Plot: you are what you eat… or what he puts into his sausages.
Lo strangolatore di Vienna (or The Strangler Of Vienna, released internationally as the more sensational sounding The Mad Butcher Of Vienna - or simply The Mad Butcher - and in North America as Meat Is Meat) is an Italian horror curio that isn’t as talked about as much as it probably deserves. Despite being headlined by American character actor Victor Buono, Euroshlock pillar Brad Harris, and the lesser of the Linder twins this remains something of a relative obscurity. Perhaps because it wasn’t directed by one of the more colorful exploitation greats of the era… or because it never ascends beyond being a mere sum of its parts. Regardless of its place in the pantheon of Italian horror The Mad Butcher Of Vienna truly offers the best of both worlds as it combines Italian insanity with German-Austrian gemütlichkeit. Jawohl, Liebe Freunde – this one has something for everyone: slapstick, nudity, and gore.
The Mad Butcher Of Vienna is another in a long line of movies based on (or taking inspiration from) the hideous crimes of Ed Gein or the Butcher of Plainfield in the same way that Psycho (1960) from more than a decade before and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and Deranged (1974) would do three years later. For Buono this wasn’t even the first time he had played this sort of role with maniacal glee. In fact he had played the role of Albert DeSalvo (or the Boston Strangler) in the biopic The Strangler (1964). His role here is largely similar but obviously more comedic. With some minor adjustments this is the sort of role that could have been played by Lando Buzzanca or Lino Banfi. To make everything even better, The Mad Butcher Of Vienna was contemporaneous to the then-ongoing (and still unsolved) Fritz Honka murder case. Honka would kill four prostitutes in Hamburg’s red light district between 1971 and 1974. A fire in his apartment building in the second half of 1975 eventually led to the discovery of the multiple decomposed bodies scattered around the apartment. Herr Honka was quickly caught, tried, and sentenced. While The Strangler (1964) was a serious examination of a serial killer The Mad Butcher Of Vienna has no intention of ever being serious. What is this if not a darkly humourous (and very Italian take) on the drive-in classic The Undertaker and His Pals (1966) or a semi-comedic riff on the first half of Ted V. Mikels' equally demented The Corpse Grinders (1971)? “Buono appetito,” indeed!
After having been institutionalized for three years butcher Otto Lehman (Victor Buono) is released into the care of his estranged wife Hanna (Karin Field, as Karen Field). Otto's brother-in-law Karl Brunner (Luca Sportelli, as Carl Stearns) has stewarded his business since his incarceration in the mental ward and Otto finds the place not up to his liking and specifications. Lehman plans to uphold his reputation as, “the best butcher in Vienna.” Otto worships fine meat. Whether that is the meat he cuts in his shop or his next door neighbor Berta Hensel (Franca Polesello). His wife Hanna is more concerned with keeping up appearances and Otto’s morbid obesity and after being harangued for the umpteenth time in a moment of frustration he strangles her. Now having to dispose of a body Lehman decides that the best place for Hanna to go is into his grinder and as filling in his world-famous bratwurst und knackwurst. Otto is interrogated by Inspector Klaus (Dario Michaelis) but he considers him not a person of interest. There being no body, evidence nor witnesses to interview the Inspector sees it as a pretty clear open-and-shut case and Lehman is free to go. Mike Lawrence (Brad Harris) is a reporter who has been following up on the sudden disappearance and he has taken to staking out the butchery. Meanwhile, Karl has become involved in an affair with prostitute Frieda Ulm (Hansi Linder) and Mike makes advances towards Berta. When Berta suddenly finds herself unemployed, without a roof over her head Otto offers her a place to stay until she gets on her feet. One day Mike discovers a ring among the sausages and meatproducts he connects the dot between Otto’s release, Hanna’s mysterious disappearance, and Berta vanishing into thin ear near the butcher shop. Will it be enough and will he be able to stop Otto?
