Nightmare City (1980)
AKA: City of the Walking Dead, Incubo sulla città contaminata
Director: Umberto Lenzi
‘Where the leading man looks like he might fall asleep at any time, but thankfully you won’t’ should be the tag line for this entertaining Italian movie.
Exploitative and cheesy, now over 30 years old, this often overlooked gem by respected Italian director Umberto Lenzi (Cannibal Ferox, Black Demons) is a forerunner of the running infected “zombie”film, despite the misleading, alternative English title City of the Walking Dead which smacks of a cash-in on the growing zombie craze of the time, when one looks at the literal translation of the Italian title, Nightmare City Contaminated, we are given a slightly more accurate title.
Born from a producers desire to ride the Italian zombie splatter cycle, and marketed as such on later DVD releases, Lenzi wanted to differentiate the film and base it roughly on the Seveso disaster of 1976, an industrial accident which saw the local population exposed to a chemical outbreak, although any references or thoughts on this are submerged by the sheer zombie-esque action and preposterous scenes.
In fact, even director Lenzi doesn’t see this as a zombie film, going some way to distance it (similar to that of Boyle and 28 days later) but in spite of all this, it has to be included as it fits in nicely with the early 80-s Italian splatter cycle and retains some elements of zombie-lore (such as having to destroy the brain) and rightly or wrongly it is still lumped in with zombie films and who are we to argue with history.
Benefitting from a surprisingly decent cast, including Mel Ferrer (War and Peace and more famously Audrey Hepburn’s one time husband), Francisco Rabal and Hugo Stiglitz (Cemetery of Terror, Survive), it is rumoured that a number of the cast were demanded by the Mexican and Spanish financiers, who wanted the cast to improve the sales prospects of the film rather than for any acting or suitability purposes and sadly (or sometimes hilariously) this shows throughout.
In the film, a renegade reporter Dean Miller (Stiglitz) travels to the airport to wait for the famous doctor, Professor Hagen-Dazs or Haggenbach or something, and while searching for which runway the esteemed Professor will arrive on, an unmarked airplane comes in for an emergency landing, causing the emergency services to respond and surround the plane. Not one to miss the action, Stiglitz and his cameraman cover the scene where the plane opens and the Professor slowly steps out, and stabs a police officer before contaminated disfigured individuals charge out of the plane and a massacre begins as the city starts to fall under the sway of the infected.
The film itself is an enjoyable and fun romp that never takes itself too seriously despite the constant pensive (or should it be permanently tired) look of Stiglitz, well from what you can see behind the beard anyway. As a zombie fan (which you are if you are reading this) even the most hard-line Romero-zombie fan such as myself, you forgive the fact that these mutants are car-driving, gun toting super strength Toxic Avenger look-a-likes with a penchant for drinking blood and you go with it, and thankfully due to Lenzi’s competence you are rewarded.
The unattractive and charisma repelling leading man Stiglitz just oozes the look of the early 80s, but thankfully for a reporter he not only has the brains to work out what is happening but also the moves to fight his way out of trouble when needed, even if he does have that odd cinematic trait of feeling the need to sometimes stop then wait and look around to see if he is being followed. This must be a rare film where you just want the main guy to get himself into trouble rather than out of it.
While the pacing drops at points, the film ends on a fantastic final 10/15 minutes as Lenzi ramps things up a notch and goes head shot crazy, as well as treating us to a hilarious scene on top of a rollercoaster which is reminiscent of the end of Fulci’s ‘Don’t Torture a Duckling’, before what is undoubtedly a marmite ending. Watch it and see.
Riddled with errors, convenient and illogical plot gaps, and not to mention no actual zombies in the way that we love, despite all this the film still works and is a must view for fans of the genre pre-dating the likes of 28 Days Later and other modern sprinter/infected films.
“Words, we’re up against a race of monsters”
Miller (Stiglitz) has no time for logic, reason or explanations.
This piece was originally featured on the zombipedia.com blog site which has now been incorporated into the Gore Splattered Corner, bringing its undead goodness to a wider audience.