Zombies – the undead, the walking dead, whatever you wish to call them have been around giving us nightmares just as long as Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy and the Wolfman. The movie WHITE ZOMBIE, while not too well known among casual fans (but very well known among die hard horror fans), was to my knowledge the very first Zombie movie way back in 1932. It would be followed by REVOLT OF THE ZOMBIES and REVENGE OF THE ZOMBIES. Zombie films continued to be released, be it in comedies like ZOMBIES ON BROADWAY to B movie schlock like I EAT YOUR SKIN and INVISIBLE INVADERS to Hammer Films’ PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES. But the most well known zombie film of them all, George Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, was the one that set the standards for not only the gore effects in a living dead movie, but how zombies mutilate and eat human flesh, and this has become the expected standard when you see a zombie film today.
Just like Dracula, the Wolfman and the Mummy, Zombies in movies have continued to move forward in time with more stylized gore effects and bloody action. While today’s horror films always have blood and graphic violence, many of them are not quite as graphic as what we would see in a zombie picture. Modern movies such as RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, THE EVIL DEAD, RESIDENT EVIL, SHAWN OF THE DEAD, LAND OF THE DEAD, SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD and ZOMBIELAND have basically carried on this tradition. There’s often people-munching, exposed internal organs and a bad case of overbite. And we usually get to see every single bite taken. There are very few modern zombie films that don't carry a lot of graphic violence, but they are out there. The movie on display here is one such picture which sort of goes back to the traditional, old-fashioned undead being lumbering around, with some modern comic touches and only a dash of gore.
ZOMBIE NIGHTMARE is a regional horror picture made in Montreal, Quebec, Canada in 1987 on a budget of $180,000. The film has achieved a cult status among numerous fans, partly due to its cast and its heavy metal soundtrack. It was an early straight-to-video release and played on the USA Network’s “Saturday Nightmares” quite frequently (ZOMBIE NIGHTMARE, NEON MANIACS and NIGHT FRIGHT were three big ones that USA played frequently back in the day).
The cast of ZOMBIE NIGHTMARE includes Adam West (you might know him from TV’s “Batman”) as Captain Tom Churchman, Jon Mikl Thor (the songwriter of his band known as Thor, who was also in ROCK 'N' ROLL NIGHTMARE) as Tony Washington as well as the Zombie in the murder scene that happens near the spa. Tia Carrere appearing here in her first film; she went on to roles in many TV shows and several films in various genres including WAYNE’S WORLD, KULL THE CONQUEROR and TRUE LIES (she was also the voice of Nani in the “Lilo and Stitch” TV series). Here, she plays Amy, one of a group of young juvenile delinquents who are attacked by the zombie of the title. Frank Dietz, also in his first film, plays Detective Frank Sorrell and has a memorable, significant role working for Capt. Churchman. Manuska Riguad is the Molly Mokembe voodoo woman who turns Jon Mikl Thor into a zombie.
The story is a simple revenge tale that begins with young Tony Washington witnessing his father (John Fasano, the screenwriter and director for 50 percent of the movie) getting stabbed to death. He was saving a young Molly Mokembe from being raped by two teenagers. We find out later in the film one of those two teens is none other than Captain Tom Churchman in a funny little plot twist. Several years later, an older Tony (John Mikl Thor) has grown into a muscular stud (imagine Eddie Van Halen with the body of John Cena) who gets run over by a young group of careless punks while buying groceries at the local convenience store. Tony’s mother, Louise Washington (Francesca Bonacorsa) has not only lost her husband many years ago, but has now lost her only son. Louise goes to Molly Mokembe, all grown up now, to get the favor returned for her life being saved by her late husband. After a little black magic and some sprinkles of voodoo dust, we get our zombie who walks around with a baseball bat (Tony was a softball player) and gets revenge on all the gang members in the car that ran him over. One of the gang members, Jim Batten (the long haired member of the group), was played by Shawn Levy, who went on to became a major comedy director, helming such films as CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN, THE PINK PANTHER and NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM.
There are so many memorable things about this film, including great campy dialog and scenes such as Jon Thor, when leaving the convenience store exclaiming out loud, “I forgot the wheat germ”, and then proceeding to fight off a couple of would-be burglars in some of the worst fighting scenes you’ll ever see, climaxing with Thor kicking them out with his lower abdominal area (one of the burglars was Tony Bua who was Thor’s stunt double when he gets hit by the car). There is also a doctor with a penguin-like voice looking over the dead victims. His voice will have you in stitches. There is some truly bad editing present, such as the scene where the zombie smashes a victim’s head into a car, but the blood spurts before his head even hits it. Shawn Levy has a few funny bits with a waitress at the Twist & Creme – at one point he gets rejected in front of some people who laugh or stare at him, telling them to “Eat your ice cream!”
