or VHS: video house safari


Alexandria's Video Vault isn't a three-story building anymore. It's nestled in a basement under a furniture store, but the important thing is: it's still there. It survived where so many Blockbusters and Hollywood Videos in the area have cleared out, crushed by the economy and rise of Netflix. I still remember the first time I called the 'Vault, having come upon it in a phone book my freshman year in high school:

"Ok yeah this is gonna sound stupid, I apologize in advance, but do you guys have a copy of Lesbian Vampires?"
"All right well thanks anyw - What?"
"Yeah we've got that one. That's my favorite Jess Franco."
"It is?"
"Absolutely. Have you seen Sadomania?"

(Ok I admit I spiced that up a bit - I was actually looking for Armour of God. But whatever dude, I'm hip get off my back.)

Over the years Video Vault led me to countless treasures. I can't imagine how I would have gotten through high school without all the Cronenbergs and Herzogs and Pasolinis they had that Blockbuster didn't even have in their catalog much less on their shelves. Their huge cache of films by Louis Malle and Claude Chabrol, Peter Jackson's Bad Taste (which I first saw an ad for in their video catalog) and Robert Bresson's L'Argent, recommended to me by one of the guys working there. This is years before Criterion, yet I was able to see Shock Corridor, Kwaidan, Sans Soleil (and, you know...I Spit on Your Grave and Don't Mess with My Sister) thanks to them.

This is the first year where absolutely nobody anywhere is creating or distributing new VHS tapes. It's not such much that I miss the format (I just bought a Blu Ray player and it. is. awesome.) It's really the passing of the social aspect of video renting that I lament. With DVR On Demand, HD disc technology and online rental services as well as comprehensive movie databases changing the home entertainment market seemingly every second, the days of seeking something odd and interesting aren't just waning, they're pretty much gone. So these days I return to Video Vault to do something I always took for granted: to browse. And what I find, I'm bringing home and I'm writing about it. Hence this little regular column: my ode to the odd.

Two quick things: I'm not a great lover of "camp." I don't typically have an ironic appreciation for drive-in/exploitation or straight-to-video action or soft core movies. If anything I'm drawn in by how genuinely weird and innovative some of these films are, but unless I'm watching an episode of "Mystery Science Theater 3000" I'm never on the lookout for the so-bad-it's-good brand of B-movie. Nor am I someone who looks down on these flicks just because some of them never played in theaters or got reviewed in respectable newspapers: I basically do my best to judge them as I would any other film, free of prejudice.

At the end of the day I'd sum it up by simply saying the merit of the movie stands on its own, and I'll be looking at each entry with equal expectations. The only rule: I'm going to go into each movie blind, based solely on the video box art. Sure the occasional actor or director name might jump out at me (or, in the case of George Kennedy, appear ubiquitious) but I'm going to try and base my selections solely on the power of the marketing.

Maybe there's no Big Important Meaning behind all this, but whatever - I'm pretty excited!

"frank martin," 1980

Dr. Butcher MD (Medical Deviate) was a big disappointment... and kind of the perfect title to start this regular column with. Based on the amazing cover art and colorful taglines decorating the front cover I expected to be spending 93 minutes with a "depraved, sadistic rapist" and "bloodthirsty, homicidal killer" who, despite his flaws, at least offers the convenience of making house calls. That is to say, he's willing to rape and kill you in the comfort of your own home or apartment, damn the hour and personal expense. How many depraved, sadistic, bloodthirsty, homicidal physicians with a degree in medical deviation can you honesty say offer that service?

The movie opens with an establishing shot so dark it's impossible to see anything. What it successfully establishes is that it's night time, somewhere outside. Some dark gray structures lined up in a row eventually become recognizable as tombstones. A close-up of one reads "Snuff Maximus." Then Snuff's stone begins to...totter. I wouldn't say shake. It totters like a see-saw or a wooden rocking horse. A hand emerges from the soil beneath the grave and soon there's a Michael Jackson video's share of the undead loitering about. The ominous music suggests these creatures are dangerous, but there's nobody around to chase: it's more like a poorly-lit zombie fashion show. Finally a newspaper flies into frame with the headline "Terror Grips City!" sprawled across the front page. (I hope that, if the zombies see this, it doesn't ruin their social get-together.)

Next we are magically transported to a hospital, and the first scene proper is set in the morgue - a great start to this particular movie, as we're already aware that some sort of medical deviation is going to take place, and what better place for it to happen than at a morgue at night? Silhouetted in the doorway is a man holding what is unmistakably a surgeon's bag. He walks into the room full of fresh corpses, snaps the bag open and puts on a pair of plastic gloves (insanity need not be insanitary.) Nothing seedy about this: just your friendly neighborhood medical doctor putting in some late hours, and I'm sure the dead bodies don't mind. He uncovers a cadaver, removes a saw from his satchel, and proceeds to very unprofessionally hack off the poor corpse's hand! Even with the dead guy's consent this would be considered disreputable! This guy isn't a medical doctor - he's a medical deviate!

