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Sunday, January 27, 2013

Movies I Love That Everybody Else Hates: Dawn of the Mummy (1981) review


Brenda King (Lisa), Barry Sattels (Bill), George Peck (Rick), John Salvo (Gary)

Directed by Frank Agrama

The Short Version: Egyptian filmmaker Agrama's last directorial effort isn't as bad as many make out, and miles away better than a horde of zombie junk made around the same time and after. The plot is the typical desecration of an Egyptian tomb unleashing a revenge from beyond the sarcophagus; only this revenge is of the flesh-eating variety. Backed by an awesome soundtrack from Shuki Levy (who'd later find great success with the POWER RANGERS shows), this US-Egypt co-production (with some Italian assist behind the scenes) is one of the horror genres most curious, if frequently lambasted pictures.

A group of fashion models and photographers are on a shoot in Egypt where they run across some gold robbers and a newly opened tomb. Deciding to take their pictures inside the ancient burial place, they ultimately unleash the curse of Sefi-Ra-Mon and his undead, flesh-eating minions.

The zombie genre was riding a gut-munching high thanks to George Romero's DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978) and Lucio Fulci's ZOMBIE (1979). Those two films ushered in a shambling horde of viscera slinging intestine chompers for a few years till Romero, Stuart Gordon and Dan O'Bannon took the dead back from the Europeans in 1985.

DAWN OF THE MUMMY stood out from the splat pack in that it mixed the zombie and mummy movies to create a unique hybrid. It's also the goriest mummy movie thus far, beating out the gruesomeness of Carlos Aured's THE MUMMY'S REVENGE (1973) aka VENGEANCE OF THE MUMMY, starring Paul Naschy as the bandage-wrapped avenger.

Another area Agrama's movie is different is that these zombie flesh-eaters move at a quicker pace than your typical walking dead. They're not sprint runners packing heat and bladed implements like Lenzi's quasi-zombies of NIGHTMARE CITY (1980), but they definitely have pep in their step.

While this film seems to have its fair share of negatives (I'll get to those shortly), one of the pictures major positive would have to be the 20 minute chow-down at the end. It's a near non-stop assault on the cast and a small village full of extras. The mummy and his minions lay siege to our fashion models at an oasis, a few other nearby victims, then it's on to a wedding procession where a groom and his guests all get an unexpected surprise upon finding his wife as the main course at a gore-drenched smorgasbord. 

Immediately thereafter, these eager zombies reach out and touch someone, choke them, bite them and eat them. Maurizio Trani's (ZOMBIE HOLOCAUST) splattery effects are given the opportunity to shine via a multitude of dismembered limbs, brain-eating, flesh-munching and gouged eyeballs. Meanwhile, our main mummy Sefi-Ra-Mon stands by and watches the carnage till his army of dead heads inexplicably disappear and it's just him and the last few dynamite tossing survivors.

According to the director, the towering 6'9" performer found to play the main mummy was terribly problematic and difficult to work. Even so, it's arguably the best, and scariest looking mummy ever to grace the silver screen (with the first appearance of the revivified mummy being a particularly notable boo moment). This mummy is a literal giant of a man, wearing extraordinarily creepy make up unlike any previous interpretation. There's this wet, burnt, somewhat rotted look to his face. The mummy also possesses an unusual ability -- he burns the flesh of anybody he touches. This is never explained, but presumably it derives from the photo shoot lights which seem to cause the mummy's wrappings to burn with an acidic effect.

Continuing with this movies positive attributes, there's a superb sequence where we see Sefi-Ra-Mon's "army of the dead" rise up from the desert sand as the sun rises. It's one of the best moments in the entire film. It easily trounces a similarly eerie moment from Jess Franco's execrable OASIS OF THE ZOMBIES (1982).  The location shooting, which took place almost entirely in Egypt and Cairo add a layer of authenticity missing from similar low budget fare.

