Rabid Dogs / Kidnapped / Red Signal / Cani Arrabiati / Semaforo Rosso (1974/1996/2001) ***½
Coming right after Lisa and the Devil, Rabid Dogs was Phase II of Mario Bava’s mid-70’s effort to escape from the horror pigeonhole, which was coming to feel more and more confining to him despite his affection for it. His attempt to reshape the genre to suit his current creative concerns having foundered on the incomprehension of prospective distributors everywhere except Spain and Portugal, he tried next to make a clean getaway from the fright film business. That’s funny, because while Rabid Dogs may nominally be a crime thriller of the “heist goes wrong” persuasion, it is far and away the most thoroughly horrifying picture Bava ever made. It wouldn’t be too far from the mark to consider Rabid Dogs his entry into the market for Last House on the Left cash-ins, although it lacks that movie’s all-important revenge aspect. Instead, it deals strictly with the largely psychological struggle between a gang of vicious criminals and their three hostages, one of whom turns out to be much more than meets the eye.
At first, there are four members to the gang: Doc, the mastermind (Maurice Poli, from Baron Blood and The Avenger); Blade (Don Backy, of A Completely Naked Lady and Hot Nights of the Decameron) and 32 (George Eastman, of Emanuelle Around the World and The Barbarians), the muscle; and Fangio (uncredited) driving the getaway car. Their plan is to rob the payroll of the Giboni Pharmaceutical Company, but the execution leaves a bit to be desired. Sure, Doc and his men grab the money. It’s just that they also grab the attention of every cop in the city while they’re at it, one of whom gets in a few lucky shots as the robbers speed away from the crime scene. Fangio is killed, and although Doc makes a fair showing for himself as a substitute driver, the remaining criminals won’t get very far with that bullet hole in the gas tank. (Will wonders never cease… A cops-and-robbers shoot-’em-up written by someone who understands that a bullet strike won’t ignite a car’s gas tank if it hits below the level of the liquid fuel!) They’re forced to run for it on foot at least as far as a big underground parking garage, where they might be able to boost somebody’s vehicle without being noticed. Luck just isn’t with Doc and his boys today, however. A gate attendant spots the robbers’ guns, and inevitably calls the police. Within minutes, the gates are all closed, and an army of heavily armed cops have the criminals surrounded. With no other options for escape, Doc, Blade, and 32 grab a pair of hostages. Blade doesn’t actually mean to stab one of the women in the neck with his switchblade, but her death ends up being the first thing to go right for the gang since they climbed into Fangio’s car with the payroll money. Convinced now that the robbers truly mean business, the police lower their weapons and release the lockdown on the garage.
Naturally, Doc, Blade, and 32 make sure to bring the other hostage with them. Having Maria (Lea Lander, of The Tempter and Blood and Black Lace) to threaten is probably the one thing keeping them alive and the cops at a distance right now, especially since the police at the garage have circulated a description of the woman’s car. Getting rid of the latter is the next order of business, which the thieves take care of as soon as they feel confident that they’re in no danger of being watched. The lucky citizen chosen to furnish getaway ride #3 is a man named Riccardo (Riccardo Cucciolla, from Loving Cousins and The Sensuous Sicilian), who protests not only on his own behalf, but also on that of the heavily sedated little boy in the back seat. Riccardo explains that the child is his son, whom he must rush to the hospital at once for some sort of surgery. Unsurprisingly, the criminals are not impressed. Henceforth, it will be Riccardo’s job to ferry the gang to a safehouse outside the city, which is already prepped as a base of operations for their final escape out of the country, and to make sure the police don’t pick up their scent again.
