Marco and Anna are on the down-slope of a marriage, with he apparently having a proclivity for secretly murdering prostitutes in a swanky hotel, with the cooperation of the staff. She's rich, and together they run a chicken farm on the edge of town, where they've recently sacked all their workers, replacing them with Technology. They live with Gabri, Anna's cousin, who is secretly having an affair with Marco. She's also pretending to spy on him for Anna, and also seems to be rather close to Mondaini, a hip young marketing guru who's been brought in by Big Chicken Inc. to design a new advertising campaign with Marco. Will Marco's predilection for murdering whores come back to haunt him? Will Anna find happiness by going undercover as one of his whores? Will Gabri's true intentions be revealed? And will those shots of chickens being killed and defeathered ever end?
Although this film has much in common stylistically with Deadly Sweet, there are marked differences on a thematic level. Deadly Sweet is a film about films, existing on a superficial-but extremely seductive and fun-level, whereas here Questi ladels on the political subtext. You could probably view this as nothing more than an eccentric arty film which anticipates the 'rich people sleeping around' trope which predominated in late 60s Lenzi-lensed gialli, but sets the action in a chicken farm as opposed to a scenic coastal location. However, that would involve ignoring a lot of the subtle, and not-so-subtle, political elements which Questi liberally sprinkles throughout the film. I should say at this point that arty films with a heavy political subtext aren't exactly my cup of tea generally, but I did find Death Laid... extremely watchable, and the 104 minutes flew by much faster than I'd been anticipating (not because I watched it on fast forward; they actually went by in 104 minutes. I'm merely referring to my subjective experience of time, don't you know). Right, let's do some thematic diving!
The two main points that Questi is making, as far as I can make out, concern, broadly speaking, vegetarianism and socialism. It might be more correct to say that they are the two causes he's supporting. The sequence showing chickens being killed and cleaned goes on for an uncomfortably long time, which is, of course, entirely the point. Questi is showing us a tiny part of the process by which chicken arrives on our plates ready for consumption. He shows us apparatus which itself 'consumes' the chickens, allowing for their swift execution, and then lingers over the process by which the carcasses are relieved of their feathers. The scene is shot fairly matter-of-factly, and the power, and message, comes from the fact that we're aware that we're watching real animals being slaughtered and treated. The sound effects and editing do accumulate a sort of weight, though, and anyone who can watch the sequence without feeling even the tiniest bit queasy deserves to be given free chicken dinners for life.
The farm workers, who gather outside the perimeter, occasionally breaching it to issue empty threats against Marco and Anna, represent the Workers being abandoned by Big Corporations in the race to accumulate wealth. The attitude of the corporation is neatly summed up when Marco's concerns about genetically modifying chickens are dismissed as being "moral," which is outside their wheelhouse of concerns. The machinery which is shown to be more efficient and cost-effective than the workers is also shown to be dangerous, as it consumes people and animals indiscriminately.
There are parallels drawn between the workers and the chickens, again made rather explicit by the advertising campaign Mondaini presents to Marco, which (hilariously) seeks to anthropomorphise the chicken by presenting him in a variety of everyday human roles. The corporation exploits the chickens for profit, just as it previously exploited the workers, who have been consumed and spat out by the system much as the mechanised killing apparatus taken in chicks and spits out paste. The final shot of the film, showing a police officer eating a chicken egg, is another heavy-handed depiction of the Powerful Elite consuming those lower than them.
So, Questi is pro-vegetariamism and anti-worker exploitation. One further layer which is worth uncovering concerns the difference between illusion and reality. There are a couple of different ways in which this is interrogated in the film; the most obvious being the use of real footage of chickens being slaughtered versus the illusory murders of humans, achieved using make-up effects. However, there's another layer to this, as (SPOILER) Marco's prostitute killings are revealed to be nothing more than kinky role play, with the prostitutes willingly playing dress-up (and extolling his virtues to the police when they come asking about him). Neither Gabri not Mondaini know that these killings are just pretend; they think Marco genuinely kills the hookers, which forms the cornerstone of their devious plan to take over the family business. You could stretch things a bit and say that Questi's taking aim here at those who object to cinematic violence, or at least conflate it with real life acts. His previous film, Django, Kill! was certainly violent, but, like this film, it took place in an idiosyncratic world, very much divorced from reality. And Questi, who fought in the resistance during WW2, was very much aware of the realities of actual violence.
'Idiosyncratic' is certainly an apt term to describe the world in which Death Laid takes place (just patting myself on the back there for coming up with it a couple of sentences ago). Real human emotions are on display-the ennui of the ageing rich couple is a constant theme, and Marco and Gabri share one scene in which he articulates an achingly-real desire to escape his life and start again. The fact that we think he's a murderer undercuts the scene's effectiveness somewhat, but it nonetheless achieves a certain level of nostalgic resonance. Marco's perpetually confused friend, who's recovering from electro-shock therapy and searching for a road which sounds suspiciously like the one in Robert Frost's wood, evokes ideas of memory, life decisions and whether we can ever truly begin again.
Giallo-hounds among you will probably find this film infuriatingly unfocused and overly broad in scope. It's certainly not to everyone's taste, and I'm not sure that I overly enjoyed it, but it certainly stimulated the little grey cells, as Hercule Poirot would say. It possibly falls between two stools, commercial considerations preventing it from being as unhinged and experimental as Questi may have wanted, but, as with all giallo films starring Trintignant and Aulin, is like absolutely nothing else out there, and all the better for it.