Monday, December 29, 2008

Film Review: The Nights of Terror

As soon as Lucio Fulci's "Zombie" hit box office gold around 1980, the low budget Italian cinema industry was plagued with a glut of imitators, cash-ins, and ripoffs. Some, like Umberto Lenzi's "Nightmare City", were fairly original; some, like Joe D'Amato's "Erotic Nights of the Living Dead" and "Porno Holocaust", were little more than pornography disguised as horror; others, like Bruno Mattei's "Hell of the Living Dead" and Marino Girolami's "Zombie Holocaust (Dr. Butcher MD)" were just plain awful. Like the zombies themselves, Italy's directors (save Fulci, who could do no wrong from 1979 to 1982) were blindly stumbling all over the place trying to make sense of a nonsensical genre.

Until 1980, Andrea Bianchi was, like Joe D'Amato, known as a purveyor of fairly well done but sleazy sex films like "Cry of a Prostitute", "Strip Nude for your Killer", "My Father's Wife", and the infamous satanic possession epic "Malabimba" (AKA "The Malicious Whore"). Deciding to jump into the zombie genre, he managed to produce a sublimely excellent film entitled "The Nights of Terror" (AKA "Burial Ground" and "Zombi 3"). One reason this film was so good was because its simplicity (or non-existence) of plot lent it an aura of relentless doom, much like Amando DeOssorio's legendary "Tombs of the Blind Dead" (1971). The story is simple: a bumbling archaeologist disturbs an Etruscan burial tomb near a castle where 3 jet-setting Euro couples (and the son of one of the women) are preparing to spend their vacation. The zombies show up and wreak total havoc, resulting in an apocalypse where all the characters are killed off and the zombies win the day.

A few things set this film apart from other Zombie fare; first, the sexual tension among the couples is extremely intense, and every time the lovers try to go at it the zombies interrupt the coitus with the threat of death. Given the allegedly lusty nature of Etruscan society, it's uncertain whether these zombies want in on the action or are trying to break it up. The film also gained a good deal of controversy over the relationship of the Mother (Mariangela Giordano of "Satan's Baby Doll", "The Sect", and "Gore in Venice") and her son Michael, who is supposed to be 13 or so but is played by "Peter Bark", a totally creepy and unnerving 25 year old dwarf who bears an uncanny resemblance to either a diminutive Dario Argento or Isaac from "Children of the Corn"!. In the middle of the zombie carnage, Mommy comforts Michael, and out of nowhere they start making out, grabassing, and he puts his hand up her dress!! When she rebukes him, he runs away screaming "Why not, I'm your son!". At the end of the film, she confronts the undead son and lets him suckle her breast; naturally he bites it off and proceeds to eat her. Nothing is sacred in this film, not sex, not family, not even religion, for when the surviviors escape the castle and enter a nearby monestary, the monks (cowls and all) proceed to eat the flesh of the living in a hideous reverse sacrament.

The zombies themselves are interesting as well. Not completely mindless, they are able to use simple farming tools as weapons, and even concoct a battering ram to storm the castle. I'm not sure if Bianchi was trying to make a statement on class struggle, but it does seem as if the poor Etruscan zombies are revolting against the elite and decadent partygoers. In one great scene, a maid (the symbol of wealth and privilege) leans out a window and a zombie lifts up a scythe (the global symbol of the reaper) and slices her head off. The zombies below then fight over her head. As in Fulci's zombie films, the makeup effects are done by maestro Gianetto De Rossi, and his zombies are utterly rotten, with maggots all over their faces, and sand for blood. Unlike George A Romero's zombies who look like your next door neighbor only bluer, these things are DEAD. Furthermore, there is a TON of gut-munching in this picture; the entrail budget was probably as high as the actors' salaries, and it's all done very well. One minor complaint: one woman has her head pulled through a window and the glass explicitly slashes her across the eyes, a move blatantly cribbed from both Argento ("Suspiria") and Fulci ("Zombie"'s infamous splinter scene). Still, it's a minor complaint, and an effective set-piece. Also pretty sick is the scene when Mommy goes into a bathroom and sees her now undead girlfriend eating Michaels's severed arm; she then graphically smashes her zombie friend's head to a pulp into the side of the bathtub.

Overall, "The Nights of Terror" stands up as one of the best of the Italian zombie films of the early 80s, mostly because Bianchi, like DeOssorio, Fulci, Romero, and even Jorge Grau ("Living Dead at Manchester Morgue"), realized that the key to good zombie horror lies in infusing the film with an ominous sense of doom and apocalypse, the realization that for the living there is no way out; that death is all that is real.

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