Tuesday, December 22, 2009

No Black Man Ever Killed Like This!

Under any of its three titles, Louisville, Kentucky writer/director William Girdler’s most obscure feature is also one of his best (“best” being a relative term when dealing with Girdler). Drawing from DIRTY HARRY and the popular blaxploitation movies of the period, 1974's COMBAT COPS/THE ZEBRA KILLER/PANIC CITY plays loose with its plot, but offers some excellent performances and a properly sleazy atmosphere.

Louisville is under siege from a serial killer who calls himself “Mac” and leaves notes at every murder scene. His victims include an apartment of nurses who were strangled, sliced, disemboweled, and raped; a family of five blown up in their station wagon; and a cleaning lady pushed down a flight of stairs. Two homicide detectives, black Frank Savage (Austin Stoker, the lead in John Carpenter’s ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13) and white Marty Wilson (assistant director Hugh Smith), investigate the bizarre slayings, which are being committed by a white man (James Pickett) wearing blackface and an Afro wig! If you thought Andy Robinson’s Scorpio Killer in DIRTY HARRY was despicable, wait ‘til you get a load of Pickett, who spews a sundry string of racial epithets and shows no remorse for any of his evil deeds, even to the point of telling one of his victims, post-mortem, that she’s an “ugly nigger.”

Girdler clearly had little money to spend (reportedly coming from Chicago investors, including DETROIT 9000 director Arthur Marks, who “presented” the film in its initial U.S. release), but puts it all on the screen, managing several good chase scenes and shootouts. Cinematography and sound are quite rough around the edges (some dialogue is rendered almost unintelligible and could have used some post-production sweetening), but Girdler’s script contains enough raw energy and humor to make up for the technical drawbacks.

The script’s weakness is its leading character. Frank Savage is a pretty dumb cop who fails to follow through on promising leads and reacts to his girlfriend’s kidnapping with the same nonchalance as you would notice a stray thread dangling from your blazer. It’s a testament to the charismatic Stoker that you remain in Savage’s corner, as he trades good-humored racial barbs with his white partner (“Why do you smoke those (cigars) anyway?” “Because cigarettes are white.”) and expresses rage at his enemy’s antagonistic bigotry.

The most surprising aspect of PANIC CITY--even more than its quality--is its PG rating. Originally filmed and released by Marks’ General Film Corporation as THE ZEBRA KILLER, it was later titled COMBAT COPS and handed a PG, despite its graphic portrayals of violence, rape, and racial language. The British print I watched was titled PANIC CITY, was released by Lancair Films, and carried a BBFC certificate of X.

To the best of my knowledge, PANIC CITY--under any of its titles--has never received an American home video release. That’s a shame, because it’s a feather in the cap of the late Girdler, who died tragically at age 30 and whose reputation as a filmmaker might be improved if word of this outrageously blunt thriller was spread.

No comments: