the box office”. But I’m not entirely convinced such a dismissal is warranted: Bianchi’s confrontation of the incest taboos, throughout these films, suggests a direct problematizing of these repressed desires in our society (well, his society of 1970s Italy). And along with that, as Johanna Vuckovic notes, the film can be read as “revenge of the dead against the living in which the ragged, plebeian zombies overthrow the decadent, libertine bourgeoisie”. And that’s always fun to watch.
I want to talk about one last film, as it touches on many of the points I’ve already mentioned, Bianchi’s 1983 film Exciting Love Girls (original title Giochi carnale, a much better title, as it translates as “Sex Games”). For most of the film, we follow two scuzzy guys who drive around looking for female hitchhikers to pick up and rape. Miche, one of the rapists, needs these experiences so he can play them in his head while he has sex with his fat and unpleasant wife, Maria. His buddy and partner-in-crime, has the brilliant idea to cross-dress as “Lola” so they cruise around as husband and wife to get a better class of hitchhiker to rape.
Parallel to this plot is the story of Dr. Daniella Mauri (played by Sirpa Lane, in her final role; she died in 1999), an angry feminist emergency doctor who is disgusted by the constant stream of rape victims she is treating. Eventually, the two stories come together and Dr. Daniella is abducted by Miche and “Lola” and brutally raped. While the two rapists are sleeping it off, Dr. Daniella retrieves her medical bag, and uses her surgery skills to anesthetize her attackers, removing their testicles, and dropping them in glasses of champagne for when they awaken. And there the film ends.
Bianchi’s Exciting Love Girls is a deeply uncomfortable film to watch; the sequences of rape are brutal and pornographic. When Dr. Daniella is raped, she appears to enjoy it, or at least that’s the impression she’s trying to give to her attackers. Like the pathetic Maurizio in Strip Nude for your Killer, we are invited to identify with (or at least follow) these repulsive characters; but then the film seems to hold them up for ridicule and condemnation. It is as if we are invited to enjoy these sequences of sexual violence, only for Bianchi to turn on us, challenging his audience to recognize that we are the disgusting ones watching this junk. Before the film’s final credits, we are presented with two titles cards; one informing us that “What [we] have just seen has really happened. We just portrayed it on film” and the second one noting that “The Doctor was sentenced for 8 years. The rapists for 4”. One cannot be unmoved by such an ending; the “real” Daniella sentenced to twice as long as her rapists. At one level, Bianchi may be playing with a stereotypical misogynist warning – that castrating rapists might look like a good idea, but the law will punish you twice as severely. Or do we get a glimmer of Bianchi turning the visual pleasures of trash cinema against us, rubbing our noses in the gender inequity of women’s actual exploitation.
We’re faced with the quandary of what to make of the cinema of Andrea Bianchi. Is he an unsung genius directly confronting our own hidden desires and moral failings while his films seem to glorify them? Or is he so completely inept as a filmmaker, we need to read into his films some kind of moral justification to validate the time spent watching and discussing this trash? Truthfully, I don’t know. But what I do know is that we’re still talking about his films, thirty plus years after they were made. And many of them have the power to outrage, disgust and befuddle audiences still.