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From the way most film nerds talk about the Spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone, you'd think he was the only italiano who ever thought to emulate his neighbors across the pond. Not so! Many of the era's exploitation-loving directors dabbled in the cowboy arts, and some of the westerns they created deserve just as much attention, if only for the extra-brutal sensibility they brought to the form. Read on for a list of these wicked, underrated gems.
Sergio Corbucci's Django was one of the most internationally acclaimed Spaghetti westerns ever, at least outside this country - for whatever reason, American audiences are most familiar with Django through its frequent name-checks in reggae songs, as the movie was a smash-hit in Jamaica. Corbucci's movies are renowned for their gut-churning violence, and Django was no exception: An ear-amputation scene, one of its queasier moments, was even purloined by B-movie hound Quentin Tarantino for Reservoir Dogs.
Death Rides a Horse (1967)
Though he often showed up in Leone's Westerns, Lee Van "Angel Eyes" Cleef had an even more prolific career than his longtime collaborator. You could say the same about composer Ennio Morricone, who you'll be glad to hear is still alive and waving his baton. The pair shows up for this movie by Giulio Petroni, a western that rivals Leone's Dollars movies in ferocity. The action stars John Phillip Law as a gunslinger hunting down the bandits who killed his family as a boy. (In true western style, he's been letting his anger marinate all through those tempestuous teenage years and into adulthood.) But the bloodlust factor doubles when it turns out there's another man angling for vengeance: The inimitable Cleef. Death Rides a Horse also gets bonus points for its phenomenal tagline: "When you've waited 15 years to find a man, it's a shame you can only kill him once."
Day of Anger (1967)
Another ace entry in the genre, this one comes courtesy of director Tonino Valerii. A favorite of Quentin Tarantino's, the movie also stars Lee Van Cleef; wouldn't you know it, most of the competition stars the actor-turned-Mediterranean cowboy from New Jersey (yes, you read that correctly). Nevertheless, here Cleef has a much darker role. Whereas John Wayne's aging gunfighter in The Shootist battles to escape his dark past, Valerii's Day of Anger has a similar storyline, but, like most Spaghetti Westerns, turns the bleakness and immorality up to 11. In a most undignified manner, Cleef even guns down the local sheriff to prove that he hasn't lost his touch.
Massacre Time (1966)
It may not be high on the list of the best Spaghetti Westerns, but this Fistful Of Dollars rip-off warrants affection for one reason: director Lucio Fulci. The famed maestro of gut-churning gore also proved a capable director of gun-blasting frontier tales years before The Beyond and The House By The Cemetary. With that title, the movie sounds like it could be one of Fulci's slashers, and the proceedings are indeed bracingly violent, even by Spaghetti Western standards. The work is pure style, so much so that it's barely worth mentioning the plot, but here goes: Two brothers set forth to avenge the death of their mother and a bloodbath on the range ensues. Naturally.
With all due respect to Sergio Leone, take some time to check out his competition. Kick things off by watching Antonio Marghetti's Dynamite Joe or Giorgio Capitani's The Ruthless Four in streaming video on AMC's B-Movies site. It's a great free introduction to the genre's now-forgotten masters.