"Rabid Dogs" (1974) is possibly the last truly great film to be directed by Italian maestro Mario Bava. In some ways it signified a marked departure from the beautifully artificial style of much of his previous output; but it definitely represents the most explicit embodiment of the director's exceptionally bleak world-view, and the thematic concerns that Bava developed throughout his many films (when he was working in the Gothic, Gialli, Peplum, Fumetti or Spaghetti Western genres) are just as evident here, his only venture into crime thriller territory — a genre that had become very popular in Italy at the time the film was made in the mid-seventies.
Four ruthless criminals carry out a raid on the payroll delivery at a pharmaceuticals company. Several people are killed during the robbery, and the gang make their escape with the stolen loot, hotly pursued by the police. One of the criminals is killed: shot dead amid the hail of police gunfire that envelops the gang's getaway car — which soon runs out of gas when the tank also takes a hit. The remaining three attempt to escape on foot, but finally get cornered in an underground car park. Now completely surrounded by the authorities, the desperate criminals take drastic measures and grab two female hostages. They deliberately murder one of them in cold blood — making sure the police authorities can see every detail — and threaten to kill the other if they are not allowed to leave. The police back down, and the three robbers, plus Maria (Lea Lander), their remaining hostage, exit the car park and immediately hijack a passing vehicle!
This turns out to belong to a middle-aged man called Riccardo (Riccardo Cucciolla) who tells the trio that he desperately needs to get to a hospital quickly or his chronically sick son will die! Sure enough, the gang notice that there is a comatose young child, wrapped in a red blanket, lying on the back seat! The gang leader, Dottore (Maurice Poli) is unmoved — and demands that Riccardo help them make their escape ... or else he, his son, and Marie will all be murdered anyway! It soon becomes apparent to Marie and Riccardo that although Dottore seems to be quite ruthless, the other two criminals are just complete psychopaths — barely held in check by their calm and collected leader! One of them: nicknamed "Blade" (Aldo Caponi) after his favourite weapon, is a cold-hearted murderer; while the other: "Thirty-Two" (Luigi Montefiori) is a rapist and sexual psychopath, named after the alleged size (in centimetres) of his manhood! The two innocent bystanders now find themselves trapped in the confined space of Riccardo's small car, under the sweltering heat of the harsh Italian summer, with three unpredictable and savage criminals who will stop at nothing to avoid capture!
The story of the making of "Rabid Dogs" is a long and torturous one that ended unhappily for Bava when the film's production company went bankrupt just before post-production on it was completed. It was seized as an asset in the ensuing bankruptcy proceedings and it remained in uncompleted limbo for twenty-five years! This was a major disaster for Bava since "Rabid Dogs" was meant to be his big commercial comeback after the embarrassing failure at the box-office of "Lisa And The Devil" (1972) which was his most personal piece of work. That film is now considered one of Bava's greatest masterpieces by fans, but it's unique mix of surrealism, Gothic horror, and fetishistic gialli motifs passed audiences by at the time. This example of the stylish, otherworldly fantastique genre, that Bava had been so instrumental in formulating — now seemed old-fashioned to modern horror audiences. The opaque, metaphysical symbolism and beautifully crafted images of "Lisa And The Devil" were out — shock and exploitation where in. The same year "Lisa..." was released also saw the release of Wes Craven's "The Last House On The Left" (1972): a rather crude low-budget exploitation film which nevertheless, through it's gritty documentary realism, seemed to capture the tumultuous mood of the time. Ironically, Bava's own take on human nature had always been just as bleak as the one depicted in Craven's film (as his blackly ironic "Bay Of Blood" (1971) had ably demonstrated the previous year); but no longer were Bava's beautiful and complex mythic fairy tales enough to scare and delight audiences. The world would have to wait for the next generation of European directors — who were much more willing to push the envelope when it came to sex and violence than Bava ever was — to revitalise the fantastique genre.
