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Nightmare City

Raro Video // Unrated // December 31, 2013
List Price: $34.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted December 23, 2013 | E-mail the Author
Dateline! 1980. Rumors have started making the rounds about some sort of accident at the nuclear power plant down the way. TV news reporter Dean Miller (Hugo Stiglitz) figures if anyone could give him the inside scoop, it's Dr. Hagenbeck, one of the world's foremost experts on nuclear energy. As he waits impatiently on the tarmac for the professor's plane to touch down, the security staff at the airport all of a sudden starts
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scrambling. An unmarked military plane is making an unscheduled final descent, and there's nothing but dead air on the radio. A half-battalion of soldiers with assault rifles in hand swarm the runway, and when the door to that C-130 finally lowers, the first person to step foot off the plane is none other than ol' Doc Hagenbeck. Whew! Sigh of relief. Well, until Hagenbeck whips out a butcher knife and maniacally starts stabbing the first soldier in sight. A small army of grotesquely disfigured creatures flood out of the plane behind him, slaughtering damn near everyone on the runway and slurping up their spilled blood. Sssshhhh! Don't tell anyone, though. The military wants to keep this quiet, even having Miller yanked off the air when he interrupts this week's episode of Disco Aerobics Fever Now!It's All Music with a special news bulletin. Keeping this contamination contained is easier said than done, though. Even the smallest wound in close proximity to one of the infected is all it takes for the contagion to spread, and before long, the dead outnumber the living...

Director Umberto Lenzi would probably be scowling at me right about now. If you want to get technical, there aren't any zombies in Nightmare City, the same as there weren't any in 28 Days Later. They're still alive -- just contaminated by some twisted form of nuclear radiation. They move at breakneck speeds, with Nightmare City unleashing 'fast zombies' several years before Night of the Comet and Return of the Living Dead. They can't talk and are far beyond reason, but something clearly remains of their minds. Their sadism and demented smiles as they hack apart their victims are more than just the primal urge to feed as seen in most zombie flicks. They're clever enough to cut phone lines, manually lower an elevator, knock out the power grid, and...hell, nail a picture-perfect landing of a military cargo plane, I guess, which isn't the easiest thing in the world. They're bloodsuckers rather than flesh-eating ghouls, and there are a couple pages of exposition about needing fresh red blood cells to explain why. On the other hand, blades basically stand in for bites to spread the infection, and the only way to really take down one of the basically-undead is a bullet through the brain. Romero's rulebook is generally still in play.

...and that's just about where the comparisons to Dawn of the Dead end too. That's a movie defined by rich characterization, convincing bonds and relationships, and one unnerving, unrelentingly intense sequence after another. Nightmare City, meanwhile, is a sleazy splatter flick. It's 91 minutes of might-as-well-be-zombies whacking poor bastards with machetes and hatchets. You wouldn't need both sides of a cocktail napkin to map out the sloppy story. There's not even the most cursory attempt at fleshing out characters. This is the hero, this is his wife who works at the hospital, this is that one military guy (Mel Ferrer), this is the other military guy, and here are all the people we introduce just long enough to get hacked apart by the kinda-sorta-undead. Nightmare City never takes a stab at establishing an unsettling atmosphere or generating any real suspense. The clunky acting is generally more horrifying
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than any of the contaminated zombies. These irradiated creatures aren't even a little bit creepy or disturbing, generally just looking like a dude with a turtleneck and blazer who just happens to have a bunch of paper mache caked all over his face. More often than not, the zombies just have a small smudge or smear on their faces to set them apart from their prey. Oh, and that fake-out finalé...! Ugh.

So, yeah, Nightmare City is terrible, but that doesn't get in the way of me loving the holy hell out of it. It's a trashy, fast-moving action/horror flick that doesn't even try to make a lick of sense. The body count is staggering, and I'm in awe of Lenzi's compulsion to have his 'zombies' rip the clothes off just about every one of their female victims, even taking the time to carve off one hapless lady's breast like it's a Christmas ham for some friggin' reason. The set of "It's All Music" has technicians in white lab coats on one side of the camera, a gaggle of not-especially-attractive dancers writhing around in tight blue leotards (including a dead ringer for Journey frontman Steve Perry), and an ostensibly disco soundtrack that sounds more like on-hold music for Allstate. You're lookin' at a contaminated priest giving Hugo Stiglitz a beatdown with an oversized candle. My favorite is the general's wife who gets a cryptic call from her husband, sees a lawnmower pushing itself outside, finds a bloody knife deeply embedded into a fucked-up sculpture she was working on, and just kinda shrugs "eh, whatever". When Nightmare City picks back up with her, like, a half hour later, she talks about barricading her house afterwards but kinda forgets the part where a bloodthirsty zombie was already shambling around inside her house...aaaaand decided to hang out in the basement afterwards instead of doing the usual stab-and-slurp routine for whatever reason. Heck, there's even a proto-Zombieland climax at an abandoned amusement park for good measure. Oh, and there are messages about man's inhumanity to man and military something-or-another and nature and I'm starting to trail off here. Anyway, Nightmare City is stupid and ridiculous, sure, but it's my kind of stupid and ridiculous. I'd recommend Nightmare City with way too much enthusiasm to anyone with similarly questionable taste in schlock cinema, but this lackluster release on Blu-ray...? That's another story. The short answer is "Rent It", and brace yourself for the long answer that's about to follow.

