Joe D’Amato, 1982
Starring: Miles O’Keeffe, Sabrina Siani, Ritza Brown, Edmund Purdom, Laura Gemser
“Now we must pass through the land of the walking dead.”
“Well, if we gotta go...”
Originally known as Ator l’invincibile, Ator is the first in a series of films where director Joe D’Amato (under one of his many pseudonyms, David Hills) blatantly parodied and pilfered from Conan the Barbarian and The Beastmaster. Known as one of the worst films of all time, Ator is a delightful mess of bad acting, silly plot elements, preposterous costumes, horrendous wigs, and laughable effects.
The infant Ator is rescued from death by a grizzled holy man and placed in adoptive care. As an adult, he realizes he is in love with his sister and asks permission to marry her. Delighted, his parents reveal that he is adopted and the marriage goes ahead. Unfortunately the village is ambushed by warriors from the spider cult, the same group that tried to have the infant Ator slaughtered because of a crazy prophecy involving a giant eagle statue. With his bride kidnapped and his adopted family and tribe dead, Ator vows revenge. The priest who rescued him trains him to be a mighty warrior and he is later joined by a sexy Amazonian thief. They set out to rescue Ator’s bride and defeat the wicked spider cult, though things are not entirely as they seem.
Co-written by one of my favorite Italian horror directors, Michele Soavi (though he was uncredited), the script is jammed packed with non-sequitur elements that are often unexplained, unrelated to the rest of the film, or go nowhere. For example, elephants are constantly heard in the early part of the movie, but there are none on screen. I understand that the sort of unadulterated glee captured in Ator will not appeal to many cinema fans, but I find it absolutely delightful. Probably the only truly “good” element is a solid score from Carlo Maria Cordio, who was involved in the entire Ator series.
As for the title(s), Ator is neither invincible nor nicknamed ‘The Fighting Eagle.’ The only eagle reference is a giant, iron statue who weeps tears of blood to mark Ator’s birth. Possibly due to The Beastmaster, animals are all over Ator: horses, a dog, deer, snakes, an owl, tarantulas that crawl all over the spider cult priest (a lame stand-in for Conan’s Thulsa Doom), and a giant spider monster that Ator has to fight at the end of the film. Most important is the bear cub, which Ator brings his girlfriend/sister as a present. She unceremoniously dumps it on the ground, but don’t worry, he reappears and has a major role in the film.
The less said about the acting, the better. Miles O’Keeffe is robotic and his costumes are a cross between an ‘80s hair metal band and something that I can only describe as Mongolian chic. Towards the second half of the film he makes an unbearable number of destiny related speeches, but generally doesn't say a whole lot. The gang of surly Amazons wear equally improbable outfits and are also laughably bad, both as actresses and as eye candy. Sabrina Siani at least makes an effort as the warrior Rood, who winds up saving Ator's ass many times throughout the film. There’s a nice appearance from D’Amato regular Laura Gemser as the sorceress. I don't understand why D’Amato would include her in this film and then make her leave her clothes on. It also drives me crazy that the woman dubbing her, whose name I do not know (help, readers!) is all over Italian cinema, especially horror films (she dubs the annoying and haughty Olga in Suspiria, for example), but her identity is still a mystery to me.
Bafflingly, there is little sword play or fisticuffs, no boobs, gore, or even blood. D’Amato tosses in some horror elements, like a jungle full of undead warriors, murderous, but blind warriors, and even an invisible “shadow” warrior that Ator must face to retrieve the magic shield, called the Shield of Mordor (no lie). The villains are ineffectual and Edmund Purdom (Pieces, 2019: After the Fall of New York), Ator’s diabolical mentor, might have the worst wig of the entire film, which is saying something. The end, fittingly, is full of explosions and erupting lava, because where else could you possibly go after a fight with a giant spider?
