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A Retrospective of Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath

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Black Sabbath

As Halloween draws near I decided to take a look back at one of my favorite horror movies of the 1960s. Black Sabbath, directed by Mario Bava, is a three-part horror anthology hosted by (and starring) horror icon Boris Karloff. The film and Bava himself are often referred to as influences for famous Hollywood directors, most notably Quentin Tarantino, Francis Ford Coppola, and Tim Burton. Black Sabbath not only played as a major influence in the modern film industry, but also solidified Bava as a master of the horror genre.

What makes Bava so unique is his versatility. It’s incredible that Bava went on to be known for his film’s vibrant colors when his black and white cinematography was already masterful. Black Sunday, his debut feature, is a fascinating display of gothic horror, drawing inspiration from horror films of the 30s and 40s. He also delved into violent thrillers like his Hitchcock-esque Evil Eye. Conversely, A Bay of Blood is an example of modern horror, so progressive that it gave way to the creation of the entire slasher sub-genre.

Because it’s an anthology, Black Sabbath allows Bava to display the versatility that makes him such an interesting filmmaker. The film begins with Boris Karloff giving us a rundown of what we’re about to see. Horror fans love when a movie pays respect to the genre’s past and this is no different. It’s an utter joy to see Karloff having the time of his life as the host of the show. Karloff has often times stated that the making of Black Sabbath was the most fun he’s ever had on a film set and it absolutely shows.

Karloff’s lead-in takes us to our first story, The Telephone. The Telephone is Bava showing off his modern-horror-muscles. The premise is simple and has been recreated perhaps more than any other premise in horror. A woman, at home by herself, gets a mysterious phone call from an unknown caller. The caller threatens her life as the woman struggles to find out what is happening. This scene will feel all too familiar for most horror fans. It’s been duplicated so many times for the simple fact that it works. Horror classics like Black Christmas, When a Stranger Calls, and Scream have all been influenced by The Telephone. Now a commonplace horror trope, this premise was undoubtedly unique for its time. Even though it is now familiar territory, Bava’s pacing and some interesting twists make this story a worthy addition to the horror anthology.

Our second story, The Wurdalak, is Bava going back to his gothic horror roots. The Wurdalak is about a father, played by Boris Karloff, who returns to his family after setting off to kill a wurdalak; a type of vampire who feeds off of those they once loved the most. The father warns his family that if his return takes longer than five days he himself will be transformed into a wurdalak. Of course, the father returns exactly five days later and we watch his family mentally torn apart, unable to tell (or perhaps accept) that their beloved father is now a blood-thirsty monster. This story possesses incredibly detailed gothic cinematography. Its haunting atmosphere along with our emotional attachment to the family makes it extremely effective.

While The Telephone was a showcase in modern horror style and The Wurdalak a showcase in the gothic style of horror, The Drop of Water is a perfect blending of the two. Taking place in London in the 1910s, a nurse is called to prepare the corpse of a recently deceased medium for her burial. The medium’s corpse is truly terrifying and sticks with you long after you’ve watched the film. Bava’s crash-zooms of her decrepit face are far more startling than any jump scare. The medium lives in a home that would fit nicely in Bava’s gothic film landscape, however the story can be inserted into any era of horror. While prepping the medium for her burial, the nurse notices a sapphire ring on the finger of the deceased. Infatuated by its beauty, she takes the ring for herself. The following day she is met by the constant sound of dripping water, a pesky firefly, and finally the corpse of the medium herself. The Drop of Water, the strongest story of the three, plays as a perfect metaphor for guilt, similar to Edgar Allen Poe’s The Tell Tale Heart. At first, we’re not sure if the nurse is really experiencing this horror, or if the guilt is overtaking her mind and driving her to madness. The Drop of Water ends with a great twist, showing that the curse of the medium will continue on because of mankind’s selfish nature.

We’re brought back to our host to close out the film. In one of the most delightful fourth wall breaks in movie history, the camera zooms out and we are shown Karloff riding in place on an electronic horse. Dozens of extras are circling him holding up tree branches, giving the illusion that Karloff is riding his horse through the night sky. A perfectly bizarre way to end the fun-filled horror event.

  • A Retrospective of Mario Bava's Black Sabbath
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Editorials

FORBIDDEN ZONE and Political Correctness

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Forbidden Zone is not just a surreal musical-fantasy, it is an expression of wild, balls-out absurdity. Unabashedly politically incorrect, with something to offend everyone, its outrageousness is certainly not for everyone’s taste. Fine. But my 1980 cult film has nonetheless picked up a loyal and still growing audience.