The main reason the movie has achieved new heights in popularity is due to it being used as a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 experiment. The movie debuted on Thanksgiving Day during a MST3K Turkey Day marathon which was hosted by none other than Adam West. Mike Nelson, the host at that point in the show, dressed as Robin and Tom Servo (Kevin Murphy) dressed up as Batman. Since that episode aired, ZOMBIE NIGHTMARE has not only become a very popular MST3K episode but as a movie in general to genre fans (most of the murder scenes were trimmed during the airing). The VHS tape was also becoming sought out so fans could own the complete version of ZOMBIE NIGHTMARE. It seemed to be sold online primarily as used video store rental, either in a cut up box or beat up sleeve.
ZOMBIE NIGHTMARE has a great heavy metal soundtrack with the likes of Motorhead, using their song “Ace of Spades” during the opening of the film. The lead singer/songwriter of Motorhead, Lemmy, is good friends with a friend of mine who has a Public Access TV show covering the Metal scene, and he’s friends with Jon Mikl Thor (both Thor and Lemmy have been on the program many times). I met Thor some 10 years ago playing in town and he looked like a buffed version of Billy Idol. He was really fun to talk to about ZOMBIE NIGHTMARE and his Thorcestra band. He did tell me he had a great time making the film, in fact, if you ask any of the cast (Thor, West, Dietz, Fasano) they will say the same. Other metal bands featured on the film’s soundtrack include Deathmask, Fist and Thor.
Previously released on VHS from New World Video with a full frame fairly grainy transfer, we are now treated royally as far as this DVD release goes. Originally to be released over a year ago by Code Red, Scorpion Releasing has picked up this title and finally unleashed it on DVD, and has done an absolutely fantastic job with this transfer. It is anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1) and just stunning, with colors being extremely sharp, especially reds. In an early scene you can actually see the red blood coming out of the mouth of young Tony’s father as he gets stabbed. The VHS print was so dark and murky you couldn't really tell other than you knew that he had bled from the mouth. On this DVD you can clearly see the blood. The sound is a nice crisp Dolby 2.0 which really comes off well when the hard rockin’ songs hit.
The bonus features include “A Making of Zombie Nightmare” featurette which has John Fasano, Jack Bravman, Jon Mikl Thor and Frank Dietz discussing the history of this film. Several interesting facts are included, one of which has Fasano explaining why he is not in the credits as screenwriter or director. Another great behind-the-scenes story is that the role of Tony’s father was originally intended for former pro wrestler superstar Billy Graham. For fans of the film, it's really an insightful and hilarious featurette. Another extra is a phone call interview with director Jack Bravman, basically talking about what has been going on in his life and his thoughts on ZOMBIE NIGHTMARE. It runs about 10 minutes long.
The best feature here is the excellent audio commentary by Frank Dietz, John Fasano and Jon Thor. Some of the things discussed were just how long it took Thor to put on the zombie makeup and the white eyeball-less contact lenses – a torturous five hours. We learn that the scenes with Thor were shot at the end of the production, and Adam West’s scenes were rushed because he had to catch a flight to New York. They were so rushed that the scenes were shot at 3 AM with West literally reading the script while in the scene! The participants make fun of Manuska quite a bit, saying they couldn’t understand a word she was saying while filming. There was also supposed to be a nude scene where one of the victims (Susie, played by Manon Turbide) was going to be naked in the spa with her boyfriend, but in the commentary we learn she was only 15 at the time. Many fans of the film may have noticed this, but Thor’s zombie only appears in that spa scene while another actor took over the role (referred to as “Pee-Wee” in the commentary) who was a much taller and larger person. Still, the film did get an R rating for its gore, which in my opinion would be a PG-13 today. Frank Dietz talks about working with Adam West, and how kind he was to everyone in the picture. Another real kick in the commentary was the fact that this film was supposed to have an all African American cast!
All in all, fans of ZOMBIE NIGHTMARE are going to be in for the time of their lives. Between watching the film as pristine as it will ever be, as well as listening to the commentary and the “making of” supplement, all of us diehard fans are in for a real treat. (David Steigman)
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