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Saturday, February 26, 2011

Zombie Nightmares

Of all the genres in horror, the one that consistently offers the most rollickingly bad movies has got to be zombie cinema. Why is that, do you suppose? Well, they're usually made on extremely low budgets; the performers in the zombie makeups could hardly be called "actors"; and they're often Italian films hilariously dubbed into English stateside. But there are other countries to whom the bony finger can be extended as well. Let's take a look at some of them...

1. City of the Walking Dead (1980). Neopolitan director Umberto Lenzi, who cut his teeth (ha!) with the notorious Eaten Alive and Cannibal Ferox, worked with the real living dead in this goofy flick. The plot: an unmarked aircraft roars unannounced into an airport, and security officers surround it.

Unfortunately, all the passengers have been poisoned by the trademark mysterious movie radiation and have been transformed into crazed, flesh-consuming killers. They spill out onto the tarmac, attacking and killing the cops. This film should really be called City of the Running Dead, because it was made 20 years before Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later and its sprinting killers.

But "walking dead" is a misnomer, too, because these folks are still alive, just irradiated and hungry for human flesh. And something about the radiation process has caused them to go to health spas for mud packs. Or maybe they put the mud on themselves to soothe their scorching skin?

At any rate, this goofy movie is about a reporter trying to save himself and his wife as the creatures run from location to location, slaughtering all the way. And American actor Mel Ferrer (looking for a paycheck) pops up as an army general who wants to keep the apocalypse under wraps to prevent the populace from panicking. Now, how can you cover it up when the killers...er, zombies...er, whatever they are...keep racing from place to place and killing people?

As you can tell by this bare-bones plot, it really is a bare-bones film. It tries to get serious by touching on such deep subjects as governmental cover-ups and the rape of the environment, but it's just too damn goofy to make a serious statement about either.

My favorite scene involves the creatures invading a television studio where girls are inexplicably dancing in spandex outfits, only to slab, slice and otherwise mow them down. Whoo-hoo! Down with Disco! And Lenzi doesn't even know how to end the film—the reporter wakes up in bed with his wife safely beside him and realizes he's dreamt everything. He heads off to the airport to get the scoop on the unmarked plane. The plane's doors open, the creeps rush out, and hey! We've started over again!

Too light and disappointing on its own, I recommend that City of the Walking Dead be viewed with another goofy zombie movie for a full evening of quality trash entertainment.

2. Porno Holocaust (1981). Another prolific Italian director, Joe D'Amato (aka Aristide Massacessi) worked in both the horror and hardcore porn genres. He must've thought, "What two great tastes would taste great together?" and launched—yes—the zombie porn genre.

One of his most hilariously titled messes has got to be Porno Holocaust (1981). Just like the above-described film, the plot is super-simple: A group of scientists travel to a mysterious island where they discover a zombie king with a gigantic penis. This well-hung zombie kills all the men and rapes all of the females (also murdering them with his enormous phallus). The female lead is kidnapped by the monster, but is rescued by the last surviving male. And that's it.

I really don't understand what kind of audience D'Amato was hoping to attract by combining these two genres. I'm sure there are kinksters out there who get excited about the idea of zombie sex, but certainly not that many (I hope). Thanks to Google, I just watched a couple of sample sex scenes from the film featuring coupling on the beach, and they're about as exciting as open-heart surgery. The soundtrack is a combination of cheesy sci-fi music and jungle sounds, and the actors go about their business like they're riding the subway to work on Monday. The picture is also rather racist, since the scientists are all white and the "primitive people" they're studying—and the zombie king himself—are darker.

Another zombie-porn combo film has an even more hilarious title—Erotic Orgasm. Not only does it not even mention zombies, it suggests something that I'd assume is a given. I mean—are there also not particularly thrilling orgasms? Maybe there are.

3. Dr. Butcher, M.D. (Medical Deviant). Originally titled Zombie Holocaust, this is the opportunistic U.S. title of another Italian mishmash of genres. Released a scant year after Fulci's bizarrely wonderful Zombie, Dr. Butcher also stars Zombie's leading man, Ian McCullough. The hitch is that there are both zombies and cannibals in this schizophrenic film.

McCullough plays a New York doctor who is investigating the mysterious disappearance of limbs from corpses in the city's morgues. His investigation leads him to an Indonesian island inhabited by a cannibal tribe. See? The plot sounded exactly like Zombie until we got to the cannibals, didn't it? There's also a seemingly kindly doctor (like Zombie) on the island who is actually performing sinister experiments on the natives.

The cannibals are front and center for the most part, chowing down on the cast, and when the real undead finally do show up, they scare away the cannibals!

