Released one year after the "Godfather Of Gore" Lucio Fulci's massively successful "Zombie 2" (1979) and in the same year as his cult favourite "City Of The Living Dead" (1980), "Contraband" is the director's one-and-only entry in the Italian crime thriller genre ... and what an entry it is! The film came more or less at the very end of an enormously successful run for a genre of films that have since become renowned for their gritty, ultra-realistic violence. Ironically though, after Fulci's "Zombie 2" proved such a money-spinner, they were almost completely replaced by a slew of gory zombie-based movies coming out of Italy instead! Fulci himself would end up being almost exclusively associated with the horror genre for a great many years, and his trilogy of surreally sadistic zombie epics are probably still his most revered works. "Contraband" occupies a unique place at the crossroads between two eras for the Italian film industry: Fulci carries forth the extreme violence he'd unleashed with "Zombie 2", but with the gory excesses here taking place in a contemporary, non-supernatural setting, sadism and cruelty become emphasised to such a heightened degree that they probably couldn't be taken any further without completely alienating audiences (as was to be the case a few years later in Fulci's "New York Ripper ). But, although the film is as extreme a gore-fest as any of Fulci's horror entries, it still ends up seeming curiously sentimental!
Luca Di Angelo (Fabio Testi) has moved to Naples with his adoring wife (Ivana Monti) and young son, where he now helps his older brother, Mickey (Giulio Farnese) to run the Mafia's bootlegging business -- smuggling cigarettes into the port via a fleet of blue speedboats and rigging horse races, etc. When the police bust one of their smuggling operations (forcing them to dump two-million lira worth of contraband in the ocean) Luca and Mickey suspect their arch enemy -- and head of one of the rival families operating in Naples -- Scherino (Ferdinando Murolo) of having tipped off the authorities, and so they bring in their up-and-coming Mafioso associate, Perlante (Saverio Marconi) with the intention of organising a concerted strike back! But, when Mickey's prized racehorse is killed and then Mickey himself is murdered in an ambush, it's clear that something very serious is going on! Soon, all the other Mafia heads that Luca tries to organise are being knocked off as well, and, acting on a tip-off, Luca comes to realise that a violent drug smuggler known as "The Margliese" is looking to take over his entire operation so that he can use Luca's speedboat fleet as an efficient method of transporting cocaine into Naples! When the Margliese's men kidnap his wife, it looks as though Luca might be forced to play ball with these ruthless foes...
This was the second Fulci film to feature handsome Italian film star Fabio Testi in the lead role; the first being the director's brutal 1975 Spaghetti Western, "Four Of The Apocalypse" (FOTA). Once again, the actor plays a criminal whose rugged good looks certainly don't hinder his ability to engage the sympathies of the audience! But this is perhaps rather fortunate; for while FOTA was a considered character study in which Testi portrayed a man who's facade of ruthless amorality is gradually chipped away by a series of life-changing experiences that lead him to re-evaluate his approach to life, "Contraband" features a rather more thinly written lead character. Luca Di Angelo is basically a good guy right from the get go ... despite working for the Mafia! His illegal activities are strictly small-time and he reacts with horror to the idea of selling drugs when propositioned by the evil Margliese. He, rather touchingly, worries about all the children who might be sold cocaine outside the school gates for example! If that's not pushing things, the screenplay very bluntly paints Luca and most of the other Naples mafioso as modern-day Robin Hood figures who are providing work in a depressed economy and supplying the poor with a cheap supply of cancer sticks ... what heroes!
