For local film nerds, Exhumed Films' annual Ex-Fest is an unmissable treat. Twelve hours of exploitation cinema, complete with trailers and shorts, all on honest-to-goodness 35mm film as projected by a living, breathing projectionist. The films are never announced beforehand, with only loose descriptions of each posted on the venue wall. One can usually expect to see a Kung Fu flick, a western, and a blaxploitation film, and one can always expect to be surprised. And if you stick around for the late-night programming, one can expect to be downright shocked. The post-festival consensus was that this year's lineup was one of the best, and I must agree. It was so good, in fact, that I never once felt like leaving even though the venue's heat was still on* and we nerds are generally a sweaty, smelly folk.
This year's lineup, complete with the posted descriptors:
- "Eye-popping Martial Arts mayhem" - Dynasty (1977 - dir. Mei Chun Chang)
A first for Exhumed Films: Dynasty was projected in 3D! The crew at Exhumed developed a unique process to show this kitschy Kung Fu flick in its intended medium (we in the audience being the Guinea pigs for future 3D Exhumed events). Seeing Dynasty like this is a supremely rare treat, one which is pretty much impossible to see anywhere else. Granted, I could not tell you what the movie was about, what with all of the meaningless double-crossing, terrible dubbing, and entirely uninteresting plot, but that doesn't really matter. I GOT TO SEE NINJA STARS FLYING AT MY FACE IN 3D! I GOT TO SEE AT LEAST 10 HEADS GET RIPPED FROM BLEEDING TORSOS IN 3D. The hero’s weapon of choice? An umbrella. IN 3D! Dig that. Dynasty goes for broke in exploiting the gimmickry of 3D, and the gags, for lack of a better term, do not stop. A strong start to Ex-Fest!
- "Fantastic Spaghetti Western starring a fan favorite" - Death Rides a Horse (1967 - dir. Giulio Petroni)
Is there anyone cooler than Lee Van Cleef? The dude looks like everybody's grandpa, but still manages to be an all-time badass. Death Rides a Horse is no exception. It's the typical western revenge thriller: the survivor of a massacre teams up with a spurned criminal to seek vengeance on those who have done them wrong, only to find they are more deeply connected than either could have guessed. The 60s and 70s served up hundreds of westerns, many of which are bland assemblages of genre tropes, but Death Rides a Horse is one of the good ones. Its influence on Tarantino's work is very clear (the Ennio Morricone score was lifted from this and used for portions of Kill Bill), as is its connection to to just about any subsequent revenge picture.
- "Derivative and delightful Post-Apocalyptic rip-off" - The New Barbarians aka Warriors of the Wasteland (1983 - dir. Enzo G. Castellari)
After the nuclear holocaust (one which left behind plenty of vegetation), humanity has broken down into a handful of tribes, hell-bent on simple survival. Well, except for the Templars, a group of men who wish only to eliminate humanity as punishment for having started nuclear war. Their plan? Kill everyone they see, rape the men, and presumably take their own lives once all is said and done. It's weird. The lead actor looks like Anthony Bourdain and is just about as convincing as an action star.
The rinky dink future-cars (after which I’m convinced The Homer was designed) move at about 5 mph and are driven by dudes in poor Barbarella cosplay outfits. The dummy work, however, is incredible. So many characters get exploded, beheaded, or run over, showcasing beautiful rag-doll physics (one of the two best gimmicks a film can utilize, the other being flame-engulfed stuntmen). The filmmakers were clearly aiming at a Mad Max sort of thing, but ended up with a movie that looks like it was made by a Sasha Baron Cohen character. So yeah, all things said, it's pretty awesome.
- "Underseen Blaxsploitation/Crime thriller" - Combat Cops aka The Get-Man aka The Zebra Killer (1974 - dir. William Girdler)
Much like spaghetti westerns, blaxploitation flicks can be a mixed bag quality-wise. Some are transcendent, while others are just carbon copies of better films. Combat Cops is somewhere in the middle. It's not as over the top or dynamic as a Dolemite or Black Caesar, but it's also of a slightly different brand. This flick is much less interested in telling a heightened, uber-hip story than into giving the Dirty Harry template an urban vibe. The villain (kinda-spoiler alert) is a white man who disguises himself as a black man and terrorizes the city, hence the film's original, decidedly tasteless title The Zebra Killer.
