Sunday, September 13, 2009

Take Me Down To the Nightmare City (where the zombies are mean and they sure ain't pretty)

Few sub-genres have such a vast range in quality as zombie cinema. From the satirically brilliant Dawn of the Dead and modern panorama of the apocalypse in 28 Days Later to the straight-to-not-even-good-enough-for-the-SyFy-channel vaults of homemade horror, documenting the undead is truly a toy for any filmmaker. It’s only fitting that George Romero’s black-and-white classic belongs to the world in the realm of public domain.

When it comes to shamblers, life truly is a box of chocolately brains; you really never know what you’re going to get. Hence, it was with some trepidation that I approached Umberto Lenzi’s Nightmare City, a 1980 entry into the Italian zombie canon. While I enjoy my share of 70s spaghetti guts with a large dollop of mozzarella, I rarely find them to actually scare me on any genuine level.

And thus, with some raised expectation and more than a little doubts, I sat down for some old school zombi action, courtesy of Mr. Lenzi's dubbed bloodfest. I was not disappointed.

Quick Plot: Journalist Dean Miller (Hugo Stiglitz, no visible resemblance to the Inglorious Basterd) arrives at a landing strip to interview a big shot scientist. Instead, an unidentified plane arrives and the military surrounds it with guns aimed. The doors open and a few grayish men stumble outside, followed by some messily rotted faced sprinters who quickly tear their way into the fleshy army, eating, stabbing, and shooting every human (save for the conveniently immune reporter) in their path.

What follows is a typical genre film, but with a mix of added bonuses that make it hold up with grisly glee thirty years after Nightmare City’s premiere. I don’t know that this is the first appearance of running zombies, but they make their mark like Olympians with high doses of national pride. Some massacres are committed with extra servings of cheese--like the televised aerobics attack, which features leotards, dubbed New Yawk accents, and, just because, several pairs of bare breasts. Other moments contain true suspense and enough horror to keep the audience holding their breaths.

That being said, Nightmare City is not without its flaws. Upon watching a 13 minute interview with Lenzi (the sole extra on my DVD), I realized that these “zombies”--much like the infected of 28 Days Later--are not actually supernaturally undead, but are meant to be products of a radiation leak. I may not have been paying close enough attention to get this bit the first time around, which, in hindsight, makes the very setup of the film much more interesting than the common zombie flick. There is some attempt to provide a government/military angle to the story, but it never really takes us anywhere. At the same time, there is a splattering of characters set throughout the city, few of whom earn enough of our sympathies to let us care about their fates. Then again, any film that provides a zombie priest wielding a mean altar candle gets my seal of approval.

High Points
The first attack is shocking, fast-paced, and actually scary

Kudos for utilizing a roller coaster in a unique and disturbing shot

Low Points
After hearing Lenzi’s explanation of his zombie look, the rotting roasted marshmallow look makes sense, but during the film, they just kind of seem crunchy

The whole “Oh thank God it’s you!” moment, followed by the ‘you’ being a fresh-faced zombie about the chomp his or her way through the daft human works fine the first time, but by the fifth or so repeat it gets a tad predictable

Lessons Learned
Contrary to what nearly any other film would like you to believe, climbing your way up a rope is not nearly as easy as it looks

Zombies are not fans of modern art

To avoid copying Romero-isms, use synonyms like “bullets can damage the cranium” in place of common phrases like “Shoot it man, shoot it in the head”

It is quite possible to shoot a man’s arm off and beat someone to death with a broom

Nurses are well-versed in evolutionary patterns and the consequences of entering the Age of the Robot, but also subscribe to many superstitions about vampires. And, most importantly, they’re quite talented when it comes to freshening up with the right lipstick in the middle of a citywide cannibalistic massacre

Nobody in Italy wears a bra

Although the extras are limited, Nightmare City will probably find its way into my personal DVD collection should I find it at the right price. This is not the most horrifying 70s zombie film of all time, nor is it laughably enjoyable. It’s a solid, scary, and unusual take on what quickly became a tired genre.


  1. I love this movie and it is one of those ones that since I first watched it (which was only less than a year ago), I put it on if I want something cool to fall asleep to.

    Tarantino is a big fan of Lenzi's work, so I wouldn't be too surprised if the Hugo Stiglitz reference in Inglourious wasn't on purpose, and many have said that Nightmare City was somewhat the inspiration for Planet Terror, which I can totally see.

    It is a super fun and solid film, that even with the budgetary restraints, it still succeeds. I do love in the extras, Lenzi says he didn't really care for Stiglitz as he was forced upon him by the studio (I think) and he would rather have had Franco Nero in the role! Nero does make every role just that much better though...

    And thank god for Italian woman not wearing bras!

  2. Ah, I didn't realize the Tarantino connection could have been intentional. That' so sweet!

    You're right about Lenzi's dislike for Stiglitz. I wasn't bothered by the performance, but there really wasn't much to it. Then again, it's hard to accurately judge a dubbed actor.

    I always find it endlessly humorous how the only women that dno't wear bras in horror films are the ones that actually need them. Granted, I missed the 70s, but I've never understood why improper support was ever considered liberating. On the other hand, I doubt that's what Lenzi the feminist was going for.

  3. not "laughably enjoyable"? I thought many parts of it were SOOOOOOO that. Not to belittle the film, it's a personal Fave

  4. You know it's been almost 2 years since I watched it and I think, if memory serves, I was actually mildly freaked out the first time! Perhaps if I pop it in now--which I can do, since I did indeed eventually find a cheap copy--I may be more prone to aerobicidal giggles.