"Every step you take
The stronger you will be
For this is your town
You can make it.
You've got your life to lead
Let nothing stand between
You have to believe in yourself.
Hold on right there
Don't think about it twice
This is it
This is real
It's what you've wanted all your life
So take it now
While you have it all goin' right for you." (Keith Emerson)
Although, during his 32-year career as a filmmaker, Lucio Fulci tackled everything from romantic comedies to futuristic science fiction, most followers of the Godfather of Gore tend to split his career into two halves: the gialli he helmed during the 1970s, beginning with One on Top of the Other and ending with Seven Notes in Black; and the blood-infested horror movies he created from the 1980 until he retired due to ill health in 1991, beginning with Zombi 2 (known as Zombie to English-speaking viewers). He did, however, make something of a resurgence in thriller territory in the early- to mid-1980s, however, with the giallo-themed The New York Ripper in 1982, and Murderock: Uccide a Passo di Danza in 1984. The latter, which has been known by various titles, from Murder-Rock Dancing Death to Giallo a Disco to just plain Murder Rock, was, for Fulci, definitely the beginning of the end, with his subsequent career tailspinning due to a combination of diabetes-related illnesses and greatly reduced budgets. What makes Murder Rock different from these later disappointments, however, is that its failure has nothing to do with its director's health or the amount of money at his disposal. Rather, it is simply an awful idea poorly executed.
The action takes place in a New York dance school, where - you guessed it - a maniac is murdering the female students. This killer, however, rather than slicing and dicing his victims in the most brutal ways possible, simply injects their hearts with a serum. The glib Lieutenant Borges (Cosimo Cinieri) quickly makes his presence felt, but is at a loss as to the killer's identity when faced with all manner of petty back-biters within the academy, seemingly capable of doing anything to ensure their place in the next Broadway hit.
With Murder Rock, I am convinced that the 1980s were the absolute nadir of both music and fashion. This film, in its attempt to be as trendy as possible, now looks amazingly dated and, for the most part, outrageously silly, in a way that the gialli of the 1970s almost never do. The opening credits introduce us to a crowd of teenagers breakdancing and spinning about to some of the most bizarre disco music ever recorded - courtesy of none other than Emerson, Lake & Palmer's Keith Emerson, a far cry from his brilliantly quirky work on Argento's Inferno - and if you think this is as bad as it gets, you're sadly mistaken. Immediately following the credits, we enter the Arts For Living Center, where a crowd of youths are performing to yet another of Emerson's efforts, the sight and sound of which are so outrageous that they actually border on being perversely enjoyable. And don't even get me started on the night club number 25 minutes into the film, which features poor Carla Buzzanca writhing around on the floor, waggling her buttocks as a rain machine drenches her from head to toe. Never before has the sight of sweaty, leotard-clad women gyrating and thrusting their crotches in the air proved so unappealing.
Quite what Fulci was aiming for here is anyone's guess. At least on some level, it would appear to be an attempt to cash in on the burgeoning success of glitzy Hollywood fare like Flashdance and Dirty Dancing, which would have been bad enough had the decision not been made to cross it with an extremely mundane murder mystery plot. Lacking even the director's by now customary carnage - the most violent it ever gets is a couple of drops of blood from a needle prick - it feels limp and lacking in tension. Perhaps Fulci felt he had overstepped the mark with his previous giallo, The New York Ripper, and decided to cool it for a while? While it's unlikely that the inclusion of a little blood and guts would have saved the film, it would perhaps have made it less of a chore to sit through. It's not so much that a combination of giallo murder mystery and musical numbers is completely ill-conceived: after all, it has often been pointed out that the extended murder sequences in the likes of Argento's Profondo Rosso effectively serve, for the giallo, as what musical numbers are to the musical. The problem, here, is not so much the concept as the choice of music and dance styles.
If there's one thing that's interesting about the film, though, it's the extent to which it serves as a direct counterpoint to The New York Ripper. Both take place in the same city, and yet the difference is like night and day. Quite apart for the comparative lack of on-screen violence, the pessimism and grunge that permeated the previous film's vision of New York is not present here. That's not to say that this is a happy film by any means, but the world in which it is situated does seem more hopeful. This is perhaps best encapsulated by the outrageously cheesy lyrics quoted at the start of this review. They're idiotic and out of place, but they contribute to the less overbearing tone of this film. The same is true of the setting: a modern, high-tech dance academy filled with television monitors and electronic gates that lock automatically when the school day ends. One gets the impression that this establishment is a safe environment and one in which the students are continually being monitored for their own protection. This could potentially have been used to great effect, contrasting the supposed safety of the surveillance system with its inability to protect the students from one of their own kind with nefarious intentions, but Fulci either did not realise this irony or chose not to exploit it.
There is incredibly little to recommend with Murder Rock. The actors give it their all, particularly Greek actress Olga Karlatos, who is actually quite good as jilted choreographer Candice Norman, but none of them have an ounce of credibility, thanks to a script that requires them to spout lines such as "Success doesn't come easy. You've got to pay for it. You gotta grit your teeth and dance, even when a friend dies. You gotta pay with anger, frustration and sacrifice, forgetting what's right or human. Because there is no human!" Meanwhile, Fulci's long-standing association with cinematographer Sergio Salvati having ended with The House by the Cemetery, Giuseppe Pinori does his best to make the film look attractive, but the naff 80s fashion and abundance of floodlighting make this a far cry from the mysterious beauty of earlier Fulci efforts like The Beyond or, going further back, A Lizard in a Woman's Skin. Murder Rock may, ultimately, be a guilty pleasure for some, but, beyond the brazen ridiculousness of some of the song and dance numbers, there is little to enjoy here.
