Cinepocalypse: Part 3

Cinepocalypse: Sequence Break; Dead Shack; Suspiria

On my third day at the festival, I saw two shorts (Feeding Time and Blood Shed), along with two new films (Sequence Break and Dead Shack), along with the Chicago premiere of the uncut, Italian-language, 35mm print of Suspiria discovered by the Chicago Cinema Society last summer.

Feeding Time

Short Film: Feeding Time

Directed by Matt Mercer, 2016. Starring Stacy Snyder, Graham Skipper, Najarra Townsend. 13 minutes.

Matt Mercer wrote and directed this delightful little horror-comedy, about a hapless teenager (Stacy Snyder) hired by an eccentric couple (Graham Skipper, of whom more later, and Mercer’s Contracted co-star Najarra Townsend) to babysit. Just lovely.

Sequence Break

Sequence Break

United States. Directed by Graham Skipper. Starring Chase Williamson, Fabianne Therese, John Dinan, Lyle Kanouse. 80 minutes.

According to an urban legend first recorded in 2000, several units of an arcade game called “Polybius” manufactured by “Sinneslöschen” appeared in the Portland, Oregon, area in 1981. The game was very popular, even though players suffered from side effects like seizures and hallucinations. Black-suited government agents occasionally showed up to download data from the units. After a month, the machines disappeared.

Genre mainstay Graham Skipper takes on the Polybius legend for latest directorial effort Sequence Break. Skipper reunites John Dies at the End power couple Chase Williamson and Fabianne Therese as, respectively, an arcade-game refurbisher named Oz and an aspiring writer named Tess, who find themselves mysteriously drawn to an unnamed game cabinet in the corner of Oz’s work space, which begins to have sinister effects on the couple as they play it.

Skipper connects the Polybius story with the technology-as-flesh motif of David Cronenberg’s Videodrome. Unfortunately Sequence Break doesn’t display the wit or depth of the Cronenberg work. In compensation, the film offers some strikingly creative practical effects work, while Williamson and Therese prove engaging leads. It’s a perfectly enjoyable middle-of-the-road low-budget horror film, probably not something that you’ll regard as a classic in ten years, but a fun way to scratch your horror itch while also engaging in some ’80s arcade nostalgia.

Blood Shed

Short Film: Blood Shed

United Kingdom. Directed by James Moran. Starring Sally Phillips, Shaun Dooley. 13 minutes.

In this hilarious British short, cost-cutting measures result in a DIY garden shed that eats flesh and pukes buckets of blood on its owners. The shed’s name is Bunty, and it’s a she, because we all know that sheds are girls, just like cars are.

Dead Shack

Dead Shack

Canada. Directed by Peter Ricq. Starring Matthew Nelson-Mahood, Lizzie Boys, Donavon Stinson, Valerie Tian, Lauren Holly. 85 minutes.

Aaaaagh, I just could not get into this one at all. Fourteen-year-old Jason goes off on a camping trip with his asshole friend Colin, Colin’s asshole sister Summer, Colin and Summer’s asshole father Roger, and Roger’s girlfriend Lisa. There, they run into Lauren Holly, who’s raising a family of zombies.

As you can probably guess, I decided early on that I hated all the characters, although I expect I was supposed to find them funny. I just found their constant bickering and insults annoying. Judging from the consistent bursts of laughter from the audience, I’m probably alone in that.

I didn’t completely hate the film—I believe I chuckled once or twice, and appreciated the makeup work and production values overall—but this is not going to rank as one of the festival highlights in my memory.

Suspiria

Suspiria

Italy. Directed by Dario Argento, 1976. Starring Jessica Harper, Stefania Cassini, Alida Valli, Joan Bennett. 98 minutes.

Look, I understand why people like Suspiria so damn much. Even today, there’s not much out there that looks or sounds quite like it, and that’s after forty-plus years as one of the most influential horror films ever made. So in 1976, American horror fans must have felt like they were viewing something produced on another planet.

