Cannibal Ferox (1981)
by Steve Habrat
Among the many subgenres that make up the exploitation catalogue of the mid-1970s and ‘80s, the most ferocious and merciless is undoubtedly the cannibal films that first emerged in 1972. Started by Italian splatter director Umberto Lenzi with his film il Paese del Sesso Selvaggio (The Man from Deep River), the jungle cannibal movement hit a barf bag high with director Ruggero Deodato’s infamous 1980 bloodbath Cannibal Holocaust, easily the most stomach churning of the bunch with its traumatizing sequences of violence, sex, and animal cruelty, all laid out in plain view to make you recoil in disgust. From the dingy grindhouses on 42nd Street to the uproar it caused in Milan, Cannibal Holocaust was a major hit with audiences, prompting Lenzi—the director who started it all—to respond in 1981 with Cannibal Ferox, an equally repulsive but tremendously cheesy venture into the jungles of the Amazon. Released into American grindhouses and drive-ins under the menacing title Make Them Die Slowly, Cannibal Ferox will certainly have audience members with weak tummies burping back their lunch over the extreme special effects, but like most Italian exploitation films of the time, the film is brimming with goofy dubbing, mild overacting, eye-rolling dialogue, and a trumpeting score that only adds chills when it shifts over to a moaning electric guitar. It’s a gross out that you just can’t stop chuckling at.
Cannibal Ferox begins on the mean streets of New York City, with a drug addict looking for a heroine dealer named Mike Logan (played by Giovanni Lombardo Radice). Upon arriving at Mike’s apartment, the buyer bumps into two mobsters who demand to know where Mike is. As it turns out, Mike owes the mobsters $100,000 dollars, but has apparently high-tailed it out of town to avoid paying up. Meanwhile, anthropologist Gloria (played by Lorraine De Selle), her brother, Rudy (played by Danilo Mattei), and their free-spirited friend, Pat (played by Zora Kerova), arrive in the Amazon jungles to prove Gloria’s theory that cannibalism is a hoax. Shortly into their adventure, the trio bumps into Mike and his severely wounded partner, Joe (played by Walter Lucchini). Mike and Joe frantically explain that they were attacked by a cannibalistic tribe and that a third member of their party had gruesomely perished in a nearby village. The group eventually stumbles upon the village where the third member of Mike and Joe’s group met a grisly end, but the village now seems largely deserted, with only the elderly remaining. The group decides that they will camp out in the village until they can get help for Joe, but after Mike and Pat attack and kill a young native girl, the younger villagers return to exact horrific revenge.
When Cannibal Ferox first arrived in America, the posters and VHS jackets proudly declared that it was banned in 31 countries due to the extreme violence within the film—something that was sure to stir up some hype and lure viewers into the dilapidated theaters that dared to show it. Furthermore, swapping the title Cannibal Ferox for the more lurid Make Them Die Slowly also added another layer of icky intrigue. While time hasn’t exactly been kind to some of the ultra-violent Italian exploitation films from the ‘70s and ‘80s, the special effects of Cannibal Ferox haven’t softened up in the slightest. For those with the an iron stomach, the film treats to you to two castrations, a gouged-out eyeball, one character having hooks shoved through her breasts and then strung up to bleed to death, a group of natives slicing into the chest of one fallen character and chowing down on his innards, and another character having the top of his head sliced off with a machete and the villagers lining up to grab at handful of his brains like they were picking from a bucket of popcorn. For fans of the cannibal genre, it delivers, but when held up to the unflinching “found footage” approach that Deodato took to Cannibal Holocaust, it pales in comparison. Yet Cannibal Ferox gets an extra bump due to the real animal slayings that are guaranteed to upset the uninitiated. Determined to match Cannibal Holocaust every step of the way, Lenzi goes berserk with the animal cruelty to the point of disturbing even the most hardened of exploitation viewers.
