Director: Jim Weis
Code Red Releasing

William Metzo is looking for an “evil woman” in MARDI GRAS MASSACRE. Nope, Electric Light Orchestra doesn’t make an appearance, but there’s plenty of licensed disco funk in this low-budget schlocker.

A few weeks before Mardi Gras, our killer (Metzo) – not at all inconspicuous in his debonair gray check suit, giant signet ring and overflowing wallet – walks into a bar in search of a very special kind of prostitute. He asks hooker Sherry (Gwen Arment) to direct him to the most “evil” girl in the room. She arranges for him to meet Shirley (Laura Misch Owens, FRENCH QUARTER) and he offers the girl $200 for a night’s entertainment. Shirley gives the money to bartender Sam to hold and accompanies her client back to his apartment (three studio flats with eye-straining wallpaper) before leading her into a considerably larger bedroom with a sacrificial altar and a shrine to some creepy deity. She sees nothing odd in being tied up spread-eagle to the altar while a man in a golden mask and ceremonial robes that look like beach towels rubs oil on her chest and waves a sharp knife around; that is, until he cuts out her heart. Shirley’s body is discovered on the railroad tracks. Enter Sgt. Abraham (Curt Dawson, BLOOD BATH) and his partner (Ronald Tanet, CRYPT OF DARK SECRETS) who question Sherry. She is only able to give them a general description of the man, with the exception of the signet ring. The former bible-thumping vice cop and the hooker fall for each other; however, Abraham does not rely on Sherry’s connections to help him track down the killer since he knows broads and is pretty sure she’s preoccupied with thoughts of shacking up and marriage. Instead, Abraham consults professor of “antique-quity” Lewis (Donn Davison, THE FORCE BEYOND) who suggests that the sacrifices look like those of cults worshiping Aztec snake goddess Cihuacoatl. When a second victim turns up, Abraham’s relationship with Sherry turns sour when she learns that he kept the $200 that Sam was holding for Shirley, and he falls back on “you’re just a whore.” Sherry heads back to the clubs, gets drunk and fights with another hooker on the dance floor. After sobering up, she decides she wants to disappear for a few days until Mardi Gras (hmm…). The third victim is an “evil” stripper (Nancy Dancer) who at least gets a last meal, as well as extended screen time to show off her dancing skills on the altar. Abraham puts together the pattern: a sacrifice every Tuesday and Mardi Gras is next week; however, he thinks the killer is finished because a series of killings following the same pattern the year before in Rio numbered only three (“Three seems to be the magic number”). We know better, though; and soon enough, the killer approaches a bartender/procurer asking for three girls for a special party on Mardi Gras (betcha Sherry is one of them…)

Pretty much a low-key rip-off of H.G. Lewis’ BLOOD FEAST with fewer novel gore effects, no Egyptian feast, and Metzo stuck halfway between Mal Arnold’s Fuad Ramses – if only there was a stinger whenever he said “evil” – and Robert Quarry’s Count Yorga (although this killer’s shrine is considerably more elaborate than Ramses’ Ishtar mannequin). The gore effects are a little more proficient in that most of the budget seems to have gone towards making sure the prosthetic torsos matched those of the actresses (although the ripped out hearts look a bit huge). While ritual is by nature repetitive, director Jack Weis never deviates from the same long shot angle, gore inserts and curtain-pulling close-up (and no additional details of the ritual are added with the successive kills). The film is also endlessly padded with sequences that seem to fulfill the dual purposes of building the running time up to 90 minutes and showing off some admittedly catchy tunes of Mike Theodore and Motown artist Dennis Coffey, who had previously collaborated on the theme from BLACK BELT JONES. Almost all of the songs, disco and otherwise, were derived from their individual Westbound Records albums (thank you, Temple of Schlock), Theodore’s “Belly Boogie” being one of the highlights. The minute-and-a-half montage of Abraham and Sherry frolicking around New Orleans (set to Dennis Coffey’s AM radio-esque “Our Love Goes On Forever”) feels like five minutes, but that’s just an indication of what’s to come. The sequence where a desperate Abraham and his partner set about town rousting lowlifes lasts nearly four minutes and the Mardi Gras montage that follows soon after is another three-and-a-half minutes. In a bit of non-musical padding, Abraham and his partner stop for drinks after finding out where the killer lives. There are some amusing continuity errors, scenes shot wholly in mastershot, and even more baffling jump cuts indicating both a lack of cutaways available to cover the movement from wide to medium shot during some conversation scenes, and one or two instances where the camera may just have run out of film during a shot (as well as the unanswered question as to who keeps opening those curtains for the killer to make his entrance). The opening and closing titles were assembled in a half-assed manner. The opening title card is silent and stays onscreen for about twenty seconds. On the other end, “and with” supporting cast card and the “with” co-star card both come before the “starring” card for Dawson and Arment. The production crew cards are all “blink and you’ll miss ‘em” (sure it’s nitpicky, but it seems to be an extension of the ragged post-production effecting everything but the film’s soundtrack).