So we gotta assume this is the man himself, the fabled physician whose deviate visage graces the cover of the video box. What's he up to? Where's that hand going? Will it later be the subject of some grating pun? Is this guy building some kind of Frankenstein's monster in the basement of the hospital right under the unsuspecting noses of nurses and colleagues? And will he, as the box would have us believe, start branching out into the nearby urban neighborhood paying house calls on potential donors? The possibilities hinted at in this opening scene are absolutely titillating.

[Sorry I've got to pause here momentarily: feel free to skip to the next paragraph as this is merely an aside. I'm writing this at the Walter Reed hospital, where my dad is currently having an operation. And I'm not shitting you here: the second I finished that last paragraph, a middle-aged man with only one hand sat down directly across from me. He doesn't even have a prosthesis, he's just clearly missing one hand. If that isn't the creepiest shit that happens to me this week, I'm in for some freaky goddamn shit.]

So anyway I'm less than five minutes into the movie, and based on the opening scene here's the plot I'm imagining: Dr. Ignatius Hurvel Butcher MD (along with his assistant, resident aneSLEAZYologist Malcolm Practice) is abusing hospital facilities and his privileges as a practitioner to experiment with re-animation. He's got the severed hand laid out on a slab all jiggered up to electric wires, the fingers wiggling around of their own accord. This kind of thing wouldn't even be too bad were he merely depraved and sadistic - but unfortunately this guy's also bloodthirsty and homicidal, not a good combination for a licenced healer with a degree in deviation willing to put in the extra hours for house calls. Due to his madness he's going to misinterpret his Hippocratic Oath: whatever houses he visits, it's not going to be for the benefit of the sick, and will probably lead to a lot of intentional injustice, mischief and sexual relations (be they free or slaves.) He's going to have a pretty liberal translation of "do no harm" is what I'm saying...

That's the sort of standard B-movie plot I had cooked up in my own head and the next scene seemed to headed in that general direction, furthering the mystery of what's going on in the hospital. The uncensented overnight limb removal is revealed at an autopsy held by goateed surgeon Dr. Dreylock (I checked immediately - not an anagram for "Butcher") for the benefit of a bunch of giggling interns. In a slasher movie formula, you've got a flock of young not unattractive giggling people hanging out together in the second scene of the movie - following the opening killing/amputation - you figure these are going to be the main group of victims throughout the rest of the film. But not here: we never see these clowns again. So instead we focus on Dr. Dreylock. He seems surprised that his patient has only half the amount of hands he should, but is it an act? Is the bisected body part sitting in the glove compartment of Dreylock's Monza in the physician's parking lot? If so, he throws suspicion off himself by declaring to a blonde nurse: "We must have a psychopathic deviate in the hospital!"

That's a hell of an accusation - a hypothesis at best - but his speculation proves founded when more recently deceased bodies are discovered disemboweled. Things are formulating nicely: I'm genuinely curious to know what exactly Dr. Butcher is up to! What's going to compel him to move from cadavers to living victims? Will his hospital homicides mainly be committed to cover up his corpse carving? Somewhat abruptly and shockingly, the movie provides an answer...

The next night an orderly is making his rounds and ends up in the morgue. So this is where the doctor is caught and forced to kill! Watch out dude! The orderly walks up to a body and uncovers it. Wait, what's he up to? He pulls out a scalpel and splits the dead man's chest open, and in the same motion starts scooping innards straight out of the corpse and into his mouth! Holy lunch! No sooner than has he started gorging, the lights switch on and Dr. Dreylock and associates leap out of hiding places - it was a trap. The intern fights his way out of their grasp however and takes the quickest exit...straight out the window. (The impact appears to break his arm off but it's back on by the time everybody else makes it down to the street.) As he lays dying his final word is "Kito!"

I'm going over these opening scenes in detail because sadly they are the closest this movie is going to get to Dr. Butcher MD as advertised. It's the first twenty minutes of the movie, and five minutes later we won't even be in New York anymore: Dr. Butcher's urban slayground as depicted on the video box will be shucked in favor of the furthest jungle regions of an archipelago of Moluccan islands known as Kito. Evidence that the orderly was an immigrant of the island and that apparently other orderlies at hospitals around the city have been caught doing the same thing (!) sets our heroes to investigate.

Dr. Dreylock sits out the expedition, opting instead to send plucky blonde nurse Lori Ridgeway along with a group of travelers including a new guy, anthropologist Dr. Peter Chandler. A fleeting hope remained in my head that Dr. Chandler would go on to contract the same sort of mosquito insanity virus (MIV) on the island that effected the intern, massacre his comrades and return to New York a sick lunatic with butchery on the brain. I wasn't sure if he was our absent serial surgeon, but I did recognize him from Lucio Fulci's Zombi, and Nurse Lori from Fulci's New York Ripper.

That's right: these mugs are dubbed Italian actors! It figures it'd be something like this. Their presence in the movie and the fact that the remaining hour of the film is a half-assed mash-up of Zombi and Cannibal Holocaust suggests a retooling for American audiences. Specifically, the expedition runs afowl of savage cannibals and decaying zombies with worms squirming out of their eye sockets. At this point I'm honestly starting to think we'll never meet Dr. Butcher at all... we'll never learn what makes for a true medical deviate.

