Slightly more obscure than the big names of Italian horror like Mario Bava, Dario Argento, and Lucio Fulci, writer, director, and producer Sergio Martino is a name that all genre film fans should know. Born in 1938, Martino made a bloody splash in the ‘70s with a number of fantastic giallo films like The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh, All the Colors of the Dark, and Torso. His career, which spans more than forty years, covers a wide range of genres, including horror, exploitation, adventure, spaghetti westerns, sci-fi, crime drama, war films, and erotic comedies. Martino’s versatile and prolific career is worthy of celebration, particularly for fans of cult and B-movies.
Martino got his start assistant directing on films like Mario Bava’s The Whip and the Body (1963) and Brunello Rondi’s The Demon (1963). His own early films include mondo “documentaries” America un giorno (1970), America così nuda, America così violent (1970) aka Naked and Violent (1970), and Mille peccati… Nessuna virtù (1971) aka Wages of Sin aka Mondo Sex. Mondo film were exploitative pseudo-documentaries that became popular in Italy in the ‘60s and focused on taboo subjects like sex, death, drug use, counter culture, and foreign societies, all from an extremely conservative point of view with a mean-spirited, sensationalist spin.
Martino’s first fictional feature was Arizona si scatenò… e li fece fuori tutti (1970) aka Arizona Cult Returns, a western penned by prolific genre writer Ernesto Gastaldi. This was the beginning of a long, fruitful collaboration between the two. This typical spaghetti western follows Arizona (Anthony Steffen), a lazy bounty hunter out to clear his name with the help of his sidekick, Double Whiskey, when they are set up for a robbery. Throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, Martino stuck primarily to common Italian cult subgenres, including spaghetti westerns, giallo films, animals attack movies, and post-apocalyptic road movies, though he gave each film his own unique spin.
His first giallo film, Lo strano vizio della Signora Wardh (1971) aka The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh, is also one of his best. It includes an ensemble Martino would work with regularly throughout his career: writer Ernesto Gastaldi, dashing giallo regular George Hilton, sexpot Edwige Fenech, and the wonderfully villainous Ivan Rassimov, who was discovered by Mario Bava for Planet of the Vampires. With no shortage of nudity, perversion, and blood, the film follows a new bride’s complicated love life, which is somehow connected with the activities of a serial killer.
La code dello scorpione (1971) aka The Case of the Scorpion’s Tale, marked the return of George Hilton for a winding tale about a business man who dies in a plane crash. His unfaithful wife Lisa (giallo regular Ida Galli) is targeted as a suspect because she’s going to inherit a million dollars. She’s blackmailed by a heroin-addicted ex-lover and pursued by the insurance company’s private detective (played by Hilton). Like The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh, this contains themes of marital infidelity and sexual betrayal, blackmail, jet-setting around Europe, layers of red herrings, and a black-gloved killer murdering those in his path.
Edwige Fenech’s role in Mrs. Wardh — a beautiful woman with a traumatic past, dark secrets, and an inability to keep her clothes on — was essentially reprised for Tutti i colori del buio (1972) aka All the Colors of the Dark aka They’re Coming to Get You. Here she is pushed to the brink of insanity as she’s stalked by a mysterious man who turns up in her dreams. Again using the writing talent of Ernesto Gastaldi, All the Colors of the Dark treads similar territory as Mrs. Wardh, but pushes it to Satanic, psychedelic extremes. This giallo by way of Rosemary’s Baby is an excellent blend of suspense, gore, the occult, and a very sexy woman’s descent into madness.
Il tuo vizio è una stanza chiusa e solo io ne ho la chiave (1972) aka Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key is loosely based on Poe’s story “The Black Cat” and teams up Fenech, giallo-regular Anita Strindberg, and Ivan Rassimov. Chock full of psychosexual activity, incest, hidden corpses, murder, abuse, lesbianism, red herrings, and a black cat named Satan, this might be hard to watch for giallo newcomers because of the complete absence of any likable characters. Like Martino’s earlier works, it is full of paranoia, betrayal, and sexual obsession, though this time the sex and nudity far outweigh the gore.
Martino’s next film, I corpi presentano tracce di violenza carnale (1973) aka Torso is perhaps his most famous. Again written by Ernesto Gastaldi, a man obviously incapable of using brevity with film titles, the film’s literal translation is The Bodies Bear Traces of Carnal Violence. A mysterious killer is strangling students in Rome and the only clue is a red and black scarf. After some of her friends are murdered, an American exchange student named Jane flees to an isolated country villa with some of her friends. Unfortunately for them, the killer has come along for the trip. Sleazy, violent and mildly gory, Torso starts slow, but builds to violent, suspenseful finale.
