D V D   R E V I E W   B Y   J O H N   N U D G E

When first introduced to the Spaghetti Western back in the late 1960s (initially through Sergio Leone's "Dollars Trilogy"), I would seek out reviews of films I had watched in order to get more information on them. It wasn't long before I noticed the European-made Western had become the favorite whipping boy of the critics. Few films escaped trashing, if they were reviewed at all, and they were generally dismissed as drive-in fodder for undiscriminating audiences (I guess that meant me). Occasionally, trade papers such as Variety would make positive comments about technical aspects or the salability of a particular film, but the end result would be the same: they were judged junk for the masses.

Cited most often as a downside to these films is their reliance on violence to move the plot along, and often a film would be disregarded out-of-hand for this reason alone. But the critics of the time failed to see the wider appeal of the Spaghetti Western, what thrilled the fans, and why they influenced film making for the last 40 years.

*   *   *   *

Blue Underground's four-DVD set, The Spaghetti Western Collection, is a film lover's dream. Not only are we treated to full-length, high-quality prints -- in widescreen format, with English and Italian language options, English subtitles, and Dolby digital sound -- these films represent the good, the bad, and the ugly of the entire genre: none of these films saw general theatrical release in the US, and two were banned outright in several markets for excessive brutality. Represented here are Sergio Corbucci's Django, the first of the extremely violent Westerns that forced many to question whether the Spaghetti Western had any redeeming social value; Giulio Questi's notorious Django Kill! which gained a reputation as the sickest film of the genre; Run, Man, Run, a highly entertaining and much overlooked political Spaghetti Western from the deft hand of director Sergio Sollima; and a late entry to the cycle, Sergio Martino's action-packed Mannaja. Each of these films has achieved cult status in a genre that is still being talked about with a certain amount of reverence, and which is seeing a revival of sorts. Quenton Tarentino's ultra-violent Kill Bill Part 1 is loaded with Spaghetti Western references, and contains dozens of Spaghetti Western music score clips. In fact, Tarentino recently hosted showings of Corbucci's Navajo Joe and The Mercenary on the Trio TV network. The last two years saw Spaghetti Western festivals hosted on both Turner Classic Movies and the Western Channel.


Sergio Corbucci's brutal Django (1966) probably never should have made it to completion. Filming began in Italy in December of 1965 with no script and no financial backing. Even after a script had been started and production moved to Spain, funds had to be smuggled from Italy because the crew refused to work unless they got paid.

Plotwise ... well ... there is no plot. Civil War vet Django (Franco Nero) arrives in the territory carrying his saddle and dragging a coffin. He promptly saves a prostitute (Loredana Nusciak) from red-hooded outlaws by mowing down her attackers -- after they had mown down some Mexicans who were torturing her. Seems she was having a bad day. He follows her to town where he parks himself in the local saloon. Django eventually wipes out Major Jackson's (Eduardo Fajardo) gang (the creeps with the red hoods), steals gold from the Mexican army with the help of a Mexican outlaw gang, gets double crossed for the gold, steals the gold again, loses the gold, gets his hand smashed by the Mexicans, and finally meets Jackson in a showdown.

Motives are vague. Jackson is racist against Mexicans and makes some allusions to being a true Southerner. Django wants revenge on Jackson for something or other involving someone close to him. The desire for gold needs no explanation. At first look, Django is a mess.

What Django lacks in plot and characterization, it makes up with style. The film is a collection of masterful set pieces looking to define Corbucci's style and direction for future Westerns; Django arrives as a black-clad specter dragging a coffin through the muddy streets; Django, seemingly defenseless, alone and crouching in the mud awaits slaughter at the hands of the Major's men -- until he reveals the machine gun hidden in his coffin; after his hands are crushed, Django uses his teeth to make his gun easier to fire for the final cemetery shootout.

Aiding this style-defining Western is the camera work of wiz Enzo Barboni and the somber, brooding score by Luis Bacalov (decades before he won an Oscar for Il Postino). Django was not only one of the most popular and influential films of its time, it has achieved cult status.

For this release, Blue Underground acquired the original negative. This is evidenced in some minor age-related imperfections as an acceptable trade-off for overall clarity and color. The results are far superior to any previous release. Included on the DVD are interviews with star Franco Nero and Assistant Director Ruggero Deodato.

Django Kill

Cult director Giulio Questi's bizarre Django Kill ...If You Live, Shoot! (aka Django Kill!) (1967) is perhaps the most notorious Spaghetti Western of all time. The Stranger (Tomas Milian) survives a double cross by a bandit gang, digging his way out of a mass grave to the astonishment of two Indians. The Indians revive him and supply him with gold bullets so that he may exact revenge on his former partners. Meanwhile, his partners arrive in a remote town, only to be slaughtered by the residents. The Stranger (there is no "Django," contrary to the movie's title) arrives in time to help capture the last bandit. The story moves on to the search for the bandits' gold, which disappeared during the slaughter, and the involvement of a powerful rancher, who rules the territory with his gang of black-clad homosexual "muchachos" (clearly a swipe at Italy's fascists). The Stranger rides out of town only after everyone else has died in grotesque fashion.

