At one point, every horror fan is required to face the fact that much of what constitutes straight-up horror during Italy’s gory years is essentially xerox cinema of varying degrees. Outside the beautiful black-and-white gothics that first populated Italy’s horror landscape, the vernacular of the giallo, and cannibalistic jungle romps– there just isn’t much originality in the boot landmass’s early ’80s commercial heyday and things only got worse until the industry was on a desperate life support towards the end of that decade. Everything from aping the Herculean Steve Reeves, Sergio Leone’s deep appreciation for John Ford, Harry Callahan struggling not to blow the face off some scum pedophile, the coming of the wastelands with Max, and Rambo blowing extremities from little brown people. If an American theatrical trend proved popular, the trusty Italians had an answer. This lack of “substance” actually doesn’t hurt, but only exhibits the talent of the luminaries to emerge from an era when money really talked.
Naturally, pop culture has always eaten itself as a means of reaping capital. It’s just that Italy crafted this consumption into an art form to its ultimate demise. Even Mario Bava, who was there at the founding and a pioneering force of the country’s prolific genre output, can’t be completely absolved of this charge. Although that’s not to discredit Bava in any fashion or equate him to the likes of Bruno Mattei. Bava had an uncanny ability of reaching entirely through director-for-hire projects and result with something uniquely his own–no matter the genre. The late director arguably created the first gialli (The Girl Who Knew too Much, 1964), first “body count” film (Six Women for the Murderer, 1964), and first slasher (Twitch of the Death Nerve, 1971). On the other hand, Bruno Mattei traded in a sort of charming and unabashed rehash oeuvre. Along with Marino Girolami’s inept Zombi Holocaust (1980), much of Mattei’s cannon ripped off what was already riffing other trends into an oddly self-aware regurgitation.
This is where the bite of the Italian Horror movement arises. Bava, Mattei, and seemingly every other notable Italo filmmaker were afflicted by the country’s tendency of producing mass quantities of whatever was popular primarily for export for a quick buck. Moving away from horror for a moment, one could literally immerse themselves in spaghetti westerns alone–all four hundred or so–spurred by Leone’s breakout A Fistful of Dollars (1964). By the early ’70s, the western was passé, oddly paved over in America by the failure of Leone’s now timeless Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). Or the explosion of Alfa Romeo-fueled Italian crime action after the huge success of Enzo G. Castellari’s tremendous answer to William Friedkin’s The French Connection, High Crime (1973). Both worlds unto themselves.
This is another consistent truth, movies are foremost made to create return, but in the Italian lexicon few were afforded the luxury of freedom. Besides the aforementioned Bava, Dario Argento is the most influential personality in Italian horror, granted such creative flexibility after proven successes in varying facets of the genre. While other filmmakers of his ilk toiled mostly out of necessity, Argento honed his unique visions in the culmination of his 1977 gothic masterpiece, Suspiria. Just before Lucio Fulci hit his splattery prime and Ruggero Deodato made 42nd Street’s seats tremble with his Cannibal Holocaust in 1980.
While the early ’80s burned on, a bit player in classics like Fulci’s City of the Living Dead (1980) and Argento’s Tenebrae (1982) would soon emerge as the Italian director to achieve the some of the best late ’80s/early ’90s genre product. Michele Soavi was groomed for horror filmmaking being a protégé of Joe D’Amato and later Dario Argento. Acting, writing, and assisting in variety of films before tackling the director’s chair with Stagefright (1987), The Church (1989), The Sect (1991), and finally Dellamorte Dellamore (Cemetery Man) (1994).
Soavi’s four contributions are anomalies because they’re not just great Italian horror, but also great horror films. Especially the melancholy of Dellamorte Dellamore, which can be seen as the director’s meditation on the death of something very dear in his life, and not merely one of the best horror films to limp away from the ’90s. The film currently marks the last time Soavi worked in the genre and acts as the lasting headstone for the era that began with Riccardo Freda and Mario Bava’s I Vampiri (1956).
Other filmmakers weren’t so lucky during the twilight of the decade with many regulated to the confines of the small screen of Italian television. Although the writing seemed on the wall even when Italian horror was at its peak at the box office. Beside the fact America was experiencing a slasher craze, the problem was this barreling production gristmill kneecapped many ultimately minor efforts like Umberto Lenzi’s Nightmare City (1980) and Pupi Avati’s Zeder (1983). Both surprisingly ambitious films that suffer from the limitations of Italy’s potboiler climate at the time of their creation.
