Any self-respecting horror fan will have come across the name 'Al Cliver' somewhere along their bountiful journey of exploitation movie discovery. Probably more than once. Or twice. In fact, chances are, you've seen that name appear on your screen a great many times, the first occasion being when you watched Lucio Fulci's voodoo Opus, Zombie Flesh Eaters, where Al played rugged, sea faring sun worshiper, Brian Hull. But it didn't start, or end, there. You see, Al (real name Pier Luigi Conti) has worked for some of the best-loved directors of the heyday of Italian exploitation filmmaking, from Cannibal Holocaustmeister Ruggero Deodato in sexy aqua thriller A Wave of Pleasure, to crime flick peddler Fernando di Leo in Mister Scarface, where he shared the bill with none other than Voltan himself, the one and only Jack Palance.
Cliver's last film credit dates back to 1990 where he featured as an alcoholic archaeologist in Fulci's dodgy possessed nun mess Demonia, where he ends his movie career by getting harpooned by a topless nun ghost. What a way to go! Since that time however, Al has kept an incredibly low profile in the entertainment world, instead earning his crust as a humble tradesman. But thanks to the insatiable appetite of horror fans worldwide, retrospective events such as the recent Chiller Theatre Expo in New Jersey have brought him back for the fans to say a long-overdue 'thanks'. Organising the Italian component for this event was Mike Baronas - the man responsible for the recent DVD, Paura: Lucio Fulci Remembered, Vol.1, where around eighty different interviewees from the Italian film industry share their memories of the master of maggot mayhem.
While I was working on the review of Paura for eatmybrains.com, Mike helped me out by orchestrating a face-to-face interview with the Fulci regular we've been watching all these years. So, with some effort, I thought it best to get off my ass and take a trip to Bottrop, Germany, where the 'Weekend of Horrors' event was being held on 9/10th May 2009. The time had come to chat with Al Cliver.
Arriving at the event about ten minutes into the Zombie Flesh Eaters Q&A (where Richard Johnson, Ian McCulloch, Ottaviano dell’Acqua and Mike Baronas were also present), it was soon evident that Al had recently undergone some kind of surgery which has left him speaking strained English in a mere whisper, but thankfully this didn't stop him from contributing his memories of the Zombie Flesh Eaters shoot, and how Gianetto De Rossi used "a grapefruit" for Olga Karlatos' eye during one particular scene that sticks in the memory of many a viewer.
A short while later and I'm drinking local pilsner with Al in the quietest part of the refectory, asking him where he found the inspiration to get into the acting business. "I had absolutely none! During those times, the major business in Rome was the movie system, and a couple of times while walking around, I was stopped and approached. I guess I was discovered when I was 16 years old. I then started doing a few commercials and from then on kept getting more offers. At the beginning, I was just interested in making money and working...but then after, around age 22, I started becoming more interested in honing my craft as an actor."
And so the young Pier Luigi Conti became involved in the mad, mad world of Italian cinema, where movies with a large overseas market were churned out at a frantic pace, and where filmmakers - as David Hess once said - want everything done yesterday but aren't ready until tomorrow. And because of this reliance on foreign film sales – most often to the US and Blighty – it wasn’t popular at the time for Italian actors to use their own name professionally. "During the 60's, it was trendy to have an American stage name. So the first important movie I did, Il Saprofita (The Profiteer), they asked me to find one. I was looking for something short, thus we decided on 'Al', like Al Capone, or Al Pacino. And for the surname, I was impressed with a death row prisoner that kept getting continuances because he wrote a best selling book. I don't remember exactly, but I believe he was called Grover Cleaverland. In Italian, the 'I' is pronounced like "ea" in English, thus the spelling change and…voila!”
Immediately following the still obscure The Profiteer, our man was cast as ‘Irem’ alongside John Steiner and the gorgeous Elizabeth Turner in a thriller directed by a young Ruggero Deodato, A Wave of Pleasure. Most of the picture is set aboard the yacht owned by capitalist bully John Steiner, who spends most of the movie downing copious amounts of J&B and being rather horrible, while Irem looks suspiciously calm, when not performing great handstands. Although Al’s memories of the shoot are somewhat faded. ”The set was really small in the boat - not enough room to turn around even. Especially when the sea was rough it was awful shooting. In all honesty, I never saw the film, but I have a copy that I took from Germany and plan to view it soon.”
More sexy shenanigans followed with the scenery-rich softcore smut of Laure (1976), The End of Innocence, Black Emmanuelle, White Emmanuelle, before Cliver delved into the burgeoning poliziotteschi genre. First up, the aforementioned Godfather-inspired Mister Scarface (1976), then after attempting to keep the struggling Spaghetti Western alive with Apache Woman (1976), he returned to crime as the diligent cop in Tamo Cimarosa’s Death Hunt (1977). The derivative Italian crime flicks of the period revelled in violence – often sexual - in an extreme way that American prototypes generally avoided. “This is because we have lived 2000 years with the Catholic Church, thus most likely were sick of the puritanical thinking. In my opinion, the Americans sectionalize sex (via magazines, strip clubs, etc.) instead Italians incorporate sex into every aspect of their lives. Also the 60's marked the sexual revolution that paved the way for more explicit films in the 70's, which is the time these movies hit the screens.”
