Unrated - Cinema of the Extreme

Abel Ferrara’s 1979 breakthrough is one of his best-known but least loved features. Although marketed for undemanding drive-in audiences, the film thwarts any preconceived notions of what a horror movie should be. DRILLER KILLER is a misunderstood film. Ugly, transgressive, and demanding, it is for open-minded viewers only.

Reno Miller (Ferrara) is a talented painter trying to scrape out a living. Residing in a dingy NYC apartment with his girlfriend Caroline, and her live-in lover Pamela, they are struggling to pay the rent. Reno believes his father to be a tramp that he recently spotted in church and ran away from and he fears becoming like him.

Reno is working on a huge painting of a buffalo, and plans to sell it to art dealer Dalton Briggs (Harry Schulz). After witnessing a street stabbing, he becomes increasingly edgy, and when a rehearsing punk band moves in next door, his concentration is broken. Shortly afterwards, Reno purchases a portable power pack drill and takes to the streets, using it on those who represent his greatest fears and anxieties…

Reviews for DRILLER KILLER are usually way off the mark. Often dismissed as “grimy” and “lacking in suspense”, many commentators miss its point: The film is a disturbing look into the recesses of both a grubby city and a disturbed mind; it refuses to make concessions to any notions of good taste or commercial filmmaking.

Although DRILLER KILLER sounds like a conventional slasher film, it doesn’t pander to formula. Kim Newman has pointed out that no women are murdered in the film. Although Pamela is threatened near the end, we never see any harm done to her. And, apart from the infamous skull-drilling sequence (featured on the original video art), most of the murder scenes - usually involving male derelicts - are shot in a jittery, fragmentary manner that are difficult to see properly. There’s very little lingering involved.

Instead of a formulaic, stylishly shot horror film, viewers will have their faces rubbed into the seamier side of New York, a depiction of life a long time before Mayor Giuliani’s cleaning up campaign. As such, we are given many images of grungy young punks, squalid apartments, vomiting derelicts, cluttered back streets, and filthy alleyways. DRILLER KILLER looks more like Paul Morrissey’s underground classics such as FLESH and TRASH. In the light of more recent slick and glamorous depictions of the city, the film is a visual breath of fresh air.

Despite commendations for its ‘realism’ - based on the extensive location shooting, use of available light, as well as the general air of improvisation and fragments of documentary footage - the DRILLER KILLER is far more concerned with Reno’s ‘inner reality’: his subjectivity. Like George Bataille’s ‘pornographic’ novella, ‘The Story of the Eye’, the film is filled with over determined signifiers pertaining to the protagonist’s extreme mental states.

Susan Sontag has described ‘The Story of the Eye’ as a depiction of an erotic obsession “which haunts a number of commonplace objects”. Hence, the association between the breaking of eggs and numerous sexual acts – as well as many other variations – is simply a rehearsal for the scene in which Simone straddles the priest and plucks out his eyeball (i.e. broken egg = broken eyeball). It is a world that revolves around the narrator’s infatuations.

The obsession with the eye is also a reflexive one: it refers to the ‘I’ narrator of the first person story, and accounts for the irrational logic and obscene content. It refers back to the Bataille himself, reaching into the recesses of his mind and bringing something socially unacceptable back, the artistic licence afforded to the modern author.

Bataille’s story has been influential among makers of free-form extreme cinema. Shinya Tsukamoto’s TETSUO (1989) – with its immersion in violent sexual acts and the transgression of body parts – betrays some influence, and his A SNAKE OF JUNE (2002) could be seen as the director’s own interpretation of it. So, it comes as no surprise, that Ferrara’s 1979 masterwork would show such ’similarities’.

The eye is a recurrent theme in DRILLER KILLER, too. Near the start of the film, we see Reno drill a hole in a door. The film then cuts to an image of his buffalo painting, zooming in on its rabbit-like eyeball. Reno’s paintings are a part of his subjectivity, his mind’s eye. One could argue that painting is about ‘thinking in images.’ his art is therefore the equivalent to the ’I’ narrator associated with the modern novel (see novels by Selby, Nabokov, Burroughs). The association between drill and eye conveys the violent thoughts brewing in Reno’s mind, and clearly foreshadows his future killing spree.

To push the painting as subjectivity link further, the buffalo, with its Wild West connotations, represents the freedom that Reno desires, away from his cramped apartment and financial problems. When Reno discusses what he’s going to buy when he’s sold the painting (he fantasises about expensive holidays and buying motorbikes) it is fitting that we can see the buffalo in the background.

When Tony and his band are rehearsing, their loud, grating noise is a distraction to Reno. Ferrara cross-cuts from the band practising in their room to Reno in his apartment. The latter shot begins with a close-up of the Buffalo’s eye and pulls out - as if emerging from the buffalo’s head - to reveal the distracted Reno. The implication is that they’re annoying Reno, and shows that the distractions are finding their way into Reno’s work. The painting is becoming more and more unstable and surreal at this point, and again we can surmise that it represents the unusual workings of Mr Miller’s head.

There are more interesting ’associations’ that further the depiction of Reno’s subjectivity. The building superintendent has a pet rabbit, whose eye matches the buffalo’s, and he also gives Reno a skinned rabbit to eat. This happens when Reno is complaining to deaf ears about the punk band whose noise is distracting him. The juxtaposition of image (rabbit) and sound (Reno’s frustration) forges a link between the two, and so the rabbit carries the symbolic weight of Reno’s mounting fury.

The skinned rabbit is not only a nod to Roman Polanski’s classic psychopath in an apartment film, REPULSION (1965), as many commentators would like to tell you. It is also signifier of Reno’s financial and aesthetic anxieties. When Reno smashes its head open with a knife, his own demons are let loose. His repressed thoughts are no longer evoked through art, but will be performed in the real world. He subsequently buys his ’Porto Pak’, and immediately afterward kills his first bum.

Any viewer who merely watches the film for cheap thrills will be disappointed. Art dealer Dalton Briggs dismisses Reno’s painting because it doesn’t fit with his preconceived notion of what art should be. Don’t dismiss DRILLER KILLER for the same reason. Ferrara should be commended for allowing himself to explore the possibilities of the slasher movie, instead of following its clichés. DRILLER KILLER shows us that madness can be art.

Mathew Sanderson


Directed by Abel Ferrara

English Language / USA / 1979 / 96 mins / Colour

Audio Commentary by Abel Ferrara
French and Spanish Subtitles
Theatrical Trailer
Port-Pack Commercial

A Cult Epics 2-Disc Limited Edition DVD release (Disc 2 reviewed below)

Region 1 NTSC / mono
Widescreen 1.85:1, non anamorphic



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