This first example might sound dumb. I mean, Umberto fucking Lenzi, right? Like Sergio Martino, the director was a jack-of-all-genres, dabbling in everything from gialli, horror, spag westerns, and most effectively several police action staples. Lenzi seems a bit of a megalomaniac as well, with a blown up sense of impact his filmography actually possesses, even over the barely-seen and rather racist Black Demons (1991). Not to mention humping it into the green inferno to somehow up the sleaze well past Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust with his testicle ripping Cannibal Ferox (1981).
Yet there’s just something still undeniably fresh about Lenzi’s 1980 contaminated-man-run-amok opus, Nightmare City. The basic premises revolves around a C-130 Hercules loaded with bloodthristy meatball-faced maniacs landing and reeking havoc upon badly-dubbed citizenry while TV reporter Hugo Stiglitz attempts to save his nurse wife across town. The film is unique for its sheer scope and there’s nothing nearly as expansive in Italian horror. Lenzi stages the many attack sequences well given his action background as the vampiric nuclear men ruthlessly slaughter with axes, guns, and knives for blood. Veteran writer Piero Regnoli moves the action swiftly over the course of two days from an airport, TV station, hospital-by-night, empty carnival, and little stops in-between. Incubo sulla città contaminata isn’t tied to a more popular American film as a mock sequel or part of an existing Italo series. The nearest thing you could possibly relate the scenario to is Dawn of the Dead‘s unseen undead city invasion, but that’s a real reach. Despite all of this good intention, Nightmare City ultimately flounders.
Seventy-five percent body hair Mexican actor Hugo Stiglitz is terrible with a range consisting of standing up straight and making sure to keep his eyes open. Laura Trotter as his on-screen wife isn’t much better with zero chemistry and not too great on the eyes. The most attractive woman cast, Stefania D’Amario (Richard Johnson’s nurse in Fulci’s Zombie), ends up as zombie mouth fodder. The contaminated sport stuffy suits and horribly dated casual wear with make-up that essentially looks like globs of half-cooked ground round. To top it off, the resolution slaps the audience across the face in the worst way.
Basically, Nightmare City is another cheap Italian quickie and that’s a damn shame. There’s a cheesy fun to behold in its current form, but the project could have been a sublime epic of all zombie cinema if given more attention and resources. An immediate improvement could have been made if Lenzi’s own assertions about Franco Nero and Fabio Testi nearly chosen as the lead are correct. Stelvio Cipriani’s always excellent score is the only thing really salvageable here.
Then there’s Pupi Avati’s Zeder. A supernaturally-tinged walking dead yarn that never once betrays its extremely subdued nature. A journalist (Gabriele Lavia) obtains a used typewriter and discovers odd text on the used ribbon. The text tells of areas that have the ability to resurrect the buried dead. Determined to discover the bizarre truth, the young man uncovers a conspiracy spearheaded by rogue scientists at high personal cost…
There is really no other Italian horror film like Zeder, but not for the scope of its narrative like Nightmare. Avati imbues his 1983 feature not with gialli sensibility, but with a mystery that foretells the recent Spanish cycle of horror thrillers like Jaume Balagueró’s The Nameless and Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone. Avati strikes at the procedure of personal terror while keeping everything slavishly low-key. Sometimes to a fault, as leading man Lavia doesn’t have the chops to make one care much about his plight.
What primarily hurt Zeder‘s reputation was its terrible American distribution. Given something unexpected, the film was chopped of ten minutes and marketed as another zombie flick with an entirely misleading re-title of “Revenge of the Dead“. The film suffered from disappointed and confused reception on VHS for years before Image Entertainment finally released an uncut DVD under the original title. If only someone realized nearly thirty years ago…
Of course, this write-up is full of woulda, coulda, shoulda and we can play that game all week. Yet there’s a certain shame in the Italian studios and producers of the period seldom realizing the artistic potential of films like the two above and many others. Much like the spaghetti western and other cycles prior, Italian horror endured a protracted death over years of trying to visit a barely wet well. That’s not to say the period wasn’t great. Everything from the formative classics to Bruno Mattei’s surprising 21st century mini-revival before his 2007 death all have an endearing familiarity that can be enjoyed either as fine cuisine or greasy late night pizza. It’s also something that has remained untainted by Hollywood’s dirty fingertips. Something that opens an entire subculture to the horror fan willing to take the plunge into the intestine-spiked marinara. Still, there’s always that nagging question.