Questi seems to have gone out of his way to be shocking and outrageous. While the look and sound of the film are certainly within the Spaghetti Western parameters, Questi instills in it an unsettling, surreal quality through bizarre details, psychotic characters, and the experimental editing of collaborator Franco Arcali. The townspeople are far more brutal than the bandits they kill, taking delight in hanging their bodies in the center of town as a warning (to whom is unclear since the town is obviously isolated). One town father keeps his wife locked away in an attic room. A young man is gang-raped (off-camera, thankfully) by the rancher's muchachos and the Stranger is crucified and tortured with vampire bats.

A couple scenes were cut before Django Kill! was released outside Italy, and these have been restored. However, they were never dubbed into English and are in Italian with English subtitles. One scene depicts a graphic scalping. In the other, the town doctor finds a gold bullet in a still-living bandit. When he announces his find, the men standing around pull out their knives and begin vivisecting the poor fellow for any more gold he might still contain. Outrageous stuff indeed!

The Django Kill! disc offers interviews with Milian, Questi, and actor Ray Lovelock.

Run, Man, Run

Like a diamond in a sack of other gems, Sergio Sollima's political Western, Run, Man, Run (1968) is the most consistently entertaining film in the set. The third in Sollima's trilogy, and a direct sequel to the highly-regarded The Big Gundown, Run, Man, Run has Tomas Milian reprising his role of thief/con artist/revolutionary Cuchillo Sanchez. Sanchez inadvertently becomes the guardian of the location of a fortune in revolutionary gold and is therefore the quarry of every greedy gun in the territory. With everyone chasing Cuchillo, including an ex-lawman and a Salvation Army officer, he barely has time to escape from one misadventure before finding himself in another.

Despite the leftist political messages of this film, Sollima infuses it with terrific action sequences and a healthy dose of humor, taking advantage of Milian's comedic abilities.

Sollima's high technical standards also makes this the most polished film in the set. The script is intelligent and involving, and the cast is a who's who of Spaghetti Western regulars including Donal O'Brien, Nello Pazafini, and Jose Torres. Bombshell Chelo Alonso plays Cuchillo's girlfriend. Guglielmo Mancori's exquisite widescreen cinematography effectively captures the grandeur of the Spanish desert and Italian mountain locations.

This disc has includes interviews with Sollima and Milian and a rare documentary on the making of this and other films. It also contains the Italian main title sequence. The one point of argument I have with this film is the confusion about who wrote the excellent music score. In his interview, Sergio Sollima confesses that Ennio Morricone composed the music, but the credit was given to Bruno Nicolai because of contractual reasons. However, after listening to the score over and over, I (and fans of both composers) am convinced Nicolai is the actual composer and the Morricone revelation is simply a legend.


Even though Mannaja (1977) was made two years after the Spaghetti Western boom had effectively died out, it is nevertheless a solid revenge Western which harkens back to the genre's roots. The formulaic plot has bounty hunter "Blade" (Maurizio Merli) arriving in town to exact revenge on the man who killed his father and stole his land. He winds up helping to rescue the man's kidnapped daughter and ends up in more trouble than he bargained for.

Fans of the genre should find little to disappoint in this movie. All the conventions are here, including frequent shootouts, harsh landscapes and strangely-dressed characters. But director Sergio Martino makes copious use of slow motion and Sam Pekinpah-inspired editing techniques -- things not seen in previous Spaghetti Westerns. The surreal quality of the film wound up being a side effect of working with the deteriorating Western town sets at Elios studios outside Rome. In order to camouflage the collapsing town, Martino filmed his town scenes in the rain and fog. This gives many of the scenes an unsettling dream-like quality, almost as if he knew he was making a last-of-its-kind film. Despite being a post-boom entry, Mannaja actually proved quite popular, but it did nothing to revive the genre. Popular genre star Merli dropped dead while playing tennis in 1989 and this is sadly his only Western.

Extras for Mannaja include an interview with director Martino.

*   *   *   *

I can't find much to quibble about with this set. The quality of the presentations, the extras and the handsome packaging make for a first class product. It's refreshing to see a company pay attention to the quality and content of its releases the way Blue Underground has done here. Wild East's Day of Anger and Image Entertainment's Vengeance set the standards of quality for Spaghetti Western DVDs, and The Spaghetti Western Collection has certainly met those standards. As an added bonus, computer users can hunt for the Easter eggs residing on each disc.

"The Spaghetti Western Collection" is now available on DVD from Blue Underground. This four-DVD set includes four movies: Django, Run Man Run, Django Kill, and Mannaja. Each disc includes a theatrical trailer, a poster and stills gallery; and talent bios. In addition, each disc includes interviews with the filmmakers and stars. Suggested retail price: $79.99 each. For more information, check out the Blue Underground Web site.