His true race is supposed to be a mid-film reveal, but anyone with eyes will know from moment one what's going on. Our hero, Frank Savage (Austin Stoker, from Assault on Precinct 13) is so damn cool that he barely seems to notice that his woman has been kidnapped. Is it because he's confident he'll rescue her in due time or is it just poor writing? Don't know, don't care! The best part of the movie is when Savage lights up a cigar and his partner asks him why he doesn't just smoke cigarettes:
"Because they're white."
- "Super rare, super weird Science-Fiction/Action oddity" - Street Asylum (1990 - dir. Gregory Brown)
Wings Hauser, star of Street Asylum and father to Easter Island statue turned actor, Cole Hauser, has the largest head I've ever seen on a human being. It has got to be at least 200 pounds, only 3 pounds of which are comprised of face. It's such a massive structure that one wonders if the bulk of his acting roles were landed by sheer force of gravity. He also might be the sweatiest person who ever lived. Remember how I said the heat was on at the theater? Well, Wings Hauser's slick, shiny head reminded me of that fact every time it appeared on screen, which was pretty much every shot of the movie. Anywho, this strange flick is a fascinating mess, straight from that period where movies seemed to be written around pre-existing VHS box art, from a time where bad movies were earnest in their badness, which ultimately is what makes them good. Sorry, Sharknado, but purposeful badness sucks.
This movie features a fully on fire stuntman who bumps into another stuntman who is subsequently engulfed in flames, which makes this inarguably the greatest cinematic achievement in the history of the medium. Oh, and that robotic G. Gordon Liddy up there on the poster? Not in the movie. At all.
- "Perverse, graphic, and taboo horror/exploitation shocker" - Love Me Deadly (1973 - dir. Jacques Lacerte)
Perverse, graphic, and taboo, yes, but also surprisingly nuanced in its earnest exploration of the difficulties inherent to living with an alternative sexual desire. The thing is, this is a movie about a necrophiliac, which is gross. This is perhaps my favorite discovery of this year's Ex-Fest because it exhibits the covert power of exploitation cinema: by blindsiding an audience with violence, nudity, harsh language, monsters, ninjas, etc, a filmmaker can sneakily force viewers to tangle with challenging subject matter. I only expected to see an oddball horror flick with Love Me Deadly, but by the end of it I found myself empathizing with our protagonist who, try as she might, just can't manage to bang a dead body. I really wanted her to succeed, revolting as the concept is. That’s power of well-handled schlock. At every Ex-Fest there's always at least one seemingly dismissible flick which turns out to be legitimately good. This is that flick.
- "One of the filthiest, most revolting, and offensive films of all time...we love it so very, very much" - Pink Flamingos (1972 - dir. John Waters)
Not only is it a cinephile's honor to watch the ultimate trash classic projected on film, but John Waters himself popped in, along with actress Elizabeth Coffey, to introduce the film.
I'm happy to say that it remains as filthy and disgusting as ever, and if there's one thing greater than seeing Pink Flamingos for the first time, it's witnessing someone else seeing it for the first time. Watching a Flamingos virgin attempt to grapple with it, reason with it, uncomfortably laugh at it, and ultimately give into it is to watch Waters' mission of inducing anarchy in action. The only way to cure a square is to shake him up, and it's simply never been done better. To (mis)quote Elizabeth Coffey regarding what she loved about working with Waters:
"For once I didn't have to be the joke. I got to MAKE the joke."
To know that a band of misfits from Baltimore turned trash into respected art is the most inspiring thing I can think of, and the singing butthole sequence is probably the pinnacle of comedy on film. I mean that.
Another Ex-Fest has come and gone, and I'm already counting the days until next year.
*No love lost to Exhumed Films or International House who took every necessary measure to ensure our comfort. These are the breaks of hosting an event at a venue which serves many other functions besides film exhibition, and thus has a litany of moving pieces to consider.