Angelo Rosso: A Man of Terror

(Angelo Vittorio Rosso
b. June 17, 1940, Rome, Italy
d. March 13, 1989, New York, USA)

"Am I a boy who once dreamed of being a beast, or a beast now dreaming of being a boy?"
Beast Boy (1977)

Angelo Rosso is perhaps best remembered (at least by those few of us who know of him) for his delirious ghost story Dead House (1984).  This film was the culmination of a lifetime in film - a potential breakout work, if you will.  Luminaries as diverse as Lucio Fulci, Terry Gilliam and Martin Scorsese have citied the film as a benchmark in European horror cinema.
        Rosso made only five films before his premature death at the age of 49, but his legacy can be felt throughout the mainstream entertainment industry in a way that can be boasted of no other Italian horror director.  For an example of this, watch the current series of TV spots advertising a well-known soft drinks company, and note the similarity between the slouching toothy monsters seeking cold drinks in an arid desert to the titular Beast Boy in Rosso's stunning debut feature.  His talent was raw, rough-edged and uncompromising, but improving with every production.  He raised funding from whatever sources he could, and filmed whenever possible.  The results were often less than perfect, but showed enough flashes of brilliance to counteract Rosso's frequently boorish behaviour towards his long-suffering financers.
        Unusually, Rosso titled all of his films only in English, despite the dialogue being (mostly badly) dubbed into that language from Italian in post-production.  This radical (and rather regrettable) decision served only to further alienate him from an Italian film industry that he should have instead attempted to embrace.
        Rosso was a man who always had both eyes firmly on the American market, and his visual style reflected this.  Eschewing the traditional Neo-Gothic black magic setups of most Italian horror cinema of the time, Rosso preferred more modern and emotional character-driven pieces liberally spattered with scenes of intense gore.  Indeed, some of his films contain levels of violence that were considered obscene by many critics - who then used this as an excuse to dismiss his work at any serious critical level.
        After Rosso's first wife was murdered in 1978, he locked himself away to write the follow-up to his tragic fantasy Beast Boy (1977), emerging with an unremittingly savage giallo that would eventually see him branded as "sick" and "demented" by the conventional Italian film press.
        Viewed now, Any Few Will Do (1979) is a masterpiece of loss and regret: a horrific torch song sung by a grieving master.  Its strange protagonist, a hermaphroditic dwarf, is a direct projection of Rosso's damaged psyche at the time.  His method of killing - a barbed wife garotte - hideously reflects the way the battered body of Rosso's wife, the American soft porn actress Sheila Duvall, was unceremoniously wrapped in razor wire before being dumped in New York's Hudson river after a late night film shoot.  The film is a cry for help, a desperate plea for understanding from a shatterd man.
        After a gap of three years, during which his well-documented association with the Paris-based pseudo-religious cult Les Trois became public knowledge, Rosso burst back onto the scene with the lurid, ambitious and quite frankly incomprehensible The Dreams of Captain Cairo (1982).  This surreal head-trip, involving modern-day pirates in search of "the ultimate psychoactive drug experience" did nothing for Rosso's already dubious reputation. Audiences were baffled; critics had a field day to the point of the appearance of high-profile personal attacks on the emotionally exhausted director in several movie review magazines.
        This all led to the passionless work-for-hire job Rosso turned in for his next film, the execrable UK-produced zombie rip-off Zombie meat Feast (1983).  The less said about this film the better, especially regarding the ill-founded rumours that Rosso used real human corpses in several key scenes, and the involvement of suspected murderer and self-confessed Satanist Edward Van Day, with whom Rosso allegedly co-wrote the script.
        A year later the director finally came good.  Even his most severe critics could not damn the beautiful fever dream that is Dead House (1984).  Despite the cheap schlock-horror title, the film was an instant critical and commercial success, and was even in contention for the prestigious Palme d'Or prize at the Cannes Film Festival until the infamous episode on Rosso's yacht - a sexual misadventure which essentially ended his career - resulted in the film being struck from the list of potential nominees.
By  Gary McMahon