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Plot: criminals and hostages end up in bar somewhere on the Mexican border….

There’s no contesting that the ‘90s were pretty dark and abysmal time for the horror genre. Much of it had devolved into thrillers, self-aware or otherwise, on the one hand and comedy on the other. Hollywood had attempted to revive the classic gothic with Frankenstein Unbound (1990), Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) and Interview With the Vampire (1994) and Wes Craven’s Scream (1996) had resurrected (but not necessarily improved) the tired and tiring slasher for an entire new generation. Mexico always had been a steady haven for horror and earned its place in cult cinema history thanks to a handful of titles in the golden age. Who better to bring the Mexican spirit to America than the country’s promising export with the help from Hollywood’s hottest young new talent? From Dusk Till Dawn, or one of the best horror films of the ‘90s, may not reinvent the wheel but it puts a fresh spin on an old formula. What more could you possibly want? Occasionally the Hollywood machine gets something right.

What was From Dusk Till Dawn if not two friends getting together and throwing one hell of a kegger? These two friends just happened to be Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino. As the legend goes, Tarantino had offered the script to special effects man Robert Kurtzman to direct but he declined. This prompted Tarantino to hand it to Rodriguez and he gladly accepted. Kurtzman in turn lend his talents to the effects with his Kurtzman, Nicotero & Berger EFX Group. The time was right. Rodriguez had just legitimized himself in the face of the Hollywood bigwigs, first by making El Mariachi (1992) by the skin of his teeth on a very modest budget of $7,000 and he had admirably evinced that he could handle a sizable budget with the remake Desperado (1995) the year before. Presumably something of a diversion in between serious projects Rodriguez and Tarantino threw this curveball in between Desperado (1995) and The Faculty (1998) as well as the 1970s crime epic valentine Pulp Fiction (1994) and the blaxploitation tribute Jackie Brown (1997), respectively. Not only was From Dusk Till Dawn Tarantino’s first paid writing gig (he also executive produced and acted to help his friend Rob out), it’s also somewhat of an anomaly in the filmographies of both as Tarantino and Rodriguez haven’t made a horror before or since. A decade later both would reunite for Grindhouse (2007) but that was more of a valentine to ‘60s/’70s drive-in exploitation rather than a straight-up horror. Eli Roth has done more for exploitation horror than Rodriguez or Tarantino ever did. All quabbles and reservations aside, the spirit of Juan López Moctezuma proudly lives on in From Dusk Till Dawn.

After robbing a bank in Kansas and escaping jail, Seth Gecko (George Clooney) and his slightly psychotic and deeply unwell brother Richard (Quentin Tarantino) hold up Benny's World of Liquor where they add store clerk Pete Bottoms (John Hawkes) and Texas Ranger Earl McGraw (Michael Parks) to their ever-growing list of casualties. The two are pursued by FBI Agent Stanley Chase (John Saxon) and after leaving the liquor store in flaming ruin the two head to the Mexican border with their hostage bank teller Gloria Hill (Brenda Hillhouse) in tow. They pull in at the Dew Drop Motel in Texas where they bump into the Fuller family. Jacob (Harvey Keitel) has taken his adopted son Scott (Ernest Liu) and daughter Kate (Juliette Lewis) on a vacation. Jacob is a minister in the midst of a crisis of faith after the death of his wife. Seth and Richie commandeer Jacob's RV to smuggle them across the border at gunpoint and order to take them to their rendez-vous. The minister is to take them to the Titty Twister bar where the brothers will meet their contact Carlos (Cheech Marin) at dawn providing them shelter at El Rey. Carlos figures that a bar doubling as a stripclub/brothel will offer all the necessary entertainment.

