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Plot: catastrophic homicidal pandemic causes citywide pandemonium

Umberto Lenzi, just as many of his contemporaries in the exploitation field, was a workhorse director who could anticipate what an audience wanted. In a career spanning four decades he contributed to every low-budget genre under the sun. Lenzi, if nothing else, was able to conjure up fast-paced, regressive, and often (unintentionally) humorous genre pieces on a small budget with enough starpower for the international market. Lenzi was a versatile writer and tried his at hand every genre; be it peplum, Eurospy, spaghetti westerns, poliziotteschi, giallo, cannibals and/or zombies. In 1972 Lenzi pioneered the cannibal subgenre with Man From Deep River, a reworking of the plot from A Man Called Horse (1970). As the 1970s gave way to the exuberant eighties Lenzi didn’t stay behind as the horror genre became increasingly more gory and setpiece-based. In the beginning of the decade Lenzi directed two movies, the pulp cannibal exercise Eaten Alive! (1980) and Nightmare City (1980). Of the two Nightmare City combines Lenzi’s workmanlike direction with deliberate borrowing from other sources and some striking imagery.

Nightmare City has, perhaps unjustly, been classified as a zombie film, and most of its detractors tend to focus on its handling of that aspect. However Nightmare City is rather Lenzi’s take on earlier American pandemic epics I Drink Your Blood (1970) or The Crazies (1973) and their European counterparts The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue (1974), and Jean Rollin's The Grapes Of Death (1978) than an imitation of Lucio Fulci’s classic zombie tryptich. It goes without saying that Nightmare City is ludicrous and often borderline cartoony. Taken on its own merits, and if one is prepared to meet it halfway, Nightmare City is actually a surprisingly striking and effective little shocker when it wants to be. The rest of the time it is either obnoxiously stupid, plain dense or an unguided projectile. As always Lenzi was able to rope in reliable players from the continental European scene.

A leak at the State Nuclear Plant in some undisclosed, apparently unnamed city has the authorities, both scientific and military, desperately trying to contain and keep a lid on the unfortunate incident. Investigating the strange going-ons surrounding the nuclear plant are journalist Dean Miller (Hugo Stiglitz) and his cameraman (an uncredited Antonio Mayans). When an unmarked Hercules military cargo plane disgorges not the member of the scientific community he was scheduled to interview, but a murderous horde of pustulent mutants instead it sends Miller not only on a citywide mission to rescue his wife Dr. Anna Miller (Laura Trotter), but also from stopping the city from tearing itself apart from the inside out. Contrary to earlier exercises in pandemic chaos Nightmare City doesn’t concern itself much with the workings of the military or the government during such catastrophic event, but focuses on the resilience of the family unit instead.

It is under these less than ideal circumstances that Major Warren Holmes (Francisco Rabal), spends a day off at home in company of his artist/sculptor wife Sheila (Maria Rosaria Omaggio) before the military brass summons him back to headquarters. The scene largely exist as a pretext for then 26-year old Omaggio to take her bra off with Rabal, then 54, engaging in a pertinent case of cradle robbing. Not taking her clothes off is Sheila’s friend Cindy (Sonia Viviani) whose demise is a classic piece of exploitation filmmaking both in setup and delivery. In an other part of town Jessica (Stefania D'Amario) - the daughter of General Murchison (Mel Ferrer), himself occupied with trying to contain the rapidly escalating situation – and her boyfriend are on a roadtrip just to spite her old man. Meanwhile an elite team of scientists, led by Dr. Kramer (Eduardo Fajardo) is desperately seeking a cure. As the ravening mutant hordes expand in numbers with alarming speed, and society starts collapsing in on itself, will anybody be able to survive to save the Nightmare City?

Like any good exploitation director Lenzi was able to assemble a strong cast of fresh new faces, old veterans of the genre, and a reliable leading man. Lenzi wanted Franco Nero or Fabio Testi, but the producers insisted on Hugo Stiglitz in order to appeal to the Mexican market. Mexican character actor Hugo Stiglitz, whose career spans nearly 5 decades and over 200 credits, commenced his acting career in movies from René Cardona Jr., and Rubén Galindo, but also appeared in John Huston’s Under the Vulcano (1984), and a seemingly endless array of spaghetti westerns and violent crime movies. In Nightmare City Stiglitz often looks more haggard and vagrant than the mutants he ends up fighting, and for a journalist he’s a damn good marksman. Antonio Mayans, here in an uncredit role, once acted in legitimate productions as King Of Kings (1961) and El Cid (1961), but by the late 1970s became a stock actor in Jess Franco movies. Laura Trotter, an Italian dime-store equivalent to Veronica Lake, debuted as a murder victim in the Umberto Lenzi giallo Eyeball (1975), and starred alongside Ray Lovelock, Sherry Buchanan, and Florinda Bolkan in Franco Prosperi directed Last House On the Beach (1978). Further Trotter appeared in The Exorcist (1973) knockoff Obscene Desire (1978) with Marisa Mell, and had a supporting role in Tinto Brass’ Monella (1998). Trotter is dubbed in the English version by prolific voice actress Pat Starke.