There's something ironic and more than a little frustrating about the fact that Media Blasters have clearly pulled out the stops for such a poor Lucio Fulci film, particularly given their shoddy treatment of the classic A Lizard in a Woman's Skin just over a year earlier. Presented anamorphically in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, Murder Rock sports arguably the best transfer the company has ever done. You can literally see every bead of sweat on the various pieces of dancers' anatomy fetishised by the camera, and the shades of neon in the opening credits are perfectly captured. The print used is also in very good condition, and edge enhancement is fairly minor. Only some rather obvious noise reduction and occasional compression artefacts mar this transfer.
Audio is served up in English and Italian variants, the former being stereo and the latter sounding suspiciously like mono. Due to the New York setting, and the fact that all the actors seem to have been speaking English on the set, the English dub is the way to go. There are some signs of wear and tear, such as a faint crackling in the background of quieter scenes and some distortion of the louder moments during Keith Emerson's songs, but by and large it's a pretty good track. The Italian variant is noticeably inferior, sounding a lot more muffled and distorted. Annoyingly, Media Blasters have pulled an Anchor Bay and neglected to provide subtitles for either track, meaning that you wouldn't be able to watch the film in Italian even if you wanted to (unless, of course, you understand Italian).
Say what you will about the film, but Media Blasters have pulled out all the stops with this 2-disc special edition. The first disc boasts an audio commentary with cinematographer Giuseppe Pinori, moderated by journalist Federico Caddeo. Presented in Italian with English subtitles, it's a decent if mostly technical track, unsurprisingly emphasising Pinori's memories of shooting the film. He does, however, impart a number of anecdotes about his exeprience working with Fulci, reminiscing about the director's attention to detail and working habits, and makes an effort to discuss the various cast members.
The first disc also includes what is labelled as the original trailer, but which in fact is probably not, given that it is in German and features some rather nasty-looking computer-generated text. In all likelihood, this was sourced from the earlier German Cult Cinema release.
Bonus trailers for various other Media Blasters releases conclude the first disc.
Disc 2 kicks off with Tempus Fugit, a 28-minute retrospective on Fulci, comprised of interviews with various colleagues, including directors Dario Argento (bizarrely interviewed by phone), Luigi Cozzi and Sergio Stivaletti, screenwriters Antonio Tentori and Dardano Sacchetti, producer Claudio Argento, actor Ray Lovelock and composer Claudio Simonetti. It's more of a glowing appraisal of Fulci's commitment and craftsmanship than anything else, mainly because a number of the people being interviewed had little, if any, direct experience working with him (Claudio Argento, for example, thinks that Fulci "might have done a couple of spaghetti westerns", but isn't sure, while Simonetti composed the score for Fulci's Conquest but never met him), but it flows along at a decent pace, the best comments coming from Sacchetti, who arguably had the most contact with him of all the various participants interviewed. He discusses, among other things, Fulci's love of the rational detection elements of Agatha Christie novels, as well as his De Sadean fascination with the violent and perverse sides of life. Cozzi, on the other hand, comes from a far more distanced perspective, recounting his often negative reactions to the various Fulci films he has seen.
Up next is Portrait of Giuseppe Pinori. Interviewed by an off-screen speaker, the cinematographer discusses, for 14 minutes, various aspects of his career and his opinions on the Italian film industry in general. Given how little he has to say about Fulci, this interview feels somewhat less relevant than his audio commentary on Disc 1, but it's a nice inclusion nonetheless. Actor Ray Lovelock, meanwhile, is the subject of two featurettes: the 15-minute interview Portrait of Ray Lovelock, in which he is asked about his career in general, and the 22-minute Ray Lovelock on Lucio Fulci's Murder Rock, where he talks specifically about his experience on the film. The latter is especially fruitful, since he has an excellent memory and doles out a wealth of anecdotes regarding the shooting of the film, as well as his memories of both his fellow cast members and Fulci.
Thankfully, the featurettes and interviews on this disc don't have any of the poor sound recording issues that have plagued a number of Media Blasters' past efforts. That said, there are some technical problems with the presentation here, the most glaring being that all of the various pieces have been encoded with the wrong field order, which results in a distracting strobing effect when played back on progressive scan equipment. Everything is presented in Italian with English subtitles which, barring some timing errors and stray symbols, are comprehensible and seemingly accurate.
A very small photo gallery is also included, featuring a handful CD, DVD and video covers and posters from around the world. There's really nothing worth mentioning here, and the lack of publicity stills and backstage photographs is extremely disappointing. Finally, a Lucio Fulci trailer reel, featuring trailers of varying quality for, in order of appearance, The House of Clocks, The Sweet House of Horrors, A Lizard in a Woman's Skin, Touch of Death, Zombi 3, City of the Living Dead and Zombi 2, completes the collection. The emphasis on the frankly embarrassing final stages of Fulci's career here frankly makes this reel a little depressing to work through, with the gap in quality between A Lizard in a Woman's Skin and The House of Clocks demonstrating the extent to which his undeniable craftsmanship seemed to desert him in later life.
If this review has given the impression that the bonus features are actually better than the film itself, then this is completely intentional. Murder Rock is, for all intents and purposes, a bad film that doesn't even have the excuse of the pitiful budgets and ill health Fulci had to content with during the final stages of his career, and yet, as a retrospective of the director's work and an inside look at a number of aspects of the Italian film industry, it is an extremely impressive package. Media Blasters have delivered probably their best DVD release to date, and it's just a shame that it happened to be for one of the weaker titles in their library. Now, if they want to revisit A Lizard in a Woman's Skin and give it the same treatment, I for one would be more than willing to double dip...
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