But for myself, while I don’t dislike the film, it does have an actual plot. And I tend to feel that a film that has an actual plot should take care to make sure said plot makes a bare minimum of sense. Suspiria takes place in a world where the standard laws of cause and effect never existed. What does the rain of maggots have to do with anything? Why would a ballet school keep an entire room filled with coiled razor wire? Why doesn’t Sara tell Suzy what Pat told her before running off into the night? Why doesn’t Suzy ask Sara to tell her?

(On a positive note, I have finally seen the scene where Daniel gets kicked out of the academy, so the reasoning for his murder makes more sense now. And seeing the film in Italian means Madame Blanc’s line about “fifty of your American dollars” doesn’t stick out.)

The point is, Suspiria (to quote the Village Voice) “only makes sense to the eye.” (I would argue that it only makes sense to the eye and the ear: Goblin’s atypically dissonant and discordant score pushes even mundane scenes over the edge into insanity. Suzy enters the “world of madness” not when she crosses the threshold of the Tanz Akademie, but when she walks out the door of the airport in Freiburg.) I prefer movies that make sense to the brain as well. As a result, while I like Suspiria somewhat, I will never love it.

Next

On Tuesday, Ted Geoghegan drops Mohawk, his follow-up to We Are Still Here; genre legends Barbara Crampton and AJ Bowen team up in the Don Coscarelli-produced Applecart; plus: secret screening!

Chicago International Film Festival: Part 1

Chicago International Film Festival 2017: Four Hands / Maus / Sicilian Ghost Story

I’m back from the depths to cover some movies from this year’s Chicago International Film Festival. As with last year, I’m attending screenings in weekend-oriented clumps. This first clump consists of two films from the After Dark program, Four Hands and Maus, along with Sicilian Ghost Story from the International Feature Competition program.

Four Hands

Germany. Directed by Oliver Keinle. 87 minutes.

Oliver Keinle’s Four Hands takes a look at grief and mental illness through the lens of a revenge thriller. Frida-Lovisa Hamann puts in a bravura performance as Sophie, a concert pianist whose protective sister Jessica (Friederike Becht) dies in a random accident days after they receive word that their parents’ murderers are to be released from prison. Shortly afterward, Sophie experiences the first in a series of blackouts during which she seems to be preparing to take vengeance. Of course, doesn’t take Captain Obvious to figure out things aren’t quite that simple.

Unfortunately, the plot veers into standard thriller territory in the third act. Even then, Keinle’s inventive photography and intense performances from Hamann and Becht keep the audience focused, while Christoph Letkowski elevates his role—an almost-extraneous love interest for Sophie—to something essential. And I particularly appreciated the final scene, which somewhat subverts the revenge-movie cliché of violence bringing closure.

It’s not a remarkable film by a long chalk, but its entertainment value outstrips the average film of its genre. Worth a look.

Maus

Maus

Spain. Directed by Yayo Herrero. 90 minutes.

It was William Faulkner who said that the past isn’t dead and it isn’t even past, and that theme forms the center of Yayo Herrero’s feature début Maus. Alma Terzic stars as Selma (nicknamed “mouse” by her German boyfriend Alex), a Bosnian Muslim who returns to her former homeland for a funeral, the first time she’s been back since the wars of the early-to-mid-’90s. When a broken axle strands Selma and Alex in a vast forest, a pair of Serbian men come to their aid—but Selma doesn’t trust them, and for good reason.

The Bosnian war looms large in the backstory but the concerns of Maus—ethnic violence, violence against women, and misogyny in general—seem particularly topical to me, living as I do in Trump’s America watching the film in the wake of a series of sexual harassment revelations that rocked Hollywood. Even non-violent scenes—particularly ones in which Selma tries to convince Alex not to accept help from the uncouth strangers, only for Alex to dismiss her concerns out-of-hand—loom larger in my memory than they might have a couple of years ago. And note how Terzic, a blonde with the beauty of a western European supermodel, hardly fits the Western stereotype of a Muslim woman.

Herrero shoots almost every scene in close-up, giving the geography an almost nauseous, disorienting feel, and makes great use of the contrast between light, dark, and shadow. Terzic and August Wittgenstein (as Alex) radiate intensity. The Serbian pair, on the other hand, are so underdeveloped as characters that it’s hard to accept apparent attempts at ambiguity. I don’t know what to make of the ending—and judging from other reviews I’ve read, no one else seems to either. And I’m not even sure monster needs to be in the picture, which is why I haven’t bothered to mention it.

