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“ANTHROPOPHAGY”, AMONG OTHER THINGS: AN UMBERTO LENZI RETROSPECTIVE

Monday, February 26, 2018 | Opinion

By ROCCO THOMPSON

Italian horror is an acquired taste. Even the most well-regarded examples of this regional subgenre require some getting used to, what with their lazy dubbing, penchant for sadistic gore, and narratives that only resemble what’s commonly referred to as “plot” in the loosest sense of the word. Though the works of Mario Bava are a fairly safe bet for the classic horror fan, things get a little stranger with that virtuoso of style, Dario Argento. Dig a little deeper, however and there’s a whole stable of pasta-loving goremongers just waiting to delight you with scenes of aberrance and irresponsibility that test the limits of the casual viewer–such a filmmaker is Umberto Lenzi. 

Lenzi’s cinema is one of workmanlike sturdiness, spiritually aligning him with the post-war Italian laborer who featured so prominently in the neo-realist offerings of Rossellini and De Sica, whose works he grew up on. No mere upstart in the movie-biz, Lenzi studied at the oldest film school in western Europe and was put through his paces scouting film locations for the Esther Williams vehicle RAW WIND IN EDEN (1958) before contributing as assistant director/screenwriter on various sword and sandal epics. After his first feature as a solo director on QUEEN OF THE SEAS (1961), he found steady work catering to popular cultural tastes.

 Moving from adventure films, to cloak and dagger spy offerings, to “Poliziotteschi” crime thrillers, and the infamous Gialli, Lenzi stumbled head-first into the horror genre with his influential MAN FROM DEEP RIVER in 1972. Though based on a Western known as A MAN CALLED HORSE about the adopting of a captive white man by a Native American tribe, Lenzi’s film relocated the action to the rainforests of Thailand. The film is largely a limp romance in which Ivan Rassimov woos the chief’s daughter, but what really drew audiences was Lenzi’s mimicry of the Mondo film.

 From 1962’s MONDO CANE onward, exploitative “documentaries” featuring gruesome rituals, customs, and violence (both simulated and non) were a big moneymaker for the Italian film industry. MAN FROM DEEP RIVER featured real animal slaughter and a scene of simulated human cannibalism smack dab in the middle of its slushy love-story, and Lenzi intuitively knew that these were the elements that made it a hit. Though he did his best to avoid it, the pull of the splatter flick proved too great when he was passed over to direct LAST CANNIBAL WORLD in 1977, which went to Ruggero Deodato. Hell bent on besting his rival, Lenzi would go on to direct two infamous shockers in the much derided subgenre that he had inadvertently created and various other frightful offerings over the next decade, or so. Though his cannibal offerings are his most famous, zombies, serial killers, and ghosts also featured prominently in his decade-long exploration of the mechanics of fright.

NIGHTMARE CITY (1980) Lenzi’s first foray into non-cannibal flesh-eaters came nipping at the heels of Fulci’s ZOMBI 2, seemingly attempting to replicate that film’s success. Though it features a similar dirge-like, prog-rock score and gobs of over the top gore, NIGHTMARE CITY sets itself apart in myriad other ways. Lenzi shirks the slow-moving brain eaters of Romero and Fulci in a move that would be made popular by Danny Boyle almost almost two decades later. His speedy, pizza-faced, Uzi-wielding undead tear up a tarmac in the film’s opening minutes. This is witnessed by Dean Miller (Hugo Stiglitz) who is a journalist-goddam-it and must inform the public about the imminent threat in their midst! Unfortunately for him, the bloodthirsty monsters ravaging the town are actually the irradiated result of bungled government experiments, and that information must be kept under wraps at all costs. Things stay hush hush until a spectacularly irritating televised dance sequence, during which the ravening horde bursts in and starts burying axes in heads in a moment of almost orgasmic audience wish-fulfillment. Things go to hell in a handbasket double-quick and Miller must escape the city with his wife Anna (Laura Trotter), who’s holed up at the local hospital. If any of this sounds familiar, Robert Rodriguez used the film’s structure as inspiration for 2007’s PLANET TERROR.