The other area where DAWN OF THE MUMMY excels is in its soundtrack by Shuki Levy. Yes, the award winning composer responsible for numerous cartoon theme songs and one half of the brains behind the MIGHTY MORPHIN' POWER RANGERS (an Americanized, re-edited version of several Japanese Sentai imports) got a massive career boost after composing cues for an Egyptian cannibal mummy-zombie movie. Sometimes sounding like zombie disco music, the score is always active, often kinetic, and frequently throbbing with strong horror stingers. It's a shame it's never been released on CD. Now with the pluses out of the way, it's time to turn attention towards the negatives.

It's worth noting that every version I have seen of DAWN OF THE MUMMY have all been very dark during the night time sequences; all but one -- the television airings from the mid 80s. There's one particular (and possibly day for night) attack scene at the end on one of the girls where it's almost impossible to see the gore. On the television version (which played uncut amazingly enough), this scene is much brighter (as are a few other spots that are dark in other versions). There are stills of this scene that are clearly occurring during the daytime that give you a good visual of the action.

This makes the Anchor Bay UK DVD release from 2002 all the more disappointing. It's quite possibly the single worst release from Anchor Bay I've ever seen. It looks like they didn't even try and just slapped the picture onto the disc. The menus are good and there's an informative commentary with the director, but the print is pretty sad considering the work AB has done on their many Euro zombie and cannibal releases. There are some moments that make me wonder if this was even taken from a film print at all.

Most reviewers seem to have a dislike for DAWN OF THE MUMMY; at least up till the final 20 minutes when the guts really hit the fan. It's regularly labeled as dull, slow and badly acted. While there's some bloody shenanigans occurring here and there till the finale, the pace does sometimes deaden, but I've never found it boring. The shock of seeing such a gory movie on regular television made its mark on my psyche and it's been something of a favorite ever since.

The acting is serviceable, at least from some of the performers. The bulk of the cast seems to enjoy shouting their lines, screaming wildly, or overacting like their life depended on it. The ham sandwiches in the cast do draw attention to themselves and are good for some unintended hilarity. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the over-anxious performance of George Peck.

Peck plays Rick, the gold-hungry blonde haired American tomb raider along with his two Egyptian helpers. Peck grossly overacts; constantly laughing, eyes bugging out of his head, and just carries on like he's having an orgasm in nearly every scene. There's maybe two quiet, or subdued scenes with him, and I am not entirely convinced they didn't tranquilize him for those moments. His performance is really quite something to behold. If ever an actors interpretation could give you a headache, it's this one.

The actor that does the best job here is Barry Sattels. He's really good as the other "villain" of the piece. He's the leader of this band of photographers and models who pushes his crew to get the best shots possible. He does manage to redeem himself, albeit too late at the end. He had probably the longest career of the rest of the cast. I happened to see him in some erotic movie on Cinemax in the late 90s.

Agrama's movie is also terribly sloppy in places, rife with continuity errors. The narrative is never ruptured, but certain events and altercations raise lots of questions and instill general bewilderment from those paying attention.

During the opening 3000 BC sequence, Sefi-Ra-Mon is buried in his tomb with seven guards who are commanded to "rise and kill" as per the curse should the tomb be desecrated. When the tomb is uncovered, there's no remains lying around of any of the seven men we saw at the beginning. However, we do see them rising from the desert during the aforementioned 'Dawn' sequence. It's never explained just how in the hell they moved from the sacred burial site to the desert nor how they've remained in remarkable shape considering they were never mummified.

Before the mummy, or any of his living dead servants come back to life, there are a handful of killings. A few people end up with their faces badly mutilated and a decapitated head is found in the desert when one of the women rolls down a dune and bumps into it. Who exactly killed these people? No explanation here, either, but presumably it's some form of the curse that has been unleashed with the opening of the tomb. 

The zombies make their arrival approximately at the 45 minute mark, yet they never go fully into human buffet mode till the last 20 minutes. We see them skulking about most of the time. One of them does rip a chunk of a girls throat out just before she's pulled underground. It's worth mentioning there's some great shots of arms reaching up out of the ground to grab victims legs. Aside from that, they're mostly on the sidelines till the big finish.