Huh? What the... This film is really a throwback to Make Them Die Slowly and Man from Deep River. The zombie scenes seem to have been arbitrarily added to remind viewers of Fulci's more successful film. In fact, I'm sure that's exactly what happened. The producers were almost finished with their ten-day shoot and the moneymen called up and said, "Hey! Fulci's film is a goldmine! Add zombies!" And stir.

The U.S. release, with the Dr. Butcher title, confusingly adds a prologue with a completely mismatched zombie rising from a grave that has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the proceedings.

4. Zombie Nightmare. Let's head over to Canada for a Great White North slice of cheese starring Jon Mikl Thor, the bodybuilder and heavy metal rocker who fronts the imaginatively-titled band Thor and starred as the zombie in this 1986 opus.

Whether the zombie causes nightmares or is having nightmares himself is never explained, but Thor plays a hunky baseball player who is run down by a gang of teenage thugs, only to be resurrected by a handy voodoo priestess. He then lumbers off to wreak revenge on the gang.

Man, is this movie lame. It moves along at a snail's pace, the effects are sub-par, the killings aren't particularly interesting, and the actors are truly obnoxious. "Batman" himself, Adam West, plays a police captain who doesn't really give a shit even as the bodies start turning up, and future director of forgettable films Shawn Levy (The Pink Panther remake, Night at the Museum, Cheaper By the Dozen, all of which I have not seen) plays the douchebag leader of the teenage gang. With his feathered hair and skintight '80s jeans, he's just begging to be punched.

Rightly ripped to shreds by Mystery Science Theater 3000, it's the MST-d version of Zombie Nightmare that I would recommend watching. I can't imagine having to endure this vacuous, unimaginative cheesefest without Mike, the 'Bots and their colorful commentary.

There's a traumatic scene in a gym featuring a pale, skinny guy and his girlfriend. They get into a hot tub, and the guy is wearing tiny, tiny white underwear. When the zombie attacks, he jumps out of the tub and runs toward the camera in his skimpy, white, wet shorts. It still makes me shiver to think of it. And it's one of those movies in which the zombie can catch up to—and overpower —the victims who always seem to be moving much faster than him.

It seems that lovers of '80s metal hold the soundtrack in high regard, but not being one of them, I thought all the songs sounded the same. The following year Thor appeared in Rock 'n' Roll Nightmare, which involves—what else?—heavy metal and demonic possession. The MST3K gang didn't get around to it, but as represented by the still shown here, it looks like that movie was also ripe for the plucking.

5. I, Zombie: The Chronicles of Pain (1998). Let's wrap this up with an English film that's not a laff riot, but a really intriguing study of a poor student who has to deal with the day-to-day reality of becoming a zombie.

David (Dean Sipling) is a PhD candidate who goes into the woods to collect some samples, and comes upon a nasty-looking woman in pain in a tumbledown house. Hoping to help her, he tries to take her to hospital, but she rips into his throat. He staggers into the woods, gradually losing focus until he doesn't comprehend what's happening to him.

Regaining understanding, David starts to chronicle his journey into zombiehood with written journals and a tape recorder. He'd been living with his fiance, but he suddenly disappears from her life because he doesn't want her to see what he's becoming. As the film's title explicitly describes, it's a day-to-day account of his metamorphosis. And though the budget is minuscule, writer-director Andrew Parkinson did a pretty good job with both the angst and gore effects.

Armed with a bottle of chloroform, David goes out in search of victims, eating their flesh and then disposing of the remains matter-of-factly. After devouring parts of one of them, he lights up a cigarette. Isn't that what some people do after a good meal? And the sequences showing David attempting to rebuild his deteriorating body with screws and pieces of metal—as well as a scene I won't mention here—but will make guys groan in horror, are well-realized.

It's such a melancholy film. Parkinson cross-cuts dream sequences, flashbacks and interview clips with David's fiance (Ellen Softley) and her new boyfriend (Giles Aspin) to give a well-rounded portrait of who he was before he became a monster.

There are also false flashbacks and hallucinations to not only keep us guessing but also to remind us that as his exterior flesh is rotting, surely his internal organs (like his brain) are also deteriorating,

The budget, deliberate pace and (intentional) banality may be off-putting for some viewers, but it's a really interesting approach in the cinema of the undead. And the final sequence, in which the completely rotted David lies weakly in his bed and recalls snapshots from his youth, is incredible.

And still he's not dead. The nightmare will never end.

1 comment:

Russell Adams said...

Once again, you've nailed it. I can handle the goriest, grossest zombie action any of these guys care to throw at the screen, but the very idea of PINK PANTHER remakes and anything of Steve Martin's from the last twenty years makes me want to heave.

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