Nightmare City (1980)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #534


Also known as City of the Walking Dead
Number of Views: Two
Release Date: December 11, 1980
Sub-Genre: Zombie
Country of Origin: Italy, Spain
Running Time: 92 minutes
Director: Umberto Lenzi
Producers: Diego Alchimede, Luis Méndez
Screenplay: Piero Regnoli, Tony Corti, Jose Luis Delgado
Special Effects: Franco Di Girolamo, Giuseppe Ferranti
Cinematography: Hans Burman
Score: Stelvio Cipriani
Editing: Daniele Alabiso
Studios: Dialchi Film, Lotus Films, Televicine S.A. de C.V.
Distributors: 21st Century Distribution, Continental Video, Anchor Bay Entertainment
Stars: Hugo Stiglitz, Laura Trotter, Mel Ferrer, Maria Rosaria Omaggio, Francisco Rabal, Sonia Viviani, Eduardo Fajardo, Stefania D’Amario, Ugo Bologna, Sara Franchetti, Manuel Zarzo, Tom Felleghy, Pierangelo Civera, Achille Belletti

001-Nightmare City

Suggested Audio Candy

Stelvio Cipriani “Soundtrack Suite”

nightmare city 5

Radiation is a bitch! As if mankind hasn’t already got enough on its plate with zombie apocalypses breaking out left, right and center, we also have to watch out for toxic spills and the like. The undead are one thing and only really pose a discernible threat through their sheer wealth in numbers, whereas anyone even partially exposed to radiation presents an altogether more ominous proposition. For a start, movement is not limited by ailing joints and the afflicted are partial to stretching their legs at every opportunity. Remove a zombie’s chomping gear and they’re little more than sloppy kissers, whereas toxic avengers haven’t forgotten how to swing an ax. If schools didn’t include chemistry in their curriculum, then perhaps we wouldn’t be in this mess, but I guess that science waits for no man.


There seems no better time than the present to revisit Umberto Lenzi’s Nightmare City as Tom Savini is currently hard at work on a modern-day remake and looking to renovate this eighties spaghetti classic for a fresh audience. To those of us well-versed on Italian horror cinema, the name should be all too familiar as it arrived just after George A. Romero coined the term “splatter cinema” with Dawn of The Dead and the Italians were fully on-board with his exclusive brand of pandemonium from the offset. Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2 traveled well outside of its native country and a number of his countrymen were already following suit. However, Lenzi’s film chose another tack entirely.


Often overlooked when talking of the greats, Lenzi’s output during this thriving period was far more prolific than he has ever been given credit for. Aside from having a hand in everything from spaghetti westerns to giallo and seventies exploitation flicks, the well documented cannibal phenomena of the early eighties was also largely his doing. He started the cycle with Deep River Savages as far back as 1972, before bringing us Eaten Alive! in 1980 and perfecting the brand a year later with the infamous Cannibal Ferox provoking worldwide controversy for its unapologetic depictions of people being made to die slowly. Where that film landed him squarely in the dock, Nightmare City managed to pass by the censors unscathed and found its way Stateside in 1983 under the dubious mantle City of the Walking Dead.


First things first, whoever dreamed up this alternative title had clearly not been doing their homework. Granted, the zombie craze was picking up pace by then and the undead themselves certainly weren’t so I guess it could be seen as a shrewd piece of marketing. Such would have been the case had it not been for a couple of telling factors. Firstly, the zombies here have no intention of taking a leisurely stroll toward their victims and much prefer to dash at full pelt. Secondly, and this one’s a doozy, they’re not fucking zombies in the first place and neither are they dead. To this day, Lenzi is quick to point out that Nightmare City is a “radiation sickness movie” and was labelled wrongly from the offset. I guess whatever gets you an audience right?


Anyhoots, Lenzi’s film certainly doesn’t waste any time getting to the meat and gravy. Indeed, the same can be said of his work on the whole as he was never one to let the grass grow under his feet and overt exposition always played poor second fiddle to lightning-paced incident. Nightmare City hits the ground running, much like its irradiated hellraisers, and remains in accelerated gear pretty much for its duration. Barely five minutes have passed before an unmarked military plane has landed without clearance and strong-willed American television news reporter Dean Miller (Hugo Stiglitz) is first on the scene for his scoop. The moment the doors open, it’s a free-for-all, as dozens of bloodthirsty freaks pour out with only one thing on their minds – downright carnage.


The threat to national security is immense as, aside from enhanced speed and reflexes, the infected are unable to regenerate red blood cells, making them ravenous for their own brand of transfusions. However, that is pretty much all we need to know with regards to synopsis as Lenzi has other things in mind than blinding us with science for 92 minutes. Instead, we are treated to the sight of an entire city overrun with murderous mutants, much as the title openly implies.


Our key personnel include civil defense hot-shot General Murchison (Mel Ferrer), his daughter Jessica (Stefania D’Amario) and son-in-law Bob (Pierangelo Civera), Major Holmes (Francisco Rabal) and his significant other Sheila (Maria Rosaria Omaggio), and Miller’s wife Anna (Laura Trotter), whose position at the hospital places her in clear and present danger the moment the gurneys start getting wheeled in. We dart briskly from one perilous plight to the next, barely stopping to catch a breath and Lenzi ensures that we are never bogged down by clutter or unnecessary jargon.


Stiglitz is excellent as the beleaguered newshound and, if a face can tell a thousand tales, then his priceless expressions inform us of 1001. However, anyone expecting cunning dialogue clearly hasn’t watched enough Italian horror cinema, as it borders on the preposterous and frequently over steps the line. There is more than one way to tell a story and Lenzi allows his lens to do the talking first and foremost. His movie is one long example of forward momentum and culminates in a thrilling final flurry atop a rollercoaster that caps it all off brilliantly.


However, just as we’re getting ready to pop the cork off our champagne and scream “bella bella”, he drops one helluva clunker. The final twist beggars belief and is so far beyond ludicrous that it threatens to unravel all the good work that has preceded it, leaving us feeling well and truly cheated. I have tried to justify his decision and just can’t fathom his logic although admittedly narrative logic hasn’t exactly been in abundance throughout so it’s best just to roll with the punches and chalk it down to a moment of madness. With all that radiation, it was inevitable that it would rub off and I just pray that Savini finds a different way to wrap things up for his inbound reimagining.


While Nightmare City ultimately falls short of being considered a classic, its frenetic tempo is enough to paper over many of its numerous cracks and it can never be found culpable of floundering. If full-throttle entertainment is your bag, then I implore you to add this lopsided gem to your collection as there are few entries in the Italian splatter canon quite as relentless in their quest for thrills and spills. City of The Walking Dead really couldn’t be a more inappropriate title as leisurely it most certainly ain’t. The term “they don’t make them like this any more” really does apply here and it’s worth giving those rose-tinted spectacles a run-out, if only to marvel at macaroni cinema at its most delightfully cheesy.


Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 7/10

Grue Factor: 3/5

For the Grue-Guzzlers & Pelt-Nuzzlers: While the body count is undeniably in the upper echelons, Nightmare City isn’t ever particularly gruesome surprisingly enough. The kills are swift, merciless, and plentiful but seldom excessive when it comes to lingering injury detail although we are treated to one pleasingly grisly eye gouge and a number of flesh ripping exercises to sate our appetites for marinara. Throw in a dash of the obligatory naked flesh and there’s little reason to quibble.


Read Dawn of The Dead (1978) Appraisal

Read Zombi 2 Appraisal

Read Contamination Appraisal

Read Cannibal Holocaust Appraisal

Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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