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.
Recommended for ravenous fans only.


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

  • 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.

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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.

'Martian Chronicles' Headed for Screen Again?

The L.A. Times says “sources” tell them that John Davis, a 20th Century Fox-based producer who was involved with ALIEN Vs. PREDATOR and the will Smith vehicle I, ROBOT has optioned the rights to Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles.
The book is a loosely connected selection of short stories, some that have little to do with the planet, others that are more refelctions on Bradbury’s feelings about a view of Mars that he read about and loved as a child, and knew as an adult writer had no substance in reality. So many of them are delicate fables, morality tales, or slight slices of subdued nightmare.
Trying to adapt them into a cohesive science fiction narrative is somewhat akin to attaching a jet engine to a child’s kite made of newspaper and balsa wood. Martian_Chron_DVD
Richard Matheson made a game attempt in the TV mini-series THE MARTIAN CRONICLES (1980).
Despite a cast that included Rock Hudson, Roddy McDowall, Darren McGavin, Barry Morse, Bernadette Peters, and Fritz Weaver, the production was generally turgid and disappointing, though with a few moments that captured the magic of some of the stories. Variable production design (from imaginitive to extemely bland), and substandard FX work gave it a slightly cheezey look.
Various stories from The Martian Chronicles that appeared on the very low-budget RAY BRADBURY THEATER worked as well or better, freed of the need to link together.
So, the idea of a major feature film version of a short story collection does not strike me as a very good idea. Could the rights have been obtained to make a film like I, ROBOT (2004)?
That film was based on a screenplay called Hardwired that Fox liked, and had some similarity to Issac Asimov’s robot stories. So, since they had the rights to the I, Robot collection, the Susan Clavin character and Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics were inserted into the story.
The results were an entertaining Sci-Fi action-murder mystery that held little savor for readers of the original stories.
Will the same road be taken? Only time will tell.