Martino followed his giallo films with a number of commercial sex comedies, which were very popular in Italy in the early ‘70s — in films like Giovannona Long-Thigh (1973), High School Girl (1974), La bellissima estate (1974), Spogliamoci così senza pudor (1976), and Sex with a Smile (1976). He also began to focus on police procedurals (known as poliziotteschi) during this period. These combine of crime and action, often with police or investigators as the central characters. Inspired by films like Dirty Harry, they are usually full of tough cops, mobsters, car chases, gunfights, and plenty of violence.
His first, Milano Treme: La polizia vole giustizia (1973) aka The Violent Professionals was written by Ernesto Gastaldi and concerns Lieutenant Giorgio Caneparo (Luc Merenda), who has vowed to get vengeance for his boss’s death at the hands of an organized crime gang. He goes undercover in a pimping ring until he works his way up to the inner circle, where he is determined to take down the whole organization. Martino followed this with La città gioca d’azzardo (1975) aka Gambling City, and La polizia accusa: Il servizio segreto uccide (1975) aka Silent Auction, both with Luc Merenda.
A cross between poliziotteschi and giallo, Morte sospetta di una minorenne (1975) aka The Suspicious Death of a Minor was written by Gastaldi and Martino and, in my opinion, is the beginning of the end in terms of Martino’s golden period of horror/crime films. A detective meets a mysterious, beautiful woman who is carrying a dark secret — she has been forced into prostitution. Their worlds collide when she turns up dead and he begins investigating, only to uncover more corpses and a ring of intrigue. Part giallo, part police procedural, and, inexplicably, part comedy, this film feels the most like a poliziotteschi, but may be of interest to giallo completists.
The late ‘70s brought films in a wider array of genres, including the spaghetti western A Man Called Blade (1977), about a bounty hunter’s search for a missing girl, and more sex comedies like anthology Saturday, Sunday, and Friday (1979), La moglie in vacanza… L’amante in città (1980), Sugar, Honey, and Pepper (1980), Spaghetti a mezzanotte (1981), and several more. Most of these starred Fenech and/or Barbara Bouchet.
Martino also made some cult/horror films in this period, including the enjoyable La montanga del rio cannibale (1978) aka The Mountain of the Cannibal God. Bond girl Ursula Andress perhaps surprisingly stars in this movie that is best grouped with the other sleazy, violent cannibal films of the period like Cannibal Holocaust, Cannibal Ferox, Jungle Holocaust, Zombie Holocaust, and Man from Deep River — nearly all of which have graphic animal cruelty, nudity, exploitation, racism, and bad taste, though I think Martino’s entry is slightly tamer than it’s mean-spirited brethren. A woman travels to the jungles of New Guinea to search for her missing anthropologist husband, but her team gets kidnapped by cannibals.
Partly famous because of its star and partly because of its ranking as a video nasty in the UK, where it was banned, The Mountain of the Cannibal God is a decent, if average example of the genre. It suffers from the standard poor acting and plodding middle section, though it is a beautiful film with some great set design, namely the cannibals’ altar. I think it is impossible for Martino to make a film, even a mediocre one, that doesn’t have some degree of visual flair. This was the beginning of Martino’s loose trilogy of jungle adventure films, which includes L’isola deli uomini pesce (1979) aka Island of the Fishmen and Il fiume del grande caimano (1970) aka The Great Alligator.
Island of the Fishmen is a confusing yet entertaining attempt at sci-fi, horror, and adventure rolled into one big fishy, mutated film. Barbara Bach (yet another Bond girl) appears in this film about a ship of prisoners stranded on a mysterious island. When they begin disappearing, the ship’s doctor figures out that a mad scientist is creating and experimenting on fish-human hybrids. This acquired taste includes monsters, voodoo priestess, booby traps, castaways, convicts, and a mad scientist (a startling appearance by Joseph Cotten), but it is definitely campy and cheesy with bad acting galore. This Italian riff on The Island of Dr. Moreau was supposedly filmed on the same set as Fulci’s Zombie and also shares actor Richard Johnson (who thought it was OK to name a child Dick Johnson?).
Barbara Bach returned for The Great Alligator, an absolutely mess of a film about a man-eating croc on the loose in an African (I think) tourist resort/theme park, gulping down rich white people like it’s at an all-you-can-eat buffet. The locals believe the croc is the manifestation of a god reacting to the invasion of tourists and rise up to drive them from the area once and for all. It is unlikely they will survive the combination of bloodthirsty locals and ravenous crocodilian. Written by Ernesto Gastaldi and the amazing George Eastman, The Great Alligator feels like one of the many flawed Italian Jaws rip-offs, this time with a croc instead of a shark. Like so many other monster movies, it is ridiculous and unintentionally funny: for instance, the mix of “natives” and animals that are obviously in no way from the African jungle or, for that matter, from the same part of the planet whatsoever.