Still, when it works—and it works more often than it doesn’t—Maus delivers a powerful blow to the gut. It’s a film you can’t readily forget.

Sicilian Ghost Story

Sicilian Ghost Story

Italy/France/Switzerland. Directed by Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza. 122 minutes.

Giuseppe (Gaetano Fernandez) is the 13-year-old son of a Mafia informant, and when he goes missing, and only Luna (Julia Jedlikowska), the rebellious classmate who crushes on him, cares much. Writer-directors Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza take this premise—inspired by the 1993 disappearance of Giuseppe Di Matteo—and fashion it into a modern grunge-era fairy tale. The filmmakers wear the influence of Guillermo del Toro on their collective sleeve: the theme of violence directed against children brings to mind Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone. All that’s missing are the monsters…the CGI kind, at least.

The filmmakers give the proceedings a pleasing Gothic atmosphere, making the most of the rural locations: the bucolic village, the eerie forest, the ancient ruins ominously looking over the vast sea. Luna lives in a large house whose facade implies modern construction, but the cellar seems hewed from ancient rocks and sweats moisture like a cave. Luna’s coming-of-age story takes place against the juxtaposition of the ancient and the contemporary.

I understand that Grassadonia and Piazza looked for children without acting experience to play Luna, Giuseppe, and their fellow students; such decisions don’t always work, but Jedlikowska, Fernandez, and Corinne Musallari (as Luna’s bestie Loredana) deliver excellent performances. Fernandez nails the tricky art of being cocky without coming off as an ass; Jedlikowska’s teenage stubbornness keeps the audience engaged while driving the story.

I have a lot more I could say about Sicilian Ghost Story that I can’t really fit in a capsule review, so I’ll just cut this off with an enthusiastic “highly recommended” and the sincere hope that audiences embrace it when it gets a proper American release.

Samantha Hill stars in THE EDITOR.

The Editor

Canada. Directed by Adam Brooks and Matthew Kennedy, 2014. Starring Adam Brooks, Matthew Kennedy, Conor Sweeney, Paz de la Huerta, Samantha Hill. 95 minutes. 6/10

Ah, giallo! Who among us does not revere that elegant Italian art form, that rapturous combination of lush cinematography, lurid sex, black-gloved hands holding straight-razors, and poor English-language dubbing? The giallo revival, which has given us films such as Amer and Sonno Profondo and influenced the likes of Berberian Sound Studio, has progressed to the point where parody is now possible. Enter Astron-6, the Canadian wiseasses responsible for Manborg and Father’s Day.

Rey Ciso (Adam Brooks) was once the world’s greatest film editor, but a gruesome accident with a splicer cost him several fingers, his reputation, and his sanity. Having recovered from a nervous breakdown, he’s now a shadow of his former self, reduced to working on sleazy grindhouse pictures. When the actors on his latest project turn up murdered, police detective Peter Porfiry (Matthew Kennedy) fingers him as the number one suspect. Can Ciso prove his innocence and expose the real killer? Or is Detective Porfiry right after all?

Brooks and Kennedy, who also co-wrote (with actor Conor Sweeney) and co-directed The Editor, have crafted a film largely immune to criticism. They have re-created a particular style of film from a bygone era, the kind they really don’t make anymore. (All the neo-gialli I’ve seen are largely artsy stylistic exercises–they may look like the real deal but they certainly don’t feel it.) The flaws–poor acting, incoherent narrative–are deliberate; if The Editor can be described as “bad” then it is certainly by design. And how do you review something intended to be bad?

Despite my bluster and bombast three paragraphs ago, I have always been a bit iffy on giallo. I’m not opposed to it but neither am I an enthusiast. They sound awesome when I hear about them but then I actually see one and can’t help but be let down. I’m not really the movie’s target audience.