Friday the 13th – Bluray Review

Has it really been nearly 30 years since Friday the 13th came out? If, in 1980, you had asked me to watch a film from 1950, I’d probably have wondered why you were forcing such an old movie on me. Maybe Friday doesn’t seem that old because I actually saw it in a theater during its initial release. Now, I couldn’t tell you how it came to pass that I actually managed to convinced my father to take me: I was way, way too young to fake my own way into an R-rated movie – perhaps he was under the impression that it was a modern spin on “10 Little Indians,” but it’s more likely that he simply didn’t know anything about it at all and I had been badgering the poor man to take me ever since seeing the first ads on TV. And what ads they were – who can forget the memorable ‘body count’ trailer that was later adapted into television spots? In NY it seemed like the ad played on channels 5, 9, and 11 around the clock; I was already flirting with disaster by staying up on Saturday nights watching Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, and seeing that ad during the breaks had me absolutely petrified with fear – and things didn’t get any easier in the theater. Even now, while driving by a heavily wooded area, I think back on poor, doomed Annie’s flight from the unseen killer after an unwise attempt to hitchhike to her new job at Camp Crystal Lake. I wasn’t much of an outdoors-man back then, but after that fateful matinee in 1980, I’ve managed to successfully avoid being in any sort of camping or hiking situation. I absolutely cowered in my seat, afraid to look at the screen or admit defeat and leave the theater (an offer that was made several times by my parent and guardian). Does that make Friday the 13th a masterpiece? Nope – but it’s damn effective, and that’s enough.
After failing to recapture his early success producing Last House on the Left by directing a pair of ill-advised family comedies (the just-above-execrable Manny’s Orphans and Here Come the Tigers) Sean S. Cunningham decided to return to familiar territory with another horror tale. Halloween had proved how lucrative the genre could be for a low-budget picture that was smartly advertised and slickly presented, and in true exploitation tradition – without money, cast, or even a script – Cunningham placed a striking ad in Variety for “The most terrifying movie ever made” featuring bold block letters shattering through a pane of glass and spelling out “Friday the 13th.” In short order, he had investors lined up and a script written by Victor Miller that took a more maternal outlook on the traditional killer, giving the film a relatively unique twist in its closing moments. The story follows a group of teens attempting to re-open a long-closed summer camp that is rumored to have a “death curse” ever since the drowning of a young boy several years previous; the camp counselors are killed off in graphic fashion until only one remains to see the face and learn the motive of the murderer. Filming took place at an actual Boy Scout camp in New Jersey, giving the production access to lots of young, hungry, and (except for Betsy Palmer) mostly unknown acting talent in nearby New York, including the fetching Adrienne King as the virginal “final girl” Alice; Bing Crosby’s son, Harry, as future archery target, Bill,\: and a 22 year old Kevin Bacon as Jack, who doesn’t check under the bed.
While filming on a shoestring budget in the middle of Jersey, it’s a safe bet that the notion of creating a franchise that is still going strong three decades hence didn’t occur to anyone, least of all its director. Cunningham’s reputation as a genre producer in the Roger Corman mold is secure, but directing isn’t his strong suit; the success of Friday got him a more prestigious directing gig adapting Mary Higgins Clark’s suspenseful A Stranger is Watchinginto a tepid mess a few years later. But Cunningham kept to a very simple filming style on Friday, relying heavily on a stalking, subjective camera simulating the killer’s viewpoint. But the final key to Friday’s success was composer Harry Manfredini’s iconic musical score, featuring the indelible “ki, ki, ki, ma, ma, ma”, whispered throughout the score and inspired, according to Manfredini, from Mrs. Voorhees repeating “kill her, mommy…kill her!” during the conclusion (though what remains is a near libelous lift from Hermann’s Psychoscore). And while that conclusion along with its last act reveal might seem trite and overly familiar today, it played beautifully before the horror market was over-saturated with out-of-left-field twist endings (thank you, Sleepaway Camp).
