What's scarier, an Italian slasher movie set on Palm Beach, or MTV's coverage of spring break at Palm Beach? We let Judge Paul Corupe be the judge.
"Here's to brain damage!"—Ronny Rivera (Rawley Valverde)
An Italian slasher movie shot by cult favorite Umberto Lenzi, Welcome to Spring Break might be the kind of film you would get if you tried to mix Revenge of the Nerds II and Halloween together. But the real question is, why would you want to?
Facts of the Case
Welcome to Spring Break, where the beer is cold, the metal is heavy, and the college students come in both original recipe and extra crispy. A mysterious leather-clad biker has accessorized his custom cycle with an electric chair in the back, and is indiscriminately sizzling vacationing teens. Could it possibly be the return of Diablo (Tony Bolano, Cat Chaser), the leader of the "Demons" biker gang who was electrocuted for murder exactly one year ago?
Skip Banacek (Nicolas De Toth, The Stuff) and Ronnie Rivera (Rawley Valverde, Tulare City Limits) have no clue about the grisly murders when they arrive in Fort Lauderdale to blow off some steam. As Skip broods about his recent loss at the Orange Bowl, attracting barmaid Gail (Sarah Buxton, Rock 'n' Roll High School Forever), Ronnie wanders the streets for random sexual encounters. After he comes into conflict with the Demons, Ronnie suddenly goes missing. Could the killer biker have gotten him? Skip goes to the city for help finding his lost drinking buddy, but this turns out to be a bad idea; the doctor is a suicidal drunk, the mayor is corrupt, and Police Captain Strycher (John Saxon, Enter the Dragon, A Nightmare on Elm Street) is a masochist obviously covering up a dark secret. It soon becomes clear that only one man can prevent Spring Break from being, like, a total bummer—and that man is Skip Banacek.
A second-tier Italian horror director under acknowledged masters like Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci, Umberto Lenzi made a name for himself in the 1970s when he made Deep River Savages, the first of the gross-out Italian cannibal films. His reputation for putting together extreme gut-munching zombie flicks carried his cult approval well into the early 1980s, where he proved he could still kick out the gore with Nightmare City and the now-classic Cannibal Ferox. By the end of the decade though, Lenzi had fallen into a cycle of dull action and horror pictures that rarely lived up to the expectations of his fans.
Unfortunately, Lenzi's Welcome to Spring Break (AKA Nightmare Beach) falls well within that second half of his career. It's a tepid slasher at best, recycling American horror clichés with no wit or originality. The major problems here are the dull script and inexperienced actors who all look like they could actually use a jolt of electricity to come alive. Although he has shown signs of being competent enough to overcome such shortcomings in the past, Lenzi appears to be on autopilot on this assignment, and the picture never seems to find its groove.
For a horror film, there's very little to be horrified by—a lack of character development quickly takes care of that. Most of the victims of the cycle slayer are extras with only one or two lines, and they usually appear just seconds before they jump onto the bike's hot seat. Others commit typical horror movie "sins" like promiscuity, excessive drinking, or not being a WASP. In most cases we don't know anything about these characters, so when they fry like sausages, we just don't care. A further possibility for suspense lies in the "whodunit?" style plot, but Welcome to Spring Break blows this one too by failing to offer any believable red herrings. You know those episodes of Scooby Doo where you can easily guess the culprit because there's only one outside character developed enough to even consider as the villain? That's what happens here. Accordingly, the final plot twist in which the killer is revealed is painfully apparent about half an hour into the film.
Sometimes even the poorest slasher film can be saved by some interesting murders, but Lenzi's film also fails to pull off any convincing special effects. There is a bit of inherent evil fun in the idea of an executioner driving a portable electric chair around to his victims, but it does present a serious problem for showing off gore effects, since spurting blood isn't often associated with jolts of electricity. To compensate, we get quite a few make-up jobs that sort of resemble charred corpses. Some of these are passable, but the actual electrocutions themselves are laughably bad—the camera cuts away to poorly made rubber dummies that melt away and catch fire whenever a character foolishly touches the mysterious biker's electric chair.
Thankfully, the film clips along at a steady pace and never really gets boring. There are even a few well-done scenes, including one where the killer hides inside the hotel room of a girl he has been stalking and frightens her with a series of slamming doors. The predictable ending is also bolstered by some exceptional cinematography. Scattered moments of interest can be found throughout Welcome to Spring Break, but they're much too infrequent to recommend waiting for.
It also seems like this transfer might be from a cut print. The picture ends without tying up several loose plot threads that it seems poised to resolve. One teen, who spends his vacation stealing purses and wallets from the other Spring Breakers seems like a prime suspect for an electric funeral, but he never gets his comeuppance; he just disappears. Another character is chained to a motorcycle and dragged off by the Demons, never to be seen again.
Although John Saxon has an interesting villain turn as the crooked cop that wants to frame Skip for the electrocutions, for the most part the acting is just brutal. Nobody expects much from the teenage machete fodder that usually inhabits slasher films, but these young partiers are especially hard to watch, sleepwalking through their parts with absolutely no charisma. Making matters worse is the ludicrous overemphasis on Americana that Lenzi injects into his script to hide the Italian origins of the film. With characters named "Skip Banacek" and overt references to college football every ten minutes, everyone seems to be playing inflated caricatures of "typical" American teens based on repeated viewings of Happy Days.
Then we get to the presentation of this disc. Those with low expectations for Lions Gate releases will not be let down. This is a very poor full frame transfer, sporting a fuzzy, faded look that resembles a decade-old VHS tape. The stereo soundtrack is not too bad, although at no time during the film did the sound or picture convince me that I was watching anything other than a bargain bin video. Keeping with that theme, there are no extras.
Released several years after the slasher trend of the 1980s had ended, Welcome to Spring Break suffers from an overdeveloped concept and an underdeveloped script. This film just lacks the juice needed to propel it beyond mediocrity. All in all, another disappointing late career effort from Lenzi.
Guilty, although I have to admit portable capital punishment would solve many of my problems as a DVD judge. Might I suggest franchising?
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