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Plot: comrade Ivan will have you for breakfast… and today he’s very hungry.

Back in the Golden Age of exploitation the bootleg remake, imitation or sequel was an art form mastered almost exclusively by the Italians and the Filipino. In times like these it’s nigh on criminal that Russia is so hermetic and that so little of its cinema penetrates mainland Europe and North America. Never officially released outside of the homeland and now available to everyone thanks to the magic of YouTube (albeit without subtitles of any kind) D-Day (День Д or Den’ D back at home) is exactly what you think it is. This Crimean take on Commando (1985) has spawned a legend of its own. Never as over-the-top insane as Onna Ramboh (1991) nor as sexy and funny as Bring the Head of the Machine Gun Woman (2012) or as deliberately tongue-in-cheek and inherently self-aware as Commando Ninja (2018), D-Day is just big dumb Soviet fun. Here’s a good excuse as any to set aside your prejudices and assumptions about Russian cinema.

Never underestimate the little guy. The creative force behind D-Day is Crimean slab of professional beef and former boxer Mikhail Porechenkov (Михаил Пореченков). Inspired by the larger-than-life story and amiable personality of Austrian oak Arnold Schwarzenegger, it was the life-long dream of comrade Porechenkov to pay tribute to his uncontested cinematic hero. Porechenkov, always more Lou Ferrigno than Dave Bautista, rose to fame as FSB Agent Alexey Nikolayev on the series National Security Agent (1999–2005) and as Major Vitaliy Egorovich Krechetov on the miniseries Liquidation (2007). Porechenkov’s filmography runs gamut of genres and budgets, with military action and sports movies being a recurring theme. At some point it would become inevitable that comrade Porechenkov would want to direct his own. In summer 2007 that happened with D-Day which Porechenkov willed into existence on a modest budget of 5 million rubles (invested by Mikhail Grigoryevich Bolotin from machine building company Concern Tractor Plants – CTP), some actor friends and a lot of hard work in the Krasnodar Territory and Black Sea coast. And what better way than to reproduce Schwarzenegger’s iconic Commando (1985) almost verbatim some 23 years later and with some Soviet nationalist jingoism and patriotism? If you thought The Asylum and TomCat Films were the only bootleggers, think again.

Somewhere in the wilds of Mount Kholodilnik retired Airborne Major Ivan Vanya (Mikhail Porechenkov) lives a peaceful, secluded life of quiet contemplation with his precocious 10-year-old daughter Zhenya (Varvara Porechenkova). One day his life in his remote taiga hut close to nature is upset by the arrival of a formation of helicopters. From the vehicle disgorges Colonel Makarov (Boris Polunin) signaling that comrade Ivan’s days of peace and reclusion are over. Makarov informs comrade Ivan that somebody is systematically eliminating the former members of his old Spetsnaz blue beret squad. The Colonel leaves two guards at the premises but as soon as he has left the cabin is assaulted by the forces of former VDV paratrooper Oleg Pavlovich Filippov (Sergei Sosnovsky) and his insane underling Gelda (Bob Schrijber, as Bob Schreiber – with the voice of Vladimir Antonik). Filippov’s men kidnap Ivan’s daughter and he’s coerced by a group of insurgent nationalists led by the Estonian (Victor Verzhbitsky) to assassinate the president of Estonia for the crime of erecting a monument for a Soviet soldier in the center of Tallinn. In Vladivostok he’s put on a Tupolev Tu-154 by the sleazy Stasik (Mikhail Trukhin) and Urmas (Maxim Drozd). Instead he sneaks into the cargo bay, parachutes down and once back on the ground he strong-arms feisty flight attendant Aliya (Aleksandra Ursulyak) into helping him. In cahoots with the Estonian nationalists is a Japanese general (Mikhail Vozumi) who trades in illegal fishing in territorial waters, but dreams of nothing but returning the Kuril Islands to his native country. With only 10 hours until his flight touches down in Estonia and with no intentions of killing the electoral head of state comrade Ivan and Aliya vow to stop at nothing to rescue little Zhenya from Filippov and the quite insane Gelda.

