Release Year – 1980
Maria Rosario Omaggio
Umberto Lenzi is a name well regarded by any fan of Italian horror or gorehound. His most well known film is Cannibal Ferox, also known as Make Them Die Slowly. While many regard it as a rip off of Cannibal Holocaust (much in the same way that Lucio Fulci‘s Zombie was made to cash in on the success of the original Dawn Of The Dead) the film does have a rabid fan base. In fact, there are many people, myself included, who actually find Ferox to be the superior film. But that is a story for another article. Today, we are talking about his 1980 effort, Nightmare City. Is it a film worth seeking out, or just another of the hundreds of foreign horror films to add to the annals of brutal missteps.
A little back story first. My first introduction to Nightmare City was at a Vagrancy Films show many years ago. For those of you not in the know, I am lucky enough to live in a city where two self-proclaimed scumbags have been renting out a theatre and showing different films of varying quality from the grindhouse and horror genres, plus some one off shows with beloved 80s flicks. Because of these fine gentlemen, I have been lucky enough to view such classics in the big screen as Evil Dead, House By The Cemetery, Weird Science, Masters Of The Universe, Battle Royale, The Exorcist, Demons, City Of The Living Dead, amongst countless others. As any bonafide Vagrant will tell you, some of the most fun shows are where the guys just show different trailers and clips from films. It was at one of these shows that I got to view the climactic roller coaster scene from Nightmare City, and its always stuck with me. Sadly in the interim I have actually never gotten around to viewing the film, but have heard many opinions on it, mostly of varying degrees.
Thankfully, the US Netflix recently added the film for instant streaming, so I knew I had to remedy that. I am a huge fan of Italian horror, specifically the films of the Maestro, Lucio Fulci. Many films coming out of that region if the world in the 80s were knockoffs of more popular films, or of the work of Fulci and Dario Argento. In fact, I would say that the late 70s and early 80s films of Fulci and Argento are some of the most important films in the horror genre, as their impact can still be felt today almost 40 years later.
First, lets talk about the plot. Dean Miller (Stiglitz) is a television reporter sent to interview a scientist coming in via plane about a recent nuclear accident. Once the plane makes an emergency landing, the waiting army officials are overtaken by a horde of zombies on the plane. From there you have your standard zombie fare. So how does the film hold up 34 years later?
Not well. The film is full of stilted acting and ridiculous scenes. But again, being an Italian horror film, we don’t always come for those aspects. Atmosphere and gore are the trademarks of that time in history, as any gorehound can tell you.
In regards to the atmosphere, the film never fully embraces it. It plods along from scene to scene with little attempt at trying to make an impact. Certainly the scenes not containing zombie carnage are boring and have very little to keep you engaged. But once again, this is not a make or break for the film.
I have to comment on the zombies. Keeping in mind that this film was released two years after the most seminal zombie film of all time (Dawn Of The Dead), these zombies are definitely not what you’d expect. Some of the zombies have no makeup, while some of them look like their skin is composed of burnt cookies. I suppose this can be attributed to them not being zombies per se, but sufferers of the nuclear accident. What is more incredible, and actually helps the films entertainment factor, is that there are no real rules to them. The zombies stab with knives, slash with machetes and even use machine guns. Some of them walk, some shuffle and some run. There is no consistency whatsoever, which at times is frustrating but is okay if you are willing to just turn off your brain and sit back. I should also note the fact that many of the zombies have an affinity for ripping open the female’s shirts before killing them, giving us our prerequisite nudity. There is also an excellent amount of boob stabbing, something not enough horror movies have.
As the plot moves along, we get our hero picking up his nurse wife from the hospital on their way to the previously mentioned amusement park for the roller coaster finale. All this really is is an excuse to give us some carnage in different settings. The hospital massacre is actually pretty entertaining and fun to partake in. There are also cutaway scenes to some throwaway characters which is basically another excuse for more carnage, however boring some of them may be.
This all leads to the climax at the amusement park which unfortunately does not hold up as well as I had remembered. There is truthfully something to be said about viewing these types of movies in a theatre full of like-minded individuals who are encouraged to have fun with the movie and shout at the screen and each other. It all leads to the twist ending which thankfully isn’t too much of a copout. There is nothing that bugs me more than a movie that forsakes everything you’ve seen just to try and shock you at the end (High Tension, I’m looking at you) but this one could be called satisfactory.
Overall Nightmare City is a decent flick for hardcore fans of the genre, but not one that your everyday viewer is going to want to seek out. If you are looking to get a friend or family member into Italian horror, I can’t really recommend this as a starting point. You’d be much better to go with any of the seminal films by Argento or Fulci. But there are definitely worst ways to spend 90 minutes. I should also note that the version on Netflix is subtitled with the original Italian dialogue, so you aren’t putting up with a terrible overdub.
I also want to bring to everyone’s attention some information about the annual Shock Stock convention as it is run by the same scumbags that run Vagrancy Films. It is far and away the best horror based convention in Canada, and is entering its fourth year. If you are within driving distance of the Southwestern Ontario area you owe it to yourself to be there. Its almost like a family atmosphere, and is always one of the best weekends of the year. It is going to be on April 11 – 13 this year at Centennial Hall, and you can meet some great horror stars, great vendors, plus I will be there everyday as I am and have been every year.