And yet, despite its flaws – or even because of them – MARDI GRAS MASSACRE is singular viewing experience that throws you into the thick of low-budget exploitation filmmaking at a time when the bigger players were edging out the competition with more mainstream cash-ins and everyone else had to step up their game to be noticed. In this case, you’ve got the disco soundtrack with at least thirteen prominently-featured songs (going by the aforementioned Temple of Schlock’s reconstruction of the soundtrack) and graphic gore (as much a part of dusting off the BLOOD FEAST plot as it is a sign of the times with other gorefests like DAWN OF THE DEAD out the same year and more on the way). The plot is just an excuse to connect three near-identical gore/nudity set-pieces, but it is there; even if it goes nowhere original and falls a bit limp at the climax, the journey is more interesting than the destination. Saddled with some awful dialogue, Dawson and Arment give earnest performances. Tanet is a bit more awkward, but he is given some good material as his partner’s moral compass. Metzo is over-the-top (how else could he play it in a film called MARDI GRAS MASSACRE?) but not undisciplined. It’s also fun to see our weird killer equally weirded-out by “Catfish” a scat-singing pimp who speaks in rhymes (and sometimes has to strain for them) who at first seems to be offering himself. The killer actually seems touched as Nancy Dancer balletically pirouettes to her fate. Drunk Shirley busting a move SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER-style on the disco floor seamlessly segues into a catfight. The New Orleans exterior scenes have a non-permit shooting feel as the long lens captures the actors blending in and playing their characters – such as they are – in the real world, and the Mardi Gras scenes are more gritty and naturalistic than the usual stock footage or the camera-choreographed and flashily-edited Bacchanalian set-pieces one usually expects in Carnival sequences (these are also the only scenes in which our killer doesn’t stand out from the crowd). The climactic car chase down the French Quarter is nothing too elaborate, but it seems ambitious for a film in which much of the action takes place in nondescript interiors and shot-on-the-fly exteriors.

Weis’ first directorial effort was the MANDINGO cash-in QUADROON (also out from Code Red), which he also produced. He followed that up with the Louisiana-lensed CRYPT OF DARK SECRETS (on DVD from Image Entertainment and Something Weird Video paired with THE NAKED WITCH), which references sources often confuse with MARDI GRAS MASSACRE (the IMDb listing for the latter film lists several members of MGM’s cast as “uncredited”). Weis’ brush with the mainstream was as the Louisiana location coordinator for the Roger Moore James Bond outing LIVE AND LET DIE, and more recently (and bewilderingly) direction of the Melissa Etheridge TV special THE AWAKENING LIVE. Weis also photographed MARDI GRAS MASSACRE with Don Piel and Jack McGowan. McGowan struck up an early working relationship with Bob Clark and Alan Ormsby, shooting Clark’s CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS and DEATHDREAM as well as Ormsby’s DERANGED. He was an additional cameraman on Clark’s PORKY’S II as well as cinematographer on the Florida-lensed PORKYS-esque KING FRAT. Piel shot Weis’ CRYPT OF DARK SECRETS and assisted McGowan on DERANGED and DEATHDREAM. His last two credits were as camera operator on the loftier projects: SOMEWHERE IN TIME and JAWS 3. An interesting presence here is Donn Davison – as Professor Lewis (hmm…) – who was a filmmaker/distributor/promoter who produced the pseudo-documentary THE FORCE BEYOND, shot the “Asylum of the Insane” 3D footage inserted into prints of SHE FREAK, and directed a handful of Hicksploitation films including SHANTYTOWN HONEYMOON (aka HONEY BRITCHES aka HONEY PIE aka HILLBILLY HOOKER aka LITTLE WHOREHOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE) which was reworked by Fred Olen Ray and sold to Troma as DEMENTED DEATH FARM MASSACRE (which is fair enough since Davison reworked the 1960s pic THE LEGEND OF McCOLLOUGH’S MOUNTAIN into the LEGEND OF BOGEY CREEK cash-in BLOOD BEAST OF MONSTER MOUNTAIN).

