Sex, Zombies and Videotape: A Short History of Greek Cult Cinema

Son: Leave me alone! There’s falsity everywhere!
Father: The truth lies in God’s word.
Son: No father. The truth lies in Sex Pistols. Savvy?[1]

Introduction

Choosing to write an essay about Greek cult cinema, one will have to face an obvious obstacle: the complete and utter lack of any academic approaches to the subject, as well as any serious bibliographic references whatsoever. In fact, with the exclusion of a number of studies based on Theo Angelopoulos’ work, Greek cinema in its entirety is helplessly short on any comprehensive readings.

Nonetheless, Greek film industry -as limited as it may be- was always rich in unorthodoxy, bizarreness and straightforward badness. Greek cult cinema embarked in the seventies with genres such as sexploitation and porn, burgeoned in the eighties with trash and queer cinema, before it was finally incriminated, dumped and forgotten in the nineties. During the last decade a certain cinephile mood was noted for getting away with all the guilt and reevaluating these side-lined genres. That’s what I think makes a recollection of this era essential in this specific point.

 

Old and New Greek Cinema

The history of modern Greek Cinema has been divided into two major time periods. When talking about the Old Greek Cinema (which is also unduly known as Good Old Cinema, clearly not for quality, but rather for nostalgic reasons) we refer to the mainstream studio productions that took place between the end of the Civil War in 1949 and the breaking out of the colonel junta in the late sixties. The films of this period, in which the indigenous film industry achieved a significant level of commercial success, are distinguished by firm populism in the subtext, conservatism in the form and repetition. The commonly used film genres were comedies, musicals, patriotic period films and melodramas of conventional social commentary. Heading towards the seventies -and with the appearance of television contributing- Old Greek Cinema was about to lose its previous popularity. Its lightsome themes and idealized reality had stopped concerning the wide audience that was now facing serious social issues. A new form of artistic expression was necessary.

The dictatorship that ruled the country for almost a decade, led the intellectual world to react creatively. These fermentations formed a whole movement in cinema and art in general. The emerging of the New Greek Cinema marked the importance of the creator. The filmic language that was introduced by a new breed of directors was innovating, in both the aesthetic concepts and narrative techniques, and incoherent, with ambiguous meanings and symbolic notions. The old genres were abandoned for the sake of a more humanist cinema, influenced by the Italian neorealism and the French new wave, which expressed the personal and collective problems of contemporary Greek people.

Along with the rise of New Greek Cinema, there was another film industry that was making its first steps. To many Greeks till today the term cult cinema is a synonym to the stag films of this era.

 

Seventies porn

Greek erotic cinema was born in the early seventies by a number of well-known filmmakers of the old era that switched from family dramas to sex flicks, sometimes using aliases. The first soft porn, Omiros Efstratiadis’ Oso yparhei erotas, was shot in 1971 and gave impetus to a series of sexploitation movies that promised to offer a feast for the eyes of the pecking males who never before had the chance to enjoy an on-screen naked female body in its full glory, without its juicy parts being covered by some white sheet. Films like Oi erotomaneis and Anilikes amartoles, again by Efstratiadis, O kyklos tis anomalias by Ilias Mylonakos and Kolasmeni fysi by Pavlos Parashakis, brought thousands of viewers in the movie theaters of central Athens.

Despite the underground nature of the genre, there were some films that became particularly popular and confronted the mainstream productions. Diamantia sto gymno sou soma (Diamonds on Her Naked Flesh) by Omiros Efstratiadis climbed up to the 30th place of the 1972 domestic box-office[2], before setting off for the international market, along with Vangelis Serdiadis’ To koritsi kai t’ alogo (Portrait of a Love Affair) that is loosely based on Euripides’ tragedy Hippolytus.  Even more successful was Sex… 13 beaufort!, directed by Chris Liambos, a film that signalled the cult following around the bald actor Kostas Gousgounis, who became the biggest Greek pornstar.

The female equivalent to Gousgounis was the brunette Tina Spathi, who made her debut in 1974’s Diastrofes, by Yiorgos Nomikos. After a huge success and eleven more films, she would retire in order to get married and have kids. In her interview to Kostas Lykouropoulos for the newspaper’s Investor’s World slip magazine Symbol, she recalls her relationship with the fans: “Men’s gaze was lusty. But it was also familiar, because I was familiar too. I might as well have been their object of desire, but everyone’s first move was an armful for the pleasure of meeting me. With warmth and purity[3]”.

