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Thursday, March 18, 2010

Nightmare City (1980) review


Hugo Stiglitz (Dean Miller), Laura Trotter (Anna Miller), Maria Rosaria Omaggio (Sheila Holmes), Francisco Rabal (Major Warren Holmes), Eduardo Fajardo (Dr. Kramer), Mel Ferrer (General Murchison)

Directed by Umberto Lenzi

***WARNING! This review contains pics of graphic violence and nudity***

Dean and his cameraman watch in horror as the infected and blood crazed humans slaughter armed personnel

A reporter anticipates the arrival of a famous doctor, Professor Hagenbeck, at the airport. An unknown military plane without clearance makes an emergency landing on the air strip. Suddenly, a group of disfigured individuals emerge and begin massacring the personnel. Almost immediately an epidemic of mass murder breaks out as the burnt faced, blood drinking creatures systematically lay siege to the city killing anyone they come across. Reporter, Dean Miller and his wife make a dangerous trek through the city in an attempt to make their way to safety. They encounter a maniacal motley crew of savage, blood hungry killers at every turn.

The versatile Italian director, Umberto Lenzi, helms this curiously chastised, yet lovably nauseating and violent horror picture. For years it's been labeled as a zombie movie, although Lenzi displays annoyance whenever it's referred to as such. He even stated in an interview that he altered the script himself in an effort to remove the elements that linked the production as being another zombie film. Nonetheless, the look of the monsters and the means to kill them keeps it firmly entrenched within zombie parameters. Taken under those guidelines, it could be viewed as the forerunner to the (now tired) 'running zombie' movies that found success with RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (1985). This type of zombie characteristic really hit the ground running (haha) with the release of the British production, 28 DAYS LATER (2002). With NIGHTMARE CITY, Lenzi directs his film with a lot of zest and keeps things moving at a rapid fire clip.

The producer wanted a traditional zombie movie, but Lenzi objected and wanted to mold the film on the Seveso incident that occurred in July of 1976. That terrible accident took place at a chemical manufacturing plant in Italy when dangerous levels of tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin were released into the air. Aside from the blood drinking creatures seen in Lenzi's action horror opus, the script mirrors the events that took place in Italy, July of 1976. Areas were quarantined, people were diagnosed with skin inflammation and lesions. Thousands of animals were quickly exterminated in an effort to stop the spread of the dioxin. For years thousands of people ultimately suffered from the exposure to the deadly gas. Much of the chaos could have been prevented had the situation been handled with a lot more care and awareness.

Dean and Anna watch as the "zombies" search for fresh blood

Even still, Lenzi's film ultimately focuses more on the sensational aspects of the script. His desire to make a parallel with the deadly gas leak in '76 is lost among dozens of nasty scenes of gore and violence. The Seveso connection is made particularly apparent during the opening scene immediately after the credits. A news report speaks of a mysterious radioactive spill at a nearby nuclear power plant. Also, the Seveso incident is subtley referenced during the gas station sequence where Stiglitz and actress, Laura Trotter have holed up in. Trotter makes a speech about how "this whole thing could have been avoided", and how "we are to blame". Aside from that and the chemical that has turned the people into raving mad monsters being a reference, the movies violence totally overpowers any such environmental message Lenzi had hoped to get across. Action and violence are Lenzi's forte and he doesn't disappoint.

Heads are split open, breasts are removed, eyes gouged out, throats are slit and bodies riddled with bullets are some of the highlights. While some of Lenzi's intention survives, the producers vision won out as NIGHTMARE CITY (1980) has, and always will be regarded as a straight up 'zombie' movie; mean spirited entertainment and nothing more. It's incredibly violent, but contains some unintentionally hilarious moments such as a doctor who can throw a mean scalpel when the zombie/vampire creatures interrupt surgery while laying waste to a hospital.

The "zombies" lay a trap for the army so they can disable power to the city

These creatures, despite requiring a continuous supply of plasma to sustain themselves and their rapidly depleting red blood cells, have lost none of their mental faculties. They form groups, plan attacks and frequently manage to overpower and outsmart armed military forces. Shooting them in the head is the only surefire way to put an end to these crusted oatmeal faced monsters and the camera lovingly lingers on any sequence that features shots of extreme gore and gruesome violence. Although I would assume it had a low budget, the film has a much bigger scope than normally afforded the Italian zombie pictures. Whatever the case, Lenzi was perfectly at home directing large scale films with action (Check his two SANDOKAN films from the early 60's with Steve Reeves as well as his war pictures) and NIGHTMARE CITY contains plenty of that. According to producer Claudio Fragasso, the trash favorite, HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD (1980) was also supposed to have been a much bigger enterprise told on a grand scale. But Bruno Mattei is definitely no Umberto Lenzi!