Martino followed these up with Assassinio al cimitero Etrusco (1982) aka The Scorpion with Two Tales, sort of an occult horror film. An archaeologist's wife begins having strange dreams about the past goings-on at an Etruscan temple, one that her husband coincidentally recently discovered. When he is violently murdered, it is up to her to travel to the temple and uncover the truth. Zzzzz. Despite an appearance by (my favorite) John Saxon, this is a consistently dull film with a leading cast that is barely going through the motions. This belongs in a double feature with Fulci’s Manhattan Baby, which is basically the meanest thing I could ever say about a movie — though the constant showers of maggots somewhat redeem the film.
The next genre Martino tackled was the post-apocalyptic film with 2019: Dopo la caduta di New York (1983) aka 2019: After the Fall of New York. Parsifal, a mercenary, sets out on a mission to rescue the last fertile woman on earth. Along with some bad-ass sidekicks, he hops on a motorcycle and heads to New York to find her. Like so much other Italian cinema of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, 2019 is ripe with borrowed scenes — some of the best moments from Mad Max 2, Escape from New York, and even Bronx Warriors — combined with some themes from a few US sci-fi blockbusters. It also shares cast and crew members with Endgame, The New Barbarians, and Bronx Warriors.
In the mid-‘80s Martino churned out a bunch of random, mediocre films that will unlikely be of interest to horror or cult cinema fans. There are comedies like Se tutto va bene siamo rovinati (1983), fantasy film Occhio, malocchio, prezzemolo e finocchio (1983), and football comedy L’allenatore nel pallaone (1984), among others. Martino also began working in television with made-for-TV films like Doppio misto (1986) and episodes of crime drama series Caccia al ladro d’autore.
His final cult film of the ‘80s was Vendetta dal futuro (1986) aka Hands of Steel, another successfully entertaining post-apoc mash up. A cyborg killing machine, Paco, is sent to bump off a scientist, but fails to do so when his human emotions unexpectedly kick in. Instead, he moves into a motel owned by the sexy Linda and begins a career as a champion arm-wrestler. Yes, you read that right. Then John Saxon, in a cameo as the evil industrialist who hired Paco in the first place, hunts him down to make him finish the job (or just finish him). This companion piece to 2019 is ludicrous but enjoyable and is unashamed to throw in as much action and as little sense as possible, particularly in the explosive second half.
Here Martino is billed as Martin Dolman and though he co-wrote the film with Ernesto Gastaldi, the screenwriting credits reads like a phone book of Italian horror writers. In addition to Martino, Gastaldi and a few random names, you will unexpectedly find Elisa Briganti (A Blade in the Dark, 1990: The Bronx Warriors, House by the Cemetery, Zombie) and the great Dardano Sacchetti, who has penned too many Italian horror films for me to even bother listing any. You should know who he is. Also unexpectedly, there’s a score by Argento regular Claudio Simonetti.
In the late ‘80s, Martino did a lot of TV work, comedies, and dramas, including made-for-TV movie Un’australiana a Roma (1987), featuring a very young Nicole Kidman, The Opponent (1988), a boxing comedy with a cameo by Ernest Borgnine, and Casablanca Express (1989), a WWII action flick with Donald Pleasance. Martino’s career began to wind down in the ‘90s, including erotic thrillers like Spiando Marina (1992), about a hit-man’s affair with a prostitute. He finally reunited with Edwige Fenech — as well as giallo regulars Alida Valli and Ray Lovelock — with mystery/suspense TV mini-series Delitti privati (1993), which has been favorably described as a less-surreal, gialloesque Italian Twin Peaks. He also made a final, giallo-like film, Mozart è un assassino (1999), where a violinist is murdered, unleashing a string of mysterious deaths in a conservatory. The police inspector has his eye on a music professor, but all is not as it seems. A black gloved killer is roaming the halls, picking the students off one at a time. I can’t say that I actually recommend it, but as far as final films go, it is far cry from, say, the final years of Lucio Fulci.
Though his output has slowed in the last decade, he has continued to direct TV movies — primarily crime films — as well as crime drama Carabinieri, a TV series based on the famed Italian national police force. Many of his films have fortunately found their way to DVD and have been celebrated by cult movie fans and critics around the globe. I’m still waiting on a book solely devoted to Martino or a special edition Blu-ray box set of his giallo or exploitation films, but hopefully a company like Arrow will come along and give him the celebration he’s due.