And then we have the performances, led by genre regular Giovanni Lombardo Radice (Cannibal Apocalypse, City of the Living Dead), billed here under the name John Morghen. Radice brings some of the same screw-loose intensity that he brought to Cannibal Apocalypse. Here he is a greedy, coked-up madman who seduces Pat with powder, and gets his jollies from tormenting the natives. He’s a miserable piece of humanity meant to represent the savagery that brews and festers in bowels of civilized society. Radice is top-notch, even when his villainous side threatens to go over-the-top, but his downfall, which was out of his hands completely, comes from the atrocious dubbing and dialogue added in postproduction. As Joe, Mike’s wounded partner, Lucchini is surprisingly reserved when propped up next to the insane drug dealer. His compassionate side bleeds through when he witnesses Mike’s true savagery emerge in the most appalling way imaginable, making him a sympathetic character consumed by Mike’s personal demons. Kerova’s Pat is largely asked to run around with her shirt open and add a bit of sex appeal to this mud and blood show. Yet there is something fascinating about watching her get sucked in momentarily to Mike’s uncontrollable rage, and the results of her flirtation with the dark side have grave consequences. Mattei is slightly stiff as Rudy, the good guy who tries desperately to make a break for it and save his friends. De Selle overacts her role as Gloria, the anthropologist determined to prove that cannibalism doesn’t exist. Wait for her hilarious plea with a native savior gruesomely impaled on a wicked-looking jungle trap.
Like most grindhouse knock-offs made to capitalize on another film’s popularity, there are aspects of Cannibal Ferox that are glaringly cheap or unintentionally hilarious. On the whole, Cannibal Ferox lacks the realistic polish of Cannibal Holocaust, seemingly made in a hurry so that Lenzi could claim the cannibal movie throne from Deodato. The score from Roberto Donati and Fiamma Maglione is nice and sleazy, opening with a smile-inducing siege of funky trumpets and slapping urban jazz as Lenzi’s camera spirals around the concrete jungle of New York City. It’s definitely something you wouldn’t expect to hear in a film like this, and it certainly never matches the eerily calm and dreamy synthesizers that the late Riz Ortolani used to set the scenic stage for Cannibal Holocaust. Things fare a bit better in the score department when we step off the beaten path and venture deep into the jungle. It is here that we get static guitars that effective make your arm hair stand on end. And then there is the dubbing and dialogue, both of which keep earning their share of unintentional laughs over the ninety-minute runtime. Overall, while it provides plenty of sleazy thrills for horror and exploitation fanatics, and it thoughtfully reflects on how the depraved actions of one can have devastating penalties on so many others, Cannibal Ferox spends way too much time mimicking the far better Cannibal Holocaust. You’re left wishing that Lenzi, the godfather of the jungle cannibal movies, had taken a few artistic risks to further the genre along.
Cannibal Ferox (aka Make Them Die Slowly) is available on DVD.
Demons 2 (1986)
by Steve Habrat
In 1985, Italian horror gurus Lamberto Bava and Dario Argento decided to collaborate on a little cult horror film known as Demons, a funky, funny, and freaky European hybrid of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead. While it may be flawed, Demons is still an absolutely awesome roller coaster ride through a funhouse of violence, action, green blood, Fu Manchu pimps, and macho heroes. It’s the ultimate horror party set to a heavy metal soundtrack that will have you head banging for days after viewing it. In 1986, Bava and Argento would reunite for Demons 2, a sporadically fun but largely unremarkable follow-up party that would attempt to go much bigger than the predecessor. Well, folks, it seems that bigger isn’t always better. Demons 2 is essentially the same film as Demons and outside of a location change, there is very little that feels fresh or exciting. Sure, Demons 2 is atmospheric enough, the early scenes within the walled-off ruins will keep you tense, and when the action kicks in, it is greeted by a big slice of cheese, but the film hits way too many lulls to really hold our interest. To make things worse, Demons 2 has one of the most anti-climatic endings that you may ever see. It doesn’t even really have an ending. Everything just sort of stops and the viewer is left scratching their head and saying, “that’s it?!”
Demons 2 picks up several years after the events of the first film, with the infected area of the city walled-off and left abandoned by the government. It appears that the rampaging ghouls have died off and rotted away with the dilapidated buildings. Outside the wall, life has gone on and the horrifying events that occurred are beginning to fade from memory. A local television station decides to run a late night documentary about the incident and in an attempt to gather some information, the station sends a group of amateur journalists over the wall to investigate the ruins. It doesn’t take long for the crew to stumble upon the body of a dead demon, which they inadvertently bring back from the dead. Meanwhile, the residents of a local high-rise apartment complex are glued to the drama playing out on their television screens. Among the residents watching is sixteen-year-old Sally (played by Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni), who is currently throwing herself a rocking birthday bash. While watching the documentary, Sally becomes possessed by the demon and she proceeds to then tear through her party guests, infecting each and every one of them. As the teenage demons spill into the rest of the high-rise and infect even more residents, it is up to young couple George (played by David Edwin Knight) and Hannah (played by Nancy Brilli) to band together with juiced-up gym trainer Hank (played by Bobby Rhodes) to fend off the ghouls.