The Titty Twister proudly exclaims to be open from “dusk till dawn” and if Chet Pussy (Cheech Marin) is to be believed they have every kind of girl for every kind of customer. The intrepid gang first meet resistance from bartender Razor Charlie (Danny Trejo) who insists that they don’t fit their strict “bikers and truckers only” policy. Jacob is able to negotiate their entry on a technicality. Before long they are introduced to the bar’s main attraction, the devilishly beautiful Satánico Pandemónium (Salma Hayek) whose dance of seduction instantly beguiles and enslaves Richie. When the bar employees reveal themselves to be a reptilian breed of vampires known as culebra the group find allies in tough bikers Sex Machine (Tom Savini) and Frost (Fred Williamson). They are able to hold their own against the first wave, but the things have a nasty habit of resurrecting their previously claimed human victims. As the vampires re-emerge and start to claw down the group must stay alive to reach the liberating rays of daylight.

George Clooney had played a guest role on the CBS hospital sitcom E/R (1984) and just finished his 6-year run as Doug Ross on the NBC medical drama ER (1994-2009). About ten years before Clooney had been in the horror spoofs Return to Horror High (1987) and Return of the Killer Tomatoes! (1988). Juliette Lewis was the prerequisite Hollywood alternative chick. Her star was rising due to her roles in Cape Fear (1991), Natural Born Killers (1994), The Basketball Diaries (1995), and Strange Days (1995). Harvey Keitel was and is a living legend and has played many iconic roles. Keitel has worked with Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Jane Campion, and Abel Ferrara appearing in, among many others, Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), the comedy Mother, Jugs & Speed (1976), Reservoir Dogs (1992), Pulp Fiction (1994), Bad Lieutenant (1992), and The Piano (1993). To top things off, the all-star cast is anchored by pulp cinema pillars Fred Williamson, John Saxon and Tom Savini and Rodriguez regulars Cheech Marin and Danny Trejo. This being a Tarantino script every line Clooney (and every other main character, Fullers excepted) utters is filled with rapid-fire expletives and random profanity. And then there’s her, Salma Hayek.

Salma Hayek as Satánico Pandemónium

No coverage of From Dusk Till Dawn is complete without mentioning, obligatory or otherwise, Salma Hayek. Are we terribly dating ourselves by calling Salma a hot tamale? Hayek’s electrifying performance was a sure-shot to international superstardom, if her sizzling role as the love interest in Desperado (1995) hadn’t done so already. Only Laura Cerón from ER (1994-2009) came close to matching la Hayek. In these times before Eva Longoria, Ana Ortiz, and Selena Gomez; Hayek was Mexico’s biggest export.

What other way to describe Salma other than the best of Bella Cortez, Tina Romero, and Maribel Guardia, combined? Rodriguez obviously was keenly aware of the fact and has Hayek writhing and slithering around suggestively in nothing but a tiny burgundy bikini and feathery headdress while handling a large Albino Burmese Python Reticulus. Tarantino on the other hand uses the opportunity to indulge his well-known foot fetish. First, by ogling Lewis and getting down and dirty with Hayek. If Salma’s scorching dance routine doesn’t get your pulse racing you’re either dead, barren or both. In age-old Hollywood tradition the extras get topless but the main attraction doesn’t. Hayek has a scant few lines but delivers each and every of them with wide-eyed, lipsmacking glee. It makes you long for Ukrainian belly dancer Diana Bastet to re-enact (and expand) the Satánico Pandemónium routine with costume and all. Salma’s delectable shapes and forms turned heads a quarter century ago and continue to do so to this day. In a now legendary 2021 Red Table Talk interview the 55-year-old candidly admitted hers only gotten more sumptuous and bigger with age. As a woman of such enormously gigantic proportions, the price of beauty comes with all the expected physical ailments.

Regardless of how you might feel about Tarantino and his post-modern witticisms From Dusk Till Dawn remains a formidable genre exercise on its own merit. Whether it’s the heist/action of the first hour or the suvival/vampire horror of the last 48 minutes the shift remains as brilliantly executed, seamless in transition and unexpected as when it first premiered. For cult cinema lovers there’s a lot to see if you know where to look. Judging from Hayek’s sultry dance Rodriguez apparently has seen Black Eva (1976). The batscene was clearly inspired by Hammer’s The Kiss Of the Vampire (1963). Once the surviving vampire killers emerge they bear some semblance to those of Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter (1974). The vampires are modeled after the Deadites from Army Of Darkness (1992). Frost’s slaying and ultimate demise echoes one of the earlier Derek enemy kills in Bad Taste (1987).