Though often cited as the tipping point for the modern “body count”-style horror movie, it was far from the first. Cunningham was smart enough to steal from the best, namely Mario Bava’s 1971 Twitch of the Death Nerve – a film to which Friday’sfirst sequel would owe an even bigger debt. Bava’s violent thriller was basically a chamber mystery – revolving around a pricey parcel of land and the motley crew of fortune-seekers that assemble to vie for its inheritance (which itself is an extension of what Bava began 7 years earlier in Blood and Black Lace, setting a black-gloved killer loose in an Italian fashion house) – that reveled in the method of murder over motive. I’ve sat through Twitch at least twice and I’d be hard pressed to tell you much about the plot; what I do remember are the inventive and graphic (for the time) murders, which generated some unusually negative press for the acclaimed director.* This is particularly true of a section that has a group of twenty-somethings drop in near the estate for some general teen-type partying. This passage always had a different vibe from the rest of the film – almost as if spliced in from another movie – but it’s this segment that marks the true beginning of the modern slasher film.
Friday the 13th’s attractive cast is also genuinely like-able; not that the characters are memorably written (bluntly put, they were written to be killed), but the actor’s performances are effective. After a 1958 prolog in which two counselors at a seemingly thriving Camp Crystal Lake are murdered during a make-out session, we flash forward to the “present day” (present in this case being 1980) and meet Annie, an attractive young girl hitchhiking her way to a job at the very same camp, about to reopen for a new season after several abortive attempts over the previous 20 years. After shrugging off the warnings of locals in a diner that anyone attempting to reopen the camp will be “doomed,” Annie continues on and accepts a ride for the final leg of the trip from an unseen driver of a Jeep. Now, you don’t have to have seen the movie to know that Annie’s life expectancy clock has hit the under 5-min mark; in fact, she doesn’t even make it to the camp! In the typical modern horror movie, female characters almost always fall into one of two categories: supermodel hot or eyeglass-wearing bookworm that eventually takes off her glasses to reveal – a supermodel. Annie is played by actress Robbi Morgan, an attractive, curly-haired brunette (probably no older than 19 when the film was shot) who appears very much the normal girl. Perky, a bit tomboyish (in a non-sexually intimidating way) and utterly believable in a flannel shirt and backpack on her way to a summer job, we’re instantly engaged and feel a genuine affection for her, making her inevitable fate surprisingly tragic. The waif-like WB castoffs that typically populate horror films today seem even more plastic by comparison, weighing down every scene with phony ennui that can only come from having a cadre of assistants constantly telling you how tough your job is.
Equally strong is Adrienne King as Alice, pigeonholed after the film’s release as the archetypal ‘final girl’, a term proposed by feminist authors in the ’80s to support the notion that the men who wrote and directed these films thought of most women as either virgins or whores, with the latter deserving of a grisly end, elevating a single girl – typically both virginal and somewhat masculine, conforming to Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode in the original Halloween – to survive and face the killer. Though Alice is somewhat dowdy in comparison to her fellow counselors, it’s sexism of a different color to assume that she’s a virgin simply because she doesn’t sleep with Kevin Bacon or tie the tails of her oxford shirt over her bellybutton. Alice is in the midst of an affair with one man when the film begins, and doesn’t flinch at the suggestion of strip Monopoly. Empathy is what’s important here, and King is particularly good at allowing the audience in, even as the cinematography puts us in the place of the killer.
