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.
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.
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.)
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.
Besides 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.)
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…”
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.
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.