Occasionally detractors accuse Forbidden Zone of being racist, homophobic and both anti-Semitic and anti-Christian. We seemed to hit all the bases! In my opinion, it is none of those. Only if an element is taken utterly out of context can Forbidden Zone be misconstrued as to having any bias against anyone.

An example might be “insult comic” Lisa Lampanelli. She insults whites, blacks, gays, straights, Asians, Latins, Jews… everyone, including herself. Her audience is totally diverse and includes all of the above named groups who laugh their asses off. However if one element of her show were taken out of context it would certainly appear bigoted. But taken within its context it is not. Just a diverse group people having good-natured fun, laughing at themselves and each other.

The same could be said of Forbidden Zone. It is a human cartoon where everyone is parodied. Yours truly actually was the original “Human Pet.” The topless Princess led me around by a leash tied to my dick and only a potential ratings problem made us reshoot the scene later using another actor, dick tucked safely in his pants.

Perspective is obviously influenced by one’s life’s events. I was born adjacent Watts on 103rd Street deep in South-Central L.A. We moved up to Crenshaw when I was four and I attended predominately African-American schools—both a matter of the Elfman family’s liberal idealism…and economic necessity.

As a red headed Jew growing up in a virulently bigoted and anti-Semitic time period (1950s and early 1960s), I was actually accepted more by black kids than white kids. I excelled at track, Afro-Latin percussion…and boxing. I was one of the few white athletes to compete in the champion, seven-school, almost entirely African-American “Southern League.”

The African-American community I grew up with had its own divisions. Baldwin Hills was black middle class. The top of the hills were fairly rich, a place of black doctors, lawyers, major sports figures, etc…. And literally, across the tracks at Jefferson Blvd., and south on Crenshaw, sprawled the “hood.” Diversity!

Around my friends and teammates I must have heard the “n-word” ten million times. We actually laughed and joked about our differences. After I smoked one track meet, someone remarked that a white boy shouldn’t run that fast. Someone responded, “He ain’t white–he a red n****’!” I took that as a compliment.

From today’s perspective, if I could go back forty years, I certainly wouldn’t have included the brief blackface bits in Forbidden Zone. It was just one of hundreds of visual absurdities not at all important to the film and not worth it’s particular hot-button reaction. Although I have grown up in and around the African-American community (and have a racially diverse family), I don’t claim to know exactly what it is like to stand in a black person’s shoes and feel the effects of their particular oppression over the centuries.

So what was I thinking? I wasn’t. There is stream of consciousness. In my case it was stream of diarrhea. Whatever popped into my fervid absurdist art-mind as I pasted a “plot” around musical numbers from my Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo stage show. I certainly didn’t mean to offend my black friends. Or anyone else for that matter. I simply wanted to share crazy absurdist art and expose new audiences to great, timeless music–Cab Calloway, Josephine Baker, etc… (And little brother Danny’s very first film score.)

Yes, we’d all do a lot if things different if we only had that proverbial time machine. You’d probably still see a red headed “Human Pet” in Mickey Mouse ears led around by his dick. And no blackface in Forbidden Zone.

Danny and Richard Elfman, ages 12 and 16. I was at Dorsey High School then, Danny soon to start Audubon Middle School on MLK & Crenshaw Blvd.

“Oy vey! Oy Vey! Oy Vey!!”–The portrayal and mannerisms of “Mr. Bernstein” were labeled anti-Semitic.

Hyman Bernstein was my Brooklyn/Jewish grandfather. He wasn’t acting! (Me aged 29 on the set of Forbidden Zone.)

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Editorials

Recollections of a Teenage Monster: HEAVY METAL ZOMBIES

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I’m Byron C. Miller, horror filmmaker, musician, and fan! Since preschool, I’ve had a love for the horror genre and a great need to tell scary stories. I was teaming up with friends to build mini haunts for the unsuspecting babysitter and filming little monster movies with my dad’s VHS camcorder. Then middle school took it to a new level… In 6th Grade I decided my future: to be a horror filmmaker!

Between middle school and early high school (89 to 93), I came up with 51 movie ideas, adding each one to “The List”. Now I want to share those crazy stories with you! Join me on a nostalgic trip back to my monster kid, middle school life. Each entry will cover a movie from “The List” – not just what I remember about the imagined film but my inspiration and my life at the time. Crazy movie ideas. Slice of life. Nostalgia.

Welcome to Volume 1 of Recollections of a Teenage Monster!

