Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Italian Horror Blog-a-thon: Nightmare City (aka City of the Walking Dead, aka Invasion of the Atomic Zombies)

[Dusting off another old review for today. If you've never had the pleasure of seeing an Umberto Lenzi movie...this is one to see. I'll update the links later today as I had two wonderful submissions sent to me yesterday, one from Tim of Antagony & Ecstasy and the other by Roderick Heath of Ferdy on Films...if you're familiar with either of those blogs than you know the quality of those submissions is going to be at a high level. Enjoy.]

Umberto Lenzi’s Nightmare City is a masterpiece. No seriously, hear me out. The film is the Italian horror equivalent of the greatest of all 1980’s so-bad-it’s-good-movies, Commando. It is one of those films that is so awful in every aspect that the more you watch it, the more you appreciate every frame of the film. Not only is the film awesomely awful, but it inspired Robert Rodriguez’ Planet Terror and Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later. Lenzi’s film contains a plethora of 1980’s European horror film clich├ęs. It’s the classic example of Italy churning out whatever was popular at the time and employing a hack director to just make sure the film makes money (this happened with cannibal films which stole from the Mondo films, and it happened with supernatural films like The Exorcist rip off Beyond the Door, etc. – basically they knew they were going to make a profit before the movie was even released, so they didn’t care about the quality). The result of all this is Lenzi and co. creating one of the funniest horror films ever made, and one of the truly great grindhouse experiences you are likely to have.

The film opens with Hugo Stiglitz as Dean Miller (great generic American name), a reporter who is headed to an airstrip to meet with a prominent scientist for an interview. However, an unmarked military plane lands on the airstrip and as Miller instructs his cameraman to shoot the action, nothing can prepare our hero for what he is about to see: oatmeal-faced, turtleneck/sports coat wearing zombies who rush off the plane and partake in an orgy of stabbing, biting, drinking blood, and missing a lot of their cues from Lenzi. These aren’t your ordinary zombies, though. In fact, they are more like what we’re used to seeing in American zombie films today; as Miller’s wife the good doctor Anna explains, they’re “infected.” Hmm, sound familiar?

The infected run around the city killing lots of people (looking suave while doing it), and in a surreal scene at the television station that Miller is employed by, the zombies rush in on what appears to be a daytime disco/aerobics show. If you have ever been curious as to why it is I love Italian zombie films so much, this scene helps explain a lot. They proceed to eat up all the dancers (some dancers, ever the performers, keep dancing while the mayhem ensues), and look to take over the station. Miller is at the station desperately trying to get a message out to the people about the infected…but his boss says no dice. A disgusted Miller retreats to his office, but he’s intercepted by a horde of infected trying to kill him. This is great because it causes Hugo Stiglitz to overact (like only Hugo can) and show just how wimpy he is as he resorts to throwing monitors and other various office supplies at the zombies as they try to break into his office and kill him. One monitor even explodes as cheesy looking sparks and smoke bomb effects go off. God bless you, Lenzi.

The rest of the film is some nonsense about how the zombies are not undead, but they are infected from a radiation spill and how they need blood to survive. The hospital where Anna works gets overrun soon enough (with a wonderful scene by a doctor who is performing surgery, and without hesitation when one of the infected walk in, he throws his scalpel at him, and of course does nothing to prevent the inevitable), but luckily our hero Hugo is there to rescue his wife and get her the hell out of there.

There’s also some stuff about how there is a national emergency and some military people have to figure out how they want to handle the situation. Miller and wife try to warn people about what is happening, but that crusty old veteran General Murchison (ably played by Mel Ferrer) won’t allow it to happen. Damn him! There must be something else to why this plane was allowed to land? Ah, but Lenzi is not interested in an even more convoluted storyline involving military conspiracy; no, he’d rather focus on bad make-up, inane goings-on like a lawnmower that pushes itself across the lawn of the good General’s wife, or the sculpture she is working on that randomly breaks and drips blood, which of course leads to her death (how these things are relevant to the film, I still haven’t figured out – it’s as if Lenzi was desperate to mix in some Beyond-esque supernatural weirdness).

The film ends with a showdown in an amusement park where the Miller’s climb a Ferris wheel to load a helicopter, but then…bad things happen including a nasty fall by Anna. But who cares, right? I mean look at Hugo with the gun! He just mows down the infected looking as wimpy as someone can holding a gigantic automatic weapon like that. Then the film does something way ahead of its time. Circular plot, baby! Just when we think the film is over as Dean is in trouble and his wife has just died Lenzi hits us with this…

Brilliant! Brilliant, I say!

