After watching Nightmare City, I swore I would never watch another Umberto Lenzi film. Until I recently saw Automaton Transfusion, Nightmare City was the absolute worst zombie flick I’d ever seen (even if Lenzi refuses to admit it’s a zombie flick. Go figure); coupled with the arrogance he oozed in his interview on the Nightmare disc, I found cause to dismiss his career before I even pulled the disc from my player. But the dead have taken my soul, and when I discovered that Lenzi had directed 1991’s Black Demons, I bit the bullet and watched it. What I found was a halfway competently made film that had potential it never reached.
The plot goes like this: 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, in the post-Night of the Living Dead world of zombies.
Unfortunately, none of these elements can save the film, because there are so many other factors that 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. The only actor who does a half decent job is Joe Balogh, as Dick. But his role requires him to be in a haze, as the script suggests he’s under a Macumba spell. Bad acting is par for the course in horror movies, but couple it with poor, sometimes illogical scripting and terrible special effects and this all makes for a bad movie. Some of the dialogue borders on the absurd, especially anytime Jessica tries to express her care for Dick; though 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). And don’t expect to be able to hear any dialogue spoken in the bigger rooms of the villa; apparently, looping dialogue in a studio is below Lenzi.
As for the effects, they really aren’t special, but they are rather pathetic. A bad eye ripping scene is bad once; pull it off twice in the same movie, and you’ve just accomplished a sin against your audience. Better editing, where the camera did not linger on the effects scenes in close up, would have corrected the problem.
Perhaps the most damning factor is the unanswered questions in the film. 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 vicious? Why does Jessica worry so much for her brother throughout the film, yet seems fine upon his demise? 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? This is sloppy scripting on the part of Olga Pehar, and slipshod directing by Lenzi. Could Lenzi have allowed these errors to be filmed because he’s a lazy director? Or because Pehar’s his wife? Perhaps a little bit of both.
If there’s one thing to treasure on this disc, it’s the 9 minute interview with Lenzi. Though not the gem that his conversation on Nightmare City was, 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 Keith Van Hoven, the British actor who played Kevin.. 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. 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. There are also trailers for this and four other zombie movies. They’re mostly the same trailers that showed up on The Dead One; both movies were released under Media Blasters’ Shriek Show line.
Black Demons is an example of what could have been. It takes an interesting concept, builds up some real tension in a handful of scenes, but ultimately falls under the weight of poor acting and scripting. It’s certainly not Night of the Living Dead, but it’s not Nightmare City either. And for that, I’m grateful.