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December 11, 2013

The Snake God

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Il dio serpente
Piero Vivarelli - 1970
Mondo Macabro Region 1 DVD

By the standards of Mondo Macabro's previous releases, The Snake God is a relatively conventional movie. There a handful of zombies, or maybe they are extremely gaunt men with white make-up, some nudity, voodoo rituals, and interracial sex, the obligatory product placement of J & B scotch found in many Italian movies of the time, and the titular snake god who shows up in human form. What's missing is the kind of stuff that gets the description of "batshit crazy".

For myself, the best part of the DVD was the interview with writer-director Piero Vivarelli, apparently filmed shortly before his death in 2010. There are stories about his days as a dedicated smoker of an illegal herbal substance, and his commitment to communism including friendship with Fidel Castro. Better, are the clips from films he had a hand in, either as a writer or as director. There are a couple of clips from musicals directed by Lucio Fulci, yes, that Lucio Fulci, remembered chiefly for his horror movies where eyes routinely get gouged. One of those films has the odd English title of Howlers of the Dock, and features Chet Baker. There are other films with various Italian rock stars of the early Sixties, written and directed by Vivarelli. And I'd really love to see those films lovingly restored on DVD with English subtitles. As a writer, Vivarelli also had a hand in the original Django.

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As for The Snake God, it doesn't quite work as either an exploitation film or social critique. Young Paolo shows up with her older husband, Bernard, to live on his massive Caribbean plantation. On a boating excursion, Paolo spies upon Stella, running with her boyfriend, on a beach. She learns that Stella use to be Bernard's secretary. The two women become friends, with Stella introducing Paola to the traditional beliefs, with a meeting with a voodoo priest and participation in ritual ceremonies. Paola also seems to be searching for love that is not being fulfilled by her husband. According to Stella, the big, brown snake that Paola encounters on a beach is actually a god that was seeking her.

Vivarelli's attempt to provide some intellectual weight includes a brief discussion between Stella and Paola's former boyfriend, Tony. Standing in front of an old building, Stella reminds Tony that what is a well preserved example of colonial architecture is also the place where the Spanish inquisition took place. We see an example of how Catholicism has been allowed to mutate when a doll representing baby Jesus is passed around by believers. There is also a striking scene of Bernard's funeral, celebrated with some vigorous dancing.

It is a previous scene of dancing that comes off as pure exploitation. Paola is invited by Stella to witness her first "native" ritual. Everyone is taken by the rhythm. Stella and Paola are writhing on the ground. Shirts are ripped open. One of the other women rips off her panties, allowing for a brief crotch shot.

Better are some of the moments creating a sense of unease, the cry of birds on a forbidden beach, and the sound of wind. Very briefly, Vivarelli seems to hint at aspirations of making an updated version of I Walked with a Zombie, albeit a sexed up version. Those moments are too few.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at December 11, 2013 06:58 AM