In the film George Tatum, a criminally insane man treated for schizophrenia with experimental drugs is discharged from hospital but his homicidal impulses soon return, triggered by nightmares of bloody sexual violence. Leaving his doctors behind in New York, Tatum travels to Florida where he sets his sights on a single mother and her three young children… On paper it sounds like another xerox of Halloween, and admittedly the film is hardly inventive - even the surprise revelation in the climax isn't all that surprising; but Nightmares in a Damaged Brain remains one of the more memorable slashers from this era, with its astonishingly gory effects 1 and a very palpable downbeat, brooding atmosphere which seems to have polarized audiences as it did with Maniac, a film it's often (superficially) linked to.
Italian director Romano Scavolini’s website declares him “one of the most talented exponents of the European film industry”, which seems a stretch, but his relatively obscure filmography reveals some interesting entries - Spirits of Death, a surreal giallo from 1972, the gritty Greek thriller The Savage Hunt (1980), and the lively Vietnam action flick Dog Tags (1988). Nightmares in a Damaged Brain, an American production is Scavolini's most well known film also his best, directed with verve and style, the film often startlingly edited lending it a certain energy lacking in the more mechanical slashers of the day like Prom Night and The Prowler. The film is full of memorable little details and flourishes – like a shot of a woman moving out of the frame only to reveal Tatum standing behind her poised for the kill, or a striking documentary-like moment where one of the children is quizzed by a police officer at a crime scene. Special word too for Jack Eric Williams’ excellent unnerving score which does much to amp up the film’s tension. Less successful though is the MKULTRA subplot involving the government agency responsible for Tatum's treatment. These scenes add little to the film and could easily be removed without harming the tone and narrative.
Performances are variable throughout but Baird Stafford (who appeared in Dog Tags) playing George Tatum does a fine job, his character becomes more withdrawn as the film progresses but unlike traditional slasher movie maniacs he manages to elicit sympathy for being so irrevocably damaged by his traumatic childhood. Revisiting the film it’s not surprising it came to the attention of the DPP. Aside from the climactic bloodbath, the early section of the film is decidedly sleazy, drawing an unpleasant connection between sex and death – a scene where Tatum watches a peepshow performer pleasure herself with a dildo ends with him having an epileptic seizure in the booth, a fountain of alka-seltzer erupting from his mouth. In another scene where Tatum slits a girl’s throat, he’s seen on top of the girl penetrating her stomach with a knife as if it were a penis. Yet another problematic aspect of the film is how it associates children with violence, something which proved a sore point with Don’t Go in the House, another film that came to the attention of the DPP at one point.
Nightmares in a Damaged Brain has been available on DVD over the years in various versions but the Code Red 2-disc edition, which seems like it’s been in the works for years, is by far the best, featuring three transfers of the film – disc 1 contains two remasters, from 2005 and 2008, while disc 2 contains a 2011 remaster, which has a 1.78 anamorphic widescreen transfer and the best of the three. Having said that, the transfer is still problematic – the print suffers from scratches and dirt (especially virulent around the 41-min mark) and the exhibits a faint orange tint. Still, it’s relatively sharp and colorful and is the one to watch. Extras include an informative commentary (on the 2008 transfer) with Baird Stafford and make-up artist Cleve Hall, both of whom return for a short making of featurette The Making of Nightmare. The other significant extra is a 90-min Italian language interview with Romano Scavolini, which for various reasons could not be accompanied by English subtitles. By the way, disc 2 is mocked up to resemble a bootleg DVD-R, complete with a magic marker handwritten Nightmare disc 2 on the label, a little joke on Code Red’s part.
Tom Savini on the set of Nightmares In A Damaged Brain
1. No word about Nightmares in a Damaged Brain is complete without mentioning Tom Savini and his involvement, or lack of involvement with the film. When the film was initially released, Savini’s name appeared on the promo materials (“From the man who terrified you in Dawn of the Dead and Friday the 13th”) but Savini threatened to sue the producers to have his name removed, insisting that he visited the set just once (pictured above) to offer some informal advice to the effects team. Scavolini felt otherwise, “All the main effects of the film were supervised and done personally by him. Actually, he pushed the blood’s pump when the boy-actor chopped his mother’s head. Tom Savini was there – he himself pumped the blood!!!!” Make-up artist Ed French who also worked on the film has a more likely take on events “I remember Tom coming in, perhaps twice, to give the crew advice, direction and impetus to finish the preparations on time for the first day of shooting. I have no idea if this was a favor to Les or if he was a paid consultant. Tom didn’t do any hands-on work but he definitely influenced the techniques, style and game plan for staging the blood gags"
Speaking on the commentary track Cleve Hall had this to say - "Ed French did the effects...They had contacted Tom about doing the film and he passed on it, but Ed has assisted him on other stuff...and I guess Tom showed up on the set and pictures were taken and names were splashed across posters and things and other people were forgotten"
The Savini/Nightmare controversy reported in Fangoria #22, 1982