Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Nightmare City (1980)


Incubo sulla citta contaminata
City of the Walking Dead

Like a great number of his contemporaries working within the blood soaked environs of the low budget/exploitation arena in 1970’s Italy, Umberto Lenzi is a director with a competent degree of generic utility. Lenzi is a journeyman filmmaker, a safe, if somewhat undistinguished pair of  hands. Lenzi offered some interesting and colourful contributions to the giallo genre which included Orgasmo (aka Paranoia, 1969), So Sweet…So Perverse (aka The Spider, 1969), and the beautifully titled Seven Blood-Stained Orchids (1972). His major contributions to the horror genre were three mindless and moronic entries into the cannibal subgenre - Deep River Savages (aka Man from Deep River, 1972), Eaten Alive! (1980) and the inexcusable cinematic excrement Cannibal Ferox (aka Make them Die Slowly, 1981). The result of these films is a cinematic legacy marked by sadism rather than proficiency, films lacking personality and any sense of stylistic coherence. A preponderance to rely on shock tactics has perhaps endeared Lenzi to cult film enthusiasts, but it takes very little effort to see that there is no depth to Lenzi’s cinematic offerings.

Appearing in between Lenzi’s cannibalistic double is one of horror cinema’s dumbest films Nightmare City. An emblematic film lacking any sense of narrative coherence. It doesn’t even possess the dream like quality that so many fans of Italian horror fall back on to explain the fact that the films make no sense at all. It suffocates under its own blanket of imitation - offering up a sub-Romero socio/political message amid a backdrop of sub-Fulci gore and violence. The feeble attempts to emulate the wondrous gore of Fulci fail due to a less than professional approach to make up effects. The unconvincing zombies create a snowball effect, and pretty soon the films allegorical statement about nuclear power becomes equally unconvincing. The power plant sequences are impressively staged, and Lenzi gets much visual mileage out of this stark industrial location, but Lenzi and his team are clearly itching to get away from the thematic substance of the film and get down to the serious business of misogynistic imagery. There are more topless shots than zombies, and Lenzi is rigorous in his determination to present the deaths of female extras in as much detail as possible. The few male victims we see are vanquished quickly and quietly and without fanfare. These are zombies with an unerring interest in killing women.

It comes as no surprise that the screenplay was cobbled together by no less than three scribes. In this case Antonio Cesare Corti, Luis Maria Delgado and Piero Regnali. A mulititude of writers is normally the first sign of disharmony and incompetence. Its clear to me that none of these individuals are familiar with the term characterisation. The dull bearded lead character Dean Miller (Hugo Stiglitz) goes from a feckless and weedy television journalist to gun toting action hero all to easily and conveniently. His wife Dr. Anna Miller (Laura Trotter) undergoes an even more bizarre character transformation. She starts the film as a bastion of scientific rationality, offering up juvenile philosophy and ends it as a mindlessly superstitious imbecile ranting about vampires! The silliness and stupidity steadily builds along with an increasing hysteria. At least the hysterical tone is in keeping with a society suddenly beset by radioactive zombies, but the stupidity and subsequent contempt for the audience is unforgivable.

But even utterly inept and useless horror films such as this manage to have a few redeeming aspects. The zombies for example are particularly energetic, they can run, and behave with a mobility unheard of at the time for zombie films. This is the earliest example I have seen of this (please let me know if there is an earlier one) and is surely an influence on 28 Days Later (2002) and the remake of Dawn of the Dead (2004). Lenzi does succeed (hopefully by design rather than accident) in creating a palpable mood of despair and nihilism. A cynical attitude to the authorities and the military aids this atmosphere of impending doom. The closure of the film may surprise some first time watchers, but to me it was utterly pointless and devoid of justification. It was done a lot better in Ealing Studio’ masterful Dead of Night (1945) where it had meaning and purpose.

© Shaun Anderson - 2010


  1. This film is hilarious to me, I found myself enjoying it. Those scenes inside of the tv studio with the girls doing a jazzerzise type of thing, was funny! I was like: who would watch such a shitty show anyways?!

    I laughed even harder when one of the characters throws a tv set at one of the zombies and the tv set explodes, as if it was a bomb or something.

    I couldnt understand why these zombies would stab people before the killed them! What was up with that?

    And finally, the ending on the rollercoaster, that was a highlight for me, but like you say, this film has way too many faults, I just took it as a trademark of low budget Italian horror films, most of them suffer from the same decease: a plot that makes no sense!

