La morte ha fatto l’uovo, AKA Plucked
“I think that’s a peculiar way to put it, men and chickens mixed up like that.”–Death Laid an Egg (dubbed version)
PLOT: The movie opens with a prostitute killed in a hotel room. The action then moves to an experimental poultry farm, largely automated but overseen by Marco, his wife Anna, and their beautiful live-in secretary Gabri. The plot slowly reveals a love triangle, with multiple betrayals, with Marco’s growing disgust at the poultry business brought to a boil when he finds a scientist has bred a species of headless mutant chickens for sale to the public.
- The title was almost certainly inspired by a line from Surrealist icon Lament for Ignacio Sanchez Mejias“: “Death laid eggs in the wound/at five in the afternoon.” Late in the movie Marco will mutter to himself “At 5 o’clock… the machine… the egg… the work…” and several shots focus on a clock approaching the 5 PM mark. ‘s “
- The second of an unofficial trilogy of surrealist movies director Giulio Questi made in “disreputable” genres. For more on Questi’s odd career, see the last paragraph of the Django Kill… If You Live, Shoot! review.
- Death Laid an Egg was restored in 2016 by Nucleus Films from a newly discovered negative that contained a couple minutes of footage not seen in previous releases. The film was available on VHS in a dubbed version, but outside of suspect bargain versions from overseas, it was unavailable on DVD or Blu-ray until 2017.
- Bruno Maderna, who wrote the atonal score, was an accomplished classical composer and conductor who died of cancer at the relatively young age of 53, a mere five years after Death Laid an Egg was completed.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The exotic Lollabrigida and the nubile Aulin are a tempting pair of birds, but they’re upstaged by the actual poultry in this one. The oddest sight of all is hens stuffed into file folders for alphabetization (?) in a chicken functionary’s office.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Playboy chickens; filed chickens; all-breast chickens
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A juicy slice of breaded with a coating of was the world’s first (and so far, only) deep-fried, chicken-centric Surrealist giallo.
Original Italian trailer for Death Laid an Egg
COMMENTS: Personal anecdote: the first time I watched Death Laid an Egg, late at night, on VHS, sometime in the 90s, I had taken far too much cough syrup beforehand. The next morning I woke up, considered the mixed-up story, and assumed that I must have hallucinated the entire thing. I remembered a blur of red herrings: prostitute killings, Gina Lollabrigida lounging about in her underwear, scarves with odd hieroglyphics, a speeding car, a scene of a woman crawling out of a car wreck that had nothing whatsoever to do with the rest of the plot, and chickens, chickens everywhere. I put the tape back in the player and watched it again in the full light of sobriety—and was just as confused as in my initial Robitussin-besotted midnight viewing.
Death Laid an Egg is that kind of movie. When I watched it, I was expecting just another giallo along the lines of the Umberto Leniz orflicks I had been binging on at the time: something with a black gloved killer stalking pretty girls with too much eye-shadow, and hopefully a little bit of nudity. I was certainly not expecting an abstract anti-capitalist hyper-stylized Italianate feathered enigma. I knew trash films, and I knew “serious” films, but I was not used to an auteurs attacking an exploitation setting with weapons stolen from the art house shed. Egg was one of the first films that led me to believe that there really was a wealth of buried cinema treasures hidden out there, and a unique aesthetic of the weird predating that existed outside of the canonical art house. When I started the 366 project, Egg was one of the first movies I shortlisted as something I must include. I envy those who will still have the opportunity to be blindsided by this bizarre film without any context or preparation. (If you’re reading this now, it’s already too late to appreciate the full surprise factor, but you might want to stop, pop it into your Blu-ray player, and come back later).
Egg deeply weird, but at times it’s difficult to qualify what exactly it is that makes it feel so strange. (At other times, it’s completely obvious). You feel that you’re inside the head of a madman, but one who knows exactly what he wants to do to you. To the average giallo fan Egg could be seen as merely incoherent. Those poor holier-than-thou souls who identify “weird” with “pretentious” condemn it as deliberately annoying. But if you surrender to it, it scrapes your nerves deeper than the chilliest thriller—and is even more morbid, because it doesn’t allow the tension to be released at the end. Even when Questi isn’t being overtly surreal, sequences are thoroughly odd. For example, Marco wakes up in the middle of the night, slips out of his bedroom, finds Gabri missing, wanders into the chicken coop where he hears a woman’s distant voice, accidentally knocks over some distillation equipment and finds egg yolk spilled on the lab table, rubs his fingers in it… then we see him awaken in the morning, and repeat almost exactly the same sequence of going to check on Gabri and finding her missing. A very minor incident in the overall plot, but illustrative of how every frame of the film exists to disorient the audience. The headscarf with indecipherable symbols, Gabri munching on dandelions, the conversations hinting at unexplained subtexts or composed of apparent non-sequiturs, the woman’s face Marco sees in the crowd, the poultry propaganda campaign, the “white room” parlor game… all so very… odd… And strangest of all, the movie’s fascination with chickens, demonstrated by the looming portrait of a fowl that adorns the conglomerate’s hallway, the entwined Cubist birds in Marco’s office, and the massive oil painting of a rooster and hen hanging above the president’s desk—such an arbitrary obsession, such a slippery barnyard symbol.
