Author’s Note: Due to the controversial subject matter of this film, please note this is a film review that addresses the creative art of filmmaking only. This review is not a political dissertation in support of or in contradiction of any sociopolitical belief system and is not intended to incense any reader regarding social or free speech/opinion issues. This review was written to expose a documentary film that attempts to help the viewer reach an understanding regarding the creative development of its subject-film genre.
Filmmaker Naomi Holwill is one of us. She’s a film dork at heart and, like most of us, isn’t content with just watching a film; her fascination runs deeper. She read all of the film books and watched all of the DVD supplements and listened to the commentary tracks, like us. She needed to know what made Spanish filmmaker Jorge Grau and Italian purveyors Luigi Cozzi, Lucio Fulci, and Sergio Martino tick. She wanted to know why the Emmanuelle franchise became a phenomenon.
And she became a filmmaker that is everywhere . . . and nowhere. She’s the dark lady of cinema.
If you’re a cult cinema aficionado of all things Spanish and Italian and horror and sci-fi — chances are you’ve watched more than several of her 150-plus feature-length documentaries and featurettes (as a producer, editor, and director) from her Scotland-based High Rising Productions that, since 2009, is responsible for producing a wide array of supplements for internationally-released Blu-ray and DVD reissues of most of your favorite films from the ’60s through the ’80s.
You want to know more about the influences of Norman Jewison’s Rollerball*? She’s gave us the feature-length documentary supplement From Rollerball to Rome (2020) (which needs its own, separate release). You want to know more about seventies sex symbol Me Me Lai, one of the very first British-Asian pin-ups? Naomi Holwill was the first filmmaker to tell Lai’s story with the acclaimed Me Me Lai Bites Back (2018). And the list goes on and on: Norman J. Warren’s directing career**, Cannibal films, Giallo films, Blaxsploitation, Roger Corman, Jack Hill, George Romero, Slashers, Italian Zombies, and Italian Exorcism films. Since 2009, Naomi Holwill, along with her High Rising partner Calum Waddell, have left no filmmaker, actor, director, or genre stone from our beloved Drive-In ’70s and VHS ’80s unturned.
It was only a matter of time until High Rising Productions — with Waddell as writer and Holwill as director — would tackle the taboo sub-genre of exploitation and sexploitation films (and women-in-prison flicks) known as Nazisploitation: films dealing with World War II-era Nazi’s — both men and women — behaving very, very badly in concentration camps; films churned out in quick succession in the 1970s upon the box-office success of Don Edmonds (Terror on Tour) Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS (1975) starring Dyanne Thorne (Point of Terror).
Severin Films contracted Rising High to produce Fascism on a Thread, a feature-length documentary on the genre for inclusion on its May 2019 Blu-ray edition of Paolo Solvay’s The Beast in Heat (aka La Bestia in Calore, aka SS Hell Camp). Included are interviews with genre stars Dyanne “Ilsa” Thorne and Malissa “Elsa” Longo, along with the genre filmmakers Mariano Caiano (Nazi Love Camp 27), Liliana Cavani (The Night Porter), Sergio Garrone (SS Experiment Love Camp, SS Camp 5: Women’s Hell), Bruno Mattei (Private House of the SS, Women’s Camp 119) and Rino Di Silvestro (Deported Women on the SS Special Section). Other filmmakers and films examined are Tinto Brass’s Salon Kitty, Last Orgy of the Third Reich by Cesare Canevari, Alain Payet’s Love Train for the SS, and the more serious and better-made (but the most grotesque-watch of them all), Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom by Pier Paolo’s Pasolini.
Granted, most Nazisploitation films are admittedly more sensationalistic, but when it comes to Pasolini’s inclusion in the genre, you’re dealing with a film that isn’t using Nazism or Fascism as window dressing. Salo, the 120 Days of Sodom is a masterwork in the horrifying lessons of the absolute corruption of power in the same vein that Otakar Vavra’s Witchhammer (1970) controversially addressed the issue, a film that, itself, was bastardized with a quick succession of scandalous “Witch Trail” films, such as the West German-produced Mark of the Devil, aka Witches Tortured til They Bleed (1970), its sequel Mark of the Devil II, aka Witches Are Violated and Tortured to Death (1973), and the more reserved, Gothic-slanted AIP film that inspired the production of those films: Michael Reeves’s Witchfinder General, aka The Conqueror Worm (1968). Paul Naschy’s “theme” on the corruption of wealthy libertines, in his pseudo-zombie film, The People Who Own the Dark (1975), also has a connection to Pasolini’s art-horror film statement regarding Italy’s fascist state — and their complicity in the rise of Nazism. While brutally squeamish — but not gratuitous: there’s a point to it all, really — Salo and these works are inspired by the infamous, power mad, pre-Nazisploitation exploits of the Marquis de Sade; which was the question asked by Naschy: “What if the Marquis de Sade existed in the nuclear, Cold War-era of the 1970s?” And that theme — which also adds a message about man’s obsession with beauty and youth — prevails in Fruit Chan’s nerve-inducing masterpiece, Dumplings (2004). These films may not be for the puritanical or faint of heart, but they are statements on how far one will steep into the Seven Deadly Sin for their own personal gain that need to be told. However, that message — and any sociopolitical connotations — is lost in most Nazisploitation films (the worst offenders being Lee Frost’s 1969 knockoff, Love Camp 7, and Garrone’s 1976 romp, SS Experiment Love Camp), so you’ve been forewarned.
When it comes to a quintessential encapsulation of the derided ’70s Drive-In genre that later became an ’80s VHS-based “video nasty” genre, Fascism on a Thread is it. If you’re a film dork that needs to know more and, as with our friend Mike “McBeardo” McPadden*˟, you’re on a quest to consume every Nazisploitation and Italian cannibal film ever made, Naomi Holwill’s directorial effort is a perfect introduction to exploring the genre as you wrap your head around “why” it ever existed in the first place.
After being offered on Amazon Prime as a separate-from-the-Blu stream from The Beast in Heat, you can now watch Fascism on a Thread for the first time as a free-with-ads stream courtesy of TubiTV. We’ve also since reviewed Naomi Holwill’s exploration of the Italian cannibal genre with Me Me Lai Bites Back (2021).
* We did our own month-long examination of all of those post-apoc Rollerball offsprings with our two-part “Atomic Dustin” and our three-part “Fucked Up Futures” examinations — both features offer review links to over 100 films of every Italian and Philippine end-of-the-world romp you can imagine — and beyond.
** We’re reviewing Norman J. Warren’s resume in June 2021.
*˟ We had the pleasure of interviewing Mike “McBeardo” McPadden in April 2019, upon the release of Teen Movie Hell: A Crucible of Coming-of-Age Comedies from Animal House to Zapped!, his latest filmpedia follow up to Heavy Metal Movies.
Disclaimer: We did not receive a review request from the director or a P.R firm. We discovered this film on our own and we truly enjoyed the film.