That’s not to say that it didn’t elicit a few laughs–for example, whenever the dialog is particularly awkward (“I am in our home!” Ciso calls to his wife when he gets home from work), or on those occasions when someone spots a “cigarette burn” on the film. Udo Kier, Tristan Risk, and Laurence R. Harvey do what they do best in their minor roles, and while Paz de la Huerta’s acting hasn’t improved since…ever…here it’s actually an asset, not a liability.

Ultimately, then, The Editor is one of those films you either get or you don’t. If you prefer to spend your evenings curled up watching a Bava or an Argento, make a beeline for this one (assuming you haven’t already). On the other hand, if you don’t know your giallo from a hole in the ground, this is probably not the place to start.

THE EDITOR poster

Deep Sleep

Deep Sleep

Argentina/Italy, 2013. AKA Sonno Profondo. Directed by Luciano Onetti. Starring Luciano Onetti, Daiana García, Silvia Duhade. 67 minutes.

Does your life suffer from a recent lack of sleazy erotica, black-gloved killers holding straight-razors, and stage blood the color of Heinz ketchup? If so, maybe you’ve missed out on the recent resurgence of interest in giallo, the classic Italian subgenre of lurid mystery-thriller. The trend of making new works in the giallo style has resulted in several intriguing films of late, including Luciano Onetti’s Sonno Profondo. (The phrase is Italian for “deep sleep,” which is an alternate English title for the film, but not one I’ve seen in wide use.)

The film tells the story of a mysterious killer (played by Onetti, who also co-wrote, directed, shot and edited) who breaks into an apartment and stabs the resident, an erotic model, to death–and then finds the tables turned when a witness to the murder threatens retaliation. To say much more about the plot is doubly dangerous, not just because of the threat of spoilers, but one runs the risk of putting too much emphasis on the plot.

For Sonno Profondo is above all an exercise in style. Onetti presents the film in a heavily processed faux-grindhouse style, complete with fake film grain and scratches and a washed-out Technicolor palette. He devotes himself to replicating the giallo style to the point of parody. There’s barely any dialog, and most of the shots are extreme close-ups. We never even get an unobstructed view of the killer’s face, or the victim’s. Underlining all this is soundtrack of funk-inflected psych-rock instrumentals that recalls, and occasionally outdoes, the legendary Italian group Goblin.

The downside of this is that Sonno Profondo will gain little traction outside circles of giallo devotees. Wide audiences and even casual horror fans may find themselves alienated by he deliberately slow pace, lack of anything resembling character development (plus, it’s hard to fully engage with a protagonist when all you see of him is his hand), exaggerated “acting” and a score that can dismissively but not entirely inaccurately written off as “’70s porn music.” Nor is it likely to win the subgenre any converts–the uninitiated will find more effective gateways in period classics by Dario Argento and Mario Bava.

That aside, Sonno Profondo sets out to do a specific thing and it does a good job of it. Appealing beyond a small cult of genre fans was never part of the deal. If you’re a member of that cult, here’s a movie to cherish.

Originally published by Cinema Axis.

A scene from TENEBRAE

Retro Review: Tenebrae

Italy. Directed by Dario Argento, 1982. Starring Anthony Franciosa, Daria Niccolodi, John Saxon. 100 minutes.

American novelist Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa), known for writing graphically violent crime thrillers, arrives in Rome to promote his latest book, Tenebrae. Within hours of his arrival, the police approach him: a young woman was found murdered in her home, her throat cut with a straight-razor, pages from a copy of Neal’s book stuffed in the corpse’s mouth. A message, apparently from the killer, finds its way to Neal shortly thereafter.

The killer strikes again, and again, communicating with Neal after each murder, and getting closer to him with each victim. Some connection between the writer and the murderer exists, and Neal needs to discover it in order to save his own life, and the lives of those around him.

That’s the basic premise of Dario Argento’s early-’80s giallo Tenebrae. The basic setup may seem a bit familiar, and no wonder: an apparent innocent wandering, seemly by chance, into a murder mystery–which he must unravel himself if he expects to save his own skin–is a fixture of the giallo formula. Argento used similar setups twice before, in his 1970 feature début The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and his 1975 masterwork Deep Red.

