Grindhouse Releasing’s co-founder Bob Murawski presents three obscure, unflinching genre gems—”The Tough Ones,” “Hollywood 90028,” and “Impulse“—on April 15, 17, and 18.
Decades after the death of the grindhouse theater circuit, the influence of its genre films is stronger than ever. While respectable 1970s audiences went to see the latest Hollywood film, more dedicated filmgoers flocked to 42nd Street to seek out the latest in kung-fu, gory horror, sleazy softcore, or even a dubbed foreign-language flick. Considered disposable trash at the time, plenty of these low-budget films are worthy of rediscovery. Dozens of boutique labels have popped up in the last few decades dedicated to rereleasing these cult films, but Grindhouse Releasing is one of the oldest and best in the game.
Founded in 1996, Grindhouse’s focus on restoring exploitation films has helped cult classics The Beyond (1981), Death Game (1977), and I Drink Your Blood (1971) find new audiences. They’ve also lovingly reassembled lost and unfinished oddities like Gone With The Pope (2010) thanks to co-founder Bob Murawski’s Oscar-winning editing skills. Murawski and Grindhouse have long been participants in the Wisconsin Film Festival, and for the festival’s 25th anniversary, Murawski will be presenting three of their most recent restorations—The Tough Ones (1976) on Saturday, April 15, at 8:45 p.m., Hollywood 90028 (1973) on Monday, April 17, at 7:30 p.m., and Impulse (1974) on Tuesday, April 18, at 8:15 p.m.—as well as Murawski’s first film working for Sam Raimi, Army Of Darkness (1992), on Sunday, April 16 at 6:30 p.m.
The Tough Ones is a typically hyper-violent example of the Italian poliziotteschi genre. Influenced by cop/vigilante action movies like Dirty Harry (1971) and Death Wish (1974), poliziotteschi films reflected the violence and cynicism of Italy during the Years of Lead (1968-1988). The Tough Ones stars Maurizio Merli as renegade cop Leonardo Tanzi, who is determined to catch an elusive gang of criminals by any means necessary. Frustrated by due process, Tanzi employs more unorthodox methods like beating up suspects and planting drugs on gang member Vincenzo Moretto (Tomas Milian). Demoted to a desk job, Tanzi continues his crusade while the sadistic hunchback Moretto plots his revenge.
Best known for the video nasty Cannibal Ferox (1981), director Umberto Lenzi was a prolific genre filmmaker, and the poliziotteschi was a perfect outlet for his brand of gritty, fast-paced violence. Like many poliziotteschi , The Tough Ones is a reactionary fantasy, depicting Rome as an urban inferno full of muggers, bank robbers, and rapists, coupled with an overly lenient justice system unable to keep dangerous criminals off the streets. However, Lenzi is less interested in the film’s political implications as he is in packing it full of car chases, shootouts, and fistfights. Accented by a funky, synth-heavy score by Franco Micalizzi, The Tough Ones is a 1970s action-film fan’s dream come true.
The sole film by writer/director/producer Christina Hornisher, Hollywood 90028 is a truly unique oddity among exploitation films. While ostensibly a psychological proto-slasher, underneath the obligatory nudity and violence is a more personal film about a struggling artist in a rapidly changing Los Angeles. Christopher Augustine stars as Mark, an aspiring cinematographer stuck in a dead-end job filming softcore porn for a sleazy producer. He’s also a mentally disturbed strangler of women. Mark begins a strained relationship with Michelle (Jeanette Dilger), an aspiring actress from the Midwest who’s resigned herself to starring in nudies. Unable to get a better cameraman job, Mark’s mental state begins to slowly unravel.
Looking past the genre trappings, Hollywood 90028 is clearly semi-autobiographical, reflecting Hornisher’s inability to break into the film industry. Hornisher directed several well-received student films while at UCLA, but her career never took off like those of her contemporaries. In the mid-1960s it was common for Hornisher’s classmates like Francis Ford Coppola to work in the nascent adult film industry for quick cash and hands-on camera experience. Presumably Hornisher also had experience filming “nudie-cuties” given Hollywood 90028’s familiarity with that seedy world.
Chopped up, re-released, and re-titled anything from Insanity, The Hollywood Hillside Strangler, to Twisted Throats by its distributor, Hollywood 90028 is a true obscurity remembered by only the most die-hard drive-in enthusiasts. Grindhouse’s new 4K restoration aims to change that and give Hornisher some belated recognition. While slow and often clunky, Hollywood 90028 also contains some startling moments, such as the film’s unforgettable final shot, which captures Hornisher’s unfulfilled potential as a filmmaker. Like Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970), it’s a flawed but fascinating low-budget effort that serves as a reminder of how women were often shut out of New Hollywood.
Lastly, Impulse stars William Shatner as Matt Stone, a psychotic conman who preys on lonely women, bilking them of their savings before murdering them. Stone’s next victim is single mom Ann (Jennifer Bishop), but first he has to deal with his old partner Karate Pete (Harold “Oddjob” Sakata) and the suspicions of Ann’s very annoying daughter Tina (Kim Nicholas).
Directed by Florida schlockmeister William Grefé, Impulse has a uniquely ham-fisted charm thanks to its histrionic performances and ludicrous dialogue. Action sequences, such as the one where Stone chases Karate Pete through a car wash, are drawn out to the point of absurdity; all the while, the cast delivers lines with a stiltedness that would make John Waters envious. It’s long been considered a camp classic thanks to Shatner’s unhinged performance, fluctuating wildly between smooth-talking gigolo and murderous psychopath.
Much like the New York City grindhouse theaters, the drive-in circuit was a huge market for independent filmmakers able to pump out cheap, entertaining movies for audiences in the South and Midwest. While some aspiring filmmakers like Bob Clark used the circuit as a stepping stone to Hollywood, Grefé built his own little empire of trash with films like Mako: The Jaws Of Death (1976) guaranteed to make back their miniscule budgets. While not an especially talented filmmaker, Grefé knew what his audiences came to see, and Impulse is exactly the kind of movie that needs to be seen in a raucous crowd.
In an era where films often seem sterile, market-tested, and directed-by-committee, these relics of the grindhouse era feel lively and unpredictable. Made fast and cheap, they may lack sophistication or subtlety, but that’s exactly what draws genre fans to them decades later.