Blu-ray Review: Rabid Dogs (1974)

Rabid Dogs BR CoverDistributor: Arrow Video

BBFC Classification: 18

Director: Mario Bava

Starring: Lea Lander, George Eastman, Riccardo Cucciolla, Erika Dario, Maurice Poli, Maria Fabbri, Don Backy

After a robbery goes wrong and one of their number is killed, a gang of three violent criminals – leader Doc (Maurice Poli), the knife-wielding Blade (Don Backy) and sexual deviant Thirty-Two (George Eastman) – kidnap a woman named Maria (Lea Langer) and hijack a car being driven by Riccardo (Riccardo Cucciolla), a middle-aged man driving his sick son to hospital. Forcing Riccardo to abandon his hospital visit, Doc orders the calm driver to help the gang escape Rome and the scene is set for a tense road trip as Thirty-Two has some unsavoury intentions towards Maria and Doc tries to maintain control, all the while a worried Riccardo trying to protect his son.

Something of a curio of Italian cinema, Rabid Dogs remained unreleased for 24 years after the production company went bankrupt as the film neared completion, meaning that director Mario Bava never saw a finished version of the film as he died in 1980. However, since its first DVD release the film has been re-cut and re-edited by producer Alfred Leone and Bava’s son Lamberto into a different version entitled Kidnapped, in which Lamberto Bava managed to miss the point of what his father was trying to do entirely and dilute any tension or claustrophobia that was set up in the original narrative. Kidnapped is included on the disc and provides a useful comparison if you want to see how to deconstruct a perfectly good film into something approaching a pointless mess but you’ll only want to watch it the once as the original film has more than enough going for it.

Mainly set in the confines of the hot and sweaty car, the tension gets ratcheted right up as the three criminals make their getaway with their three hostages. With a very big nod towards Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left, the criminals in Rabid Dogs are also quite depraved but gang leader Doc is a lot less vile than David Hess’ Krug from that film, the looks he keeps giving Riccardo as Thirty-Two goes increasingly off the rails giving him a little bit of humanity rather than having him as totally ruthless.

But the comparison to Craven’s film doesn’t end there as there is also a humiliation scene that resembles the central setpiece in The Last House on the Left. It’s not quite as violent in tone but the sense of mocking and deviancy is just great, possibly even more so, and this is down to the intimidating presence of George Eastman and the always-on-edge performance of Don Backy. Eastman especially manages to draw all sorts of negative reactions out of everybody – including the audience – as the beastly Thirty-Two (his name represents the size of a body part in centimetres, apparently), a man so huge in stature and larger-than-life as a personality that there seems to be no way to stop him from getting what he wants.

In the catalogue of Mario Bava’s works Rabid Dogs sticks out as the most un-Bava one. Made late in his career it’s the director’s attempt to keep up with the younger, more radical directors emerging to create films of a more gritty and grimy nature. The violence in Rabid Dogs isn’t as in-your-face as in many other films of the era, with most of the sexual violence playing out off-screen, but Bava manages to keep up the sense of dread and terror by keeping his camera up close in people’s faces and showing very little of what is happening around them, making them and their situation the centre of everything. It’s an intriguing film and one that requires several viewings to really draw everything from it but that’s not a bad thing because the experience of watching Rabid Dogs is something that you won’t mind repeating, such is its power.

Rabid Dogs

Special Features: Kidnapped – the re-edited, re-dubbed and re-scored version, supervised by Bava’s son and assistant director Lamberto Bava, and producer Alfredo Leone, audio commentary with Bava biographer Tim Lucas, End of the Road: Making Rabid Dogs and Kidnapped featurette incuding interviews with Lamberto Bava, Alfredo Leone and star Lea Lander, Bava and Eurocrime interview with Umberto Lenzi, alternate Semaforo Rosso opening title sequence, collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by author Stephen Thrower, plus Peter Blumenstock on the history of the film’s first distribution.

UK Release Date: 27th October 2014

Arrow Films – Website

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