Lenzi's energetic "walking dead" are the coolest ghouls ever as they use machine guns, machetes, axes and anything else they can lay their hands on

One could also argue that, because of this scope, NIGHTMARE CITY (1980) is a horror war picture of sorts. A major metropolitan area is invaded by a slew of deranged, mutated creatures, who in turn, create even more bloodthirsty monsters. The military struggles to contain them while the central characters attempt to escape the hostile city with their lives. There's several gun battles between the military and the mutants including one where the creatures infiltrate a military guarded power installation. The armed forces are also shown in an almost powerless state being unable to quell the spread of the "infection". A helicopter pilot refers to the blood gurglers as "infected" during the finale, that term being reserved for some of the recent spate of "zombie" movies.

The single most disgusting scene in the movie and probably the most misogynistic

When the "zombies" attack, they do it on a grand scale. Lenzi's penchant for action is put to good use here and melds sadistically well with the gruesome sequences. As usual with most Italian horror pictures, it's also hopelessly misogynistic. Even more so given the larger number of kills in the movie. When the men are killed, they generally get a stab in the gut or their throat cut. The women get stabbed multiple times, have their breasts sliced off, eyes gouged and their shirts torn away; Oftentimes a mixture of the above.

Lenzi is also successful in creating several scenes of genuine suspense. One of note has Rabal call his wife played by Maria Rosaria Omaggio. Telling her to lock the doors and stay inside, she does so, but hears the lawnmower running out back. Exiting the back door, she sees the lawnmower running by itself! There is a general sense of isolation and dread created here as streets suddenly seem empty and bereft of life. This leads to a bizarre, yet creepy scene immediately thereafter. Sheila returns inside the house and hears a noise in another room. She finds a sculpture she was working on is now on the floor with a bloody knife stabbed through its eye! Later in this sequence after taking in her terrified neighbor, it becomes increasingly obvious that the two women are not alone in the house.

Lenzi further explores the frightening aspects of a city in hysteria as gradually the military lose control of the situation leading to streets stricken with corpses and blood hungry, radioactive humans. There's also a great scene where Francisco Rabal lands his helicopter at an air base after the order was given to bomb the infected areas. He lands only to discover that none of the planes have taken off. Everyone is dead. Murchison is then informed that a chemical has been created that kill the creatures from the sky, fired from the missile launchers of fighter planes. This plan proves useless as there's nobody alive to fly them!

Some reviewers have issues with the films ending citing it as a copout. I don't see it as such. The title of the movie, both the original Italian and the English title of "NIGHTMARE CITY" alludes to what happens during the closing moments. Still, the scene that preceeds the last scene is quite exciting as well as shocking in regards to one of the films main characters. Lenzi was a master at hammering you over the head with grim scenes of extreme violence. He's so good at this, you could watch just about any film of his not knowing who the director was and be able to tell Lenzi's style at some point during the feature.

Mel Ferrer, a big time actor seemingly enjoyed his years in numerous Italian genre movies

According to Lenzi, this Italian-Spanish co-production (aside from the participation of Stiglitz, Mexico apparently had a financial interest in the film despite the credits only mentioning Italy and Spain) shot for three weeks in Rome and five weeks in Spain. There are several rather big names in the cast, too. Lenzi was good friends with Mel Ferrer and cast him here as General Murchison. He also used him in another of his films, the craptacularly entertaining cannibal movie, EATEN ALIVE! also from 1980. Francisco Rabal (THE REBEL) and spaghetti western villain veteran Eduardo Fajardo (DJANGO) also have roles in Lenzi's manic radioactive monster movie.

Hugo Stiglitz plays the unwitting hero trying to get his wife out of the NIGHTMARE CITY

Lenzi didn't like having Hugo Stiglitz as the lead in this production. He had nothing against him personally, he just felt he didn't bring the passion he wanted from him for the role. Considering he was a known leading man in Mexico, the financiers made it a requirement that he participate. By his own declaration, Lenzi would have liked to have secured the services of either Franco Nero or Fabio Testi. I would guess, though, that Nero would have turned the offer down considering the level of violence inherent in the script.

