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“MORITURIS” (Blu-ray/DVD Review)

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Crucifixion. Death by millstone grinding. Men outfitted in rotting animal hides and thrown to wild dogs. Evening garden parties lit by burning, accelerant-soaked Christians hanging from trees. Damnatio ad bestias (“condemnation to beasts”) as public entertainment in the amphitheaters. Sawing of live upside-down human beings from crotch to skull. Julian of Antioch publicly humiliated and beaten every day for a full year before being sewed up, as Wikipedia notes, “in a sack half-filled with scorpions, sand, and vipers, and cast into the sea.”

The Romans, it seems, were expert-level purveyors of real-life “torture porn” a couple of millennia before David Edelstein coined the term in a 2006 New York article to pooh-pooh early-aughts extreme fright flicks.

MORITURISREVWhich is a roundabout way of pointing out that perhaps the most shocking thing about the undead gladiator sadists introduced in Raffaele Picchio’s ultraviolent 2011 Italian gusher MORITURIS (now out on Blu-ray and DVD from Synapse Films) is that it took them so long to march on modern viewers. Yet despite boasting a conceptual foundation that seems to be the hardcore-horror equivalent of peanut butter and jelly, Picchio inexplicably and unfortunately proves none too eager to revel in the chaos of this mashup. Aside from a foreshadowing found-footage opening sequence, we don’t encounter any breastplates or spears until well past the halfway mark.

Instead, what we get for the first hour of MORITURIS is a much less imaginative, tediously cruel bare-bones exploitation flick about three Italian men who lure two comely young Romanian women to an exclusive (though, alas, nonexistent) rave in the desolate countryside. There, swapping out feel-good EDM for unwanted no-safeword BDSM, they visit depredations upon the girls so vile and vicious, it makes THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT look like THE HOUSE AT POOH CORNER. For those who fear they might need an even heartier helping of sexual violence and torture, don’t fret. Picchio has you covered, interspersing scenes of the depraved lunatics’ off-site compatriot ensconced in a fancy condo, wearing a creepy mask, burning a bound woman with acid and inserting a rodent in her vagina—just for bad measure, one presumes; it’s difficult to divine any other narrative purpose.

Somehow, all of this finally awakens the undead gladiators and we’re off to the (chariot) races. Alas, the bleakness proceeds apace, and Picchio simply refuses to engage the surrealism or absurdity of his premise at all. And by reducing his late-arriving antagonists to costumes and basic ancient weaponry, he bleeds out any of the substance, idiosyncrasies and, yes, fun any genre fan might reasonably anticipate after hearing tell of a zombified-Roman-gladiators slasher opus.

This is not to say Picchio needed to imbue MORITURIS with slapstick Raimi-isms to cut something worthwhile out of this particular cloth. Playing it mercilessly straight would’ve flown if his palette were more expansive and his characters more baffled by the insane turn of events. (As it is, the women are more surprised that a few macho racists they met at a club turn out to be dangerous psychotic man-children than that dead Roman gladiators are crawling out of their graves.) But tacked onto a numbing cascade of grim, unadorned violence, what should be the cool, quirky, supernatural heart of the film feels too much like an afterthought, and amidst this self-inflicted narrative schizophrenia, the wrong part of MORITURIS is elevated. That is a failing even FX by the legendary Sergio Stivaletti (DEMONS, CEMETERY MAN, Dario Argento’s OPERA) cannot redeem.

The disc content—just an original theatrical trailer—is, likewise, exceedingly thin gruel. Disappointingly, too: The film provoked fierce debate amongst critics and was banned outright in Italy, yet its creators couldn’t be bothered to create a featurette delving into that reaction and how it jibed with their original intent?

The controversy, to be brutally honest, is the most interesting thing about MORITURIS. In this case, letting the movie speak for itself is a historically poor idea.

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About the author
Shawn Macomber http://www.stopshawnmacomber.com
The ravings of noted South Florida pug wrangler Shawn Macomber have appeared in Decibel, Magnet, Reason, Maxim, Radar, Shroud, and the Wall Street Journal, amongst other fine and middling publications. He also hosts the podcast Into the Depths and pens the metal-lit column Tales From the Metalnomicon for Decibel magazine.
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