My parents are cool: They let me watch Horror films and bought me Fangoria magazines as early as pre-school. From late night horror hosts to every weekend spent at the theater or drive-in, my love for cinema and horror grew at a feverish pace! I saw The Return of the Living Dead 2 multiple times in the theater and owned the rock/metal soundtrack on cassette. It was only fitting that the first time I put pen to paper it was for the zombies. Heavy Metal Zombies was the first “script” I wrote. I didn’t understand formatting yet (I was 11 give or take) so it was more like a madman’s notebook describing every scene. It kills me that I no longer have the handwritten draft but I remember a great deal about the film and its sequels.

I wanted to create something with the punk/metal/comic book attitude of the Return of the Living Dead films, combined with the fun Satanic Panic/Evil Rock Star movies like Black Roses and Trick or Treat (Long live Sammi Curr!). My story centers around a heavy metal rocker named Slash. He’s at the top of the world! Sold out arena shows! Crazy parties! Satanic murder! Wait, what?

We open on the encore of a sold out show. The theatrical band gives it their all and the crowd goes wild! Slash takes a bow and quickly exits to his private trailer. It’s your standard, over-the-top rockstar crash pad until Slash pulls the Scooby Doo lever revealing a secret room. Corpses, candles, pentagrams, spell books, and presumably a lot of air freshener adorn this foul place.

Our rocker begins some light spell reading when suddenly cops are everywhere! Surrounding his trailer! Guns drawn! Using vague but ingenious detective work, ambitious rookie cop, John Cooper, tracked the pattern of missing persons straight to Slash. As they give him the old cop countdown, Slash does something strange… He carves some rad demonic symbols in his guitar and plays part of his number one hit song (something like “A.D.I. Horror of It All” by Anthrax). Hiding his guitar Slash pulls out a crazy looking knife and rushes out of his trailer, full charge at the cops. Bam Bam Bam! Slash goes out in a hail of bullets….

Did I mention that my dad was a cop? For many years my father worked at the local sheriff’s office, and then the police department. I remember his police gear, his guns, his cool badge, going to target practice. It was awesome! Even after he left the force, we still watched a healthy amount of action, cop films. All of this lead my child brain to one obvious conclusion: all heroes in movies had to be cops! You’ll notice this over and over again in most of my childhood scripts. But back to our story… Five years later!

Slash is buried in the town that he died in, that’s normal right? Anyway, rookie cop John Cooper has moved up in the world, and is now the town sheriff and a family man with teenage kids of his own. It was a really busy five years. I was 11 give me a break. Friday night rolls around and all the kids are going to the big metal show at the stadium that’s conveniently located on the outskirts of town. Meanwhile, two members of Slash’s band go to the giant, Thriller Video looking, cemetery with Slash’s special guitar which was certainly not impounded as evidence. Following Slash’s “If I ever die” request, they plug in a portable amp and begin to play the number one song. A few bars in, electricity erupts from the satanic carving, shooting into Slash’s mausoleum. Out of the fog steps the resurrected rocker, looking like a bizarre hybrid of the villains from the VHS cover art of Fulci’s Zombie and the rocker from W.A.S.P in Charles Band’s Dungeonmaster.


He quickly attacks his old mates, pissed that they took so long. One of the guys rips half of Slash’s face off, you know, so he can look extra cool. Finishing off his old pals, Slash grabs his evil magic guitar which can suddenly produce sound with no amp. Slash plays that epic guitar riff from his song. Electricity shoots out into all of the graves and into the corpses of his dead buddies. Things get crazy as the dead begin to rise, transforming from their normal clothing to heavy metal gear and head banging through the cemetery (11 years old when I wrote this). It’s like the graveyard scenes from Thriller on speed. Zombies explode from the earth! Smash tomb stones with their fists. Go absolutely ape shit!

This love of shock rockers and heavy metal didn’t come from thin air. My mom was a big Alice Cooper fan, something I didn’t realize until I myself became a big fan in middle school. I remember renting one of his concert videos and watching it with my mom. We had a blast and Cooper’s showmanship and horror references blew my mind! My parents were always into music, going to concerts, dance clubs on the weekend, and even co-owning a nightclub for a while. This was also the age of the birth of MTV, back when it was just music videos! I remember watching the Thriller video when it premiered and loving it! This love for music and 70s and 80s theatrical rock ‘n’ rollers definitely made its mark on my psyche. Which reminds me…

Slash leads his zombie army into the town. They march past the power plant and another guitar riff takes out the town’s electricity.

The trap is set.

