Holocaust 2000 / Rain of Fire / The Chosen / The Hex Massacre (1977) -***
We all know how this works, right? From about 1957 until well into the 1980’s, any internationally successful genre movie was more or less guaranteed to inspire several years’ worth of cheap Italian rip-offs. So what the hell happened to The Omen? Lord knows The Omen made plenty of money, and with all the energy the Italian film industry poured into copying The Exorcist, it seems only natural that a legion of Spaghetti Damiens would rise up alongside all the Spaghetti Regans. And yet the only Italian movie I know of to take its marching orders primarily from The Omen is Alberto de Martino’s Holocaust 2000.
It does make sense that de Martino specifically would be the one to conduct that experiment. His The Tempter inaugurated the whole cycle of Euro-Exorcists, and his resumé also includes such notable knockoffs as The Counselor (de Martino’s answer to The Godfather) and The Pumaman (his attempt to cash in on Superman and Superman II). No one seems to have followed his lead on Holocaust 2000, though, which is a mystery that cries out to be solved. My own hypothesis is that this is one of the rare instances of art trumping commerce in the postwar Italian movie industry. I’m not trying to suggest that Holocaust 2000 was too bad to become a trendsetter— indeed, it’s really well above average for an Italian exploitation horror film of its era. Rather, what I mean is that even the most nakedly mercenary filmmaker needs to feel some sort of engagement with a premise in order to make any use of it. As I observed in my review of The Omen, that movie was as particularly Protestant in its outlook as The Exorcist was particularly Roman Catholic. Protestantism wields very little influence over the mental and emotional life of Italy, and it may simply be that Italian producers, directors, and screenwriters didn’t get The Omen sufficiently to put much effort into duplicating it. Holocaust 2000 itself certainly implies as much, for it could not look any more like the product of its creators straining to work according to a totally alien set of cultural assumptions.
Standing in for The Omen’s Robert Thorne is one Robert Caine (Kirk Douglas, from The Fury and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), eponymous head of the energy technology company, Caine Industries. Caine is a welcome change of pace from the evil capitalists one usually encounters in dumb horror movies. Far from amorally pursuing maximum profit for his firm no matter how serious the collateral damage, Caine seeks to use his wealth, influence, and expertise to make the world a better place. His main aim is to free humanity from its destructive reliance on finite, polluting fossil fuels by replacing coal, oil, and natural gas with safe, clean, virtually inexhaustible energy from nuclear fusion. And with the boldness of a true visionary, Caine is launching his crusade against petrochemical power in the oil capital of the globe, proposing to build his prototype thermonuclear reactor complex in some unnamed Levantine OPEC state which seems somehow to be Egypt, Syria, and Israel all at the same time. Astonishingly, he’s managed to sell this country’s prime minister (Ivo Garrani, of Atom-Age Vampire and Hercules and the Captive Women) on the idea, but there’s an election coming up soon, and the PM’s main rival, a military man called Harbin (Spiros Focas, from Flavia the Heretic and The Serpent of Death), is on record opposing the project. Caine’s new power plant faces massive opposition from the public, too— both in the target country and in his British home base— at least partly, or so it would seem, due to a fundamental confusion over the difference between nuclear fusion and nuclear fission. (I leave it to you to decide whether that confusion originates more with the characters or with de Martino and his four fellow screenwriters.) In any case, Caine surely does himself no public-relations favors by blithely blowing up crucial archeological sites while clearing the ground for construction.
Which archeological sites, you ask? Why, only the very cave in which John of Patmos experienced the vision he recorded in the Book of Revelation! Caine, stereotypical mid-20th-century secularist that he is, needs journalist Sara Golan (Agostina Belli, from Night of the Devils and Sex Machine) to explain the significance of what his surveyors discovered, and even then he doesn’t really get it. Consequently, the only lasting evidence of this terribly significant find is a photograph of Caine that Golan takes while inside the cave. That photo actually will be important later, but there’s no evident reason to imagine so at the time.
