Director: Jess Franco
Mondo Macabro USA

By 1965, director Jess Franco had only contributed one great film to the horror genre: THE AWFUL DR. ORLOF, containing many themes and subjects he would revisit over the length of his comprehensive career. Other horror films, THE SADISTIC BARON VON KLAUS and DR. ORLOFF'S MONSTER, were less than memorable and made less of an impact on viewers and the box office than ORLOF. Often incorrectly cited as a follow-up to ORLOF, DIABOLICAL DR. Z (also known as MISS MUERTE, a better title) displayed a return to Franco's very personal vision of horror cinema and remains one of his best works. Francophiles have been waiting a long while for the definitive presentation of MISS MUERTE and Pete Tombs' USA branch of Mondo Macabro has delivered and then some!

Dr. Zimmer (aka Dr. Z) is a bespectacled, wheelchair-bound scientist experimenting with a mind control machine, assisted by his determined daughter Irma. After capturing an escaped lunatic and making him their slave, the two scientists approach a board of scientists to reveal their invention. Unfortunately, they brand him a madman and he dies of a heart attack before them. Blaming the ignorant physicians for her father's death, Irma kidnaps a beautiful stripper with dangerously long fingernails and brainwashes her into becoming the Angel of Death to avenge him.

Watching DIABOLICAL DR. Z, many viewers will be coerced into pinching themselves to remember this is a Franco film. Beautifully shot in stunning black-and-white, Franco beautifully composes each shot into a tableau of light and shadow, creating an eerie atmosphere throughout the feature. This is a stunningly beautiful film, filled with luscious outdoor sequences and great suspense setpieces (the capture of Nadia in an abandoned theater is one of Franco's best). Several sequences would be oft-repeated in Franco's cinema: the interpretive strip/dance performed by Estelle Blain, involving the macabre and a mannequin, would be reproduced in SUCCUBUS (which used music from Blain's dance), VAMPYROS LESBOS, and in some ways, EXORCISM. Franco would remake this very film several times, most famously as SHE KILLED IN ECSTASY with the unbeatable Soledad Miranda. When compared to the original, though, it does fall quite short. As with many Franco films, jazz is an important element. Not only is the film's soundtrack made up primarily of catchy little jazz ditties and horn-driven melodies, the film's climax is an experimental jazz piece laid onto film: frenetic, wild, and outrageous. Credit should be given to actress Mabel Karr as Irma Zimmer, with a face like Franka Potente (RUN, LOLA, RUN) and who portrays the insane murderess flawlessly. And Howard Vernon is always a welcome addition to any cast; he played the same role in SHE KILLED IN ECSTASY. Thankfully he keeps his clothes on here (and dubs his own voice). Jess Franco also appears as an inspector, looking very young.

The presentation of DR. Z will doubtfully be topped. Anamorphic and letterboxed at 1.66:1, the black and white images are just gorgeous, with no grain or dirt present. A lot of work seems to have gone into this transfer, the blacks are deep pools of obsidian and contrast is impeccable. Two audio options are presented: the English dub track and the French audio track with English subtitles. Interestingly enough, if you choose the inferior English soundtrack, scenes excised from the English version will appear in French with English subtitles, allowing the viewer to see just what was cut out of the export version.

The special features are a nice grab bag of goodies. The U.S. theatrical trailer is included, with lots of ballyhoo. The film could have played in art theaters, a la SUCCUBUS, if the American distributor had been wise. The U.S. opening credits sequence is for completists only (the print of the film presents the credits in French). Two lengthy galleries (one of international posters, the other of photos and stills) are a wonderful look at how the film was sold around the world under various aliases. MISS MUERTE remains the best title. Last but not least is a short documentary on Jess Franco, which is a re-edited episode of the British TV series "Mondo Macabro," including much too brief interviews with Monica Swinn, Brigitte Lahaie, Caroline Munro, and lengthier interviews with Peter Blumenstock, Daniel Lesoeur, and Franco himself. I'd like to see a full-length 2-hour documentary on Franco, spanning his entire career, interviewing all his surviving co-workers.

Mondo Macabro, in the span of a year, has unleashed definitive editions of a number of cult classics from around the world. Add another success to their scoreboard: All hits, no misses. One of the best discs of 2003. (Casey Scott)