'Caligula' at 40: The mysterious and shocking death of B movie actress Anneka di Lorenzo

Ben Falk
British actors Teresa Ann Savoy playing the role of Drusilla and Malcolm McDowell (Malcolm John Taylor) playing the role of the Emperor Caligula talking in bed in the film Caligula, My Son. 1979. (Photo by Mondadori via Getty Images)

Caligula, released 40 years ago, has become infamous as an extravagant misfire.

An expensive folly starring Malcolm McDowell as the legendary emperor alongside a cast including Peter O’Toole and Helen Mirren, it was turned into a hardcore porno by its producer Bob Guccione without the knowledge of director or main cast.

But a movie of this kind has many stories within it, not least that of Anneka di Lorenzo, one of the Penthouse models smuggled in by Guccione to perform the explicit sexual content. Her curious death is just one of the sad legacies of this scandalous production.

When she first heard of her boss’s plan to make a movie about the Roman emperor Caligula, Anneka di Lorenzo, a successful Penthouse model and aspiring actress, was told she was going to play Caligula’s wife. It was one of the main roles and she was excited, even agreeing to producer Bob Guccione’s edict that she’d only get the role if she got her breasts enlarged.

1/31/1980- New York, NY: Close-ups of actress Anneka Di Lorenzo.

Born Marjorie Lee Thoresen, she’d grown up in St. Paul, Minnesota and had run away to California after her parents’ divorce to seek fame and fortune. Beautiful and slim, she had graduated quickly to working in topless bars to makes ends meet and had begun to fall in love with the idea of performing after snagging an agent and appearing in some small exploitation B movies.

Her big break – although it would end up backfiring spectacularly – was writing to Penthouse founder Bob Guccione, then a well-liked entrepreneur, raconteur and celebrity in the mould of Hugh Hefner. Guccione took a shine to her, getting her to sign an unbelievably restrictive contract and pulling her into the Penthouse fold.

Read more: History’s most scandalous film productions

To the outside world it was a glamorous life – she was Pet of the Year in 1975, did USO tours to soldiers abroad and was on about $1000 a week – but the reality didn’t match. Guccione was manipulative, cruel and essentially her pimp. She moved into his home, where he lived with his girlfriend, getting DiLorenzo to work as his de facto housekeeper, while also sleeping with her. Even worse, when some business deals threatened to implode, he ordered her to seduce his financial advisor, as well as the head of a furniture company who was also a potential investor.

In this April 1980 file photo, Swiss Artist H.R. Giger, who was nominated for an academy award for his visual effects for the movie "Alien", right, poses with model Anneka Di Lorenzo. (AP Photo/Bocklett,File)

Through all this degradation and emotional abuse, di Lorenzo’s dream of being a proper actress remained and getting the role of Caesonia in Caligula, a big-budget movie written by the great Gore Vidal, could send her on the way.

Unfortunately, Guccione betrayed her once again. First the role of Caesonia went to Helen Mirren, then Guccione’s promise she would receive some backend of the film on top of her $500 salary didn’t happen and soon it became clear di Lorenzo would be nothing but a glorified extra in director Tinto Brass’s production.

The worst was yet to come. Guccione was angry with the lack of flesh on display in Brass’s film. The director intended it to be a satire, an arty allegory about politics and corruption, but the Penthouse boss wanted sex and lots of it, ideally unsimulated.

Penthouse publisher and founder Bob Guccione holds up his magazine Penthouse and Playboy magazine at a news conference announcing his anti-censorship campaign at Penthouse magazine offices in New York, June 4, 1986. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

At the beginning of 1977, a few weeks after principal photography had ended, Guccione cajoled di Lorenzo and some other actors to secretly return to Rome and shoot hardcore porn scenes which he then planned to edit into the film without the director’s knowledge. In thrall to her boss, manipulator and lover, the actress reluctantly acquiesced and performed the scenes, admitting later she had consumed drugs and alcohol to get through them.

Caligula – complete with unsimulated orgies and more – was eventually released in 1980 and while it’s become something of a cult classic, its impact on di Lorenzo was disastrous. Though she appeared briefly in the Brian De Palma thriller Dressed to Kill alongside star Michael Caine, her scenes in the Roman epic rendered her virtually unemployable as a mainstream actress.

1980: British actor Michael Caine stands next to a 75mm motion picture camera on the set of director Brian De Palma's film, 'Dressed to Kill'. Caine wears a turtleneck sweater and a blazer. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

She finally plucked up the courage to challenge Guccione for his behaviour, suing him in 1981 for sexual harassment, fraud and inflicting emotional harm. It was a fiery case, with Guccione lashing out at di Lorenzo’s past and character and it took more than nine years to culminate.

Nevertheless, she won on the sexual harassment charge and was awarded $60,000 in compensatory damages and $4million in punitive damages. It was a vindication, but the celebration was short-lived, when the latter payment was vacated under state law on appeal. As retribution, Guccione published more pictures of di Lorenzo in a lesbian tryst from Caligula in his magazine.

British actor Malcolm McDowell (Malcolm John Taylor) playing the role of the Emperor Caligula sitting on a bed in the film Caligula, My Son. 1979. (Photo by Mondadori via Getty Images)

Di Lorenzo eventually faded into obscurity, ditching her stage name, marrying (then divorcing) and having a daughter while working as a waitress, a yoga instructor and certified nursing assistant. By 2011, Anneka Vasta (her married name) was 58 and living in LA suburb Sherman Oaks near her sister Susan. On 2 January, she packed her stuff in the back of her car and drove south to Carlsbad, rented a motel room and then spent the early morning driving round, calling loved ones.

Two days later, joggers found her drowned body on a beach near military base Camp Pendleton, an autopsy said she suffered a broken back and neck before she died.

Evidence as to what happened for her to end up like that was – and still is – unclear. While some small healed cuts were on her wrists suggested previous self-harm, there was a bloody steak knife on the floor of her car along with a blood-stained blouse and sports bra wrapped in the plastic liner of an ice bucket from her motel. Mood stabilisers Lithium and Xanax were also found in the car, although there were no drugs in Vasta’s system.

Extras carrying courses on sumptuous trays during a dinner in the film Caligula, My Son. 1979. (Photo by Mondadori via Getty Images)

Nine months later, investigators were still stumped and it was only then that the tragedy came to public light, when the Naval Criminal Investigation Service (yes, NCIS) appealed for information.

Suicide was suggested, but rebuffed by her family. There was no evidence that she was with anyone just before she died, although it’s agreed she was open and talkative with strangers. But if she did plan to kill herself, detectives couldn’t figure out how she got from where her vehicle was found to the water due to the rocky terrain. Did she jump? Apparently not, as it was calculated the tide wasn’t high enough for her to enter the sea if she had jumped or fallen from where her car was parked. There was evidence pointing to several theories of her death, but none of the clues added up to conclusive proof of anything.

The case was closed in December 2011 – a tragic and mysterious end to a complex life.