Now for some zombie chaos montage action! We see suburbia under siege by seemingly un-killable zombies; Drinkin’ beer, eatin’ brains, smashin’ windows, and literally punching through steel doors to invade homes. Sheriff Cooper races around town trying to help where he can. Suddenly, he slams on the breaks in shock! Slash stands in the center of the road staring Cooper down. Our hero floors it and just before impact, another magic guitar strum sends lighting into the car, blowing up the engine. Cooper jumps out just in time, landing on his feet and firing on Slash. Unlike Slash’s torn face, the bullet wounds quickly heal. Slash, having not seen many Bond films, lays out his plan to destroy Cooper and the town. He will go to that metal show and give the kids a performance that will transform them all into Heavy Metal Zombies! He leaves Cooper stranded in the darkness. On foot, Cooper makes it home in time to stop his kids from going to the concert. He gathers what’s left of the cops to drive out to the stadium and stop Slash.

At the concert, the teens excitedly watch some Metal band when suddenly, the lights go out. The band is dragged off, murdered, and replaced with Slash and his key zombies. They play a full version of his hit song and we see the entire crowd turn into zombies while the rest of the ghouls from the cemetery pile in and watch the show. The cops realize they’re too late to save the teens so they seal all the doors, cover everything with gas and explosives and blow it up!!!! Just like in Gremlins! Also just like that film, Stripe, er I mean Slash, escapes.

You might notice the myriad of inspiration on hand. You see, growing up in the 80s we had cable and a VCR. In many ways this was better than Netflix or streaming. Every weekend I went to one of the many video stores and picked out 3 to 5 films to watch. I was also allowed to watch whatever I wanted, uncut on HBO. Furthermore, going to the movies was pretty cheap and we were at the theater or drive-in every weekend. I watched hundreds of films every year! Having to go out and find them made them more important. I paid attention; I learned who the filmmakers and actors were. I read movie magazines. I needed to know more! I was a sponge and my storyteller mind blended and repurposed moments from hundreds of films. The finale here is very much Gremlins meets Black Roses meets Witchboard meets Critters 2 meets my crazy brain! This brings us to…

Sheriff Cooper chases Slash down and they duke it out! Cooper, proving to be no match for Slash, is about to get Zombified when he scrambles to his gun and shoots the guitar! A hole in the guitar equals a hole in Slash! Cooper keeps shooting and finally pulls the guitar from the weakened Slash. He douses that shit in lighter fluid and burns it up! Slash does an epic zombie meltdown and finally turns to dust. Cooper is relieved. He might’ve lost most of the towns’ teenage population, and a few whole neighborhoods but he stopped it!

…or did he?

We’re backstage at the blown up stadium. We push past burning ruble to a sound board with a cassette deck. A fireman passes, knocking the deck to the floor. A cassette tape falls out of the wreckage. No ordinary cassette, this one has those familiar devil symbols carved into it…
I smell sequel!

The first Elm Street film my parents took me to see was Part 3, Dream Warriors. It was phenomenal, and part of one truth of 80s cinema; there had to be a sequel! They didn’t do quite as many remakes back then, they just made a million sequels instead, most of which played out like remakes. If you look at “The List” almost every idea has a number of planned sequels along with it. I put a lot of love into Heavy Metal Zombies; played it as a game with my friends, acted it out when I was home alone, and mused about the crazy series it would become. I imagined interviews in Fangoria Magazine, discussing the series with my favorite talk show host Arsenio Hall! Slash would be my Freddy!

“The List” says Heavy Metal Zombies 1, 2 …?

My memories of Part 2 are vague. I know that Cooper would be divorced, broken, living in the big city, and cursed with wild nightmares of Slash. I know the tape would end up with some record executive. I know that Slash and the Zombies lay siege to the city and only Cooper can save the day. Maybe there would be a Trick or Treat style race against time to stop the cassette from getting played for a large audience? Save the world from getting zombified? Whatever it was, it was gonna be awesome!

My parents are cool, and I’m glad they let me be the crazy monster kid. However being a weirdo isn’t always fun. Sometimes we get bullied. You know what happens when you bully a monster kid? We dream up a crazy trilogy of revenge on the shitters of the world! Tune in next time for my Maniac* trilogy!

*No relation to the William Lustig classic. I didn’t see that one until I was full grown.

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Brennan Went To Film School

Brennan Went to Film School: KILLER CONDOM is a Masterpiece. Seriously.

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“Brennan Went to Film School” is a column that proves that horror has just as much to say about the world as your average Oscar nominee. Probably more, if we’re being honest.

