Cult Cinema: Holocaust 2000 (1977) - Reviewed

Courtesy of StudioCanal
Kirk Douglas is mostly remembered for being one of the original Hollywood movie stars getting his start in the 1940s before moving on up to the top ranks of the highest paid most respected actors of his time.  Working twice with Stanley Kubrick on Paths of Glory and Spartacus as well as Lust for Life and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea among the actor’s highlights, Kirk Douglas would be ranked by the American Film Institute as the 17th greatest male actor of Old Hollywood cinema. 

Usually a tough guy leading man with prowess and sex appeal, the 1970s however saw the then-aged performer trying his hand at more exploitative horror-oriented work.  Two science-fiction horror films which came out back-to-back made roughly around the same time featuring Douglas, Brian De Palma’s The Fury and Albert De Martino’s Holocaust 2000 aka The Chosen aka Rain of Fire, would change Douglas’ clean-cut image forever in favor of mixing Old Hollywood with violent and gory supernatural horrors.
Rich industrial tycoon Robert Caine (Kirk Douglas) and his business-partner/son Angel (Simon Ward) are on the cusp of initiating an ambitious project with a proposed nuclear power plant installation in the midst of the Holy Land.  Though Caine and Angel (allegorical, no?) laugh off peace protests angry at the potentially humankind-ending atomic energy endeavor, their tune changes as close associates of the project start meeting brutal ends.  Over time, Robert Caine grows increasingly convinced the project itself might be a doorway to Hell and the antichrist itself as bodies continue to inexplicably fall.

Though an out-and-out ripoff of Richard Donner’s The Omen, right down to its decapitations and skull smashing linked loosely to a demon child with an aged movie star (Gregory Peck in that film) trying desperately to stop the impending destruction he inadvertently jump started.  A British-Italian co-production with director Martino, Sergio Donati and Michael Robson co-writing the script, the multi-titled cash-in on The Omen winds up being one of the most underrated Italian knockoffs of a then-popular mainstream Hollywood picture. 
Boasting a wild score by legendary composer Ennio Morricone, ornate Technovision cinematography (improperly open-matted for the US theatrical release) by The Cat o’ Nine Tails director of photography Erico Menczer and breathtaking editing from Zombie and Cannibal Holocaust editor Vincenzo Tomassi, Holocaust 2000 for being a knockoff is technically brilliant.  Visually stunning to look at with terrific prosthetic makeup effects by eventual Casino Royale vfx supervisor Gino De Rossi that forecast the effects he would do on Zombie and The City of the Living Dead, Holocaust 2000 from a purely filmmaking end is top notch stuff.  Easily one of the best overt carbon copies of a renowned Hollywood film made by Italy in the 1970s.

Kirk Douglas is usually known for playing musclebound tough characters and seeing him more or less inhabit the Gregory Peck role from The Omen here is both jarring and startlingly effective.  Far more involving and compelling here than his role in De Palma’s subsequent The Fury, some of the film’s best scenes with Douglas come in abstract hallucinatory form such as a sexually charged demonic apocalyptic nightmare where Douglas imagines the gold metallic nuclear towards of his power plant coming out of the ocean as a series of demonic dragon heads. 
The film boasts an overqualified bilingual cast including but not limited to David Lean actor Anthony Quayle as a chief scientist who balks at some of the more apocalyptic prophesizing about the power plant.  Veteran actress Virginia McKenna makes an unexpected appearance though aside from Douglas and his sexy reporter girlfriend Sara (Agostina Belli) who may know more than she leads on, the real scene stealer in this is Simon Ward as Caine’s bloodless golden boy prodigal son.  With his half-lit blank eyes and lack of emotion, he makes Caine’s son Angel peculiar, perhaps devious and conniving.

Yes the film is pure apocalyptic world-ending exploitation with some deliciously gratuitously over the top death scenes contained therein with the great Kirk Douglas running around naked, getting entangled in a psych ward and dreaming of giant dragons rising from the water.  It is shameless in its aim to capitalize on then-trendy Hollywood films as well as the tropes governing them.  Still in the pantheon of Italian imitations of major Hollywood films, Holocaust 2000 is one of the most memorable and striking examples, sparking debate even over whether or not it has the strength to knock the film that clearly inspired it off of the podium.

--Andrew Kotwicki