Nightmare City (1980) is the definitive “…and then zombies attack!” film. A TV reporter travels to an airport to interview a scientist about a radiation leak…and then zombies attack! Sexy people record an aerobics show…and then zombies attack (and women get their breasts cut off)! There’s a power cut at a hospital…and then the municipal council manage to restore power and everything is fine: no, my mistake, everyone dies because zombies attack!
To categorise Umberto Lenzi‘s Nightmare City as a zombie film is, however, somewhat disingenuous. Whilst the film certainly rides the wave of zombie mania which swept through American and Italian horror cinema in the late 70’s and 80’s, Nightmare City is closer in tone to the ‘hate plague’ stories of the early 70’s. Movies such as The Crazies or books like James Herbert‘s The Fog. Unlike The Crazies, however, the monsters in this are clearly mutants. Mutants whose faces resemble very well baked potatoes, but mutants regardless.
For what it is worth the plot is as follows: American TV reporter Dean Miller (Hugo Stiglitz) is tasked with interviewing the aforementioned scientist about the aforementioned radiation leak. Things take an unexpected turn when an unidentified military plane lands, depositing the scientist and a whole horde of blood-drinking mutants. The seemingly-invulnerable ghouls overpower the military and commit wholesale slaughter with little more than knifes and axes against machine guns…well, it is the Italian military.
As it transpires, the mutants can use guns: five minutes into the film and we’re treated to ghouls/mutants/zombies in a gun fight with the army. And that’s probably Nightmare City’s first problem: it starts too high, and everything which follows feels shallow.
Miller, having managed to survive the carnage and being the only one who knows what’s going on, reports back to General Murchison (Mel Ferrer). But the General isn’t having any of it and keeps the situation under wraps. Naturally the city is rapidly overrun, as it transpires these indestructible ghouls propagate their numbers through their endless blood-lust.
From here the film follows Dean and his wife Anna (Laura Trotter) as they try to escape the madness, General Murchison and the army’s efforts to contain the ghouls, Murchison’s right hand man Major Warren Holmes (Francisco Rabal) and his wife Sheila (Maria Rosaria Omaggio) – whom he tries to keep safe in their country house – and a handful of other violent interludes.
It’s not exactly Shakespeare, and we’re given little in the way of explanation of what is actually happening. Lenzi handwaives proceedings with a vague ‘it’s radiation alright?’ and then, well zombies attack!
Not that every film needs to be art. If you have ever seen an Umberto Lenzi film before, then you know what to expect. The director cut his teeth making giallo films in the 70’s, as well as cannibal films such as Man From the Deep River and Cannibal Ferox. Unsurprising, then, that this paper-thin plot is used as a vehicle for eye-gouging, throat-slitting, breast-tearing, head-popping.
Considering the film is almost 40-years-old, some of the violence is really well done. There’s a part when Major Holmes finds his zombified (ghoulified?) wife, and shoots her in the head…which explodes in a wonderful rainbow of gore. That being said, the film handles its gore scenes like a virgin handles his first tit. As a result, there’s no real weight to the violence. Every happens suddenly and quickly, to characters who have had no real development.
Hollow violence and gratuitous nudity is all par for course for a sleazy Italian horror film, obviously. The thing about Italian horror is that it’s 90% trash, reserved for freaks like me who make their significant others watch them as some sadist punishment for not doing the dishes. Dario Argento‘s Suspiria makes up most of the genuinely respected 10%…though even Lucio Fulci could undeniably craft an effective atmosphere.
Lenzi is certainly no Argento, or Fulci. He’s not even a Lamberto Bava. But he does know what works. That’s why he connives for all his set pieces involving women to somehow end with them with their knockers out. Historians will one day believe that the women of this era were somehow pathologically allergic to clothes.
Add scenes of brutal (vaguely sexualised) violence, bad dubbing, and wanton mutilation; set it to a softcore synth soundtrack and you, my friend, have yourself an average Italian horror film.
Where Nightmare City fails is in tying its story threads together. No explanation is given for the existence of the mutants: where do they come from? What is their motivation? No idea. Also, given that Dean Miller is the only character worth investing in (with his Tom Atkins‘ style every man charm and leonine hair-beard combo), his story is the only one which gets anything approaching a resolution.
The film ends with Dean gunning down mutants at a theme park as him and Anna wait to be rescued by helicopter. They climb up the rope ladder, but Anna falls to her death. Brutal. But then it was all a dream. Or was it? For then the beginning of the film plays again, and it becomes clear that things are cyclical. We’re taken back up to the point when the strange plane lands and then, you guessed it, zombies attack!
This Groundhog Day of an ending probably sounded good on paper (“see, it’s called Nightmare City!”). But it’s a cop out; indicative of an era when the cocaine, money, and ideas all ran out long before the film was finished.