WARNING: THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR KILLER CONDOM. ALTHOUGH THIS MOVIE IS PRETTY MUCH UN-SPOILABLE, READER DISCRETION IS ADVISED.

That article title might seem like clickbait, but I promise I’m not kidding. In 1996, German director Martin Walz adapted a Ralf König comic book into Kondom des Grauens, retitled Killer Condom when it was picked up for American distribution by the notorious schlock studio Troma Entertainment. Not only is it probably the best film Troma ever got their hands on, it’s one of the smartest horror-comedies of the 90’s.

Sure, the movie has its strikes against it: It’s a campy, low budget monster movie. The effects haven’t aged well, and weren’t great to begin with. Plus, it’s literally called Killer Condom… But it has a heart and a brain that set it head and shoulders above the rest of the pack.

Creating a blend of genres that was basically unheard of before or since, Killer Condom grafts a B-movie monster plot onto a hardboiled neo-noir romance. The film is set in New York City (even though the characters all speak German – it’s an interesting reversal of the Hollywood trope of everyone in foreign countries just speaking English with an accent), where we follow the chain-smoking Detective Macaroni (Udo Samel) as he investigates a rash of bitten-off penises at the seedy local Hotel Quickie. In the meantime he’s falling in love with a young hustler named Billy (Marc Richter), in spite of his reservations against opening his heart to anyone in this cold, cruel city.

The fact that there was a gay romance in a movie at all in the 90’s is pretty stunning, but it’s especially remarkable because, in spite of its raunchy foundation, it really is deeply romantic. Nearly everything about this movie is transgressive and taboo-busting in a campy, hyperbolic way (you might need a strong stomach for the pitch-black humor, which involves things like a coroner laughing over the gross, personal details of a man who was accidentally smothered to death by his lover), except for this. A quiet, human story is playing out in the middle of all this chaos; it’s like John Waters and Pedro Almodóvar got in a three-car pileup with Nora Ephron.

But enough about the gooey romance. Let’s talk about that gooey monster which, by the way, was designed by none other than H. R. Giger, with all the gleefully disgusting erotic horror that implies. The titular killer condom could very easily have been a throwaway villain, created just for shock value. But would you believe it that this movie also has the most potent metaphor for AIDS in perhaps the entire horror genre?

There are plenty of scary movies that have been perceived as a metaphor for the AIDS epidemic – including David Cronenberg’s The Fly and John Carpenter’s The Thing – but those connections are questionable at best and probably unintentional. Whereas Killer Condom is about as intentional as it gets, using the deeply queer bedrock of its story to turn this silly monster tale into practically an on-the-ground account of the horrors of the early 1980’s.

As the condom chomps its way through the genitalia of the city’s gritty underbelly, the threat becomes more and more pervasive. However, the police – other than Macaroni – don’t seem to care one bit. In the words of the police captain himself, nobody cares if a bunch of “queers and hookers” are bumped off. While the brass refuses to believe Macaroni and investigate further, the condoms seem to be multiplying, spreading across the town until they end up attacking a Republican presidential candidate.

At that point, of course, people begin to care. But by the time the problem has begun to affect straight white people, the damage has been done. Dozens of men have already been subject to impromptu dick-ectomies, and it could have been stopped long ago if anybody had cared to give it a try. This is a morbid, but extremely precise mirror to the real life circumstances around AIDS, a plague that devastated the gay community, and which President Reagan ignored for years because at the time it was only believed to affect the LGBT community.

Macaroni literally ends the movie with a speech denouncing religious extremism and advocating for love as the purest form of human expression, whatever shape it takes. And it lands, because Killer Condom has always been operating at the level it requires to be profoundly effective in ways that most movies involving squeaking monsters skittering around the room just aren’t.

Basically, what I’m saying is forget The Normal Heart. Killer Condom is the powerful, romantic, queer drama about AIDS the world needed, got, and completely ignored. The cartoonish monster mayhem provides an incredibly fun horror movie experience, but the way the film slips in real life politics and terror around the edges makes the film a surprisingly subtle delight. It can be hard to find now, because goodness knows the general public loves to ignore cool movies, but I assure you – Killer Condom is well worth the hunt.


Brennan Klein is a writer and podcaster who talks horror movies every chance he gets. And when you’re talking to him about something else, he’s probably thinking about horror movies. On his blog, Popcorn Culture, he is running through reviews of every slasher film of the 1980’s, and on his podcast, Scream 101, he and a non-horror nerd co-host tackle horror reviews with a new sub-genre every month!


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