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A Heartbeat away from Hell: Vincent Price’s Italian Adventures

By Rob Talbot

A noted art dealer and gastronome, the great Vincent Price was never averse to a little expenses-paid trip to Italy, where he could pick up one or two new choice acquisitions and sample some of the local culinary delights. Possibly on the strength of his role as ‘Baka’ in Cecil B. Demille’s The Ten Commandments (1956), the actor was in 1961 jetted over to the land of pasta to participate in a pair of historical productions, namely Nefertiti, Queen of the Nile (Nefertiti, regina del Nilo) and Rage of the Buccaneers (Gordon, il pirata nera), and in the same year provided narration for a record included with the book A Colorslide Tour of Italy, by Darlene Geis, with whom he would later collaborate on A Treasury of Great Recipes (1965).

However, no doubt of more direct interest to most readers of Diabolique are two other productions that he was involved with in the sixties, as part of his long and phenomenally successful association with American International Pictures (AIP). AIP chief Samuel Z. Arkoff had struck a deal with Italian producer Fulvio Lucisano to co-produce and finance a number of films in the latter’s home country, with each holding distribution rights to the other’s films in their respective lands, often simultaneously shooting alternate versions or dubbing them in such a way to change the emphasis sufficiently to appeal their own domestic markets.

The first such co-production to involve Price was a film that English-speakers know best as The Last Man on Earth (completed in ’61, but only released in the US in 1964), filmed in Rome, with an Italian cast and crew, as L’ultimo uomo della Terra. The first film adaptation of Richard Matheson’s rightly revered 1954 novel I Am Legend sees a remarkably restrained and straight-faced performance from Price, who here has the task of completely carrying the film, often alone on screen. With no-one to interact with for several long stretches, the exposition is mostly relayed through Price’s voice-over. As he outlines his day-to-day lot as seeming sole survivor of a plague which has wiped out a large proportion of the population, leaving the remainder as vampires, Price certainly manages to convey the loneliness of such an existence. Each night, the shuffling, zombie-like vampires relentlessly hammer at his front door, calling his name; each day he sharpens stakes and scours the city for their lairs, executing as many as he can before quickly retreating to his boarded up, garlic strewn house before nightfall. He can never rest until every one of them is destroyed. ‘I can’t live a heartbeat away from hell,’ he explains.

Of course, other characters do appear, at first in an extended flashback to days ‘pre-plague’ and then later as the story develops. The rest of the cast are Italian actors, including Giacamo Rossi-Stuart, a spaghetti western and peplum regular best known to horror fans for his leading role in Bava’s Operazione paura (US: Kill, Baby, Kill! or Curse of the Dead, 1966), as Price’s former-friend-turned-lead-siege-zombie and Franca Bettoia (Duel of the Champions, 1961) as Ruth, dubbed by busy voice-over actress Carolyn De Fonseca. Fonseca’s career is almost a check-list of Italian exploitation, including Umberto Lenzi’s Spasmo (1974), Fulci’s New York Ripper (1982) and Joe D’Amato’s The Grim Reaper (Anthropophagus, 1980). Fortunately, the dubbing is just about well-executed enough in the US version to not detract from the overall effect.

Despite having co-written the screenplay and the film being, to this day, the most faithful adaptation his novel, Matheson was dissatisfied with the final product, its filming in Rome and, although Matheson was very fond of the actor, the casting of Price himself. It must be said that at 6 foot 4 Vincent was rather a hulking figure and as such positively towers over vampire-zombies, looking as though he could quite easily throw them around like so many rag dolls. However, his performance here is a sincere one without a hint of the tongue-in-cheek approach employed in so many others, and he does acquit himself extremely well in carrying the narrative almost single-handedly.

The film does suffer from its obvious low budget; from the slim pieces of balsa wood that board up Price’s windows to the relatively neat and tidy vision of the apocalypse seen out in the city’s streets, Rome masquerading as ‘Anytown, USA’. The direction, partly by American Sidney Salkow, and partly by Italian Ubaldo B.Ragona, is workmanlike and fails to exploit the full drama of Matheson’s situations. Salkow was an extremely prolific TV and film director (some might say a hack), who had worked with Price on the previous year’s Nathaniel Hawthorne portmanteau flick Twice Told Tales. Ragona would co-direct one more film in his career, From Woman to Woman to Woman (1966), with Edward Dein, director of The Leech Woman (1960). Full director credit went to each in their respective countries.

Despite its shortcomings, The Last Man on Earth has emerged as something of a classic; not just for being, as mentioned, the most faithful adaptation of Matheson’s work to date, but also for its visible influence on Night of the Living Dead (1968). George Romero has himself admitted that he ‘ripped off’ the story from the novel, and it’s hard not to think of his film when we see Price’s boarded-up house surrounded by the shambling living dead; the vampires are more fast-moving and intelligent in the novel. Thanks to the tampering with the story on subsequent effort The Omega Man (1971), in an effort to make it another Planet of the Apes for Charlton Heston, and the ‘screaming masculinity’ and schoolboy emphasis on gunplay of 2007’s I Am Legend, this low-budget polyglot production remains the best of the bunch. Will Smith shooting computer-generated mutants does not haunting science fiction make. We’re still waiting for a definitive film version of Matheson’s classic, and one suspects we always will be.