What a letdown.

The credits on the disc don't say one way or the other, but this new high-definition presentation of Nightmare City looks as if it was tackled by LVR, the industry-worst post-production team behind Blue Underground's most disappointing Eurohorror releases. Nightmare City is extremely soft and smeary. There's no filmic texture whatsoever; just traces of CRT noise. In a botched attempt at dialing down that analog noise, the image has been heavily filtered, leaving it frustratingly video-like in appearance. As substandard as these screenshots may look to you, Nightmare City somehow manages to be even worse in motion. A few hues, such as the bloody reds and a brilliant blue swimming pool, make an impression, but colors are otherwise drab and lifeless. The muddy, murky contrast of Anchor Bay's DVD from 2002 is taken to the complete other end of the spectrum here, coming across instead as thin and insubstantial. There's not a pure black anywhere on display here. Even worse, the encoding is abysmal, with just about every background in the film littered with compression artifacts. Definition and detail are a considerable step up over Anchor Bay's DVD, but a newly-minted Blu-ray disc beating out a decade-old release hamstrung with one-sixth the resolution isn't exactly cause for a ticker tape parade. If we were comparing this disc with a DVD mastered with today's standards, I'd expect the differences to be fairly slight. I mean, open these screengrabs up to full size and tell me they meet even the most minimal standards for a high-def release:

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I don't have the DVD that Raro is putting out alongside this Blu-ray disc, but if you're curious how this high-def release stacks up against Anchor Bay's DVD from back in 2002, I've snapped a few comparisons. For what it's worth, Raro's Blu-ray release does reveal a good bit more information on all four sides of the frame.

Raro BD (2013)Anchor Bay DVD (2002)
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I'm keeping my fingers crossed that Arrow Films' upcoming Blu-ray release in the UK will be culled from a different master. It's hard to believe it could look any worse than what Raro has delivered here, anyway. To tackle the rest of the technical end of things, Nightmare City limps onto a single-layer Blu-ray disc at an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. This presentation has been encoded with VC-1, which I didn't even know was still a thing.

Nightmare City features two 16-bit PCM soundtracks: one in Italian and the other in English. Being able to experience Nightmare City in Italian is a welcomed treat, although the accompanying subtitles are a transcription of the English dub rather than a proper translation. The flipside of the case claims it's a brand new translation, but after briefly pairing the subs with the English soundtrack, they're almost word-for-word identical. For that tiny handful of people with constant image height projection rigs, the subtitles do spill over into the letterboxing bars.

As disappointed as I was with the visual end of things, Raro thankfully hasn't left me with much to gripe about with the uncompressed audio. In the stretches I compared, the fidelity of the English and Italian tracks are very comparable. I spent most of my time revisiting Nightmare City in English and found it to be impressively clean and clear. Dynamic range is expectedly limited, with only the synth-bass in the score dipping meaningfully into the lower frequencies, and some of the dialogue late in the film exhibits some light strain. None of that comes as a surprise, of course. This is exactly what I went in hoping to hear, and aside from the use of dubtitles, I really don't have any complaints or criticism this time around.

  • Interview (49 min.; SD): The featured extra is an interview with director Umberto Lenzi conducted back in May 2000. As you might expect from a conversation approaching the 50 minute mark, it's a very comprehensive interview, addressing the not-quite-nuclear tragedy that inspired Nightmare City, when and where this international co-production was filmed, rewriting the screenplay to make it his own, and how Lenzi views these contaminated creatures as something closer to vampires rather than zombies. Lenzi also touches on some of the other standouts in his
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    filmography, the movies and directors that have inspired him the most, the state of Italian cinema and fantasy/horror in general, and his take on visual effects spectacles changing the artform. The interview could've stood to be edited more tightly (or edited at all), and although the conversation is in English, the heavy accents can be difficult to navigate at times.

  • Trailers (8 min.; HD): The only other extra is a high-def trailer. It's available in English and Italian, but it's otherwise the exact same trailer. In fact, it's authored on the disc as one video clip with two soundtracks. Not used to seeing that with trailers.

Nightmare City arrives in a slipcover showcasing a different set of poster art, basically reversing what Anchor Bay did with their DVD release in 2002. Also included is a terrific set of liner notes by Chris Alexander.

The Final Word
Okay, okay, I get that the creatures in Nightmare City are irradiated mutants rather than your usual flavor of gutmuncher, but it's close enough for me to still call this one of my all-time favorite zombie flicks. Fast, frenetic, unrepentantly sleazy, and gloriously insane, Nightmare City has been hovering near the top of my Blu-ray wish list for quite a while now. Talk about the nightmare becoming reality, though...! Raro Video's disc doesn't come close to being worth the wait, saddled with an exorbitant price tag, a shoddy high-def remaster, and not all that much in the way of extras. Here's hoping that Arrow Films gets it right with their Blu-ray release that's due sometime in the next few months. This, though...? A rental at most. Rent It.
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