Cult Movie Retrospective: Nightmare City

A reporter anticipates the arrival of a famous doctor, Professor Hagenbeck, at the airport. An unknown military plane without clearance makes an emergency landing on the air strip. Suddenly, a group of disfigured individuals emerge and begin massacring the personnel. Almost immediately an epidemic of mass murder breaks out as the burnt faced creatures systematically lay siege to the city killing anyone they come across. Reporter, Dean Miller (Hugo Stiglitz) and his wife (Laura Trotter) make a dangerous trek through the city in an attempt to make their way to safety. They encounter a maniacal motley crew of savage, blood hungry killers at every turn.

George Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead understandably cast quite a shadow over the ’70s, where plenty of living dead films popped up in the United States and abroad, but it’s arguable that Dawn Of The Dead really opened the door for Europeans to riff on the theme.

In the wake of Living Dead’s sequel, Italy especially took the idea and ran with it, but few films did it with more fervor and deranged energy than Umberto Lenzi’s 1980 turbo-charged Nightmare City. It’s a film that not only finds its protagonists on the run, but also its undead antagonists, a pack of swift-moving, ravenous drones far removed from Romero’s aimless, shambling ghouls. Nightmare City isn’t the first to boast this (Messiah Of Evil raced out in front in the early ’70s), but its bustling energy is a hallmark that separates it from the pack.

Nightmare City Zombies

Laura Trotter Nightmare City

Directed from a script by Piero Mignoli, Tony Corti, and Jose Luis Delgado, Nightmare City is brazen in its disregard for traditional virtues such as coherence and craftsmanship, which are tossed overboard like dead weight to make room for de rigueur exploitation elements: sex, violence, nudity, and gore – sometimes combined into a gruesomely tasteless hybrid. In a way, the film is a testament to the effectiveness of genre film-making: if you give the audience what is has been primed to expect and crave, then no one really cares whether it makes any sense. Even here, however, Nightmare City is crazy-contradictory, pretending not to be the zombie movie that everyone expects it to be.

Throughout the film the dialogue tells us that these creatures are not the walking dead but the result of radiation contamination, which has rendered them virtually immortal. The heavy makeup may be mistaken for rotting flesh, but we are supposed to take it for radiation burns. Nevertheless, the creatures share tell-tale characteristics with their zombie brethren: they are mute; their bite contaminates their victims; they can be destroyed only by a shot to the head; and they feed off humans – well, they drink blood rather than eat flesh, so perhaps this makes them radioactive vampires, not zombies.

Putting all of that aside for a moment, Nightmare City is an extremely fun movie with very fast pacing. The action and killing take up most of the proceedings. Sure you have your quiet moments where we get to know the characters but they don’t last long – and for a film such as this, that is perfect. The zombies (or “radioactive mutants”) are the stars here as they rampage and mutilate their way across the Italian city and countryside.

Watching these creatures in action truly is a sight to see. When was the last time you saw zombies carry and use the following: clubs, crowbars, knives, guns and all other kinds of assorted weapons? It’s insanity. There are many ways to die in this movie and let’s just say that a lot of those possibilities get used. It definitely makes for one entertaining movie.

Lenzi does a terrific job of directing and throwing you right into the middle of the action. The blood is plentiful and, in the tradition of Italian horror, very red and stylistic. The special effects are above par and since we have the use of guns in the film we are treated to some gory head shots. After all, it is the only proper way to kill these super mutants.

Nightmare City Eye

Nightmare City Head Shot

An attack on a hospital features some riotously violent action (and completely gratuitous breast exposure) as loads of unfortunates get sliced and diced. The nastiest gore scene in the film is when a women is attacked in a cellar and has a huge nail rammed into her chest before it is used to gouge out her eye. She ends up, bent over a box being slurped on, breasts of course on full display.

Also look out for an hysterical scene where a contaminated women is shot and whole back of her head, including all of her hair, flies off into the camera.

It’s probably fair to say that Nightmare City will always be known for its particular tics (its militaristic, running weapon-wielding zombies), but Lenzi fully exploits them. His movie might be dumb, but it’s rarely boring, and there’s something to be said for any movie that can transcend its tone-deafness as well as this one.

Nightmare City is a wild and bloody exercise in excess. The movie has its fans as well as its fair share of detractors. It’s neither Lenzi’s best and far from his worst. If you’re a fan of zombie movies (or whatever the hell this is) than Nightmare City is a must-see.

What are your thoughts on this underrated gem? Let us know in the comment section below.

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