Written by: Antonio Cesare Corti, Luis MarŪa Delgado, and Piero Regnoli
Directed by: Umberto Lenzi
Starring: Hugo Stiglitz, Laura Trotter, and Mel Ferrer
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
ďI don't want us to die I don't want us to but there's nothing we can do. They're everywhere..."
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 itís arguable that Dawn of the Dead really opened the door for Europeans to riff on the theme. In the wake of the sequel, Italy especially took the idea and ran with it, but few films did it with more fervor and deranged energy than Umberto Lenziís turbo-charged Nightmare City. Itís 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 Romeroís aimless, shambling ghouls. Nightmare City isnít 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 much of the post-Zombi II pack of imitators.
Television reporter Dean Miller (Hugo Stiglitz) is set to cover the arrival of a preeminent scientist to a European airport. Instead, he and a gathering throng are greeted by the mysterious landing of an unexpected military aircraft. Upon landing, the plane opens its doors and unleashes a horde of murderous zombies armed with guns and knives, and the gatherers are swiftly eviscerated. Sent on the run with his wife, Miller doggedly attempts to reveal the zombie outbreak to the rest of the world, much to the dismay of a civil defense chief (Mel Ferrer) who wants to keep the truth concealed.
Technically a joint production between Italy, Spain, and Mexico, Nightmare City is soaked in spaghetti-flavored antics that make for a riotous experience. Preposterously silly and nearly incoherent, the film is little more than a series of splattery zombie attacks that are aided by this particular breedís ability to wield weapons. Like Burial Ground after it, Nightmare City is driven more by a slasher mentality that looks to scatter its cast about as creatively as possible, an approach that results in one of the more unabashedly brain-damaged Italian gore flicks. The attacks are relentless, and the ragtag socio-political implications underpinning the film are shredded by multiple instances of gratuitous mutilation and evisceration. No venue is safe, including the pop-flavored aerobics show that Stiglitz stumbles upon in his attempt to get his message out.
While the film is a typically roughshod Lenzi production, complete with distracting zooms and an inelegant use of scope photography, itís difficult to deny the deranged effectiveness of Nightmare City. Itís almost certainly a film that influenced Robert Rodriguezís Planet Terror, which proceeded as a knowing spoof of trash epics like this one. By comparison, Lenziís film isnít nearly as self-aware, preferring instead to plunge ahead with its gleeful badness. Numerous subplots abound, seemingly in an effort to pad out the filmís runtime; not only does the film follow Stiglitz and his wifeís attempt to outrun the endless undead horde, but it also does the same with an elder military commander (Francisco Rabal) who has an artist wife that looks to be way too young for him. Another one involving the generalís daughter and her beau is equally superfluous, and itís almost hilarious how these separate threads never really intertwine in any meaningful fashion.
In fact, the only thing connecting them might be their inexplicable stupidity. If thereís a statement to be found here (outside of the super obvious Big Brother paranoia, whose lack of subtlety would make Romero himself blush), perhaps itís found in the fact that the ďzombiesĒ in this case seem to display more intelligence than their living counterparts. Lenzi is rarely accused of such awareness, and itís a reach here, especially since Nightmare Cityís humor is a result of the stilted dialogue and awkward dubbing that comes with the Euro territory. More importantly, though, the film displays the more necessary hallmarks in the way of impressive gore effects and distinctive zombie designs. Some of the undead seem pretty unimpressive, as if the makeup department just dashed some disfiguring paint on an extra and stuck him in front of the character. However, the filmís signature meatball-headed designs are as memorable as the zombiesí unique rigor mortis-defying abilities.
Appropriately climaxing at an amusement park (a set piece homaged in Zombieland), Nightmare City is a delirious, rip roaring thrill ride. Its disconnected narrative propels its nightmarish logic, and it remains a (perhaps unintentional) knee-slapping splat fest until the credits roll. Maybe itís technically more out of The Crazies or 28 Days Later mold since its antagonists are more infected than undead, but thereís little doubt this one was inspired by Dawn of the Dead and Zombie. In many ways, itís the prototypical 80s zombie film; whereas Fulciís work in the genre were exceptional masterpieces, most of the films he inspired were of this ilk: chaotic, trashy, grungy, and gory. Nightmare City may lack the pure atmospherics of Fulci, but itís sometimes no less feverish, and I think the Mastro himself would have delighted in some of the gore displays here.
Itís 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 itís rarely boring, and thereís something to be said for any movie that can transcend its tone-deafness as well as this one. Itís probably the only film that considers the plight of aerobic dancers during a zombie apocalypse. The film has been released a couple of times on DVD, and the discs from Anchor Bay and Blue Underground are identical, with a presentation thatís adequate. Since this isnít exactly a gorgeous looking film, Nightmare City looks fittingly grungy and grindhouse-ready, but there is a theatrical trailer, a Lenzi bio, and ďTales from the Contaminated City,Ē a short documentary that features an interview with the director. As itís one of the better ďlesserĒ Italian zombie offerings, it comes easily recommended for fans of junk cinema who like their spaghetti horror loaded with splattery meatballs. Buy it!
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