MARDI GRAS MASSACRE had a scant release through Omni Capital Releasing – evidently their only release – and eventually wound up on VHS from adult label VCX’s mainstream offshoot VCII (who also released NIGHT OF THE DEMON and HAUNTED, both out on DVD from Code Red in “Maria’s B-Movie Mayhem” editions) in one of their big rental boxes. It languished on the video store shelves until the more recent days of internet-assisted video collecting (it now commands high prices on auction sites). The film was released twice on tape in the U.K. and achieved notoriety in there as one of the Video Nasty releases that was banned outright (alongside such fluff as FROZEN SCREAM) and the film was refused classification in Australia (although it apparently did get a VHS release there, and there’s also a scarce Greek tape). Code Red Releasing struck a deal with VCX, who were only able to supply a 1” tape master; that said, the resulting image – having undergone some digital clean-up – is (very likely more so than the unauthorized JEF Films DVD, if the faded and soft VHS-sourced clips featured in this disc’s Maria intros and the interview [see below] are any indication of how the VCII rental tapes have aged). The feature is preceded by a disclaimer about the source, but the A/V quality may have been the only thing about it that did not hinder my viewing. The skintones of the bare actress take on an additional reddish tinge against the curtains of the killer’s shrine, and a new digital transfer could have eked out some minor additional detail in the night scenes, but I doubt there are many theatrical prints floating around, and VCII apparently junked or lost theirs after striking the video master (references sources for the overseas releases all cite running times just under 92 minutes, suggesting they all could have been sourced from copies of the NTSC tape master). The Dolby Digital mono audio is clean and the music comes through boldly.

The sole extra is an interview with actor William Metzo (12:05) who got the part because he knew a relative of the director, and that the production kept running out of film (which explains why some scenes are shown only in master shot). Metzo also discusses his fellow cast members. He describes Dawson as a New York soap opera actor (he appeared in AS THE WORLD TURNS, THE GUIDING LIGHT, and ANOTHER WORLD as well as the 13-part PBS miniseries THE ADAMS CHRONICLES and Joel M. Reed’s low-budget horror anthology BLOOD BATH before his death in 1985). He recalls that Playmate Owens was one of the first models to have breast implants, and that they had solidified (in her brief career, Owens was typecast as prostitutes with credited and uncredited roles in Charles Bronson’s HARD TIMES, MANDINGO, and Crown International’s FRENCH QUARTER). He states that the film was privately screened once, and that the film was not released theatrically because the distributor ran into money issues (although ad slicks exist for screenings of the film, in addition to the Omni poster art). He pokes fun at some aspects of the film such as the small apartment with its cavernous altar room, and the fact that a character with an endless supply of money drives an old station wagon. Overall, it is a pleasant little talk. The film is playable with optional wrap-around footage featuring WWE star/singer/model/actress Maria Kanellis. In costume in front of Mardi Gras footage from the film and throwing beads offscreen, Kanellis pokes some fun at the film without going overboard (and no matter how much some may view this film as a guilty pleasure, surely they must concede that it provokes – nay, deserves – at least a modicum of derision). As with the Maria disc of HAUNTED, her “Fantasy” music video (5:32) is also included. Trailers for Crown International titles BLOOD MANIA, THE HEARSE and THE BABYSITTER round out the package. (Eric Cotenas)