Summer's officially here. What better way to celebrate than to compare and contrast your pale, muscle-free movie nerd flesh against that of the beach-ready bronzed brutes and barbarian babes of the Italian peplum genre?
Peplum films, also known as "sword and sandal" flicks, were all the rage in the late '50s and early '60s after the first Steve Reeves Hercules ignited the movie-going public's taste for Greek mythological and Biblical era badassery. Hercules. Ursus. Maciste. Samson. Goliath. These were the Avengers of their day, and their superhuman exploits generally didn't run longer than 90 minutes or require a multitude of laborious post-credit teases. Later in the '80s, after the international mega-success of Schwarzenegger's Conan the Barbarian, the genre saw a resurgence. Some (like me) would even call it a renaissance.
Over the last few weeks, I watched a baby-oiled pectoral's worth of pepla from both eras. Here are the results of my Herculean labors...
#37 - HERCULES UNCHAINED (1959)
A swift Google search told me this was one of the better original Hercules films, so I watched it purely as an O.G. Herc/Steve Reeves primer. For the most part, exposition trumps action making it kind of a snooze, though Reeves does fight a laughing giant, a few tigers, bends a steel lamppost, and pull down a balsa wood tower amid all the equally ligneous line readings. He also forgets who he is for much of the movie (Hercules Unbrained?), which is lucky for him. If only I could've done the same.
#38 - HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD (1961)
Maestro Mario Bava takes a stab at a peplum/horror mash-up and sends his Hercules (Reg Park) straight to hell (i.e., a Cinecitta studio festooned with fog machines and red/green gels). Herc's mission: Find the Stone of Pluto in order to save his beloved Dianara from evil King Lico (the always reliable Christopher Lee). Once there, Hercules does battle with a rock monster, a tree holding a golden apple, assorted ghouls, all while chucking tons of papier-mâché boulders. Far from Bava's best, but probably one of the better early-era Hercules films.
#39 - HERCULES, PRISONER OF EVIL (1964)
Antonio Margheriti / Ruggero Deodato
AKA "Ursus, Terror of the Kirghiz," one of many Ursus spins on the Hercules craze of the 1960s. Ruggero Deodato of Cannibal Holocaust fame served as AD to Antonio Margheriti and took the reins halfway through filming. You'll find very little of his gore-soaked ingenuity from that film on display in this dull peplum about Ursus/Hercules (Reg Park, again) battling a werewolf type creature (a guy with tufts of fake hair glued to his pecs) and assorted witches.
#40 - KNIVES OF THE AVENGER (1966)
More of a "Viking western" than a straight-ahead peplum, Knives finds Bava favorite Cameron Mitchell sporting a bad yellow-orange dye job as the titular avenger/Nordic desperado who protects a mother and son from a ravaging horde while their papa is away. Instead of a six-shooter, Mitchell has about 60 knives on him at all times and is prone to hurling them with abandon. There's also some enjoyable WWF-style fight scenes amid all the flying silverware. Very watchable!
#41 - ATOR, THE FIGHTING EAGLE (1982)
One of the first mini-franchises to cash in on the '80s Conan craze, the original Ator stars Miles O'Keefe as an ancient hero/David Coverdale understudy destined for greatness due to the Mark of Taurin birth-splotch featured prominently on his gym-toned, loin-clothed physique. It seems Ator's in love with his "sister" (relax, they're not blood relations) and must team up with wily thief Roon (Sabrina Siani from Fulci classic Conquest!) and a bear cub with a white stripe on its head to save her from Spider Cult leader Dakar (not to be confused with Drakkar, the cheap Wal-Mart men's cologne). Lots o' dumb fun!