One of the most popular poliziotteschi, Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man, was helmed by Deodato in 1976, and saw conventionally handsome Marc Porel and annoyingly handsome Ray Lovelock snag the lead roles of two maverick ‘special squad’ cops, but one of the roles was originally intended for Cliver (surely Lovelock’s?). “Yes, it’s true. Some time following Ondata Di Piacere (A Wave of Pleasure), Deodato prepared Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man and called me to ask if I could play one of the main roles, but unfortunately I was already working on another film.”
While missing out on such a staple of this particular genre due to working on another - most probably forgotten - title, Cliver was nevertheless about to land a role in one of the main video nasties – the Italian answer to Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. Playing alongside British acting talent like Richard Johnson and Ian McCulloch, Cliver’s Brian Hull got a bit sunburned and had a weakness for talking about those damn Spanish Conquistadores before clumsily getting a chunk bitten out of his neck by his undead breast queen, Susan (Auretta Gay). The partnership with Fulci was about to begin. “I think for Fulci, I was a kind of, you know, Stan Laurel, from Laurel and Hardy. He always would put a nickname on everyone during the shoots. He liked dissing me, you understand? But he was the only one who could get away with doing that. If some other people tried to diss me and he heard, he would send them off set! That's how Fulci was.”
While Zombie Flesh Eaters enjoyed considerable success in the UK and Stateside, it joined the scores of Fulci movies which were never to be respected in any way, or even recognized, in his native Italy. ”Italian people don’t even know who Dante Alighieri is! He is the most famous poet in Italy and he invented the Italian language. Italian people generally don’t even know him. In Anglo Saxon culture, you have Halloween. We don’t have Halloween, so Halloween, zombies, all these type of things we don’t have. This might explain why horror movies like Zombi did not do so well in Italy.”
One could be forgiven for assuming that Cliver’s career went airborne following the massive success of Zombie Flesh Eaters, and while the experience did forge a new working collaboration, the Italian film industry was slowly undergoing change. “I started doing movies in 1972/1973. At that time, in Italy, we were shooting 360 movies a year. That’s nearly one every day. That’s a lot of movies. And for these movies, we needed at least 8 weeks to shoot. By the time we reached the 1980’s, it was more like sixty movies a year, shooting for about 5 weeks each. But after Zombie, I got to know Lucio Fulci well and so he called me for to work on many of his movies.”
Whether Fulci needed a familiar face to play a certain Dr Harris (The Beyond), a petrol-charged gladiator (Rome 2033: Fighter Centurions), or a cheeky copper who’s not afraid of telling David Warbeck off for rural speeding (The Black Cat), Cliver was the man for the role. He continued to work with the little maestro for the rest of the decade, his roles varying in importance, and felt all the while that his friend Fulci didn’t differ much from that of his less gifted contemporaries like Jess Franco. ”I made two movies with Franco. Franco made very – how you say, cheap, no money movies. But, to me, he was a director like D’Amato, or Fulci, They need to shoot constantly, these types of directors. It is what keeps them going.”
Let us not forget that Cliver also worked with the über-prolific powerhouse that is Joe D’Amato – the man of a thousand names - whose slightly more laid back approach differed somewhat from that of Fulci. ”It was really funny working with Jo, because he was the opposite of Fulci. A much more relaxed director. He never got angry, and was always joking. I made a lot of movies with D’Amato. The last 10 years of my acting life was mostly spent working between him and Fulci.”
Al was already thinking about a change in career to keep a more reliable income in the late 80’s, when the hitherto breakneck pace of the Italian film factory was winding down. ”It was a generation change at that time. All the directors I worked with stopped shooting, or died. Also, the cycle stopped. Before, there were Spaghetti Westerns, and there were Hercules movies, and after that there were police movies and gialli. So the chain finished, and the work dried up. After acting, I started to be a carpenter, and I had a carpentry shop. Following this, I started to buy furniture in England, in Liverpool, and Manchester. We went to England in a rented huge truck and bought a lot. Then I went to Sri Lanka to buy more, as well as making more, and would then sell it in Rome.”
Thankfully, Pier Luigi is able to juggle his personal career ventures alongside the occasional fan convention these days, otherwise this interview may never have taken place. He appears a man at peace with the choices he has made along the way in the Italian movie career he fell into purely by chance. Admitting that although the only directors he regretted not getting the chance to work with were the giallo giant Dario Argento and Italian modernist Michelangelo Antonioni, he is happy to look back on his time on the screen. So are we, Al.