Bava meanwhile, set to work on a very different type of film: "Rabid Dogs" was about as far away from "Lisa And The Devil" as it was possible for the director to get. Firstly, the supernatural element that played such a big role in many of the director's films ("Black Sunday" , "Black Sabbath" , "Whip And The Body" , Kill Baby...Kill , "Hatchet For A Honeymoon" , "Lisa And The Devil" ) is completely missing from "Rabid Dogs". Although Bava had made many films that were set in the real world, their mise-en-scène would nearly always indicate an otherworldly, subjective state through the use of the director's famously baroque set-designs and irrational lighting schemes ("Blood And Black Lace , The Girl Who Knew Too Much ), or else there would often be a bold, comic-book style to the films that took the viewer out of their contemporary settings (Danger: Diabolic , "Four Times That Night" , "Five Dolls For An August Moon" , "Bay Of Blood" ). "Rabid Dogs" though, has a resolutely naturalistic look. The bizarre games "Lisa And The Devil" played with time and space are forsaken for a contemporary setting which becomes restricted to the inside of a small car for nearly all of the film's running time! All four main characters are squeezed into this ludicrously small space which is used to bring Bava's main themes more sharply into focus than ever before!
"Rabid Dogs" is Bava at his most extreme; the film is a stripped down examination of the corrupt nature of man, and despite eschewing many of the excesses of films like "Last House..." it ends up being much more powerful, due to the director's skill in creating a mounting sense of claustrophobia while steadily building the tension as the situation gets ever more out of hand. Although it's closer to "Straw Dogs" (similar title?) than Craven's film in terms of the skill and vision behind it, it seems Bava might have felt the need to respond to the new frankness in attitudes to the depiction of sex and violence engendered by "Last House..." and films of that ilk. "Rabid Dogs" deals with violence in a much blunter and more realistic way than the beautifully shot, highly-stylised fashion of "Blood And Black Lace", or the over-the-top cartoon-like manner of "Bay Of Blood". Murder is a sordid, brutal, affair and every death is felt as a real lose, although not always by all of the characters in the film! The dialogue is unusually foul-mouthed as well for a Bava film! Although the director always avoided this in his other features, here it serves a useful function: as the gang of thuggish criminals variously threaten or bully their hostages, an atmosphere of barely suppressed violence is established verbally and permeates the entire film, even when there is ostensibly nothing happening on screen visually. Bava ruthlessly exploits the vulnerability of the unconscious child with the two, more unstable, criminals threatening to "cut his testicles off" at one point if Riccardo doesn't cooperate!
"Say, Thirty-Two, do you think you could kill a child?", asks the murderous thug, "Blade". "Sure, no skin off my ass!" comes the reply!
Bava controls the tension with various set-pieces throughout the film, as the two hostages look for a way out of their predicament; but a key moment comes when Maria attempts to escape! After persuading the gang to stop for a toilet break, she makes a run for it across a field! This is the only sequence in the film that is overtly reminiscent of Bava's previous work: his camera relentlessly pursuing the young woman as she is ruthlessly hunted down. Lots of unusual camera angles and shadowy lighting schemes are employed as Maria arrives at a farm but cannot get anyone to answer her desperate pleas for help! This turns out to be a constant theme throughout the film: evil flourishes in the face of cold-hearted apathy. It's made even more apparent later in the film when an attendant at a gas-station where the criminals and their hostages make a stop, notices that something is up, but cannot be bothered to do anything about it! Bava places a phone-booth prominently in shot with the attendant walking slowly towards it as the gang drive away. But the attendant simply walks on past the phone and back to his afternoon nap!