    Its happened to me on many an Italian Horror film, its kind of hard to keep track of what is going on through out the film, or why we are even watching...but even with all its flaws, I had a decent time with it.

    Dead of Night, Ill have to check that one out.

  2. I agree that this is a terrible film, but also an enjoyable one! My favourite moment is when the 'zombies' surround the hero's car and you can see one of the zombie extras taking a sly drink from a bottle - alcoholic zombies!

    The DVD I watched has an awesome interview with Lenzi, in which he complains about the lead actor a lot because he wanted Franco Nero, and he also compares the film to Philadelphia. The man is clearly a bit loony.

    I also think Dead of Night is the only film ever to use that device and get away with it.

  3. Franco I'm in total agreement. Perhaps my review is a little harsh and unforgiving, because there is much humour to be found here. Unfortunately though I dont think it is intentional on the filmmakers part, the impression I got is that this was being taken quite seriously. As you point out these are very erratic and eccentric zombies. I suppose that alone makes it distinctive.

    Hello there Chris - I must have another watch (yes I'm a masochist) to spot the drunk extra! I've just remembered that my copy, which was a Blue Underground re-issue of an old Anchor Bay title got damaged and I threw it out. That was a very traumatic day!

  4. Hi, Shaun. I echoed some of your sentiments in my review of this film particularly that women are butchered in a savage way more so than the males.

    Lenzi gets noticeably upset when people refer to these monsters as 'zombies'. They're just humans affected by radiation. The plot was actually based loosely on the Seveso incident that occurred in Italy in the late 70's. He also says he fought with the producer over the direction of the film. Lenzi wanted to veer away from zombie trappings, but the producer won out in the end. Still, some of Lenzi's ideas survive the final film.

    I actually enjoy this movie quite a lot and found it to be somewhat frightening despite several silly spots. Lenzi is successful in creating an atmosphere of dread and isolation on more than one occasion in my view. He was a good choice for this movie in accordance with his big movies like his SANDOKAN films and his war pictures.

    The Italian Shock DVD contains a long Lenzi interview and commentary in English with the man as well as the soundtrack.

    Great write up, by the way, Shaun.

  5. Hi there Venom - thanks as ever for the informative comments. I'm aware of the Seveso incident, and if this was an attempt to allegorise it then thats a very worthy ambition...clearly the imperatives of the horror genre (producer pressure as you note) totally dilute any political statement the film might be trying to make. Its diffiult to sympathise with anything Lenzi says, especially after having sat through 'Cannibal Ferox', I'm of the opinion that one should take his comments with a pinch of salt.

  6. CANNIBAL FEROX was my very first look into the cannibal subgenre back in the mid 80's. There's a funny story attached to it, too. But I think the reason Lenzi did those later cannibal pictures had something to do with his refusal to direct a sequel/follow up to MAN FROM THE DEEP RIVER. When Deodato stepped up with LAST CANNIBAL WORLD, I think Lenzi took it to heart about who, or what film ignited that style of film.

    Personally, I think MAN FROM DEEP RIVER is quite well made and one of Lenzi's better movies. I respect him a lot since he doesn't shy away from what he thinks, or feels.

    He's one of the few Italian personalities I'd love to sit down and chat with.

  7. I should probably give 'Man from Deep River' a second look, but I'm not a big fan at all of these cannibal films. I can appreciate 'Cannibal Holocuast' from an objective perspective (and that particular film has a remarkable score by Riz Ortolani), but overall they dont do a lot for me.

  8. DEEP RIVER isn't really a cannibal movie. It's more in the vein of A MAN CALLED HORSE. There's one sequence of cannibalism and the locales are very nice. That's the one thing that is attractive to me about these films is that the filmmakers went to these exotic and highly dangerous locales to shoot these movies. Crews today wouldn't stand for shooting in areas such as this.

    I also feel these movies share a kinship with the Mondo shockumentaries. Possibly if not for movies like MONDO CANE and AFRICA, ADDIO we wouldn't have gotten these violent jungle adventures.

  9. Yes I'd certainly agree with you there Venom - the humid locations are certainly evocative. I think the connection you make between cannibal and mondo movies is also spot on. Blue Underground's box set of Mondo Shockumentaries is an excellent introduction tho this most reviled of cinematic genres...I might give 'Africa Addio' another look, I remember it exerted an aura of strange fascination (against my better judgement.)


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