Primal Rage (1990)
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Despite the amazing poster artwork, I went into "Primal Rage" expecting a complete dog turd. Why is that? Well it's due to the fact that it's a late 80s Italian horror film and that era of Italian Horror is generally not well regarded and for good reason. Second it's a late 80's Italian horror film filmed in America with actual live sound (no dubbing) so right away I had horror flashbacks to "Killing Birds" and "Troll 2", crummy American shot Italian horror films made the same way. To be honest, "Primal Rage" actually surprised me by not being a terrible late 80s Italian Horror film, but keep in mind it is still from the end of the decade so it's still not going to be good.
After a crummy title sequence (with the title "Primal Rage" appearing on the back of two female butts marching to the beat of an awful 80s pop song) the audience is told it takes place on an unnamed college campus. Here some overzealous student reporters break into a scientific lab where one of the culprits gets bit by an experimental monkey. He of course develops some kind of "rabies" like disease that brings out the 'primal rage' in his soul and he starts brutally murdering and biting students, spreading the contagion. Can his best friend stop him before it spreads? Trust me, "28 Days Later" this ain't.
As you can tell the plot is nothing we horror fans haven't seen before but that should be expected since screenwriter Umberto Lenzi (under the pseudonym Harry Kirkpatrick) was in a deep valley this stage of his career. Still, even with such a derivative plot, "Primal Rage" comes out far better than anything Lenzi directed himself at this time.
Lenzi also injects a few instances into his script that drive me complete bonkers. First of all why is it when anyone comes down with this disease they refuse to see a doctor or get medical help? Hell I know doctor visits are expensive as hell but when you have blood blisters exploding from your face and blood spewing from your finger nails I think money wouldn't be a matter! Also one of our characters kills an infected person and then burns down his house and the police buy it as an accident. I guess C.S.I wasn't near as accurate back in those days (hmmm... what's this bullet doing lodged in the wall... ah it's nothing. Death caused by smoking bed).
The acting is surprisingly decent for low budget Italian affair, especially since most of the actors are rather green. The only veteran in the cast is B-movie veteran Bo Svenson as our scientist, sporting an awful rat-tail that made me want to yank off violently. The real attraction for this rather obscure film is the good special effects as there is plenty of blood spewing good moments for gore hounds.
"Primal Rage" may have a derivative plot, insane plot devices and plenty of puke inducing 80s pop songs on the soundtrack but the nifty special effects and decent acting kept me interested throughout the running time. That in itself is a feat considering this is a late 80's Italian horror film. Perhaps if the film lived up more to its title it would have become more of a cult classic rather than disappearing into obscurity. The DVD release of "Primal Rage" from Code Red went quickly out-of-print, no doubt because it was a poor seller on DVD. I was lucky enough to snatch one up before it did. For people curious the DVD is wonderful if you can find it for a good price.
The opening montage of [i]Primal Rage[/i] sets up the atmosphere of happy-go-lucky college life so ridiculously that you may think you've accidentally stumbled on a frathouse comedy. Watch as our hero bikes around the campus snapping pictures of all the smiling students! Look, they're aerobicizing! Someone's playing a trumpet! A group of zany kids are playing tug-of-war and--oh, no, some of them fell in the mud! An African band looks to be entertaining while educating about multi-culturalism, but we can't hear it because the happy pop ballad "Say the Word" is playing over everything! Oh my, isn't university life filled with fun and frolic and giggles and pony rides and moonlight make-out sessions? Why, I'll bet we'll have the time of our lives as we discover who we really are, even if we have to teach that cocky dean a thing or two!
At no point during the first five minutes do you get the feeling that you're about to watch a monkey virus movie co-written by Umbero Lenzi, the man behind [i]Make Them Die Slowly[/i] and [i]Eaten Alive[/i]. So much for trying to build up that horror-movie tone.
Our hero Sam (Patrick Lowe, not of the Los Angeles Lowes) is a campus photographer intent on discovering the secret of what's really going on in the University research facility run by the scatterbrained Dr. Etheridge (Bo Svenson). What's going on, we discover, is that Etheridge is on the verge of losing the funding he's getting for his extensive research on monkeytorture, and one of the caged baboons freaks out after having their skull opened and exposed to the dangers of science.
