All the Colors of Mario Bava: The Ultimate Biography and the Ultimate Biographer
by Mark Zimmer
If you think you've seen the ultimate coffee table book devoted to a director, you're wrong. Author Tim Lucas is the longtime editor of the award-winning Video Watchdog magazine, as well as a critic, novelist, and one of the best at the fine art of the DVD commentary. Tim chatted with dOc about the forthcoming release of his work of several decades, Mario Bava All the Colors of the Dark, a massive and gorgeous biography of influential Italian director Mario Bava.
Lucas, through his writings for Video Watchdog and other magazines including Fangoria and Sight & Sound, has long championed European auteurs of the weird and unusual such as Jess Franco. But the culmination of an enormous effort is finally taking shape in the form of a generously illustrated and painstakingly researched monster of a book, Mario Bava All the Colors of the Dark, which runs 1128 pages in length, weighing in at over twelve pounds. You may need to reinforce that coffee table.
The tome is impressive in its scope as well, covering far more than Bava, putting him into context in the Italian cinema of the 20th century. "It is his story, but it's also the story of the period of Italian popular cinema to which he and his family were witness—pretty much its first century. So the book encompasses silent films like Quo Vadis? and Cabiria, into the Mussolini period with its fantasy classic The Iron Crown, the birth of neorealism, the "Hollywood on the Tiber" years that saw the rise of celebrities like Tot?, Gina Lollobrigida, Marcello Mastroianni, and Steve Reeves (all of whom worked with Mario Bava)... and then the Bava career that people already know something about, but there are still many, many surprises."
Lucas feels as if to a substantial extent his subject selected him. "Years before I saw any Bava films, I can remember reading his name in Castle of Frankenstein, where my friend Joe Dante was writing about his films with enthusiasm (a minority opinion in those days), and it always leaped out at me like something profoundly familiar. I knew he was going to be an important person in my life. The first things I learned about him were that he was a mysterious figure who never gave interviews and didn't like to be photographed, and that he was born in 1914, which made him surprisingly old for a man who had only been directing films for about 15 years at that time. The films themselves, when I caught up with them, exerted tremendous magic that was all the more haunting because, in those days, I couldn't record anything for immediate playback. Films disappeared back into the shadows. But it was seeing Kill, Baby... Kill! on television that sealed my fate; I saw Fellini's 'Toby Dammit' in Spirits of the Dead about a week later (or maybe a week before, I can't be sure), and I couldn't understand how the same creepy, ghostly little girl could be in both movies. There was nothing in print to explain this, and I found it difficult to accept that Fellini was such a famous, respected director, while Bava was being snubbed even in books like Carlos Clarens' An Illustrated History of the Horror Film."
What evolved into this gigantic book, the size of well over a half-dozen novels, had its origins in an article proposal for Cinefantastique. After starting out with a simple filmography, Lucas began to make surprising discoveries. "I was astounded to discover that Bava had been involved in Caltiki the Immortal Monster, which I had seen as a kid and which had stuck with me. Bava's own name appears nowhere on that picture." That initial research evolved into a "claim-staking" two-part overview of Bava's career, published in Fangoria after Lucas had editorial issues with CFQ relating to another article on Cronenberg's Videodrome. Not only did the Bava overview establish Lucas as a published Bava researcher, but it put him in contact with numerous sources that became substantial contributors to the biography.
What's surprising is that this biography isn't coming from one of the usual suspects of the "massive art book" world. Instead, it will be self-published. Although engaging in a self-publishing project of this scope would daunt most people into paralysis, Tim and his wife Donna have an advantage: they have for many years been self-publishing Video Watchdog, and they have also had the experience of publishing The Video Watchdog Book in the early 1990s. Lucas says, as the book began to grow, it "became obvious that we had to do it ourselves. Also, self-publishing is the only way we could even begin to repay all the time we'd put in."
Lucas has been tantalizing fans about this project in the pages of his magazine for years, and more recently, with a blog dedicated to the odyssey of the book from manuscript to publication. The latter is complete with photos, sample pages and a charming video of the couple lovingly opening the first copies of the book from their printer in Hong Kong. Happily, the finished books have now made it through customs and will begin shipping shortly. While reluctant to discuss the print run size, Lucas does note with some relief that the majority of the first printing has been pre-sold.
No less an eminence than Martin Scorsese has contributed a rave introduction to the book. "He's been a Video Watchdog subscriber since the very beginning. In David Ehrenstein's book about him, there's a description of how Marty was in the editing room working on a picture with Thelma Schoonmaker and all work had to stop because the new issue of VW came in the mail. Incredible! So, knowing of his love for Bava's films, I asked if he would write the Introduction and he said he would need to see the manuscript first. This was a good thing, because dangling that particular carrot put some much-needed wind into my sails to get the book finished... or at least finished to a presentable degree."
