There is something exuberantly trashy about Umberto Lenzi’s Nightmare City. It is an unholy mix of classic horror conventions and gorily-realised destruction that marks it out as one of the Italian director’s most fondly remembered films. Also, it is not a zombie film.
News reporter Dean Miller (Hugo Stiglitz) is waiting at an airport to interview a renowned scientist about a recent nuclear accident. When the unmarked military transport arrives, dozens of radiation-infected people emerge and immediately begin attacking anyone they find with the intention of drinking their blood. As the infected take over the city, escape looks impossible.
Nightmare City is not as well-known as similarly-themed films of the ‘70s and ‘80s, but it is one of the most important. When offered the project originally, Lenzi was unhappy with the premise and began an overhaul of the script, adding the radiation storyline and giving his monsters an energy and aggression that he felt was lacking in many zombie movies. He also felt no desire to try and emulate Romero. What he created was a template for a new type of baddie, one more familiar today from Zack Snyder’s 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake or Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later. The latter is the closest comparison thematically, being clearly influenced by many of Lenzi’s ideas and similarly generating its terror through the inclusion of infected humans as a fast, bloodthirsty animal that cannot be suppressed.
The set pieces in Nightmare City are most notable for this movement. In having his creatures rush around rather than simply lumber, the attacks become almost balletic; the carnage a violent and bloody dance as the victims are devoured. One particular sequence in a film studio contains all the familiar elements of the genre enhanced through Lenzi’s touch; scantily clad female dancers have the clothes ripped from their bodies as the infected feast rabidly while the synth-pop soundtrack plays out, giving the whole piece a macabre beauty.
This restoration by Arrow Films is as good as any they have done and the complexities of the process are explained in a featurette that accompanies the release. Alongside this is a raft of interesting extras including an interview with Lenzi himself, with the venerable director talking effusively about the production process, and one with the always entertaining Eli Roth, who dispenses his enthusiastic opinion on why Nightmare City should be regarded as a classic.
Whether that moniker is deserved is difficult to say, as Nightmare City may always remain a lesser-known film from the period. It will never carry the same pathos as Romero’s original zombie trilogy or even Lenzi’s own Man from Deep River, mainly due to its greater sense of fun, but its importance in the genre is unavoidable due to the long lasting influence it exudes.
Just don’t call it a zombie film.
Special Features: Two versions of the film / Audio commentary / Interviews with Umberto Lenzi, Maria Rosaria Omaggio, and Eli Roth / Nightmare City and The Limits of Restoration featurette / Alternative opening titles / Trailer / Collector’s bookletNIGHTMARE CITY / CERT: 18 / DIRECTOR: UMBERTO LENZI / SCREENPLAY: VARIOUS / STARRING: HUGO STIGLITZ, LAURA TROTTER, MEL FERRER, MARIA ROSARIA OMAGGIO, FRANCISCO RABAL / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW