As boutique home-video labels have sought to unearth every last piece of 70s/80s Italian exploitation cinema, we are finally arriving at the Joe D’Amato reclamation. The task will not be easy. In a directorial career that spanned 1972 to 1999, D’Amato (real name: Aristide Massaccesi) directed at least 197 films — including 27 in 1997 alone — almost none of which were received as anything more than trash. Hopping from trend to trend, he worked in every genre to hit Italy (spaghetti western, sword-and-sandal, post-apocalyptic, horror, erotica) before ending his days as a more-or-less full-time pornographer (hence, 27 movies in 1997). His signature achievements include the softcore “Black Emanuelle” series, starring Indonesian-Dutch beauty Laura Gemser as a sexy globe-trotting photojournalist, and the Ator films, featuring American muscleman Miles O’Keeffe as a Conan-like barbarian. If these films don’t strike you as sturdy ground for canonization, well, D’Amato himself agreed. In interviews, he rarely expressed much pride in his work, positioning himself as merely a craftsman who followed the market. So now that genre specialists like Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci, and Sergio Corbucci are taken seriously in critical circles, D’Amato is something of a final frontier. Is it possible to consider this man an artist?
I can’t answer that question definitively, but I can tell you about the pleasures of his film Crazy Nights (1978), a rarely-seen curio now available on Full Moon Entertainment’s streaming platform in advance of its September Blu-ray debut. Like so many D’Amato joints, Crazy Nights is an attempt to wring a few last nickels out of two dying trends: on the one hand, disco, and on the other, the “Mondo” subgenre. Kicking off with Mondo Cane (1962), the “Mondo” movies claimed to be documentary exposés of bizarre practices (many sexual in nature) from around the world. As the cycle wore on, the movies became less and less tethered to the truth, and by the time D’Amato got to work, he recognized that his audience pretty much only cared about naked flesh.
The unique selling point of Crazy Nights is the presence of French novelty pop diva Amanda Lear as host. Best remembered today as a “muse” of Salvador Dalí and mistress of David Bowie, Lear plays herself as a glamorous hedonist, telling tales of wild nightlife from poolside at her sprawling mansion (“This is one of my houses, near Rome…”). Most of the 96-minute runtime is devoted to nude burlesque dances, allegedly from around the world — although whether the setting is Las Vegas, Beirut or Tokyo, the dancers and audiences are always mostly white and European. Occasionally the dance footage is interrupted by live sex shows and bizarre erotic rituals — notably a Berlin-set sequence in which a historic castle doubles as a secret S&M club where we see women in leather lashing tied-up male masochists. In true “Mondo” fashion, D’Amato’s camera lurks behind lattices and doorways, as if capturing something forbidden — until the verité effect is ruined when D’Amato abruptly cuts to a close-up. He doesn’t care about pretending any of this is real, and neither do you.
Whatever its other sins, the film’s music and dance sequences are never less than handsome-looking, with D’Amato’s frantic, roving camera acting like a dance partner to the performers. D’Amato was a cinematographer before he was a director, and in his best films (including Beyond the Darkness, Emanuelle in America, and Death Smiles on a Murderer), his strong visual sense mixes with his morbid sense of humor and indifference (bordering on contempt) towards his material to create a powerful cocktail. His films are marked by jarring tonal shifts, a total lack of taste and decency, and — yes — great visual beauty. At their best they leave me with the queasy, unbalanced feeling of waking from a restless dream. He made pure exploitation films, full of the sorts of things that people who like exploitation films like, but delivered inelegantly and with disdain — as if he’s saying, “So, this is what you want? Here—take it.” He may have been a hack, but nobody else’s hackwork had quite the same flavor.
Crazy Nights is streaming on Full Moon Entertainment.