Saturday, July 6, 2013

Zombie 5: Killing Birds (1987)

In the right mindset, Filmirage productions like Ghosthouse, Witchery, and Troll 2 can be a lot of fun, with a great amount of low budget cheese and outrageous horror. There were a couple titles that I thought stood out of this mold that were actually quite harrowing and long winded (in a good way) like Hitcher in the Dark and Door to Silence. I’ve always had a soft spot for the company, and I do aspire to see every Filmirage movie, myself, someday.

The company was founded in 1980 by Joe D’Amato, cult film favorite and director of nasty gore classics Beyond the Darkness and Antropophagus as well as most of the output from the guilty pleasure that is the Black Emanuelle series with Laura Gemser, who’s as classy as these BE films are sleazy. The company pelted out titles fairly consistently from 1980 to 1994, eventually ceasing to make films from what I’m guessing to be a kind of commercial low point in Italian cinema. There are most certainly a number of notorious cult classics among the selection which spans at least forty-five movies.

Directed by Joe D’Amato and Claudio Lattanzi, Killing Birds, or as it has become known in the US Zombie 5: Killing Birds, placing it into the infamously confusing Zombi series lineup, is a mixed bag with all of the elements that make a Filmirage horror movie a lot of fun.

It should be taken into consideration that Zombie 5: Killing Birds actually isn’t much of a zombie film nor is it much of a killer bird film, so it would probably suffice to say that it was titled poorly. Ninety-nine percent of everyone going into this will be expecting a zombie movie, but there are only a few zombies, and they’re more like ghoulish closet monsters, which don’t bite their victims, but rather they thrash them about, resulting in some pretty brutal gore. I’m not kidding. Watch Jennifer’s (Lin Gathright) death scene at around 56:30, and try to tell me this movie doesn’t have balls.

"We're probably right in their migration flight path... So that's why they built this house out here; right in the middle of nowhere." Anne / Lara Wendel

The title should be taken lightly, because who really cares about classification as long as the film still entertains?

The birds in the movie are ambiguously linked to the horror at hand, leaving it up to the viewer’s mind to fill in the blanks. There’s only one bird attack, but their mysterious connection to a haunted house, built below a migration flight path, manages to be eerie enough when the proper amount of imagination is put forth.

Seeing as gore is a requisite with a lot of Filmirages, Killing Birds wastes no time with its intro flashback scene, where throats are slashed, a forehead is pierced with a flying knife, and eyeballs are clawed out. A Vietnam War vet goes on a murdering rampage after returning home to find that his wife had taken on a new lover in his absence. He murders his entire family except for his infant son. The murderer is a collector of birds and an expert of sorts on the matter. While in a fit of murderous zeal, he accidentally hits one of his raptors with his bowie knife, a mistake that proves to have dire consequences for the attacker. Later, while cleaning up his bloody mess, the raptor hits back by clawing at his eyes, in a scene similar to one in Dario Argento’s Opera, permanently blinding him. The killer, assumedly not pinned for the murders, is admitted to a hospital, and the infant is taken away before the film moves to present day.

Now that everyone’s bloodlust has been satiated, it becomes time to introduce the main characters and spend a little, some would say too much, time with them. It is here where most would likely argue that the film starts to become bogged down and stays bogged down until the latter half. I did actually enjoy the time spent with these characters. I do think it helps that the charming Lara Wendel (Tenebre, Ring of Darkness, Ghosthouse, and The Perfume of the Lady in Black) and the very pretty Leslie Cumming (who would go on to star alongside David Hasselhoff in another Filmirage, her only other film credit, Witchery AKA La casa 4, resisting attempts from The Hoff trying to take her virginity) are on hand.

I like that Wendel isn’t dubbed, as her accent is quite lovely. Cumming is a little strange, and there were several instances where I couldn’t understand what she was saying, but I do like the way she arrests herself to the horror moments, particularly her demise in the camper in this movie and her devil nightmare in Witchery. These scenes are pretty crazy and seem like a harrowing experience for the actress, but I like to think she did it for us.

Robert Vaughn is fairly briefly on hand as a key character, Dr. Fred Brown, a bird watcher with a mysterious past who happens to be blind from some sort of past ocular trauma. Hmm, I wonder who he could be. If his home looks hauntingly familiar, it’s because it was the same house used in Fulci’s The Beyond.

While the story concerns a group of young characters, which are usually irritating, they're actually not too annoying, here, which I think is primarily because they are college students and not High School teenagers. As an excuse to get them all together, alone and out in the woods, it is made known that they’ve received a research grant that will fund their expedition into the Louisiana swamplands to find a possibly extinct bird called the ivory-billed woodpecker (a bird that is still considered possibly extinct, to this day). The ensuing moments at the University where lead character Steve (Timothy W. Watts) finds out that he and his colleagues got their grant accepted is corny and perhaps overly happy in contrast to the disturbing mass murder just before, which might turn off the gore hounds who were probably giving this their seal of approval after that intro but now might be considering watching something else.

