Sunday, July 5, 2020

Zombie Nightmare (1987)

... aka: El último de los muertos vivos (The Last of the Living Dead)

Directed by:
Jack Bravman
John Fasano (uncredited)

I don't know if Zombie Nightmare ever played in theaters or not (if it did it was on a very limited basis), but I do know it was issued on home video around Halloween 1987 here in America and, I suppose, served its purpose as third rate shelf filler about as well as anything else back then. There, it appeared to die a quick and completely uneventful death languishing with countless other titles. Only that turned out to be more like hibernation. Or a bad movie coma. Write-ups in all of the movie books I own are short capsules and none of them mention this being good camp, enjoyably shoddy or future cult movie material; just that it's low budget, bad, dull, forgettable and / or boring. Doesn't sound like the makings of a future cult classic, does it? Well, sometimes all it takes is a re-branding for these things to be viewed through different eyes by different viewers with different expectations.

Nearly 20 years after its initial release, a skewering on a popular episode of Comedy Central's Mystery Science Theater 3000 suddenly gave this dustbin dweller a second lease on life as a bad movie favorite. It has since been issued on DVD numerous times. In 2009, Shout! Factory released it in a MST3K set with their "comic" commentary. In 2010, Scorpion Releasing released a restored version with a making of documentary called Remembering Zombie Nightmare and commentary track. In 2016, Code Red released it on Blu-ray with a new HD transfer and other extras (most carried over from the Scorpion release). It has weaved in and out of the Bottom 100 on IMDb for years now, was ranked #8 on WatchMojo's list of "Top 10 Worst Zombies Movies" and was part of the Scripts Gone Wild series in 2019. Not too shabby for something absolutely nobody cared about back in the late 80s.

Nightmare stars, and features music by, the "Legendary Rock Warrior" himself: Jon Mikl Thor. This Canadian-born metal musician / front man was both a champion bodybuilder and, under the guidance of his agent / fellow musician / then-wife Rusty Hamilton (who also happened to be a nude model and the editor of porn rag Cheri Magazine), a gold and platinum selling recording artist in both Canada and the UK. I'm not quite sure of his impact / popularity in the U.S., but he did perform of the Merv Griffin Show, was enough of a name to successfully tour here and received accolades for his music from Classic Rock Magazine and Kerrang. As for his stint as an actor, well, we can't excel at everything, can we? In a failed effort to kick start his big screen career, Thor headlined a pair of low budget horror flicks, this one and the amusingly awful ROCK 'N' ROLL NIGHTMARE (1987). Needless to say, he eventually returned to music.

Thor stars as Tony Washington, a muscular 33-year-old "teen" and all-around good Samaritan who, as a young boy, witnessed his father (Fasano) get stabbed to death by a thug after stopping a rape. Despite that setback, Tony has grown up to be an upstanding lad who loves working out, playing baseball, helping take care of his widowed mother (Francesca Bonacorsa) and doing nice things around town, like foiling an attempted armed robbery ("Get back to the sewer, dirtbag!"). Unfortunately for him, being ostentatiously virtuous and pumped full of steroids does nothing to shield him from a similar fate as his father as he's killed in a hit-and-run by five obnoxious "punk" teens who thought it was a good idea to hop in their car after getting "totally tanked up."

Instead of calling an ambulance or the cops, convenient store owner Mr. Peters (Walter Massey) opts to deliver Tony's corpse right to his mother's doorstep (!!) And she knows just who can help. No, not the police, silly! The neighborhood "crazy Haitian" voodoo priestess! She, Molly Mokembe (Manuska Riguad), also happens to be the young lady her husband saved from being sexually violated years earlier. She still owes the family a favor after all.

While Molly is unable bring Tony back to life for real, she is able to resurrect him as a rubbery-faced zombie long enough to enact his revenge against his "punk" killers before he can rest in peace. In case you're wondering why I keep putting quotes around the word punk, it's because this hilariously non-threatening assortment of maladjusted suburban kids play tennis, dress like extras from a John Hughes movie and hang out at a 50s-style ice cream parlor called Twist & Crème during the day. They're basically today's equivalent of white, upper class suburban teen boys who've never had to struggle or want for anything, yet are always angry for no real reason and fancy themselves as bad ass because they listen to gangster rap.

Among the main perpetrators is the incredibly unlikable ringleader Jimbo (Shawn Levy), who is hated by his mother ("You are disgusting!"), shows no remorse for the murder ("I kinda liked it... snuffing out that big candle... splat!") and believes "I always wanted to make it with my older sister" is an appropriate come-on line. Jimbo keeps striking out with a waitress named Maggie (Linda Singer) and eventually attempts to rape her at knife point on top of some garbage bags. While the above certainly makes him the baddest of this bunch, that's not saying much seeing how everyone else in his circle is rather milquetoast and preppy. Aside from Levy, who went on to become a successful Hollywood player (and Oscar nominee for producing 2016's Arrival), the only other name of interest is Hawaiian-born beauty Tia Carrere, who went on to bigger things not longer after appearing in this. While they give her next to nothing to do, watching her run around in a miniskirt screaming here is certainly less painful than sitting through Jury Duty or some of the other movies she was in after she "made it."

The big rampage includes several neck snaps, several heads getting bashed against things, someone getting shot and a couple of kills with the baseball bat (including an impalement), though this is fairly dry when it comes to blood and gore; something that otherwise could have redeemed it back in the day on the video market. Top-billed guest star Adam West plays a cigar-chomping police captain who mostly sits at a desk and is sometimes seen on camera reading from his script (!!) He does at least figure into the finale, which surprisingly enough features a fairly good twist that I didn't see coming. The cast also includes Frank Dietz, who'd go on to some success as an animator for Disney, as the young investigator looking into matters.

As for the film's current status as a great bad movie? I don't really agree. While there's no denying this is cheap and unoriginal, features glaring continuity errors, has some unintentional laughs and is certainly below average in most departments, it's nowhere near inept, funny, weird or bad enough to qualify as a true SBIG wonder. Most of the things a contemporary audience are likely to poke fun at come from the amusingly tacky hair rock culture from which this sprung forth. Otherwise this is just a basic and not particularly well-done revenge story. Some of the laughs are intentional here and there are even a few witty one-liners that actually land. While the performances are highly variable, most of the main actors are at least passable. As for Manuska, who tackles her clichéd role with camp overacting and oft-incomprehensible dialogue delivery, she's in a WTF category all her own but incredibly funny and entertaining nonetheless.

The soundtrack (issued on the label Vulcan Sky Records) is comprised almost entirely of metal tunes, both from known bands like Girlschool and virtual unknowns with names like Fist and Virgin Steele. The Pantera listed in the credits isn't the known American metal band but Thor's then-wife Hamilton, who sang using that name (or the name "Queen Pantera"). The highlight is Motörhead's "Ace of Spades" playing over the cheap-looking opening credits.

While Bravman is the sole credited director, according to the people who worked on the film, he only actually directed a few scenes. Likewise, David Wellington is the sole credited writer but did not write the script. This was actually the brainchild of Fasano who was both writer and primary director despite only being listed in the end credits as an actor and assistant director. The billing ended up this way solely to take advantage of Canadian government tax incentives. I'm just thankful this wasn't left entirely in the hands of the same guy who made NIGHT OF THE DRIBBLER, which may also explain why this wasn't entirely unwatchable.

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