After Maria's abortive escape attempt, "Blade" and "Thirty-Two" punish the young woman in a scene which appears to have been lifted directly from "Last House On The Left". Since she tried to escape by asking to relieve herself, they force her to urinate in front of them! It's instructive to look at how both films handle these very similar scenes quite differently. Strangely, Bava makes the scene much more explicit than Craven does, but it is the documentary-style realism that is more disturbing in "Last House..." while in "Rabid Dogs", the scene is intended as simply another, highly effective, tension building exercise. Craven makes it much more confrontational and voyeuristic: the images are shaky and "un-cinematic" and leave the viewer with the feeling that they are watching something elicit and "dirty". Bava, though, milks the material for dramatic worth and to create more empathy for the young heroine, using all the cinematic skills at his disposal. This means, ironically, that the scene ends up being much longer and more psychologically torturous -- and there is much more of a sexually-charged lasciviousness to it. The two thugs force Maria to remove her underwear, creating the expectation in both the character and the audience that a rape is about to follow. They then force her to spread her legs and hitch up her skirt. The camera switches to a low angle shot from behind Maria, so that we see the drooling reaction of the two thugs to Maria's humiliation. Finally, the woman's tormentors force her to wipe herself in front of them with the removed underwear. This link with "Last House On The Left" came full-circle a few years later with the release of Pasquale Festa Campanile's enjoyable but superficial exploitation road-movie romp "Hitch-Hike" (1977). That film, which obviously lifts it's basic plot outline from Bava's "Rabid Dogs", sees Franco Nero and Corinne Clery hosting a vicious car-jacker, this time played by "Last House..." psycho himself: David Hess! Campanile adds much more explicit nudity, and the film even goes so far as to end on a note of Bava-style cynical irony — although it doesn't have anywhere near the emotional and thematic power of Bava's film.
Maria's misfortunes are not over. Her escape attempt leads "Thirty-Two" in particular to subject her to numerous humiliations once back inside the car, and this leads the gang to eventually start falling out and to turn on each other, as well as their prisoners! When "Thirty-Two" attempts to rape Maria in the back-seat of Riccardo's car while on a motorway, in full view of other motorists, it leads to another decisive moment as Dottore's authority over his two accomplices is challenged. Dottore is a much more complicated character than the other two gang members; while it seems that "Thirty-Two" and "Blade" represent the most obviously sinful aspects of human nature, in a perverse kind of way, they are almost innocents! They react to situations in an unreflective manner and their motives are, consequently, rather transparent, if always ignoble! Dottore at first, appears to be a cause for hope for the two hostages: he doesn't abuse them, and promises they will be freed unharmed if they cooperate. But he is eventually revealed to be much more calculating, and much more dangerous than the other two criminals. In the end, his ruthless greed leads to a climatic confrontation when Maria and Riccardo realise that Dottore does plan to kill them (and the child) once they have evaded the police pursuit!
Although this climactic scene appears to end somewhat unhappily, there does at least seem to be some cause for hope; but then there is a further development which rams home Bava's pessimistic view of human nature even more effectively! Without giving too much away, this really causes a total reassessment of everything that has happened and starkly illustrates that the world of Bava is one where nobility and innocence are always sacrificial lambs on the altar of ruthless ambition and cold-hearted greed. The final image of the film is both chilling and ironic; rather than being just a cheap "twist" it actually enriches the whole film, and makes it one well worth revisiting again and again with the new perspective it brings about in mind.
This rich, if pessimistic, thriller would almost certainly have been lost if it were not for it's lead actress, Lea Lander, who financed the completion and restoration of the film for a DVD release. A new opening credit sequence was shot according to Bava's script-notes and the film was edited (sometimes rather more roughly than was probably originally intended, admittedly!) and scored according to the cues composer Stelvio Cipriani had finished recording for the film. The result was generally considered to be as close to Bava's intentions as was humanly possible. But in 2002, Alfredo Leone (Bava's main producer, who now owns the rights to all of Bava's catalogue) authorised a new version under the name "Kidnapped" featuring additional footage shot by Lamberto and Roy Bava, and a brand new fully complete score from Cipriani. The new version has yet to appear on DVD but the old disc has been deleted and is now incredibly hard to come by (VHS dupes of the DVD can be found quite easily on the web though).
Whatever becomes of the new version, the original restoration (with it's much more evocative title) deserves to be seen by Bava fans and it is well worth tracking down. It's re-release cemented Bava's reputation, and showed that he was still able to adapt to the times and successfully venture into new genres. "Rabid Dogs" is a roughly-hewn masterpiece