The completed film was picked up for distribution by Paramount Pictures, who invested heavily in its advertising and were rewarded with both a huge moneymaker, and a string of sequels that could each be counted on to bring in many times its meager budget before finally losing the character (and Cunningham) to New Line in the ’90s. Though New Line could have continued to use the Jason character as much as they wanted, the participation of Paramount would be required to use the very marketable title, and this year the remake stars finally aligned and the Michael Bay-produced remake of Friday the 13th opens nationally on, fittingly, Friday, February 13th.
Kicking up a bit of publicity, Paramount has re-released the first 3 films in the series on DVD, with the original also getting a Bluray release. Now, Paramount has already put out DVDs of the series individually, in two-movie sets, and in a large box set (the first release to include any value-added content). What makes the new release of the original special is that America will finally be able to see the film in its complete, unrated version, restoring roughly 10 seconds of bloodshed. But anyone expecting a gore-fest will be sorely disappointed; Friday came out at a time when the MPAA was being particularly tough on horror, routinely targeting genre filmmakers like Wes Craven and Brian DePalma and insisting on myriad cuts from most slashers before passing with an all-important ‘R’ rating. The level of tension that Friday so deftly maintains throughout makes the film seem – like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre before it – much more violent than it actually is. Only Kevin Bacon’s demise is noticeably augmented by the extra bloodletting, but it has the curious effect of calling attention to the Tom Savini-created effect and actually detracting from the moment; however, Paramount should be congratulated for finally making the footage available. The new edition also features a commentary track cobbled together from separate interviews (a practice we’re not fond of, but understand the need for) with Cunningham, writer Victor Miller, Crystal Lake Memoriesauthor Peter M Bracke, actresses King, and Betsy Palmer (Mrs. Voorhees), editor Bill Freda, assistant editor Jay Keuper, and composer Manfredini.
Featurettes include “A Friday the 13th Reunion,” which is actually a panel from a horror convention (featuring Palmer, as ever, wearing that famous cable-knit sweater).”Fresh Cuts: New Tails from Friday the 13th” is a more formal collection of interviews featuring many of the above participants, including our favorite victim, Robbi Morgan. “The Man Behind the Legacy: Sean S Cunningham” features an interview with same. Also available is the famous original trailer and the inexplicable “Lost Tales from Camp Blood – Part 1,” a short film about a couple who hear noises in the middle of the night, go out into the hallway of their home to investigate, and are killed in short order by a masked, Jason-like figure. It doesn’t really have anything to do with Friday the 13thexcept that the creator is most likely a fan; its inclusion is somewhat baffling. If it appeals, the story continues on the new disc for Part 2. The 1080p Bluray picture brings out clarity and detail in the image that I wouldn’t have thought possible, and is well worth the upgrade if you’re so equipped. Midway through the film, Ned (Mark Nelson) calls out to a hooded, shadowy figure in a cabin doorway where it’s clear for the first time since the original theatrical prints that it’s actually Betsy Palmer, making the most of her 10 shooting days. Paramount also gets high marks for including the original mono soundtrack in addition to a newer surround mix. Highly recommended.
Read about this week’s other Friday the 13th DVD releases in this edition of our weekly Laserblast column.
*Writing in the Fall 1975 issue of Cinefantastique, Jeffrey Frentzen called TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE Bava’s most “complete failure to date” and accused the director of having an “obnoxious eye for detail” in regards to the violent murders.