Another strategy the writers of the screenplay employ to get us one-hundred per-cent on Luca's side involves giving him a sickeningly idyllic family life. Admittedly, there is some attempt to suggest a little friction between Luca and his wife (played by Ivana Monti) over their lifestyle, which requires her to turn a blind eye to her husbands black market activities, but this is short lived; the complicated plot soon edges it out, and Monti's role shrinks to that of nothing more than the good-natured wife who will do anything to support her husband. "Contraband" is also another of those Fulci films to feature a small child with an annoyingly cutesy voice (Supplied by an adult female in the English dub, no doubt.) In this case, the puddin' faced kid employed to play Testi's young son, thankfully, disappears from the film almost completely once the action gets started -- and at least he's not as annoying as that pug-nosed monstrosity from "House By The Cemetery" (1981)! Lesser actors would have a hard time holding back the tide of syrupy sentimentality in which the screenwriters seem determined to swamp Testi's character; the actor really doesn't need that kind of help after all! Testi is easily able to convey Luca's love for his wife (for instance) with just a subtle facial expression -- as is evident in the scene where Luca is being forced to listen to her being tortured over the phone. The previous soppy scenes between the two simply aren't needed to establish the fact! One can't help wishing that Testi's character had also been made just a little bit grittier and more equivocal in terms of his morality.
But if some of the characterisation is written with a lack of sophistication, Fulci makes up for it by delivering in other areas. His direction may not look particularly remarkable for the most part, but the director proves himself sufficiently competent when it comes to action sequences which include numerous bloody gun battles, a bomb blast, and even a speedboat chase! The thing that really catches the eye on first viewing though is surely the film's sadistic violence and visceral gore, which goes way beyond the levels of an ordinary action thriller of the time. Fulci lingers, with his customary relish, on a series of atrocities which include: shots of burned and mutilated bodies from a bomb blast; someone having the back of their skull blown away when a pistol is fired into their mouth; an already dying man having his face blown off at point blank range; and another character being shot in the throat and losing most of his neck in the process, among many other delights -- most of which are shown in slow motion and from multiple angles! Fulci wrings as much mileage from the carnage as possible, but there is also a great deal of outright cruelty on display that tips the film into the realms of exploitation.
For if the good guys have to be nicer than nice, then the bad guys have to be utter bastards! Marcel Bozzuffi, as the Margliese, essentially reprises his role from "The French Connection" (1971) to bring a thoroughly ruthless villain to the film (just in case we were in any doubt about which side we should be on) and this entails him indulging in a good deal of sadistic behaviour which Fulci doesn't hesitate to show us in great detail. In the film's two most notorious scenes, he punishes a female drugs courier (who tries to cut his smuggled cocaine with bicarbonate-of-soda) by slowly burning her face off with the flame from a bunsen burner, and sanctions the kidnapping of Luca's wife -- who is then beaten and sodomised while Luca is forced to listen on the end of a phone! It's some of the nastiest stuff in any of Fulci's work, with only "The New York Ripper" topping it for wanton cruelty. But at the heart of this apparent misogyny there actually lurks a rather sentimental streak, since the old guard Mafia -- who come out of retirement at the end of the film to clear up the chaos unleashed by the violent, drug-peddling new boys on the block -- are portrayed as cuddly, avuncular types ... even more harmless than Luca and his gang of benevolent cigarette smugglers -- apart from when it comes to dealing with drug pushers that is! The overall message of the film seems to be that the Mafia are ok ... apart from a few bad apples! But, at the end of the day, this is still enormously entertaining stuff. The actual plot is pretty complicated and the film requires at least a couple of viewings to completely understand all of it's labyrinthine intricacies -- but at least it stands up as a half-decent thriller and not just because of all the blood and guts! As with all of Fulci's film's from this period, the whole shebang is considerably enhanced by another great Fabio Frizzi score. Instantly recognisable as always, Frizzi's score adds a little cheesy Euro-disco to the mix and there is also an insanely catchy disco-tune that's played several times in the movie, and which you won't be able to get out of your head for days!
Blue Underground's disc is a fairly bare-bones affair: we get only a trailer and a Fulci bio as extras. The film it's self is presented in it's original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and is uncut. The image is quite soft, like most Fulci films, and there are occasional instances of print damage, but this is probably as good as the film is ever likely to look. The English-dubbed audio track is in mono and is nice and clear -- although some of the music soundtrack sometimes sounds a bit wobbly!
"Contraband" is an involving, gory, sadistic thriller, which is sure to pique the interest of every Euro-shock fan.