That may not exactly sound like a compliment, but formula can be a tricky thing. Yes, sometimes it’s a crutch for lazy and unimaginative storytelling or filmmaking, but other times it can serve as a fascinating framework for artistic expression. Blues music can be just as “formulaic” as a horror film, but you might be surprised at how much you can do with three simple guitar chords. The same goes for a leather-gloved hand holding a straight razor.

I’ve actually enjoyed Argento’s gialli more than his supernatural horror, primarily because my chief interests in narrative are plotting and storytelling. Plot is almost never the strongest point of any Argento film, but at least in his gialli his plots cohere a little bit better than in his supernatural work (admittedly, this seems to be deliberate).

While I don’t think Tenebrae‘s plot is as solidly constructed as those of Argento’s earlier thrillers, it’s hard not to be impressed by the cleverness of its construction. His favored tropes are present and correct (for example, a witness to a crime fails to comprehend what he experiences, and thus doesn’t realize he holds the key to the entire mystery), but he deploys them in unfamiliar ways to keep the audience guessing.

One of Argento’s strengths has been in the creation of cinematic environments. Tenebrae’s predecessors Deep RedSuspiria, and Inferno rely on bold, almost aggressive use of primary colors to make a room ooze with sinister menace, while exterior scenes set at night are shot and lit in such a way to make city centers seem like deserted wastelands. Tenebrae goes in a different direction: many scenes feature not just bright but harsh lighting, and sets are dressed in shades of white and gray. The effect is not unlike an optimistic, gleaming pre-Star Wars science fiction effort (those familiar with Doctor Who circa 1978 and 1979 may get my meaning).

Argento’s camera work remains as fluid and inventive as ever–the keystone of the production being a two-and-a-half-minute-long tracking shot that reportedly took three days to film. Even in his early work, Argento has never shied away from graphic depictions of violence and gore, but Tenebrae takes it one step further than his previous gialli did, particularly during the intense final sequences.

Acting and characterization are a bit stronger than they were in previous efforts, but like plot these never seemed to be particularly important to Argento. The four English-speaking actors–Franciosa, plus the legendary John Saxon as Peter Neal’s agent, Giuliano Gemma as a police detective, and John Steiner as a talk show host–are all excellent, with Saxon’s occasional comic-relief antics being a particular highlight.

The rest of the ensemble consists of Italian actors dubbed in post, and while the performances of the voice artists are a tad better than other foreign-produced ventures of this vintage, there’s still some negative impact. (The relationship between Neal and his P.A. Anne is supposed to be flirtatious to some degree, but whatever chemistry Franciosa might have with actress Daria Nicolodi is blunted by the dubbed voice.) I probably should be used to this sort of thing by now, but I can’t deny it hampered my enjoyment of the film. Your mileage may vary.

Goblin, the band who supplied the scores for Deep Red and Suspiria (and were brought to Dawn of the Dead via Argento’s involvement with it), had broken up by 1982, but three former members led by keyboardist Claudio Simonetti, supplied the score to Tenebrae. It’s a bit hit-or-miss: the title theme, with its disco drum machine and vocoded vocals, is a terrific piece of work but other cues seem like tired retreads of earlier work mildly updated for the early ’80s. Argento and Simonetti even recycle two comparatively pieces from the European cut of Dawn that never made it to the American version.

Overall, Tenebrae is an enjoyable psychological mystery-thriller, very effective although with a few flaws. It does try to break the mold somewhat but its essential Argento-ness shines through, for better and for worse.

Tenebrae poster

A scene from ACROSS THE RIVER

Across the River

Italy. Directed by Lorenzo Bianchini, 2013. Starring Marco Marchese. 6/10

Ethologist Marco Contrada (played by Marco Marchese) prowls the wilderness near the Italian/Slovenian border, living out f a caravan. Here he conducts his regular wildlife survey, which includes trapping animals and strapping cameras onto them, to track their nocturnal behavior. What he finds disturbs him: something stalks these remote woods, savaging foxes and wild pigs, something that hasn’t shown up on his camera footage.

His research takes him across a shallow river to the crumbling remains of a deserted village. Soon enough, Marco finds the source of the animal killings: two diminutive, figures who show up on his night-vision footage.