Nightmare City (1980) – DVD Review

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click to purchase

When NIGHTMARE CITY was released in the U.S. in 1983, it was shorn of 4 minutes of footage and retitled CITY OF THE WALKING DEAD (not to be confused with Fulci’s CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD). Blue Underground has seen fit to re-issue the out-of-print Anchor Bay widescreen DVD release of Umberto Lenzi’s low-budget zombie movie, transferred from a pristine print (though all the dubbing problems possessed by the original remain intact as well).
Lenzi’s claim to fame derives from his being the pioneer of the exotic cannibal movie, a genre launched by his MAN FROM DEEP RIVER, as well as his being the man to do the most notorious film in that genre, CANNIBAL FEROX (aka MAKE THEM DIE SLOWLY). NIGHTMARE CITY was clearly an attempt to cash in on Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD (1979( and possibly Fulci’s ZOMBIE (1980) as well. Lenzi claims he hated the original script, fought with the female producer of the film (Diego Alchimede), and objected to having to cast Stiglitz (TINTORERA) as his leading man (he wanted DJANGO’s Franco Nero).
The truth of the matter is that while NIGHTMARE CITY isn’t very good, neither is it dull, and there is a certain nostalgia factor for those who caught the film in the early ‘80s. To distinguish himself from Romero, Lenzi depicts his zombies as quick-moving and quick-witted (far in advance of 28 DAYS LATER or the DAWN remake), employing weapons rather than bare hands and teeth, and like vampires they drink blood rather than consume flesh. (The film does explore the idea that the zombies might be vampires, but they have no fangs, no supernatural powers, nor are they afraid of religious iconography).
The movie begins with reporter Dean Miller (Stiglitz) going to the airport to interview Professor Hagenbeck, when a plane mysterious lands without having radioed the tower. Suddenly, the local police are confronted by hordes of disembarking zombies attempting to cut every throat they see. This could have been an impressive set piece, but Lenzi utterly failed to make it credible in the slightest, as the machine guns are obviously firing blanks: no squibs explode; no property is damaged by bullets; and considering later gore, the blood spilled is rather minimal.
Lenzi proves inept at creating atmosphere, suspense, or shock throughout the film, but he does keep things moving, and the zombie attacks throughout are certainly plentiful. The DVD contains a short 13 minute interview with Lenzi in Italian with English subtitles. Here Lenzi claims he wanted to use the film to explore the idea of contamination (the zombies were apparently created by radiation from a military weapon, and some of them have been slathered with unconvincing brown goop to indicate infection). The Italian title of the film was Incubo Sulla Citta Contaminata. Unfortunately, Lenzi makes a boneheaded and offensive comment about the zombies being like AIDS patients, spreading contagion throughout society.
But then thinking is certainly not this film’s strong point. Miller’s wife, Dr. Anna Miller (Trotter) makes some Luddite comments about how we would all be better off without nuclear energy and Coca-Cola, but the blame really belongs to mankind itself. General Murchison (EATEN ALIVE’s Mel Ferrer) orders Dean’s breaking news report cut off mid-report, assuming apparently that  news blackout can best prevent widespread panic as the zombie contagion spreads throughout the city (followed by an electrical blackout as zombies attack the local power plants).
According to Lenzi, the script originally ended with a helicopter rescue, ala DAWN OF THE DEAD. He rightly pegged this as unsatisfying, and then managed to make an even worse ending ripped off of DEAD OF NIGHT and the original INVADERS FROM MARS, in which a nightmare becomes reality.
Worth noting is Stelvio Cipriani’s low-budget synthesizer score, filled with those familiar bass beats and electronic sounds, but not up to the level of his work for DEATH STALKS IN HIGH HEELS or Bava’s BAY OF BLOOD. Dubbing fans can listen for  iconic voice artist Al Clivers (ZOMBIE) doing not one but three dub jobs: a character at the airport, a voice over the hospital speakers, and a radio announcer.
Makeup fans may get a few giggles from chocolate-oatmeal-faced zombies, slit throats that fail to bleed, an arm torn off that fails to bleed, a radical on-camera breast reduction, and close-ups of zombies being shot through the head – filmed against blue backdrops that don’t match the locations of the long shots. While definitely disreputable stuff, one doesn’t easily forget the assault on the lycra-wearing dance-exercise program, a doctor hurling a scalpel at a zombie during a hospital assault, nor the final assent up a rollercoaster while blasting on-coming zombies. Recommended only for spaghetti film-lovers who like a special emphasis on the red sauce.
NIGHTMARE CITY (Incubo Sulla Citta Contaminata, 1980; Blue Underground DVD release on 4/08; re-issue of 2002 Anchor Bay DVD). Directed by Umberto Lenzi. Written by Antonio Cesare Corti, Luis Maria Delgado, and Piero Regnoli. Cast: Hugo Stiglitz; Laura Trotter; Mel Ferrer; Francisco Rabal; Maria Rosaria Omaggio.

