Too Chicken to Watch This Giallo?

Anna (Gina Lollobrigida, left) and her assistant Gabrielle (Ewa Aulin) pose for publicity photos regarding Anna’s successful poultry business in DEATH LAID AN EGG aka Plucked! (1968).

Maybe giallo is too specific a film genre for this movie because it is in a class of its own and works as a violent crime thriller but also as an erotic melodrama, black comedy and a satire on scientific experimentation and marketing. If you tried to describe the movie to friends they’d probably swear you dreamed it or are running a high fever but no, this bizarre, fascinating and once obscure giallo actually exists in various titled versions. The original Italian release title was La Morte Ha Fatto L’uovo (1968), but it has been distributed under such monikers as Plucked!, A Curious Way to Love and Death Laid an Egg, which is the more common title. So what’s with the chickens? The film is set, for the most part, in a poultry factory where a new breed of chicken is being produced in an experimental lab. The opening credits, featuring science classroom footage of egg fertilization, embryos and microscopic life forms prepare you for this strange new world.  

I had read about Death Laid an Egg for years, starting with a reference to it in the horror fanzine Castle of Frankenstein, but finally got a chance to see it on VHS in the 1990s in an English dubbed print with Swedish subtitles in a clamshell box with Spanish cover art – It was titled La Muerte ha Puesto un Huevo. Though the color was faded and the print quality indicated it was a second or third generation dupe, it was still clearly obvious that this film had a unique visual and audio design that combined a non-linear narrative, experimental editing techniques, and a soundtrack that alternated between industrial noise, discordant string arrangements a la Bernard Herrmann’s “Psycho” score and peppy Brazilian bossa nova music.

Although Death Laid an Egg is still often lumped in with other giallos it is a weird, exotic bird in comparison. The giallo aspect comes from a few formulaic elements which later turn out to be deceptive narrative ploys such as a protagonist who likes to play torture/death games with assorted prostitutes and a triangular relationship between a married couple, Marco (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anna (Gina Lollobrigida), and their live-in “assistant” Gabrielle (the luscious Ewa Aulin, star of 1968’s Candy); nothing is as it appears to be in this movie, not even the chickens.

Marco (Jean-Louis Trintignant) leads a secret fantasy life committing faux-murders with hired prostitutes in the twisted 1968 psychosexual thriller DEATH LAID AN EGG, directed by Giulio Questi.

The film is still misunderstood and maligned and is bound to disappoint viewers expecting a gory Dario Argento-like giallo but Death Laid an Egg is really an art film masquerading as an exploitation film. Not only is the film clearly influenced by the films of Antonioni and Fellini but it also has a very droll, subversive sense of humor comparable to George Axelrod’s Lord Love a Duck (1966) or his earlier Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957) with its sly depiction of corporate culture – the chicken marketing campaign sequence – and scientific innovations such as the scene with the creation of a mutant chicken with no head or wings – “Look at it, it’s all meat and the bones are small!”

A marketing expert extols the virtues of a new breed of chicken that is being created for the marketplace in DEATH LAID AN EGG (1968).

Even though the English dubbed version suffers from the same problems of most dubbed films (the original actors’ voices are not used, the inflections often seem strange and robotic, the lip synching is poor, etc), this is one of the few times that the dialogue is not only surprisingly witty but also literate in the manner of an avant-garde play, a theatre-of-the-absurd concoction by John Guare or Tom Stoppard. Take for example this bedtime conversation between Marco and Anna as they strip down and get into separate beds for the night:

Marco (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and his wife Anna (Gina Lollobrigida) discuss their fascination with Gabrielle, the beautiful blonde assistant to Anna in DEATH LAID AN EGG (1968).

Anna: I was noticing Gabrielle today. We were down by the pool together.

Marco: Gabrielle? What does she have to do with anything?

Anna: Her body seems to be made of separate parts…beautifully united but still each one perfected to be separated and put together again.

Marco: You make it sound like a toy. You pull to pieces and reassemble just for the fun of it. You might kill her in the process.

Anna: It wouldn’t be to destroy her but to remake her…a different way every time.

Marco: That’s pretty abstract!

Anna: There’s nothing abstract about Gabrielle when you see her nude.