Bill is overtaken with joy by the fact that his photo shoot will be inside a tomb with a real mummy. Yet when the mummy actually comes to life, no one seems to say anything, or even notice that he's no longer in his sarcophagus. They just continue working, seemingly oblivious to the fact the mummy is gone.

Even with its faults, DAWN OF THE MUMMY is competently made B grade trash. Made for around $500,000 and shot almost entirely in Egypt and Cairo (the opening credits involved a few days shooting in New York), it's even more bizarre in that director Agrama was a former doctor and an assistant to Alfred Hitchcock working on some of the fabled filmmakers productions such as THE BIRDS (1963). Agrama also directed the obscure, but infamous giant ape picture, QUEEN KONG in 1976.

His production and distribution company, Harmony Gold, was founded in 1983 and has been responsible for bringing the ROBOTECH animated series to these shores. A number of kung fu movies were also distributed to television bearing the Harmony Gold name. As of October of last year, Agrama has found himself involved in a tax fraud scandal surrounding the business dealings of Italian TV mogul and former prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi.

Information has been sketchy about whether or not DAWN OF THE MUMMY played theatrically in the US. On the DVD commentary, Agrama says his film didn't play in American theaters. However, in the July 1982 issue of Famous Monsters magazine (#185), the film is described in detail and discussed as coming soon to theaters.

The first time I ever saw it, was in 1985 on local station WNRW TV-45 during a 3am showing. It was a shock to see this kind of movie on TV and it definitely spooked me on a few occasions; particularly the unexpected moment where the mummy springs to life. Figuring there just had to be gory business cut out of it, I eventually bought a used VHS tape and discovered it was the same version, but much darker. Sadly, the TV airings mentioned further up on this review have so far been the best looking version of this much maligned movie I have ever seen.

There are a number of admitted fans of this movie, but overall, DAWN OF THE MUMMY is deemed a dud by most viewers. Although the last 20 minutes are often universally in favor from all that have seen it, it's generally at the bottom of fans zombie movies lists, if there at all.Whether mostly from nostalgia, or a combination of the things it does right, Frank Agrama's most well known movie will always have a positive place in my movie collection.

This review is representative of the Anchor Bay UK DVD.


DrunkethWizerd said...

Sometimes you've gotta like a movie that everyone hates. Or the other way around. It really is a complex situation when you don't think about it. My rule of thumb, if too many people hate it (and it's not directed by George Lucas) then it must be good. For example, Gigli.

Unknown said...

I love this movie,the wedding scene is really fun. Only zombie movie I have seen that deals with mummies and Egypt. Which is one of my favorite horror themes.

Jay Shatzer said...

I've always enjoyed it myself and I proudly have it on display in my zombie collection. Like Tex said, there's nothing wrong with a movie that features mummies and Egypt, and this one does it justice. It may be an acquired taste, but I love it! Thanks for the awesome write-up Brian!

venoms5 said...

@ DrunkethWizerd: I've liked this one since I was a kid, but over the years hearing and reading how so many dislike it, it was kind of perplexing. Which is why I figured the nostalgia factor must be playing a major role in why I like it so much.

I like your George Lucas reference and it's very apt!

@ Tex: I was pretty surprised when that wedding scene popped up. Even more so that this played on TV with all the gore intact. Even though it was 3am, I'd never known such a gory movie to play on regular TV without being edited to some degree.

@ Jay: I just can't figure why this one gets such a bad rep. There's a lot worse movies out there in the zombie genre, I think. I just wish there'd be a DVD release that does it justice. I am assuming the bootleg out here is just a port of the AB UK disc since I read it has the commentary on it.

Franco Macabro said...

What the? Where has this movie been all my life? It looks awesome! I'll check out your review for it (I only skimmed through the pictures) but it looks awesome, I will be hunting this one down! I'll comment on your review for it soon.

venoms5 said...

It's much better than its reputation suggests, in my opinion.

I just wish I still had my TV version of the film since it's the best looking print I've ever seen.

Manu D said...

Since i was a child and watched it in a summer cinema, i have loved that film. It goes over B serie and raises with it's own personality. Quite atmospheric and real sensation by it's fantastic real locations. Good asoundtrack. Faboulous shots.

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