Inferno (1980) on DVD

This film is a fascinating and frustrating phantasmagoria of the mysterious and the unexplained, a strange journey into realms beyond human understanding, where events happen without rhyme or reason, and little or no explanation is given. Although framed as a conventional horror film (with a protagonists searching for the secret of an evil power lurking in an old building), INFERNO borders on the surreal in its approach. The casual disregard for narrative logic, for the laws of cause and effect, recall Luis Bunuel at his most anarchic; the stylized beauty of the imaginative imagery is reminiscent of Jean Cocteau. However, as an experiment in “Absolute Cinema,” in which form overrules content, INFERNO cannot be reckoned a total success. The combination of the beautiful and the bizarre is hypnotically entertaining, but imagery does not resonate quite deeply enough to compensate for the lack of conventional virtue.

At times the storyline feels simply empty rather than esoteric, and one wishes that more effort had been put into making sense of the whole thing. The saving grace is the lingering suspicion that somewhere, tantalizingly out of reach, just beyond the edge of awareness, is an answer to the mystery. Whether or not this is actually true,  INFERNO feels like an intriguing enigma, one that holds interest precisely because it withholds any definite resolution.

Writer-director Dario Argento had been plying his trade, making horrific psycho-thrillers (known as giallo in his native Italy) since the early ‘70s, reaching his peak with Deep Red in 1975. Then he took a turn into supernatural horror with Suspiria in 1977 and scored his biggest hit in the United States, where it was released by 20th Century Fox (under a subsidiary label). The financial success prompted this 1980 sequel of sorts, which, unfortunately, failed to equal the financial success of the original. Although the film is much less well-known in the U.S. than its progenitor, it is a worthy follow-up that in some ways exceeds the original, even if it is nowhere near as satisfying on a visceral level.
INFERNO tends to disappoint fans of Suspiria – the Argento film for most North American horror audiences. That effort took the visual extravagance of Deep Red and magnified it to an even greater degree, casting aside the psycho-thriller trappings in favor of an Gothic spook show (actually, Baroque would be a better term, considering the architecture on display). Having distilled the story down to a bare minimum, Argento sustained Suspiria on style, and he pretty much succeeded, with shock effects that went way, way over the top. However, the film was unevenly paced, and the Grimm Fairy tale trappings were less deeply disturbing than the psychological horrors of his previous work.
The Mother of Tears makes a cameo appearanceFor INFERNO, Argento crafted a sort of indirect sequel, with no continuing characters. Instead, he sets up a mythology regarding the “Three Mothers,” immortal supernatural beings who control mankind’s destiny, sowing destruction, death, and sorrow. The connection between the two films is revealed when a student named Rose (Irene Miracle) reads a book by an architect-alchemist known as Varelli, who designed three incredible manses, one for each of the Three Mothers: one in Germany, one in New York, and one in Rome. Having introduced the witch Helena Marcos (a.k.a. “the Mother of Sighs”) in SUSPIRIA, Argento centers the film on the “Mother of Darkness.” (The two figures were introduced in  hallucinogenic essay “Levana and our Ladies of Sorrow” by Thomas De Quincy, author of “Confessions of an Opium Eater”; a third, the Mother of Tears, finally arrived in U.S. theatres in 2008.) When Rose disappears after her discovery, her brother Mark (Leigh McCloskey), who has been studying music in Rome (and briefly glimpsed a mysterious, beautiful woman – presumably, the Mother of Tears) returns to New York and searches for clues in the incredible ornate building where his sister was staying. His dream-like quest eventually brings him to a face-to-face encounter with the Mother of Darkness, but a (rather convenient) fire consumes the building, allowing him to escape, physically unharmed but with a new knowledge of dark and troubling things at work in the universe.
For much of the running time, this is an amazingly restrained effort from Argento, substituting a more subtle Keith Emerson score in place of the pulverizing Goblin music used to such great effect in Suspiria. Emerson occasionally reaches for a more frenetic approach to match the horror sequences, but in general the emphasis is more on mood than shock.
rgento recreates the taxi ride imagery from SUSPRIRIA: the colors are just as artificial but more muted.Also considerably toned down is the photography. The colors are just as artificial and intentionally unbelievable, but they are no longer as garish. The effect is even mor Bava-esque than in Suspiria, which expanded on experiments by Argento’s predecessor, director-cinematographer Mario Bava, who crafted ornate lighting schemes without regard to realism.
