Nightmare City (1980) – DVD Review

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When NIGHTMARE CITY was released in the U.S. in 1983, it was shorn of 4 minutes of footage and retitled CITY OF THE WALKING DEAD (not to be confused with Fulci’s CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD). Blue Underground has seen fit to re-issue the out-of-print Anchor Bay widescreen DVD release of Umberto Lenzi’s low-budget zombie movie, transferred from a pristine print (though all the dubbing problems possessed by the original remain intact as well).

Lenzi’s claim to fame derives from his being the pioneer of the exotic cannibal movie, a genre launched by his MAN FROM DEEP RIVER, as well as his being the man to do the most notorious film in that genre, CANNIBAL FEROX (aka MAKE THEM DIE SLOWLY). NIGHTMARE CITY was clearly an attempt to cash in on Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD (1979( and possibly Fulci’s ZOMBIE (1980) as well. Lenzi claims he hated the original script, fought with the female producer of the film (Diego Alchimede), and objected to having to cast Stiglitz (TINTORERA) as his leading man (he wanted DJANGO’s Franco Nero).

The truth of the matter is that while NIGHTMARE CITY isn’t very good, neither is it dull, and there is a certain nostalgia factor for those who caught the film in the early ‘80s. To distinguish himself from Romero, Lenzi depicts his zombies as quick-moving and quick-witted (far in advance of 28 DAYS LATER or the DAWN remake), employing weapons rather than bare hands and teeth, and like vampires they drink blood rather than consume flesh. (The film does explore the idea that the zombies might be vampires, but they have no fangs, no supernatural powers, nor are they afraid of religious iconography).

The movie begins with reporter Dean Miller (Stiglitz) going to the airport to interview Professor Hagenbeck, when a plane mysterious lands without having radioed the tower. Suddenly, the local police are confronted by hordes of disembarking zombies attempting to cut every throat they see. This could have been an impressive set piece, but Lenzi utterly failed to make it credible in the slightest, as the machine guns are obviously firing blanks: no squibs explode; no property is damaged by bullets; and considering later gore, the blood spilled is rather minimal.

Lenzi proves inept at creating atmosphere, suspense, or shock throughout the film, but he does keep things moving, and the zombie attacks throughout are certainly plentiful. The DVD contains a short 13 minute interview with Lenzi in Italian with English subtitles. Here Lenzi claims he wanted to use the film to explore the idea of contamination (the zombies were apparently created by radiation from a military weapon, and some of them have been slathered with unconvincing brown goop to indicate infection). The Italian title of the film was Incubo Sulla Citta Contaminata. Unfortunately, Lenzi makes a boneheaded and offensive comment about the zombies being like AIDS patients, spreading contagion throughout society.

But then thinking is certainly not this film’s strong point. Miller’s wife, Dr. Anna Miller (Trotter) makes some Luddite comments about how we would all be better off without nuclear energy and Coca-Cola, but the blame really belongs to mankind itself. General Murchison (EATEN ALIVE’s Mel Ferrer) orders Dean’s breaking news report cut off mid-report, assuming apparently that  news blackout can best prevent widespread panic as the zombie contagion spreads throughout the city (followed by an electrical blackout as zombies attack the local power plants).

According to Lenzi, the script originally ended with a helicopter rescue, ala DAWN OF THE DEAD. He rightly pegged this as unsatisfying, and then managed to make an even worse ending ripped off of DEAD OF NIGHT and the original INVADERS FROM MARS, in which a nightmare becomes reality.

Worth noting is Stelvio Cipriani’s low-budget synthesizer score, filled with those familiar bass beats and electronic sounds, but not up to the level of his work for DEATH STALKS IN HIGH HEELS or Bava’s BAY OF BLOOD. Dubbing fans can listen for  iconic voice artist Al Clivers (ZOMBIE) doing not one but three dub jobs: a character at the airport, a voice over the hospital speakers, and a radio announcer.

Makeup fans may get a few giggles from chocolate-oatmeal-faced zombies, slit throats that fail to bleed, an arm torn off that fails to bleed, a radical on-camera breast reduction, and close-ups of zombies being shot through the head – filmed against blue backdrops that don’t match the locations of the long shots. While definitely disreputable stuff, one doesn’t easily forget the assault on the lycra-wearing dance-exercise program, a doctor hurling a scalpel at a zombie during a hospital assault, nor the final assent up a rollercoaster while blasting on-coming zombies. Recommended only for spaghetti film-lovers who like a special emphasis on the red sauce.

NIGHTMARE CITY (Incubo Sulla Citta Contaminata, 1980; Blue Underground DVD release on 4/08; re-issue of 2002 Anchor Bay DVD). Directed by Umberto Lenzi. Written by Antonio Cesare Corti, Luis Maria Delgado, and Piero Regnoli. Cast: Hugo Stiglitz; Laura Trotter; Mel Ferrer; Francisco Rabal; Maria Rosaria Omaggio.

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About the Author

Dennis Fischer

Author of Horror Film Directors and Science Fiction Film Directors (both from McFarland).

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