Lucas' research continued right up until press time. "The unfortunate side of my 'total control' is that the last material I added to the book didn't go through the gauntlet of proofreaders who filtered the bulk of it for me, and consequently I've noticed a stupid error or three that made it into print. These mistakes, I think, are easily spotted by anyone who reads them, but that's a good thing. I would rather, in haste, credit Pasolini with directing Il grido (an Antonioni film)... than make some other important assertion about Bava that only I would know is wrong. Fortunately the scope of the book is so vast that any minute errors such as this are like needles in a haystack the size of Illinois."
One of the key aspects of the book is Bava's "Secret Filmography," building on Caltiki to produce an extensive list of his uncredited participation in a dizzying array of pictures. "Bava's great love was trick photography and solving technical problems. He became a director in spite of his own wishes and lack of personal ambition, by assisting other, lazier directors in the 1950s. After saving a few films, he was rewarded by being made a director, which was a respected position he didn't want to jeopardize by continuing to accept work as an assistant to others. But he was a workaholic and always on call to help friends who needed a replacement cameraman, a second unit director, or a matte painting.
"Bava didn't want credit for doing these little jobs because he was a 'director.' I remember having to interview Dick Smith, the great makeup artist, because he had taken a body cast of Debbie Harry for Videodrome. He almost didn't want to talk to me about it because it was something he did purely as a favor for Rick Baker. As he put it, 'I didn't want credit for it—it would be like taking credit for shining someone's shoes.' That off-the-cuff quote gave me a lot of insight into Bava's feelings toward the other unofficial work, but I felt it was important to write about. And regardless of all the information (and additional speculation) I turned up, I am convinced that Bava did at least twice as much work in this area that we may never know about."
In the process of writing a biography over the course of decades, it's natural that the author's view of the subject would alter considerably. "I used to think of Bava as an outstanding and underrated horror film director. Now I understand that he was present at the birth of literally every popular film genre native to Italy. For reasons the book explains, he was philosophically opposed to self-promotion, and I think his story and example offer a most important alternative approach to life and work that we could learn a lot from here in America. I also feel that, in the years since his death in 1980, he's become the single most influential horror film director who ever lived. A lot of horror fans, the ones who cherish the Universal classics, still tend to think of Bava as a marginal filmmaker, but the people making horror films today really aren't giving us much in the way of classic monsters and German Expressionism any more. They're giving us creative and picturesque and even amusing ways of killing people, and they're giving us ghostly little girls and spooky kids."
As substantial as the research is, though, much of the appeal of Mario Bava All the Colors of the Dark lies in the sumptuous graphic representation of the material. The book is filled with gems never before published. "The color photos from Black Sunday are the real stunners, obviously, but I think people will be amazed by how many photos of Bava himself—some of them taken on the set as he was working—are included. Speaking only for myself, I'm amazed at some of the minutiae the book contains, like Bava's actual wedding invitation and personal calling card. I even found out the name of the doctor who delivered him."
Along the way, the manuscript was nearly lost several times, a victim of computer crashes. "Thank God I'm married to a computer genius who was able to rescue it—and did, actually every step of the way." Given the lengthy process of completing the work, would he do it all again? "I think knowing how long it would take to complete would have discouraged me—but I'm saying that as someone whose questions have all been answered. If the subject was still cloaked in mystery, that might well be enough to bait the hook. Had I known in advance, the only thing I would have changed is that I would have taken the time to learn Italian. I can read the Italian titles on movie posters, but I can't construct sentences. I'd love to be able to read and think in Bava's own language, to watch the Italian versions of his films and perceive them as immediately as I perceive films in English, and this would have given me more to say about how Italian and English versions of his films differ. And speaking Italian could only have improved my ability to research things and interview Bava's colleagues at first hand."
Even though the Bava book is finally off the press, Tim Lucas' Bava activities aren't over yet. His commentaries have appeared on numerous DVDs in the past, and the forthcoming Starz Home Entertainment (formerly Anchor Bay) Mario Bava Collection Volume 2 will include several more that will no doubt be essentials. "I loved doing them, but this latest round put me in a situation that Bava himself knew very well. The disc producers and I had spent the better part of this year, from January to August, waiting for the go-ahead to record these commentaries—I was already under contract since the end of last year—and there was no forward movement... And then, suddenly, they all had to be in hand in about two weeks' time! And this light flashed green just as Donna and I were in the midst of a new issue of VW. Rather than record the first three with little preparation, I decided to take as much prep time as I could and then record all three (for Lisa and the Devil, Bay of Blood and Baron Blood) in one long overnight binge. Then I had a week in which to prepare the last commentary for Erik the Conquerer.
I never, never, ever want to work that hard again on so many things at once."
Mario Bava All the Colors of the Dark is available for order directly from the author.