Umberto Lenzi movies

A Beginner’s Guide to Umberto Lenzi

Federico Fellini, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Franco Zeffirelli, Bernardo Bertolucci — all names you will never hear me discuss at length regarding Italian cinema. When doing research for this article, I was genuinely interested in seeing how Italian directors were ranked by critics. And while there were some placements I agreed with, many of the greatest talents were missed out entirely. But what do you expect from the constant recycling of top 10 lists? Not much. When I think of Italian cinema I think of Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, Ruggero Deodato and Sergio Corbucci; just to name a few. But there is one director that needs more love and respect for the violence, sleaze, and pure what-the-fuckery he was able to portray on screen.  And that director is Umberto Lenzi.

Lenzi has a great back catalogue of B-grade masterpieces that span an array of genres and themes. And while they have a ridiculous amount of sleaze, violence and over-the-top symbolism, they all have a certain amount of charm to them. A charm that can make you want to have a cold shower afterwards. His films don’t boast the colour palette as Argento’s works, nor do they contain that next-level grime that Fulci was known for. Lenzi was somewhere in between. Is that a bad thing? To the untrained B-grade eye I would say yes. However, I believe he tried to melt genres, themes and symbolism together. At times it could be messy, especially if the production value was low. But when he got it right, sweet baby Jesus, he got it right! Umberto Lenzi is one of my favourite directors as there is a certain air of “I don’t give a fuck what people think” when it comes to his films. There is a disregard for the political correctness of the times, and he just made whatever the hell he wanted to make.

I am not one for making lists because quite frankly I find them boring, redundant and vanilla. I wouldn’t even consider them to be French vanilla, that’s how bland I think they are. However, I would like you to enjoy a few highlights regarding some of his back catalogue. Prepare to have your socks knocked off.

Almost Human (1974)

Umberto Lenzi's Almost Human

Almost Human is an intense ride that doesn’t spend half of the film building a story and then having an explosive final act. This is explosive from start to finish. Every scene is a checkpoint, and vital to the film. It doesn’t waste time trying to build pointless subplots that don’t go anywhere; it’s a no-nonsense film. What makes Almost Human stands out above a lot of other poliziotteschi films is that it’s particularly nasty regarding its violence. When this film initially came onto my radar back in 2015, it really pushed my ability to handle specific types of violence, cruelty, and intensity on screen. Even now when I watch it, I feel a slight suffocating feeling because everything is so tense, explosive and visceral; it can be a slight assault on the senses. But that is why the film is so effective. Umberto Lenzi really showcased brutality and honesty in Almost Human, and this is why it is still a favourite amongst Eurocrime fans in 2021.

The Tough Ones (1976)

Umberto Lenzi's The Tough Ones

A sly murderous hunchback. An unorthodox cop that that doesn’t play by anyone else’s rules. A cat and mouse tale with the hint of heroin-riddled daughters and car-yard scare tactics.
Have I piqued your interest yet? This is a 95-minute romp of guns, violence, a rooftop fight scene and a somewhat hilarious car chase with an ambulance. What really works for this film is that it doesn’t stop after it gets going. However, Umberto Lenzi makes sure to give the audience moments to breathe by including some out of place yet hilarious moments. In between the car chases and violence of Eurocrime films, there can be a lot of filler or pointless “detective work” which ends up leading nowhere. However, The Tough Ones is not one of those films. It’s sharp, direct and freaking fantastic!

Ironmaster (1983)

George Eastman wears a lion's head in Ironmaster

For fans of Beastmaster, The Barbarians, Deathstalker and Quest for Fire, this next film may be just the craptacular masterpiece you are looking for. Imagine a more schlocky version of Frank Frazetta’s artwork, the same calibre of rivalry you could compare to Tyson and Holyfield. And finally mix that with half-naked cavemen, swords, and George Eastman wearing a lions head for a portion of the film. Do you like that image? If you do, keep reading. Ironmaster tells the story of Voon who is exiled for acting like a psychopath and killing the leader of his tribe, as well as an elder. He is then banished, and during that time he learns how to make weapons from the metal that has been forged from the inside of a volcano. He then comes back with a vengeance.
Lenzi portrays a lot of “excess” in his films and I believe this to be one of his more stripped back efforts. There are thinly veiled messages throughout the film, especially regarding peace, and not having the need for weaponry (in this case, swords). However let’s face it, anyone who watches Ironmaster is going in for pure exploitation and simplistic storytelling.