Sex Machine transforms into a grotesque behemoth rat-vampire monstrosity similar to the rat-monkey in Peter Jackson’s Braindead (1992). Hayek’s transformation into her reptile culebra form pre-dates Mallika Sherawat’s in Hisss (2010) by almost fifteen years and neither for that matter does she vocalize only in hisses and moans. Chet Pussy’s often sampled and legendary pussy monologue remains priceless as ever, as does Chango beer and Sleaze tequila. Equally funny is when during the Titty Twister massacre Tito & Tarantula continue to play music on a severed torso and various body parts. The vampires’ demise by daylight is eerily similar to that of the Gremlins in Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990) or the shambling corpses in A Chinese Ghost Story (1987), you be the judge. Oh yeah, and where else are you going to see a dive bar/brothel built on a Aztec pyramid/temple consecrated to snake god Quetzalcóatl or Coatlicue? Nowhere, that’s where. It also helps that it’s exceptionally gory. It’s a wonder that Hollywood and the censors allowed it.

It wouldn’t be too far off to call From Dusk Till Dawn the Bad Taste (1987) or Evil Dead II (1987) of the nineties. Is it as crazy as some of Mexico’s best horror of yore? Hell, no but for a mainstream Hollywood production it’s more than a little quirky and even mildly insane. People with no cinematic literacy or knowledge still delude themselves into thinking Tarantino is some prodigious genius that reinvents cinema on the regular. Nothing could be further from the truth. There’s no denying Tarantino’s visual mastery, vast knowledge, witty writing and technical craft but every single thing he has ever done is taking the exploitation genre of his preference, and blowing it up with all the bells and whistles that come with a massive Hollywood budget. As these things tend to go From Dusk Till Dawn spawned a pair of direct-to-video follow-ups in the form of the unnecessary sequel From Dusk Till Dawn 2: Texas Blood Money (1999), the prequel From Dusk Till Dawn 3: The Hangman's Daughter (1999) as well as the series From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series (2014-2016). That most, if not all, couldn’t hold a candle to the original was, sadly, expected but at least they built and expanded upon the mythology and characters it established. As of this writing, it hasn’t been tarnished by a modern-day remake/reimagining – hopefully it will remain that way too.

Plot: businessman gets lost in the Yugoslavian wilds and encounters vampires.

The Night Of the Devils (or La notte dei diavoli back at home in Italy) is a minor entry in the continental European vampire horror canon at the dawn of the wicked and wild seventies. The basis for the screenplay was the 1884/1950 Aleksey Konstantinovich Tolstoy novel The Family of the Vourdalak. Mario Bava had first adapted it in the ‘I Wurdulak’ segment of his Black Sabbath (1963) and now almost ten years later it was time for a more contemporary adaptation. Overall it leans closer to the understated dread of Damiano Damiani's The Witch (1966) than to the psychotronic exuberance and excess of Jean Rollin, Mario Mercier, Luigi Batzella or Renato Polselli. In more recent years Tolstoy’s story was faithfully adapted in the Crimean gothic Vurdalaki (2017).

With credits dating all the way back to 1936 director Giorgio Ferroni was a dyed-in-the-wool craftsman who had a solid, if mostly undistinguished, career in Italian genre cinema. True to form he did everything from spaghetti westerns and poliziotteschi to comedies and documentaries. What he seemed to excel at, however, were peplum and horror on a budget. In that capacity he directed the atmospheric little gothic Mill of the Stone Women (1960) (an underseen and underrated Italian sub-classic) and a slew of entertaining pepla, including but not limited to, The Trojan Horse (1961), Conquest of Mycene (1963) (with Rosalba Neri) and The Lion Of Thebes (1964). His most prestigious and widely seen features were probably his liberal adaptation of Euripides' classic tragedy The Bacchantes (1961) and the World War II epic The Battle of El Alamein (1969). Amidst the vampire horror craze of the early 1970s he contributed the minimalistic, anachronistic and quiet The Night Of the Devils. Produced by Eduardo Manzanos and featuring an ensemble cast of Italian veterans as well as special effects from Carlo Rambaldi The Night Of the Devils would be Ferroni’s last horror outing before his death in 1981. Another minor classic is hardly the worst way to go out.