This is the type of movie where scalpels and hatchets fly cartoonishly true and ladies’ blouses pop open as if spring-loaded. Remarks, both racist and sexist, are as common as those about the weather, and the makeup effects on the zombies are so poor and inconsistent (some have a light dusting of grime, while others look like Indonesia’s “Tree Man”) one marvels that the characters can even tell when it’s time to be scared. By the time a pack of simple-machine wielding zombies piles out of a van and freeze like they’re goddamn Mystery Inc., you’ll be snorting with delight. If you can Ignore Lenzi’s lame-brain attempts at socio-political commentary and forgive a real groaner of an ending, NIGHTMARE CITY is a sunlit exploitation treat in the grindhouse tradition, a perfect Friday night film for a beer and jeer with friends.

CANNIBAL FEROX (1981) Though EATEN ALIVE! marked Lenzi’s first, full-fledged cannibal exploitation offering, this slightly more sober-minded gut-grinder would prove to be his most famous. After an absolutely funkadelic opening tour of New York (calling to mind the spunky visual energy of American schlockmesiter Larry Cohen) we’re quickly whisked away to the Amazon river basin where we meet our young, foolish human snacks. Gloria Davis (Lorraine De Selle, familiar from Franco Prosperi’s animal attack cult-classic, WILD BEASTS) is an anthropology student on a mission to prove that cannibalism is a myth perpetuated by European colonials. She sets out into the wilds of Paraguay with her hard-bodied brother Rudy (Danilo Mattei) and best friend Pat (Zora Kerova) to make contact with the local tribes. Fate deals them a cruel hand when their jeep breaks down and they run into Mike (Giovanni Lombardo Radice) a fortune hunter with a mean streak whose cruelty towards the indigenous peoples gets the group filleted, maimed, castrated, and finally, consumed.

Though Lenzi is frequently associated with a restless camera, he knows the value of an unadorned shocking image. Here, most shots are static—flooding the retinas with violence un-softened by zooms or elaborate tilts. Though there’s plenty of cheese on display—from Mark’s affection for the word “twat” and unfortunate bad boy (ie hep-cat) lingo, to the soggy potato chip crunches that accompany the flesh munching—the narrative is surprisingly involving and the eventual violence enacted against the young group is emotionally taxing. Lenzi tries to best Ruggero Deodato’s CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST with more elaborate tortures and a halfway-thoughtful ending, but without the Cinéma Vérité style or sickly score of that film, CANNIBAL FEROX just doesn’t quite unsettle in the same way. Nonetheless, it’s one of Lenzi’s signature films and though it will always be second banana to Deodato’s legendary shocker, it’s an accomplished piece of masochistic cinema in its own right. 

GHOSTHOUSE (1988) Restless artist that he was, Lenzi would never make a fourth cannibal offering, and instead switched gears from po-faced bloodletting to a more jocular style of fright. GHOSTHOUSE sees Lenzi attack the haunted-manse subgenre with mixed results.  When Paul (Greg Scott) and his girlfriend, Martha (Lara Wendel) begin receiving disturbing signals on their radio, they investigate the house from which they originate (the same filming location as Fulci’s THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY) and soon realize that what they’re hearing is the final, panicked moments of those dying in the future. After teaming up with some other kids surveying the house, they soon realize that it’s haunted by a creepy, white-gowned girl and her clown doll. It doesn’t take long before the fuzzy screams of the future intercepted by the radio become the reality of the present as the vengeful spirit begins to pick off the group one by one.