While it may not offer much in the plot department, you’re watching Demons 2 for the gooey gore and sweaty action. If you’re looking for deep explanation or clarity, don’t hold your breath. One of the moments that reigned supreme in the original Demons was an especially striking transformation scene complete with teeth dropping out of one character’s mouth only to be replaced by crooked fangs. The terrible transformation didn’t stop there. There were the discolored veins, green slime pouring from the mouth, and glowing yellow eyes. Bava and Argento seem to understand that the transformation was the highlight moment of the original film and the duo deliver even more graphic transformation sequences here. The make up and effects on the demons are breathtaking and they really hold up for a film that was released in 1986. Bava and Argento also decided to include a pint sized demon creature that crawls out of the body of a small child. There is a fun chase between Hannah and the little critter, but this Venus flytrap-looking creature is far from terrifying. Dare I say that he is actually kind of cute? I think cute is the proper description, especially when he starts squeaking like a baby.
One of the biggest problems with Demons 2 is the sluggish first twenty minutes of the film, where Bava and Argento introduce us to a handful of bland characters that will undoubtedly become demon chow. Knight’s George is the typical macho hero with very little personality and Brilli’s Hannah is the typical shrieking chick who constantly needs to be saved. The only reason we really care about Hannah is because she is pregnant and we live in fear that one of the ghouls will get ahold of her. Cataldi-Tassoni is pretty good as the demonic Sally but she is incredibly annoying as plain old party Sally. As a normal human, she throws hissy fit after hissy fit but when she transforms into a satanic cannibal, things really get fun. Hilariously, Bobby Rhodes, the Fu Manchu pimp from the original Demons, shows up again as a roid-raging gym instructor who will stop at nothing to cut down the demonic menace. Fear not, folks, he is just as intense as he was in the first film. Horror fans should also keep their eyes peeled for Argento’s young daughter, Asia, who at first is glued to the midnight documentary. Near the end of the film, she comes face to face with a pack of snarling beasts looking to tear her limb from limb.
While the make-up effects are great and the gore is top notch, Demons 2 takes way too long to find its groove. While the early scenes of all the high-rise residents will most certainly bore you to tears, the action taking place inside the walled-off ruins will certainly send chills. When the action in the high-rise kicks in, there are plenty of cool shoots of yellow-eyed demons sprinting up and down the stairs like marathon runners. The showdown between the bodybuilders and the demons in a parking garage is absolutely outrageous, but would you expect anything less from a sequence like this? The biggest problem with the film is the anti-climatic ending, which doesn’t even feel like it should really be the ending. You’d swear that the film had at least another fifteen minutes to go. Another disappointment is the absence of the heavy metal score, which has been replaced by a much more conventional horror score that would have sounded right at home in one of Lucio Fulci’s efforts. Overall, Demons 2 has plenty of satisfying action in the middle of the film, but the beginning is a chore to get through and the climax just falls to pieces. Furthermore, it would have been nice to get a bit more explanation about the demons but this just isn’t that type of movie. Demons 2 is only for those people who love the first film and even those individuals will be disappointed.
Demons 2 is available on DVD.
Cannibal Apocalypse (1980)
by Steve Habrat
At the height of the Italian zombie and jungle cannibal craze, exploitation director Antonio Margheriti (yes, you heard his name in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds) came up with the idea to mix the two splatter subgenres together, add a dash of Apocalypse Now and The Warriors, and replace real jungles for concrete ones. The result of this strange brew is Cannibal Apocalypse, a hit-or-miss grindhouse zombie extravaganza that features some impressive gore for a low budget Italian exploitation effort, some mildly entertaining action sequences, gratuitous nudity, and, yes, even a bit of senseless pedophilia. Cannibal Apocalypse could also have been a fairly solid exploration of the traumas of war and early on it seems like it is threatening to get a bit psychological, but after the first twenty minutes or so, the film abandons any sign of something substantial. In its place is the same old clichés that we’ve seen before set to the same synthesizer scores that played over countless other Italian zombie and jungle cannibal movies before it. The only difference is there is a hilarious saxophone playing over those pulsing synths. Make no mistake; this is an exercise in sleazy short-term thrills that goes great with a few Pabst Blue Ribbons. There is no long-term meditation and reflection over a glass of Chardonnay.
