“Sometimes I make movies which don’t interest me too much and after, with the money, I make the movies I want to make.” Joe D’Amato
Italy’s king of trash sinema, Joe D’Amato spent most of his career locked into exploitation filmmaking. Some of his 70s films are very forthright and he would eventually find financial success during the late ’90s as the director of hardcore costume epics, only for his life to be cut short in 1999 when he died of a heart attack.
D’Amato – real name Aristide Massaccesi – first entered the film industry in 1952, working as a stills photographer, and graduated to become a respected director of photography in the expanding Italian film world of the ’60s and early ’70s.
Given the low opinion many critics have of his work, it’s significant to note that he was a well-respected DP. He worked on a variety of Italian productions in the late Sixties and early Seventies, ranging from Giallo thriller What Have You Done to Solange? and softcore smut More Filthy Canterbury Tales (both 1972) to the superior horror film The Antichrist, directed by Alberto De Martino in 1974.
The early Seventies also saw D’Amato directing his first films, although it would take a while for this to be publicly acknowledged. Spaghetti western Bounty Hunter for Trinity and female gladiator actioner The Arena were largely helmed by D’Amato, although he wasn’t credited as director. In the case of the latter film, US director Steve Carver had begun the movie and was still credited with it, but D’Amato had, in fact, handled most of the direction himself. Such an anonymous graduation from cameraman to director are not unknown in Italian cinema – Mario Bava did much the same – but D’Amato could have been forgiven for wondering if he would ever be credited for his work.
Significantly, the first film to be officially directed by D’Amato was a warped horror movie. Death Smiles at Murder is an efficient, if unremarkable, Klaus Kinski vehicle that showed definite promise, and certainly helped set him on the road which he would travel for the next two decades. Right up to the point that the market for low budget exploitation cinema collapsed in Italy, he would alternate between gory horror and softcore smut movies – often blurring the line between the two.
Massaccesi is still perhaps best known for his Black Emanuelle series, although he wasn’t involved in the first two films. It was this series which gave him his real break. Hired to take over from Adalberti Albertini (director of the first two films), he suddenly found himself in control of a series of movies which had a guaranteed international market (Death Smiles on a Murderer had failed to secure distribution outside Italy). Under his guidance, the series would become increasingly outlandish and bizarre. The series also introduced him to Laura Gemser, who would become a regular performer in his films.
D’Amato would prove to have a certain flair for softcore, and these films would be his most successful. In fact, they dominated his work in the Seventies – he would often shoot several Emanuelle films in a year. He also tried his hand at a typically ribald Italian sex comedy (Ladies Doctor) around this time, but humour didn’t seem to be his forté.
D’Amato was much more at home with brutal violence, and this began to evidence itself within the Emanuelle series. Emanuelle in America combined the usual softcore lovemaking with genuinely shocking fake ‘snuff‘ movie scenes. These remain the most realistic images of ‘snuff’ movies ever shot, and it’s unsurprising that several people have believed them to be real (the fact that for years they were only available on nth generation bootlegs probably helped too!). This wouldn’t be the last time that D’Amato was accused of filming real murder…
Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals (aka Trap Them and Kill Them) was his final entry in the series and was a significant pointer to where his career would head next. As much a horror movie as an erotic one – arguably more so, in fact – the film was extremely gory, and the first in a series of movies which capitalised on the success of Ruggero Deodato’s 1976 film Last Cannibal World.
The end of the 1970s and early ’80s saw D’Amato establish himself a director to watch for in the horror genre. Papaya was another jungle shocker, with the emphasis this time on voodoo, and Beyond the Darkness (aka Buried Alive/Blue Holocaust) was a remarkably sleazy study of murder and an eroticised obsession with dead bodies. This film once again saw D’Amato attacked for allegedly crossing the line, this time by supposedly using a real corpse during an autopsy scene – well, it’s cheaper than special effects!
Like the work of many Italian directors of the period, D’Amato’s horror movies reached new heights (or plumbed new depths, depending on your viewpoint) in gore. His two most notorious films of the time were Anthropophagous (aka The Grim Reaper) and its sequel Absurd. Both these blood-drenched shockers would be branded ‘video nasties‘ and banned in Britain, and years later, Anthropophagous made newspaper headlines and prime-time TV news shows when British police claimed that it showed real baby murders! Absurd indeed…
D’Amato also continued with his Last Cannibals experiment of combining erotica with splatter during this period. The title of Erotic Nights of the Living Dead says it all, Meanwhile, he’d been quietly making adult movies for the domestic Italian market since 1980. Few of these films were seen outside Italy, and none were particularly great – D’Amato having shot them simply for easy extra lira.
With the market for both softcore and horror drying up, D’Amato surprised many people by showing an affinity for sword and sorcery films. His two sci-fi movies of 1983 (2020: Texas Gladiators and Endgame) had failed to impress anyone, but Ator the Fighting Eagle was a surprise international hit – one of the last Italian exploitation films to have a major impact in the US market. It would spawn two sequels during the brief period that the genre was popular, and stands head-and-shoulders above every other Italian barbarian romp of the time.
The remainder of the 1980s were spent shooting glossy softcore titles. The market for such films had been given a shot in the arm with the success and notoriety of 9 1/2 Weeks, and D’Amato struck box-office gold again with his blatant imitation, Eleven Days, Eleven Nights in 1985.
In fact, D’Amato’s film was far superior to its overblown Hollywood inspiration and proved once again that he was a genuine talent in the genre. The film was so popular in fact, that foreign distributors would change the titles of other D’Amato films shot at this time to create instant sequels – Top Model became Eleven Days Eleven Nights 2 simply because it shared the same director and star (Jessica Moore).
D’Amato had more success with Dirty Love (again inspiring sequels, both real and false), The Pleasure, Lust, Blue Angel Cafe and The Alcove. Less popular were his few horror films of the late Eighties such as Killing Birds and Frankenstein 2000.
Massaccesi did have success in the genre as a producer, giving Michele Soavi his first break when he produced the young director’s first (and best) film Stagefright. But the global market was changing, and Euro horror was proving increasingly hard to sell to the all-important US market. Worse still, his softcore films were no longer making money either.
Ever the pragmatist, D’Amato simply moved into an area he knew offered the chance to make money, and which he had a natural affinity for. He began to make a series of hardcore epics, usually based on famous figures from literature and history. Often working in collaboration with adult movie fairytale king Luca Damiano, D’Amato built a sizeable reputation with these 35mm costume dramas, and although he didn’t take the adult film business too seriously, the acclaim heaped upon him must have been satisfying for a man more used to being described by critics as “the worst director in the world”.
The themed smut films were international hits, and soon D’Amato was shooting a feature per month. Like most Italian adult movies, his films were films – he never shot on video. This relentless schedule from a director who was no slouch in the 1970s and 1980s has made him one of the most prolific filmmakers of all time.
It was probably, in fact, this frenetic workload that contributed to his untimely death from a heart attack, aged 60. He was working on the post-production of no less than five features when he died.
It was notable that the cult movie world genuinely mourned the loss of Joe D’Amato. Critics may have sneered at his work, but the fans knew better. D’Amato made some of the weirdest films ever, never took himself too seriously and had a genuine love for the genres he worked in. He remains a much-missed figure on the scene.
David Flint, MOVIES and MANIA