The star here is Academy Award and Golden Globe Award nominee Victor Buono and his career was clearly on the downslope. Buono had a small (uncredited) role in The Guns of Navarone (1961) and rose to prominence with the Robert Aldrich thrillers What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) and Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) (where he starred opposite of Hollywood Golden Age leading ladies Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in the former and Davis and Olivia de Havilland in the latter). From there he parlayed his fame into a television career and, among others, was villain King Tut in the Batman (1966–1968) series. Spaghetti western fans might recognize him from the Bud Spencer and Terence Hill western Boot Hill (1969). His most famous role was probably as one of the Telepaths in Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970). A year later he was in the rare giallo The Man With Icy Eyes (1971) (with Barbara Bouchet).
Brad Harris was another American actor who found steady employment in Europe and he commuted a lot between German and Italy. In Italy he was a regular in peplum and spaghetti western appearing in, among others, The Fury Of Hercules (1962), the James Bond imitation Our Man In Jamaica (1965), The Warm Nights of Poppea (1969), The Kommissar X films of the 1970s, The British Freaks! (1932) ripoff The Mutations (1974), the giallo The Girl In Room 2A (1974), the gothic horror spoof Lady Dracula (1977), the il sadiconazista The Beast In Heat (1977), and Luigi Cozzi’s Hercules (1983). Hansi Linder was the older sister of Miss Austria 1962 Christa Linder and while the Linder twins briefly were a flash in the pan of Euroshlock both didn’t have much a career worth remembering. Karin Field was a regular in German exploitation and is mostly known around these parts for the feelgood Heimatfilm Heintje - Ein Herz geht auf Reisen (1969) (with Dutch heartthrob and then-teen crooner Hein Simons) and the Jesús Franco nunsploitationer The Demons (1973). Two Americans, two Germans, and some Italians. It could be the beginning of a very unfunny joke.
And what about director Guido Zurli? Well, of all the colorful and flamboyant exploitation creatives that Italy housed back in the wicked and wild 1970 he’s easily the least remarkable. The most charitable thing to say about his modest filmography is to describe it as disposable. He made one or two spaghetti westerns, a Zorro ripoff, a few Eurospy romps (of which the Bond imitation Mister Ten Percent - Kitties and Money (1968) is probably the best), The Virgin Of Bali (1972) and even an underwhelming poliziottesco called Target (1979). For whatever reason Zurli’s latter day effort all seem to be Turkish co-productions. Then there’s the sex comedy The Boy In Bed (1980) about which Gabriella Giorgelli was probably the best thing. As the swansong effort for director of photography Augusto Tiezzi it’s clear that his heart wasn’t in it anymore. Tiezzi is known around these parts for the jungle goddess romps Gungala, Virgin Of the Jungle (1967) (with Kitty Swan) and Samoa, Queen Of the Jungle (1968) (with Edwige Fenech). The best way to describe The Mad Butcher Of Vienna (by far Zurli’s most, and only, well-remembered feature) is routinous and, well, a bit flat.
While The Mad Butcher Of Vienna is hardly bad it isn’t exactly oozing with style. It’s decent enough but Zurli doesn’t have a figment of visual flair and swagger to make this stand out from the competition in both his native Italy and Germany. If it weren’t for Victor Buono nobody would be talking about The Mad Butcher Of Vienna today. Which is a bit puzzling because it certainly was in time for the surge in North American and British terror and suspense movies at the dawn of the 1970s. Perhaps this would have benefitted from a German director offer their perspective on what in the end is a fairly standard proto-slasher model. While this is typically described as a horror comedy this is neither scary nor gory. Rather it lacks the kitsch of a German production of this time, and it severe lacks in the style and sleaze that characterize the best Italian productions from this decade. Not that The Mad Butcher Of Vienna isn’t crazy, it’s just not as insane as it probably could have been. Imagine what Walter Boos, Erwin C. Dietrich, or even Franz Josef Gottlieb could have done with this had it played up to German cultural sensibilities more than the Italian.