1986, starring Adam West, Jon Mikl Thor, Tia Carrere, Allan Fisher, Hamish McEwan, Manon E. Turbide, Shawn Levy, Manuska Rigaud, Frank Dietz, Linda Singer. Directed by John Fasano (Gold Gems Ltd.)
The heavy metal horror film that was really never supposed to be Canadian, Zombie Nightmare's curious mix of headbanging rock, voodoo reanimation and baseball was originally set for an all-black cast and set in upstate New York, before soaring teamster rates lured the production north of the border. Call it fate, call it luck, call it a badly made film; there's really no doubt that for all its awfulness, Zombie Nightmare was always meant to hold an esteemed place in the Canuxploitation canon, by helping to reinvigorate the Canadian horror genre in the late 1980s.
Ex-porn producer Jack Bravman had worked with notable husband-and-wife team Michael and Roberta Findlay during the 1970s, but as the home video-friendly 1980s rolled around, he was looking to make the leap to semi-legitimacy with a teen horror flick, Zombie Nightmare, based on a script from horror fan and first-time screenwriter John Fasano. When his funding fell through, Bravman headed north of the border to his home province of Quebec, and established Gold Gems Ltd. as a new production company to fund his bid for B-movie glory. Although directorial credits are often attributed either to Bravman himself (who reportedly directed no more than a few scenes), or The Carpenter director David Wellington (in order to qualify for tax credits), the real culprit is Fasano, who inadvertently found himself in the director's chair when he arrived on set. Fasano's first film is admittedly low-brow and trashy, but it's consistently fun to watch, with an impressive cast including Adam West, heavy metal warlord Jon Mikl Thor, and Wayne's World babe Tia Carrere in one of her very first roles.
The film begins in the idyllic 1950s—or a reasonable facsimile thereof—as goodhearted Bill Washington and his son Tony return from a Little League game only to find a couple of juvenile delinquents raping a black girl. Bill manages to put a stop to their vicious attack and save the girl, but all he gets for his heroics is a fatal switchblade in the gut.
Thirty years later, Tony (Jon Mikl Thor) may still be carrying the same aluminum baseball bat, but he's since adopted the rippling physique and flowing blond mane of Canada's legendary rock warrior, Thor. Despite his dominating appearance, Tony's still a law-abiding mama's boy at heart, and even a stop at the corner store for a carton of milk gives him the chance to beat up on some would-be robbers. All the muscles in the world can't help when he leaves the store, however, and is unexpectedly plowed over by a car driven by Jim (Shawn Levy) and his cronies Peter (Hamish McEwan), Bob (Allan Fisher), Susie (Manon E. Turbide) and Amy (Tia Carrere)—no-good hooligans out on a drunken lark.
Instead of say, calling the police, the grateful store owner takes Tony's body home while his distraught mother puts in a call to friendly neighborhood witch doctor Molly Mokembe (Manuska Rigaud). In a completely undecipherable Jamaican patois, Molly chants a voodoo spell that brings the baseball bat-toting musclehead back to life. Zombie Tony has apparently lost his moral compass, however, and goes on a revenge kick in a bid to take out the hit-and-run teenagers. First, he heads to a local health club where Peter and Susie are steaming up a hot tub on their own, and beats them both to death. Later, Tony spots Jim trying to rape a waitress at a drive-through fast food joint, and impales the troubled punk with his Louisville Slugger
These mysterious deaths attract the attention of Detective Frank Sorrell (Frank Dietz) and his superior Capt. Tom Churchman (Adam West). Frank is convinced the deaths have something to do with Molly, who has been present at each crime scene, and Bob and Amy are enlisted to help put Tony back in the graveyard where he belongs—only Tony has another target in mind.
Zombie Nightmare's lack of budget shows up on the screen in almost every frame, with poorly executed lighting, cinematography, editing, and acting. Although not up to the bloody levels of a typical 1980s slasher, the make-up and gore special effects—handled by some of Fasano's friends—are passable. After an unexpected third act plot twist, though, it's obvious that the film's biggest asset is its pulpy, comicbook script, which does what it's supposed to do, and keeps our attention from dwelling on the shoddy production values. With a bigger budget and a more experienced director at the helm, Zombie Nightmare might have overcome its many faults and crawled out of the graveyard to become something truly special.
As you might expect, Adam West's involvement in the film is fairly limited. Despite the fact that he doesn't make his appearance until more than halfway into the story, he does manage to infuse these few scenes with his usual dry humour, for instance when he kicks Jim's dead body and comes down hard on his detective. Thor fans will also come away slightly disappointed, since as a zombie, he really doesn't get to do very much in the film beyond lumbering around with a bat. The early scenes before his death are great though, including the showdown with the robbers in the corner store—as in Rock 'n' Roll Nightmare, Thor's fight choreography mostly consists almost entirely of wrestling holds and grimaces.
Bravman's Gold Gems Ltd. would produce only three more Quebec-shot horror films before Canadian genre films were again buried in the wake of 1987's tax shelter collapse: David Wellington's The Carpenter, Andre Pelletier's Voodoo Dolls and American adult filmmaker Eugenie "Spookies" Joseph's Mind Benders. Zombie Nightmare, which was picked up by Roger Corman's New World, was easily the most successful and well-known, if not the best made entry in the Gold Gems catalogue, thanks to some imaginative cover art and a soundtrack featuring recognizable heavy metal acts Motörhead, Girlschool, and—of course—Thor that would have guaranteed some rentals. Like City on Fire and Final Sacrifice before it, the film was finally assured its place in B-movie history when it was resurrected and mocked on Mystery Science Theater 3000, although they would cut the bat impaling scene—perhaps the finest few seconds of the film.
For John Fasano, the nightmare would also continue the following year when he next directed Thor in his greatest film achievement, the unbelievable Rock N Roll Nightmare, which even features some of the same musical cues as Zombie Nightmare. This was followed-up by Black Roses, another film about a heavy metal band battling evil demons, and The Jitters, a North American take on the curious hopping vampires that have become mainstays of Chinese cult film. Fasano continues to work to this day on scripts for more high-profile projects such as Universal Soldier: The Return and Darkness Falls, and one of his more recent efforts, Murder at the Presidio, even reteamed Fasano with Jon Mikl Thor.
When Zombie Nightmare landed on video shelves in 1986, Canadian horror had been on the wane since the heyday of the early 1980s slashers. While John Fasano's debut doesn't contain many Canadian elements per se, his film established Gold Gems as a late innings player in the Canadian horror game, and gave Thor his most sizable acting job to date. Although unintentional, Zombie Nightmare provided a needed boost to the B-film industry, and helped Canada's flagging horror genre rise from the grave—for a few more years, at least.