Doomsday Reels: Nightmare City

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Nightmare City (1980)

Nightmare City - Poster

The Director

Umberto Lenzi

The Actors

Hugo Stiglitz (Dean Miller), Laura Trotter (Dr. Anna Miller), Mel Ferrer (General Murchison), Francisco Rabal (Major Warren Holmes), Maria Rosaria Omaggio (Sheila Holmes), Stefania D'Amario (Jessica Murchison), Pierangelo Civera (Bob)

The Trailer

The Cause

Radioactive Zombies

The Story

"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, from the Channel 5 news room. Top of the news this evening is speculation concerning the real facts behind the department of health announcement about a radioactive spill supposed to have occurred yesterday at the state nuclear plant.  Information from an official source, which reached our newsroom this afternoon addresses the seriousness of the situation but at the same time provides a certain amount of reassurance." - Newscaster, opening word salad.

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The Rundown

It takes a certain kind of movie lover to appreciate Italian horror.  There are a few Giallo movies or some of the higher-tier Dario Argento that have gained approval from the art snobs but 99% percent of the genre is unwatchable trash to the vast majority of potential viewers.  But your average genre aficionado has a brain that works a little different.  We're used to separating the wheat from the chaff when it comes to what we view and Italian horror is particularly chaff heavy.

Take, for example, today's entry: Nightmare CityNightmare City is the work of film-maker Umberto Lenzi, the other Italian director famous for his trilogy of trashy cannibal films.  Lenzi ranks up with many of his contemporaries of the 60s through the 80s in Italian genre films but unlike Cannibal Holocaust's Ruggero Deodato his films have no real social commentary (Cannibal Holocaust is a movie about the exploitation of indigenous people by documentary film-makers, Cannibal Ferrox is a movie about a bunch of stupid jerks getting graphically tortured and eaten by a South American cannibal tribe just because.)  Unlike Dario Argento he has no concept of great shot compositions or beautiful sets.  Unlike Lucio Fulci he has no mind for atmosphere or skill for well-crafted gore gags.  Unlike Lamberto Bava, his scenes of violence lack any sort of pulpy chaotic fun.

Though I have not personally seen every Umberto Lenzi film I can say with a fair amount of certainty that Nightmare City is his best movie.  But is this movie any good?  The short answer is yes.

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The plot (and plot is a very strong word) of Nightmare City concerns Dean Miller (one of the various boring Italian Horror protagonist names that basically translates to "John Americanman"), a television reporter sent to the airport to interview a scientist about an undefined "radiation spill" somewhere nearby.

When Dean gets to the airport a massive transport plane lands on the runway without making contact with the tower and when the doors are opened, dozens of burnt-faced lunatics with axes, knives, and machine guns jump out and begin murdering everyone.  Dean and his cameraman escape but their attempts to warn the public are stymied by a high ranking military offiical, General Murchison.

From there the narrative splits into four parts.  Dean tries to find his wife at her job at the hospital, a high-ranking military officer's wife hides out in their palatial home, General Murchison and Major Holmes deal with attempting to find a way to combat the zombies as they turn every person they attack into one of their own, and General Murchison's daughter and her dopey husband Bob go on a camping holiday in the countryside.

But all that is just minutiae.  The plot of this movie is actually "people do things, but then zombies happen."  A TV studio hosts some nonsensical aerobics show, zombies happen to it.  Some soldiers are tooling around a military base, zombies happen to them.  The staff of a hospital deals with a routine power failure, just kidding it's actually zombies happening to them.

The zombies of Nightmare City (which the director insists are not zombies) are more akin to the infected people from the 1985 film Warning Sign , the rabid hippies of I Drink Your Blood, or the titular people from George A. Romero's The Crazies than your garden variety zombie.  They wield clubs, knives, and guns of various types (one glorious scene involves a zombie nonsensically shooting a man with a harpoon gun) and then drink the blood of their victims.  The zombies are also super strong, have bizarre moss-covered heads, and can only be properly killed by destroying their brain.  One of the film's biggest missed opportunities is in not giving any sort of motive for their sadistic behavior, just a scene where one of these things talks would have been either creepy or campy in the best possible way.

The two big standout cast members are our two leads.  First we have Hugo Stiglitz, a prolific Mexican actor (his notoriety in the Mexican film market was what got him the lead role in this movie over Franco Nero) with a glorious beard and lion's mane of hair.  Though acting is hard to gauge since everyone is poorly over-dubbed as is the custom of these films, Stiglitz's character is the only one you really care about all that much.  And yes, the character from Inglourious Basterds is named after him and he is still alive and does still work regularly so he's probably aware of Tarantino's tribute to him.

The other lead is Laura Trotter as Dean's wife Anna.  (A.K.A. Jane Americanman) Now non-American leading women are hired in these movies for one of two reasons.  1. They're very pretty and have haunting and expressive features and 2. they're very pretty and willing to do nude scenes.  Trotter falls into the first category and though she does have the big eyes and expressive face that these films require, she can't manage to look sincerely terrified to save her life.  She contorts her face into the most elastically overdone expression of fear possible but her eyes look as lifeless and placid as a cow staring down an oncoming train.  This movie is a cavalcade of wonderfully goofy faces but every time Laura Trotter screams in terror is comedy gold.

