During the 1960s and 70s, literally thousands of westerns were made in Italy. Using Sergio Leone’s seminal film A Fistful of Dollars as a jumping-off point, these pop-art, amoral, revisionist westerns were churned out by the truckload for the European and American markets to devour. While a good many of these are by-the-numbers action movies, certain films and filmmakers sought to use the format to make art. While violence was always a big part of these Spaghetti Westerns, one of the most violent, darkest, and altogether strangest ones I’ve ever seen is Giulio Questi’s 1967 film Django Kill…If You Live, Shoot! It’s a mix of gothic horror and western with some truly brutal violence, surreal cinematography, and pretty blatant homosexual overtones. And what an odd title. It’s a movie that has probably been seen by few in America, but it’s one that certainly deserves to be viewed by more.
The film stars Cuban actor Tomas Milian who was one of a handful of huge Spaghetti Western stars, though he’s probably best known today for his role in Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic. Milian plays the nameless half-Mexican bandit known only as “The Stranger,” who at the beginning of the film literally rises from the grave. He was part of a heist of gold and afterwards his partner Oaks and the other white gang members double cross the Mexicans, steal their share of the gold, and shoot them all and bury them in the desert. It’s never fully explained whether the Stranger is indeed back from the dead or merely a man who survived being shot and buried, but there’s no shortage of Christ-like imagery to support the supernatural claim. The Stranger is nursed back to health by two mysterious Indians who give him a slew of gold bullets with which to exact revenge. He eventually tracks Oaks and the gang to a weird little town in the middle of nowhere that might as well be called Hell. The two most powerful citizens in town are the saloon owner Mr. Templer and a priest named Hagerman who decide to turn in the gang and keep the gold for themselves. Unfortunately, someone else knows about the gold: the wealthy landowner Mr. Sorrow and his gang of black-clad cowboys whom he calls his “Muchachos.”
Eventually, the Stranger comes to town and succeeds in shooting Oaks but Mr. Sorrow forbids him to be killed as he believes Oaks is the only one who knows the location of the gold. While getting fixed up but the town’s doctor, the townsfolk see that Oaks has been shot with gold bullets and they tear at the wounded outlaw to get at the gold, killing him of course. This scene features one of the examples of gore in the film. Though fake looking by today’s standards, the film shows the doctor cutting into Oaks and his pink, day-glo blood gushing out. This scene was originally omitted from most prints and only exists on the DVD in its original Italian with subtitles. Another such scene much later features the townsfolk scalping one of the Stranger’s two Indian guides with similar gore effects. Later still, the Stranger kills the entirety of the Muchachos by tying sticks of dynamite onto a horse and sending it out to meet them and flashes of bloody, disembodied limbs litter the landscape.
We eventually meet Templer’s son, Evan, who is in love with his father’s girlfriend, the saloon singer Flory, and when he sees the two fooling around, Evan is sufficiently angered and proceeds to fetishistically stab and rip Flory’s clothing with a knife. Before she can get too upset, the Muchachos kidnap Evan in an attempt to get Templer to give Sorrow the gold. Hagerman refuses to give up his share of the gold citing that he has no ties to the kid. The Stranger, whom Sorrow wants in his gang, acts as the messenger between the parties and wants to save Evan’s life. During the night, the Muchachos drink too much and take a shine to the very young and angelic looking Evan. In the morning, while everyone is passed out, Evan steals a gun and commits suicide. While never explicitly stated, it is heavily hinted at that the Muchachos sexually assault Evan and this leads to his suicide. When Sorrow, who it’s clear loves the Muchachos beyond simply being his gang (“you don’t know what they mean to me in their smart black uniforms”) sees the boy’s body he simply states that Evan was “too afraid to grow up and be a man.”
The film also contains elements usually present in Gothic Horror literature, including Hagerman’s wife Elizabeth who is ghostly white and insane and is kept locked in a room on the top floor. The film ends with a massive fire in Hagerman’s house where the hidden gold melts and drips onto the corrupt preacher’s face, gilding him, while his insane wife walks around, burning up in the process. There’s also some very definite Christian imagery. When the Stranger turns down Sorrow’s offer to become one of his Muchachos, the gunman is stripped to what appears to be a loin cloth and effectively crucified while vampire bats and lizards have their way with him. There is also a scene where the Muchachos desecrate every grave in a cemetery in the belief that Templer has hidden the gold in Evan’s grave.
Django Kill…If You Live Shoot is a thoroughly odd and disturbing film. Though its title was used to tie it to director Sergio Corbucci’s very popular Spaghetti Western, Django, this film has nothing to do with it. It kind of has nothing to do with westerns in general and probably only is one because it was a popular genre. The music by Ivan Vandor, which somewhat apes the guitar-heavy style of Ennio Morricone’s iconic scores, is definitely much more suited to horror. Giulio Questi only directed three theatrical features, this being the first, and the other two are horror movies, giving us a good indication of the kind of film he wanted to make. The whole thing feels like an hallucinatory nightmare. Django Kill is a bit too long and poorly paced to truly be considered great, but for fans of the genre, or just whacked-out movies in general, it’s definitely worth the watch.