Interestingly, it turns out I was kind of wrong about not meeting the depraved doctor, and kind of right about the plot as I had originally guessed. After what can only be described as an orgy of cannibal and zombie assaults which lead to eye-gouging, skull-macheteing, bimbo-lassoing, gut-spearing, multiple acts of flesh-tearing raw organ buffets and finally boat propeller-to-the-face, we find out the man behind it is a guy named Dr. Obrero (not an anagram either, just a palindrome with a "b" in it) who has been experimenting with live victims, turning cannibals* into zombies.

Now I'm not sure what the point of turning vicious cannibals who indiscriminately attack anyone on sight into zombies is (they're already eating folks - this process really just slows them down, makes them more docile) but that's kind of what I thought a medical deviate might be up to in a movie like this. And since Obrero is played by Donald O'Brian, and the opening credits/video box specifically listed "Donald O'Brian as Doctor Butcher," this is clearly the eponymous practitioner. So to review: this guy is a) not located in New York, b) is not named Dr. Butcher and c) may or may not actually make house calls. There really aren't any houses on the island, only huts. And he basically stays in his own hut. He's also more like a Bond villain than your classic homicidal, bloodythirsty killer - all planning and monolouging as Dr. Chandler (who we can definitely rule out as a Dr. Butcher suspect) comes up with a way to escape. Also Obrero/Butcher's relation to Snuff Maximus remains entirely ambiguous.

This is clearly not the movie I was hoping for. Instead of an urbane American slasher it turned out to be your typically crude Italian gorefest. Nurse Lori finds many occasions to undress but never gains sympathy as the heroine, and Dr. Chandler's just as much a cold fish of a leading man. And this sub-par Dr. Butcher, running around his hut cackling about his plans for zombie manufacturing while native henchman Mulatto (!) lurks in the corner, is of course nowhere near the iconic villain the cover led me to imagine. But as I said before, it's kind of perfect that the first movie I'd watch for this Video Oddities column would be one with such a false front: a product of early 80's video marketing back when exploitation cheapies each had a dozen different titles and would exploit any hook to sucker in the horror crowd. It's a great carnival mentality that certainly doesn't exist today - or rather it does, but in an even more dishonest, glossed-over way like deglamorizing Angelina or Charlize when they play "serious" roles. And it's amazing how the gimmick, the fictious premise the guys over at Paragon Video used to sell their acquired property, was as entertaining as anything in the real movie!

If anything, the phony American ads seem to have inspired 1992's Dr. Giggles - with Larry Drake as a homicidal maniac pretending to be a doctor who did indeed make house calls - although for my money that was too clever and stylized an attempt at the "murderous man of medicine" plot. The real Dr. Butcher only exists, thanks to video box art, in our hearts and dreams.

or What I Learned Later

The viewing of this particular video has prompted me to ad an addendum to these Video Oddity entries wherein I'll talk briefly about what I found out after seeing the subjected film.

As I correctly discerned, most of Dr. Butcher is actually an Italian movie, a combination of the plots of Zombi and Cannibal Holocaust imaginatively titled...Zombie Holocaust. Director "Frank Martin" (not the Transporter) is actually Marino Girolami, whose 75+ directing credits were rechristened with such amazing American titles as Bullet in the Flesh, Sexy Sinners, What the Chambermaid Saw, Violent City, A Special Cop in Action, Between God the Devil and a Winchester (my personal favorite title - a spaghetti western I take it) and most intruiging of all, Flying Sex. Producer Fabrizio De Angelis was also Fulci's producer on Zombi and New York Ripper, which explains the presence of half the cast of that film and Ripper's Alexandra Delli Colli...and that the movie calling itself "Dr Butcher" is mostly a Zombi rehash.

But the truth is, Dr Butcher MD is a combination of two different movies: the opening graveyard sequences (the whole tottering "Snuff Maximus" bit) were from a short film by none other than the great Roy Frumkes, writer-producer of Street Trash, co-creator of Tom Berenger's The Substitute and zombie pie-in-the-face victim in the original Dawn of the Dead. This cemetery not his best work, to say the least. Apparently the American distributors owned it as part of a propsed anthology film to be titled Tales That'll Tear Your Heart Out, but once that fell through they stuck it at the beginning of Zombi Holocaust (god knows why) and called it (trumpet?) Dr. Butcher MD.

After finishing Zombi Holocaust Donald O'Brian, correct spelling "O'Brien" (who also worked with Girolami on the previously mentioned Flying Sex... is anyone else imagining some kind of kinky kite adventure?) slipped in the bathroom of a Parisian hotel and went into a coma for three days. When he woke up half of his body was paralyzed. He eventually made a nearly-full recovery, but never again played an evil doctor.

~ circa 2008 ~
* I have to point out that these are some of the most insatiable cannibals ever committed to celluloid. They maul, disembowel and consume any cast member who happens to walk by, at least three times the amount of people eaten in Cannibal Holocaust... but at the same time they're all in pretty good shape. Where are the fat cannibals? And do all cannibals just start tearing into their food willy nilly? I mean normal people don't just tear open a bag of Doritos at the market and chow down right there in the middle of the aisle... at least, not most people.