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SHOCK FESTIVAL
By STEPHEN ROMANO (IDW; 2008)

Here’s a publication that’s been praised by seemingly everybody who’s read it, and with good reason. I’ll confess I was hoping to author the book’s first-ever bad review, but was immediately won over by SHOCK FESTIVAL, a veritable gift to film nerds everywhere.

     The book, a large format hardcover, documents the making and reception of 101 nonexistent grindhouse flicks from the 1970s and 80s. The style and layout are very much in the mold of such publications as RE/Search’s INCREDIBLY STRANGE FILMS, Kim Newman’s NIGHTMARE MOVIES, Jonathan Ross’ INCREDIBLY STRANGE FILM BOOK, Steven Puchalski’s SLIMETIME, Pete Tombs’ MONDO MACABRO, Bill Landis’ SLEAZOID EXPRESS, Stephen Thrower’s NIGHTMARE USA, etc. You might say the subject of exploitation cinema is officially done to death, which is a large part of what makes SHOCK FESTIVAL such a welcome addition: the movies it covers truly haven’t been seen before--by anybody!

     Stephen Romano takes his fictional saga even farther than I would have expected, with a plethora of photos of the filmmakers and actors profiled, and a wealth of multi-lingual poster art for films like LITTLE SISTER’S FACELESS NIGHTMARE, DAY OF THE INSECTS, MANGLED and THE UNDERGROUND TOXIC WASTE MUTANTS. Romano largely illustrated the book himself, and has a real talent--genius, even--for capturing the sleazy glitz of trash movie promo art, complete with outrageously hyperbolic taglines (“Fast Cars. Fast Women. Fast Everything,” “The Terror Begins…After You Stop Screaming,” “She’s Got A Gun! And You Better Run!”). And Romano doesn’t stop there, creating similarly convincing soundtrack and novelization covers.

     Yet another angle is added by the mixture of real history with Romano’s imagined one. Actual movies like JAWS, STAR WARS and THE TERMINATOR are referenced, blurring the lines between reality and fiction, while the overall timeline, stretching from the drive-in culture of the early seventies to the video revolution of the eighties, is historically accurate. So too the various niches covered, including regional gore fests, porn, blaxploitation, adult animation, dubbed Italian and Asian imports, CHARIOTS OF THE GODS-esque faux-documentaries, no-budget STAR WARS knock-offs and retro sword-and-sandal pics.

     For this and other reasons the book is probably best appreciated by readers with a working knowledge of grindhouse cinema. It’s filled with knowing winks that will only be spotted by savvy genre fans (i.e. the moniker “Jack Martin” that appears on many of the novelizations pictured). But then again, I think anyone can appreciate the exploits of the characters described in these pages, who are admittedly a tad more interesting and outrageous than their real-life counterpoints, but not by much!

     There’s Natalaya Ustinov (portrayed by HELLRAISER’S gorgeous Ashley Laurence), a Russian ingénue turned international sex kitten in such gems as THE BIMBO (“She’s dumb…but so what?”) and MISTY BLAZER BEHIND THE IRON CURTAIN; Darby Silver, an Australian madman who directs a succession of depraved psycho fests before enacting his gruesome scenarios for real by hacking up his wife (FYI, Silver is English for Argento); Jayne Juanita Chance, a ruthless actress/producer who crosses paths at some point with nearly all the characters herein; Elliot Swann, a tough-guy actor who finds success playing a woman in the revenge saga MOLLY’S MACHINE and its sequels SHE’S MY MACHINE and MACHINE MUST DIE; and Tommy Ray Rudy, an ex Black Panther who spends the seventies and much of the eighties attempting to mount a black empowerment sci fi epic called N.I.G.G.E.R. (Nuclear Implanted Gyro-Genetically-Engineered Robot).

     Stephen Romano has written other books (the BLACK DEVIL DOLL novelization, SAFE IN THE WOODS), scripted graphic novels (THE BEYOND, THE GATES OF HELL) and designed DVD covers (MURDER LOVES KILLERS TOO, THE BLACK WATERS OF ECHO’S POND, etc). However, I strongly feel it’s SHOCK FESTIVAL that he’ll be remembered for, it being among the most impressive feats of sustained imagination I’ve encountered in quite some time, if not ever. 

     

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