Francisco Rabal blows the back of an infected persons head off

Umberto Lenzi is very passionate about his movies and enjoys discussing about their making. Judging by some interviews I've read with him, he seems tend to get irritated that most people seem to only want to talk about his films like NIGHTMARE CITY. He is often accused of being snobbish and arrogant, but to me, he seems like a young boy again when discovering there is a renewed interest in his movies. Although some of his statements can get wildly outrageous at times, he none the less is proud of his work.

Gratuitous shot of Francisco Rabal and Maria Rosaria Omaggio

Furthermore, the director does tend to prefer his giallo, crime and war pictures (PARANOIA '69, BATTLE OF THE COMMANDOS '69, VIOLENT NAPLES '76 are some of the films closest to Lenzi's heart) over his more famous violent horror pictures. His supposed swollen ego and outlandish remarks aside, Lenzi is very much aware that these more widely discussed pictures are not important films despite their success. But are minor films on his resume and should be seen as entertainment.

The creatures prepare their dinner

Sometime after, Lenzi then went on to shoot CANNIBAL FEROX (1981), a four week wonder which became one of the most gruesome and controversial Italian horror films of all time and quite possibly, the film he will be most closely associated with. The Italian Shock DVD is a wonderful package for fans of the films. Not only does it have an interview (the lighting is occasionally poor) and audio commentary with the director (both in English!), but the disc also sports the (seemingly) complete soundtrack by Stelvio Cipriani! Great stuff! I first saw NIGHTMARE CITY back in the mid 80's after reading about it in Chas. Balun's wonderful book, Horror Holocaust. Released here as CITY OF THE WALKING DEAD, the films many alternate titles no doubt reinforce the notion that this is a zombie movie. The Continental VHS box, like most of their others, was incredibly graphic and was instrumental in my wondrously demented mind obtaining a copy. Ah, the days of those grand and garish VHS boxes...

NIGHTMARE CITY (1980) is a wild and bloody exercise in excess. The movie has its fans as well as its fair share of detractors. I think it's an odd amalgamation of themes and ideas given a much larger scope than normally afforded these movies. It's neither Lenzi's best and far from his worst. It's a favorite of mine and sports a great deal of ultra violent entertainment value for shock seekers and gore mongers alike.

This review is representative of the region 0 PAL Italian Shock DVD; the pics are from the Anchor Bay release.


Jayson said...

I like it too, it's very ambitious, despite Lenzi's dubious talent in horror (much better crafting action). Though I do love how Lenzi in the interview on Anchor Bay's DVD seems to genuinely stress how he believes this is a socially important film. Oh, you crazy Umberto...

Rev. Phantom said...

Add me as a fan too. While I can understand some of the bashing that it gets, I also think there are some great aspects of the film that get overlooked--all of which to pointed out in this terrific review.

I'm glad I checked out your blog, man--I'm really diggin' it.

Fazeo said...

I have always enjoyed this film warts and all. I don't know how anyone cannot love some of the classic scenes in this film, c'mon Jazzercise meets zombies, that's prime entertainment right there.

venoms5 said...

@ Jayson: I don't really see the AIDS connection that Lenzi makes. But definitely the Seveso incident, especially in the points I mentioned in the review. The gore and violence overpowers what little relevance that incident has in the script, though. But that wasn't really Lenzi's fault, though. The interview on the Italian Shock DVD is nearly an hour long.

@ Rev: Thanks for the kind words, Rev. I appreciate it immensely. I've been diggin' your site, too. In fact, I wish I had your skills. Your site is similar to the way I had originally envisioned this one to be. If only I was more learned in my computer skills!

@ Fazeo: I'm with you, there! I love this movie! Granted, it's not the best, but damn if it isn't ahead of its time! I'm hoping that I can somehow transfer the soundtrack onto my iPod. It's included as a special feature on the Italian Shock DVD. Stelvio Cipriani is one of the great, unsung Italian composers in my opinion.

Carl (ILHM) said...

Youve been a busy little beaver V, I take one week off from reading and CAC explodes!

Im with you guys on this one, its a trashy, bloody, but awesomely entertaining little film, who can hate on any film that places zombies in an amusement park? (Strike my review for Zombieland)

venoms5 said...

@ Carl: LMAO! Me and the gf had been battling for a little over a week, so I have had some additional free time, haha.

Also, Umberto just called and said to stop referring to his fried pancake faced bloodsucking freaks as zombies. He's tired of it, damn it.

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