Awakening of the Beast (O Ritual dos Sádicos) is a homemade, morally ambiguous 1970 generation-gap anthology film from Brazil with a Citizen Kane-inspired frame story that’s stuffed with drugs, crime, rock bands, ear splitting sound effects, strange nudity and psychedelia. Imagine Dušan Makavejev working for Hammer Films. Director José Mojica Marins had been building a cinematic world, in three previous films, around his character Zé do Caixão (Josefel Zanatas aka Joseph the Grave aka Coffin Joe) portrayed by Marins himself. In Awakening of the Beast his world explodes into a house of mirrors.
The film opens with an undressed girl writhing and shooting up in front of a group of old men seated on the floor. Her act climaxes as the audience gifts her with a bedpan and she peels off her panties, lowers herself onto the pot (completely filling the screen with her bare ass) and pees loudly… CREDITS! None of these characters appear in the film again, but it frames the theme of generational divide for the rest of the movie: the old men revel in the shocking behavior of the young girl; they even gave her a pot to piss in. The indignities thrown about by the older generations and tastemakers later in the movie are false — we know they’re slobbering for piss when the doors are closed. And the soundtrack! Close your eyes: an echoing female voice sings “WAR!” and as the needle hits the label on this folk psych record there’s a giggle, then hissing, then shock cut to decrepit choral library music and seconds later another shock cut to a scream, thunder, cats, shrieks, croaks. The whole movie groans and shudders under cascades of echo effect, like 2 haunted house records playing at once. The coffin is open and Zé issues a warning, “My world is strange, but it’s worthy to all those who want to accept it, and never corrupt as some want to portray it, because it’s made up, my friend, of strange people, though none are stranger than YOU!”
Closer to underground cinema than horror and very rooted in the Brazilian culture at the end of the 60s, Awakening of the Beast is, let’s be honest, not the Zé do Caixão film to start with; as a matter of fact, this is the fourth in the series. At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul from 1964 introduces the character, an arrogant mortician with a hatred towards religion, dressed like Jack the Ripper and wielding 9 inch fingernails on one of his hands. In At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul and its sequel This Night I Will Possess Your Corpse (1967), Zé is attempting to sire a son that will carry on his wicked bloodline; to this end he terrorizes, rapes, and murders the people of his village, while spouting complex antitheist screeds. He’s what might be termed a “colorful local.”
The first hour of the film revolves around a TV panel discussion on the dissolution of Brazilian society as drugs, rock and roll, and other artifacts of 60s youth culture have crept into the country. Despite the televised format the panel is seen only in shadows, just like the frame story of Citizen Kane. The academics and pundits are joined by their guest José Mojica Marins, whose dark films are considered a part of the problem. They recount tabloid scandals like a gang rape, a woman who imagines that her boss is a dog, a man that spanks women, and other drug related incidents. One of the panel members, a psychologist, has designed a social experiment based around the Zé do Caixão character. During the film, Zé is liberated from the village setting and placed within the minds of the test subjects. The 4 subjects are given LSD and told to focus on the popular Zé do Caixão character (SPOILER: it’s a placebo, no LSD is administered). So the Zé of Awakening of the Beast is figmental, guiding these test subjects into their darkest impulses in a color soaked nightmare world: a misogynist is given free reign to torment and torture women; a man is worshipped as a leader by masked creatures; a cultured older adultress imagines Zé protecting her from danger, and a young woman imagines him tormenting her. The hallucinations are comic book surrealism, a pervert’s Hercules in the Haunted World. We’re treated to nearly naked people everywhere, a staircase made of humans, a tribe of creatures represented by faces painted on bare asses, fire breathing, mad doctors, we get it all.
All four subjects come away with different impressions of the character, but let’s clarify this: these four different Zés are described to the doctor, who is recalling them in a flashback to the TV roundtable discussion panel, one of whom is José Mojica Marins, the creator of and actor who portrays Zé do Caixão. To break this down even further, the José Mojica Marins on the panel is still a character in a fictional film directed by the real José Mojica Marins, so the four Zé do Caixãos are how the real José Mojica Marins imagines that other people might imagine his creation. Perhaps Marins was facing an identity crisis as the popularity of his character grew beyond the screen and his country was facing cultural turmoil.
The political disorder of Brazil in the 1960s saw the rise of an authoritarian dictatorship with presidential selection taken out of the hands of the people and placed in the hands of the military. Supported in part by the US, the military government sought to stamp out communism, not only in Brazil, but throughout South America. Emílio Garrastazu Médici was president from 1969 to 1974 (Awakening of the Beast was released in 1970); his presidency was marked by torture and censorship, as well as a period of economic growth and a population shift from rural to urban. Not only were magazines like Playboy and Penthouse prevented from entering the country, police were shutting down art events. In 1975 they tortured a journalist, Vladimir Herzog, to death. The Zé do Caixão films flowered under this regime.
Banned for 16 years in its home country, Awakening of the Beast was part of a unique Brazilian anti-New Wave that reveled in the grotesque and used impoverished technique as proof of the poor conditions from which it arose. Many of the filmmakers lived in the Boca do Lixo (“Mouth of Garbage”) neighborhood in São Paulo, a red light district that may be comparable to New York’s 42nd Street in the 70s. This Cinema Marginal movement was in opposition to the Cine Novo films being shown at film festivals of the 60s and 70s. Arguing that the Novo films were depicting Brazilian life for the international marketplace instead of for Brazilians themselves, Cinema Marginal films were about crime and sex, often based loosely on tabloid events of the day. They were rough B&W films featuring young hippies, pop music and genre film elements, perhaps the closest thing in America would be Multiple Maniacs (1970) or Putney Swope (1969) (the films weren’t usually quite as chaotic as, say, Flaming Creatures or as humane as Shadows). Cinema Marginal was immediate and crude and people loved it.
Marins had already made the first Brazilian western Adventurer’s Fate (1958) and horror At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul (1964), which were two genres embraced by the Cinema Marginal filmmakers, as his figure cast a shadow over Brazilian culture. Scoffed at by the figures of authority who saw him as a disruptive ghoul, but embraced by the film community, the Cinema Marginal filmmakers revered him in the way the French New Wave would Jean-Pierre Melville- fellow travellers who’d macheted the path first. Awakening of the Beast, in fact, is shown in Cinema Marginal retrospectives (I’m sure your local theater will be running one any day now) and Marins was cast in films by other directors; notably Prophet of Hunger (1970) by Maurice Capovila. Boca do Lixo directors Carlos Reichenbach, Ozualdo Ribeiro Candeias, Jairo Ferreira, João Callegaro, and Capovila himself were all cast in Awakening of the Beast in various small roles and reportedly sold scrape film to Marins so that he could complete the project.
As Brazil tightened its noose around the creative community, those politically left wing Cinema Novo and Cinema Marginal filmmakers like Glauber Rocha, Júlio Bressane, and Ruy Guerra either fled the country or stopped making films. Concurrently, Brazilian theaters were mandated to play a certain percentage of domestically produced films, and many Boca do Lixo directors stepped in to fill this need with substandard sex comedies and horror. Marins continued to make horror films, even editing in footage from Awakening of the Beast into his anthology Hallucinations of a Deranged Mind (1978), and he occasionally turned to the pornochanchada (a popular style of light sex comedy). The subversive edges had been rounded off of the Brazilian film community by the end of the 1970s. Now in his 80s, Marins continues, appearing on TV, directing music videos and in 2008 he returned to film with the appropriately sadistic, if far less psychedelic, Embodiment of Evil (2008).