Yugoslavia, 1972. On his way to a business appointment Italian lumber importer Nicola (Gianni Garko) takes a dusty road through some particularly thick woods wrecking his 1967 Fiat 124 Sport Coupé as he tries to avoid crashing into a mysterious woman. Forced to look for help in these unhospitable environs he happens upon a family of eccentric woodcutters sequestered away in a 19th century tenement somewhere in darker bowels of the deep woods. When he spots the world-weary Ciuvelak clan they are in the process of burying the recently deceased brother of patriarch Gorka (William Vanders, as Bill Vanders). As Nicola asks Gorka whether there’s any possibility of someone driving him to the nearest village for repairs the old man spouts an ominous warning about the woods not being safe whenever night falls. Gorka invites Nicola to stay overnight at the family homestead and continue his journey home the following day. In short order he meets Gorka’s wife Elena (Teresa Gimpera), eldest son Jovan (Roberto Maldera, as Mark Roberts), daughter Sdenka (Agostina Belli) as well as his cousins Irina (Cinzia De Carolis) and Mira (Sabrina Tamborra). The next morning Jovan commences repairs on Nicola’s car as Gorka announces that he’s going to hunt down the “living dead” witch (Maria Monti) that supposedly haunts the woods and has cursed the Ciuvelak clan with an unspecified malady. If he doesn’t return that same evening at 6 o’clock sharp they are to kill him with no questions asked.

That night Gorka does return to the homestead and comes bearing a severed hand as evidence for his slaying of the witch. As the hours pass Sdenka insinuates herself into Nicola’s chambers and Gorka spirits little Irina away into the blackness of night. The strangeness becomes almost too much to bear when Nicola is witness to Irina returning as one of the living dead and Jovan is forced to drive a stake through Gorka’s heart. As one by one members of the Ciuvelak fall victim to the curse of the living dead Nicola soon finds himself in a fight for life and limb as the clan descends upon the homestead. Bloodied and bewildered he manages to escape within an inch of life and somehow he’s able to navigate the woods. Exhausted from his ordeal Nicola passes out near an idyllic stream. He’s brought to the local mental ward where he’s examined by doctor Tosi (Umberto Raho) and before long law enforcement in the form of officer Kovacic (Renato Turi) wants to interrogate the vagrant in expensive attire. The physician informs the inspector that the man spends his nights peering out of the window, “looking into the darkness like a scared, cornered animal.” Shortly thereafter a beautiful woman introduces herself claiming she knows the wealthy foreigner. As the doctor takes the woman to see the man, he flees from his room in abject horror.

Ferroni managed to assemble quite the cast for this atmospheric little horror ditty. First and foremost, there’s peplum and spaghetti western veteran Gianni Garko. Garko was a mainstay in Italian pulp cinema that somehow always remained somewhat of a second-stringer. His credits, among many others, include the giallo The Flower with the Deadly Sting (1973), The Psychic (1977) as well as the German sex comedies Three Swedish Girls in Upper Bavaria (1977) and Summer Night Fever (1978). The lowest he had to go was with Alfonso Brescia’s craptacular space opera Star Odyssey (1979) and bounced back with Luigi Cozzi’s space peplum Hercules (1983). The other monument here is Umberto Raho. Raho was a pillar of peplum, spaghetti western and Eurospy. Raho had acted alongside two of Britains greatest imports. First with Barbara Steele in The Ghost (1963), Castle Of Blood (1964) and The Long Hair of Death (1965) and in between with Vincent Price in The Last Man on Earth (1964). Towards the end of the decade he acted alongside unsung Polish import Magda Konopka in the fumetti Satanik (1968). He was in the giallo The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) from Dario Argento as well as Amuck (1972) from Silvio Amadio. Other noteworthy appearances include, among others, The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave (1971) (with Erika Blanc) and the slightly deranged The Exorcist (1973) imitation Enter the Devil (1974) (with Lucretia Love and Stella Carnacina) from Mario Gariazzo.

