Django Kill Review

Django Kill ... If You Live, Shoot is, without question, one of the strangest films ever made. A cruel, intense, occasionally hysterical and consistently weird movie, it offers a vision of hell on earth which is vivid and disturbing. While doing so, it flirts with incoherence and frequently tips over into absurdist black comedy and the end result has to be seen to be believed. Despite the title, it has nothing to do with Sergio Corbucci’s Django. But by the time the film is over, you’re pretty certain that for better or worse you’ve witnessed an uncompromising artistic statement. The problem is, what on earth is it saying ?

Beginning with The Stranger (Milian) clawing his way out of a grave (in homage to Luis Bunuel), the film recounts in flashback the events which led to his intended death. Betrayed by Oakes, the leader of a gang whom he had helped steal a consignment of gold, The Stranger is shot along with his Mexican companions. However, assisted by two Indians, he returns from the dead and is nursed back to health. The Indians use the gold scattered around to make bullets. The Stranger intends to wreak vengeance on the men who killed him but upon arriving in the nearest town, ‘The Unhappy Place’, he discovers that much of the job has already been done for him. What he doesn’t realise is how strange things are about to become.

As I stated above, this film is completely unrelated to Corbucci’s Django, the title being merely the reflection of a distributor’s wish to ride the coattails of one of the most popular Spaghetti Westerns. Having said this, there’s no reason why Tomas Milian’s character couldn’t be Django, as long as you accept that the damage to his hands has cleared up remarkably well – perhaps he bathed them in some TCP. The past of the character, shown in the scene where he’s double-crossed by the outlaws led by Oates, would seem reasonably consistent with what we see of Django in Corbucci’s film, although it’s hard to imagine him digging his own grave in quite so co-operative a fashion. Anyway, the point is that Milian plays a Django-like figure who has been brought low by circumstance and, it would appear, spectacularly bad judgement in his choice of friends. This sets him up as a kind of avenging angel, returning from the dead to dispense vengeance. In this respect, the film could be read as a precursor of Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter, although it’s much less conventional in a narrative sense. Come to think of it, my use the word ‘ sense’ is somewhat unfortunate since this is a film which rarely makes any sense whatsoever. The irony here, however, is that once The Stranger arrives at ‘The Unhappy Place’, he finds that most of his vengeance has been done for him and the sadistic gold fiends who inhabit the town have already killed all but one of Oakes’ gang. After this, the narrative enters slightly more familiar Spaghetti territory as The Stranger becomes involved in a feud between the increasingly bizarre townsfolk and a landowner named Zorro who has an army of homosexual soldiers clad in black.

However, what is not remotely familiar is the tone of the film. We’re used to black comedy and extreme violence but Questi adds a strong dose of weirdness that is genuinely unsettling. Much has been written about the excessive violence of the film but it’s notable that the BBFC have seen fit to pass this version of the film with a ‘15’ certificate. Even so, it’s pretty strong stuff with moments such as a graphic scalping which are not for the squeamish. Indeed, one scene where Oakes’s body is ripped apart by townsfolk searching for gold bullets is reminiscent of the excesses of Lucio Fulci a decade later. Yet the violence seems nastier than it actually is because of the sense of strangeness which pervades the film. It’s hard to tell where the narrative will go next or what new perversity Questi will introduce into a film which is already overflowing with disturbing eccentricity. The scene where Oakes and his gang ride into ‘The Unhappy Place’ pointedly sets the tone; a man retching into a bucket, a woman biting a would-be assailant, an uncle using his niece as a foot-rest. Sexual obsession or perversion, of one kind or another, keeps recurring with the camp bandits coming a distant second place to Ray Lovelock’s Evan who expresses his love for the barroom chanteuse by ripping apart her dresses with a penknife before making an early exit following an off-screen introduction to sodomy courtesy of one of Zorro’s little friends.

The general air of peculiarity is compounded by the dubbing. Most Spaghettis suffer from bad English dubs and the apparent lack of Italian language tracks for many of them tends to inure the dedicated fan to the irritation. But the voices assigned to some characters here are so odd as to defy belief, with the prize surely going to one of the Indians who speaks English with a perfect Old Etonian accent. A soubrette in the local hostelry sings a song which is so obviously over-dubbed that it becomes unintentionally comic – the humour being enhanced by the ludicrously unsuitable lyrics. One of the townspeople, sporting a particularly shifty beard, speaks with the lucid authority of John Gielgud while gesticulating like the bad Italian actor he probably was.

However, as far as one can tell, the acting isn’t any worse than is commonplace in the genre and Tomas Milian is often quite excellent. He’s always been an impressive actor and his presence is greater, for my money, than that of Franco Nero in Django and equivalent to Gian Maria Volonte or Lee Van Cleef. In a word, Milian is cool, and he carries the film, even when required to be crucified half-naked in a room full of vampire bats. Roberto Camardiel also deserves mention for his portrayal of Zorro. He, like the great Oliver Reed, has the kind of face which suggests such unspeakable lewdness that dialogue couldn’t possibly compete with the constant implication of debauchery.

