8 ½ Doors of Death Presents:
NIGHTMARE CITY aka CITY OF THE WALKING DEAD (1980)
Film Review by Jerome Reuter
SYNOPSIS: A reporter named Dean Miller (Hugo Stiglitz) travels to a local airport to interview a scientist regarding a recent nuclear accident. As he emerges from the aircraft, he’s followed by a swarm of infected people. They begin to murder everyone in sight with incredible speed. They soon spread out to the Italian countryside, murdering victims, drinking their blood, and infecting others. Miller soon clashes with General Murchison (Mel Ferrer), the head of the civil defense force, over the wave of terror. As the military stumbles about to understand the full ramifications of the situation, the killing continues. Miller soon finds himself in the middle of an unstoppable epidemic.
In this day and age, the threat of nuclear war seems like a forgotten memory. Something one might come across in a textbook, or see in a newsreel from a bygone era. Throughout the cold war, it was a very real fear. Superpowers were poised to unleash a third world war under the threat of mutually assured self-destruction. With a growing military build-up, and the real life tragedies of Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, it seemed the world was on the verge of a collapse.
Umberto Lenzi explored this paranoia in NIGHTMARE CITY (1980). Several years before 28 DAYS LATER (2002), Lenzi used the zombie motif to deal with the subject of infection. Despite a few noticeable flaws, and some dodgy makeup effects, its underlying themes are relevant to the time period in which it was released.
Much to the delight of anyone going into this movie craving gore-infused action, there’s plenty to go around. Very little time is wasted in establishing the bloodbath that dominates its 90-minute running time. Lenzi demonstrates his ability to orchestrate violence on an operatic scale, and paint a portrait of order breaking down in the face of chaos. Unlike other films from the time period, the zombies found here are a different sort. Aside from their quick movement, they display uncanny abilities with weapons, and seem to have the ability to retain their motor skills and have developed superhuman strength. However, there’s no denying that their appearance is somewhat comical. Their makeup and prosthetics bear more of a likeness to potting soil. Lenzi’s zombies kill victims for their blood, and survive on plasma. Some of the murders have an almost camp appearance to them, with one even plucking an eyeball out via some knife work.
In continuing with the theme of infection, the zombies are the prefect symbolism for the after-effects of nuclear fallout. They strike everything in their path, and no one is spared from their wanton destruction. Lenzi, who is most proud of his war films, shines in his ability to depict the scale of this invasion. Some of the more memorable moments from the apocalypse include attacks on a television station and a hospital, as well as knife-wielding ghoul who waves a switchblade around like some 1950’s greaser.
Although much of the carnage onscreen dilutes much of Lenzi’s attempt at a satirical message, it still finds a way to make itself known. Miller, who I assume is supposed to represent the collective voice of reason, doesn’t really express this well. Hugo Stiglitz certainly tries in his role, but he fluctuates too often between unlikely hero and wet blanket. In sharp contrast, General Murchison is depicted rather well as a bumbling military bigwig, grossly unprepared to deal with the grave situation at hand. His main priority is to keep the events a secret as they’re unfolding, and the film does a great job at expressing the problems that occur with a government cover-up. Ferrer’s performance is extremely phoned in. It’s not horrible by any means, but one gets the feeling that he didn’t take the project seriously. One remark I’ve made countless times about Ferrer in NIGHTMARE CITY is “He doesn’t even know he’s in a movie.”
NIGHTMARE CITY is far from being one of the greatest zombie films of all time. While it certainly has its low points from time to time, though, its bleak story is by far one of the most original to be found in the genre. Although its social commentary might be lost on some of today’s audience, its appeal certainly isn’t. As the zombie has now evolved into a faster-paced antagonist, it’s interesting to see where those seeds were first sewn. Just as the concluding title card had promised, the nightmare becomes reality.
© Copyright 2017 by Jerome Reuter