Italian director Umberto Lenzi is probably best known in horror circles for Cannibal Ferox and Eaten Alive, a
pair of documentary-style strolls into the jungle whose plots are more or less summarized by their titles. Nightmare
City, more familiar on these shores under the title City of the Walking Dead, is the third of Lenzi's sixty-seven
directorial efforts to be released on DVD in the United States. As Nightmare City kicks off, an unidentified cargo
plane is surrounded by police and military folks. They're not entirely sure what's lurking inside, but if they knew it would
the hundred bloodstarved, radioactive survivors of a largely unexplained nuclear accident, the authorities presumably would
have come better prepared. Newshound Dean Miller (Hugo Stiglitz) is among the few to escape the bloodbath. While the
military ponders what the appropriate action should be, Miller sets out to rescue his wife from the hospital where she works
and spirit her off to some idyllic land where people aren't eaten. Of course, they run into countless vampiric, contaminated
creatures along the way, and we're introduced to a number of insignificant B-plot characters who are obviously all going to
die because they're insignificant B-plot characters.
The mayhem comes at the hands (and knives and chains and axes) of creatures that aren't zombies, but I'll refer to them as
zombies anyway since "contaminated HU-man" is too unwieldy. In an interview on the disc, director Umberto Lenzi is
careful to point out that he didn't want his zombies to be a carbon-copy of George Romero's, placing him as one of just a
handful of Italian horror directors to make such an astonishingly bold decision. The plodding gutmunchers in Dawn of the
Dead had only the most rudimentary of motor skills, though the limber ghouls in Nightmare City are rather
accomplished pilots and drivers, not to mention bright enough to sever phone lines and manually lower a crowded elevator.
These faux-zombies are also snazzier dressers, generally wearing sport coats without the sorts of stains and wear one would
expect from ceaseless hours of carnage. One unavoidable point of comparison with Romero's zombie films is that the
bloodsucking creatures can still only be dispatched with a blow to the brain. Lenzi states in an interview on the disc that
he wanted the degeneration of the zombies' appearance to progress as the movie goes on, mirroring the downfall of society or
something. Social commentary is always welcome in horror, except Lenzi forgot that the third zombie or so out of the plane
in the very first scene in which they appear is as crusty and deformed as they come. So much for that.
It's admittedly been a few years since I last gave Dawn a gander, but I don't seem to recall Romero's zombies having a
breast fetish. I doubt that any locale where women unilaterally do not wear bras can accurately be labeled a "nightmare
city", but almost without exception, each and every female victim has at least one boob popping out throughout the course of
an attack. One unlucky lass even gets Ms. Righty lopped off. That's one of only two moderately graphic attacks in
Nightmare City, the other involving a houseguest, one of her eyes, and something bearing an uncanny resemblance to a
railroad spike. By and large, the attacks are just some uninteresting pattern of stab, stab, choke, stab, stab... Even less
thrilling than the kills is the general structure of the movie, where the numerous attack sequences are separated with
lengthy stretches of nothing in particular. Nightmare City is unable to inspire any dread, tension, or really even
any interest. Romero was able to heighten suspense by taking advantage of familiar, claustrophobic settings. Nightmare
City takes place over a large and unspecified location, failing to establish any sense of time or distance. I have no
idea how many days are supposed to have passed or how far the plague has spread. The zombies' surviving victims become
afflicted as well, but despite the sheer number of attacks, we're not treated to many scenes where anyone except Anna and Dean manages to escape unscathed. Actually, I believe it's stated that a victim has to sustain some injury to become contaminated as well, so perhaps I should've said "escape scathed".
The sequences with the military serve no purpose whatsoever. We're forced to endure a pair of virtually identical monologues
about how "we're going to have to declare martial law ourselves!", but they're never shown doing much of anything except
sitting in cramped quarters and complaining. The only clues we're given that the military has been up to anything at all
would be the numerous camoflague-clad corpses strewn about the background in most every scene. Major Holmes demands that his
lady love stay inside their palatial home and not let anyone in under any circumstances. Of course, her character wouldn't
have been introduced if she were that bright. After a trot outside to see a lawnmower moving on its own accord, Sheila
discovers a bloody knife has been jabbed into a clay bust of her husband. At this point, she isn't fully aware of the
contaminated menace, but I can't really envision a scenario in which a fake head with a blood-smeared knife running through
it would not inspire at least some moderate panic. Sheila doesn't bother to call her husband to let her known of her
impending peril, preferring to just toy around her home for some lengthy, poorly defined period of time. Thankfully, the
zombies in her house are considerate enough to wait to kill her. It's not as if they're ravenous creatures reliant on the
blood of their victims for sustenance or anything. Sheila isn't entirely worthless, though, providing a few blessed moments
of lingering nudity in an aborted love scene. Also screaming for deletion are the lengthy portions in the TV studio where an
indescribably bad dancing show is being taped. Even a rhythmless white boy such as myself can tell that the lackluster music
contributed by Stelvio Ciprirani (Piranha 2: The Spawning) isn't likely to inspire anyone to "get down", nor is the
small army of unattractive men and women (one of whom bears an uncanny resemblance to former Journey frontman Steve
Perry; one of the men, I mean) certain to garner much in the way of ratings magic.