In case it wasn’t clear from the above summary D-Day is pretty much a carbon copy of Commando (1985) with only the slightest tweaks to accommodate the times and place. Screenwriting duo and brothers Oleg and Vladimir Presnyakov re-enact all the classic set pieces (albeit smaller or slightly altered) and prerequisite one-liners but manage to make a few interesting choices along the way. While D-Day follows Commando (1985) quite slavishly (or faithfully, whichever you prefer) a few things stand out. First and foremost, why does a brick shithouse like Porechenkov parachute out of the plane? Is he admitting that he’s just as human as the rest of us? For shame, Mikhail. “Schwarzenegger would’ve jumped” remarks one astute bad guy acknowledging the patent absurdity of the entire scene. The flight attendant character is not played a minority demographic but rather a Soviet ice queen.

Aleksandra Ursulyak sports the Tatyana Vedeneyeva hairdo that was popular at the time. Instead of a shopping mall Ivan follows Stasik through a luxury water resort which at least is a valid excuse to put Ursulyak in a bikini. The hotel/warehouse scene is condensed and combined and the subsequent fight is disappointing as there are no torn down walls, impalements or busty Russian babes to gander. Apparently Russian equivalents to Ava Cadell such as Olga Fadeeva (Ольга Фадеева), Masha Dushkina or Karina Zvereva (Карина Зверева) were in short supply that week. After stocking up on an arsenal worth of arms Aliya doesn’t blow up a police vehicle with a bazooka (explosions cost rubles), Stasik is thrown off a construction site and not a bridge and Gelda closer resembles a tattooed and bald Udo Dirkschneider rather than Vernon Wells’ Freddy Mercury. Apparently sleazy grease ball Stasik is in the habit of constantly spouting vile jokes. Whereas Commando (1985) was a straightforward actioner the music in D-Day clearly plays up the comedic aspect, even though the actual comedy is fairly limited.

This leaves the question of why comrade Porechenkov inexplicably peters out in some crucial areas and during iconic moments yet otherwise went above and beyond in recreating Commando (1985) as faithfully as possible. It’s unbelievable how modest and restrained everything is. It’s instructive what kind of production D-Day is when Ivan pursues his enemies on a Ski-Doo snowmobile instead of a regular vehicle. Later he punches down the chair in Aliya’s car instead of simply tearing it out the way Schwarzenegger did. The fight with Urmas in the hotel is handled poorly and has none of the swagger of the corresponding Sunspot Motel brawl with Bill Duke. Ivan’s final confrontation with Gelda follows the contours of the original but replaces the lead pipe with a knife and the “let off some steam, Bennett” line with something befitting the demise. Notable is how D-Day whitewashes love interests and villains. In Commando (1985) Arius and Henriques were Latin American, Cindy the flight attendant was of Chinese-Cherokee descent and Bill Duke is an African American. In D-Day everybody is white for convenience’s sake. Who did they use in the “why do they call him Boy George?” scene and what was the punchline? Which is a good time as any to discuss how D-Day falters (not to mention, disappoints) in its single most important action set piece: the final massacre.

Whereas the hacienda massacre takes a good 10 minutes in Commando (1985) and unfolds in four distinct stages (landfall/gearing up, barracks, the shed, lawn and hacienda) with the lawn shootout as the ultimate crescendo. Here things go tits up pretty much from landfall onward. Those hoping to get a good glimpse of Porechenkov’s oiled up torso and biceps better look elsewhere because even Cross Mission (1988) did the “gearing up” scene better and more convincing. The barracks are blown up better than expected but it’s inexplicably preceded by a scene that sees comrade Ivan spinning around like a madman on a Ural 650 motorbike with sidecar. The actual massacre is rather brief and the bloodshed does not nearly possess the same zest and flow. Nor does it have the same peaks and valleys in terms of tension and release. The massacre never reaches the levels of gore of Commando (1985) and there’s no equivalent of the shed kill. Expect no impalements or extremities to be severed here. D-Day clearly steers clear of that sort of thing. The action is solid enough for what it is but there are no extended scenes of Ivan mowing down waves of goons. When Ivan does finally reach the fortified hacienda he kills Gelda first, another guy ends up in a big vat of red caviar for cheap and easy laughs and the Estonian is quite offhandedly killed as a pre-end credits joke. On the plus side, the “leave anything for us? Just bodies” joke remains funny in any language.

