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RABID DOGS

One of the final films directed by Italy’s great Mario Bava, and certainly his most radical and unprecedented work.  Bava was known for stage-bound fantasy-tinged horror fests, whereas RABID DOGS is a gritty suspense thriller shot entirely on location.  The film was never completed during Bava’s lifetime, but was painstakingly reassembled in 1996--and again in 2002. 

The Package 
     RABID DOGS (CANI ARRABBIATI; 1974) was intended as an apparent career shift for Mario Bava, who since the release of BLACK SUNDAY at the beginning of the sixties made a number of subtle and atmospheric fright films: BLACK SABBATH, BLOOD AND BLACK LACE, THE WHIP AND THE BODY, PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES and many others.  But in the early seventies Bava’s films turned increasingly violent and nihilistic, starting with HATCHET FOR A HONEYMOON (1970) and BAY OF BLOOD (1971).  The present film was the apotheosis of this new trend in Bava’s work, as well as one of the most darkest, most claustrophobic Italian films of the decade.
     RABID DOGS also had the dubious distinction of being its creator’s biggest disaster.  After a tumultuous summer shoot that many cast members claimed was the most difficult they’d ever endured, the budget was scuttled after one of the film’s major financiers was unexpectedly killed.  Bava at that point had completed a work print, and a music score was written by giallo specialist Stelvio Cipriani, but that was as far as the film went.  It wasn’t until the mid nineties, when, with the help of the female lead Lea Lander, the footage was recovered and pieced together based on Bava’s work print and editing notes (a new prologue was also filmed, based on a scene Bava never got a chance to shoot).  It was released as the world’s first-ever DVD exclusive by Lucertola Media back in 1996, and is now officially out of print.
     Flash forward to 2002, when an apparently more definitive cut of the film was prepared by Bava’s son Lamberto, who tightened up the editing and shot several new scenes.  This new version was unimaginatively titled KIDNAPPED, and released on DVD by Anchor Bay (along with the RABID DOGS version) in 2007.  While I appreciate Lamberto’s efforts, I find his cut of the film far less potent than the other, which in any event had a far better title.

The Story
     A criminal sociopath named Doc has just committed a botched robbery together with his bungling accomplices Blade and Thirty-Two.  After a tense stand-off with police during which an innocent woman is killed, the three escape by hijacking a car driven by the mild mannered Riccardo.  The latter, it seems, is driving his sick child to a hospital, but is interrupted by Doc and his stooges, who demand that he drive them to their hideout in the Italian countryside.  To ensure his cooperation they grab Maria, an attractive young woman, off the street and keep her as a hostage.
     Thus six desperate people, packed into a sweltering car on an extremely hot day, set off across the countryside.  Their trip is interrupted and nearly halted by numerous unexpected incidents, including the attentions of an overly inquisitive toll collector, an escape attempt by Maria (she tells her captors she has to relieve herself and runs off--catching up to her, they force her to pee down her legs), the car running out of gas, a hitchhiking woman who picks the wrong vehicle to climb into, and the inevitable tensions between the three criminals, who find themselves increasingly at odds with one another.  Eventually the car reaches its destination, where some shocking violence erupts and an even more shocking twist is imminent.

The Direction
     RABID DOGS is arguably one of the sweatiest, most claustrophobic films of all time, with much unflinching brutality and a relentlessly doom-laden narrative that puts it in the company of nihilistic early seventies classics like THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT.  It’s also one of Mario Bava’s foremost technical achievements, with the action taking place almost entirely in a single car stuffed with sweaty people.  Bava manages to sustain a remarkable amount of tension over the film’s 96-minute running time, and his visual mastery is fully evident in the dynamic compositions.  The gritty and realistic aesthetic was a far cry from Bava’s usual fare, but he took to it with all the skill and enthusiasm of a seasoned grindhouse veteran.
     The problems I have are all in the editing, which is choppy and inconsistent.  Bava was never given a chance to properly complete the film, which explains why the present version, pieced together after his death, feels like exactly what it is: a rough assemblage.  RABID DOGS is still essential viewing, flaws and all, being an opportunity to see one of the world’s greatest filmmakers taking one of his biggest risks...and pulling it off with considerable flair.
     As for the Lamberto Bava-prepared KIDNAPPED, it was supposed to have fixed the inconsistencies of RABID DOGS, but that’s not the case.  The pacing has been tightened up, but Lamberto punctuates the in-car drama with numerous cuts to the police inspectors in pursuit of the killers and helicopter searches for the fleeing car, which deflates the nail-biting claustrophobia so integral to the film.  Worst of all is the poorly shot footage of the mother of the sick boy in her home, lensed in 2001 by Lamberto, who inexplicably ends this new version with a lame freeze frame of the woman’s face. 
     I’m sorry, but RABID DOGS was the first version of this film to come to light and, unless Mario Bava happens to rise from the dead and reedit it himself, the definitive one.  Case closed.


Vital Statistics

RABID DOGS (CANI ARRABBIATI/SEMAFORO ROSSO/KIDNAPPED)
La Spera Cinematographica/Lucertola Media/Anchor Bay Entertainment 

Director: Mario Bava
Producer: Roberto Loyola
Screenplay: Alessandro Parenzo, Cesare Frugoni
Cinematography: Emilio Varriano, Mario Bava
Editing: Carlo Reali, Angelo Marzulio
Cast: Ricardo Cucciolla, Lea Lander, Maurice Poli, Luigi Montefiori, Aldo Caponi, Maria Fibbri, Luigi Guerra, Francesco Ferrini, Emilio Bonucci, Pino Manzari, Ettore Manni
 


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