Nightmare City (1980) – review

This profound subversion of our critical and aesthetic assumptions confronts us – like a logical paradox that seems both true and false – with a film that seems both awful and entertaining.

Generally regarded as just another entrant in the Italian zombie movie craze of the 1980s, NIGHTMARE CITY (1980) actually functions as a profound subversion of our critical and aesthetic assumptions. It is the cinematic equivalent of a logical paradox that undermines a philosopher’s attempt to craft an airtight epistemology. Just as the words “This sentence is false” leave the epistemologist grappling with a statement that seems to be simultaneously false and true*, NIGHTMARE CITY leaves critics grappling with a film that seems to be simultaneously awful and entertaining.
Directed by Umberto Lenzi, from a script by Piero Mignoli, Tony Corti, and Jose Luis Delgado, NIGHTMARE CITY is brazen in its disregard for traditional virtues such as coherence and craftsmanship, which are tossed overboard like dead weight to make room for de rigueur exploitation elements: sex, violence, nudity, and gore – sometimes combined into a gruesomely tasteless hybrid. In a way, the film is a testament to the effectiveness of genre film-making: if you give the audience what it has been primed to expect and crave, then no one really cares whether it makes any sense. Even here, however, NIGHTMARE CITY is crazy-contradictory, pretending not to be the zombie movie that everyone expects it to be.

The film gets off to an intriguing start with an unidentified airplane landing.
The film gets off to an intriguing start with an unidentified airplane landing.

If NIGHTMARE CITY has any conventional strength, it lies in the opening sequence, which acts as a perfect synecdoche for what follows, like a musical prelude introducing themes that will repeat throughout (though in this case the themes will be not so much developed as simply repeated ad nauseum). Reporter Dean Miller (Hugo Stiglitz) heads to the airport to interview an arriving nuclear scientist. The crew at the airport are mystified when an unidentified airplane lands without contacting the flight tower. As emergency personal approach, a hatch opens, and out swarm a horde of deformed, homicidal, maniacs, impervious to bullets – including the scientist Dean was planning to meet.
Now stop and think for a minute – which would be exactly one minute longer than the screenwriters. A mysterious, military-looking aircraft landing unexpectedly at a major airport and unleashing an undead plague upon a major European city – what an intriguing opening! Nevertheless, you have to ask yourself: if the plane carrying the scientist was unexpected, how did Dean know to be there when it landed? Was the scientist supposed to be on some other flight, and if so what happened to it, and how did the scientist get on this other plane?
Never mind. The real question is: If everyone on board was zombified, who landed the plane? Does it matter? Apparently not, because the screenplay never tells us. There is just barely a hint: unlike George A. Romero’s walking dead, these radioactive mutants display signs of intelligence, using weapons and taking out their victims in coordinated attacks. Maybe they landed the plane themselves. Or maybe it was just on auto-pilot.
Is that unsightly skin the result of decomposition or radiation?
Is that unsightly skin the result of decomposition or radiation?

You may be scratching your head over my use of the phrase “radioactive mutants” above. You see, the dialogue tells us that these creatures are not the walking dead but the the result of radiation contamination, which has rendered them virtually immortal. The heavy makeup, which looks carelessly troweled on, may be mistaken for rotting flesh, but we are supposed to take it for radiation burns. Nevertheless, the creatures share tell-tale characteristics with their zombie brethren: they are mute; their bite contaminates their victims; they can be destroyed only by a shot to the head; and they feed off humans – well, they drink blood rather than eat flesh, so I guess that makes them radioactive vampires, not zombies.
At this point, I have spent far too much time pondering questions largely irrelevant to the entertainment value of NIGHTMARE CITY. So let’s get on to contemplating what makes the film a giddy joyride: it’s rather like a broken roller-coaster that might fly off the rails at any second – which, ironically, makes it a more thrilling experience than a working roller-coaster.
Just look at the haphazard story elements: Dean is our audience identification figure, but there is nothing he can do about the situation except take his wife and flee the city. We see military types (including Francisco Rabal and Mel Ferrer) pushing little toy pieces around a map of the city, which seems to be falling faster than France to the Blitzkrieg, but the army seems equally useless at combating the invasion. (In what I take to be a spoof of DR. STRANGELOVE, before heading to headquarters, Rabal’s Major Holmes is first seen in a sexy interlude with his wife; sure, the city is in Code Red, but that’s no reason for interruptus.)
"We keep pushing the pieces around the board, but the situation on the ground doesn't get any better."
"We keep pushing the pieces around the board, but the situation on the ground doesn't get any better."