This coerced roadtrip doesn’t go at all smoothly, despite Riccardo’s practical decision early on that his best chance to escape with the boy is to cooperate with Doc to the best of his abilities. Some of the hazards the travelers face are the mundane ones of everyday driving— running out of gas, getting caught in traffic, getting into fender-benders— but are lent an extra edge of danger by the fact that every delay increases the chances of getting caught and falling into a shootout. Others are unique to the present circumstances, however. Maria keeps looking for opportunities to escape. 32 (like Vincent Vega says, they got the metric system over there— they wouldn’t know what a footlong was) keeps looking for excuses to rape Maria. Blade keeps antagonizing Riccardo and threatening to kill the kid. At one point, the gang are compelled to pick up a hitchhiker (The Teenage Prostitution Racket’s Maria Fabbri) in order to prevent a gas station clerk from becoming suspicious of them. And through it all, Doc faces an increasingly challenging struggle to keep his sidekicks— sociopathic and not very smart as they are— from blowing everything with their poor impulse control.
If Mario Bava thought he’d gotten unlucky with Lisa and the Devil, he hadn’t seen anything yet. Rabid Dogs was a precariously funded project from the start, the kind on which the actors eventually start demanding to be paid in cash and up front for each day’s shooting. No sooner did principal photography wrap than producer Roberto Loyola declared his company’s bankruptcy, and a court ordered all the firm’s assets frozen. To the appalled astonishment of everyone involved, the film elements for Rabid Dogs were included among those assets, so Bava would be unable to finish the picture even if he managed to call in enough favors to cover the cost of dubbing, scoring, and editing, plus a few second-unit scenes that still remained to be shot. There was nothing he or anyone else could do. The director didn’t even have the legal standing to petition the court for anything beyond whatever back wages Loyola might have owed him by that point. Indeed, when Bava died in 1980, there was still no plausible prospect of Rabid Dogs ever being seen by the public.
Yet even as its director died, Rabid Dogs would not. Actress Lea Lander— motivated, perhaps, by a short resumé which would be burnished considerably by such a powerful entry, were anybody able to see the thing— kept careful track of the Loyola Cinematografica bankruptcy case and its fallout, so that she was able to track down the creditors who wound up owning the Rabid Dogs footage. Twenty years after the film’s intended release date, the asking price for the reels and associated rights was low indeed (not much more than the film lab’s accumulated vault fee, really), while Bava’s reputation had improved enough that “lost Mario Bava movie” was becoming an incantation capable of conjuring a modest but serviceable investor buy-in.
This is where the story gets complicated. Lander was no producer, and the completion/restoration of Rabid Dogs that she orchestrated for release in 1996 was a rather minimalist affair. Very little new footage was added beyond some stock clips of police helicopters in flight, and the score was a demo recording of the music that Stelvio Cipriani had written for Rabid Dogs back in 1974. Nor was there much in the way of recutting from the rough assembly that original editor Carlo Reali had hastily slapped together when the true scale of Loyola’s money troubles first became apparent. (The thinking seems to have been that the rough cut could be used to woo an emergency investor or two to stave off final disaster.) Lander’s version, called Semaforo Rosso (“Red Signal,” as in the traffic light) in Italy and bearing various translations of the original Cani Arrabiati title abroad, enjoyed a very limited theatrical run, mostly on the festival circuit, and a low-key DVD release on the Lucertola video label. Later, however, a much more ambitious reconstruction was mounted by Bava’s old friend and frequent collaborator, producer Alfredo Leone. Leone’s take, released under the title Kidnapped, incorporates new material directed by Lamberto Bava from his father’s shooting script, corresponding to the second-unit stuff that was never filmed back in the 70’s. It has a completely new score, also by Stelvio Cipriani, and if you’re watching it with English subtitles, a new and altogether more idiomatic translation of the dialogue. The opening credits are new as well, with plain text on a black background taking over from the Megaforce-like clip reel of heavily processed action footage from later in the film that opens the 1996 restoration. Most significantly, Kidnapped is noticeably re-edited, with a plethora of small changes taken from notes found among Bava’s papers. It’s probably as close as one can realistically come to a film directed from beyond the grave.