Much more obviously important are the events surrounding the party that Caine throws at his London mansion in celebration of the project’s impending launch. To begin with, Caine and the Syrgyptraeli prime minister find the house surrounded by chanting protestors (“What do our children want to be when they grow up? ALIVE!!!!”), one of whom (Massimo Foschi, of Jungle Holocaust and Labyrinth of Sex) appears intent upon sneaking onto the grounds to make who knows what mischief. Secondly, Caine’s wife, Eva (Blood Link’s Virginia McKenna), has bad news for him. Evidently Caine Industries was originally her father’s company (which rather makes one wonder about the name), and she still controls a majority share of the stock. That would put Eva in a position to pull the plug on her husband’s thermonuclear power plant, were she to get it into her head either that the protestors were right about the environmental risk, or that the political liabilities to be incurred by pushing ahead despite the opposition outweighed the advantages to be gained from success. And since she has indeed reached exactly those conclusions, it would seem that this party is just a tad premature. It happens, though, that one of Robert’s problems is about to rescue him from another. That one especially determined protestor has succeeded in infiltrating the house, but his ensuing attempt to assassinate Caine doesn’t go quite according to plan. Robert’s son, Angel (Simon Ward, from Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed and Dan Curtis’s Dracula), sees the knife, and tackles the assassin in the hope of wresting it away from him. Their grappling carries them away from Robert, but toward Eva, and it is she who ends up stabbed to death instead of the true target. I guess that’s one obstacle Caine no longer has to worry about, huh?
That will not be the last time a major roadblock to the reactor project arises only to be cleared aside by happenstance at the last minute, either. Angel, engineering prodigy that he is, offers an unbidden critique of the failsafe system that addresses a persistent design hassle. A physicist (Alexander Knox, of Skullduggery and These Are the Damned) who withdraws his support at a crucial juncture is drowned by a freak high tide at the secluded beach where he meets Caine in a bid to talk him out of proceeding. Harbin unseats the old prime minister on election day, but is decapitated in a helicopter accident (which you will swear is a nod to Dawn of the Dead until you notice Holocaust 2000’s copyright date) before he can make good on his promise to stop Caine from building. It’s almost as if a higher power were acting to smooth the way for the reactor complex.
Or on second thought, maybe it’s a lower power that’s been rigging the game in Caine’s favor. The first hint comes at Eva’s funeral, when Sara Golan turns up to give Robert a copy of the picture she took in what’s she’s taken to calling the Cave of the Vision. Although there was no sign of any such thing while the two of them were actually in the cave, the photo shows something that must have been revealed by the camera flash: a painting on the wall depicting a seven-headed monster, each head with ten horns, and each horn with ten crowns. Caine— once again the stereotypical mid-century secularist— doesn’t know what to make of it, so Golan explains that the drawing depicts the beast that John of Patmos saw in his vision, rising from the sea to bring about the end of the world as we know it.