#42 - ATOR, THE BLADE MASTER (1982)
In his second swiftly released outing, Ator (who's totally into science now) teams up with a Asian wise man named Thong and a warrior princess (who's totally not his sister) to save his old mentor from an evil warlord. Lots of lethargically choreographed swordplay ensues. There's a lame snake pit scene to rival the hilariously economical giant spider rescue in the first Ator, perhaps more sad because it appears to have been shot with a mere 1% of the Raiders of the Lost Ark Well of Souls budget. But Blade Master does feature a nifty hang-gliding scene and, if I read the ending correctly, Ator somehow manages to invent the future atomic bomb. Not quite as good as the first go-round but, hey, it's more Ator!
#43 - HUNDRA (1983)
Matt Cimber aka Thomas Ottaviano
After a pack of rapacious barbarian bros wreck her ladies-only village, Amazonian babe Laurene Landon (of many a fine Larry Cohen film) reluctantly sets out with her broadsword to find some suitable male seed to re-start her village's population. Unfortunately, cryopreserved spunk is not an option in Hundra's day, and her quest for top-shelf man goo will lead her to a testosterone-heavy fortress of pagan baddies who are keeping numerous women slaves under lock and key. Hundra must free her fellow feminists-in-waiting all while getting knocked up herself by a kind, "woke" village healer. Hands-down the most enjoyable sword and sandal offering I watched, Hundra is proof positive that ladies can do peplum just as good (if not better) than the men. This underseen gem is totally ripe for a #MeToo era remake. Get the GLOW ladies on it, stat! It's directed by Matt Cimber, for Pete's sake, the guy who Marc Maron plays in the show. Practically a Netflix Original no-brainer!
#44 - HERCULES (1983)
Exhausting and exteeeeeended creation of the mythological world intro narration aside, the '83 Hercules is a pretty amusing Cannon Films peplum that probably owes more of its specious DNA to Donner's Superman than Milius's Conan. Watch Hercules throw giant logs into outer space. Watch him throw the grizzly bear who killed his father into outer space! Instead of locking horns with Cretan Bulls, Hydras or Cerebuses (Cerebi?), this post-Hulk Herc played by Lou Ferrigno primarily does battle with robot monsters that look like knock-off Transformers. This probably has something to do with his nemesis King Minos (a delightfully over the top William Berger) being more obsessed with "Science!" than a mad Bill Nye on a mix of Adderall and DMT. Somewhere out there, Ray Harryhausen is surely rolling his eyes and stop-motion spinning in his grave.
#45 - THE ADVENTURES OF HERCULES II (1985)
The rare sequel that's better than the original. Ferrigno's Hercules has more to do this time, tasked with the challenge of recovering seven of Zeus's world-stabilizing lightning bolts hidden inside seven monsters across the globe. These include the "Slime People," a shaggy ape-like creature, a spider lady and a cheaply sculpted Medusa sourced directly from the Clash of the Titans trim bin. King Minos is back from the dead and even more stoked on "Science!" than before. He and Ferrigno go green screen mano e mano in the ultimate deep space rotoscope Pink Floyd laser light show! It also doesn't hurt that Herc has not one but two beautiful barbarian babes, Urania and Glaucia, along for the ride. When our superhuman hero grows to 1,000 times his size and blocks the moon from colliding with the Earth, you will surely raise your goblet and cheer!
#46 - THE BARBARIANS (1987)
Brain-challenged barbarian twins Kutchek and Gore (the Paul Brothers) go searching for a sacred ruby stone hidden inside a dragon that will save their tribe from the evil ruler Kadar (Richard Lynch) and then be fit snugly into the belly button of their new queen (Eva La Rue). Along the way, they have myriad sword battles, arm wrestling competitions and occasionally bray like Horshack from Welcome Back, Kotter for inexplicable reasons. Imagine if two steroidal Joey Buttafuocos put on a regional production of Excalibur inside a combination GNC/Gold's Gym somewhere in Secaucus, NJ. That is this movie. The absolute dumbest kind of peplum fun courtesy of Daddy-o Deodato.
"To burpee or not to burpee...THAT is the question."