In keeping with this muted approach, no single set-piece ever reaches the intensity of Suspiria’s famous opening. In fact, the gore seems trimmed way back: instead of lingering on the details and dragging them out as long as possible (his usual approach), Argento builds to climaxes and quickly fades out. (This would suggest post-production censorship, but Anchor Bay’s DVD was released with Argento’s involvement, indicating that it represents his director’s cut.) One or two moments of violence even take place entirely off-screen, to be revealed only after the fact. One might almost be tempted to use the word subtlety, but the term is make sense only in comparison to Argento’s previous work.
In at least one sense, INFERNO notably outdistances its progenitor. For all its outre formal experimentalism, Suspiria featured a conventional (and admittedly weak) narrative that followed a lead protagonists in a linear fashion and contained only a handful of murders (all of which happened for reasons that were easy to understand). INFERNO dispenses with almost any semblance of coherence; like Once Upon a Time in the West (the Sergio Leone Western for which Argento co-wrote the story), INFERNO effectively segues from set-piece to set-piece, whether or not much plot connects the individual scenes.
Mark's search for his sister leads to dark and sinister places.The overall thread of Mark’s search for his sister is clear enough, but that doesn’t stop Argento from killing off any and all peripheral characters who happen to wander into the Three Mothers’ sphere of influence. This is complicated by the fact that these wicked stepmothers do not necessarily act directly but through intermediaries, so it is not always clear who is actually perpetrating the physical violence: a demon, an acolyte, an innocent person possessed by evil? (The point is underlined by a brief montage showing a pair of hands cutting the heads of three paper dolls; each doll is followed by a cutaway to an apparently unrelated event: a lizard eating a bug, a woman committing suicide, the lights going out in the apartment of a character who has learned the truth about the Three Mothers. Though never exlained, one must conclude that the hands belong to the Mother of Tears, who uses the dolls to work her evil magic, causing long-distance death and destruction.) The effect is at once confusing and disorienting, creating a universe in which death and evil lurk ever waiting to claim the unwary, no matter how ignorant and nonthreatening they may be to the forces of darkness at work.
The result is a much smoother piece of work overall, lacking both the intense highs and the lulling lows of Suspiria. This more carefully balanced approach keeps INFERNO floating on a level altitude for most of its running time. Unfortunately, the disregard for narrative also raises suspicion that Argento has simply found a convenient rationalization for his own lack of story-telling prowess; it is almost as if an artist, who could not draw a straight line, turned to abstract art as a way of hiding his short comings. This becomes most apparent in the frankly disappointing ending: as in Hammer Films’ Plague of the Zombies, a convenient fire burns down the abode housing the villain, saving the hero from actually having to do anything. (One should also note that this non-narrative format, in which a variety of loosely connected characters are killed off for transgressing on the territory of an evil supernatural female, was distilled and perfected by Takashi Shimizu in his Ju-On films.)
Perhaps INFERNO’s most effective quality is that it is so damned cryptic! Using alchemy as his metaphor (an esoteric precursor to science meant only to be understood by its practitioners), Argento unfolds this tale, full of implied significances which are never unexplained.* The audience is left, like the film’s hero, feeling as if exposed to a dark mystery with no solution—or perhaps a solution beyond human explanation. As Argento said at an American Cinematheque retrospective of his work: “When I read about alchemy, I kept asking ‘Why?’ But there is no why!” Alchemy is all about process—that is, the journey, not the goal. That’s what Inferno is: a dark journey.
As if to belie this mysterioso approach to narrative, the DVD does reinstate one scene previously missing from American prints of the film: a brief dialogue between Rose and the bookseller from whom she bought the fateful volume that results in so many deaths. Poised like a traditional expository scene (the equivalent of Udo Kier’s brief cameo near the end of Suspiria), the vignette is really more of a “non-explanation” explanation, which really doesn’t elucidate much of anything (“..the only true mystery is that our very lives are governed by dead people”). But its appearance so early in the film at least clues viewers in to the fact that they shouldn’t be hoping for a narrative neatly tied up with explanations.

