Zé do Caixão (or Coffin Joe), is the creation and alter ego of Brazilian, low-budget filmmaker, José Mojica Marins. In the early sixties Mojica's Coffin Joe movies (which include titles such as "At Midnight I'll Eat Your Corpse") were massive hits in Brazil and the Coffin Joe character — in a country previously deprived of a home-grown horror icon — gave rise to a wide range of merchandise, including comic books and even a pop record! Mojica meanwhile, became a major Brazilian celebrity; constantly appearing in character (with his trademark black hat and freakishly long fingernails), on chat shows and at public events. The line between Mojica and the blaspheming, amoral, black-garbed undertaker that is Coffin Joe, became so blurred that apparently, many people began to really believe that the character existed! Mojica had created his own mythology through sheer charisma and force of will.
In 1969, Mojica released his most ambitious film. "Awakening Of The Beast" is probably best described as Coffin Joe's response to the sixties counter culture; a bizarre and sometimes disturbing psychedelic odyssey in which Mojica plays himself — and his creation, the Coffin Joe character, serves as a kind of catalyst for Mojica's unique, surrealist brand of commentary on contemporary Brazilian society. Thirty years later, the film stands as one of the most deranged pieces of celluloid to ever hit the screen. Heaven knows what the Brazilian military dictatorship of the time really made of it all; but thanks to the film's copious references to drug-taking, sexual perversion, and its claim to aspire to social commentary, they played on the safe side and banned it anyway! Which is how things remained for twenty years. Mojica, who financed his own films independently and cast them entirely with actors from his own acting school, was now unable to obtain money to carry on with his projects, and was eventually reduced to making a bestiality porno movie called "Twenty-Four Hours of Hot Sex"!
Now, with their release of "Awakening Of The Beast" on DVD in the UK, the wonderful Mondo Macabro introduce a new generation of genre buffs to the weird world of José Mojica Marins.
The film is an odd mix of exploitation and supposedly, social comment. The first half is in black & white and is made up of a series of episodes which are supposed to be "case histories" detailing the social problems that are afflicting late-sixties Brazil as related by a Dr Segio to a panel of his colleagues, which include José Mojica Marins himself! We first see a woman doing a striptease for a bunch sweaty, shifty-looking men. They unwrap a package which contains a pot, and the now naked woman finishes her strip by taking a crap in the pot while an anti-war song plays in the background and the shifty men watch! We then get to see such delights as underwear sniffing, drug taking (lots of lurid scenes of people injecting themselves crop up persistently throughout the film), and little vignettes which include some guy who enjoys kicking young girls up the arse, and a middle-aged woman who keeps a donkey in her apartment which she seems rather too fond of (we don't see any explicit donkey lovein' thankfully, but the animal sure has a strange look on his face)! All this is strictly in aid of education of course!
Inter-cut with these scenes, we see the Dr and his colleagues discussing his "theory" about the causes of the current malaise in Brazilian society, and Mojica appears on a tv show where the popularity of Coffin Joe is discussed and Mojica is put "on trial" by the studio audience who have to decide whether he is an artist or whether his work is just exploitative trash! Coffin Joe's popularity in Brazil is referenced by Mojica throughout the film: a Coffin Joe poster appears on a wall; we see images from the Coffin Joe comic strip in one scene, and we even hear a snatch of the pop record Mojica made.
The second half of the film concerns the doctor experimenting on four of his subjects from different social classes, to determine the effects of LSD. All four subjects appeared in the case histories of the first part, and the doctor has them all concentrate on a Coffin Joe poster while they trip out on the drug. We now get to see their hallucinations inter-cut with each other. This is where the film really comes into it's own: it now bursts into riotous technicolor and Mojica finally appears as Coffin Joe. The four experimental subjects find themselves in his underworld, where they witness strange creatures and all manner of perverse sights. One of Mojica's previous Coffin Joe movies contained a twelve minute colour segment which depicted Hell. The colour segment of "Awakening Of The Beast" though, is even more demented and intense. It is an audio & visual onslaught which, despite it's low budget effects, manages to be even more unnerving because of it's fierce rawness. These scenes feel far more real, despite their surreal and disorientating nature, than anything else in the film, and the clarity and vividness with which Mojica's brings his fertile imagination to life on the screen calls to mind that other twisted vision of dream-consciousness -- David Lynch's "Eraserhead". The bizarre "arse creatures" which appear at one point (consisting of people bending over with faces painted and modelled on their backsides!) are as simultaneously scary and funny as the Radiator Lady or the deformed baby-creature from Lynch's film. The comparison extends to the soundtrack: while Lynch famously utilised industrial noise for "Eraserhead", Mojica's nightmare visions of torment are accompanied by an almost overpowering cacophony of groans and shrieks and cackles, which makes the images (such as Coffin Joe's "human staircase") feel even more disturbed and disturbing.
The film finishes with the doctor revealing that he used distilled water and not LSD in the experiment! The hallucinations were entirely the result of auto-suggestion and this apparently proves that Brazil's social problems are not strictly due to drugs but must have their root deeper in society. It's difficult to see what Brazils censorship board found so unacceptable about the film's "message" since it seems rather confused and half-baked to say the least, perhaps they hallucinated the subversive elements ... the film is one long bad trip after all!
Mondo Macabro give "Awakening Of The Beast" a perfectly acceptable release on this UK Region 0 DVD. The film is scoped at 1.66:1 and although it is non-anamorphic, I don't feel much has been lost by this -- the transfer looks as good as it ever will do given the quality of the print, which despite a few blemishes, is in remarkably good shape despite the age of the film. The stereo audio track is in Portuguese and there are removable English subtitles which are clearly readable throughout. The sound quality is for the most part, rather good - although occasional background noise can be heard in some segments. Thankfully, this is not frequent enough for it to become a major distraction.
Extras wise we get some well written and informative biographical notes on José Mojica Marins and a twenty-five minute documentary from Channel 4's Mondo Macabro series which includes interviews with Mojica, and some of the people he has worked with. We also get to see numerous clips from the first two Coffin Joe movies, which makes me hopeful that they too may get a UK DVD release in the near future. This is quite a useful primer on one of the most interesting characters in world cinema.
Mondo Macabro have quickly established themselves as purveyors of all that is wild, weird and cult-ish in world cinema; they have unleashed some wonderful oddities on us so far, and although not all of these films may be "good" in the normal sense of the world, they are always fascinating and thoroughly addictive. "Awakening Of The Beast" is probably the weirdest, wackiest and most addictive of them all — and a must for any genre fan who, like me, is constantly on the lookout for the unusual and the exotic. Recommended!
The film is uncut and has been passed with an "18" Certificate by the BBFC. Cheers guys!