Giulio Questi is clearly intending some kind of serious point here about human nature and the film could be seen as a descent into a particularly lurid hell. There also seems to be a deliberate attempt to comment on the role of the hero. Questi’s hero is notable for his almost complete impotence to affect anything. He rarely does much except get captured and his role in the final bloodshed is surprisingly minimal. One suspects a deeper motive is operating here. Yet, the plot is as melodramatic as a Victorian novel – at one point, it moves into “Jane Eyre” territory - and the bizarre details tend to overtake whatever serious subtext might have been intended and the film dives headlong into pitch-black comedy. How else is one to interpret Zorro and his wildly camping henchmen – “You don’t know how much my muchachos mean to me. They make me so happy in their black uniforms” – or the presence of a parrot commenting on the final showdown like some kind of feathered Greek chorus. Christopher Frayling has suggested that the film is a comment on the development of the Spaghetti Western up to 1967 and the over-the-top nature of Questi’s work certainly suggests some kind of parodic intent.

But there’s still a good deal of genuine artistic merit to the film and the intensity of the imagery has a quality of personal obsession which is immensely rewarding. Questi has an eye for a weird image that is quite remarkable and his use of close-ups is less specific than Leone’s but just as interesting. He allows his actors to get close to the camera and their faces become abnormally interesting when looked at in detail. The cinematography by Franco Delli Colli is interesting for its lushness, often contrasting with the sensational content of the scenes in a manner which is particularly reminiscent of Vittorio Storraro’s work on Novocento. Delli Colli’s career trajectory is quite interesting, beginning as camera operator on Rocco And His Brothers and finishing as DP on such stirring projects as Ghosthouse and Midnight Seduction. Presumably, he is some relation to Tonino Delli Colli who had a much better career path as Sergio Leone’s cinematographer of choice on all of his films from The Good, The Bad And The Ugly. Franco Arcalli’s editing is suitably surreal, bringing echoes of Bunuel which obviously foreshadow Jodorowsky’s El Topo. It’s as heavily edited a film as I can remember seeing and some of Arcalli’s transitions are really inspired. Considering that Arcalli also co-wrote the film, it’s fair to say that he shares a good deal of the credit for the way it turned out.

Django Kill isn’t really a great Spaghetti Western. It’s too diffuse and incoherent to work with the same force as For A Few Dollars More or Django. But it’s still something very unusual and fascinating as an unexpected excursion into Gothic horror – as I stated above, it is reminiscent of Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter and it also shares some similarities with Cormac McCarthy’s novel “Blood Meridian”. Fans of the genre will find it essential viewing and anyone who likes the wilder fringes of cinema is likely to have a good time.

The Disc

Argent Films release of Django Kill... If You Live, Shoot is probably their best so far. It combines an impressive transfer with interesting extras and manages to make a good competitor to the Blue Underground version of the film which was released in 2002.

This does appear to be the same cut of the film released by Blue Underground. Some sequences have been restored but are only extant with an Italian language soundtrack. Actually, this has the inadvertent effect of making one regret that the whole film couldn’t have been presented in Italian with English subtitles. Significantly, this cut of the film is not, apparently, the original version but Alex Cox – a fanatic follower of the film – claims that the version described by Christopher Frayling, with animal cruelty and even more excessive violence, no longer exists. It seems that an Italian magistrate ordered that all copies of the film be burned so it’s possible that the missing scenes have been destroyed. However, rest assured that this is as complete a version of the film as you are currently able to see.

The film is presented in its original Techniscope ratio of 2.35:1 and has been anamorphically enhanced. The quality of the picture is generally very good. The colours are strong and rich and there’s loads of detail. A good deal of grain is present throughout but this is typical of every version of the film I’ve ever seen. Artifacting is a problem but this is variable. All in all, a very respectable effort and considerably better than the print of Keoma which Argent released a month or two ago.

The Mono soundtrack is absolutely fine with the pounding music score tending to dominate. One area in which the Blue Underground disc is preferable to this one is that it includes the original Italian language track with English subtitles.

The extras are brief but valuable and certainly add to the film. Along with the original theatrical trailer – and trailers for Argents other Spaghetti Westerns, all of which have been reviewed by DVD Times – we get two short featurettes. The first is an introduction to the film by Alex Cox. This is unique to the Argent disc and is, as usual, a delight. If you saw the film on BBC 2 back in 1997, when Cox introduced it, you will have heard some of these comments before but he’s one of the few critics who can enhance your appreciation of a film through his sheer enthusiasm. The second is an interview with Giulio Questi and Ray Lovelock. This runs for approximately 25 minutes and is very interesting. Both men speak in Italian (with subtitles) and have much to say about the film, although Questi’s insistence that this isn’t really a Western gets a little tiresome. This is a different and slightly more in-depth interview feature than the one on the Blue Underground disc, although the latter featured Tomas Milian as well.

There are 15 chapter stops. The animated menus are nicely designed but take an age to finish and this becomes seriously irksome after a while. There are no subtitles included except for the brief scenes with the original Italian track.

Django Kill... If You Live, Shoot is a cult movie which deserves a wider audience. Although it has deficiencies as a Western and often seems more like a black comedy, it’s full of interesting elements and often has to be seen to be believed. Argent Films have done a good job with the Region 2 DVD and the result is definitely recommended, although if you want the original Italian language track then the R1 is the one to go for.

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