Ator the Fighting Eagle was given a nice, if basic DVD release from Scorpion. There are no extras other than some trailers and baffling introductory and concluding segments from WWE’s Katarina Leigh Waters.
And because Conan the Destroyer was released, D’Amato quickly churned out Ator l'invincibile 2 aka The Blade Master or Cave Dwellers (1984). This is somehow much, much worse than Ator, so bad that it was given a Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode. Ator (Miles O’Keeffe returns for more bad wigs) has to destroy the geometric nucleus, which has fallen into the hands of an evil wizard. Ator is assisted on his quest by a mute, Asian sidekick. This movie features a lot of improvised dialogue, hang-gliding, and some other wildly anachronistic elements, like a pair of sunglasses and a hair scrunchie. Continuity disruptions abound and if you thought the lava from the end of the first film was a bit much, this has a nuclear explosion. D’Amato put such little effort into the film that several scenes were actually taken from other movies.
Director Alfonso Brescia thought two Ator films were such a good idea that he made a third without the involvement of D’Amato, The Iron Warrior (1987). Brescia directed a few Italian Star Wars rip offs/space adventures such as Star Odyssey and War of the Planets. Miles O’Keeffe bafflingly returns again, with a new look, to fight an evil sorceress and a warrior, the Master of the Sword. Brescia’s film re-writes most of Ator’s history and rip offs popular fantasy/action films from the period like Raiders of the Lost Ark, among many more.
D’Amato refused to recognize The Iron Warrior as part of the series and stubbornly made a fourth Ator film, Quest for the Mighty Sword aka The Hobgoblin (1990), though I'm amazed that he got financing for a fourth Ator. Eric Allan Kramer (Robin Hood: Men in Tights and True Romance) appears as Ator’s son in what is basically a remake of Ator. He must reclaim his father’s sword and fight a number of ridiculous creatures. Laura Gemser appears again, along with Eurocult babe Marisa Mell (Danger: Diabolik, One on Top of the Other). I don’t need to stress how bad this film is, though a good example is the “hobgoblin” costume, which was reused from the notoriously terrible Troll 2 (produced by D’Amato).
I don’t know if I can recommend any of these films, other than the fun-filled first Ator, but director Joe D’Amato holds a special place in my heart. Originally born Aristide Massaccessi (1936 - 1999), D’Amato churned out an incredible number of films in his lifetime, spanning a wide range of genres: horror, exploitation, porn, erotica, war films, spaghetti westerns, peplum films, fantasy, and more. He is probably the most prolific trash filmmaker in the history of cinema and, in addition to Ator, created some memorably bad cult films. I was introduced to him through his horror output, particularly cannibalistic Video Nasty Anthropophagous (1980) and, perhaps my favorite of D’Amato’s films, the necrophiliac Beyond the Darkness (1979). Horror fans should also keep an eye out for Death Smiles at a Murderer (1973), one of several films he directed that star Klaus Kinski. Those who like a lot of sex with their horror should check out Erotic Nights of the Living Dead (1980) -- yes, it is exactly what it sounds like -- and Porno Holocaust (1981).
D’Amato also worked as a screenwriter, producer, and cinematographer. He created a film company, Filmirage, which financed a number of later period Italian horror films, including one of my favorite, Michele Soavi's Stage Fright (1987). He founded several production companies -- Butterfly Motion Pictures and Capital Film -- which went on to produce many of his later career hardcore porn films based on classic literature, the plays of Shakespeare, and a Greek mythology, among other themes.
Ator is an example of D’Amato’s less inspired, family-friendly work. I think a lot of contemporary film audiences also fail to understand that Ator’s existence is indicative of the ‘70s and ‘80s in Italian cinema, where it was typical to attempt to cash-in on successful (usually American) films -- Jaws, Mad Max, Star Wars, even Dirty Dancing -- and churned out cheap, silly, and often outright bad films, creating whole sub-genres that are probably unnecessary, but are sometimes a lot of fun.