Death Smiles on a Murderer suffers from bad synopses on the web, and the DVD cover doesn’t help. From the IMDb page: “A man discovers an ancient Incan formula for raising the dead, and uses it for a series of revenge murders.” The box shows Klaus Kinski pouring something into a beaker, which makes one think Kinski reanimates someone and sets them on a murder spree. So you can imagine my initial confusion when I watched the movie. Also, doesn’t Death Smiles on a Murderer just sound like a giallo title if you’ve ever heard one? Well, this is not a giallo, but supernatural horror at its finest. And weirdest.
What really happens is this: after some flashbacks showing the incredibly creepy Luciano Rossi lusting after his sister, played by Ewa Aulin, Aulin is in a carriage crash in front of the home of an incredibly rich socialite couple. The crash kills the carriage driver by impalement, and Aulin is examined by the good doctor Kinski. During the examination, Kinski notices a weird symbol on a medallion the young woman is wearing, and so he decides to SHOVE A NEEDLE into her eye. She does not blink, and so he knows that she is a reanimated corpse. Ta da! Except when good old Klaus goes to reanimate the carriage driver, a pair of hands attached to a person we never see strangles him.
In the meantime, Ewa Aulin takes up with the rich couple and has an affair with both the man and the woman. The affairs were problematic from the get-go, considering that the lady of the couple begins their lesbian tryst by sneaking in on Aulin in the bathtub and shoving her head underwater. Not in a playful way, either. So it is really no surprise when the husband goes away on business and the wife decides to lock their lovely guest/plaything in a dungeon under their house and wall her up.
So you would think that Aulin would be dead by now, a month later when the fabulously rich and hedonistic couple throw a masquerade ball, except who should make a surprise appearance but the undead girl! Now the vengeful murder spree begins! But it is on her own behalf, out of anger for the way she died and because of her resurrection. There was no randomness when she crashed her death carriage in front of that house! She was vengeful from the beginning, for reasons that are told in, of course, more flashbacks. She is also creepy as hell, paper mache corpse makeup aside. There’s a lot of appearing and disappearing, stalking, morphing from beautiful to horrible, and plenty of nasty, gory, ridiculous kill scenes.
Having been a fan of Italian horror for a while, I am the first to tell you that these movies tend to be weird, or what we might politely deem “surreal;” well, this is the weirdest and most enjoyable one I’ve found in quite some time. Several scenes actually haunt me days after the viewing: one extended sequence when the ghost? of Rossi’s character torments a maid in the rich couple’s home (before an unseen killer shoots her in the face with a double-barreled shotgun) got to me. Also disturbing was the wife’s death scene. It’s bad enough that she falls from a great height and we get to see the aftermath, but it happens during the masquerade party, so all the guests run outside and find her. Worse than that (and a public, gruesome death in one of these movies always bothers me) is the way the camera lingers on her husband’s helpless gaze sweeping across the faces of his guests, who stand silent and cold in a semi-circle around the body. Most of them are still wearing their masks. It is one of the more eerie movie scenes I’ve encountered in quite some time.
I’ve been a fan of Joe D’Amato’s horror work since the second time I watched Buio Omega, and since that was technically the first Italian horror movie I saw, I’m partial to his films, but I’ll admit that his combos of sex and death don’t always work. I’m thinking of the awful Erotic Nights of the Living Dead, and George Eastman’s sex-with-jeans-on scenes here. I also have had a hard time imagining why reviewers of horror films often mention a connection to sex and death in horror in general, even when it’s not as blatant as it is in Death Smiles on a Murderer, until I thought for a couple of days about how Aulin’s character died (the first time): she died in childbirth. And then I thought about my own emergency C-section, without which both my son and I might have died. Of course, due to the fact that the operation was the only way he was coming out, in western medicine prior to the 1880s there would have been about an 85% chance that I would have died having him, and there’s still a 20/million incidence of death after the procedure today. So that was a duh moment for me regarding the literal linkage of sex and death in art: women get pregnant by having sex, and for most of human history complications at birth have had a high chance of leading to death. Metaphorically, of course, we have the description of an orgasm as a little death, and then there are some religious upbringings that preach on premarital sex as a hellbound sin, but the sex>pregnancy>death explanation works the best here.
But Aulin wasn’t just mad about being dead, she was mad about being brought back, too. And if she was the one who killed Kinski (we’re never sure), then she didn’t really want anyone else being reanimated either. At the end of the film, during her spree, she mockingly tells each victim that she’s going to belong to just them, forever, before she kills them. That’s where this film, similar to Buio Omega, gets its issue to be exploited. In both movies, D’Amato shows us a dead woman being treated like a doll, preserved for the pleasure of her preserver, as if there was some sort of statement to be made about how hampering a woman’s autonomy is bad. Of course, we then get lots of softcore sex and boobs and butts and stuff, because it’s exploitation, but I like to think that on some level old Joe was making a feminist statement with these two films. And luckily for ghouls like me, they’re gross and macabre feminist statements.
All clumsy attempts at critical analysis aside, see Death Smiles on a Murderer if you like The Blood Spattered Bride or Let’s Scare Jessica to Death. After you see this, you’ll never look at a beautiful woman, or a housecat, the same way again!