GHOSTHOUSE is entertaining enough, but it’s a slurry of more successful properties. Italian genre filmmakers of the 1980s turned knocking-off popular movies into something of an art form, but GHOSTHOUSE takes derivativeness to a whole new level. The film itself was devised as an unofficial sequel to EVIL DEAD II, as Sam Raimi’s immortal series was retitled LA CASA in Italy, and producers would slap that title on any property featuring a malevolent house. GHOSTHOUSE…(ahem)…LA CASA 3 not only borrows a title, but shamelessly cribs elements from countless other properties. Lenzi’s Giallo background is easily detectable in the presence of a gloved killer in the film’s opening minutes, and the maddening, helium-voiced singsong that accompanies the clown doll, which feels like a B-side from the score for Argento’s DEEP RED. The clown itself is an obvious rip-off of POLTERGEIST, while there’s a mad caretaker that seems like FRIDAY THE 13TH’s “You’re all doomed!” Ralph, gone berserk. There’s even a killer dog yanked from Ovido G. Assonitis’ deep cut, MADHOUSE.

However, Lenzi’s hand is assured enough that GHOSTHOUSE stays fun despite being a crazy quilt of genre elements. It’s fascinating to see the maestro working in a more distinctly American milieu, with clean, crisp dubbing and a pack of whitebread kids filling out the cast. “You’ve seen too many horror movies!” one character opines to another, which is also an unwitting statement on the criteria necessary to enjoy GHOSTHOUSE.

NIGHTMARE BEACH (1988) This craptacular flick, commonly listed among Umberto Lenzi’s directorial efforts, is only mentioned here to set the record straight on its creation. If Florida gained sentience and made a movie about itself, it would probably look something like this inept pile of hot garbage. Less a horror film than an extended MTV Spring Break episode featuring a couple of deaths, you can almost smell the Aqua Net and wine-coolers wafting off the screen.

In its opening minutes, we witness the execution of an alleged murderer, a biker known as Diablo (Tony Bolano), in the electric chair. A week or so later, over Spring Break weekend, a black-helmeted motorist is picking up teens and frying them alive. Is El Diablo back from the grave? The film itself hardly seems to care, as it spends more time harassing the audience with wet t-shirt contests and juvenile comedy than crafting an involving mystery. This is the type of movie where the leading men wear football jerseys as dress-wear, shout “Get ready, beaver patrol!” as they prowl the bar and call a girl a “tragic waste of bod” when they’re rejected. Lenzi’s directorial flair is almost totally absent, and surprise, it isn’t actually his movie!  Contrary to popular belief, screenwriter Harry Kirkpatrick is actually the disastermind behind this sun-baked turd. Lenzi was originally slated to direct, but thinking the plot was a tad too similar to his earlier effort SEVEN BLOOD-STAINED ORCHIDS he refused to put his name on the film. Directorial duties were handed over to Kirkpatrick, who nonetheless convinced Lenzi to stay on as a technical advisor. For years, fans thought that Harry Kirkpatrick was an alias and NIGHTMARE BEACH is still frequently attributed to Lenzi, despite the maestro’s frequent protestations. One needs only look at the finished product, however to see that any sort of technical know-how Lenzi may have contributed went entirely unheeded, and NIGHTMARE BEACH has little in common with even his worst efforts.

HITCHER IN THE DARK (1989) According to Norman Bates, a boy’s best friend is his mother, but HITCHER IN THE DARK asks what happens when you’re an unmitigated psycho who never had one. A Joe D’Amato produced psychological thriller quite dissimilar to the other films on this list, HITCHER IN THE DARK is a lean, mean little shocker about a mommy-challenged kidnapper and the young girl he tries to mold into his ideal maternal figure. Opening with a stirring birds-eye-view shot of a lonely Winnebago hurtling across a lengthy bridge, it’s mere minutes before lead lunatic Mark (Joe Balogh) has picked up a bright-eyed hitchhiker, opened her throat, and snapped some Polaroids of her corpse for posterity. He then feeds her to an alligator (or at least it’s implied…all nature footage is recycled with Lenzi behind the camera) and heads out in search of his next victim. This time, he picks up Daniela (Josie Bissett) who bears a striking resemblance to his absent mother. She suffers physical torture, mental abuse, and (worst of all) a forced mom-cut, before her boyfriend Kevin (Jason Saucier) catches up to them and tries to rescue her.