Marco has no idea what happened in this village, decades ago. He doesn’t know that two little girls lived here during the second World War. He doesn’t know that the girls’ neighbors feared them and whispered rumors of witchcraft. He doesn’t know what happened to the girls when the soldiers came, or why they laid a curse on the village.

All he knows is that when heavy rains fall and the river floods, he is trapped here…with the savage, spectral creatures who slaughter the local wildlife.

The above synopsis of Across the River probably gives the impression that it’s a standard, run-of-the-mill horror picture. A movie, with found-footage elements, about a researcher stranded in a remote European wilderness, where decades before a terrifying atrocity occurred, and a supernatural force still roamed? Gee, I think it’s been two days since I’ve seen one of those. The difference between Across the River and a thousand other similar films proves Roger Ebert’s familiar rule: a movie is not so much about what it’s about, but how it’s about it.

To start us off, the film has very little plot. Marco Contrada is the only major character, and he never interacts with any of the other characters. He occasionally talks to himself, or speaks into a digital recorder, which means dialogue is very sparse. Director/co-writer Lorenzo Bianchini reveals backstory in a parallel plot that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the main story until the end.

He also largely eschews jump-scares in favor of ramping up the creep factor, and paces his movie slowly. Very slowly. 2001: A Space Odyssey seems brisk by comparison.

Its lack of incident, dialogue and character development will turn off the average filmgoer, and even the average horror fan. However, these aren’t flaws in the film per se; they’re simply things that the film does differently from what we expect. The flipside is that Bianchini has crafted an intensely atmospheric film.

We don’t need reams of character development; in this case, knowing so little about Contrada actually makes him so relatable. He becomes a sort of Everyman who wanders toward his doom almost at random. What happens to him is terrifying in part because his survey feels more like a camping trip than the sort of important expedition at the heart of The Blair Witch Project and his many imitators. Something like this could happen in any rural locale far off the beaten path.

Where Across the River really shines is in its mise-en-scene. Bianchini makes brilliant use of his locations and every shot hammers home the idea of isolation. (One thought I kept returning to while watching is that it must have been an extremely difficult shoot.) The decaying village oozes dread from every pore, the sort of place one would naturally expect Silent Hill-type goings-on to occur. Even the remote-camera footage is effective. The scene in which the girls first appear plays beautifully off of familiar found-footage clichés, like the Xbox Kinect scenes in Paranormal Activity 4 done right. And the sound design is a masterpiece.

As impressed as I was with it, I believe most will find it exceptionally dull. I can certainly sympathize with this point of view; there were points at which I found the film trying my patience–and I love slow films. Too many times I felt the urge to scream for it to get a move on already, and it could stand from a more ruthless round of editing–its hour-and-forty running time is just too long.

That being said, if you’re bored with the same-old same-old and have a yen to try something very unconventional, keep an eye out for Across the River. It’s not for everyone, but it just might be for you.

Thanks to the Chicago Cinema Society and Chicago Filmmakers for bringing Across the River to Chicago.

Across the River

A scene from NIGHTMARE CITY

Retro Review: Nightmare City

Italy. Directed by Umberto Lenzi, 1980. Starring Mel Ferrer, Hugo Stiglitz, Laura Trotter. 88 minutes. 3/10

Intrepid television-news reporter Dean Miller (Hugo Stiglitz) bides his time at an anonymous European airport, waiting for the impending arrival of an important nuclear scientist or something.

That’s when an unexpected military aircraft makes an emergency landing. Air traffic control is not able to make contact with the plane and the police assemble to investigate, as do Miller and his cameraman. A swarm of people–some of them appearing to have congealed beef gravy smeared on their faces–disembark from the plane, draw guns and knives and make short work of the police. (One of the killers is the scientist Miller was waiting for.) That being settled, they descend upon the city and wreak havoc.

Miller escapes with footage of the massacre, but when he attempts to broadcast it, the imperious General Murchison (Mel Ferrer) arrives and puts the kibosh on it, because blah blah blah military blah blah blah mass panic.

The plane came from some sort of top-secret nuclear facility; radiation mutated its passengers into murderous fiends. (It turns out the beef gravy is actually radiation burns.) They need to drink blood to survive, and the mutations have driven their cellular regeneration systems into overdrive. Only by destroying a certain part of the brain may one incapacitate them, as it disrupts the healing factor.

