Director: Umberto Lenzi
Stars: Hugo Stiglitz, Laura Trotter, Maria Rosario Omaggio
We all have our favourite gonzo Italian zombie movie from the turn of the decade between the ’70s and ’80s (right?). While many may cite Lucio Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters (a title I’ve always found rather ponderous, in spite of its zombie vs shark highpoint), my vote goes fervently to Umberto Lenzi’s 1980 smash’n’grab effort Nightmare City (a.k.a City of the Walking Dead); a delirious and scattershot effort to meld together as many disparate plot elements and monster movie tropes as possible. Not all of it sticks. Much of it looks incredibly silly. But these are precisely the charms of a B-picture of wildly unfocused ambitions, revealing itself in the process to be one of the era’s more gleefully shameless efforts in exploitation.
Taking as much influence from the wave of similar titles that were steamrollered into production in Italy in the wake of Romero’s genre-reviving Dawn of the Dead as from AIP’s then-recent run of Filipino exploitation pictures, Nightmare City opens with successful TV reporter Dean Miller being dispatched to a local airfield to interview a preeminent nuclear scientist arriving in the city. He arrives in time to capture absolute carnage. The unresponsive plane touches down only to unleash a marauding band of ghouls; not quite undead, but each sporting strange, brownish welts on their faces. All are inexplicably armed with rudimentary weapons, and all are in a violent frenzy. Having attacked their victims, the ghouls drink their blood – suggesting vampirism – before daintily wiping their mouths. Soon similar instances are cropping up all over the city as an epidemic of deranged, radioactive madness proliferates.
The military rule out an extra-terrestrial cause (were we thinking that was the case?). Mel Ferrer’s General Murchison and his fellow head honchos determine that the originating horde have been contaminated with radiation which has caused their transformation, and that they require fresh blood to remain animated and virile. Kill shots must be to the cranium. It’s all sketchy exposition mingled with genre staples; the film’s reasoning amounting to little more than a bunch of haphazard excuses to allow for it’s entertaining set pieces.
After the runway massacre, Lenzi makes a hard tonal cut to a disco-fuelled aerobicise TV spot, chiefly so that the camera can rest easy on some youthfully athletic bodies. Again, the ghouls attack, and this sequence in particular feels brazenly pilfered from the opening of Dawn of the Dead. With breasts senselessly spilling from leotards, Lenzi ensures that his audience gets what they hoped for, upping the sense that Nightmare City is a pure carnival barker’s piece; a delightfully cheap and cheerful shout to the back of the crowds for the basest of thrills and spills.
But what spills! Nightmare City quickly expands its tendrils out in all directions, folding in the soap opera asides relating to a number of the military characters’ families. Murchison’s daughter Jessica (Stefania D’Amario) and her husband Bob (Pierangelo Civera) narrowly escape an attack at their expensive rural home, adding variety to the film’s architectural palette. Naturally, the pair decide to go camping and are almost immediately set upon by their well-to-do friends.
Meanwhile, Dean flees the city with his wife Dr. Anna Miller (Laura Trotter). Their strand is pitted with memorable rural adventures, further expanding the film out of the urban. Taking refuge in a church is no good – god has evidently forsaken mankind – while a gas station encounter with the murderous ghouls ends in an exciting fiery explosion. The film’s third act showstopper is theirs too, as the couple are chased into a theme park and onto a rollercoaster. The appearance of such a ride is entirely befitting in a film that survives on its abrupt lurches and G-force madness.
Elsewhere, also, we summarily check in on the wife of another recurring military presence, Major Warren Holmes (Francisco Rabal). A budding artist, Sheila Holmes (Maria Rosario Omaggio) is terrorised at home. Her projects are violently sullied and she is ultimately urged into the cellar when her friend Cindy (Sonia Viviani) arrives in hysterics. Anyone with even a cursory understanding of the kinds of horror tropes Lenzi is playing with knows full well that such a choice will inevitably end in disaster and death, and Cindy’s fate ranks among the film’s few genuinely grisly and unpleasant moments. The special effects are rather crude, but it seems clear Lenzi is attempting to one-up Fulci’s eye-piercing sequence from Zombie Flesh Eaters. The result is, admittedly, far less iconic.
Stitching all of this together requires a pacy edit (provided in spades by Daniele Alabiso) and a rollicking, rolling score curtesy of Stelvio Cipriani. The latter is an unequivocal joy. Deliberately repetitive, its lumbering central motif loops and loops – a genuine earworm – and perhaps the key element of the film that prefigures its hilarious twist conclusion.
Having seemingly made it to safety, Dean awakens to discover that all of the film’s horrors were just a dream (I refer you once more to the title)… only for the reporter to find himself called to the airfield for the same assignment that kicked off all of this madness. On cue the plane door opens and Lenzi freeze-frames to credits, having suggested not only that we spent 90 minutes watching a fevered dream sequence, but that the film might continue on a loop ad infinitum. It’s a hoary old trick, riotous here for being so brazenly presented, but in combination with the film’s themes of human errors coming back to haunt us, it also represents a wry philosophical standpoint that we are doomed to repeat our mistakes over and over. That this is the story of human history; stupidity and barbarism, and little else. Nightmare City is craven in its construction, but also in its dim view of the world. Here chaos reigns. Lenzi’s endless cycle is vocalised by Anna, ensuring that subtext is truly text. Wouldn’t want anyone to miss anything.
I referred earlier to AIP’s Filipino movies as an influence, which might seem incongruous given the overall description, but hear me out. Many of those movies ran with the theme of revolution (see the likes of Black Mama, White Mama or The Big Bird Cage). Underneath Nightmare City‘s genre foolishness is a deeper terror at the idea of social uprising, a dread of violent protest and perhaps a conservative unease at the thought of a populous turning to extremes to overthrow the status quo. Italy had its own elements of unrest at the time, but Lenzi’s film is so wildly indebted to movies that it seems more likely that he drew these themes of resistance and political agitation from other media circulating the same theatres he was looking to fill.
Relentlessly, defiantly silly, Nightmare City doesn’t exactly terrorise its audience, but it does show an open audacity in its efforts to entertain. For lazy English language viewers, this aura of looniness is only accentuated if you choose to watch the dubbed version. The voice cast dial up the sense of airheaded incredulity in most of the characters. The make-up, too, is the cause of much if the film’s (unintended?) hilarity. The mutant ghouls vary wildly from those who appear to have minor bruises to others that look like they’ve fallen face-first into a cowpat. This incongruity might’ve diminished the effect of a more consistently realised apocalyptic vision, but Lenzi’s approach to everything is so scattergun that it only delights further. Maybe it is all just a succession of matryoshka dreams? An endless spiral of half-formed horrors conjured at a fever pitch? Inception was never like this!