Sonia Viviani, a former glamour model that appeared on the covers of Skorpio (April 1983), Blitz (1984) and Interviu (1984), had starred and would star in far better and worse genre offerings than Lenzi’s enjoyable Nightmare City. Viviani starred in The Sinner (1974) with Zeudi Araya Cristaldi, the Alfonso Brescia commedia sexy all'italiana movies Amori, letti e Tradimenti (1975), Frittata all'italiana (1976), and L’Adolescente (1976) but also as bereft of both dialog and clothing in Pier Carpi’s controversial and budget-deprived The Exorcist (1973) knockoff Ring Of Darkness (1979). One of Viviani’s most memorable parts was that of seductive Amazon warrior Glaucia in the Luigi Cozzi scifi peplum The Adventures of Hercules (1985) with Lou Ferrigno, and Milly Carlucci. Also making an appearance is Viviani’s The Adventures Of Hercules co-star Maria Rosaria Omaggio.

In a career spanning two decades, from the mid-1970s to the mid 1990s Sonia Viviani worked with a host of infamous directors including Bruno Mattei, Umberto Lenzi, Sergio Martino, and René Cardona Jr.. Eduardo Fajardo would go on to star in the little-seen superior Spanish version of the Jesús Franco Afrika Korps gutmuncher Oasis Of the Zombies (1983). Stefania D'Amario, famous for her role as profusely sweating nurse Clara in Lucio Fulci’s Zombie (1979), had starred in the Walerian Borowczyk nunsploitation classic Behind Convent Walls (1978). In her post-acting career D'Amario reinvented herself as a wardrobe – and art department assistant working on Caligula’s Slaves (1984), Miranda (1985) from Italian master of eroticism Tinto Brass, and on the romantic drama The English Patient (1996).

Alternatively obnoxious, atmospheric, or nearly toxic in its lunkheaded creativity a lot things can be levied at Nightmare City, but never of it being glacially paced. Stelvio Cipriani’s main theme to Nightmare City makes the upbeat disco theme to Cannibal Ferox sound like an example of good taste and restraint in comparison. However before the carnage gets well underway Lenzi treats the viewer to one of those typical eighties aerobic dance shows complete with spandex costumes and irritating music. Some of the aerial shots are a bit keen in their earnest imitation of George A. Romero’s earlier Dawn Of the Dead (1978). As always the military brass and government procrastinate far too long instead of immediately deploying armed forces on the ground to contain the pandemic. The mutants retain most of their faculty and wield guns, knives, machetes, and other deadly utensils. In exploitation tradition girls frequently are stabbed in the chest, and when it is revealed that the mutants can be killed by a shot to the head, the military forces, of course, continue to shoot in them in the torso and body. Lenzi and cinematographer Hans Burmann manage to conjure up a few memorable scenes, interesting use of lighting (that sometimes is reminiscent of giallo), and the scene composition is far more creative than one would expect in the genre. The double-whammy ending is either the best, or worst, part about Nightmare City, depending on who you ask. If anything, it fits with exactly the sort of deranged atmosphere that Nightmare City goes for.

Well, the last thing you can accuse Santa Cruz, California act Decrepit Birth of is being productive and prolific in their recorded output. In the 7 years, an eternity in death metal terms, since “Polarity” the band has transformed and re-emerged in a different constellation once again. Not only have they recruited two new members; they also inked a contract with Agonia Records for European territories and remain with Nuclear Blast for their native North America. Lest we forget it has been almost a decade since the seminal “Diminishing Between Worlds” surprised the world with its elegant fusion of Chuck Schuldiner-esque melodies, extensive lead guitar sections and percussive density redolent of early Deeds Of Flesh and the Californian death metal sound at large. On “Axis Mundi” Decrepit Birth has a lot to prove. Whether or not “Axis Mundi” lives up your expectations depends exactly on what you to come, or look, to Decrepit Birth for in the first place…

“Axis Mundi” is more of a continuation than a true progression from past material. It’s a solid, if not exactly riveting, record that recombines the primal pummeling of Decrepit Birth’s not-too-distant past with its more recent sensible, melodic inclinations. Whether or not that proposition is appealling is entirely up to one’s personal preference, but for this scribe it is a rousing success as it mixes the best aspects of the first two albums into readily accessible, densely structured songs with recognizable melodic hooks and Matt Sotelo’s now patented esoteric soloing. Joining founding members Sotelo (lead guitar) and Bill Robinson (vocals) on “Axis Mundi” is the new rhythm section of Sean Martinez (bass guitar) and Samus Paulicelli (drums). Frontman Bill Robinson has always been, and continues to be, the weak link in Decrepit Birth. His vocals have never been particularly compelling and “Axis Mundi” changes little in that regard. Robinson’s vocals are serviceable enough in that they do exactly what is expected of them, but little else beyond covering those basics. They have never been interesting enough to warrant any attention on their own, and “Axis Mundi” doesn’t rock the status-quo by making him the subject of different, or slightly more ambitious, vocal lines. Samus Paulicelli (whose parents probably really liked the Metroid video game franchise) is a more than suitable replacement for KC Howard and session drummer Tim Yeung.