A whole new star system was invented. Names such as Kostas Bokolis, Maria Konsta, Haris Brumel, Maria Dimitriou, Notis Pitsilos, the colored Jimmy Belarike, the drag-queens Paloma and Antzela Gianou, or the homo George Tsapelas, were regularly posed on the billboards of the erotic cinemas of Athens. Some of the celebrities were already in the movie business, like Telis Stallone, who worked as a stuntman in many domestic and international productions and Kostas Gousgounis who participated in the adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’ Christ Recrucified into television series.

Until 1974 and the downfall of the regime, porn was officially prosecuted and most erotic films were released in two versions: a censored and an explicit[4]. The cut, softcore version was made for the domestic release, whereas the hardcore one traveled to the international markets, where Greek porn was particularly successful due to its parti-colored imagery, with sex scenes taking place from sunny beaches to snowy mountainsides, and its multinational cast that often included girls from America, Germany and Brazil, or even Greek transvestites who were making a career in Europe. Sometimes, however, the reels containing the hardcore scenes were illegally kept in the cinemas. When the projectionists reckoned that there was no considerable danger of a police swoop, they would load the reels in a separate projector and screen the cut scenes between the regular reels of the film. The viewers were itching to see these 10-15 minutes of the interstitial scenes. It was a respectful, almost ritualistic procedure.

The infamous movie theaters of Athens were a meeting place for all kinds of subcultures. In his book Flash Back: A Lifetime of Cinema, Giorgos Lazaridis vividly described the theaters as a “hang-out for underground bums and manic loafers, makeshift shelter for passing homeless, cunning crammer for ‘tough guys’, retreat for truants of all of Athens’ high schools”. Erotic cinema frequenters were a lively cult commune, faithful to their object of worship. Fans of Gousgounis were crowding by hundreds in cinemas to see his films and were crying out “worthy! worthy!” every time he accomplished another erotic mission. During one screening in Cine Ellispontos in Thessaloniki, fans literary lit candles inside the theatre to mourn the pornstar’s on-screen death[5].

What made Greek porn so beloved and memorable was its sense of humor: the hilarious punch lines quoted by the actors, the surreal situations they were involved in, even the preposterous voice overs. As a cult genre, it managed to survive for nearly two decades. With the arrival of videotape it moved from the movie theaters to the individual households. And thus began its gradual rundown. It abandoned its previous somewhat interesting storylines (that combined police plots and crime genre, usually with moralistic finales) for the sake of as many sex scenes as possible (now more hardcore than ever, including anal and group sex, double infiltrations, blow jobs, masturbations, lesbians, sodomy and all kinds of fetishes). It became cheap and sloppy, targeting only in maximizing the profits. Towards the end of the eighties it got diminished and disappeared. And despite some recent attempts to revive it, it never regained its previous vogue.

 

Eighties trash

From the first years of the eighties Greek society stepped into a considerably more stable condition, in comparison to the previous turbulent decade. The Panhellenic Socialist Movement that was established right after the fall of the dictatorship and was growing stronger ever since, won the elections of 1981 and became the first self-contained socialist government in Greek history. PASOK achieved high development rates and raised the living standards of the average Greek, before it got involved into a massive scandal concerning a news media owner, resulting in losing the elections of 1989 to the right-wing conservative party New Democracy.

The improvement of living conditions and the legislation of freedom of thought and speech turned out to work vice versa in the intellectual world. Almost every art expression remained desperately static and cinema was no exception. The creative explosion of the New Greek Cinema movement diminished. The anti-conformist students of the Polytechnio Revolt that overthrown the junta had now found jobs, made families and got sucked in by the system. And when a society reaches its creative satiation, it’s time to bring out its trash.

A retrospection of the decade shows that trash cinema not only flourished, but it completely took over at least the first half of it[6]. Director Nikos Foskolos’ over-the-top dramatic campness set the mood for the years to come. His 17 sfaires gia enan angelo (17 Bullets for an Angel), which tells the story of Iro Konstantopoulou, a WWII heroine who sleeps in a room decorated with Walt Disney curtains, gained the 9th place in the 1980-1981 box-office, leaving behind quality pieces such as Theo Angelopoulos’ Alexander the Great in the 18th place and Nikos Panagiotopoulos’ Melodrama in the 23rd place. His double season hit was complete with Exodos Kindynou, once more with a female lead. The character of tough lieutenant Daisy was performed by Olga Karlatos who previously starred in Lucio Fulci’s cult favourite Zombie 2, as a neurotic nymph with a ripping eye.