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Nightmare City is a lot of fun, it's a must-see for a lot of gore hounds and people who love Italian horror and zombie movies.  It served as a the key inspiration for Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror and unsurprisingly Tom Savini has raised the funds to direct as well as oversee the special effects on a remake.  It really is amazing how much everyone (present company included) loves this movie considering how bad it is on nearly every level.

As I said earlier, horror fans have learned to look the other way when it comes to flaws in horror films.  It's necessary to look past the mistakes at the bigger tapestry before you but the fact is that Nightmare City doesn't really weave itself together into anything worthwhile.

The story, as I have said, is nonexistent and the same can be said of the characters.  The four storylines that play out barely have anything to do with one-another and none of them pay off in any significant way.  (More on that in a minute.) 

The dialogue redefines the concept of being stilted and nakedly expository.  For example, when we're introduced to the character of General Murchison's daughter and her husband this exchange occurs:

"Don't answer it, it's probably some bore."

"Or maybe your father.  Who always wants to know where we're going and where we're going to stop and if we have enough money."

"Oh, didn't you know?  Generals are very fussy and General Murchison is no exception."

"I really don't know why I married Jessica Murchison."

A soap opera writer would reject that script.  Nobody talks like that.  And I can't overstate how unimportant it is that Jessica and Bob have any relation to General Murchison. They could have been two random kids with no connection to any other character in the movie and their role in the plot would not change a bit.

Of course nobody watches these things for strong writing.  This is an Italian movie and everybody's here for the nudity and the gore.  Now nudity we have in spades, Lenzi loves finding ways for the zombies to strip their female victims and many of the women in this movie get naked without provocation or reason.  Violence on the other hand is a bit more complicated.

Most of the deaths in this movie are your basic bludgeoning or shooting deaths and the rest is just dumpy-looking extras with make-up caked on their heads rubbing red corn syrup on peoples' throats via rubber knives.  As the film progresses some actual decent gore effects happen and all the various head explosions from the gunshots look great, but the real showpieces (none of which even compare to even Lucio Fulci's weaker gore scenes, by the way) are the very few mutilation scenes and the eye gouging gag (which draws unfavorable comparison to a similar bit in Zombie.) 

Uncomfortably, all the really sadistic gore is performed on women and the zombies themselves seem to take particular pleasure in torturing women and women only (men get bludgeoned or stabbed pretty quickly.)  Easily the most well-made gore set-piece involves one of the zombies tearing open a woman's shit and cutting her breast off.  I don't dare make statements about who Umberto Lenzi is as a person but I would be hard pressed to come up with a counterargument if someone was to use this movie as an example of misogyny in the horror genre.  At times it feels like a dry-run for The Taint.  One needn't worry too much about this, however, because the movie has no weight in its violence.  People die horrendously but it's all done so shoddily to characters so underdeveloped that even the most awful bits barely register as anything more than cheap spectacle.  This is a film that's oft-celebrated for its violent imagery but anything you see in this movie has been done better elsewhere and though Nightmare City has a good volume of violent scenes, the poor quality with which they're done just makes them feel repetitive and boring.

The worst aspect of the film by far is the ending.  Spoilers follow until after the next picture, so skip ahead if you're not interested in knowing how the movie ends.  After Dean and Anna escape through the countryside they come to an abandoned amusement park where the zombies chase them to the top of a roller-coaster.  A helicopter comes to rescue the young couple and Dean and Anna climb up a rope to safety but Anna can't hold on and tumbles to her death (a heart-wrenching moment rendered hilarious by the way the camera tracks a dummy of Anna bouncing off the roller coaster's cross bars before flopping on the ground.)  Suddenly Dean sits straight up in bed and Anna asks him what's wrong, he explains that he had a bad dream.  We then follow Dean as he goes to the airport and the scene of the plane landing happens again and as the doors open to disclose what's inside the words "The Nightmare Becomes Reality..." flash on the screen and the credits roll.

Unfinished movies in the 70s and 80s were not uncommon.  It was seemingly an era where people could make a movie without an ending or with an abrupt out-of-nowhere ending as films such as Race With the Devil and Southern Comfort will show.  The freeze-frame ending is frustratingly a common thing with this era of film.  This one is especially egregious, though, because it raises more questions than answers.  Did any of the film matter?  Was Dean's dream a premonition or just a dream, and in either case why did his dream concentrate so much on people who had nothing to do with him?  Is Dean caught in an eternal loop like some sort of radioactive zombie Groundhog Day?  Are there actually radioactive zombies or is Dean just having some sort of cyclical nightmare?  In reality the answer is that the movie is under-cooked and a real ending either was too expensive or could not be written in time, so this is what we got.

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Nightmare City is extremely shoddy but not irredeemably so.  Umberto Lenzi is no great film-maker but he's more mediocre than bad and he's far more capable than the true garbage lords like Joe D'Amato or Bruno Mattei.  Part of the appeal of Italian horror, even among the more reputable films, is a sincere enjoyment of the poor production quality and weird actors.  There's a real feeling that the Italian and Spanish and German genre filmmakers of the era were getting away with something, they were goofy outlaws making thinly veiled ripoffs of more successful films featuring more cheap gore gags and nude scenes.  In that regard, Nightmare City is a pretty enjoyable ride even though it is a fairly empty one.

The Shill

Nightmare City is available on Blu-Ray, DVD, and Amazon Instant.

Next Time on Doomsday Reels

"If you mean talk it over calmly then you've picked the wrong time and the wrong woman.  I'm used to fighting for what I want."

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