The Savage Stack - NIGHTMARE AT NOON (1988)

Bo Hopkins and Wings Hauser take on an albino Brion James and his legion of murderous zombies.

There’s always going to be – for lack of a better term – a stack of films we’ve been meaning to get to. Whether it’s a pile of DVDs and Blu-rays haphazardly amassed atop our television stands, or a seemingly endless digital queue on our respective streaming accounts, there’s simply more movies than time to watch them. This column is here to make that problem worse. Ostensibly an extension of Everybody’s Into Weirdness (may that series rest in peace), The Savage Stack is a compilation of the odd and magnificent motion pictures you probably should be watching instead of popping in The Avengers for the 2,000th time. Not that there’s anything wrong with filmic “comfort food” (God knows we all have titles we frequently return to when we crave that warm and fuzzy feeling), but if you love movies, you should never stop searching for the next title that’s going to make your “To Watch” list that much more insurmountable. Some will be favorites, others oddities, with esoteric eccentricities thrown in for good measure. All in all, a mountain of movies to conquer.

The sixty-eighth entry into this unbroken backlog is the psychotronic Wings Hauser zombie Western stunt spectacular, Nightmare at Noon...

Nico Mastorakis started out a horror filmmaker, but seemingly always wanted to be an action director. Anyone who's spent any amount of time with the Greek junk food cinema auteur’s body of work can recognize his steady progression toward becoming a prominent purveyor of C-Grade bullet bonanzas. Where Island of Death ('76) was a furious attempt to revolt anyone who decided to buy a ticket – a veritable cavalcade of perversion intended as Europe’s answer to Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre ('74) –The Zero Boys ('86) saw him amalgamating gunplay with slasher movie aesthetics, resulting in a weird, idiosyncratic riff on The Most Dangerous Game ('32). Hired to Kill ('90) is only a few Playboy Playmates away from being a full-blown Andy Sidaris picture, as sentient slab of bacon Brian Thompson (Cobra ['86]) goes undercover as a gay fashion mogul, heading up a squad of deadly beauties to take down South American dictator Michael Bartos (a deranged, liquor-drenched Oliver Reed). All in all, Mastorakis was a master of disaster; a true titan of trash.

Yet none of these titles quite capture Mastorakis' evolution from splatter maestro to machine-gun toting madman quite like Nightmare at Noon ('88) – which went by the alternate title Death Street USA in certain territories – as the immortal Wings Hauser (Vice Squad ['82]) teams up with good ol' boys Bo Hopkins (Sweet Sixteen ['83]) and George Kennedy (Cool Hand Luke ['67]) to take down an albino scientist (Blade Runner's ['82] Brion James) poisoning the water of a desert town with his mind-altering zombie serum. While that synopsis contains a whole lot of cinema to take in, the finished product is actually more insane than you could possibly imagine. Mastorakis has essentially made his own John Carpenter genre mash-up, only without the gorgeous Dean Cundey cinematography to visually back it up. Still, when you have this many exploding cars and automatic shotgun blasts, it's debatable whether your framing needs to be artful at all. 

The casting of Hauser and Hopkins is quite the coup in this strange sleaze fest, as Mastroakis actually places Wings in the coward’s boots – downplaying his Ramrod intensity as the actor plays a yellow-bellied LA rock and roll attorney. Meanwhile, Hopkins steps into the John Wayne role of this High Noon (’52) stand-off with a gaggle of murder freaks, chewing scenery whilst owning a thousand-yard redneck stare. Viewers looking for a coherent explanation behind James' silent scientist's experiments are going to have to be put on hold for the duration – though there’s some lip service paid to this lost Canyonland tourist attraction becoming ground zero for a new breed of chemical warfare – as the Greek chaos whiz is more interested in launching flaming cars through the air and having his players all point automatic weapons at one another. Make no mistake, Nightmare at Noon is here to do one thing and one thing only: entertain the shit out of anyone who likes watching anonymous henchmen get mowed down in high-caliber firefights, after which our steadfast cowboy gets to kiss his pining lady love (Kimberly Ross, of Pumpkinhead [‘88]).

Mastorakis had a really short attention span whenever he stepped behind the camera, and Nightmare at Noon showcases just how easily he became bored with remaining in one lane. The movie starts out as a weird road trip – with Hauer's pig-headed legal eagle bitching at his blonde, sports-bra donning partner (Kimberly Beck from Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter ['84]) about how much he hates French pasteries – until Hopkins is picked up, hitchhiking on the side of the road. Then it becomes a goofy buddy comedy, before the crew stops for some grub at a diner and a hillbilly patron loses his mind, stabbing a waitress. Then Mastorakis is riffing on George Romero's The Crazies ('73), as an unknown madness grips all of Canyonland's residents, causing them to transform into kill hungry lunatics. From that point on, Mastorakis stages a stunt bonanza, shooting exploding cars off ramps, as James' foot soldiers descend on the town, wielding blowtorches and bombs. After a little gunplay at a drive-in – which has a marquee announcing the next showing of a certain Western, just in case you weren't paying attention – the boys hop on horseback, ready to ride into the hills and put an end to this madness (which climaxes in a goddamn helicopter dual).

There's no subtext here – though Mastorakis certainly brings a uniquely European viewpoint regarding America's fascination with the Old West, and how it may have bred their current love of guns – and anyone looking for some sort of intellectually driven text is going to be sadly disappointed. However, the cheap thrills delivered by Nightmare at Noon more than make up for the dearth of cerebral engagement. This is B-Movie nonsense of the highest order, breathlessly paced and packed from reel to reel with enough nonsense to keep even the staunchest trash cinema fetishist happy for days. With Nightmare at Noon, Mastorakis hit a high point in his oeuvre, indulging all his whims at once, while never sacrificing horror for action (or vice versa). That's a pretty impressive trick to pull off, and proof that he's one of the more underappreciated craftsmen of '80s schlock. 

Nightmare at Noon is available now on Blu-ray, courtesy of Shout! Factory.