Color, 2009, 107m.
Directed by Mladen Djordjevic
Starring Mihajlo Jovanovic, Ana Acimovic, Predrag Damnjanovic, Radivoj Knezevic
Synapse (Blu-Ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC), Monster (Australia R4 PAL), Njuta (Scandinavia R2 PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)

The Life and Death of a Porno GangThe jury seems to still be out determing whether horror films coming out of Serbia are something to be embraced or condemned (or both), thanks in no small part to a pair of instantly notorious films made within a one-year period between 2009 and 2010. The most famous among the cult film crowd remains A Serbian Film, which crosses a particularly huge taboo that's ensured it will probably never get an uncut release in numerous countries, but it has some tough competition from The Life and Death of a Porno The Life and Death of a Porno GangGang. Despite the title, this isn't a smut film by a long shot despite some strong, distinctly anti-erotic sexuality. Instead this is a harsh, despairing, but weirdly romantic portrait of a culture suffering from a particularly severe case of moral rot in which its outsiders are thrown out like trash, creating a breeding ground combining financial desperation and a demand for increasingly extreme entertainment. This isn't a rollicking drive-in film by a long shot, but if you have a strong stomach and want to see how films can still push the envelope way past the breaking point, take a look at this one.

Fresh out of film school, Marko (Jovanovic) wants to express an artistic vision on film and decides the best way to realize his ambitions would be to take money from a porn producer. However, the ensuing feature -- a drug-added zombie sex flick -- doesn't go over so well, leaving him and his eccentric band of performers out in the cold. They decide to take their act on the road in a graffiti-covered van to the country's numerous villages, performing a variety of colorful carnal scenarios for the entertainment of the locals. However, when they take things a step too far once again, they incur the wrath of their audience but also get the attention of a photojournThe Life and Death of a Porno Gangalist and aspiring producer who offers them a unique proposal. For much more cash, they can produce snuff films using willing participants who want to die anyway (for various reasons elaborated on via increasingly wrenching stories told before their demise). As you might expect, this doesn't turn out to be such a great idea.

The ghosts of recent traumas ranging from warfare to radiation contamination linger heavily throughout this film, which uses often outrageous content to drive home a point about the sad nature of a community in which young people are driven to self-destructive lengths to prove their lives have any worth. Perhaps because its message is far clearer than A Serbian Film (or perhaps because it doesn't involve any babies), this one has had far fewer legal issues since its release dThe Life and Death of a Porno Gangespite the combination of often harrowing gore effects (including scenes involving a severed head used as a soccer ball and a nasty bit of straight razor self abuse) and decidedly unappetizing sex, including an ironic gang bang scene and a mercifully very unconvincing gag involving a farm animal (which at least isn't far from what we've sees in Jackass). The real shock value here lies in the trajectory of the story, which unpredictably shifts tone several times on its way to the haunting finale, whose general outcome might be obvious but whose execution packs a healthy wallop.

Director Mladen Djordjevic made this film four years after Made in Serbia, a documentary exploring the lives of four local porn performers framed in a staged(?) story about a director looking in the dark corners of the industry for his ex-girlfriend. The connection between the two films is fairly obvious (especially the anecdotal pre-snuff scenes in Porno Gang, which wouldn't have been too out of place in the earlier film). Both also contains brief injections of hardcore footage, though it's definitely not intended to turn on the viewer considering the fact that it involves either distant footage on TV monitors or seedy couplings on dirty couches by local prostitutes. Made in Serbia was essentially a co-written venture between Djordjevic and local extreme TV host and writer Nenad Bekvalac, a colleague of A Serbian Film screenwriter Aleksandar Radivojevic (and who jarringly jumps in on the action at one point in the film). The end result is definitely not family safe either, but it's a much less caustic experience in the end despite its greater proximity to reality.

Both films are included in Synapse's uncut American release, available on both Blu-Ray and DVD. The Life and Death of a Porno Gang will never come close to looking pretty simply by virtue of the way it was shot, a combination of HD video and 16mm that's intentionally rough around the edges and often blown out. That said, the Synapse transfer appears to represent it about as accurately as possible; it's intentionally soft for much of the running time, but colors appear to be strong and accurate while compression issues aren't a factor at all. The lossless audio doesn't have to strain too hard given the limited nature of the original audio recording; it's also a solid and accurate representation.

Made in Serbia is a lot dicier, and the opening disclaimer explains that the film was assembled from a variety of video formats and is presented in the condition supplied by the director. It looks like the entire thing was shot and edited in standard def, so the standard 480p presentation here is about as good as it's going to get. There's really nothing visually attractive about it in the first place, so be prepared for lots of DV-related issues like motion blurring, erratic detail, and very inconsistent lighting. Yeah, it's all barely above an old YouTube video in aesthetic terms, but it's great to have this included for context. It's a fine companion piece if you know what you're getting into. Other extras include the theatrical trailer, a pretty tame featurette most interesting for shots of the cast members and crew lounging around and prepping for some of the stage acts in the film, and a selection of extended and deleted scenes including more of Marko's film project. Definitely not a disc you'll want to break out at your next family reunion, but among the recent wave of no-holds-barred shock films, this is easily one of the best.

Reviewed on August 14, 2012.