Interzone (1987) -***
We’ve talked before, in separate contexts, about how the Italian exploitation movie industry and the post-apocalypse genre were each running on fumes in the late 1980’s. So of course it should follow that Italian post-apocalypse cinema was running on the fumes of fumes, right? Now, we know what usually happens to film genres when there’s nothing left in the tank, don’t we? Indeed, it’s a proud (if unjustifiably so) tradition stretching back to at least the 1940’s— when you’re all out of ideas, but you think there’s still one last nickel to be made before the audience forsakes you completely, you make a funny version. Interzone is the funny version of an Italian post-apocalypse movie, and if you know anything about the Italian sense of humor, you’re already curled up in the fetal position with the blankets pulled over your head, whispering, “nope-nope-nope-nope-nope” under your breath. I’m not going to tell you that it isn’t that bad, because frankly it is. But it’s not as unbearable, if you grasp the distinction. In fact, I personally found it charming in an “I can’t believe I’m actually watching this” kind of way.
Let me begin by explaining something that writers Claudio Fragasso (oh, no…) and Deran Sarafian leave up in the air for far too long: what the fuck is an “Interzone” supposed to be, anyway? The Interzone is the last habitable spot on Earth after a nuclear war, some 300 square miles of semi-developed temperate-zone woodland more or less as one would find in a rural section of Italy. Its continued safety and survival in the face of whatever radioactive horrors exist beyond its confines are maintained by the Veterans, an order of psychic warrior-monks led by the now very elderly General Electric. No, I’m quite serious. The head Veteran is named General Electric, and one of his followers is called Panasonic (The Blade Master’s Kiro Wehara). The Interzone isn’t the only thing the Veterans protect, however. Somewhere in their monastery is a fabled treasure, although none of the fables seem to go into specifics about what it’s supposed to be. That’s a bit of a problem, because if you leave such things up to the imaginations of thieves, you can pretty much count on them imagining whatever it is they’d most like to steal. Consequently, the Veterans spend probably more time than is strictly necessary fending off attacks from assholes who want the treasure for themselves, and either don’t know or don’t care that the Interzone will supposedly collapse into the same irradiated wasteland as the rest of the planet if the Veterans ever lose it.
One such asshole (co-writer and director Sarafian, who can also be seen in front of the camera in 10 to Midnight and Zombie 3) is plotting his heist in the bar section of a post-apocalyptic casino run by the jack of all vice trades known as Rat (Franco Diogene, of Strip Nude for Your Killer and Tentacles). His scheming catches the ear of a vagabond mediocre-ass called Swan (Bruce Abbott, from Re-Animator and The Demolitionist), who attempts to include himself in the plan. Rather than simply agreeing to take Swan on or telling him to go fuck himself, the would-be monastery robber and his partner concoct a cockamamie arrangement whereby Swan can join in if he beats them at the game of chance going on in the back room— which is totally ridiculous, because the game in question is a variation on Russian roulette! When Swan wins, the conspirators are no longer in any position to include him in their caper.
The Roulette Idiots aren’t the only ones with designs on the Veterans’ treasure, however. There’s also an army of nomad barbarians led by Mantis (Teagan Clive, from Alienator and Sinbad of the Seven Seas) and her consort, Balzakan (John Armstead, of Fatal Temptation and Blue Tornado). Mantis isn’t just functionally equivalent to a distaff Lord Humongous (a Lady Enormous?)— she also looks every bit of the part, with her skimpy dress and her giant muscles. She has numbers and firepower on her side, too, but the monks’ psychic powers enable them to project a forcefield around their stronghold which no amount of bullets or shotgun shells can penetrate. Still, the barbarian threat has to be taken seriously, because General Electric is not nearly as strong as he used to be. The strain of anchoring the barrier against the nomads’ first assault so depletes the general that he retires immediately to his deathbed after Mantis and her forces withdraw. The successor he chooses has nothing like his skill at the psionic arts, although the new general makes up for that somewhat in relative youth and vigor. If the Veterans are to keep their treasure safe and preserve the Interzone, they’re going to need outside help. Fortunately, General Electric had a vision shortly before Mantis arrived on the scene, in which was foretold the coming of a hero. Panasonic must leave the monastery to seek out this hero before Mantis and her hordes return— to find a man called Swan.
