Italy / 1976
Directed by Enzo G. Castellari
Franco Nero
Woody Strode
Olga Karlatos
Color / 101 Minutes / Not Rated
Format: DVD (R0 - NTSC)
Anchor Bay Entertainment
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2007 Blue Underground edition

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Review by
Brian Lindsey
    7   10 = Highest Rating  
Keoma is a superior example of the Italian-made "spaghetti western". Gritty and violent, it's loaded with existential themes and imagery. As Keoma, a half-breed Indian gunfighter who dresses like a '60s Haight Ashbury hippy, the great Italian star Franco Nero (Django, Hitch-Hike) has yet another iconic role. The film's simple story is told in flashbacks, using an abstract editing style; action scenes are a slow-motion ballet of choreographed carnage straight out of the Peckinpah playbook. (I wonder if John Woo ever saw this film...) It also features a supernatural element, in the character of an old witch-woman who is meant to personify death. There's actually quite a lot to like here. Too bad the movie's almost ruined by a song. (I'll get to that in a minute.)
    Nero is Keoma, an orphaned half-breed adopted by Shannon (William Berger), a benevolent gunfighter who raised the boy as one of his own sons. While growing up, Shannon's three biological sons bullied and tormented Keoma relentlessly. (Perhaps it was the kid's "I am Kirok!" outfit that set 'em off.) His one friend was George (Woody Strode of Spartacus), Shannon's black ranch hand. When he reached manhood, Keoma took off to "find himself" but ended up serving in the Union Army during the Civil War, winning medals for heroism. Shannon's sons stayed behind, growing up to be callous thugs.
    Now, sometime after the war, Keoma returns to his dusty, wind-swept home town. (There's a lot of dust in this flick, akin to Django's setting in a clapboard cowtown amid a sea of mud.) Things have gone decidedly downhill in his absence. Shannon has retired, living in seclusion on the ranch. His three sons have thrown their lot in with Mr. Caldwell, ruthless leader of a small army of ex-Confederate raiders who's taken over the town and runs it with an iron fist. (A plot element shared with Django.) Many of the townspeople have been stricken with plague but Caldwell won't allow anyone to leave and get needed medicines. Boyhood mentor George has become the town drunk, a whipping boy for the amusement of Caldwell's racist goons. Keoma immediately incurs their wrath when he frees a pregnant woman (Zombie's Olga Karlatos), mistakenly thought to be plague-infected, who was to be quarantined with the other sick people in an old mining pit. Defiantly Keoma makes a stand in the town, confronting on not only Caldwell's gang but the three brothers as well. Buoyed by Keoma's stoic courage, George gives up the bottle and takes up his trusty bow to stand with him. Even Shannon straps on his guns one last time to aid his adopted son with fateful consequences. (Whenever the witch-woman appears something unpleasant is usually in the offing.) Much mayhem and a very high body count ensues. All of it is helmed in epic spaghetti western style by director Enzo Castellari (1990: The Bronx Warriors). The action scenes are particularly good. Sounds great, huh?
    Well, there's this song, you see... the 'Keoma Theme' I'll call it. It's absolutely horrible. Now usually one of the coolest aspects of an Italian western is the music. Keoma's score is okay actually, except for this song that recurs at agonizingly regular intervals. In the disc's audio commentary Castellari states he wanted it to be integral to the film, like the Bob Dylan songs in Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. It's integral, all right... to damn near sinking the movie. Trust me: it's that bad. Beginning with the opening credits, a woman and later a male vocalist periodically warble the folkie, heart-tugging ballad of Keoma. The female singer sounds like Joan Baez on crack strangling a cat while the man comes off like a drunk Leonard Cohen doing a bad Bela Lugosi imitation. The Keoma theme's music isn't bad, but the vocal stylings (artists thankfully remain nameless) make it hands-down the worst film song I've ever endured. Much restraint was required to keep from fast-forwarding the disc every time it made an appearance.
    It's really a shame. Keoma could've easily become one of my all time favorite spaghetti westerns. But that damn song*... What, I wonder, is the Italian word for shit?
* Were it not for that crappy song, I'd give Keoma a Movie Rating of 7... maybe 8!

The Keoma disc's video looks somewhat faded and seems a tad dark in spots, but is generally good. The Dolby Mono audio track is serviceable. (Some faint background noise was detected in quieter scenes, however.) The animated menu screens are nice, given a sepia-toned color scheme befitting such a dust-caked western. Unfortunately a snippet of that godawful song plays over the main menu... Arggh!
    Bonus features: The theatrical trailer is included, along with a 10-minute interview, filmed recently, with star Franco Nero. As he relates a few interesting anecdotes about the movie it's obvious Nero genuinely has great affection for it and director Castellari. (Nero still looks great, by the way; he could play an action hero today.) The disc's best feature is the audio commentary with Castellari and American Euro-western scholar
 Waylon Wahl. Little coaxing is needed for Castellari to hold forth on numerous aspects of the film's production.
    A surprising amount of Keoma turns out to have been improvised on a day-to-day basis, with Nero and other cast members writing their own scenes and dialog. Quite proud of the film, the director is candid about the influence various American movies and filmmakers had on his own approach. His English is good, if heavily accented, and I enjoyed "sitting in" on the conversation. (And yep, even Castellari says had he the chance to re-edit Keoma, he'd cut out a lot of the singing.) All in all this is a commendable treatment for a very obscure film. Anchor Bay gets a razzie from me for Keoma's packaging, though the front cover art is some of the ugliest I've seen in some time. 8/06/01
UPDATE Blue Underground will be issuing an edition of Keoma in March 2007, identical to the disc reviewed here (including the ugly cover art).