B&W, 1965, 86 mins. 46 secs. / 83 mins. 4 secs.
Directed by Jess Franco
Starring Estella Blain, Mabel Karr, Howard Vernon, Fernando Montes, Marcelo Arroita, Cris Huerta, Guy Mairesse, Antonio Jiménez Escribano
Kino Lorber (Blu-ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC),Mondo Macabro (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9)
Following the success of his debut horror film, 1962's The Awful Dr. Orlof, Jess Franco continued his string of kinky, black and white Gothics with memorable variations on the same theme: The Sadistic Baron von Klaus, Dr. Orloff's Monster, and the greatest film of his early period, The Diabolical Dr. Z (also shown in Europe under the more appropriate title of Miss Muerte, as Dr. Z exits the film ten minutes in). With this film Franco established many of the themes and obsessions which would continue through his color films of the '60s and '70s, including erotic and macabre stage shows, beautiful women programmed to kill, pulp sci-fi trappings, and a bereaved loved one avenging a tragic death. An ideal starting point for newcomers terrified of Franco's reputation, this beguiling mixture of drive-in sleaze and European art film remains one of the director's most purely enjoyable and accessible efforts.
During a thunderstorm, the soon-to-be-executed Woodside Strangler (Mairesse) attacks his guard and escapes from prison, only to arrive barely conscious at the estate of bespectacled Dr. Zimmer (Escribano), a disciple of the late Dr. Orloff. At the insistence of his daughter Irma (Karr), the doctor tries out his new mind control experiments on the convict thanks to his latest contraption, a robot-armed mechanism complete with spikes which puncture the patient's spinal column. Zimmer presents his findings at a scientific conference, but the hostile reception from his colleagues drives Zimmer to a fatal heart attack on the spot. To cope with her grief, Irma goes to a jazz club where the beguiling Miss Death (Blain) performs a bizarre stage routine involving a huge spiderweb and a mannequin. Consumed by the need to continue her father's experiments, Irma runs over a sexy blonde Dutch hitchhiker but winds up horribly scarred while disposing of the body. When the doctor's female assistant rebels, Irma uses the Strangler (now her mind-controlled servant) to subdue the rebellious woman and turn her into a murderous minion, too. Together they set out after Miss Death (real name Nadia) in order to create a killing machine capable of striking down the men responsible for Zimmer's death. The method is simple; with her long, poisonous fingernails, Miss Death can seduce her prey in any location without being caught, and soon this instrument of terror sets out after the three guilty parties with the police gradually closing in.
The subject matter here is top grade lurid Franco, complete with nasty surgical procedures, jazz fugues, and even appearances by Franco and composer Daniel White as police inspectors. Even Dr. Orlof himself, the always reliable Howard Vernon, pops up in two scenes as the ill-fated Dr. Vicas, who meets his fate aboard a speeding train in one especially peculiar setpiece. As the beautiful Nadia, Blain has some of the film's most memorable moments and effectively carries her scenes largely through facial expressions. Her capture at Irma's hands while wearing a skin-tight spider outfit is one of the film's more eye-catching moments, but here Franco keeps the cinematic virtuosity coursing throughout the narrative without losing sight of his story. The climax is one of his best, with a bravura castle fistfight which begins with a smashing tracking shot down a stony hallway, intercuts a brilliant series of punches, and climaxes with a staircase sword duel. Despite one phony-looking shot of a scalpel slicing Irma's face and Miss Death's skimpy costumes, this is also a rare Franco film able to be shared with younger or more squeamish horror fans who might want to see what all the fuss is about. More seasoned Franco viewers will be curious to see his first run through a plotline (itself inspired by Cornell Woolrich's The Bride Wore Black) later revisited and revised in such films as She Killed in Ecstasy and Eugenie De Sade, while the visual parallels to the next year's Succubus and even his controversial shot-on-video projects like Tender Flesh and Mari-Cookie and the Killer Tarantula should be glaringly obvious.
After years of ignominious public domain treatment, The Diabolical Dr. Z finally came to DVD in high style in 2003 courtesy of Mondo Macabro. The anamorphic transfer looked great at the time, with greatly improved contrast and detail compared to the dupey earlier transfers. Element damage is almost nonexistent, and the source (taken from the original French-language edition) betters all previous versions despite a handful of shots near the beginning that display some minor blurring and streaking in the forest sequence. The disc contains both the English and French language versions; both were looped in keeping with Franco's filming tradition at the time, but since this version runs slightly longer than the U.S. English language cut, the English track includes a bit of French dialogue (with optional subtitles) to keep the flow intact. The French version from start to finish is really the classier and smoother of the two options and comes highly recommended. The packaging indicates a stereo soundtrack, but it sounds like plain old mono, albeit very crisp and clear. As for extras, the disc includes the U.S. title sequence (not significantly different from the European one, but a nice extra all the same), the U.S. theatrical trailer, a still and poster gallery, and talent bios. Perhaps the most worthwhile but peculiar bonus is "The Diabolical Mr. Franco," a 15-minute featurette in the vein of the Mondo Macabro TV show containing Franco interview footage interspersed with comments from the likes of Peter Blumenstock. For some reason Caroline Munro pops up for a half-sentence cameo that looks like an editing error. The disc comes with a cover built around the original French poster art and contains some nifty animated menus, all revolving around a spiderweb motif, of course.
In 2018, Redemption Films brought the film to Blu-ray and DVD through distributor Kino Lorber with a fresh scan of the French negative, and it looks truly spectacular. In addition to some significant image information on the edges (which makes a big difference at the top in several shots), it features a massive uptick in detail that gives the film a rich, finely textured appearance with darker scenes in particular now possessing a great deal more atmosphere. The LPCM French and English audio tracks also sound excellent, with optional English subtitles (translated from the French, not dubtitles) provided; oddly, the brief amount of spliced-in French dialogue on the English track isn't subtitled separately, so you may want to have that subtitle button handy on your remote. The (great) French trailer is also included, but the big extra here is a lively commentary by Tim Lucas who does another thorough job of exploring how this important film embodies many of Franco's trademark themes and recurring visual motifs. The background info on the actors is welcome as well, including the troubled and ultimately tragic fate of Blain. An absolute must for Franco freaks.
KINO LORBER ( BLU-RAY)
MONDO MACABRO (DVD)
Updated review on January 20, 2018.