The next season another name that pioneered Greek trash, Giannis Dalianidis, who was also one of the most commercial directors of Old Greek Cinema, gathered some of the upcoming stars of the genre (Panos Mihalopoulos, Stamatis Gardelis, Sofia Aliberti) and shot the first part of his unofficial trilogy of social complaint. Ta tsakalia: Ena koinoniko provlima ended up in the 3rd place of the domestic box-office. I strofi and Oi epikindynoi: Mia diamartyria would follow in 1982 and 1983 respectively, with even more outraged youths, fast motorcycles, funky discos and, of course, willing women. A Greek version of Charles Bronson is embodied in Giannis Voglis hard-boiled performance as a father who revenges the death of his 14 year old son, in Dimis Dadiras’ actioner Panikos sta sholeia (20th). Interestingly, IMDB quotes in the plot outline of the film: “This movie could be described as Greece’s answer to Death Wish. Also has shades of Taxi Driver!”

In 1982-1983 cult cinema takes over the country. Leader in the box-office race -with almost 300,000 tickets- is the three-part spoof Alaloum that was collectively directed by Yorgos Apostolidis, Yannis Smaragdis and Yiannis Typaldos and featured the gifted comic persona of Harry Klyn. Another comedian that became extreme popular was Stathis Psaltis, with his unmistakable skinny caricature and slimy performances. He appeared in five movies just for this season, among Giannis Dalianidis’ Vasika… kalispera sas (3rd) and Errikos Thalassinos’ Pesta… vromostome! (7th). Queer cinema had its honorary with Giorgos Katakouzinos’ Angelos (Angel) gaining position number 2 and touring around the world in various gay film festivals. Another cult classic was Roda, tsanta kai kopana (5th), which was directed by the usual suspect Omiros Efstratiadis and was followed by three sequels. Finally, Dimis Dadiras’ Fikales Anilikon (12th) and Kostas Karagiannis Hooligans – Kato ta heria ap’ ta niata! (20th), were particularly memorable because of the rebel-without-a-cause performances of Giorgos Petroxilos.

After reaching its peak, Greek trash is slowly descending towards the mid-eighties. The years 1983-1984 the number of productions is considerably lower in comparison to the previous season, and the tickets are less than half. The comedy Kamikazi, agapi mou, which was the second collaboration between Giannis Dalianidis and Stathis Psaltis, hit the top of the box-office with 222,610 tickets, followed by Efstratiadis’ Roda, tsanta & kopana no 2 with 119,819 tickets. But the cult taking of the year is undoubtedly Nikos Zervos’ monsterpiece O Drakoulas ton Exarheion (Dracula of Exarcheia). The b-movie veteran summoned an unforgettable cast of cult figures to tell the story of a mad scientist who arrives in Greece straight from the Carpathians in order to create a rock band from the parts of dead musicians, such as Manos Hadjidakis, Jimi Hendrix etc. Inspired by the old-school Hammer films Zervos delivers an impossibly gibberish movie that has to be seen to be believed, a hybrid of horror parody, socio-political satire and rock n roll documentary.

Videotape played a crucial role throughout the decade not only in cinema’s course, but in society’s as well[7]. It introduced a new reality, created new habits and reshaped the lives of millions of Greek families. The VHS player invaded every single household, more and more video clubs were popping out of nowhere and numerous would-be auteurs that saw the new medium as an easy way to make money, started making movies, casting themselves as badass rebels and their girlfriends as dirty whores. And although videotape helped in the spread of cult genres in all the social stratums, at the same time it contributed in their extinction. The films were getting cheaper and worse, the neighborhood cinemas were closing down one after the other and the sometime rising stars were discarded into oblivion.

In essence, Greek cult cinema was finished by the end of the 80s -along with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the overthrown of Balkan communism- taking away with it a whole generation of wildcat teenagers and suicidal junkies, crazy faggots and hairy whores, a rich legacy of guiltless and shameless camp. It might have been kitsch, but it was innocent, far from today’s glamorous illusions. It might have been dirty, but it was genuine, far from today’s political correctness. And, finally, it might have been bad, but it was on purpose and people knew it. And enjoyed it.

 

Into new directions

Heading towards the nineties, kitsch moved in and settled down permanently in Greek television. Only this time it was legitimized and completely made-up. With the arrival of private networks, television began defining people’s taste, aesthetic, beliefs, even their lives. A new era of coyness and conservatism was at hand. Television became a mirror for the Greek society. And the reflection of its self was not flattering at all.

Neither the movie industry was in its forte. The better part of it was plainly copying television. Institutions such as the National Quality Awards were conventionalized and got involved with political interests. Even arthouse cinema was suffering from diffidence, timidity and academicism. Once again, people stopped caring about cinema, a situation that prevailed until the turn of the century and the emergence of many new voices in the 00s.

