Ad-ventures in Genre Hype: Stephen Romano Presents ‘Shock Festival’

They used to be the best part of the moviegoing experience, one of the few ways to learn what was “coming soon” to a theater near you. In fact, a Saturday at the matinee was never complete without a least a dozen sneak previews. They have now evolved into plotpoint specific spoilers where, more time than not, the entire narrative is spelled out in two minutes, thirty or less. It the past, they could be accused of some substantial bait and switch, filmic fraud in both the inducement and in factum. Now, we marvel at the overwhelming optical splendor and quick-cut editorial ruse, not recognizing that knowing too much is just as bad as being fooled once you buy your ticket and take your seat.

Some may argue that trailers are a dying art. Others will suggest that old school advertising was just as obvious and sneaky as its modern equivalent. Still, there is an inherent intrigue in seeing how movies made before the dawn of all this multimedia hyperbole did their carnival barker best to lure audiences into the Bijou. Enter Stephen Romano and his “Shock Festival”. Based on his famed book about the exploitation and horror movie scene from the ’70s and ’80s, his knowledge of the genre is matched only by his fandom for all things flesh/frightening. As a result, he has collected three DVDs worth of sensational schlock adverts, each one arguing for its value as publicity and pulp.

Disc One is labeled “the ultimate Shock Festival experience” and consists of two extensive programs. The first features a wealth of old grindhouse material, from sexed up smut to half-baked women in prison melodramas. There is more sweaty, exposed skin and badly dubbed pigeon English foreign performance than in a trip to Ibiza during the season. Romano may lack the access to some of the classic works by exploitation gods such as Dave Friedman, Harry Novak, or Joe Sarno, but he manages to dig up some doozies. In fact, some of the best don’t center on freak shows and faux fornication at all. Treasure of the Four Crowns in a lame 3D Raiders of the Lost Ark rip-off, while Orson Welles and The Late Great Planet Earth is full of bumbling Biblical fire and post-apocalyptical brimstone.

The rest of this DVD offers up the rare chance of seeing other filmmakers interpret Romano’s ideas. As one of the screenwriters for the famed Showtime series Masters of Horror, the author has come up with some great fictional movies as part of his tribute to terror, and independent icons like Richard Griffin and Dave Neabone take his cinematic psychosis to heart. These fake trailers with their attempt to mimic the look and feel of the old drive-in dynamic are hilarious, indicative of how influential the entire era and its entertainment have become. In fact, when viewed alongside the more mainstream attempts by directors such as Eli Roth and Edgar Wright (for Tarantino and Rodriguez’s glorious Grindhouse), they compare more than favorably.

Disc Two takes up the macabre mantle and doesn’t let up. It’s fascinating to see how clueless studios were in marketing neo-masterworks like Dario Argento’s Suspiria and Deep Red, or how much of the plot to something like Grizzly or Invasion of the Bee Girls is given away in the trailer. Yes, the choices do traipse away from the strictly scary movie domain once in a while (Saturn 3?), but its great to see such singular nasties as Beyond the Door 2 and Pieces championed. For fans, some of the previews will seem surreal. Lucio Fulci gets a double dose of questionable come-on. His House by the Cemetery looks and sounds nothing like the film, while The Beyond – here presented in the Americanized basterdization The Seven Doors of Death – makes one wonder if these advertisers are really talking about the same spooky ghost story.

It’s the same with the second DVDs TV spotlight. Far too short (only about 45 minutes), we got some very intriguing broadcast appropriate takes on titles like Massacre at Central High and God Told Me To, but for the most part, the limits of the medium mandate that some of the more interesting material – read: blood, guts, violence and skin – be excised. Even more frustrating are the radio previews offered up on Disc Three. Sure, they sound amazing, filled with the kind of creepy evil atmosphere that get the inner chambers of your disturbed imagination working overtime. But like the overreliance on the work of Al Adamson (there’s even a special trailer tribute to the hack filmmaker and his distributor Independent International Pictures), the duplication can grow aggravating.

Luckily, Bloody Earth Films and Shock-O-Rama Cinema do a wonderful job of fleshing out the overall offering. Romano is available for clever, insightful commentary tracks that, while not 100% film specific, do provide a wonderful synopsis of the era and its characteristics. There are also numerous Easter Eggs, poster art galleries, additional trailers and interviews, and a foldout poster and collectible booklet. It all adds up to a nice primer on the kind of cinema we don’t see today: softcore silliness like Flesh Gordon; oddball atrocities like Sadomania or Gone with the Pope; splatterific statements like Maniac or Bloodsucking Freaks. Film is too safe today, too micromanaged in to what will work within a certain specific demographic and what won’t. Missing is most of the fun, the chutzpah, and the hackneyed hilarity of the Shock Festival follies.

True, trailer compilations are nothing new. Since the dawn of home video companies have been capitalizing on the nostalgia and unknown quantity factor in such ‘previous-views’ to make a little money. Shock Festival gives you much more than just a public domain discussion of the topic. With Stephen Romano as your guide, as well as a wealth of unusual material at his disposal, a far more salient big picture overview can be presented. This collection is not just interested in a specific type (zombie films) or company’s (Something Weird) credits. Instead, it wants to examine the entire approach to genre shilling – from the hard sell to soft suggestiveness, from the entire plot to nothing plausible. While we love to argue about the cinematic ads of today, there are a lot of similarities illustrated by the past positions taken by the Shock Festival set. No matter the era, ballyhoo is ballyhoo – and this is some of the best.

RATING 9 / 10