Stefano (Gabriele Lavia), a struggling writer, receives a second-hand typewriter from his wife, Alessandra (Anne Canovas), as a wedding anniversary gift. He finds that the typewriter ribbon has some text still visible on it, presumably written by the previous owner. Stefano transcribes everything he finds on the ribbon and is amazed to find that it contains a description of a geological region called a K-Zone and that the writer has donated his body toward an experiment intended to resurrect him after death by burying him in one of these K-Zones. Stefano resolves to find out just what this is all about as a means to give himself inspiration for his next novel. He soon finds out about the K-Zone theory of a Dr Meyer (who studied the findings of Paolo Zeder, an archaeologist who disappeared without trace), which tells how some ancient burial sites may be 'suspended in time' allowing a body buried in such a place to be resurrected under certain circumstances. Stefano also finds out, with the help of a friend from the police force, that the previous owner of the typewriter was an ex-priest by the name of Luigi Costa. Meanwhile, a shadowy research group with branches all over Europe, conspire to silence anyone who knows too much as they prepare to bring Costa's last wishes to fruition. When Stefano and Alessandra's investigations lead them to a mysterious abandoned ex-summer camp (where Luigi Costa once worked) in the middle of the Italian countryside, powerful forces begin to move against them: Stefano's policeman friend is apparently transferred to another area but later turns up dead, and a young woman who offers Stefano some information, is brutally stabbed to death before he can interview her. When Stefano discovers some of the macabre goings-on inside the abandoned camp there is simply no going back, for either himself or his innocent wife.
Writer and director Pupi Avati's name seems to crop up almost everywhere you look in Italian cinema. He is generally recognised as an un-credited contributor to the screenplays of both Argento's "Profondo Rosso" and Pier Paolo Pasolini's notorious "Salo", and was the writer and producer of Lamberto Bava's debut movie "Macabre". Recently, he has mostly turned away from the horror and thriller genres but is still highly regarded as one of Italy's finest directors; he is mostly revered by genre buffs in Europe and America though, for writing and directing two of the most highly original works of the last twenty-five years: the atmospheric giallo "The House With the Windows that Laughed" (1976) and 1983's "Zeder" - an interesting take on the zombie movie with a touch of "Re-Animater" thrown in. This is no Fulci style, gut munching zombie fest though - so be warned! Anyone familiar with Avati's 1976 giallo will know pretty much what to expect: a subtle mood piece with some quite complex plotting, that relies on building up tension through suggestion rather than explicit gore, although it doesn't do itself any favours with it's opening ten minute prologue which involves the residents of a châteaux being terrorised by a spectral zombie figure in 1930's France. This sequence does, very much feel like a Fulci zombie movie but the thread is quickly abandoned and the film then concentrates on the conspiracy angle instead. Some people are bound to be disappointed by this.
One of the things that made "The House With The Windows That Laughed" stand out from the pack was Avati's almost uncanny ability to bring the Italian landscape to life; the palpable sense of place that he manages to conjure up makes the macabre events at the film's finale all the more jarring. "Zeder" is the equal of that film in this respect. Modern-day Bologna is shot in a Tenebrae-like 'Mediterranean' light that manages to create a sense of unease with it's very normality. A scene in a swimming-baths is the perfect example of how a completely benign looking setting can be transformed almost imperceptibly into a place of intrigue and menace with just a change of lighting. Architectural features and buildings also contribute to creating the extraordinary atmosphere in Avati's films: The climax of "Zeder" takes place in a dilapidated structure, full of secret tunnels and passage ways, that looks like some kind of giant concrete car-park dumped in the middle of the Italian countryside. Again, there is something about it that just looks wrong and sets you on edge, even though, at times, nothing in particular seems to be happening on screen. Avati is aided and abetted in all this with some fine cinematography from Franco-Delli-Colli, who's work is most likely familiar to gialli fans through such films as Massimo Dallamano's "What Have They Done To Your Daughters" and Andrea Bianchi's "Strip Nude For Your Killer", and a clever score by Riz Ortolani ("Cannibal Holocaust", "The Pyjama Girl Case") which ranges from nervy underscored string pieces to thumping, Goblin-like prog-rock. Add genre stalwart Gabriele Lavia ("Profondo Rosso", "Inferno") to the mix as the leading man and surely we have a sure-fire classic of Italian horror on our hands?
Well, yes and no. Despite containing a wealth of ideas and interesting themes, and Avati's evident directorial skill, the screenplay seems to constrain the original elements of the film too tightly within a traditional giallo-like template. In fact, if you stand back and compare the two films, "Zeder" and "The House With The Windows That Laughed" are structured almost identically: we have a diffident hero who becomes obsessed with uncovering a mystery (they even have the same name!); as each film progresses, the protagonist gets increasingly out of his depth as it becomes apparent that some kind of conspiracy surrounds the object that sparked off the initial mystery; finally, events build up to a shocking event and the film then rounds off with a final twist as a coda. This structure works wonderfully for "House..." because there is a cohesion between the unravelling of the mystery elements of the plot and the 'shock' twists that accompany each revelation. But with "Zeder", although the giallo formula is handled fairly well (one clue to the fact that a character is not quite as benign as he first appears was completely missed by me on first viewing), we know from early on pretty much where the film is heading, and consequently it does feel a little like we are simply marking time until we get to the climax which, inevitably, doesn't have quite the same power as the climax of "House..." - even though it is very skilfully handled. The final twist is potentially the best element of the film, but it is simply thrown away as a launch pad into the end credits. I can't help feeling the film would have been so much better if the theme introduced by this final development had been concentrated on more fully.
Once again, 20th Century Fox have given us another fine transfer that is the equal of their brilliant restoration job on "House...". A vivid, crisp image with strong colours throughout is accompanied by two Italian audio tracks -- the original mono track and a 5.1 remix -- and an English mono track. English subtitles are included, so you can watch the film in it's original Italian format but the English audio dubbing is, for once, not that bad either. Extras wise we get a 15 minute featurette on the making of the film but unfortunately no English subtitles are provided for it. Finally, a trailer for the film is included along with a trailer for "The House With The Windows That Laughed". Despite my final reservations this is still an essential purchase for fans of Italian horror. Although, in my opinion, it is not quite as successful as Avati's true giallo, it is enormously atmospheric and contains an original mix of elements that put it in a genre all of it's own ... how many other giallo-come-zombie movies have you seen recently?