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Plot: fallen Bishop Niklas, the patron of children, returns as the ravenous undead

Sint is a lot of things. It was the event horror movie of 2010. It generated some controversy (manufactured or otherwise) due to its choice of subject matter and it pulled writer/producer/director Dick Maas firmly into the limelight. Sint is very much a nostalgic trip to the far-flung 1980s. It’s certainly bloody enough and to see a beloved folkloric figure as the Sint reimagined as one of the murderous undead is at least interesting from a cultural perspective for anyone living in Belgium or the Netherlands. Is it Maas’ great new classic? Not exactly. Sint is a tad too lukewarm and underwritten for that and the striking visuals alone cannot redeem so much of where the writing falters. Certainly Maas has an eye for beautiful women and the man who gave the world Tatjana Šimić does not fail on that front. On all other fronts Sint is an enjoyable enough horror romp that could’ve been far more than what it ended up being. At the very least it scores points for originality, though.

Sinterklaas is a figure unknown to much of the English-speaking world. The folkloric figure of Sinterklaas, or simply Sint, is based on the historical figure of Saint Nicholas, the Greek bishop of Myra, in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey), who had a reputation of being a generous benefactor to the poor and the forgotten, of gift-giving to children of all ages and performing the occassional miracle. Sinterklaas is typically depicted as a benevolent elderly, stately man with white hair and a long, full beard. He wears a long red cape, or chasuble, over a white bishop's alb and sometimes red stola, a red mitre and a ruby ring. Traditionally he comes brandishing a gold-coloured crosier and a long ceremonial shepherd's staff with a curled and ornately designed top. Sinterklaas is custodian to a big, red book in which is written whether each child had been well-behaved that year. Sinterklaas comes in the company of several Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes), his trusty black helpers in colourful Moorish dresses with ruff collars and feathered caps. Black Pete carries around a bag full of candy, the contents of which are tossed to children awaiting the Sint's arrival on his steed Amerigo (or Bad Weather Today).

Traditions surrounding Sinterklaas differ in Belgium and the Netherlands. The gifts are given on St. Nicholas' Eve (5 December) in the Netherlands and on the feast of Sinterklaas on 6 December in Belgium, Luxembourg and Northern regions of France (French Flanders, Lorraine and Artois). The model of Saint-Nicholas later evolved into that of Santa Claus when Dutch settlers established New Amsterdam at the southern tip of Manhattan Island in the 17th century and brought their traditions with them. New Amsterdam later was rechristened New York on September 8, 1664 just before the Second Anglo-Dutch War. Understandably Sint is often mistaken for a Christmas-themed horror movie (the international English title Saint Nick doesn’t particularly help) in the Anglo-Saxon world due to cultural differences. Note how Sinterklaas and Santa Claus sound nearly identical phonetically. Suffice to say Santa Claus has spawned its own set of Christmas-themed horror movies with the likes of Black Christmas (1974), Don't Open Till Christmas (1984), Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984), and Home Alone (1990).

On the eve of 5 December 1492 fallen bishop Niklas (Huub Stapel) and his cohorts enter a small Dutch peasant hamlet where the villagers instantly flee locking doors and windows. Once Niklas and his minions have taken refuge in their galleon in the harbor a small band of brave villagers brandishing pitchforks and torches incinerate Niklas and his entourage in an awesome inferno by throwing molotov cocktails into the stationary ship. With his dying breath and consumed by the flames the Sint curses the farming hamlet swearing that he’ll have his revenge. On the eve of 5 December 1968 a young farmboy by the name of Goert Hoekstra (Niels van den Berg) is witness to his family being bloodily murdered by an old man on a white horse who suspiciously looks like the patron of children everywhere, the Sint.

Sint then cuts to 5 December 2010 where in an unspecified Amsterdam high school dullard Frank (Egbert Jan Weeber, as Egbert-Jan Weeber) is the butt of a particularly cruel joke on part of his ex-girlfriend Sophie (Escha Tanihatu) during class festivities. As it turns out Frank is far from innocent as he had been seeing Lisa (Caro Lenssen) on the side for a while when he was still dating Sophie. With no immediate and exciting plans for St. Nicholas' Eve he and his friends take up a job of playing Sint for local needy children. Around the same time a now middle-aged Goert Hoekstra (Bert Luppes), a law enforcement officer prone to depression and especially stressed this time of year, is called into the office of the chief (Jaap Spijkers) after having handed in an extensive report on what he believes to be not a regular St. Nicholas' Eve. His chief finds his report, obviously the product of years of extensive research on the myth of the Sint, to be a wee bit extravagant. His chief orders him to take a month’s long vacation until the festivities blow over. Hoekstra, sufficiently pissed after being called a superstitious fool, storms out not much later.

That night something does happen. Frank and his buddies, experiencing trouble with their vehicle’s GPS, soon find themselves in the middle of nowhere. Frank is barely able to escape the clutches of the murderous undead when the Sint and his zombified Black Petes claim his friends as their victims. As the bodies start to pile up and emergency calls flood the station the chief calls in Van Dijk (Ben Ramakers) and orders him to track down Hoekstra and to deploy whatever force necessary to counter the sudden influx of violent crime and the apparent homicidal epidemic that has consumed much of the city. Hoekstra and Frank eventually do make their acquaintance and the elderly police officer, now having sustained mortal wounds in a skirmish with the undead, tells the youth how to defeat the Sint. With nowhere to go and no one turn to cowardly Frank is left alone to face off against the unholy Sint and his demonic Black Petes. In a vain effort to control the situation the police and the mayor (René van Asten) agree to martyr Hoekstra for the good cause by attributing the murders to him and his tenuous grasp on his sanity. In the hospital Frank, believing the nightmare to be finally over, is greeted by Lisa who has read all about his St. Nicholas' Eve heroics in the morning newspaper.