These blood-drinking, zomboid freaks target locations of strategic importance, including the television station where Miller works, the hospital where Miller’s wife Anna (Jill Trotter) assists with a crucial surgery, and the estate where Gen. Murchison’s daughter lives with her new husband. The ranks of the fiends swell as more planes filled with them arrive. Even worse, their affliction is apparently virulent.

While the military try to contain the chaos, Miller seeks to rescue his wife. Can they make it out of the country alive? Can Murchison devise a plan to defeat the freaks?

Or is all of humanity completely fucked?

In 1979, a little movie called Dawn of the Dead took the world by storm. It was especially notorious in western Europe, where it was known as Zombie (or variations thereof). European production companies specializing in cheap exploitation responded to its runaway success the only way they knew how: either by adding zombies to every film on their production slate, or commissioning a pile of rip-offs of Dawn. Some of these were good, most were bad, and Emmanuelle probably appeared in at least one of them.

Then there’s Incubo sulla città contaminata, variously known in the U.S. as either Nightmare City or City of the Walking Dead (not to be confused with City of the Living Dead, an alternate title for Fulci’s Gates of Hell), which is so very special that it merits specific attention.

According to IMDB, various corporate entities hired director Umberto Lenzi to make 65 films between 1958 and 1992, so it seems that someone thought he knew how to assemble a coherent motion picture. Unfortunately, the evidence of such a claim is very thin on the ground in Nightmare City.

The film includes two or three of the most hilarious continuity errors I’ve ever seen. And I’m not talking about run-of-the-mill things like “a scene is set at night, and the interiors reflect that, but the exteriors were shot at high god-damn noon,” although, yes, that is a thing that does happen. We’re talking higher orders of discontinuity here. Late in the film, a soldier shoots a zombie in the head, blowing it clean off her shoulders. In the very next shot, said head is attached to the body again. Cinema is magic! Consider, also, the case of an extra who dies at least twice, maybe three times, over the course of a scene.

Let’s not forget all those extras who fall victim to zombie attack by running towards clearly visible monsters instead of away from them. I don’t know who’s at fault here; could be Lenzi, could be the editor(s). But whoever paid them should ask for their money back.

And then there’s the sight of three or four zombies, leaning against a car and drinking bottles of Cherry Coke. I will never be able to make sense of that as long as I live. I’m hoping that when I die, someone in the afterlife will be able to explain it to me.

As for the script, you really can’t call it a story without using ironic air quotes. The degree of contrivance is astonishing: after the brouhaha at the airport, they somehow manage to strike three or four places in the entire city where important characters were congregating. Their prey-stalking technique is incomprehensible: one apparently breaks into a house, vandalizes the inhabitant’s artwork, and then lays low for at least twenty-four hours before striking again.

The script spends a good five minutes explaining why zombies can only be killed by destroying the brain, a question very few people require answered in order to enjoy a tale of flesh-eating ghouls, but doesn’t bother establishing how the mutation is transmitted from person to person. Indeed, I spent the most of the film thinking it wasn’t–until the very end, when the screenwriters evidently noticed they forgot to write a scene forcing a character to kill a zombified loved one and duly added it.

And the less said about the ending, the better.

In the writers’ defense, they gave their movie a social conscience. Actually, never mind–Claudio Fragasso also gave Hell of the Living Dead and Troll 2 a social conscience. So, hell with them, then. There’s no defense for this nonsense.

Are there any good points? Well, Silvio Cipriani’s score is top-notch, in aesthetic terms. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t often wildly inappropriate compared to what’s going on in the movie. Like any good European exploitation film, there’s plenty of gratuitous female nudity involving attractive actresses. And of course, me being me, I really appreciated the scene in which zombies attack the Solid Gold Dancers…but I’m not really prepared to discuss my fetish for women in workout or dance attire with anyone other than my therapist.

But, honestly, the only compelling reason to watch this film is to make fun of it. If you want to see a vintage Italian zombie movie that’s actually good, I recommend you look elsewhere.

Nightmare City poster