Agostina Belli was one of the classic redhead belles that effortlessly alternated between mainstream fare, comedies and horror. As such she could be seen in the sugary sweet Romina Power-Al Bano musicarello period piece Symphony Of Love (1970), the horror Scream of the Demon Lover (1970), the giallo The Fifth Cord (1971), the Lucio Fulci sex comedy The Senator Likes Women (1972), Scent Of A Woman (1974) (the American remake with Al Pacino, Chris O’Donnell and Gabrielle Anwar from 1992 was as soulless as it was unnecessary – but, god forbid, if the average American has to read subtitles on an import), The Career of a Chambermaid (1976), the amiable The Omen (1976) imitation Holocaust 2000 (1977), the period piece Manaos (1979) as well as the comedies Dear Wife (1982) and Go Ahead You That Makes Me Laugh (1982). Her strangest outing was perhaps the E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) imitation The Brother from Space (1988) from the specialist in such things, Mario Gariazzo. The other illuminating presence is Teresa Gimpera, a reliable pillar in continental European pulp, who could be seen in Night of the Scorpion (1972), the gothic horror Crypt Of the Living Dead (1972), the Alfonso Brescia giallo Naked Girl Murdered in the Park (1972), the sex comedy Healthy Married Life (1974) and León Klimovsky's illicit The Last Man on Earth (1964) remake The People Who Own the Dark (1976).

What this most closely resembles are the two Mario Mercier features Erotic Witchcraft (1972) and A Woman Possessed (1975) as well as the American fantastique Blood Sabbath (1972) (with Dyanne Thorne, Susan Damante and amply endowed Swedish softcore porn star and sometime Russ Meyer muse Uschi Digard). Ferroni understands, perhaps better than anyone else, that less is always more. For this atmospheric, gothic-tinged horror he and director of photography Manuel Berenguer make full use of the sylvan location and the arboreal surroundings. It’s not a big leap from here to the naturalistic environs in which Jean Rollin frequently dabbled or something like Seven Women For Satan (1974) from Michel Lemoine. What little money there was, was obviously spent where it mattered. One year later León Klimovsky would use a similar premise for his The Vampires Night Orgy (1973), except there an entire town of vampires descended upon a travelling couple thrown together by circumstance. Amidst the deluge of gothic horror revivals, The Night Of the Devils was a sobering earthy and grounded affair with none of the supernatural overtones that more or less were the standard of the day. Instead it uses a sprawling natural environment to utmost effect and electrifying performances from Garko and Belli heighten the experience.

While arguably 1973 was the banner year for Italian gothic horror, 2022 marks the 50th anniversary of this little talked about slice of Italian gothic pulp. For an Italian production it comes off as either very French or British, depending on your preference. If you’re looking for a low-key production that’s overflowing with atmosphere and not some extravagant special effects spectacle as, say, The Devil’s Wedding Night (1973) (with Rosalba Neri) or The Dracula Saga (1973) (with Helga Liné, Betsabé Ruiz and Cristina Suriani), The Night Of the Devils will be right up your alley. What Night Of the Damned (1971) was to the giallo and what The Witches Mountain (1973) was to the Spanish fantastique and witchcraft horror, this is to the Italian gothic. This is a wonderfully understated feature that banks heavily on its natural surroundings to sell what otherwise is a patently ridiculous premise on its face. Just like Mill of the Stone Women (1960) twelve years earlier The Night Of the Devils is a boundlessly atmospheric and creaky gothic that manages to push all the right buttons and is custodian to exemplary performances from Gianni Garko and Agostina Belli. With the benefit of several decades of hindsight it’s near criminal that Giorgio Ferroni has gone down in history as a reliable but underappreciated second-stringer.