The next film that Price would make in Italy would be a markedly different kettle of fish. Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs (1966) started out life as a follow-up to madcap Sicilian comedy duo Franco Franchi and Ciccio Ingrassia’s Bond-spoofing domestic hit Due mafiosi contro Goldginger in the previous year. Huge in Italy, the pair’s sub-Benny Hill antics were seen in an incredible 114 films, several of which directed by none other than Lucio Fulci, back when screwball comedies were his calling card rather than horror and giallo thrillers. (Incidentally, one of the best of these comedies, The Maniacs (1964), also starred one Barbara Steele).

Over in the States, AIP had also spoofed Bond and Goldfinger with the Vincent Price-starring Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine in 1965. This was particularly successful in Italy, so Sam Arkoff and James Nicholson saw Lucisano’s upcoming project as the ideal opportunity for a penny-pinching co-production, jetting Price off to Rome to reprise his role as the Dick Dastardly-esque villain. An incredibly reluctant Mario Bava was roped in on directorial duties, apparently under contract for one more film for Lucisano and not given the option to pass it up for something else.

Mario Bava, c1960s

Bava was faced with the unenviable task of filming two distinct alternative versions of the film, one for the US market and one for the Italian, and somehow making it funny for both. The Italian version, Le spie vengono dal semifreddo, serves also as a sequel to the aforementioned Franco and Ciccio film, with the slapstick duo taking centre stage and billed above Price on posters and credits. The title literally translates as The Spies who Came in from the Semi-Cold; semifreddo (‘half-cold’) being an Italian desert made with ice cream or custard. However, Price still enjoys plenty of screen time in this version (and he clearly is enjoying it) appearing in three different roles (two in the US cut), in full camp ham mode, complete with humorous asides to the viewer. Think ‘Egghead’ (one of Price’s favourite roles) from the ’60s Batman show and you’re not far off.

On screen more, though, are the film’s zany Sicilian stars, lurching from one sub-Carry On sequence to the next, with Franco having palpitations every time he sees a pretty girl (and this is often), a ‘hilarious’ bass drum noise every time someone falls over (which is also often), speeded-up tumbling around, and Franco at one point dressing up and acting like a chicken for no apparent reason. American recording artist Fabian has a supporting role as real secret agent, who sets them on the right path and turns up to save them towards the end.

However, the American Girl Bombs cut, as rewritten by producer Louis M. Hayward and Bikini Machine‘s Robert Kaufman, sees Fabian’s disgraced agent ‘Bill Dexter’ promoted to lead character status for an English-speaking audience who neither knew nor cared who Franco and Ciccio were. His character is analogous to that played of Frankie Avalon in Bikini Machine, a bungling secret agent who eventually gets the better of the villainous Goldfoot despite himself. Although their roles are reduced, Franco and Ciccio still get a reasonable amount of screen time in the US version, or an unreasonable amount, depending on how you look at it. Both versions are exercises in high imbecility.

Laura Antonelli in
Dr Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs

They also both unfortunately contain the same seemingly interminable chase scene towards the end, completely filmed in fast motion for a further injection of Keystone Kops-style ‘hilarity’. To say that part of the sequence takes place on a fairground with all parties jumping on and off carousels and other rides should be enough to warn one of the horrors this film has in store. Of course, Price is the best thing in either version; without his presence the viewer would no doubt be completely stony-faced throughout. In fact where else would you get to find Vincent dressed as a nun, hiding his face with his wimple and asking Franco and Ciccio if they’d ‘like to watch a gymnastics display by my girls’? Or having a Marx Brothers Duck Soup ‘mirror’ scene with Ciccio, albeit an incredibly half-hearted and sloppily executed one? We also get to see Price as the kidnapped ‘General Willis’, with an eye patch and stammer to mark a difference from Goldfoot.

It’s almost tragic that a meeting between two these two great horror icons should result in a film that is now widely considered to be not only Bava’s worst, but also possibly one of Price’s, too. Of course, Bava had previously worked with English-speaking horror icons Christopher Lee, on Hercules in the Haunted World (1961) and The Whip and the Body (1963), and Karloff, on Black Sabbath (1963), and had made the young Barbara Steele into a horror icon with his Black Sunday (1961); all with fascinating results. What a shame that the meeting between Bava and Price couldn’t have resulted in the making of another great horror or fantasy picture. On the plus side, Vincent undoubtedly must have enjoyed himself greatly, maybe buying a few new paintings and surely enjoying some choice Roman delicacies. At least we hope so. Of Vincent’s Italian adventures, at least with Last Man on Earth we have a something of a classic, even if it is a flawed one.

About Rob Talbot

Returning from early days of Diabolique, Rob Talbot is a compulsive writer and cult cinema obsessive. He also writes for UK horror magazine Scream, including the popular 'Eurohorror of the Week' column for their website, and has also been published extensively in Starburst and Bedabbled!: British Horror & Cult Cinema, amongst others. Other obsessions include Italian soundtracks, Krautrock, and hard SF novels.

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