As a West European it’s difficult to gauge the talent Porechenkov has surrounded himself here. From the looks of it, it all seems very respectable. On the writing front there are brothers Oleg and Vladimir Presnyakov or the men behind the comedy Playing the Victim (2006), the horror Lost Seat (2018) and the Valeri Popenchenko (Валерий Попенченко) biography Mister Knockout (2022). Besides the usual stuntmen and bodybuilders there’s Alexandra Ursulyak (Александра Урсуляк), a regular on the Russian small and big screen as well as theater. She rose to prominence with the series Station (2006) and has remained very active as a stage actress for the Moscow Drama Theater. In more recent years Ursulyak could be seen on Dancing with the Stars (2016) and now a decade removed from this cinematic sewage as lawyer Alisa Filippova in A Good Wife (2018) or the Russian The Good Wife (2009-2016). Mikhail’s daughter Varvara Porechenkova (Варвара Пореченкова), a product of his marriage to Ekaterina Aleksandrovna, hasn’t acted since and accumulated quite the impressive academic – and professional resumé. Not only does she speak English, French, Dutch and Russian but in 2015-2018 she earned her BA, or Bachelor of Arts, in Theater producing from the Chekhov Moscow Art Theater. In 2016 then 18-year-old Varvara made national headlines with her posting of intimate photos with her boyfriend Georgy Demyanenko on social media. As recent as 2021 she holds a BS, or Bachelor of Science, in Communication and Media Studies from Erasmus University in Rotterdam. Varvara is currently employed as a CRM Marketing Intern for Bunq in Amsterdam, the Netherlands according to her LinkedIn profile. Mikhail Porechenkov is remembered around these parts for the demure gothic horror Vurdalaki (2017).

If there’s such a thing as Russian exploitation the question is how representative D-Day is of it. What does remain certain is that this is somewhat of an anomaly in Porechenkov’s otherwise solid filmography. In the decade-plus since Porechenkov has been slowly working his way up the food chain and carved a respectable career for himself on the big and the small screen in the homeland. That probably goes a long way in explaining why this was the only Soviet Schwarzenegger bootleg. For the lack of a better term, this was a vanity project, a labor of love on Porechenkov’s part. And it makes you wonder: is there a market on the fringes of Russian cinema for stuff like this? Sadly, comrade Mikhail never saw it fit to grace the world with Soviet bootlegs of other often imitated Arnie classics as The Terminator (1984) or Predator (1987). If Albert Pyun could do it in the nineties and Bruno Mattei in the late 1980s, what's stopping him? Whatever the case, D-Day is pulp of the finest sort – and comes recommended as such.

Plot: fair maiden is haunted by strange dreams and stranger occurrences.

There wouldn’t much of a global gothic horror industry, especially in continental Europe, if it weren’t for the British house of Hammer reimagining the old Universal horror monsters for the new times in the fifties and sixties. The Spanish language countries (Spain, México, the Philippines) as well as Italy took the gothic horror formula of Hammer Films and gave it a regional flavor all their own. Each country played up the genre to its cultural sensibilities/prejudices. While generally playing by the same rules and conventions there are distinct differences between continental European gothic horrors and their South/Latin American counterparts. Hammer’s influence was so strong that even Pakistan contributed to the genre in 1967 with Zinda Laash or Dracula In Pakistan (or alternatively The Living Corpse) as it became internationally. The Italian gothic horror ostensibly took after Riccardo Freda’s and Mario Bava’s I Vampiri (1957) and the Hammer production The Horror Of Dracula (1958). However, the tides of change were washing over Mediterranean gothic horror by the mid-sixties and interest in them was waning. To accomodate the changing tastes Terror In the Crypt upstaged the old formula with a hefty dose of implied lesbianism and witchcraft.