Cannibal Apocalypse begins with a rip-roaring flashback to the Vietnam War, with Norman Hooper (played by John Saxon) and a group of commandos storming an enemy bunker where two other commandos, Charlie Bukowski (played by Giovanni Lombardo Radice) and Tom Thompson (played by Tony King), are being held prisoner. Much to Noman’s horror, his two buddies have developed an insatiable hunger for human flesh and are in the process of devouring the charred body of a Vietnamese woman. While trying to help his friends, Tom suddenly lunges at Norman’s arm and he tears a big chunk right out of it. Several years later, Norman appears to be living a normal, happy life in an Atlanta suburb with his wife, Jane (played by Elizabeth Turner). Despite the happy face he puts on, Norman is still haunted by the horrors that he witnessed during the war and he even finds himself being seduced by the teenage girl next door. To make things worse, he finds himself craving human flesh. One day, Norman gets a call from Charlie, who has been recovering in a local mental hospital, about grabbing a drink and catching up. At first Norman turns down Charlie’s offer to get together, but after Charlie goes berserk in a local movie theater and rips open a girls throat, Norman is forced to reconnect with his friend and convince him to give himself over to the authorities. While in custody, Charlie meets up Tom, who is also still craving human flesh. As Charlie and Tommy bite more and more people, the cannibalistic cravings begin to spread and madness begins spilling into the streets.
The opening twenty minutes of Cannibal Apocalypse are fairly impressive and well spoken, as the camera is trained on the seriously disturbed Norman and the traumas that haunt him. He suffers from terrible nightmares and he squirms every single time he sees a piece of raw meat sitting in his refrigerator. Things really boil over when the young neighbor girl seduces Norman and he proceeds to take a chunk out of her hip. It is creepy in more ways than one and frankly unnecessary. From here on out, the filmmakers are more interested in showing bare breasts and giving the audience extreme close-ups of teeth tearing into chunks of meat rather than exploring the mental slip that these characters are experiencing. The gore just continues to escalate and you should know that the effects are pretty jaw dropping for a cheap Italian cannibal flick. One scene finds a doctor having his tongue ripped out by an infected nurse after he mistakes her attacks for seduction. Just to make things even more disgusting, the nurse then spits the very realistic tongue onto the floor and proceeds to bash the doctor’s head open. In another standout moment, our group of cannibals huddle around one victim’s leg and then saw it open with an electric saw, all while the camera zooms in on the mutilated meat. Yet the king daddy of gore shots comes when one character has a hole blown through their stomach with a shotgun. Just to make sure we understand that there was a hole blown through the character’s stomach, Margheriti cuts to it multiple times and even shows an extreme close up of it.
While the artier spurts may be the true stars, Cannibal Apocalypse contains some surprisingly passable performances from the actors. Saxon is convincing enough as the mentally unstable Norman. It rumored that Saxon really hated making the movie and that he has refused to see it. You’d never guess he was miserable though, as Margheriti never catches him sleepwalking through a scene. Then we have Radice, who you may remember from Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead. For those who don’t remember him, he is the guy who gets the drill right to the temple. Radice is in full crazy throughout much of Cannibal Apocalypse and he seems to be relishing every second he is in the film. If you think Radice is gonzo, wait until you get a load of King’s gnashing and thrashing Tom, who chomps, rants, and raves all while blood drips from his gums. He is so outrageous that he surpasses bad and just dives right into hilarity. Turner meanwhile is forgettable as Norman’s suspicious wife, who doesn’t even seem moved when he tells her he was fooling around with the girl next door. May Heatherly is also on board as Helen, a poor nurse who gets bitten and turns into a robotic cannibal with a craving for human tongues. She joins the pack of flash eaters near the end of the film as they dash around in the sewers, but she is mostly there to get gunned down by gas masked police officers.