Ghosthouse (1988)

The clown in Umberto Lenzi's Ghosthouse

The best way to describe Umberto Lenzi’s Ghosthouse is Poltergeist by the way of Lucio Fulci. But even that description does the movie a disservice. While Lenzi undoubtedly set out to cash in on the success of Tobe Hooper’s horror classic while paying tribute to the Italian Godfather of Gore, Ghosthouse is more bananas than a buffet for monkeys. The movie was also released as a “sequel” to the Evil Dead, despite having absolutely nothing to do with that series. Fair play. Anyway, the story is a basic haunted house yarn about poor saps who encounter some nasty spooks. That’s the plot of most movies of this ilk, but Ghosthouse is the only one that features milky acid, ghostly Dobermans, melting floors, and a maggot-covered Grim Reaper figure who’s there for the sake of it. The opening scene depicts a little girl slaughtering a cat and being locked in a cupboard with a creepy doll as punishment. A hitchhiker also shows up because why not? And the gore… chef’s kiss. Ghosthouse should have been called Funhouse as it’s full of shocking surprises.

Hitcher in the Dark (1989)

Umberto Lenzi's Hitcher in the Dark

Here we have a young man who drives around in his dad’s RV, picks up female hitchhikers, rapes them and then murders them. All the while he is sporting a bad haircut and possessing some insane sexual obsession with his mum. I think he takes the Oedipus Complex to a new level. But the best thing about this film is that Joe Balogh (who plays Dick in Black Demons, which we’ll discuss soon) plays our mummy-loving killer. He knocks it out of the park with his bonkers performance. This could not be more perfect, right? Hitcher in the Dark is so uncomfortably bad. You know the context and themes of the film are unsettling, but you cannot help but laugh because the killer and victims’ portrayal is just ridiculous. This isn’t anything special, but for fans who unapologetically love schlock, this is right up your alley.

Nightmare Beach (1989)

The motorcycle rider in Nightmare Beach

This is probably one of my favourite Umberto Lenzi films. It is slick, fast-paced, funny and violent. It works like a typical slasher, except instead of a deformed killer stalking a summer camp, we have a mysterious biker going on a killing spree during Spring Break. My selling points for Nightmare Beach are the following: If you are a douchebag, you die. If you are slutty, you die. If you are a Peeping Tom, you die. If you are in a motorbike gang, you die. Oh, and John Saxon is the police chief of the town, and he doesn’t take shit from anyone. For a film of this kind of calibre, Nightmare Beach is actually well-shot, well-paced and extremely enjoyable, but it is self-aware. This film knows exactly what it is, and even though outside of Saxon, the acting is terrible, you can see everyone is giving it the old college try. And that is more than enough for me.

Black Demons (1991)

Umberto Lenzi's Black Demons

Oh, what a doozy this film is. I was fortunate enough to experience this for the first time as part of a new years ritual with my best pals. Is this film good, technically? Not at all. Is it entertaining? You bet your sweet ass it is. Dick (Joe Balogh), his sister Jessica (Sonia Curtis) and her man friend Kevin (Keith Van Hoven) are travelling across Brazil; seems fairly normal. However, their plan is interrupted by Dick developing strange powers after attending a voodoo ritual and, you know, just casually raising the dead on an old plantation. The acting is deadpan, the dialogue isn’t natural and you can’t help but find everyone annoying. But for some strange reason, it works. The main problem with this film besides the fact it had a low budget is that it has too much pointless and over-the-top symbolism which doesn’t have much weight behind it as the plot isn’t fleshed out. Much of the film is also dedicated to Jessica and Kevin trying to find Dick. I am not trying to be funny, that is quite literally what they spend half the movie doing, all the while proclaiming “I CAN’T FIND DICK.” I’d recommend watching this with a group of friends and a couple of drinks; it will make the experience all the more enjoyable.

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