La cripta e l'incubo (or The Crypt and the Nightmare, released internationally as simply Terror In the Crypt and alternatively as Crypt Of the Vampire in North America) is an interesting case for an international co-production. Helmed by an Italian director and crew the two name stars of the feature were Spanish exploitation pillar Adriana Ambesi as well Hammer Films icon Christopher Lee. Lee would complete his detour into Italian gothic horror with Castle Of the Living Dead (1964) the same year. With a screenplay from Tonino Valerii (as Robert Bohr), Ernesto Gastaldi (as Julian Berry) and José Luis Monter Terror In the Crypt is a distinctly Italian affair. Joseph Sheridan LeFanu’s Carmilla has long been an inspiration for the gothic horror genre and frequently served as a foundation for many productions. The earliest adaptation was Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) and Roger Vadim’s Blood and Roses (1960). In the early seventies Hammer Films, then ailing and struggling to keep up with the changing times and tastes, used it for The Vampire Lovers (1970) and Lust for a Vampire (1971). Daughters Of Darkness (1971), The Velvet Vampire (1971) and The Blood Spattered Bride (1972) set the Carmilla story in then-contemporary times. Terror In the Crypt is distinct for being a more or less faithful adaptation of the famous 1872 LeFanu novel. While some of character names have been changed it covers most, if not all, major plotpoints and adds some Italian flair to it all. Filming at Castello Piccolomini in Balsorano, L'Aquila, Italy aided immensely too. As one of the country’s famous horror castles it would feature in Crimson Executioner (1965), Lady Frankenstein (1971), The Devil’s Wedding Night (1973), Black Magic Rites (1973) (or The Reincarnation Of Isabel as it’s more widely known), Sister Emanuelle (1977) and the infamous Andrea Bianchi romp Malabimba (1979). Half a decade before Adriana Ambesi steamed up the screen in Spain’s first vampire movie Fangs Of the Living Dead (1969), she experienced Terror In the Crypt.

In a grand castle amid a great vast forest in Styria lives lovelorn and lonely Laura Karnstein (Adriana Ambesi, as Audry Amber) with her affluent father Count Ludwig Karnstein (Christopher Lee, as Cristopher Lee), an aristocratic Briton widower retired from service to the Austrian Empire, and his nubile trophy wife Annette (Véra Valmont, as Vera Valmont). Laura has been suffering recurring nightmares wherein she sees family members coming to a gruesome end. Her most recent nightmares see the slaying of her cousin Tilda (Angela Minervini) and the dreams have Laura sufficiently startled. Looking after Laura’s well-being are maid Rowena (Nela Conjiu, as Nela Conjiú) and butler Cedric (José Villasante). Fearing that Laura might be possessed by the witch Scirra of Karnstein, who centuries ago cursed the Karnstein bloodline, Count Ludwig calls upon the services of historian Friedrich Klauss (José Campos). Klauss is tasked with reconstructing Scirra’s life and finding a portrait of her deep within the castle’s time-worn vaults.