Heavily inspired by Fulci’s Zombie and George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, Cannibal Apocalypse never reaches the extreme highs of either film it is attempting to emulate and it certainly never taps into the satire that Romero did in 1978. Margheriti does manage to deliver a few action sequences that will hold your attention, especially the climactic chase through the hazy and rat infested Atlanta sewers. There is also an unintentionally hilarious brawl with a group of bikers in a seedy alleyway that looks like something ripped right out of The Warriors. The unintentional laughs will continue when you hear the wildly inappropriate disco score that accompanies most of the carnage. Overall, Cannibal Apocalypse is far from scary and it squanders every single opportunity to explore the impact that war has on our troops, but as far as inexpensive exploitation films go, it does have some stomach churning violence. This is only for those people who have worn out their copies of Zombie and Dawn of the Dead and are craving a lesser-known cannibal flick.
Cannibal Apocalypse is available on DVD.
Death Rides a Horse (1967)
by Steve Habrat
Most spaghetti westerns that emerged from Italy between the mid 1960s and mid 1970s didn’t necessarily reinvent the wheel. Most directors saw the success of Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy or caught a glimpse of Sergio Corbucci’s coffin-dragging gunslinger in Django and they quickly began trying to capitalize on the success of those cowboy epics. They poured in all the familiar ingredients and sometimes they even slopped on a bit more of the red sauce (blood) to cater to the exploitation crowds who ate up these foreign dishes. Yet every once and a great while, a formulaic spaghetti western would gallop along that had just the right amount of attitude to make it a minor and entertaining triumph. One of those formulaic but fun triumphs would be Giulio Petroni’s moody 1967 offering Death Rides a Horse, an odd-couple revenge tale that has a particularly dark opening sequence and an apocalyptic climatic shootout that will most certainly lodge itself in the viewer’s memory. It may not have the epic reach of a film by Corbucci or Leone, but Death Rides a Horse can be lively and menacing enough to lure spaghetti western nuts back for a second and even third viewing if they so desire. I’ve personally seen the film three times and I have to say, it has never lost my interest even if I have seen all of this done before.
As a young boy, the baby faced Bill (played by John Phillip Law) watched as his family was brutally murdered in cold blood by a group of masked bandits. Just before the bandits depart, they light the family’s house on fire and leave Bill to be burned alive. At the last second, another stranger who wears a skull necklace pulls the young Bill from the flames. Fifteen years later, Bill has grown up to be a deadly gunslinger searching for the men responsible for the death of his family. Meanwhile, the aging gunslinger Ryan (played by Lee Van Cleef) has just been released from prison and is searching for the gang that framed him. Ryan’s search leads him to nearby town where he meets Burt Cavanaugh (played by Anthony Dawson), one of the men who framed Ryan and who was also present the night that Bill’s family was murdered. Ryan demands $15,000 dollars from Cavanaugh, but he is reluctant to pay such a large sum of money. Just before Ryan has a chance to kill Cavanaugh, Bill shows up and guns the thug down. Realizing that they are after the same gang, Bill and Ryan begin racing each other to track down the rest of the gang. As they try to stay one step ahead of each other, they begin to realize that they may actually need each other if they want to stay alive.
While much of Death Rides a Horse is riddled with clichés, there are two parts of the film that are really allow it to stand out from the countless other spaghetti westerns released during this time. First is the opening sequence, which has to be one of the most gripping and terrifying scenes in any spaghetti western out there. You will be holding your breath as a group of masked bandits ride up to a small house in the middle of a thunderstorm, burst in on the happy family, gun down the man of the house as he reaches for a rifle, and then savagely rape the women on the dinning room table, all while a terrified and innocent young boy looks on. Then, to put the finishing touch on their heinous work, the bandits light the house on fire and ride away into the night. It is a scene that you would expect to open a really great horror movie rather than a rollicking cowboy picture. Then there is the climatic gunfight set right in the middle of a dust storm. It is ripe with apocalyptic doom as thick sheets of sand billow around and silhouette the gunfighters while they try to put each other six feet under. For as unsettling as the gunfight is, Petroni breaks it up by lacing it with a number of chuckles that have really held up over the years. While both of these set pieces send a chill, they are made even better through Ennio Morricone’s yowling score, which sounds like a terrifying Indian war chant erupting from the surrounding mountains. Good luck getting it out of your head.