Though the city (which, by the way, is never identified) is supposed to be swarming with mutants, we seldom see more than a dozen at a time, which is funny for two reasons: first, it makes the military’s inability to stop them seem even more pathetic; second, they look like pretty much the same half-dozen lead zombies almost every time you see them (and to top it all off, they emote with crude grimaces less suggestive of the living dead than of stuntmen trying to act through pounds of facial putty).
The net effect of this absurdity is to create a surreal unreality that disarms the impact of the gore, making it palatable even to relatively squeamish viewers. Craniums are blown to pieces; eyes are gouged; nipples are ripped off breasts of still-living victims, but you will be screaming with laughter rather than fear – and loving every minute of it.
Nightmare City 1980 TV chaosBesides the airport attack, the highlight of the film takes place at Dean’s television station, which is broadcasting some kind of crappy exercise show, consisting of women in tights dancing to disco music. One of the ironic joys of NIGHTMARE CITY is that, although the film is eager to include this gratuitous sop to male viewers eager for the sight of sexy female bodies, the filmmakers didn’t feel it incumbent upon themselves to hire women who looked particularly attractive. Fortunately, the zombies eventually arrive and do what they are supposed to do: transform the order of modern civilization into brutal chaos. It certainly helps that the program is so awful that we actually cheer to see it destroyed, along with its participants.
There is plenty more after that, as we follow Dean and his wife on their hopeless flight to safety, which they begin to suspect does not exist. There’s a reasonably effective climax in an amusement park, including a failed rescue by helicopter that ends with an unexpected plunge by one of the participants. (One wonders whether the makers of ZOMBIELAND were thinking of NIGHTMARE CITY when they came up with their ending.)
Maybe they're not zombies after all - they're vampires!
Maybe they're not zombies after all - they're vampires!

But that’s not all, folks. NIGHTMARE CITY goes into nonsense nirvana at its conclusion. This is a spoiler so beware, but it’s so goofy that its revelation can probably do little to harm one’s enjoyment: After seeing his wife die, Dean wakes up from a nightmare! (Get it? The title is NIGHTMARE CITY!) You might think that would be more than enough, but like everything else in NIGHTMARE CITY, the philosophy of the ending seems to be: Too much is never enough when enough is too little! Dean then gets up and heads to his next assignment, which consists of driving to the airport to interview a nuclear scientist. In case the circular structure is too cryptic for viewers (whom Lenzi and company must have taken to be as brain-dead as their radioactive zombies), the film includes a title card explaining, “The Nightmare Becomes Reality…”
No kidding.
The reality of NIGHTMARE CITY is that, by any reasonable standard, it is a terrible movie, and yet it is, paradoxically, an infectious viewing experience. NIGHTMARE CITY can perhaps claim some historical significance (yeah, right) for featuring the first quick-footed zombie menace (decades before 28 DAYS LATER). However, its true significance lies in provide more of the same for viewers who simply cannot get enough. If ZOMBIE (1979), CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD (1980), HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD (1980), BURIAL GROUND: NIGHTS OF TERROR (1981), and the rest of the 1980s Italian zombie apocalypse cycle have not sated your appetite for destruction, here is a chance to dine on even more raw human flesh – served up with wild enthusiasm if not any particular skill.
[rating=2]
Recommended for ravenous fans only.

TRIVIA

Quentin Tarantino named a character in INGLORIOUS BASTERDS (2009) after Hugo Stiglitz, the actor who plays the lead in NIGHTMARE CITY.
FOOTNOTE:

  • The statement claims to be false. If the claim is accurate, then statement is true. However, if what the statement says is true, then the statement is false.

nightmare-city-poster-161
Click to purchase on DVD or Blu-ray in the CFQ Online Store.

NIGHTMARE CITY (Incubo Sulla Citta Contaminata [“Nightmare in the Contaminated City”], 1980; U.S. release as CITY OF THE WALKING DEAD, 1983). Directed by Umberto Lenzi. Written by Antonio Cesare Corti, Luis Maria Delgado, and Piero Regnoli. 88 minutes. Cast: Hugo Stiglitz; Laura Trotter; Mel Ferrer; Francisco Rabal; Maria Rosaria Omaggio.
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The Playgirls and the Vampire: A Celebration of 1960 Retrospective

The Playgirls and the Vampire (1960)Made in Italy as L’Ultima Preda Del Vampire (“The Last Prey of the Vampire”), THE PLAYGIRLS AND THE VAMPIRE was picked up for American distribution and dubbed by Richard Gordon (THE HAUNTED STRANGLER, ATOMIC SUBMARINE), then released in the U.S. in 1963. The American version, 7 minutes shorter than the Italian original, was released as an “adults only” picture with a poster suggesting that it might be a “nudie cutie” feature, though patrons expecting plentiful pulchritude doubtlessly felt cheated. There is a female vampire in it who prowls a castle in the buff looking for victims, but her body is repeatedly obscured by shadows and camera angles.
THE PLAYGIRLS AND THE VAMPIRE was the creation of Piero Regnoli, who previously had co-written I, VAMPIRI (American title: THE DEVIL’S COMMANDMENT, 1956) with Riccardo Freda. , I, VAMPIRI had kicked off the  Continental horror boom after decades without any Italian horror films being made; it set the basic tropes of mixing scares and sexuality that Italian horror cinema would explore throughout the 1960s. Regnoli wrote and directed THE PLAYGIRLS AND THE VAMPIRE, but though he remained a prolific screenwriter, he only directed a few more features before his death in 2001. (SAMSON IN KING SOLOMON’S MINE and SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN THIEVES were two of them).