The pleasant, but admittedly lame, happy music, and a life-is-great-and-couldn’t-be-better vibe, as Steve runs around campus letting the other students know about the grant, warms my heart. As a grad student myself I know the frustration that comes with grant writing, and, having a bit of good luck with a grant myself recently, I kind of relate to it.

Using an interesting camera lens trick, where everything looks bright and blurry, (achieved I’m assuming from ‘vaselensing,’ where Vaseline is smeared over the camera lens) to artificially create a foggy setting, there ends up being a cool otherworldly feel that accompanies the students’ expedition once they enter the region near the secret haunted house hidden in the woods. The film pokes fun at this situation when Wendel’s character says “let's hope it’s not a ginger bread house.”

From this point on, we are in for a pretty decent ‘80s haunted house excursion where characters momentarily disappear into dimensional voids and zombies pop out of the walls in a cobwebbed, usually well-lit house that’s so full of dust it gives me allergies just looking at it.

Did I forget to mention the music? It’s what you would expect if you are familiar with ‘80s Italian horror, with electronic percussions and synthesizers, which is a memorable hit with some and an utter distraction to others. Some of it I’ve heard before, as one particular theme was lifted and later used in Lenzi’s Hitcher in the Dark. There’s a particular bombastic piece with a tragic sounding melody with a Gothic bell that moves me during a climactic moment in the attic. Hearing this dramatic musical piece playing while one of the characters, Paul (James Villemaire), in a fit of hopelessness utters “we’re fucked” after something can be heard banging on the attic door is a fantastic piece of melodrama that shoots my emotional senses to the moon (forgive the hyperbole, but it’s true).

I suppose I am a critic of sorts and therefore have a responsibility to point out flaws, and, I also suppose, one could go to town with the flaws in Killing Birds. At times it does seem to not bend any rules. I realize that I have a stock pile of familiar horror scenarios and moments in my head, accumulated from other movies, so when they’re played out in front of me without enough variability or change in flavor, my mind might tend to skip over it, as if the movie is just going through familiar motions. Killing Birds has this problem a few times, but for every so-so familiar moment there’s another pretty insane moment that brings me back into the movie again.

It goes for the jugular when it needs to, the sylvan house setting amidst the swamps gets the job done, and the brutal gore and mixed array of elements keep it peculiar, despite its tendency towards the cliché at times. I’m not going to brand it with a high recommendation, but it was a lot better than I was expecting. I constantly put off buying the DVD for a long time, even when I came across it on the shelf, used, and at a cheap price, thinking it was probably going to be garbage. It’s enjoyable despite its flaws and if your expectations are as low as mine were, it might be the low budget horror you’re in the mood for.

"I can tell you what our chances are without the fucking Computer! NONE! WE'RE FUCKED!" Paul / James Villemaire


  1. I've had my eye on the Zombie three pack with this one in it for awhile now. It sounds like a good time.

    1. Thanks for commenting, my friend. I thought Killing Birds was a fun time, but so many reviewers on Amazon and IMDB seem to think the opposite.

      I do own the other two movies that come in the Zombie three pack: Zombie 3 and Zombie 4: After Death. Both were made after Zombie 5 and most people are really bothered by this, which is why I called in an infamously confusing line up. Killing Birds doesn’t really belong in the series, but it doesn’t bother me too much; I’ll call it Zombie 5. Zombie 3 and 4 are worth your time, too. If you’re a Troll 2 fan, Zombie 4 was directed by Claudio Fragasso, and we get a bit of Pre-Troll 2 green slime with the zombies in that one.

    2. Holy shit YES. 3 and 4 are worth it, even if you have to get this turd with it.

      Zombie 5 is not without its merits, but as said in this review, the key is to go in with VERY low expectations.

  2. I actually am a Troll 2 fan! And not one of those like-it-cause-its-bad-im-trendy guys. haha. I actually think it is an entertaining movie. I saw it on late night TV as a child and have just loved it ever since.

    You know, I think Im just a sucker for that late 70s to 80s Italian zombie movies. There are very few I've seen that I actually hated. Even the worst ones have a scene or two that makes it worth it.

    But yeah, I always enjoy your entries. Keep up the great work.

    1. I remember watching Troll 2 as a kid after renting the VHS, around the time it just came to video. I had recently watched Ernest Scared Stupid, which was about Trolls, and so I was definitely in the mood for another Troll movie. Yeah, I was definitely a long time fan as well, before it got extremely popular after being plugged by Conan O Brian. Not saying it doesn’t deserve to be.

  3. Thanks for the words of encouragement! You keep up the good work too.

  4. Excellent examination of another deep cut, as always. I, too, have danced around a purchase of that zombie three pack.

    1. Thanks, Brandon! That seems to be an experience we all share. I was hesitant to buy the three pack when I had the chance but eventually settled for buying each of the three individual movies at different times when I was finally in the mood to see them. I'd say it would be worth going through with it to have all three of these in one set, next time you find yourself encountering the set at a bargain.