Where the rent is an arm and a leg
One of many zombie pictures made in the wake of Dawn of the Dead, this Italian epic by director Umberto Lenzi is known under many titles: City of the Walking Dead, Incubo Sulla Citta Contaminata, and La Invasion de los Zombies Atomicos, to name a few. Under any name, you can call it vintage splatter.
For the time being, Nightmare City is only available on DVD via this German import. It’s not the deluxe remastered package some other Euro-shock titles are receiving stateside, but the film is presented in a generous 2.36:1 ratio and is more than sufficient until somebody decides to give it a release with more extras.
A military transport plane makes an emergency landing at a big city airport. The passengers are a team of investigators who’ve returned from checking out a nuclear spill. But look out! The radioactivity has changed the men into bloodthirsty zombies!
What’s worse, these are not the brain-dead, shambling corpses we’re familiar with from the George Romero movies. These rot-faced fiends are lively and aggressive, charging off the plane with hatchets and machetes and into battle with waiting troops. When they claim an armed victim, a zombie grabs a machine gun and makes use of it. Bullets don’t stop the ghouls, yet they feel pain when injured in other ways.
Newsman Dean Miller (Hugo Stiglitz — dour, bushy-faced genre veteran of Survive, The Bermuda Triangle, and Night of a Thousand Cats) witnesses the massacre and tries to broadcast the story. General Murchison (Mel Ferrer — who sank even further down after several spaghetti horrors by appearing on Falcon Crest) imposes government censorship to avoid panic. Bad move — the zombie plague spreads to the TV station, where the ghouls butcher a dancersize program in progress. Well, at least the viewing public gets a peek at what’s coming for them.
Miller makes like an action hero and escapes, mowing down zombies with his Volkswagen Beetle. He hurries to warn his wife Anna (Laura Trotter of Miami Golem), a doctor at a local hospital.
In a pow-wow of brass, reminiscent of a 1950s sci-fi film (specifically Invisible Invaders), Murchison’s military scientists discuss the situation. They examine a dead ghoul, and determine that it’s not an extraterrestrial, but a human mutated by exposure to highly concentrated radiation. However, it’s established that the creatures could be starved to death, but the tried and true head shot is a quicker solution.
Murchison’s spoiled daughter Jessica (Stefania D’Amario of Zombie) and her husband Bob leave home on a camping trip just in time to escape the carnage. But when friends go into town for supplies, they return with the infection.
The highly motivated and organized corpse army reaches the power station, causing a city-wide blackout. They make it to the hospital, where they massacre everyone and drink all the blood. However, Miller again escapes, taking Anna with him. With zombies swarming all over the city, the pair head for the hills, but are forced to take refuge in a roadside diner — where Anna insists on making smug moralistic speeches. Dean makes himself useful by blasting zombies with a molotov cocktail.
Everywhere they go, the zombies attack. Is there no way to wake from this nightmare?
The Goblin-esque theme by Stelvio Cipriani (composer for Mario Bava’s final films) cuts in with every zombie attack, which is repetitive, but helps give the impression of a relentless wave of destruction. The dialogue and characters are trite and forgettable, but there’s so much bloody action that the film can’t help but make an impression. It’s much like Lucio Fulci’s Zombie, but a lot more hyper and on a grander scale.
Lenzi, who often was credited with a host of pseudonyms (from Hubert Humphrey to Doo Yong Lee!), made a career of ripping off hits and adding a fresh twist. After spending the ’60s with the usual Italian fare — peplums, Westerns, spies — he made his first big international impression with Man from Deep River (1973), a brutal adventure film that took Elliot Silverstein’s A Man Called Horse and recast it in the cannibal-infested jungles of South America. Deep River led to a wave of Italian cannibal romps, including Lenzi’s own Emerald Jungle (aka Eaten Alive) and the ferocious downtown grindhouse favorite Cannibal Ferrox (aka Make Them Die Slowly). Lenzi was also behind Rambo’s Revenge (Syndicate Sadists), The Hitcher 2, and the outrageous Bruce Lee Fights Back from the Grave.
The film has a pale and grainy look, which is probably more the intent of cinematographer Hans Burman than the fault of the transfer, which is sharper and more colorful than any other release of the film I’ve seen. Oddly, there are occasionally non-removable Japanese subtitles on the screen, leading me to believe that this is a “borrowed” transfer from a Japanese laserdisc.
Navigating through the “Hauptmenu”, you can see German trailers for Lamberto Bava’s Stage Fright, Army of Darkness, Brain Dead (Dead-Alive), Hellraiser 3, Zombi (Dawn of the Dead), and Dellamorte Dellamore (Cemetery Man).
The disc also has scenes (in German only) from Mad Max, Mad Max 2, Tales from the Crypt, The Last Boy Scout, Hard to Kill, and Hard-Boiled, promoting Laser Paradise’s Laserdisc line.