It would be difficult to overemphasize the importance of Bruno Maderna’s score, or of the editing work contributed by Franco Arcalli (Questi’s frequent collaborator, who also co-wrote his scripts). Half of the time, it sounds like Maderna just set a flock of chicken extras loose on a piano keyboard in an echo chamber and recorded it.
Although I notice something new in the film every time I see it, looking for an overarching theme in Death Laid an Egg is a fool’s errand. Yeah, it’s a black satire on industrial farming practices and the commodification of modern life, as well as a deconstructed version of a subgenre that was then only a few years old. But those are just eggshell surfaces that can be easily broken. It feels like much more than just an anti-capitalist screed or a parody—it’s a movie full of very strange subconscious impulses, a nightmare mystery of sex and danger. In that sense, it’s very true to its giallo genre, which always suggests perverse sexual psychologies. It’s also extremely effective at generating pervasive, almost existential anxiety. Marco, the protagonist, strides through the movie in a state of suppressed hysteria. Plots and conspiracies are everywhere: by the chicken consortium against the public, by Marco and Anna and Gabri and Mondaini against each other, and (it’s hinted) by the fired poultry workers against the factory. And, probably, by the universe against everyone. The caged chickens are always bawking and clucking in alarm, as if they know of an approaching danger we don’t. Maybe they do. Maybe the yolk’s on us.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…one of the most unusual artifacts of its culture and its time… the kind of dirty, nasty, but strangely brilliant sui generis film that exists, for whatever reason, only in particular nooks and crannies of cinematic consciousness…”–Glenn Kenny, Mubi (2004 Japanese DVD)
“With weird dialogue that sounds like some kind of enigmatic code –the way Belmondo and Karina sometimes talk in that half-recited way in Pierrot Le Fou (‘Moi aussi, Marianne’)—there’s something kinda magic about DLAE… Questi’s seemingly benign tale is rife with weird flashbacks, twists, and ragged editing of an almost Bill Gunn-style sideways termite-Eisenstein off-the-cuff brilliance.”–Erich Kuersten, Acidemic (Video-on-Demand)
IMDB LINK: Death Laid an Egg (1968)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Death Laid an Egg – Cult Epics – The distributor’s page has a few stills and basic info on the film
Death Laid An Egg Interview FrightFest 2017 – Jake West and Marc Morris of Nucleus Films discuss the restoration in a Fright Fest red carpet interview
DEATH LAID AN EGG (1968) DIRECTOR’S CUT SPECIAL EDITION – Our review of the Director’s cut edition
HOME VIDEO INFO: As mentioned in the “Background” section, Death Laid an Egg has been long unavailable on home video outside of the original VHS and some questionable transfers from German and Japanese distributors. That changed after Britain’s Nucleus Films ran an Indiegogo campaign to restore the film (along with the more traditional exploitationer Lady Frankenstein) in 2016. In the U.S. the film is distributed in a DVD/Blu-ray combo pack by Cult Epics (buy). The bonus features are the astounding trailer, a lobby card gallery, and an isolated track of Bruno Maderna’s startling score.
As fine as this release is, I do have one small complaint: I miss the dubbing. Not only did it add an additional surreal layer to the film by highlighting its exploitation aspirations (imagine this playing to bewildered audiences at the drive in!), but the translations in the dubbed version are often more absurdly poetic than the new subtitles. (When Mondaini shows Marco his advertising campaign to promote chickens as “an integral part of society,” in the dubbed version the executive responds to the proposal with the ineffably bizarre “I think that’s a peculiar way to put it, men and chickens mixed up like that.” The new translation is more prosaic: “This is a bit dubious, I think. How can you humanize chickens like that?”) There are also some grammar and spelling errors in the new subtitles, and the translations are sometimes questionable (why translate “stupida” as “dopey cow” rather than the more logical “moron”?) This is a small price to pay for the greatly improved image, however, and there’s also the extra footage to consider (even based on run times of 86 versus 88 minutes, it only amounts to a minute or two). But if you’re truly curious about the dubbed version you can always check out the (much cheaper) DVD put out by “Desert Island Discs” (buy).
The English dub also seems to be the only option in the video-on-demand version (buy or rent).
UPDATE 11/11/2020: Death Laid an Egg has been reissued in a new Blu-ray edition with 15 minutes of previously unseen footage and the English-language dub. Read our full review of the 2020 extended edition here.