SUBURBAN GRINDHOUSE MEMORIES # 2: Making Out in the Back Row While Zombies Attack
By Nick Cato
In 1983, most horror-film fans had plenty of slasher films to choose from. The countless FRIDAY THE 13th and HALLOWEEN rip-offs seemed endless, and along with the hot new phenomenon known as home video rentals, there were more available than at any other time in history. What horror fans didn’t have a healthy supply of were zombie films. 1978’s DAWN OF THE DEAD, followed by 1980’s ZOMBIE, then 1982’s EVIL DEAD left theater-goers thirsting more. It was at this time that I saw an ad in my local paper for a film called CITY OF THE WALKING DEAD. My pulse skyrocketed. Phone calls were made. My friends and I were going to the first showing on Friday night (and it was a good thing: the film only ran for one week).
Known on DVD as NIGHTMARE CITY, Director Umberto Lenzi’s take on the zombie thing was way ahead of its time. The zombies (referred to as both vampires and nuclear-spill victims in the film), unlike Romero’s undead, are lightning fast and use all kinds of weapons (including machine guns). Two of them even drive. But these Eye-Talian creatures aren’t out for flesh or guts: they crave blood to replace their rapidly depleting blood quality due to their nuclear plasma problem. Despite how hi-tech the plot sounds, CITY OF THE WALKING DEAD turned out to be a laugh-a-minute, poorly overdubbed gore-fest that was responsible for turning me into a lover of “so-bad-it’s-good” films. I often wondered why this wasn’t titled CITY OF THE RUNNING DEAD, considering how fast these suckers moved throughout the film.
The film played in my hometown at the long-defunct Richmond Theater (now the site of a dollar store), a great looking single-film cinema with a humongous screen and 3 huge sections of seating. While they featured mostly mainstream films, they always played whatever kind of horror or exploitation film was out at the time…for one week only (Lucio Fulci’s infamous HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY played shortly after this).
At one point in the film, a friend of mine (who had been yakking to some girl sitting behind us since before the opening trailers) disappeared. When the film slowed down for a second, I turned around to look for him and saw someone eating his face. I was nervous for a few seconds and then realized life wasn’t imitating the art playing out across the screen: my buddy was making out with the aforementioned girl who apparently didn’t appreciate fine European cinema. Too bad, because both of them missed out on:
-An amazing opening sequence where a plane-full of pasty-faced zombies attack the military and police at an airport while two hippy-looking news reporters stand 20 feet away without getting a scratch;
-The General’s artist wife sculpting a gruesome, zombie-looking bust and claiming she has no idea what made her sculpt it;
-Two zombies wiping their mouths after sucking their victim’s blood;
-A group of “Solid Gold” type dancers slaughtered during a live TV show taping;
-At least six scenes of zombies stabbing women in the breasts. After recently re-watching this film on DVD, I’m convinced the director had an anti-boob fetish;
-A zombie priest knocking down our news reporter protagonist with a large church candle;
-A zombie artist getting her head blown in half . . . then falling to the ground with her head intact and a small bullet hole between her eyes;
And this was all for starters.
CITY OF THE WALKING DEAD (the title I prefer) is one of the most asinine, ridiculous zombie films ever made. Yet it’s also one of the most entertaining. The film was shot in Rome in 1980, just a year after THE CHINA SYNDROME, which explored nuclear issues in a less violent and slightly more serious tone. I’m willing to bet Umberto Lenzi was somehow attempting to capitalize on this (then) hot topic, despite his inability to tell his version with good acting or coherent continuity. And the influence doesn’t stop there; Lenzi features a graphic spike-to-the-eyeball scene to rival the classic eyeball-splinter moment in Fulci’s ZOMBIE, plus a few helicopter-filmed long-shots of the undead running across fields (a la Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD).
I was disappointed at one thing that’s missing from the DVD release (at least the one I own, which is from Holland; the film has been released on several VHS and DVD labels over the years); in the 1983 theatrical American release, the large amount of zombie headshots during the final sequence at an amusement park featured the sound of breaking glass whenever a bullet turned a zombie’s head into mush. Only one shot on my EC Entertainment DVD featured a semi-dish-clanking sound. If anyone has any information about this crucial missing sound effect, please leave a comment under this column. (Outside, after the film, nearly everyone seemed to be talking about these goofy sound-effects).
As the lights came on and the credits rolled, I chatted about a few scenes with an older guy who was sitting in front of me and my two friends, while my other friend was still sucking face with that girl in the back row.
To say you met your girlfriend at a zombie movie is classic.
To say you saw an Umberto Lenzi film in an American Grindhouse in 1983 is PRICELESS, even as I tried to shake off the “it was only a dream” ending and the film’s general horrendous dialogue.
© Copyright 2010 by Nick Cato