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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.

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Plot: delinquent hippies terrorize sleepy town, get disproportionate comeuppance

Produced by New York-based exploitation distributor Jerry Gross through his Cinemation company I Drink Your Blood is significant for predating Jorge Grau’s Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (1974), and Jean Rollin’s The Grapes Of Death (1978) by several years. Gross released and distributed legendary reviled titles as Mondo Cane (1962), Teenage Mother (1967), and I Spit On Your Grave (1978). David E. Durston's pandemic shocker I Drink Your Blood  transcends its obvious budgetary limitations by embracing them to their fullest effect. Like George A. Romero’s original shocker Night Of the Living Dead (1968), both Durston’s low-rent splatter exercise and Rollin’s meditation on mortality are surprisingly rich in subtext and rife with relevant social commentary if one is willing to overlook its superficial shortcomings and shoddy direction. What it lacks in polish, it complements by the number of sociopolitically relevant topics that Durston addresses in his screenplay.

I Drink Your Blood was inspired by the highly-publicized trial of Charles Manson, his “family”, the Bianca-Tate murders (in one scene a hippie writes ‘pig’ on a victim in blood to drive the point home), and an article that Durston had read about a mountain village in Iran where a pack of rabid wolves attacked a local schoolhouse infecting the victims with rabies. I Drink Your Blood was released at the height of the Vietnam war, and general social unrest in America. It was famously part of a double-bill with I Eat Your Skin (1971) but contains no actual blooddrinking despite its alluring title. Cementing its reputation as a drive-in shlock classic was the fact that it was the first movie to be rated X for its violence, and not for its nudity.

The racially diverse, LSD-addicted gang of delinquent, faux-Satanic hippies are led by the twitchy, constantly expressively grimacing Horace Bones (Bhaskar Roy Chowdhury, as Bhaskar), an Indian who the movie tries to pass off for a Native American. Bones calls himself “the first born son of Satan” and is the self-appointed leader of the Manson-like SADOS, or Sons and Daughters Of Satan, who live by the adage that “Satan was an acid-head!” Other members in the gang include hulking African-American Rollo (George Patterson), who has cult leader aspirations of his own, Asian medium and spiritualist Sue-Lin (Jadin Wong, as Jadine Wong) who insists on wearing traditional Chinese dresses despite their obvious impracticality. The group is rounded out by the pregnant Molly (Rhonda Fultz, as Ronda Fultz), the mute Carrie (Lynn Lowry in her debut role, who has the cutest Elvish features and enchanting feline eyes), and the expected girl of low moral fibre whose looseness sets in motion much of the subsequent ravaging in a scene much more resonating than many give it credit for. Chowdhury plays Horace Bones as a twitching, wide-eyed madman whereas Lowry's acting is mostly of the non-verbal variety.

The infractions of the hippies are relatively minor proportionate to their comeuppance. Bones and his gang savagely beat up Sylvia (Iris Brooks, and an uncredited Arlene Farber). Doc Banner (Richard Bowler), toting a shotgun, pays Horace and his gang a visit in the abandoned hotel they’ve squatted to put them in their place. Banner is beat up and dosed with LSD for his trouble. “We'll make a baker out of you yet, Pete!”, says local entrepreneur Mildred (Elizabeth Marner-Brooks) in one scene to her pint-sized helper (Riley Mills). “Nope,” retorts Pete, “I'm gonna be a veterinarian.” The exchange beautifully presages a scene wherein Pete shoots a rabid dog. In an act of retribution Pete inoculates a portion of meatpies from the bakery with the infectious blood of the rabid dog. Unlike French microbiologist Louis Pasteur - who inoculated rabies in a 9 year old boy in 1885, thus laying the foundation for modern vaccination – Pete spikes the meatpies for the alleged atrocities visited upon his older sister and grandpa. Pete’s plan backfires in such a spectacular fashion that his alleged solution causes more trouble than the derelict gang of faux-Satanic hippies would ever be able to wreak by themselves. As the ravenous hordes descend on the mostly abandoned Valley Hills the residents hole up, in tradition of Night Of the Living Dead (1968), in a local store.

The majority of the movie concerns itself with the conservative backlash of middle Americans against the increasing presence of non-white, non-Christian demographics. Likewise can the vigilantism and retaliation from the Valley Hills residents be seen as a repeal against the counterculture of the day, the hippies. That it are the whitebread Valley Hill residents that fight back against the multi-ethnic gang of hippies is representative of the institutionalized racism that hasn't subsided since. In a particularly gruesome scene pregnant girl Molly self-aborts through seppuku. Likewise does Sue-Lin self-immolate, evoking the famous 1963 photograph of Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức. An exchange between the Banner siblings pushes Durston’s anti-drugs message quite clearly. A hippie girl’s practice of “free love” with a construction crew, infecting them with the rabies virus in the act, is especially resonating as an cautionary omen for the ensuing decade’s AIDS scare.

One of the strongest suits of I Drink Your Blood is that it is able to overcome its budgetary limitations thanks to a variety of contributing factors. The cast, consisting of humble unknowns and future stars, are visibly having fun with the ridiculous premise. Parts are either overacted or underacted. Chowdhury was a dancer of Indian descent, had his own dancing school with Bhaskar Dances Of India and dabbled on the side in acting and painting. In late October 1977 Chowdhury was crippled as a result of a stage fall during rehearsal, and confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his days. Riley Mills is the exception to the child actor rule as he isn’t odiously annoying. Andy (Tyde Kierney, who managed to carve out a respectable career despite appearing in this shlockfest), the good kid who fell in with the bad crowd, ensures Sylvia that the Satanic rhetoric is just “for the kicks”. He, expectedly, quite literally loses his head in the third act. The film plays fast and loose until the disease incubates. The gang’s descent into madness and bloodlust is accentuated through the usage of stark lighting and deeper shadows. The Herschell Gordon Lewis alike practical effects are surprisingly accomplished. Clay Pitt’s score alternates between ominous primitive electronica and folk psychedelia.

Lynn Lowry, who receives an “introducing” credit here, would go on to star in George A. Romero’s pandemia thriller The Crazies (1973), David Cronenberg’s body horror debut Shivers (1975) and Brian DePalma’s 1976 Stephen King adaptation Carrie. Arlene Farber would go on to star in William Friedkin’s crime caper The French Connection (1971) with a young Gene Hackman. Jadin Wong, who like Bhaskar Roy Chowdhury was a dancer by trade, was a pioneer for Asian-Americans in Hollywood. Beyond acting and dancing Wong had established herself a singer and stand-up comedian. Frustrated by the lack of Asian-Americans in entertainment she started her own company and became a talent scout. After thirty years Wong became the foremost agent for Asian-Americans in New York with a client base including Lou Diamond Phillips, Bai Ling, and Lucy Liu. Later she found the Jadin Wong Educational Fund to discover and hone young Asian-American talent.

The legend of I Drink Your Blood has long since eclipsed what it actually amounts to. Filmed in and around Sharon Springs, New York over eight weeks it was a grindhouse staple. Much like the torn-from-the-headlines premises of Three On A Meathook (1973) and Deranged (1974), I Drink Your Blood compensates its lack of resources with a breakneck pace, and a cast of mostly unknowns who are clearly having fun. None of it is delivered with any nuance, and its socio-political subtext has remained relevant in the intervening decades since it was originally released in the drive-in circuit. I Drink Your Blood was sampled by infamous New York duo Mortician on their second album “Hacked Up For Barbecue”  and remains a laugh-a-minute gorefest that looks as if a reel went missing at some point. Despite all its technical shortcomings and rough look it is just loads of delicious gory fun…