One day a carriage accident brings Lyuba (Pier Anna Quaglia, as Ursula Davis) and her mother (Carla Calò, as Cicely Clayton) into the Karnstein household. The two girls immediately recognize each other from a dream and a strong bond grows between the two. The two grow inseperatable and Lyuba suggests they visit the ruins of the village of Karnstein. In the meantime housekeeper Rowena is revealed to be a practitioner of the black arts but she is brutally murdered before her spells and imprecations can accomplish anything. Count Ludwig and Friedrich continue their search for Scirra’s portrait and her tomb. The two eventually find the hidden portrait and are startled that Scirra bears a very strong likeness to young Lyuba. The search for Scirra’s coffin leads them to the discovery that Franz Karnstein (John Karlsen), Tilda’s griefstruck father, had been hiding in the castle bowels all this time. The three pry open Scirra’s tomb only to find Lyuba lying within instead. The three drive a stake through Lyuba’s heart lifting the age-old Karnstein curse and making Lyuba’s black carriage disappear just as Laura was about to board.

Along with fellow British expatriate Barbara Steele, Christopher Lee stayed employed in the fantastic – and horror cinema of continental Europe from the mid-to-late sixties. Steele famously became a royalty in Italian gothic horror. In her decade-long tenure Steele played in about a dozen of Italian productions, nine of which were horror. Lee, on the other hand, appeared only in about four. Also on hand is John Karlsen, later of Belgian arthouse vampire romp Daughters Of Darkness (1971). Adriana Ambesi was a regular in peplum, chorizo western and comedy. In her 14-year long career she ventured into horror a meager three times. Ambesi had crossed paths with Lee before in Giuseppe Veggezzi’s presumably-lost Katarsis (1963) and would do so again here. Towards the end of the decade she would play a supporting role in Amando de Ossorio’s gothic horror potboiler Fangs Of the Living Dead (1969) opposite of Anita Ekberg, Rosanna Yanni and Diana Lorys. Pier Anna Quaglia would star in that other Barbara Steele gothic An Angel For Satan (1966) as well as the jungle adventure Eve, the Wild Woman (1968), the comedy Alfredo Alfredo (1972) (with Dustin Hoffman and Stefania Sandrelli) and the giallo Reflections in Black (1975). Terror In the Crypt benefits tremendously from a portent, pompous score from Carlo Savina (as Herbert Buckman) who infuses it with copious amounts of theremin, clarinet, harp and ominous washes of organ. It’s something straight out of a fifties science fiction production. The “K” emblem from The Playgirls and the Vampire (1960) can also been seen and there’s a witch trial similar to that of Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (1960).

Compared to earlier gothic horrors of the sixties Terror In the Crypt is far more pronounced in its eroticism. Laura is initially paired up with Friedrich Klauss, but no chemistry to speak of develops between the two. It isn’t until Laura meets Lyuba that the obligatory romantic liaison with Klauss is discarded completely. It’s implied that Laura and Lyuba share a much deeper bond beyond that of an ordinary friendship. While bereft of any actual nudity Laura finds herself frequently sleepwalking and waking up topless in the castle chambers. Likewise does Lyuba sleep without a top on and although both Ambesi and Quaglia weren’t in the habit of flaunting their chests Terror In the Crypt is quite risqué for the time. A precedent with on-screen disrobing in Italian gothic horror was set with The Playgirls and the Vampire (1960) and Castle Of Blood (1964) that saw brief nude scenes from Maria Giovannini and Sylvia Sorrente, respectively.

In Terror In the Crypt Ambesi will always have her back to the camera and Quaglia is modestly covered by bedsheets which doesn’t change the fact that it is far more liberated in its portrayal of sexualty than Roberto Mauri’s The Slaughter Of the Vampires (1964). Where that movie hinged upon the bountiful decolettage of Graziella Granata here Ambesi and Quaglia each have a scene of implied nudity. Not only that, likewise it’s implied that Laura and Lyuba are engaged in a sapphic tryst. That Count Ludwig has a mistress young enoug to be his daughter with Annette almost a full decade before the pairing of Narciso Ibáñez Menta and Helga Liné in The Dracula Saga (1973) is at least prescient of where the genre was headed. It all sets the stage for the wicked and wild seventies when permissive attitudes allowed an increased focus on erotic tension between female characters and a greater amount of on-screen nudity.