Nightmare City is a film that even the most casual of horror fans would enjoy. It’s campy enough to be entertaining and has the so-bad-it’s-good quality that makes for a good party movie. It’s also fun to see zombies that aren’t boring. These zombies are fast (and dress nicely), and it’s fun to watch the film and see its imprint on tongue-in-cheek fair like Planet Terror (which lifted the entire hospital scene from Nightmare City) to better and more eerie horror films like 28 Days Later. At one point in Nightmare City one of the zombies picks up a gun and uses it…if you ask me this shows that Lenzi was way ahead of his time and a true auteur of the zombie genre, preceding Romero’s Land of the Dead (where zombies also use guns). Okay, Lenzi isn’t an auteur at all, but it is fun to watch him hack his way through this material and supply enough originality to the genre to keep us entertained, while also supplying enough crap that will make you laugh out loud and want to hit the rewind button.

I mentioned Commando at the beginning of this review, and although Nightmare City is not as quotable (“Let off some steam, Bennett”) it is just as memorable as far as awful 80’s movies go. The wonderful Italian touches separate it from a purely American film like Commando, which is why I love Nightmare City so much more than other “good” bad movies. I have an unabashed love for all things Italian horror and the weird nonsensical things these filmmakers add to their films (also kick ass synth soundtracks). It is because of these things that Nightmare City stands shoulders above all other bad Italian zombie movies, even the soundtrack and classic Italian horror motifs are horribly ripped off here. Everything in the film is a failure, which more often than not in this subgenre means the film is a success in being a guilty pleasure.

Compared to a good zombie movie, Nightmare City is a joke, but isn’t that really the point. No one rents a film like this expecting something good. The wardrobe and the make-up and the nonsensical storyline easily make this one of the most enjoyable pieces of crap to come out of the 1980’s Italian horror era. Lenzi would go on and do what most Italian hack directors do: rip off more material. His next film Cannibal Feroux was just a rehashing of the cannibal genre’s most influential film Cannibal Holocaust, and the films that preceded Nightmare City were just the same old tired gialli; however, with Nightmare City and its oatmeal covered, sport coat wearing zombies (and of course Hugo Stiglitz) I always find myself smiling at this wonderfully awful and hilarious Italian horror film that should be atop every horror buffs must see list.


  1. Okay, now Im officially pumped to see this movie! I never thought Id say that, but it seems like you understand what it means to enjoy a good b-movie! (My girlfriend never seems to understand this!)

    Im putting this one #1 on my must watch list! Thanks for writing the kind of review that makes me want to watch this kind of movie, normally, every review Id read about this film discourages me from seeing it.

    Your point of view comes from someone who deeply understands the pleasures of b-cinema!

  2. This is one Lenzi I haven't seen, but I have seen Ferox and I've seen and loved Eaten Alive despite knowing in advance what a rip-off it was. It's almost pure exploitation, and if Nightmare City is like that I want to see it.

  3. The comparison to Commando is a good one, in that the movie is eminently rewatchable even though it doesn't have very many redeeming qualities.

    Having to pick between this and Troll 2 for my favorite bad movie is like having to choose which of my children I love the most...

  4. Francisco:

    Thanks for the kind words! I love these kind of B-movies, and as long as you have some buddies there to share in the awfulness, these usually shape up to be my favorite kind of party movies. This one just has priceless scene after priceless scene. Watch it now! Hehe.

  5. Samuel:

    You would definitely dig this. I have yet to see Eaten Alive! (although it's on my desktop) and I have the feeling that it's the usual Lenzi drek...which means it's gold.

    My brother and I just watched Welcome to Spring Break...not even a trashy Lenzi, just a lazy, hackier than ever Lenzi. So bad.

  6. Troy:

    Yeah -- Troll 2 is made all the better because of the Rifftrax...if we had just watched it on its own then I don't think we would have been as entertained by it. At least Nightmare City is entertaining without people making fun of it...although I would love to have a Rifftrax for this one.

  7. Thanks for a wonderful description of the movie. I do watch horror movies alot. From your review I am eagerly waiting to see this movie. thnks alot fr this blog.

  8. When I saw this in 1983 here in Staten Island, NY, every time a zombie's head was shot you heard the sound of breaking glass! This is missing from every DVD copy I've seen...I BELIEVE the old Continental VHS edition had this hysterical sound in tact.

  9. Great review. I so love this movie. Also this line, "It’s the classic example of Italy churning out whatever was popular at the time and employing a hack director to just make sure the film makes money", makes me think that there is a branch of the Italian government whose job is to make these movies.