(Photo used with permission of Wikimedia Commons.)
For the most part, those who worked in Italian exploitation filmmaking during its '70s/'80s heyday weren't huge names to anyone outside of a circle of staunch genre admirers. Sure, you had Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento - bona fide auteurs whose brands rang out within larger collections of cult film fans. But Sergio(s) Martino and Corbucci, Antonio Margheriti, and Enzo Castellari were writer/directors who better exemplified the blue collar nature of the nation's cheap thrill factory. Most of the directors who maintained legitimate careers were the very definition of "workmen", jumping genres and chasing trends, just so they could manage a respectable level of employability, all while honing their craft with each jangly, moody, hyper-violent picture.
However, none were as committed to upholding Italy's image as the shlock capital of the world quite like Umberto Lenzi, who minted era-specific masterworks in nearly every subclassification of the Italo-explo scene. Following a brief stint studying law before immersing himself in film at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografica (where he shot shorts based on the writings of Pasolini), Lenzi cut his teeth working in the Greek film industry, completing one still unreleased picture (Vacanze ad Atene ['58]). Fantasy and costumed dramas like Samson and the Slave Queen ('63) and The Invincible Masked Rider ('64) were added to his resume during his earliest days as an entertainer; populist B-Movies meant for budget matinees.
When "international man of mystery" movies were popular in the wake of James Bond, he made the Eurospy knock-off equivalent in 008: Operation Exterminate ('65). Macaroni War movies came next with Desert Commandos ('67) and Legion of the Damned ('69), along with Spaghetti Westerns such as Pistol For a Hundred Coffins ('68). As giallos peaked in popularity during the early to mid-'70s, he delivered still underloved staples in Seven Bloodstained Orchids ('72), Spasmo ('74), and Eyeball ('75). Gang War In Milan ('73) is arguably one of the best poliziotteschi pictures in a subgenre filled with great movies. No genre stone went unturned for Lenzi, as he seemed to get better with each entry into the Eurotrash canon.
For most, Lenzi will be remembered as a horror director, pulling a new subgenre out of thin air (the notorious "Italian Cannibal" pictures) with The Man From Deep River ('72) - a tongue-in-cheek riff on the Richard Harris Western A Man Called Horse ('70) that melded white adventurer cinema with the leering lens of Mondo documentaries by the likes of Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi. While the official "boom" for this particular brand of shock cinema wouldn't officially kick off until the late '70s/early '80s (with both Ruggero Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust ['80] and Lenzi's own Make Them Die Slowly (a/k/a Cannibal Ferox) ['81] acting as its apex), it wouldn't have been possible without the journeyman's scummy innovation, searching for new ways to thrill and revolt audiences all at once.
Lenzi also delivered one of the weirder entries into the post-Romero zombie canon (following in the footsteps of Fulci's Zombi 2 ['79]) with City of the Walking Dead (a/k/a Nightmare City) ('80) - a gonzo reimagining of the monster, where the radioactive infected wield machine guns and engage in all out war against mankind. This also led to one of Lenzi's more ham-fisted attempts at being a carnival barker huckster, as he once claimed the lo-fi grindhouse zombie movie was a predictor of the '80s AIDS epidemic. Comments like these proved that his value was behind the lens, though Lenzi was never less than entertaining whenever he stepped away from the camera for a second.
For this writer, Lenzi's movies acted as a sort of gateway drug (as I began with his popular cannibal output and then worked my way back) - a look into a filmmaking world that felt like the Wild West of Cinema. There were no rules, only a cheap and fast ethos regarding the delivery of exhilarating scum shows that were sturdily built examples of genuine craft. As the years went on, leading to the consumption of multiple Italo-shlock titles, the names of these numerous workmen became noticeable whenever the credits rolled. But Umberto Lenzi was always going to be my first - a tour guide into the depraved universe of bloody, lowdown Italian filmmaking. Lenzi passed away today in Rome, at the age of eighty-six. Bon voyage, sir. You were a maestro, even though you fancied yourself a carpenter.