The late ’70s and early ’80s were the prime time for a seedy, blood-drenched strain of horror filmmaking in Italy. Old hands like Lucio Fulci, Ruggero Deodato and Umberto Lenzi turned their focus to making a series of wild shockers that mixed over-the-top bloodshed and a dollop of sexy sleaze in a manner defined by a uniquely Italian style of go-for-broke deliriousness. They were the “can you take it?” shockers of their day and, though they have been topped for shock effect in successive decades, they retain a sense of malicious fun that today’s ultragore spectacles do not have.
Dr. Butcher M.D. is a fine example of this sort of vintage Italian nastiness. It was known as Zombie Holocaust in its homeland and as that title suggests, it’s a mash-up of Fulci’s Zombie and Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust. The ghoulish theft of body parts in an NYC hospital is tied to cannibal cult on a far-flung tropical island by doctor/anthopologist Lori Ridgeway (Alexandra Delli Colli) – and she’s quickly sent to the island with Dr. Chandler (Ian McCulloch) and tabloid reporter Susan (Sherry Buchanan) to get to the bottom of things. Unfortunately, there’s more to deal with on this island than just cannibal natives, leading to a paint-the-island-red narrative filled with cannibal attacks, zombies, a mad doctor and gallons of charmingly cheap gore.
Dr. Butcher M.D. surprisingly was not directed by one of the usual Italian horror directors of the time. It was made by Marino Girolami, a journeyman near the end of his career who mainly did comedies, but he turns in respectable work. He’s not as stylish as Fulci or as daring as Deodato, simply going for a no-frills, brisk style of direction that is further enhanced by the additional editing from American distributor Aquarius Releasing.
That said, Dr. Butcher, M.D. makes up for its simple style with a barrage of gruesome goods, with FX men Maurizio Trani and Rosario Prestopino delivering an array of dismemberments, disembowelments, scalpings, throat-slashings, etc. The script by Romano Scandariato furthers up the splatter ante by throwing in creative grue like a zombie head pulped to mush with an outboard motor and a cannibal who greedily digs his fingers into a victim’s ocular cavities up to the third knuckle to dig out the eyeballs. None of these moments are particularly convincing or scary but they’re done with a bravura and a fearless tackiness that makes them jump off the screen like macabre punchlines from an E.C. Comic.
And that’s not all the wildness that Dr. Butcher, M.D. has to offer. The bloodshed is offset by a dash of cheesecake, mainly in the form of having Delli Colli gratuitously strip a few times: the most memorable is an extended full-frontal bit scene emulates a famous moment in Slave Of The Cannibal God. Aquarius also added a wild synth score by Walter Sear that whoops, buzzes, whines and burbles in an accidentally avant-garde manner, adding a layer of discordant surrealism to the proceedings. Zombie fans will enjoy seeing McCulloch deliver a charmingly straight-forward British performance amidst all the craziness and Donald O’Brien steals a number of scenes late in the film as the title figure, a character who has an endless array of quotably trashy lines (“Patient’s scream disturbing me. Performed removal of vocal chords!” ).
The results are wildly entertaining for any horror fan who loves their vintage fare crimson-drenched and rude. It’s a throwback to a time where Italian genre filmmakers could crank out shockers with professional production values and a bit of location shooting while still indulging in over-the-top splatter that American filmmakers wouldn’t even try to emulate. Best of all, it proves that a gorefest can have a loopy, comic-book sensibility that makes it transgressive fun instead of a gloomy tour through the abattoir. In short, Dr. Butcher, M.D. is grindhouse horror at its most entertaining and no survey of ’80s shockers is complete without it.