I'll get back to the plot in a moment, what with all the monkeytorture and all, but I have to spend a paragraph on Bo Svenson's ponytail. It's just the saddest ponytail I've ever seen. It's barely an inch long, and it probably takes up less space on his head than a quarter, so it just sticks out like this pathetic attempt at being an old hippie. I've seen locks of hair in Capt. Lou Albino's beard wrapped up with rubber bands that were bigger. If you don't have enough hair to make a ponytail that looks halfway decent, don't grow a fucking ponytail. There's a lesson in this for everyone.
Sam's kind of a wuss as a hero, so he sends in "gonzo journalist" pal Frank (Mitch Watson, who now writes cartoons) to sneak in during off-hours. Frank takes a lot of lewd photos of the monkeytorture, the baboon goes, um apeshit, bites Frank and runs off, only to get hit by a car. The monkey is dead, but the damage is done and the horrible monkeypox virus is on the loose.
(For the record, Etheridge states that it's not a virus, but with that ponytail, I'm just not going to buy it.)
While we wait for the virus to start taking effect and for Frank to start going rabid, sub-plots ensue. Sam starts up a romance with new girl Lauren (Cheryl Arutt) while Frank makes out with her roommate Debbie (Sarah Buxton) in order to eventually affect her with the virus as well. We learn all sorts of information about these people, like how Frank's parents are doctors, or how Debbie had to start college late because she had an abortion. It's kind of odd to see this sort of character development in a b-grade monkeypox film, but it's a nice change of pace--too bad it's not consistent.
In addition to the four leads, there's a gang of three of the most ineffectual bullies I've ever seen. Their leader Lovejoy is first seen asking the girls for their phone numbers--when Sam pops up and makes fun of him, so he leaves. Next, he shows up at a tavern and woos the ladies with the can't-miss line "what do you say you and me do it?" when Frank comes up and kicks his ass. Meanwhile, his friends just laugh at him. They feel more like the annoying jerk in a PG-level kids' movie, and Doug Sloan plays Lovejoy so over-the-top that the performance feels like Jerry Lewis just walked into a Cassavettes film.
It makes the ensuing plotline with the bullies even harder to take. The gang suddenly decides to turn into real bullies, kidnapping the now-infected Debbie and pushing her up three flights of stairs (!) to their dorm room--which apparently only has one bed. As though sensing the homoeroticism in the air, one of them suggests they all do her at once and begin disrobing. Strobe lights go on. Techno music plays. Debbie goes nuts. It's a completely bungled scene that manages to come off as corny when it's clearly trying to be brutal, and it's uncomfortable for all the wrong reasons.
It's just a symptom, but the scene really encapsulates what's wrong with [i]Primal Rage[/i]. Plotwise, it's a scattershot mess, with sub-plots that go nowhere (Etheridge's lack of funding has nothing to do with what happens) and a tone that shifts all over the place. Director Vittorio Rambaldi (son of Carlo Rambaldi, who did the admittedly good special effects) doesn't seem to know if this set-up is supposed to be played tongue-in-cheek or not, and the goofy climax set at the University's Halloween costume ball just makes matters more confusing.
It's a shame that it never finds a tone and sticks with it, because there's enough about [i]Primal Rage[/i] to like to make its' failures so much more obvious. The performances by the leads are generally good, the attacks are well-staged, and the characters manage to be slightly more than one-dimensional, so it's immediately in the top half of monkey-related horror films. It's just that it seems to be suffering from violent mood swings--especially in the music, which veers from Claudio Simonetti's speed-metal influenced orchestral tracks (that are clearly cribbed from his own [i]Dawn of the Dead[/i] score) to idiotic '80s power ballads without warning.
It's wildly uneven, but [i]Primal Rage[/i] still manages to be passable for a night of Italian-influenced horror. It's certainly better than [i]Beyond the Door III,[/i] the [i]other[/i] Italian-influenced late '80s horror movie where Bo Svenson plays a professor--though at least [i]Beyond the Door III[/i] gives him a more fortunate hairstyle.
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