Have you ever had a nightmare about being chased by zombies? Most people have. Do you think zombies have nightmares about us? These are the kinds of questions that keep my monkey brain somewhat sated; especially when I’m watching Zombie Nightmare (1987), a film that proffers voodoo, baseball, Batman, Thor, and Motorhead. So many queries, so few answers, so much fun.
Filmed in the summer of ‘86 in Quebec, Zombie Nightmare was supposed to have a Black-centric cast but writer (and ghost co-director) John Fasano (Black Roses) was told by director Jack Bravman (The Wetter the Better) that they’d have a hard sell with foreign investors, so the characters were changed. The more things stay the same, the more they stay the same.
Reviews were unkind, but the film somehow ended up grossing over a million and a half worldwide against a $180,000 budget after New World picked it up and released it direct to video in the fall of ‘87. They clearly saw the value in a film loaded with music, mutilation, and muscles; it is Corman’s company, so chances are they only saw the fourth ‘m’: Money. And why wouldn’t it be so? Zombie Nightmare checks off enough boxes necessary to warrant a rental from the store, from its neon box art, to the casting, and to the tunes.
The ‘80s were a time when a lot of European directors interjected hard rock and metal into their films to attract a younger audience - and it worked; people like Argento, Fulci, and Bava Jr. started catering to the youth market in the wake of soundtracks’ continuing success on the charts. It only makes sense that the music of rebellion matches the “edgy” spirit of horror.
This isn’t to say that Zombie Nightmare is a prime example of teen, rock, or even horror films; that it lives unencumbered by any kind of critical burden is only to its advantage. But, through weary eyes and lowered expectations, it has to be said: It is exactly the movie I thought I was going to get by having Canadian metal god Thor and Adam West on screen together - elevated, serious minded horror.
Seriously though: Zombie Nightmare should be enjoyed in the spirit it was made - loaded.
We open in the 1950s (maybe the 1960s? We’ll get to that) during a small town baseball practice. As the kids are taking popups from Coach Washington (writer Fasano), his own son Tony cheers him on. As Tony and his parents are walking home from the ballfield, they come across two white teens assaulting a Black teenage girl; when Tony’s dad interferes, he is stabbed to death by one of the teens, and they both immediately flee.
Flash forward to...well, we’re definitely in ‘86; I’m just unsure from when we came. Tony is all growed up and looks a lot like a musclebound Canadian with Marvel cosplay energy, so let’s say for fun, 20 years? (Now remember that for later.) Still living with mom and digging on baseball, Tony is run down by a group of obnoxious and drunk “teens” in daddy’s car; instead of calling the police, the kindly shopkeep takes Tony back to his house and his mama, distraught, calls for the local voodoo woman, Molly Mokembe (Manuska Rigaud) to be brought - the same girl who Tony’s mom and dad saved all those years ago.
MATH QUIZ: A teenage girl (16) plus 20 years should equal 36, and yet Molly’s argumentative hair explodes with ribbons of grey; was she shocked by the events of her past or did she just age prematurely? Put down your pencils. The answer is unsolvable, and this was a stupid quiz; of course the ages will not match up in a film with a budget of $180,000 - what did you want them to do, change it in the script with an eraser? Wow. Entitlement much?
Where were we? Right. Molly lights a whole whack of candles and starts praying in a mystical voice (read: Kirkland Miss Cleo), reviving Tony from his tomb, to enact revenge on those who smote him with their Beamer. Before long Tony, looking nothing so much as Lou Ferrigno’s Hulk as Zombie Outfielder, starts picking off the moldy youths. Only a couple of cops, Tom Churchman (West) and Frank Sorrell (Frank Dietz - The Jitters), stand in his way; will Tony be able to complete his bloodied path of retribution, or will he strike out?
Frankly I’m surprised that’s the only sports joke I’ve made thus far; I’m also surprised that Zombie Nightmare doesn’t lean into it more considering how much baseball is involved. It does give Tony the chance to swing away however, and that is his modus operandi for the runtime - including an impalement by bat that sounds physically impossible; having said that, I’ve seen Thor blow up a hot water bottle like a balloon, so I’ll let it go within the Fasanoverse.
This Heavy Metal Forever kid infused horror with the music he loved, and he often had Thor with him, filming Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare first and then directing most of ZN uncredited; apparently Bravman shot the office scenes with West and Fasano did the rest. I can see that; there’s an extra layer of inertia pressing down on those scenes that shows why it should have been done differently. But Fasano’s stuff is a belief in cool things like looking after mom, eating wheat germ, and rock and roll; not exactly sex and drugs, although both are entertained - and frowned upon - by the filmmakers. There’s a simplistic morality at play here; were it not for the occasional splash of blood, this could be a PSA on the dangers of drunk driving, and/or exploiting a religion in the most cartoonish way. Thor says take your wheatgerm and say your prayers.
Zombie Nightmare leaves one to believe that Romero-eque zombies will populate the screen, but Fasano chooses to use the voodoo in the way it used to be played in film - as a vessel for revenge. There are certainly none of Romero’s cheeky social jabs, and while he tries to evoke the Val Lewton “Zombie” films, Fasano simply doesn’t possess his eye. But try should be the keyword with Zombie Nightmare; mixing an old-fashioned tale of vengeance set to a speaker-blowing modern metal soundtrack well is harder than it looks.
Hey, what do you mean, “try harder”? The entitlement, I swear.
Zombie Nightmare is available on Blu-ray from Code Red.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: HORROR OF THE BLOOD MONSTERS (1970)