In addition to these two sequences and Morricone’s hair-raising score, Death Rides a Horse is also worth the time for the performance from the always-welcome Lee Van Cleef. While he played second fiddle to Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name in For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, he is sneering and scowling front and center here. From the moment we see his aging and graying gunslinger, he shoots his viper-like gaze right through us and he continues to keep us on the edge of our seat with gravelly warnings like “revenge is a dish that has to be eaten cold.” For all his toughness, Van Cleef does show a softer side in Death Rides a Horse and it comes through when he is forced to play mentor to the young gunslinger Bill. As far as John Phillip Law’s performance goes, he does okay as Bill but he doesn’t hold us like Van Cleef does. Law is a fine enough actor, don’t get me wrong, but sometimes he seems like he is trying too hard to deepen his voice or look like a fierce bad boy (sounds sort of like Lou Castel in A Bullet for the General). You could see other spaghetti western tough guys laughing him out of the saloon if Law dared show up to their poker table. The bond that Van Cleef and Law’s characters form is certainly solid and multi-layered, at times being emotional and at times played for laughs. Law doesn’t miss a chance to bat an eye at Van Cleef’s aging wisdom and Van Cleef doesn’t shy away from chuckling at Law’s naivety.
There isn’t much depth to Death Rides a Horse but there is plenty to keep the viewer entertained and coming back for seconds, especially if they are fans of the Italian westerns. Quentin Tarantino fans will find plenty to like, as the spaghetti western-loving director littered Kill Bill: Volume 1 with numerous references to this particular film. The most obvious will be the use of Morricone’s stomping war-cry score, which is used during the showdown between the Crazy 88 and the Bride in the House of Blue Leaves. They’ll also notice that the flashbacks that Bill suffers from when he spots one of the bandits responsible for the death of his family look suspiciously similar to the flashbacks that Bride suffers from when she stares down one of her old colleagues. Oh, and how about the name “Bill?” I’ll leave the rest for you to discover on your own. Overall, almost every single supporting actor blends in with the scenery and the villains are so cookie cutter, they could have been borrowed from any other spaghetti western, but there is enough action, suspense, and charms here for me to give Death Rides a Horse a solid recommendation if you are in the market for some retro action. Just remember that this isn’t Leone or Corbucci territory you’re riding through.
Death Rides a Horse is available on DVD, but it is very difficult to find a good transfer of the film. It is currently available on Netflix Instant Watch.
Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror (1981)
by Steve Habrat
In the wake of George A. Romero’s zombie masterpiece Dawn of the Dead and Lucio Fulci’s surprise smash imitation Zombie, the walking dead became all the rage in Italy during the late 70s and early 80s. While most of these films were made on the cheap and focused heavily on gratuitous violence, there was still a few that managed to be pretty entertaining and stand out from the bunch. Perhaps the most warped of these standouts is exploitation director Andrea Bianchi’s Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror. Plot-less, artless, and wildly perverted, Burial Ground has climbed the cult classic ranks mostly due to the presence of Peter Bark, a 25-year-old dwarf that is onboard here as a young boy named Michael, who is sexually attracted to his own mother. This relationship certainly trumps every other “eww” factor in the film, but Bianchi has a few more tricks up his sleeve to shock and repulse. Burial Ground wastes absolutely no time jumping into the exploitation action, beginning with a little sex and nudity and then launching itself headfirst into non-stop gut munching. Those searching for a zombie film with a biting social commentary mixed in with the shuffling undead hordes better start looking elsewhere. This sucker is all about grossing you out.
Burial Ground begins with the bearded Professor Ayres snooping around ancient Etruscan catacombs near his home. As he investigates the catacombs, he accidentally sets off a mysterious device that unleashes a horde of shuffling ghouls that proceed to eat him up. A few miles away, three couples, Leslie (Played by Antonella Antinori) and James (Played by Simone Mattioli), Mark (Played by Gianluigi Chirizzi) and Janet (Played by Karin Well), and George (Played by Roberto Caporali) and Evelyn (Played by Mariangela Barbieri), arrive at Ayres’s mansion for a relaxing getaway. Also among the group is Evelyn’s young son Michael (Played by Peter Bark), a creepy little kid with a huge crush on his “mama.” Shortly after the group arrives, they all engage in a little afternoon delight and then they all take to the mansion grounds to do a bit of exploring. While taking in the idyllic scenery, the couples come face to face with the walking dead that have been unleashed by Professor Ayres. Terrified and confused, the group retreats to the mansion and begins boarding up all the windows and doors, but as day turns to night, the zombies reveal that they are not as mindless as the group initially thought and that they are actually very resourceful.
