In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s zombies were the go-to monsters for the socially conscious filmmaker with something to say. Between George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead in 1978 and his trilogy-completing Day of the Dead in 1985 there were more than 40 films of note released that featured the undead in various forms; and that list doesn’t include independent, micro-budget films that may have emerged at the time. Within that period recognised classics such as John Carpenter’s The Fog, Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead and Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2, (or Zombie Flesh Eaters, if you’re in the UK) entertained and terrified audiences in equal measure. There is one film from this period from hugely prolific Italian filmmaker Umberto Lenzi that has for more than three decades since its release remained something of an enigma, though; adored by devotees but unheard of by many film fans. That film is Nightmare City.
When American news reporter Dean Miller (Hugo Stiglitz) is sent to the airport to interview a scientist about a nuclear accident he could not have foreseen how his day would pan out. Dozens of infected humans pour from the plane with a taste for blood, and the city’s residents are powerless to stem the tide of gnashing, snarling ghouls.
Whenever Italian cinema of the period is discussed, it is done so with the names of Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento foremost in people’s minds. The period is famous for the giallo movement, a style of filmmaking that takes its name from the yellow pages of the popular pulp novels first published in 1929 that are now a synonym for mystery-inspired stories. Lenzi will always be associated with this genre but never received the prestige bestowed on his peers, perhaps due to his slight reticence at being connected with horror at all. Lenzi’s preference was for war films and westerns; for the police crime films he made in abundance; but he is best known as one of the ‘founders’ of the so-called cannibal movement. Man from Deep River in 1972 gave impetus to the subgenre, but it was not until Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (also one of the first ‘found footage’ films) that the series really gained notoriety. Perhaps second only to Deodato’s controversial masterpiece was Lenzi’s most famous film, Cannibal Ferox, which was released in 1981. Before that in 1980, though, Lenzi made Nightmare City, a film that slipped under the radar slightly at the time due to poor reviews and unconvincing effects. Today, this hugely nostalgic feature is still one of the lesser known entries in the canon but those clever people at Arrow Films have chosen this little seen, yet hugely influential work for restoration and a shiny new Blu-ray is set for release in 2015. The process has not been an easy one though.
“Nightmare City is a special case really,” explains James White who supervises the restoration process at Arrow Films. “Essentially, the film was challenging because the state of the materials was so compromised and it has to do with how they’ve been restored for years or badly treated in the lab environment or by the distributor. You never really know how the damage occurred to the element but digital restoration can only achieve so much despite how far it has come and there is a point where you have to stop or the film becomes something completely different.”
If the film was barely of a condition to restore it then, why do so?
James continues, “It’s from Umberto Lenzi who was an important director of the time and Nightmare City is definitely one of his lesser known films. It’s the kind of film that fans of it adore, and while perhaps not a favourite of the genre, it is a lot of fun. It’s rude, crude, graphic and gory and some of the effects are easy to see but is fun if not for everyone. We wanted to do the best we could for the film then for the people who love it.”
This is essentially the point. Nightmare City, when compared to many of the zombie films of the era is considerably more frivolous and lightweight in its narrative and message, although the latter still exists. Instead of an infection or disease, Lenzi chose nuclear radiation as the source of his outbreak, and actually railed against his ‘mutants’ ever being called zombies in the first place. The creatures that spread through the city need blood due their own bodies being unable to regenerate red blood cells, rather than just killing for killing’s sake. They also seem to possess superhuman strength and abilities and frustratingly, Lenzi never tries to explain how they can be stopped, preferring instead to include an ambiguous ending that questions whether the events actually took place or not. The military also fare badly in Nightmare City, being depicted as deeply flawed and unwilling to accept those failings. Lenzi also makes a point of emphasising the military leader’s reluctance to alert the public, preferring in their ignorance to allow casualties rather than adapt to the situation and try to contain the spread of the mutants. Anti-nuclear and anti-military messages are clear, but they are still secondary to the exuberance and fun to be found in the film.
A modern day comparison closer to Nightmare City rather than the multitude of true zombie horrors is Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later. Boyle’s baddies are infected with the rage virus rather than being irradiated, but they share one characteristic that continues to divide genre fans: they are fast. For this development alone, Nightmare City retains a place in history as its influence can clearly be seen on numerous films, from the aforementioned 28 Days Later to the recent World War Z, where the infected creatures swarm and sprint their way through the cities. There are even fast zombies in Zack Snyder’s Romero remake Dawn of the Dead!
How much you enjoy Nightmare City will be determined entirely by how you approach it. It is ridiculous. It has a central premise and plot that make little sense and the effects are unconvincing to the point that in some scenes you can virtually see the tape holding everything together. The female characters are about as hideously shallow as they could be and the mutated humans themselves are very strange indeed. But it is impossible to ignore the fact that the film is a whole lot of fun. The overacting is wickedly infectious and the blood flows freely as the city is taken over one building at a time.
As a horror film of the time, Nightmare City will always suffer by comparison but it still remains one of the most important due to Lenzi’s decision to have fast, irradiated mutants as his protagonists rather than the lumbering zombies of so many other films. He replaced the sense of impending dread with a faster, more instant fear and for that alone his influence can still be felt in filmmaking. Embrace Nightmare City as one of a kind, engage with its failings and enjoy its insanity, and you’ll have a huge smile on your face from beginning to end.
The new 2K restoration of NIGHTMARE CITY is available on Blu-ray on August 24th.