Holy Christ, this has been a sad year for genre cinema fans, as another quiet icon of genre cinema passed away earlier this week. Italian director Uumberto Lenzi may not have been a household name, but many fans knew the name of this hugely prolific commercial Italian genre director – more specifically, Umberto Lenzi actually specialized and made his entire career out of Italian sub-genres, from Poliziotteschi the Italian cannibal “gut-munchers”, the latter with which Lenzi has actually been credited with inventing upon the release of his cannibal classic Man from Deep River. Indeed, he explored this sub-genre further with his equally important Eaten Alive (my personal favorite of his cannibal films), and his most popular, Cannibal Ferox.
In 2002, several years before the advent of the smart phone and any traffic law preventing the use of cell phones while driving, my friend Josh (now from GBW Podcast) and I got into an argument while driving down a freeway as to whether or not Umberto Lenzi had directed the zombie-virus movie Nightmare City. I insisted that he had, Josh maintained an argument to the contrary. Neither of us letting go of our arguments, he finally phone one of those friends who knows everything about everything to do with genre cinema, one hand on the steering wheel and the other holding his flip-phone up to his ear. “Yo, who directed Nightmare City...? No... No...! No!!” he exclaimed before slapping the phone shut. “What?” I asked. “You were right,” he said. “That's why you're pissed off?” I asked him. “No, I'm mad because Lenzi's so much better than that!”
Okay, so that was the second thing I'd disagreed with during that drive. Incidentally, we were coming back from a DVD warehouse where we'd loaded up on genre DVDs, as was our passion. But Nightmare City was an Italian genre movie I was actually extremely fond of. Despite Umberto Lenzi's hugely significant contributions to the Poliziotteschi and cannibal-horror sub-genres of Italian cinema, my favourite films of Leni's career actually fell within the giallo and the popular 80s zombie genres. Along with the exciting and original Nightmare City, I was also a huge fan of his brilliant gialli Seven Blood-Stained Orchids and Spasmo, and the revenge-giallo/thriller Hitcher in the Dark (which was actually an American production starring a pre-Melrose Place Josie Bissett). Lenzi's importance as a groundbreaking genre filmmaker did not stop with merely having invented an entirely new horror sub-genre for Italian cinema, his work had also been copied by his more famous colleagues (Brian DePalma and David Fincher using key sequences from Seven Blood-Stained Orchids), and in the 70s his movies had even been re-worked by American filmmakers for the North American releases (it has been rumored and at one point confirmed by Lenzi himself, although he truly hadn't wanted to believe it, that George Romero had shot added footage for Lanzi's Spasmo for the American theatrical/drive-in releases).
Finally, though, as contemporary maverick filmmakers Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez sought to create new works based on or influenced by pioneers of popular Italian genre cinema, Umberto Lenzi got some mainstream North American recognition via Robert Rodriguez' Nightmare City-inspired segment for the pair's genre throwback film Grindhouse. Rodriguez and Tarantino both celebrated Lenzi's film as the key idea behind Planet Terror. Since then (2007), a portion of Lenzi's insanely massive genre output had been restored and re-released in the Blu-ray catalogues of British distribution companies Arrow and Shameless and the Italian/American distributor Raro, following in the DVD footsteps of the old Anchor Bay and Shriek Show releases of the early '00s.
Lenzi was one of the quieter, and most under-appreciated talents of genre cinema; but quiet or not, he was no less a giant in the arena of genre cinema, and the body of work he has left behind will no doubt be appreciated for years to come. RIP, Umberto Lenzi.