Gabrielle (Ewa Aulin) is having an affair with Marco (Jean-Louis Trintignant), who is married to her boss Anna, but she also has some other dark secrets to hide in DEATH LAID AN EGG. (1968).

One of my favorite sequences in Death Laid an Egg, one that mirrors the decadent party scene toward the end of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, is when Marco and Anna invite several couples to their home for drinks and parlor games. Mondaini (Jean Sobieski), Gabrielle’s date for the evening, takes control of the situation and commands everyone to play a truth game. First, they select a room with no windows and strip it of all the furniture, leaving only blank white walls (“We must free ourselves of the tyranny of objects,” Mondaini shouts as they discard furniture from the room). Then two people at a time are selected to enter and are locked in until they reveal a deep dark secret to each other. “No one will know what you and your partner have done in the game of truth” though we are privy to some of the frenzied gropings and passionate embraces that occur in there.

An Italian lobbycard for the 1968 film DEATH LAID AN EGG.

We also become aware of a new plot twist involving Gabrielle’s deceptive nature. And that’s one of the most satisfying aspects of Death Laid an Egg. The film whisks you along revealing bits and pieces of the narrative like a puzzle but rarely telegraphing where it’s headed. It’s like skiing down a hill and not being able to see what’s around the next bend.

Italian cult director Giulio Questi

I’ve neglected to mention the two men behind Death Laid an Egg – director Giulo Questi, who is best known for his surreal spaghetti western Django Kill…If You Live, Shoot! (1967), an ultra-violent spaghetti western, and editor Franco Arcalli. Both men collaborated on this screenplay (and on the Django film) but if you investigate the other work of Arcalli (as an editor and screenwriter) you start to realize why Death Laid an Egg compares favorably to other European art films of the period.

Gabrielle (Ewa Aulin) and her lover Mondaini (Jean Sobieski) are up to no good in the offbeat 1968 giallo DEATH LAID AN EGG, directed by Giulio Questi.

Arcalli worked with most of the important players – Bernardo Bertolucci (on The Conformist, 1900, La Luna), Michelangelo Antonioni (Zabriskie Point, The Passenger), Vittorio de Sica (A Brief Vacation), Marco Bellocchio (In the Name of the Father), Liliana Cavani (The Night Porter, Beyond Good and Evil), and Valerio Zurlini (The Desert of the Tartars). When Arcalli died in 1978 he was assisting Sergio Leone on his screenplay for Once Upon a Time in America.

As for his frenetic editing style, it was clearly ahead of its time and the sequence in Death Laid an Egg where Gabrielle is racing down the highway with a nervous Marco beside her and recalls the tragic car wreck that killed her family it seems like a dress rehearsal for a sequence in Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971). In the latter film an insane father tries unsuccessfully to shoot his two children in the Outback and failing that shoots himself in the head after setting fire to the car. Shot in brief, subliminal shock cuts, Roeg’s sequence could easily have been inspired by Arcalli’s car wreck sequence with its bloodied victim, flaming car, and shimmering heat waves.

This grisly sequence from Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971) seems to have been inspired by a similar violent car accident in the 1968 film DEATH LAID AN EGG.

It is also hard to forget Arcalli’s disturbing editing rhythms whenever we are in the poultry factory and are subjected to disorienting shots of clucking chicken heads, ominous machinery, sterile laboratories and the avant-garde music of Bruno Maderna (the soundtrack is available on CD from Fin de Siecle Media). By the way, the movie was filmed by Dario Di Palma, the nephew of the great cinematographer Carlo di Palma (Red Desert, Blow-Up).

The original soundtrack album for the 1968 film DEATH LAID AN EGG.

Sometime after 2000 Blue Underground listed Death Laid an Egg as an upcoming release on its website Then it dropped off the list and I thought the US branch of Italian distributor Noshame Films would pick it up but they shut down their operation here. Then in late 2017 Cult Epics finally released the film as a Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack which was a wonderful surprise even if the film looked a little soft. That release was quickly topped by an even better restoration by the UK’s Nucleus Films in 2018 which released a Blu-ray packed with extra features and two alternate versions of Death Laid an Egg. Cult Epics then upgraded their 2017 release to include the new Nucleus Films restoration for a limited edition Blu-ray release in 2020. Good things come to those who wait!

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