Both Balogh and Bissett give what are likely the finest performances in any Lenzi film. Bissett went on to some fame (mostly on television) and serves as the perfect tough-cookie foil to Balogh’s madman. As Mark, a pre-mature ejaculator who can barely contain his crazy long enough to snatch a woman, Balogh gives a performance that’s both pathetic and scary. Lenzi utilizes a handheld camera—likely a budgetary choice­—that gives the film a jittery, realistic edge. There are obviously a few lapses in logic (the end, for example, which Lenzi himself decried as “an insane scene” that he was ashamed of ) and some wonky effects (a rainstorm with all the force of a garden hose), but HITCHER IN THE DARK is one of the most purely “good” films in Lenzi’s canon—requiring little appreciation for cinema’s wildest reaches or a taste for irony to enjoy it.

THE HOUSE OF WITCHCRAFT (1989) In the late 80s, Reitalia Television tasked Lenzi and Lucio Fulci with producing a quartet of films about spooky residences. Dubbed the “House of Doom” series, the directors each produced two films, all of which were—in a development surprisingly to no one sans maybe the dunces who greenlit this project—deemed too gruesome for broadcast on TV. In a bid to recoup the production costs, the films were given a cinematic release in Italy, but found a wider viewership on VHS. Though the four films in the series have a spotty reputation, Lenzi’s THE HOUSE OF WITCHCRAFT features wicked crones, black cats, and tarot cards in an old-fashioned creep show that’s perfect for gloomy Sunday viewing.

We first see Luke Palmer (Andy J. Forest) as he franticly flees the sound of barking dogs down a country lane. He stumbles into a house where he meets a witch (the fabulously named Maria Clementina Cumani Quasimodo) who immerses his decapitated head in a bubbling cauldron, laughing all the while. This hazy, surreal opening is revealed to be a dream, but these visions become reality when Martha, (Sonia Petrovna) his cantankerous, hyperbolic wife (“Our marriage is a disaster!”) books a romantic getaway in a country house that looks suspiciously like the one the dream witch inhabits.  

Claudio Simonetti (of Goblin) provides a pleasantly spooky, mischievous score redolent of creaking floorboards and chattering skeletons that perfectly captures the spirit of what is really an old-fashioned spook story. Night scenes are foggy and blue-tinted, while Luke’s somnambulist wife drifts about in a nightgown looking every bit the glamorous Hammer vampire queen.Clearly shot on a television budget, the effects are simple, but well-executed, and elements that feel flat as a board in GHOSTHOUSE (which is confusingly not a part of the House of Doom series) are much better utilized here. There’s a good deal more plot than one would expect from a film of this type, and what’s more, it’s actually quite an intriguing one. The twist ending is hardly a surprise, but it provides an eerie sense of circularity. Though it lacks, somewhat the debauched sense of fun most would associate with Italian genre films of the 1980s, it showcases Lenzi’s ability to deliver shocks in a more muted palette.

THE HOUSE OF LOST SOULS (1989) Lenzi’s second offering in the House of Doom series forgoes felines and witchy women for a slightly more updated style. Borrowing heavily from THE SHINING, THE HOUSE OF LOST SOULS sees a team of geologists stranded overnight at a haunted hotel. Unlike Luke in THE HOUSE OF WITCHCRAFT who doesn’t quite realize that his dreams are premonitions, the hero here is Carla (Stefania Orsola Garello) who is well aware that she has precognitive abilities. Despite her fevered warnings that the hotel is no good, the hapless researchers spend the night with the expected counsequences.

Lenzi’s House of Doom films are more hammy and less dreadful than Fulci’s. This one really goes for the gusto in terms of crazy. Carla’s visions prominently feature a gang of stab-happy ghosts, chief among them a murderous Buddhist monk for reasons that are never explained. Almost every character is beheaded in some form or fashion, with one in particular meeting his end in a laundry machine—a scene that fully deserves an award of some kind. Nothing here is particularly new or interesting and the film’s chief sin is that it’s oddly sterile hotel setting just doesn’t have much character, a major flaw for a story about a malevolent residence. THE HOUSE OF LOST SOULS will surely please any hardcore fan of campy Italian horror cinema, but it’s a largely uninspired, weird for weirdness sake bit of blood-soaked fluff.