The next hint takes the form of a computer error, of all things. Early on, after Harbin has assumed the prime ministership, but before he loses his head to an errant rotor blade, Robert brings Angel down to the mainframe room at Caine Industries headquarters, so that the head computer witch-doctor (Anthony Quayle, from A Study in Terror and Murder by Decree) can get an analysis of Angel’s proposed modification to the reactor design. Caine is hoping for something inarguable that he can show to Harbin and allay his fears that the power plant might somehow turn itself into a world-destroying super H-bomb. The computer’s response to Professor Griffin’s commands is nothing but gibberish, however: 2√231. Baffled by this meaningless message, Caine subsequently turns to studying the printout whenever his mind is not busy with anything more concretely important, and that’s what he’s doing at some vague later time (all the scene transitions in this movie are temporally vague, honestly) when the Catholic priest in the airliner seat in front of him (Barbarella’s Romolo Valli) turns around, does a double-take, and says, “That’s not a name we hear very often these days.” Name? Well, look at it from Monsignor Charrier’s perspective. From his seat, the enigmatic numbers are visible through the page so that they appear as if in a mirror; the vagaries of 1977 dot-matrix printing are such that 2√231 becomes IESVS when flipped thusly. (That’s the same thing as JESUS, for those of you not accustomed to thinking in terms of Imperial Roman monumental script.) The strangeness of this coincidence precipitates the two men into a conversation that lasts the whole rest of the flight, and upon touching down, Caine even accompanies Charrier to his church to continue it. The focus of their chat is Christian eschatology, which was brought to the monsignor’s mind by the reversible text of Caine’s printout. Charrier walks Caine through a version of End Times lore that bears little resemblance to any I’ve ever heard in the real world (and I used to make a hobby of collecting insaniac apocalypse exegesis literature), placing special emphasis on the idea that the Antichrist’s life will be the mirror image of Christ’s— he’ll have 21 disciples instead of twelve, and so forth. That’s where the printout comes in, because if Charrier is to be believed (pro tip: he isn’t), Jesus’s name is as efficacious a curse when written in mirror reverse as it is a blessing when written normally.
The most glaring clue of all, though, comes only when Caine leaves Charrier’s company, and returns to the office to plan his next move. That’s when he notices certain, well, suggestive details about the design of his power plant. Things like its seven independent reactor modules, each with ten circulation conduits, outfitted with ten independent failsafe systems apiece. Things like the parcel of waterfront property on which it’s supposed to be built, so that an observer inland would have the impression of it rising out of the sea. Things like its projected 42-megawatt power output, which seems to correspond in some fuzzy way to the 42 months that Charrier cites as the prophesied duration of the Antichrist’s reign before the apocalypse really gets rolling. Things like the placement of the plant on the exact spot where John of Patmos had his vision of the world’s end two millennia ago.
This is where Holocaust 2000 begins ripping off The Omen in earnest— although in some respects, it anticipates that movie’s sequels as strongly as it copies the original. Like Robert Thorne before him, Robert Caine becomes convinced that he is inadvertently helping to bring about the end of the world, and discovers, once he starts actively trying to thwart the process, that incipient Armageddon has taken on a momentum all its own. Nor is the thermonuclear power plant the only apocalyptic evil that Caine is in danger of unleashing upon the Earth. The plant may be the Beast, but if Caine is now trying to halt its construction, then clearly he is not himself the Antichrist. Any reassurance he might feel upon reaching that conclusion is mitigated, however, when he strikes up an affair with the increasingly ubiquitous Sara Golan, and gets her unexpectedly pregnant. The latter announcement comes immediately after a hysterical Professor Griffin telephones to report that he has deciphered the meaning of 2√231, but can’t manage to force out any explanation more coherent than “You’ve created something that isn’t human!” It can’t be the reactor that Griffin is ranting about (obviously that isn’t human), and Caine jumps immediately to the conclusion that the inhuman creation is his and Sara’s unborn child. Griffin is no help in clarifying the issue, either, because he is killed in a suspiciously supernatural-looking accident immediately after getting off the phone with his boss. Robert begins leaning on Sara to get an abortion, and even enlists Monsignor Charrier to help manipulate her into having one on false pretenses when she refuses to consider the idea. But Caine, you will recall, already has one son, and if he would do a little digging into his company’s personnel files, he might discover that Angel’s health insurance PIN is 30.3973683— which is to say, double the square root of 231. Number of the Beast, anyone?