Concerning to cult cinema, there is a small number of films in the last two decades that’s worth mentioning. In an successful effort to revive the exploitation genres, director and eighties worshiper Fokionas Bogris -who had already filmed a short documentary about Greek trash- delivers in his Katharsi (2009) an ex-cop redemption story, full in its dirtiness and underground glory. Panos H. Koutras, one of modern Greek cinemas’ greatest hopes, stole the impressions last year in Berlin Film Festival with his lovely drag-queen Strella, a film so beautifully written and played that is in a way reinventing the genre of queer cinema. His cult origins can be better noticed almost a decade earlier in his b-movie I epithesi tou gigantiaiou mousaka (The Attack of the Giant Mousaka), a love letter to 50s sci-fi where Athens founds itself under attack by a giant piece of mousaka.

In 2005 an unknown director and his crew toured the Greek eparchy and placarded the walls of many town centers with a poster saying: “The Evil Wants Zombies. Come Downtown And Be One”. They were recruiting passers as living dead, covering them in fake caffeine blood in order to shot one scene from their new film. Yorgos Noussias certainly knew how to create a cult following. To Kako (Evil), the first Greek zombie flick became an instant cult classic and led to last year’s sequel, To kako – Stin epohi ton iron (Evil – In the Time of Heroes). It premiered in Thessaloniki Film Festival in a fantastic screening full of cheers and shouts of joy. When at the end of the film Noussias and his collaborators went up on the theater’s stage to meet the crowd, they were hailed as rockstars.

 

Epilogue

Although not quite as popular beyond its borders, or as variform in genres compared to others, Greek cult cinema remains a worthwhile investment. It is true that lately -largely thanks to the internet- there is an effort to put it on the map (the newly established Greek Cult Film Festival celebrated its 8th edition this January in Athens), however a lot more steps need to be taken in order to bring it in the foreground once again. And while I know that asking for something like BFI’s Flipside to happen here would be way too much, I strongly believe that it’s on the hands of cult fans to make these lost genres’ return come true.

 

Bibliography

Fenek Mikelidis, Ninos. 1997. History of Cinema: 100 Years of Greek Film From 1987 till Today. Athens: Maniatea.

Lazaridis, Giorgos. 1999. Flash Back: A Lifetime of Cinema. Athens: A. A. Livani.

Georgas, Vasos. 2005. Greek Erotica: An illustrated history of Greek erotic cinema 1955-1985. Athens: Tsagarousianos.

Fissas, Dimitris. 1994. Strictly Inappropriate: Sex Cinemas in Athens. Contribution in Sociology-Ethnography. Athens: Delfini.

Katsikas, Loukas. 2005. Give Porn to the People. Cinema. 167. pp. 92-97. Athens: Pegasus.

Theodoropoulos, Tasos. 2008. Greek Cinema of the 80s. Cinema. 199. pp. 58-66. Athens: Pegasus.

Krassakopoulos, Giorgos. 2008. Be Kind, Rewind. Cinema. 199. pp. 44-49. Athens: Pegasus.

 

Footnotes

[1] Dialogue from Kostas Karagiannis’ film Hooligans – Kato ta heria ap’ ta niata! (1983)

[2] Katsikas, Loukas. 2005. Give Porn to the People. Cinema. 167. pp. 94.

[3] Aspripetraxexaspri. Tina is my name and stands for Konstantina. Available at: http://www.kuk.blogspot.com/2004_02_01_kuk_archive.html#107659224817450469

[4] Pare-Dose. Greek Porn: myths and facts about Greek porn. Available at: http://www.pare-dose.net/?p=2506.

[5] Blog Th A P. Greek erotic cult. Available at: http://theopeppasblog.pblogs.gr/to-ellhniko-erwtiko-kalt.html

[6] Theodoropoulos, Tasos. 2008. Greek Cinema of the 80s. Cinema. 199. Pp. 63

[7] Krassakopoulos, Giorgos. 2008. Be Kind, Rewind. Cinema. 199. pp. 46.

 

Hooli, hooli, hooligan
Hooli, hooli, hooligan
You have two clubs in your grip
Black jacket and bully look
You have a tattoo on your arm
Champion of loneliness.
Let me whisper in your ear
Who comes on Sunday
It’s the result that counts
In order to be a champion
Come on stop the fight
One goal counts

Song from Hooligans – Kato ta heria ap’ ta niata! (1983)

 

April 2010 / Brunel University / MA Cult Film & Television/ Transnational Cult Cinemas
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