BLACK DEMONS (1991) Lenzi’s final horror effort belly-flops in its second half, but is a fitting end to a career delivering weapons-grade Euroshock to the masses. Featuring a characteristically literal title and plot machinations to make non-sleaze junkies wince, BLACK DEMONS is the death rattle of the sort of in-poor-taste grindhouse fodder that quickly dead-ended at the turn of the 21st century. Returning to the jungles of South America for this tale of Voodoo (or, more specifically Macumba) magic gone awry, BLACK DEMONS shows off Lenzi’s flair for capturing cultural ritual and rites, be they real or invented, and solid gore the likes of which his haunted house movies lacked.

 Joe Balogh of HITCHER IN THE DARK stars as Dick, a curious young man on a South American vacation with his nagging sister Jessica (Sonia Curtis) and her pompous boyfriend Kevin (Keith Van Hoven). One night, he’s granted access to witness a Macumba ritual, complete with an actual filmed chicken sacrifice (old habits die hard) and foolishly captures the chanted prayers on his tape recorder.  The next morning, after their jeep breaks down (nary a cannibal in sight) they take refuge at a remote Brazilian plantation conveniently located next to a cemetery stuffed with African slaves. When Kevin decides to give his recorder a listen a little too near the dead, they rise and exact a brutal, shambling vengeance against anyone they come across.

Initially, BLACK DEMONS is high on style and instantly captures the audience’s attention with its solid premise. As it’s just getting revved up, however, the wheels pop off. Unlike the comically aggressive irradiated killers of NIGHTMARE CITY, the re-animated slaves are practically inert. They’re visually striking, but entirely non-threatening, and the plot matches their speed by grinding to a halt. Lenzi, himself has admitted that the film didn’t turn out as he’d hoped and frequently blames the cast’s myriad weaknesses (from poor acting ability to in-fighting) for what he terms “an inferior product” created in an “ugly atmosphere.” To add insult to injury, the producers insisted on titling the film DEMONI 3, selling it as an entry in Lamberto Bava’s DEMONS series; as if feeding off of American franchises wasn’t enough, the producers readily cannibalized the properties of their countrymen.

Despite all of this, BLACK DEMONS is still a fitfully entertaining coda to a horror career filled with odd-ducks. Though it can’t compete with highlights like CANNIBAL FEROX or HITCHER IN THE DARK, the film closes the book on Lenzi’s fright phase with a stylish, politically incorrect exploitation flick that managed to claw its way out of the 1980s just before films of its stripe were put down indefinitely.

In a 1997 interview, Umberto Lenzi stated:

“I think the interest shown in these movies is not about love of motion pictures, rather about cynicism and sadism. I made many good movies… like IL GRAND ATTACO with Henry Fonda and John Huston, why has nobody ever interviewed me about this movie? Or FROM HELL TO VICTORY, a very good movie starring George Peppard… but people just keep asking me about CANNIBAL FEROX and EATEN ALIVE, two small movies without actors… without anything! It’s very strange…”

He always despaired that his entire legacy would be built around these two films which he considered “unimportant.” Unfortunately for him, he was absolutely correct. Thankfully, however, horror fans are a discerning bunch and we can appreciate Lenzi as so much more than your average hawker of blood and guts. His horror efforts are frequently stupid, occasionally awesome, endlessly weird little exploitation gems the likes of which any fan of off-the-wall Italian cinema must seek out at any cost. Low-budget and brass-balled, these works exhibit an adeptness and skill oftentimes far beyond what the stories they tell deserve. Like his countrymen Fulci, Argento, and D’Amato, the soul of inexhaustible post-war Italy flowed forth into his work, and though he may have lamented the label of “horror director,” he never gave less than his best to the genre we love, and we salute him for it. Grazie Umberto!

Rocco Thompson
Rue Morgue's Online Managing Editor, Rocco is a Rondo-nominated writer and avid devotee of all things weird and outrageous.