Right from the get-go, it is obvious that Burial Ground is more interested in spilling blood than giving any sort of clear explanation as to how exactly Professor Ayres woke these Etruscan cannibals up or why they are cursed to walk the earth as these monsters. Bianchi asks us to simply accept it and embrace the film for what it is—a cheap exploitation movie. The best part of the entire film is the zombies, which all wear some seriously nasty and detailed make-up. Much like the ghouls of Fulci’s celebrated Zombie, these zombies have worms dangling from empty eye sockets, jagged teeth protruding through their rotten lips, exposed bones, maggots slowly crawling out of gashes, and yellowish blood oozing from gunshots wounds. When they finally catch up to their victims, they rip their stomachs open and pull out a seemingly endless string of entrails. We are then treated to extreme close-ups of the decayed zombies chewing on various body parts as skin-crawling sound effects echo on the soundtrack. Unlike Fulci’s zombies, these undead nightmares don’t just rely on their bony hands and discolored fangs to get to their victims and rip them apart. These ghouls raid the gardening shack and pick up various weapons including axes, pitchforks, knives, and even a scythe to use on their meals. There is one eerie scene that finds the mansion maid sticking her head out of one of the mansion’s windows and getting her head chopped off by some scythe-wielding ghouls, who then all greedily grab for their blood treat. This particular scene is about as terrifying as Burial Ground gets.
What really puts a bullet in the head of Burial Ground is the absolutely atrocious acting from nearly everyone who steps foot in front of the camera. The only two performers who really stick in the viewers mind are Bark as the Oedipal Michael and Barbieri as his sexed-up mother Evelyn. The adult Bark is absolutely hilarious and downright unsettling playing a child that is maybe eleven or twelve years old. He slinks around the mansion and bursts in on his mother and George as they have passionate sex. His mother’s response upon seeing Michael is to leap out of bed and barely cover herself in front of her bug-eyed son as he calls out “mama!” As if Bark wasn’t weird enough, Bianchi then dubs the man-child with a voice that sounds like an adult attempting to sound like a little kid. Over the course of the film, Michael’s relationship with his mother gets more and more bizarre as he reaches up her skirt and tries to expose her breasts during a zombie attack. If those scenes don’t have your jaw on the floor, Bianchi has one final shock for you in the final moments of the film. If ever there was an image that would burn itself into your brain and haunt your dreams for the rest of your life, it is this one. If you’re wondering why the 25-year-old dwarf Bark was cast as a child, Italian law stated that a child could not be cast in a film that featured such graphic content.
If it weren’t for the incestuous subplot between Michael and Evelyn, Burial Ground certainly would not have the rabid fan base that it does today. Sure the gore and make-up effects are solid but they alone would never have carried the film off into the land of cult classics. As if the lousy acting and poor plot weren’t enough to bring the film down, Bianchi approaches the project as if he could care less about it. The camera is almost always at a stand still and offering up a poorly lit and grainy medium shot of the action. It is clear that a good majority of the film’s budget went to the zombie make-up and gore effects and you can’t really blame Bianchi for wanting to show them off, but after a while, you get the impression that he is just filling out the runtime. Surprisingly, Bianchi does choose a dark path at the end, but he shoots himself in the foot when he stamps a quote over the final image of the film that is riddled with spelling errors. Overall, Burial Ground tries desperately to play to its audience and there are a few moments that are mildly entertaining, but as far as Italian zombie knock-offs go, you’re better off sticking with a Fulci zombie film.
Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror is available on DVD.
Nightmare City (1980)
by Steve Habrat
Way back in 2003, most casual horror fans believed that Danny Boyle had created the running zombie with his 2003 horror gem 28 Days Later. His sprinting ghouls then inspired Zack Snyder, who sped up his undead in the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead. While these two films made the running zombie popular, it could be argued that zombie godfather George A. Romero did it first in 1968 with Night of the Living Dead. Yes, you read that correctly. If you think back to the opening sequence of the film, the cemetery zombie that terrorizes poor Johnny and Barbara isn’t afraid to hustle for his meal. While the rest of the ghouls shuffled their way to the farmhouse, that iconic zombie moved at a very fast walk. About thirteen years later, the fast moving zombie appeared once again in the Italian made Nightmare City, another one of the European knock-offs of Romero’s 1978 masterpiece Dawn of the Dead. Much like Boyle’s 28 Days Later, Nightmare City doesn’t actually contain cannibalistic undead. No, these maniacal terrors are suffering from radiation poisoning and they are not simply craving a hearty meal of entrails. They crave blood and they are not afraid of using guns, knives, and clubs to get it. Hell, they even drive a car and fly a plane!
