Color, 1987, 92 mins. 6 secs.
Directed by Claudio Lattanzi
Starring Lara Wendel, Timothy W. Watts, Leslie Cummins, Robert Vaughn, James Villeaire, Sal Maggiore Jr., James Sutterfield, Lin Gathright
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD), Media Blasters (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
The Joe D'Amato-founded company Filmirage is a name fondly remembered by fans of '80s Italian horror and softcore films, with its frequently gauzy look and extensive American location shooting giving it a unique feel that remains something of an acquired taste. The company hit the closest thing to mainstream success with Michele Soavi's classic Stagefright and the erotic cable staple Eleven Days, Eleven Nights, but it also turned out a string of enjoyable albeit somewhat baffling films that could be summed up as "young people get stuck in a house overnight and deal with inexplicable supernatural shenanigans." Among those films are Ghosthouse, Witchery, and Beyond Darkness, with Killing Birds standing as the most controversial of the bunch due to the ongoing confusion over who actually directed it. Soavi disciple Lattanzi gets the credit here, but many have offered varying accounts of how D'Amato actually helmed some or all of the production with the filmmaker himself admitted he directed the special effects scenes. Whatever the case may be, it's a Filmirage right to the core complete with its bizarre Carlo Mara Cordio score, splashy gore scenes, and "make it up as we go along" storytelling approach.
At a remote Louisiana house, an unfaithful wife and her lover are murdered one afternoon by her Vietnam vet husband, who in turn gets his eyes ravaged by a falcon on the premises after also taking out his parents and sparing only a little baby boy. Years later on a college campus, newspaper reporter Anne (Tenebrae's Wendel) celebrates the start of fall semester by nabbing a spot covering a scientific study being conducted by Steve (Watts) and his fellow seniors including Mary (Cummins, far more restrained here than her bizarre leading role in Witchery), Paul (Villemaire), Jennifer (Gathright), and Rob (Sutterfield). Their current project involves researching a woodpecker that's gone nearly extinct in the area which leads them to Dr. Fred Brown (Vaughn), the vet whose family , ahem, "disappeared" two decades before. His now abandoned property is the sole remaining domain for the rare bird, so Anne, Steve and company round up local cop Brian (Maggiore) to scope out the house and the area round it. In the process they find a dead body, lots of birds, throat-slashing hallucinations, and homicidal zombies, with Brown himself becoming entangled in this deadly intersection between the lands of the living and the dead.
Heavily promoted in the horror press at the time along with other Filmirage titles, Killing Birds ended up barely getting released apart from nominal play in Italy, France, and Japan, who also saw VHS releases that quickly hit the gray market. Confusingly, the film was occasionally promoted Raptors and even Zombie 5: Killing Birds, an attempt to forge some kind of connection with Dawn of the Dead, Zombie, Zombie 3 and Zombie 4: After Death in a way similar to the unrelated La Casa branding used to pass off Ghosthouse, Witchery, and Beyond Darkness as sequels to The Evil Dead. Though it does technically feature some zombies, at heart this is basically a body count film-- and on that front it delivers with some amusingly gory head traumas and a decent number of prospective victims. Any attempt to parse a true linear plot out of this is going to be foiled by the random narrative that kills off some characters through means that never quite become clear, and even the prologue is handled in such an elliptical fashion that you have to connect to a few more dots than necessary. In keeping with the era, this was shot with mainly American actors who were available in the area and shot with live sound, so the dubbing factor never comes into play here. (Plus you get to hear Wendel's real accented voice, a la Ghosthouse.) Definitely not one for Italian horror newbies by any stretch, this is a particularly eccentric example of where things were heading during the era's twilight years and an appropriate one to throw on very late at night when you can just kick back and go with the flow.
The first legit U.S. release of this film came along on DVD from Media Blasters' Shriek Show line in 2003 as Zombie 5: Killing Birds, featuring an adequate widescreen transfer of the standard English-language uncut version. That title appears on the sleeve art but not the actual disc for the 2020 Blu-ray release from Vinegar Syndrome, which is a welcome relief from the excessively grain-scrubbed, waxy transfers out there for the Blu-rays of Ghosthouse, Witchery, Beyond Darkness, and Metamorphosis. The new 2K scan from the 35mm negative is a fine example of how a Filmirage title from the era should look with fine grain and nice detail in evidence throughout without any attempts to make it look any more slick or glossy than it should. Many of the outdoor scenes are shot by cinematographer D'Amato with heavy diffusion, so don't worry, it's supposed to look like that. The original English and Italian-dubbed tracks are both provided here in good quality DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono (with optional English SDH subtitles). This is part of a run of late '80s Italian horror films like Nosferatu in Venice and Delirium that boasted stereo credits (Ultra Stereo in this case) but don't appear to actually exist with multi-channel sound anywhere, with every extant English and Italian version out there in mono only. Given the ramshackle nature of the sound mixing and editing here, it was probably a promotional ploy more than anything else. A new audio commentary by the always welcome Samm Deighan immediately attributes authorship of the film to D'Amato in the opening moments and spends the first half of the track laying out D'Amato's career and the challenges and charms of wading through the murky waters of late '80s Italian horror via bootleg releases and fan magazines. Halfway through things get more production specific as she goes into the directing credit issue and the strange evolution of this film's story, which began as a Lattanzi treatment involving a rock band and Nazi zombies but morphed into what we have now. In the featurette "Talons" (49m10s), Lattanzi gives a lengthy account of his experience in the industry from his time under Soavi through his extensive Filmirage experience on this and other films, including his own take on his writing and directing roles here. Then in "Birds of a Feather" (15m7s), sound recordist Larry Revenge offers an odd companion piece of sorts to his interviews on Doom Asylum and Corruption as he goes into his gigs in Europe working on sound versus his regular role as a director of photography, his own opinion about the primary director, and the plucky team effort mood at the company with a limited number of resources at hand. The English and Italian trailers are also included in HD.
Reviewed on October 3, 2020