The Italian – Spanish Nightmare City (1980) aka City of the Walking Dead begins with a modern horror: an unidentified military airplane lands at an airport.
Aircraft are the impetus of nearly all large-scale, modern day destruction — a delivery system of nuclear weaponry or a missile all their own.
Unfortunately for the good folks in sensational Giallo – director Umberto Lenzi’s film (coming about two-thirds through his career), the plane holds the undead.
Even more unfortunately for the viewer, the zombies are so insubstantial in this one, they might as well get blown away into the atmosphere just as the plane lands.
In fact, it is probably more accurate not referring to this movie as a zombie film, as the director Umberto Lenzi himself has stated that it isn’t strictly a zombie film, he views this work as a study of an infection that turns people into mindless automatons out to kill. Let’s file it in the ‘infected’ zombie sub-genre for now.
A Radioactive Waste
Dean Miller, played by Hugo Stiglitz (the Mexican actor Quentin Tarantino paid homage to in Inglourious Basterds) is an American TV news reporter waiting at an unnamed European airport for a scientist. He is about to interview the man regarding a recent nuclear accident when instead, he receives an unmarked military plane on the runway. Its doors open to reveal the undead who jump out immediately and stab and shoot the military men outside. Miller tries to inform the public about the creatures as they run amok, but General Murchison of Civil Defense (Mel Ferrer) insists they keep the public in the dark.
So where do these zombies fall on the speed, smarts, and suck-your-blood spectrum? Aye, there’s the rub. If this film actually did its job in defining these creatures — like any good zombie film will do — maybe I’d have an answer for you.
We know that they’re the result of radiation, but no two look alike: the scientist coming off the plane looks completely human……until he manically stabs somebody. Some would look more at home in Planet of the Apes (if the primary makeup material were feces), others in a low-budget Star Trek knock off. Some have visual skin infections, and again, others look plain human. These “infected,” as they’re better termed, are merely a catalyst for Umberto Lenzi to get some gore in: a woman’s boob is cut off, a woman’s eye stabbed out, an infected’s head blown to bits. But all of the “undead” are so ill-defined that their effect is affectless — we look on only at humans doing violent human things in a vacuum. It’s shocking only in its boredom.
The Zombie Movie That Never Was
Lenzi himself, according to Zombie Movies: The Ultimate Guide (Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk), didn’t even see Nightmare City as a zombie flick, rather a “radiation sickness movie” as a front for a heavy-handed anti-military (anti-government? pro-press?) message.
A zombie movie that isn’t a zombie movie? That’s about as far as any pure zombie analysis can go at least. The ‘zombies’ here are probably the first cinematic example of running zombies / infected people, and to its credit the movie does include some arresting scenes and moments of great cinematography where masses of infected people are running across the city like a plague or disease spreading rapidly through its host. The infected on show here can also use weapons and tools and show some degree of thought in their rampage.
The joys of Nightmare City — I suppose only in the few shocks of gore — are few, if any. Dialogue is idiotic (when General Murchison calls the latest scientific reports on the zombies “sketchy” and “vague,” he’s really talking about the script). Blatant rips of Night of the Living Dead (1968) lore (shoot for the brain) are offensive in their laziness. At least the project is aptly titled: if you’re not angry enough come the hour and twenty-five minute mark, just wait for the ending.
The soundtrack is to Nightmare City is solid however – Stelvio Cipriani pulls together a classic Giallo-style score full of dark pulsing synths and racing signature themes that suits the frantic pace of the film perfectly. It has pretty much everything you want from a 1980s giallo horror.
In some ways it is the perfect midnight movie – and if you approach it with that mentality, then maybe you will find more to enjoy. It is terrible, but enjoyable – you know how these contradictions work when you are dealing with horror B-movies.
Save your Lenzi education for looking up the La Casa series, or even Eaten Alive! (1980) if you can stomach cannibal flicks. Even for the sake of earning your “Seen ‘Em All” zombie merit badge, Nightmare City can be a chore at times.
But if you are up for the challenge, then you can watch the whole movie below.
Watch Nightmare City, a.k.a. City of the Walking Dead trailer:
It also recently been announced that Tom Savini (the special effects legend for George A. Romero’s zombie movies….as well as being actor and director in his own right) is remaking ‘Nightmare City‘. The remake is being supported by Lenzi, who is acting as a kind of ‘patron’ for the project and much of the funding and production is being crowd-sourced online.
|Buy the film at Amazon.com|
|Buy the film at Amazon.co.uk|
Find out more about the soundtrack for ‘Nightmare City‘, by the legendary Giallo soundtrack composer Stelvio Cipriani at Site of the Dead.
Written by: Ben Mueller