Wait— really? Him?! Indeed. And in the usual manner of these things, finding Swan entails Panasonic wandering around the wilderness at random until it almost kills him, at which point the very person he’s looking for happens along to save his stupid ass. In this case, the specific means whereby the environment nearly makes an end of the searcher is a supposedly venomous python, which bites Panasonic when he’s only just barely reached the hills overlooking the monastery. Swan, after finding him and nursing him back to health, is understandably skeptical about being destined to fulfill any heroic prophecies, but his earlier involvement with the conspirators does at least prepare him to accept the existence of an order of monks defending an ancient treasure. A demonstration of Panasonic’s mind-reading ability eventually convinces Swan that the Veteran is on the level about the rest of it, too.
Mind you, Panasonic can’t just lead Swan back to the monastery and get on with it. No, it’s way too early in the movie for that. Besides, we’re going to need a girl in this film who doesn’t look like Divine’s evil twin from Muscle Beach, so in order to introduce one, Swan and Panasonic detour to a slave auction being run by that guy Rat from the casino we saw before. Among the merchandise is Tera (Beatrice Ring, from Ritual of Love and Portrait of a Woman, Nude), the blue-eyed blonde whom we now learn General Electric also saw in his dream. Swan isn’t interested in paying for her, so he pulls a stick-up on Rat and his cronies, and speeds off with Tera in his cheesy armored go-cart. (Notice that Swan does not extend the rescue to either of the girls on the auction block alongside Tera. What do you think he is— some kind of hero, or something?) The robbery wins Swan Rat’s permanent enmity, because frankly we wouldn’t have enough story here to fill 90 minutes otherwise. Rat is persuaded to back down only when Panasonic demonstrates that he could, if he felt like it, use his Scanner powers to make the slaver shoot himself in the dick.
Another detour needed to run out the clock concerns Panasonic’s history with Balzakan, which we learn about via flashback. Balzakan is actually the reason Panasonic became a Veteran in the first place. You see, the deputy warlord once encountered Panasonic’s brother (uncredited) and sister-in-law (also uncredited, but there’s no mistaking Laura Gemser, from Caged Women and Ator the Fighting Eagle, when you see her). The latter was pregnant at the time, and Balzakan killed her just for shits and giggles. Panasonic’s brother committed suicide soon thereafter, and Panasonic himself entered General Electric’s monastery in search of discipline in which to subsume his sorrow.
But returning now both to the present and to Interzone’s main conflict, Swan thinks he knows how to stop Mantis. The filmmakers don’t reveal his plan until after it fails, however, so the next phase of the movie feels even more pointless than the preceding two. With the benefit of hindsight, I can tell you that he pretends to betray his companions, handing them over to Mantis and offering himself to her for a night’s amusement. Swan’s real object is to sow discord between Mantis and Balzakan (whom Tera sets herself to seducing while Swan works on the boss), hopefully to the extent of plunging the whole nomad army into internecine warfare. He almost gets away with it, too, until he gets caught trying to sabotage the horde’s ammunition depot. Swan is flogged within an inch of his life, Tera succumbs to a deathtrap inspired by Once Upon a Time in the West, and Panasonic sacrifices himself to miracle Swan back to health. Oh— and the bullshit weakness in the Veteran’s psychic barrier that Swan made up to fool Mantis into trusting him turns out by sheer coincidence to be the real secret to forcing entry to the monastery (nevermind that there’s no logical reason why or how it should work). Looks like Swan is going to have to save the Interzone the old-fashioned way.
