U.S.A. / 1980
Directed by Dusty Nelson
Joe Pilato
Susan Chapek
Tom Savini
Color / 84 Minutes / R

Format: DVD / R0 - NTSC
Synapse Films
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    10   10 = Highest Rating  
Guest Review by Troy Howarth
A cameraman/special effects artist (Joe Pilato) is horrified to discover the true nature of the low budget horror film he is working on...
    In the 1970s, before the local government got too greedy and essentially killed it, the Pittsburgh film making experience was quite a promising scene (believe me, I'm allowed to take such digs; I live very close to the 'burgh). The international success of maverick George A. Romero had proved that it was, in fact, possible to make great films with tiny crews, even tinier budgets, and by shooting in the homes and back alleys of friends and families in the then burgeoning steel-town community. Romero's success rubbed off on his collaborators, as well, with the director offering his assistance to friends who wanted to take a crack at making their own films. One such work was Effects, a heretofore "lost" horror movie directed by Dusty Nelson and produced by John Harrison (director of the recent Dune miniseries, he cut his teeth for Romero on pictures like Dawn of the Dead and Creepshow), Pasquale Buba (now a veteran of such massive productions as Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York and Michael Mann's Heat, he too learned his chops working on Romero flicks like Martin and Knightriders), that overcomes its sometimes amateurish execution through the sheer inventiveness of its storytelling.
    The setup is a simple one: a somewhat naive young cameraman/special effects artist (perhaps he wears two hats because that's how it was done in Pittsburgh everybody knew how to do a bit of everything, and was only too enthused to lend a hand wherever possible) discovers that the horror film he is working on is, in fact, a snuff movie. The story takes a number of intriguing twists and turns, but director Dusty Nelson's chief accomplishment is to blur the line between the movie and the movie within the movie to such an extent that we can't be sure what's happening when, or indeed if the young protagonist is simply paranoid. The film gives a very accurate portrayal of guerrilla filmmaking, while at the same time working as a surprisingly nihilistic horror movie. The film within the film is directed by an amoral sadist, played with poker faced humor by co-producer Harrison. Harrison's character evokes the image of the artist as a madman, but the casually sadistic way in which he is depicted raises him to an almost Sadeian level of heartless, soulless cruelty and depravity
    First time director Nelson does a commendable job with very tricky material. Handled poorly, Effects could easily have succumbed to the hypocrisy that damaged the not-entirely-dissimilar Cannibal Holocaust, for example (the comparison is, I feel a valid one: both operate as films within a film meant to comment on the process of filmmaking itself; both have sadistic, dilettante directors; and both seek to blur the line between reality and fantasy). As it stands, however, the film is admirably straightforward in its approach the characters have traits that make them likable or unsympathetic, yet always interesting, and one can't help but become fully immersed in Pilato's plight as he realizes the true horror of the film he's participating in. The film doesn't have much in the way of style, but there's a raw, gritty texture to it that actually enhances the snuff movie aspect. The improvisational flavor also feeds into this aspect in a very effective manner. Performances are surprisingly solid Pilato, fresh off a small role (mostly cut from the release print) in Dawn of the Dead and later to become a cult favorite for his foul-mouthed, apoplectic portrayal of Rhodes in Day of the Dead, makes for a likable and believably bewildered protagonist. Harrison, glimpsed as the zombie who gets a screwdriver to the ear in Dawn, gives a wonderfully chilling, laid back performance as the amoral filmmaker, while Tom Savini (already a cult film sensation due to his FX and acting work for Romero in Martin and Dawn) steals a few scenes as a coked-up actor who relentlessly tries to seduce Pilato's girlfriend.
    Crude as all hell, but intelligently told, Effects is a key chapter in the Pittsburgh Film making experience of the 1970s.

Synapse's release of Effects represents its home video debut. Acquired by a small time distributor who went bankrupt after giving the film a handful of showings, Effects went out of circulation in a mire of red tape and legal entanglements soon after its release in 1980. Fans of Romero, Savini, Pilato and the genre in general have long inquired about this title, and Synapse is to be congratulated for not only making it available but for making it a proper SE in the bargain. The 1.78/16 x 9 transfer looks as good as Carl Augenstein's cinematography will allow. Shot on 16mm, very often with only available light, it sometimes has the look of a home movie, and a few shots are noticeably out of focus, but that was very much a "shoot and make do" kind of movie and, as noted, such amateurish touches actually enhance certain aspects of the picture. The image is consistently grainy, but that's the best it's going to ever going to look this is not a film to marvel over its cinematography. Print damage is minimal and detail is as sharp as the material will allow. The mono soundtrack suffers from defects in its recording some dialogue is a little muffled and hard to make out, but overall it gets the job done; Harrison's creepy music score has definite presence. Extras include a commentary with Harrison, Nelson and Buba, a 60 minute making-of titled AfterEffects, a photo gallery, incisive liner notes by Michael Felsher, and two short films by Nelson, Buba and crew: Ubu and Beastie. The commentary is laid back and relaxed, and it's obvious that all three men are proud of the film and simply beaming with joy that it is finally being released.
    Good as the commentary is, it's outdone by the outstanding featurette. More than being a making-of, it's a testimonial about making movies in Pittsburgh in the 1970s. Just about everybody connected to the film is interviewed, with a large chunk of the material coming from a poolside reunion Harrison organized that includes Joe Pilato (doing his best to cope with a sore throat by swigging on brandy) and George Romero. Romero and Pilato both have a couple of very funny moments (Romero's reaction to a crew member knocking over a stand had me rolling), but they also provide some real insight into how it was done "in the old days." Those who didn't make it to the gathering, including Savini, are interviewed separately, their memories included among the comments. Clocking in at 60 minutes, it gives one as good a sense of the making of an obscure low budget indie horror film as any documentary I've ever seen.
    This is definitely one of the finest releases Synapse has ever produced.