Arrow Video are one one of the most interesting DVD labels out there, and their latest (and suffered) release, Mario Bava's Rabid Dogs, confirms their leading status in the world of cult cinema.
Mario Bava (1914-1980) was an influential yet incredibly underrated Italian director (or, as he would have put it, a 'humble artisan of cinema'). During his long and prolific career, he experimented with a number of different genres (horror, sci-fi, peplum, western) with mixed results. He is mostly well-known for his supernatural horror films Black Sunday (1960), Black Sabbath (1963) and Kill, Baby Kill (1966), and for consolidating the 'classic' formula of what is known as the Italian Giallo with The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1962) and with his lush, spellbinding Technicolor masterpiece, Blood and Black Lace (1964).
Loosely based on a short story by Michael J Carroll, Rabid Dogs might at first seem a bit of an anomaly in the context of his career - a nihilistic, violent romp that might remind some of Sam Peckinpah's gritty work, but instead has its roots somewhere a lot closer to home. The Poliziesco all'Italiana was a sub-genre that had become very popular in Italy in the 1970s. Its themes and iconography (vigilantism, maverick policemen, graphic violence, corruption) were perhaps a response to the unstable political and social climate of the time: after the bombing of Piazza Fontana in 1969, Italy entered what is commonly known at its 'years of lead', a period marked by a flourishing of terrorism, organised crime and fear.
The premise of the film is pretty simple: a gang of criminals take three people (a young woman, Maria, a man named Riccardo and his child) hostage after a a robbery goes awry. Rabid Dogs is a claustrophobic, almost nauseating, experience: shot in real time, mostly inside a cramped getaway car, it manages to convey a sense of sweaty malevolence through a its use of shallow focus, and a fast, fuss-free style (viewers familiar with Bava's earlier gothic work might even wonder if this is the same director). A picaresque adventure of sorts, the film allows us to slowly get to know the characters - both criminals and victims being to detach themselves from the stereotypes that usually populate crime films. There is no clear distinction between good and evil, the plot's development (no spoilers here) eventually leaving us with a bitter sense of hopelessness.
As we are ourselves trapped inside the vehicle during a hot mid-summer day, we are made aware of class divisions, not only between the criminals and bourgeois Maria and Riccardo, but also amongst the members of the gang. The leader is referred to as 'Doc' ('Dottore' in Italian - a term that was used, especially in the south of the country, to indicate someone of a certain education), whilst '32' (nicknamed after the length of his...member, in centimetres) and 'Blade' are seen as merely animalistic and illiterate. Sexual politics are also explored, as Maria is repeatedly assaulted and, in a particularly unpleasant scene, forced to urinate in public. It would be easy to accuse Bava of misogynistic attitudes, but the protracted nature of these sequences, bereft of conventional eroticism, makes the violence extremely difficult to watch.
Seen in its historical context, Rabid Dogs is a cynical, unflinching portrayal of a divided, corrupted society beyond salvation. In one key scene, the group needs to stop by a petrol station - the attendant witnesses the strange behaviour of the gang and their victims, but, whilst looking somewhat suspicious, resolves not to contact the police, preferring to return to his lunch break nap. Similar attitudes are witnessed throughout - a farmer and a driver involved in a minor accident (at one point, Riccardo accidentally bumps into another car) are happy to exchange their moral responsibility for a handsome sum of cash. While not an easy watch by any means, this film is a minimalist yet subtly layered noir that keeps the its audience gripped throughout.
Rabid Dogs had a suffered production, and its release was made impossible after its producer went bankrupt in 1974. Arrow Video's handsome package (which also contains the reworked edit of the film, Kidnapped), crowned by an array of extras, is a labour of love that was worth the (rather long) wait.
Rabid Dogs is out now on Arrow Video.