Walter Brandi as the vampire count
Walter Brandi as the vampire count

The playgirls of the title are not playgirls at all, but rather showgirls who are being bused to their next engagement when the driver learns that a storm has rendered the road impassable. The driver takes a fork in the road and winds up at the castle of Count Gabor Kernassy (Walter Brandi). They ask to stay the night and Kernassy takes little interest until he sees Vera (Lyla Rocco), who looks to be the reincarnation of Margerhita, the woman with whom his ancestor had fallen in love.
Regnoli’s most effective horror moment comes at the very beginning when he borrows Tod Browning’s famous shot of a vampire’s hand emerging from an opened coffin, here restaged with a stone sepulcher. The vampire in the crypt is Kernassy’s look-alike ancestor who seeks fresh blood to sustain his immortality. Kernassy warns the troupe not wander about the castle at night, but the next morning the body of Katia (Maria Giovannini) is found dead on the lawn, apparently having fallen out of the window.
Lack of originality is one of the main problems that plagues THE PLAYGIRLS AND THE VAMPIRE. Unlike Freda, whose films explored perverse sexuality such as necrophilia and sadism, Regnoli  offers only showgirls lounging around in negligees, teddies, and stiletto heels. Additionally, there is minimal characterization (the three other showgirls are given no real personalities) and minimal plot as well.
The Playgirls and the Vampire (1960)
Alfredo Rizzo as the lecherous manager

Though the viewer can’t take THE PLAYGIRLS AND THE VAMPIRE seriously, the film is not played for laughs either (the closest it gets is when one of the showgirls spots a long table and wonders aloud, “I wonder if they will let me do my high-kick specialty on it.” The manager (Alfredo Rizzo) is portrayed as a lech who goes to bed, not with one of his girls, but with a copy of a girlie magazine. He explains to the housekeeper that the girls “have been very upset,” and that practicing their routines is “the only way to make them stop worrying about it.”
However, worry doesn’t really enter into the equation very much. Vera seems barely upset over Katia’s death. When the next night she discovers that Katia’s grave is empty, she remains unconcerned. Instead, she develops an attraction to Kernassy, who has a laboratory in his basement and explains he is researching a creature that sustains itself with blood, /again Vera expresses little concern – not even a question or two about how safe things might be.
Despite its short length, THE PLAYGIRLS AND THE VAMPIRE is plodding and mediocre. On the plus side, it is very atmospherically photographed by Aldo Greci. The film also offers two nice scenes at the climax. In one, the now vampiric Katia comes toward the camera to claim a victim, only to be staked by her male vampire (Brandi in a dual role) counterpart. The other notable scene is the male vampire’s staking, which leads to a dissolve of images as the 200-year-old vampire crumbles to a skeleton and then fades away. Rather than employing make-up, this appears to have been done with a series of drawings that dissolve to show the progression of the dissolution.
The Playgirls and the Vampire (1960) The Playgirls and the Vampire (1960) The Playgirls and the Vampire (1960)
Though handsome, Brandi is a rather stiff and unimpressive actor, who also starred in two Italian vampire films this year, the other being THE VAMPIRE AND THE BALLERINA. He later appeared in the similar but more entertaining BLOODY PIT OF HORROR, in which a troupe of models come to a castle only to become victimized by an over-the-top Mickey Hargitay as the Crimson Executioner – a livelier film that only points up all the more THE PLAYGIRLS AND THE VAMPIRE’s shortcomings.
click to purchase
click to purchase

For television, the film was re-titled THE CURSE OF THE VAMPIRE, and has also been released under a myriad of alternate titles including DESIRES OF THE VAMPIRE, DAUGHTERS OF THE VAMPIRE, and THE VAMPIRE’S LAST VICTIM. For genre completists, the Gordon-dubbed version is available on DVD from Image Entertainment.
THE PLAYGIRLS AND THE VAMPIRE (L’Ultima Preda Del Vampire [“The Last Prey of the Vampire”], 1960). Written and directed by Piero Regnoli. Cast: Walter Brandi, Lyla Rocco, Maria Giovannini, Alfred Rizzo, Marisa Quattrini, Leonardo Botta, Antoine Nicos, Corinne Fontaine, TIlde Damiani, Eirka Dicenta, Enrico Salvatore.

The female vamp, nudity obscured by shadow The Playgirls and the Vampire (1960)
The Playgirls and the Vampire (1960) The Playgirls and the Vampire (1960) The Playgirls and the Vampire (1960)
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