That right there should give you some idea of what I meant when I said Holocaust 2000 looks like the product of people operating according to alien cultural assumptions. The End Times and all that goes with them are the special obsession of Evangelical Protestants, after all. Not that the Vatican ever repudiated the Book of Revelation or anything, but at least in modern times, Roman Catholics have never fetishized the Apocalypse in the same way as the Apostolic Adjectival Holiness Assembly Church of God and that ilk. The Catholic Church has too much invested in this world to entertain such ecstatic fantasies of its destruction. What we see in Holocaust 2000 is that de Martino and company have mastered the talk, but seem to have precious little idea what the walk is supposed to look like. With no personal stake in Armageddon mania, they approach their apocalypse lore much as they would lore related to ghosts, vampires, or werewolves— as something they can mix, match, and invent to serve the needs of the story, rather than as a serious element of a more or less mainstream faith. They know it’s somehow important that there be a Number of the Beast, but they make up their own instead of using the one specifically attested in Revelation 13:17-18. They know they need a Dragon, and a Beast from the Sea, and a False Prophet, but they thoroughly muddle, intermingle, and conflate those figures’ roles and relationships throughout. And most of all, they flat-out ignore all of the interpretational theories ever put forward to make sense of Revelation’s ’shroomy symbolism, and substitute one of their own devising. The nifty thing about Holocaust 2000 is that its symbology, although totally inauthentic, exhibits much the same admixture of loopy allegory and naïve literalism that characterizes the real thing. Conceptually, the means by which it equates the Beast from the Sea with Caine’s thermonuclear power plant is of a piece with all the arguments I’ve heard put forward to explain how the Beast is really the Vatican, or the Soviet Union, or the United Nations, or whichever domestic politician has right-wing religious extremists in a lather during a given year. And the prophetic dream that puts it all together for Caine (in which, among other things, his power plant rises from the sea and transforms into a seven-headed monster) is almost worthy of John of Patmos himself— if John’s subconscious were operating under extremely tight budgetary constraints.
Which leads me in turn to the sense in which Holocaust 2000 most closely resembles The Tempter. Both films, for all their undeniable and indeed glaring faults, make a good-faith effort to go beyond merely copying the movies that inspired them— even as they copy those movies in sufficiently minute detail to prove that de Martino was simply incapable of feeling shame. As a pure example of the latter tendency, consider Holocaust 2000’s version of the “Damien can’t enter a holy place” scene, in which the pregnant Sara adamantly refuses to set foot on the premises of Monsignor Charrier’s church for no reason that she or the screenwriters are able or willing to explain. By the carbon-paper logic of Italian exploitation filmmaking, this movie must feature some riff on that set-piece, even though it makes no sense in terms of the story being told here. Robert and Sara’s unborn baby isn’t the Antichrist, after all, so there’s no sensible way to account for Sara’s seemingly irrational aversion to church buildings. Weirder still is the culmination of Charrier’s role in the story, which harkens back to The Omen’s evil Catholics, even though Charrier is supposed to be one of the good guys— and Antichrist or no, what odds do you lay on a Roman Catholic clergyman conspiring to bamboozle a woman into having her pregnancy aborted?! Then there’s the mechanical regularity with which the supporting characters meet fates suspiciously similar to those that befell Robert Thorne’s would-be allies, most notably the falling glass door that bisects Professor Griffin in the computer lab. Holocaust 2000’s hero and The Omen’s even have the same first name, for the love of all that’s unholy! And yet this film’s bait-and-switch with the Antichrist’s identity pushes the story into territory that its model wouldn’t tread until The Final Conflict four years later. Rather than a demonic little boy, we have a falsely presumed demonic pregnancy and a genuinely demonic young man who is secretly well aware of his cosmic destiny. It would be worth more if it were better-written, better-acted, and better-handled all around, but Holocaust 2000 thereby gets us closer to what’s supposed to be scary about the Antichrist— that he’s going to rule the world and ruin it even more completely than the folks who are already running things could manage. It’s really weird, when you think about it, how few Armageddon-invoking horror movies address that aspect more than obliquely, as a terrible prospect for the relatively remote future; instead, we mostly get reiteration after reiteration of the devil-child premise derived from Rosemary’s Baby. Weirder still that Holocaust 2000, of all movies, should be among the earliest I can think of to go there.