A funny thing happened on the way to me disliking Island of Death, director Nico Mastorakis’ 1975 horror film headed to Blu-Ray/DVD courtesy Arrow Video and MVD Entertainment Group. That would be I ended up liking the film a lot more than I thought. This is in part thanks to the great special features that include interviews with Mastorakis that show he’s just a genial, creative guy with a long and varied career who’s not at all like any of the vile characters in the nasty and brutal film he made very early in his career. I’d heard about how terrible and shocking the film was and I certainly wasn’t disappointed by the assorted scenes of murder, extremely stereotypical characters and loads of exploitative nudity on display. Yes, the film is a hard to watch experience not for the squeamish or easily offended. But it’s beautifully shot nastiness and at the end of the day, Mastorakis did exactly what he set out to do – make a film that out grossed (and out-grossed) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
There’s nothing here even remotely close in plot or even tone to Tobe Hooper’s seminal shocker. IoD’s story about a pair of unbalanced British lovers killing their way through the island of Mykonos before getting their just desserts is merely a showcase for depravity that’s since been outclassed by more modern horror flicks with far more realistic effects. The director even makes this point in one of the commentaries on the Blu-Ray and it’s easy to toss off a bunch of titles from the top of my head that do indeed go for the gusto and blow this film out of the water. That said, by 1975 standards the catalog of perversions on display here certainly got this film in trouble all over the world. Bestiality, murders by an ingested bucket of paint post crucifixion, a phallic pistol, beheading by bulldozer and more are all on display. As terrifically terrible as these crimes are, some viewers may be more upset that one of the murderers is a hypocrite religious zealot out to cleanse the island of evil in the name of religion.
The lovers Christopher (Bob Belling) and Celia (Jane Lyle) arrive on the beautiful island of Mykonos, get a room in a house run by a future victim, go out for a stroll and end up having sex in a public phone booth. While on the phone with Christoper’s mother (eww). Unfortunately for the twisted pair, the detective who’s been trying to track them down for their crimes in London is also listening in. Actually, it’s unfortunate for him because he’s a total idiot who doesn’t bring any backup or let the police on Mykonos know they’ve got a pair of killers on the loose. Before the killing of people gets started, there’s that bestiality scene involving a goat followed by the stabbing of that goat (which wasn’t actually screwed or killed by the way). The body count is pretty high here, but not outrageously so. A French painter, a VERY stereotypical gay couple, a heroin-addicted lesbian, an older woman who gets peed on and beaten before losing her head, a pair of rapist hippies, that dumb detective and an “accidental” murder that occurs late in the film before the doomed duo go on the run.
The bulk of the gore is made up of quick cuts, reaction or aftermath shots. But all are still shocking, particularly the crucifixion scene followed by the drowning by paint. One of the film’s problems is you really don’t feel anything for the victims because they’re so shallowly one dimensional and not exactly acted well by the amateur cast. The “best” character in the film happens to be Belling’s insane Christopher who’s not at all likable. Lyle’s inexperience as an actress actually helps in her weird line delivery. She comes off as vulnerable and slyly vicious, but the film makes note of her being bored and not wanting to participate in all of Christopher’s craziness as things go further south. But that doesn’t stop her from killing or helping kill her share of island dwellers. The film also has some intentionally unsettling songs (co-written by the director) that seem to be what’s playing in Christopher’s mind during certain moments.
It seems that the use of still camera images shot by the murderers has been taken out of context by some who feel it’s the director filming out his own fantasies. Even one of the commentators in a special feature on the disc makes this mistake. This is an exploitation film, pure and simple. It’s not a meditation on anything other than how the director wanted to make some big money with a film more shocking than a film that made dollar signs appear in his head. This is proven out by Mastorakis’ involvement in The Greek Tycoon, his career in innovating the Greek TV and music industries and his offbeat “B” movies made either in Hollywood or in Greece using a number of “name” actors from George Kennedy, Jose Ferrer, Jacqueline Bisset and even Oliver Reed. Island of Death was a stepping stone in his career that got him money and success, but it’s his other works that define him as a decent director of a bunch of 80’s “B” flicks, most of which seemed to go straight to video as a result of the high demand for VHS movies during the 80’s.
As noted above, it’s the wealth of special features that make this one worth a buy, but I’d say the gorgeous HD transfer also deserves a shout out. The amazing restored print (supervised by the director, of course) looks as it were shot sometime within the last year and not in 1975. There’s a long interview with Mastorakis on the making of the film, a return to Mykonos to its locations (with a surprise at the end) and a four part documentary on the director’s career written, directed and starring Mastorakis. You’ll also get trailers to most of his movies (that will make you want some or all of them to get the Arrow treatment at some point), a few tunes from Island of Death that will drill themselves into your brain and a long commentary on the film where that out of context comment gets floated before sinking like a dumb detective hung from an airplane wing.
Also, if you pay attention closely during a late chase scene, one of the victims is in a quick shot playing a guitar for some reason! Either Mastorakis was trying to show the lover as possibly haunted by ghosts of their recent work or it’s an incredible editing error no one seems to have caught. I think it’s the former, as the director was clearly making a film he wanted to shock people with while also adding a bit of flair to the horror genre. Of course, getting those yet to experience Island of Death in its uncut form and not wanting to string you up for showing it to them is going to be a tough sell for many. I say get this set and start off with the interviews and documentary BEFORE the main attraction so they can see Nico Mastorakis is a nice guy who happened to make a pretty mean film 40 years ago that still has the power to shock anyone who tries to take it seriously. It’s not for all tastes, but it’s a trip worth taking if you’ve got the stomach for all it throws at you.