I disliked the ending of Nightmare City, but bitching about it might result in a somewhat unwelcome jaunt down Spoiler
Lane. Those who want to go in fresh should skip the remainder of this paragraph entirely. First, I should probably mention
that the climax of Nightmare City is surprisingly effective. Abandoned amusement parks, which aren't just the
territory of Scooby-Doo episodes, are an appropriately creepy locale, and the well-timed rescue gone awry is responsible for
the single best moment in the movie. It's at this point that we're treated to 'the twist'. In the interview provided on
this DVD release, Lenzi gushes about Nightmare City's cyclical nature and how well it went over with critics.
Thankfully, I'm not a critic, but a lowly horror fan with a keyboard, so I suppose I'm under no obligation to agree. Without
giving away any more than I have to, Dean finds himself in a position where he knows exactly how events are going to unfold.
There's no glimmer of recognition on his face as all of this happens -- nothing more than the familiar nonchalant expression
from just under an hour and a half earlier. As the inevitable occurs, Dean doesn't seem the least bit worried, nor does he
even appear to be thinking, "Golly, isn't this a coincidence?" As a result, Lenzi's potentially great ending is more
Demonwarp than Demons. Professor Peabody says that the moral of the story is "stop while you're ahead".
Nightmare City is perched on one of the lower rungs on the Italian zombie ladder. Though certainly not an essential
purchase for budding Eurohorror enthusiasts, Nightmare City has its schlocky charms and has managed to amass a
not-entirely-insubstantial fanbase over the past couple of decades. Anchor Bay has done a respectable job with its release
on DVD, providing a newly recorded interview with Umberto Lenzi and a rather nice anamorphic widescreen presentation.
Video: Nightmare City is presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and is enhanced for widescreen
televisions. Though there's nothing about the visuals themselves that inspire any sort of enthusiasm, Anchor Bay has done an
amazing job with this relatively obscure twenty-two year old film. No wear or even appreciable speckling is at all visible.
Detail remains relatively strong throughout, making it apparent that this wasn't some half-hearted Smooth-O-Rama™ job
where crispness and clarity are cast aside to produce an artificially smoother, cleaner looking image. Some exceedingly
light grain is apparent at times, though hardly to any level that would seem intrusive or at all out of place. Colors appear
to be reproduced accurately, sporting the generally drab color design and wholly unrealistic blood frequently found in
similar movies filmed around the same general time. The source material must have been in phenomenal shape, or Anchor Bay
invested a considerable amount of time and money into making Nightmare City look as great as possible. Either way,
the end result is very pleasing.
Audio: The English Dolby Digital mono audio doesn't inspire quite as much giddiness on my part. It's just standard
monaural fare for a film of its age and tiny budget. Judging by the fact that dialogue virtually never matches with lip
movements, it seems blatantly obvious enough that Nightmare City was shot wild, and all of the film's audio was
recorded after the fact and on the cheap. Under those conditions, there's somewhat of a ceiling as to how great a track like
this can sound. The audio is a little meek, requiring a signficant bump in volume to compensate. As expected, there are no
crystalline highs or deep, resounding bass. I didn't spot any low-level noise lurking in the background or even a faint
flicker of distortion. The mono soundtrack is nothing stunning or spectacular, but it's serviceable.
Supplements: A quick glance at reviews for the Japan Shock
PAL DVD release of Nightmare City turns up mentions of numerous extras, including an audio commentary, a nearly hour
long interview, quite a few pieces of music from the film's soundtrack, a still gallery, a filmography, liner notes, and a
theatrical trailer. This DVD release from Anchor Bay doesn't have quite as impressive an assortment of supplemental
material, though what's present is still quite a bit more than what most any other company would have provided. I have to
admit that the reportedly hysterical commentary track with Lenzi will be missed. The differences between the two releases
were discussed on the Mobius Home Video Forum, and one user provided a
couple of quotes from Lenzi. "Look at this scene...suspense...suspense. Is similar to Hitchcock, isn't it?"
"The coming of the contaminated men is terrific...terrific!"
First up is a twelve-minute interview with Umberto Lenzi, produced by Bill Lustig's Blue Underground. The director is candid about some of the
problems with the movie, particularly stiff Superstar Mèxicano Hugo Stiglitz and an underwhemling shooting
script. At the same time, Lenzi is prone to overinflating the value of the movie, likening it to Tom Hanks'
Philadelphia (?) and frequently pointing out how grounded in reality Nightmare City is. So...yeah. The
interview is in anamorphic widescreen and includes English subtitles.
A 16x9-enhanced trailer runs just under four minutes, and a Lenzi bio rounds out the extras.
Conclusion: Nightmare City doesn't stand out as one of the more memorable Italian efforts detailing the zany
exploits of the ravenous undead, especially considering that the creatures featured here are still alive. Though the movie
itself is nothing exceptional, Anchor Bay has done a typically commendable job with its release on DVD. Italian horror
completists may find this disc tough to pass up at $13.20 shipped from Deep Discount DVD, but
more casual fans may want to stick with a late-night rental.