Either reconstruction demonstrates that Bava was more than ready to explore the new terrain that the 70’s had opened to filmmakers willing to push the limits. Abandoning his accustomed lush stylization, he brought to Rabid Dogs a refinement of the sweaty shabbiness he’d experimented with in Twitch of the Death Nerve. The mood is comparable to that of contemporary American exploitation pictures, but Rabid Dogs shows more care in the crafting of images. Crucially for a movie that spends most of its time cooped up in a little European station wagon (incidentally, how the hell do you fold up all 6’9” of George Eastman into the back seat of one of those things, anyway?), Bava arrived at a method for filming the vehicle-bound action that allowed him his usual meticulous control over composition while still looking natural and immersive. All the driving scenes were shot with car and camera crew alike on a giant flatbed trailer being pulled down the road by a heavy commercial truck. No need for back projection facilities or even separate camera cars, except when a longer-range exterior shot of the Hostagemobile temporarily forced a switch to more conventional methods. The result is a truly masterful cinematic rendering of claustrophobia. You can practically feel the oppressive August heat and smell the foul whiskey sweat sliming 32’s skin. And for a guy who formulated his directorial sensibilities in the early 60’s, Bava proves remarkably un-squeamish about indulging the new decade’s pronounced taste for sadism. This is where Rabid Dogs starts to look less like an escape route from the horror genre, and more like a second, redirected attempt at the reinvention of it that Bava tried unsuccessfully with Lisa and the Devil. Although the film begins with a criminal caper and nominally follows the culprits in their bid to get away with the loot despite a series of dangerous setbacks, the real emphasis is instead on the torments, both physical and psychological, that the robbers inflict upon their hostages. The irony, of course, is that Bava had already made a movie that would one day reshape the horror film more completely than he could ever have imagined. He just didn’t realize that, partly because gialli were still being conceptualized and promoted as thrillers in early-70’s Italy, and partly because the seismic impact of Twitch of the Death Nerve specifically would not be fully felt until 1980— by which point Bava would be too dead to run any victory laps.
As for the relative merits of Red Signal vs. Kidnapped, it’s basically a wash, with each version having clear advantages over the other. Kidnapped is certainly more polished, but that isn’t necessarily a good thing. For example, the Kidnapped score, while richer, fuller, and just generally finished-sounding in a way that the Red Signal score is not, actually feels more dated than the music that Cipriani wrote and recorded some 25 years earlier. It’s full of hokey 90’s-isms that nostalgia has yet to render charming, whereas the equally hokey 70’s-isms in the original soundtrack enhance its period flavor. Meanwhile, the raggedness of the demo-quality recording gives the old score a seedy immediacy that works perfectly with the ugly mood of the film. What is undeniably a point in Kidnapped’s favor is the more thoughtful editing, tightening up some scenes that long overstayed their welcome in the other cut. In particular, the bit with the obnoxious hitchhiker works incalculably better in the revised edit. The second-unit footage of the police manhunt also strengthens the picture by giving it a persistent toehold in the world outside the confines of Riccardo’s car. Unfortunately, Kidnapped also adds something that Rabid Dogs is better off without. You see, Kidnapped and Red Signal alike end with a twist akin to those in 5 Dolls for an August Moon and Twitch of the Death Nerve. But whereas the gialli treated their concluding whammies almost as the punch lines to an exceedingly black joke, the twist in Rabid Dogs was practically the entire point of the exercise— indeed, it was a story with the same twist in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine that inspired Bava to make this movie in the first place. As such, he always intended to place hints throughout the film that all was not exactly as it seemed, but Loyola’s bankruptcy prevented those hints from ever making it onto celluloid. Red Signal was consequently forced to spring its ending on the audience almost completely out of nowhere (there is one clue, but you surely won’t recognize it as such in the moment), but for Kidnapped, Lamberto Bava recreated the setup sequences just as his father intended. The surprise is much more effective when launched cold, mainly because the scenes designed to heat up its engines are so obviously divorced from the surrounding action that they can serve no imaginable purpose except to herald a twist ending. Nothing hamstrings a twist like cuing the audience to watch for it (Shut up, you! I’m a reviewer— it’s different when we do it!), so this is another place where Rabid Dogs benefits from the relative half-assedness of its first restoration. The upshot, for any but the most casual fans of either Mario Bava or Italian exploitation movies in general? Watch both versions of Rabid Dogs if you get the chance, but watch one or the other of them no matter what.