Set in an unnamed European city, a television reporter named Dean Miller (Played by Hugo Stiglitz) arrives at an airport to await the arrival of a scientist he is supposed to interview. While he waits, a mysterious military plane makes an emergency landing and unleashes a slew of radioactive zombies that proceed to shoot and stab the police and military officers waiting outside. Dean manages to escape the slaughter and he makes his way to the local television station to warn anyone who will listen to him. Just as Dean is about to make an announcement, the military steps in and prevents him from spilling too many details about the incident. It doesn’t take long for the ghouls to make their way into the city and begin killing anyone in their path. As the city is overrun, Dean attempts to rescue his wife, Dr. Anna Miller (Played by Laura Trotter), who works at the local hospital. Meanwhile, military officials General Murchison (Played by Mel Ferrer) and Major Warren Holmes (Played by Francisco Rabal) scramble to contain the situation and understand what type of threat they are up against.
While there isn’t much of a plot to Nightmare City, director Umberto Lenzi, the man who gave the world the Cannibal Holocaust knock-off Cannibal Ferox, keeps the action and bloodletting rolling at a furious rate. There is maybe five minutes of downtime before that dreaded military plane makes its emergency landing and unleashes those crusty-faced infected. The make-up on these ghouls is less than impressive, as their faces just look horribly scabbed over. There is nothing particularly memorable about any of them and they never wear the grotesque detail that many of the other ghouls of Italian zombie movies wore. Hilariously, all of the ghouls in Nightmare City are male and when they attack their female victims, they feel the need to rip off the women’s shirts for a quick boob flash before they start hacking and slashing. As far as the gore is concerned, the film never matches the jaw-dropping intensity of one of Lucio Fulci’s zombie films. Just because the film never matches the gore of a Fulci film doesn’t mean that Nightmare City is a softie. No, brace yourself for eyeballs being gouged out, blood slurped out of necks, heads getting blown to bits, an arm being yanked off, and even a women’s breast getting sawed clean off.
Probably the poorest part of Nightmare City is the stiff performances from nearly everyone involved. Mexican actor Hugo Stiglitz tries has hardest to make something of a role that simply asks him to run from one location to the next. His Dean is asked to be a tough guy, but sometimes he looks a bit bored firing a machine gun at a handful of charging ghouls. Despite his faint disinterest, he still manages to give the best performance in Nightmare City. Trotter barely registers as Dean’s terrified wife, basically just throwing herself on the ground and acting helpless. Ferrer does passable job as the no-nonsense General Murchison, but even he just stands around in an underground military bunker and forces himself to look important. Rabal’s Major Holmes is another bore who tries to inject a bit of emotion into his role. The only scene he really seems invested in is a steamy make-out session between him and his artist wife, Shelia (Played by Maria Rosaria Omaggio). Much like Trotter’s helpless Anna, Omaggio’s Shelia is asked to flash her chest and cautiously wander around her massive home.
Despite everything working against Nightmare City, it still manages to be a surprisingly fun European zombie movie. In addition to the poor effects, lousy acting, frail plot, and silly exposition, the film also features the biggest rip-off of an ending you will ever see. Yet you will be willing to forgive all the flaws because Lenzi really goes out of his way to deliver the thrills and he even manages to craft a few moments that are fairly suspenseful. The most stunning is an aerial shot of swarming infected charging through the city. To break up the mild suspense, you’ll get a few solid laughs, especially when Stiglitz lobs a television at charging infected and it blows up like a grenade. In the years since its release, Lenzi has tried to argue that the film actually is making an anti-nuclear message and that it is extremely critical of the military, but it is glaringly obvious that the film is just a low budget exploitation cheapie. Overall, Nightmare City is certainly no Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Zombie, City of the Living Dead, or The Beyond, but as far as action packed escapism goes, you can do much, much worse. No one will blame you if you seek this sucker out for a midnight viewing.
Nightmare City is available on DVD.