The man behind Sint is the prolific Dick Maas, a veritable institution in the Dutch cinematic landscape and a pillar in the Nederhorror scene. As a writer, producer and director Maas was responsible for Dutch horror sub-classics Amsterdamned (1988) and The Lift (1983) as well as the rowdy Flodder comedy franchise (1986-1995) (as well as the series derived from it) and the well-intended drama My Blue Heaven (1994). Maas helmed the concert video Live From the Twilight Zone (1984) from the Golden Earring, one of the country’s longest running classic rock bands. The Dutch horror scene spawned a few classics next to Maas’ The Lift (1983) and Amsterdamned (1988) with the slasher Intensive Care (1991) and the highly atmospheric The Johnsons (1995). The neighbouring Belgium, whose tradition in horror is even smaller, contributed Daughters Of Darkness (1971), The Devil’s Nightmare (1971) and Rabid Grannies (1988). Is Sint Maas’ best work? That’s debatable. It’s a bit too underwritten for that – and for an 80s nostalgia trip it’s surprisingly prude. At least it uses practical effects more than the reviled CGI.

No Dutch production is complete without the usual Belgian talent and Sint has Barbara Sarafian and Lien Van de Kelder on lend from across the border. Since this is a Dick Maas production and he’s as much a philistine as Jing Wong or a certain Spanish director which shall not be named Sint has no shortage of beautiful women. In this case Caro Lenssen, Escha Tanihatu, and Madelief Blanken with Belgian belle Lien Van de Kelder in a cameo part. As much as Sint positions itself as a callback to 80s horror it’s completely free of any skin. Neither Caro Lenssen, Escha Tanihatu, Madelief Blanken, or Lien Van de Kelder will be taking their tops (or any other article of clothing) off – and that’s a waste of talent if there ever was one. Tanihatu is killed off prematurely despite her babysitting chores gave her ample opportunity to show skin. Blanken pretty much disappears after the introductory school segment, supposedly never to be seen again. Weeber, Lenssen, Tanihatu, and Blanken are the oldest high school students too. It’s something you’d expect of a Gloria Guida commedia sexy all’Italiana – but not here of all places.

Lien Van de Kelder, famous for her ample curvature and a well-regarded regular in Dutch police procedurals, has a miniscule cameo as nurse Merel but she’s offed mere moments after her character is introduced. At least her character was given the dignity of a name. Would it have hurt to at least have Lien changing clothes or stepping into a shower for a scene? In fact the entire hospital segment, brief as it is, proves that Intensive Care (1991) could’ve actually been good had it been produced, written and/or directed by Dick Maas. To say that Van de Kelder is underutilized is putting it very mildly. Lenssen does eventually take her top off but does so respectably with her back to the camera in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene at the very end. Dutch horror enthusiast Jan Doense cameos as a reporter. What’s the purpose of casting four beautiful women and not having them take their clothes off at least once? Lesser directors wouldn’t have hesitated for a second. Blood splatters, extremities are severed and one-liners are abound, but there isn’t a naked breast or derrière to be seen anywhere. For shame, mister Maas, for shame.

The writing could, and perhaps should, have been better. Sint is littered with one-note characters that seldom venture beyond their designated archetypes. There isn’t a single likeable character within sight. Frank is a dense, clumsy doofus but that doesn’t make him any less of an asshole. All three girls come across as superficial, egocentric ditzes with not the least bit interest in the world around them. The romance between Lisa and Frank is not only improbable but frequently unfathomable. By the time Goert Hoekstra is reintroduced as a middle-aged man he’s reduced to a babbling madman. His chief, Johan, doesn’t fare much better. Here’s a chief that has known about about the threat of St. Nicholas' Eve for about 4 decades, but chooses to sit on his hands. Hoekstra is brushed off as a superstitious fool and it isn’t until early in the third act that the chief comes around and actually takes Hoekstra’s report seriously, but by then the situation has escalated and it’s too late (mostly for reasons having to do with third act dramatic tension). Together with the mayor he decided to sweep the rampage under rug by blaming Goert Hoekstra, the one who warned him well enough in advance, for the carnage. It’s the kind of writing you’d expect of a novice, not of an experienced veteran as Maas.

Sint is a lot of things. It’s far bloodier than you’d reasonably expect it to be. It’s comedic in parts and completely straight in others. It has witty quips and one-liners but can get surprisingly oppressive when it sets its mind to it. It transforms a beloved figure of folklore into a ravening member of the undead. It’s partly a slasher and partly a zombie movie. It has four of the most beautiful Dutch and Belgian women and has them keeping their clothes on. Sint wants to be the horror movie for people who don’t know or like horror. There’s a strange duality to Sint that both helps and hinders it depending on the part. It has no ambitions beyond being a good popcorn flick and it delivers in spades. While there was an open ending in case it was successful enough, it thankfully never spawned a sequel.

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.