Ed. note– Here’s a retro review from my former gig. I did a great bit of revising and rewriting it, though the contempt I have for Umberto Lenzi is evident in both. Enjoy this as part of our Mon-Day of the Dead.– P.F.
After watching Umberto Lenzi’s NIGHTMARE CITY, I had trouble believing I would ever again watch another of his films. NIGHTMARE CITY was the worst zombie flick I had seen up to that time (damn Lenzi and his claims they weren’t zombies, and also I had yet to see AUTOMATON TRANSFUSION). But then I’d heard of another Lenzi flick that incorporated zombies, ones he even owned up to, and so out of morbid love of the undead, I gave BLACK DEMONS a look. What I found was a halfway competently made film that had potential it never reached. Which is an astounding achievement for Umberto Lenzi.
The plot: Jessica, her boyfriend Kevin and her half brother Dick are three college students collecting samples of local music in Brazil. Tensions arise between Dick and Kevin over the value of their research. Dick runs off and finds his way to a voodoo ceremony, where the locals are practicing Macumba. On his pocket recorder, he tapes the music and passes out. The next day, after a scene where Kevin and Jessica share a bed, the three head off to a far off part of Brazil; in transit, their car breaks down in the middle of nowhere. Along come Jose and his girlfriend Sonia, who offer shelter to the three in their rented villa, which they share with the superstitious maid, Maria. When Dick heads out to the graveyard and plays the tape, six murdered slaves rise to seek revenge.
This movie has some elements that could have made it a success. Filming on location in Brazil lends a nice touch to the authenticity. The risen zombies, with their emotionless faces, blind eyes and sharp weapons, shackled ankles and noosed necks, look scary. The musical theme that accompanies them works to build fear. The graveyard scene, though it includes some clichéd elements such as the hand thrusting out of the soil, is impressive, with bleeding tombstones and fire raging everywhere. The revenge from the grave concept is a classic. And the inclusion of voodoo as a tool to raise the dead is admirable, post-NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.
Unfortunately, none of these elements can save the film, because so many others drag it down. First off, the acting is beyond horrendous. As Jose, Philip Murray over-emotes in a French accent that made him very hard to understand. Balancing him, Sonia Curtis sleepwalks through her role as Jessica; initially, I wondered if her character was supposed to be a zombie, she’s so catatonic. British actor Keith Van Hoven as Kevin is no gem either. The only actor who does a half decent job is Joe Balogh, as Dick. Perhaps he gets a pass, because most of the film he’s supposed to be in a haze, but he’s the high water mark.
Some of the dialogue borders on the absurd, especially anytime Jessica tries to express her care for Dick (there’s plenty of room to make dick jokes here, folks). Some exchanges between Jose and Kevin regarding black magic are also preciously lame (look for the line about that 90’s dance craze, the Lambada). Just don’t expect to be able to hear all the dialogue, especially lines spoken in the bigger rooms of the villa; apparently, looping dialogue in a studio is below Lenzi.
As for the effects, outside of the look of the zombies they really aren’t special. Pathetic might be a better word. A bad eye ripping scene is bad once in a film; twice, and it brings unwanted attention to the bad effect. Better editing, where the camera did not linger on the effects scenes in close up, would have corrected the problem. But hey, this flick is from the guy who directed NIGHTMARE CITY.
Perhaps the most damning factor is the massive amount of unanswered questions the film poses. Is there tension between Dick and Kevin because Kevin’s having sex with his sister? Is Dick really acting against his will throughout the movie, or is he just a dick? Why does Jessica worry so much for her brother throughout the film, yet seems fine upon his final fate? And greatest of all, how does a car with four slashed tires suddenly have four functional tires at movie’s end, so the protagonists can escape? My answer: Lenzi and screenwriter/ Mrs. Lenzi Olga Pehar don’t care, so why should I or anybody else?
And therein lies the problem with Lenzi’s catalogue. Lenzi doesn’t direct, so much as he pisses all over his audience. Logic, decent dialogue, acting that’s above the Quality Equator and overall quality of the final product don’t mean a damn to him. He’s contemptuous and arrogant, and has no right to be either, given how sloppy a director he is.
But I don’t have to tell you that if you own the DVD. Lenzi goes out of his way to show it. If there’s one thing to treasure on this disc, it’s his 9 minute interview. Though not the gem that his conversation on NIGHTMARE CITY is, it’s always a pleasure to listen to the director throw others under the bus. Here, he blames the film’s extreme flaws on the casting, over which he claims he had very little control. He seems genuinely to like Joe Balogh, but he’s got real venom toward Sonia Curtis and Van Hoven. Though I generally agree with him about his cast, it’s my role as a critic to dissect acting; Lenzi just comes across as a bitter old man, well past the prime he never had. And did he forget that he once directed horror superstar/ cardboard cutout Hugo Stiglitz?
There’s also an interview with Lenzi and Pehar that runs under two minutes. The two discuss how the film has been released over the years as DEMONS 3, which makes it another member of the Horror Movie Relocation Program. They seem miffed about this, as if the rights owners sullied their piece by trying to connect it to Lamberto Bava’s DEMONS series. I’ll venture that he’s actually angry because Bava’s films are all better than his.
In the hands of a talent, BLACK DEMONS could have been a top flight zombie flick. It’s got neat looking zombies, a solid backstory and a handful of tense scenes. But Umberto Lenzi made it, so it had no chance at greatness. The nicest thing I can say it that, though it’s certainly no NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, it’s not Nightmare City either. I can be grateful for that.