In their defense, at least Decrepit Birth has shown exponential growth in their lyrics since the days of “…And Time Begins”. “Axis Mundi”, as a concept, is found in several belief systems and philosophies and is understood as the center of the world, or the connection between Heaven and Earth. ‘Spirit Guide’ is about Aztlán, the ancestral home of the Aztec peoples and their migration from Aztlan to central Mexico. It also references Sipapu, a Hopi word for the hole through which the "First Peoples" of the Earth and their ancient ancestors first emerged to enter the present world. ‘The Sacred Geometry’ concerns the belief that there are symbolic and sacred meanings to certain geometric shapes and certain geometric proportions, and that a god is the geometer of the world. It has its roots in the study of nature, and the mathematical principles found therein. Sacred geometry can be found in ancient Egyptian, Indian, Greek and Roman structures. ‘Hieroglypic’ details, among other things, the Bindu, or the point at which creation begins and may become unity, in Hinduism. ‘Transcendental Paradox’ is about the Sri Yantra, a mystical diagram that consists of nine interlocking triangles associated with the Shri Vidya school of Hindu tantra. Like their German brethren in Obscura, the Californians understand that death metal can be meaningful on the lyrical front.

‘Vortex Of Infinity – Axis Mundi’ and ‘Spirit Guide’ are at least vocally more ambitious with their sparse narration next to Robinson’s usual growls. Not that Decrepit Birth is venturing into Obscura or “Focus” era Cynic territory anytime soon. The choice of cover songs on the vinyl edition offer up at least one surprise. While one would typically expect Decrepit Birth to cover Death’s ‘Cosmic Sea’ instead they opted for the psychedelic ‘Orion’ from Metallica’s “…And Justice For All” instead, as well as ‘Desperate Cry’ from Sepultura’s “Arise” and ‘Infecting the Crypts’ from Suffocation. The Suffocation cover doesn’t exactly surprise as Robinson has acted as their stand-in frontman in 2012 and Paulicelli already covered the track on his YouTube channel in 2016. The Sepultura cover song proves that Max Cavalera’s gruff barks remain unsurpassed and that Robinson, in all ways his superior, isn’t able to match, let alone improve on, them. It’s testament to the fact that the 1991 Sepultura opus is truly a timeless effort in extreme death/thrash metal mastery. Even two decades later the songwriting and compositions of “Arise” have yet to be surpassed. “Under a pale grey sky, we shall arise…” Indeed. “Axis Mundi” may not be Decrepit Birth’s “Arise” but at least it’s clear they are doing a concerted effort to diversify.

“And Time Begins” was practically an early Deeds Of Flesh record, and about the only interesting thing about it was the stellar Dan Seagrave artwork. “Diminishing Between Worlds” was where Matt Sotelo and his friends finally decided to write actual songs and “Polarity” pushed them into more melodic territory. “Axis Mundi” will be polarizing in the sense that it merges the two directions into one. In terms of intensity it leans closer towards “…And Time Begins”. Not that that is bad. “And Time Begins” was frequently, if not entirely, an undirected projectile of pummeling ferocity. “Diminishing Between Worlds” steered that aggression into recognizable songs with the added bonus of Schuldiner-esque guitar soloing. “Axis Mundi” takes the aggression of the former and the well-developed song constructions of the latter, and then adds to both for extra spice. On “Axis Mundi” Decrepit Birth looks towards its past, present, and future. As such it’s a solid return for them, a band that has probably evolved more than some of its more popular brethren. At least they are significantly more traditionally inspired than, say, an Inherit Disease but Decrepit Birth is the farthest from bands as Insentient and Italian combo Resumed, both of whom take the Death influence beyond mere guitar leads. Why exactly was it again that Leslie Medina (Insentient) wasn't offered a guest lead guitar slot?

“Axis Mundi” will probably be a disappointment to the most die-hard of Decrepit Birth fans. Others might be entirely indifferent to it. The truth, as always, is somewhere in the middle. It is a solid return for a band that has shown not to be afraid to evolve on all fronts. Its basis is sturdy and traditional death metal and since “Diminishing Between Worlds” Decrepit Birth has, to its credit, allowed the integration of 90s genre conventions into its decidedly millennial and highly technical approach. “Axis Mundi” pushes those conventions farther than ever before – and its the first Decrepit Birth effort that is enjoyable from front to back. Decrepit Birth has always had a penchant to overcompensate and “Axis Mundi” is no different. There are enough blasts and esoteric guitar leads to satiate anybody’s craving. More importantly, though, is that this time Sotelo and his comrades concentrated on writing consistently strong songs. There was a time not all that long ago when Decrepit Birth was but a meager Deeds Of Flesh clone. Thankfully in more recent years they have started to live up to their innate potential.