The pairing of Deran Sarafian and Claudio Fragasso is an odd one, creating as it does a transatlantic fusion of the purest hackery and incompetence. I believe it is precisely that melding of American and Italian styles of ineptitude, however, that makes Interzone so enjoyable. Judging from other Italian comedies I’ve seen, one of their directors would almost certainly have gone much broader than Sarafian did, beating Fragasso’s dead-on-arrival jokes into the very ground. But an American screenwriter at Fragasso’s level of ability would just as surely have produced a script that was bad in a dreary, pedestrian way, as opposed to the childishly demented mess we’re looking at here. I mean, did World Gone Wild or Steel Dawn have a non-sequitur man-eating cave troll? There’s probably also an element of personality at work in Interzone, too, because I can’t imagine a director more experienced than Sarafian was in 1987 allowing a single word of Fragasso’s almost literally unspeakable dialogue to stand as written, nor can I imagine a screenwriter less aggressive or overbearing than Fragasso cowing Sarafian into keeping it. The result is that it’s difficult to be sure whether any given bit of Interzone is actually supposed to be funny.
Bruce Abbott seems to have been rather confused about that himself. His performance has neither the confident deadpan of the straight man nor the flamboyant buffoonery of the clown, and his line readings come across as simple bafflement more often than not. (To be fair, many of the things Abbott is called upon to say and do in Interzone really are baffling.) At the same time, he’s not remotely convincing as a regular action hero. Unremarkable physique, forgettable looks, trivial amounts of charisma— Abbott is an incurable second banana, and no amount of black leather or firearms will help. Put the indecisiveness of his comic acting together with the hopelessness of his heroics, and the poor guy just looks lost all throughout the film.
The same cannot be said of Teagan Clive. Unlike the last time I saw her, this movie calls upon her to play an actual character, and while she’s no damn good at all, she ends up dominating Interzone by sheer force of ham and weirdness. It wasn’t just her gender-bending appearance that made me compare Clive to Divine before. The two performers share the same overwhelming, manic intensity, and Clive’s commitment to this preposterous part falls into the same category of fearlessness and/or shamelessness as Divine’s work in Multiple Maniacs and Female Trouble. If nothing else, Clive is the only person in this cast who is equal to Fragasso’s dialogue, effortlessly bludgeoning her way through lines like, “Damn them all, miserable, piss-elegant fairies! We’re going to see you dead!” Rather to my surprise, she also brings a cracked and confusing, but nevertheless undeniable, eroticism to the ridiculous scene in which Mantis tries to get Swan heated up for her with a routine of bodybuilder posing. Heaven help me, I think I’m coming down with a case of Teagan Clive fandom!
Finally, it would be remiss of me not to mention a form of craptitude in Interzone that only the truly nerdy will fully appreciate. The Italian movie industry began its Fascist-mandated withdrawal into nationalist isolationism before talking pictures reached maturity— which is to say, before synchronized sound recording on silenced sets became the international standard. And by the time the industry recovered from the ravages of World War II, there was good reason not to adopt synch-sound. The export-oriented business model that attracted even the most rinky-dink Italian production companies postwar encouraged casting from abroad. That in turn encouraged post-looping, since it was assumed that the dialogue would be dubbed for foreign release anyway. In the late 1980’s, however, Italian filmmakers were beginning to experiment with synch-sound, perhaps in an effort to stay competitive in an increasingly hostile commercial environment. Interzone is one of the earliest Italian synch-sound movies I’ve seen, and it’s obvious that a lot of kinks remained to be worked out of the system when it was made. There are entire scenes in which the dialogue is nearly unintelligible, partly due to bad miking or shoddy equipment, and partly due to an audio mix in which all the diegetic sound is overwhelmed by the “background” music. If it’s true, as I suspect, that the belated shift to synch-sound was motivated by a desire to hang onto the crucial American and British markets (where dubbing was increasingly looked down upon), then it’s funny that one of that shift’s first products comes across as even junkier and lower-class than it would have had the responsible parties just dubbed the fool thing as usual.