The alchemist's lair, beneath the Bibliotec in Rome.


Although INFERNO focuses mostly on the Mother of Darkness in New York, it features a cameo by the Mother of Tears in Rome, who shows up at a music lecture Mark is attending, complete with a white kitty cat (rather like the one Blofeld used to have in the Bond films). Later, the film drops a hint about the dwelling place of the Mother of Tears: as Sara, Mark’s fellow student, approaches the Biblioteca in Rome, she notes a sickly sweet smell – like the one Rose, Mark’s sister, noticed in her New York apartment, signaling the presence of the Mother of Darkness. However, Argento’s later MOTHER OF TEARS ignored this hint and placed the Mother of Tears in a completely different dwelling place. In retrospect, viewers must assume that the sickly sweet smell emanated from the alchemist lair into which Sara stumbles while trying to find her way out of the library.


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Denied a theatrical release (or even a handful of art house screenings) in the U.S., INFERNOmade its U.S. debut on a now out-of-print VHS tape, which provided adequate picture and sound quality, but cropped the left and right sides of the widescreen image, chopping down Argento’s carefully framed images and thus deleting much of the atmosphere. Consequently, Anchor Bay’s 2000 DVD release represented the first chance for most American viewers to see the film in something like the form its director intended.
The disc corrects this the aspect ratio with a nicely letter-boxed image (enhanced for 16X9 TV screens) and a choice of Dolby 2 channel or Dobly 5.1 sound. The soundtrack is in English only (no Italian ), which is unfortunate: English-speaking leads McCloskey and Miracle get to speak in their own voices, but the dubbing of the Italian supporting cast leaves much to be desired (check out the lame voice given to Alida Valli, who sounded so much better in Suspiria). The sumptuous colors of Romano Albani’s cinematography shine through, and Keith Emerson’s moody music is sharp and clear. Since the film’s effectiveness comes more from the interplay of visuals and music than from story, this combination is not to be underestimated: if you’ve only seen the film on video and found it disappointing, now is your chance to experience the full effect of INFERNO.
In addition to preserving the film in excellent condition, the disc also offers some relatively brief but entertaining extras: a theatrical trailer, a gallery of stills, talent bios, and a videotaped interview with Argento. The trailer captures the tantalizing quality of the film, despite probably giving away too many of the scare sequences. The stills, all in black-and-white, show a few memorable scenes from the film, plus one or two behind-the-scenes images of Argento at work—not as extensive as one would like, but not bad, either. There are three talent bios, for Argento, for his brother Claudio, who produced the film, and for Daria Nicolodi, Argento’s one-time paramour, who co-starred in INFERNO and co-writer Suspiria. The only extensive bio is for Argento, but the other two hit the main points of interest to the uninitiated; also, the bios for both Argentos benefit from the inclusion of quotes pulled from existing interviews, rendering them slightly more usual than the usual dry rundown of facts. All the bios are followed by selective filmographies.
The highlight of the disc’s extras is the interview with Argento, which is actually more of a brief, behind-the-scenes documentary, including stills, clips, and comments from Argento’s assistant director Lamberto Bava (who went on to direct the Argento-produced Demons and Demons 2.) The interview is presented with the subjects speaking in their native language, and viewers have the choice of watching with or without English subtitles.
The underwater sequence - one of the film's highlights - was not co-directed by Mario Bava, despite rumors to that effect.Fans of Lamberto’s famous father, director-cinematographer Mario Bava, will be pleased to see that the elder Bava’s uncredited (but always acknowledged) contribution to INFERNO have finally been clarified here. Rumors have abounded that Mario Bava directed the film’s underwater sequence (a genuinely creepy standout), but in truth it was his skill as a cinemagician that was put to use. Although set mostly in New York, Inferno was filmed mostly in Italy. It was Mario Bava who supervised the composite shots that put New York skylines outside windows and in the background of an interior set simulating Central Park. He also contributed a few more noticeable special effects, such as the Mother of Darkness’s disappearance (exactly like a similar scene in Bava’s directorial debut Black Sunday) and reappearance in skeletal form after bursting out from inside a mirror.
The original DVD release also included a four-page booklet that listed the Chapter Selections and contained a brief interview with Leigh McCloskey, who discusses Argento’s enigmatic approach to directing actors and relates how the actor filled in for his stuntman during the film’s fiery conclusion.


Although INFERNO will probably never replace Suspiriain the hearts of many fans, it is an effective horror film that mixes graphic violence with narrative ellipses in an intriguing way that prefigures the work of Lucio Fulci (The Beyond) and Takashi Shimizu (Ju-On: The Grudge). For those wanting easily understandable stories and/or fast-paced shocks, this film may not be for you, but if you are willing to enter a magical sinister world where mysterious things happen for little or no apparent reason, you may find yourself swept up in a nightmarish landscape such as few films have ever created. And there’s always something to be said for a film that studious eschews the oft-repeated admonition of most horror films: “There’s got to be a rational explanation!”
No, there doesn’t. And this film is the better for it.

Mark (Leigh McCloskey) confronts the Mother of Darkness in her lair.

INFERNO (1980). Written and directed by Dario Argento. Cast: Leigh McCloskey, Irene Miracle, Eleonora Giorgi, Daria Nicolodi, Sacha Pitoeff, Alida Valli, Veronica Lazar, Gabreiele Lavia, Feodor Chaliapin, Aria Pieroni.