As an English teacher, I consider Umberto Lenzi’s bio on the DVD for Nightmare City one of the greatest pieces of fiction I’ve ever read. Whoever wrote this was intent on convincing the masses that Lenzi was not only a genius and a visionary, but a pioneer: after all, he single handedly blazed the path for Italian action movies, sword and sandals flicks, murder mysteries and all sorts of innovations in the horror genre. I’d advise you to read this bio and then watch Nightmare City; then you can see for yourself that whoever wrote this bio is the Shakespeare of his craft. But alas, I can’t. Because there is no way I could ever suggest you watch Nightmare City, one of the biggest messes I’ve ever seen put to celluloid.
The conceit is simple: a nuclear leak in Italy turns the locals into raving lunatics who must have blood. Once they depart from a mystery plane, they began to rampage across Italy, leaving a path of carnage behind them. On paper, this sounds like it could have some appeal. On screen, the true nightmare is just how appallingly bad this movie is.
Lenzi’s first mistake is the look of the zombies. I’ve seen a wide array of appearances for the living dead, but none have come close to being this dumb. The easiest way for me to describe them is that each appears to have on its head a hornet’s nest made of dung. If I were a victim in Nightmare City, I would fear their scent more than their rioting. As for the riots, therein lies another problem: every attack is exactly the same. There’s no creativity, no distinguishing one from the next. They run very fast, carry sharp weapons, shred up the living, and then drink their blood. Perhaps just as offensive as the zombies is the reaction of the victims: every single victim, to a man, stands dead still for about 10 seconds and waits for the zombie horde to attack. Whatever happened to adrenaline being the fight or flight indicator? And I’d like to take a poll on just how many people in an Italian metropolis have scythes, because roughly one of every three zombies carries one.
Plot, you ask? Ummmm, not so much. Our protagonists, a reporter, spends half the movie trying to reunite with his wife, a nurse. They spend the second half on a road trip, during which they discuss tin pan philosophy on man’s constant quest for destruction, both of others and self. At one point, they actually stop to relax and have coffee at a deserted gas station. Instead of gassing up the car and going, the need to have a cup of java and further discuss the future of mankind overcomes them. Who does this, when there are marauding zombies in the area? The other characters in focus are military commanders, who aim to stop the rampage at any cost. I’ll go on record now saying that I’m sick of this hackneyed angle in horror films. The old “blame the military for their incompetence/outright lack of care for the people they protect” should have died in the 1950s, because it wasn’t even good then.
The gem on this disc is the 13 minute interview with Lenzi. I’m convinced the director read this disc’s bio and believed every word of it. There’s no other reason I can fathom for his outlandish, ego-driven statements about the film and his own vision as a director. Case in point: Lenzi compares the contamination theme in Nightmare City to the effect of AIDS in Jonathan Demme’s film Philadelphia. Now I’m not a big the first movie to net Tom Hanks an Oscar, but let’s face it: Philadelphia is an acclaimed, award-winning movie that chronicles a lethal disease, and does so in a very serious tone; Lenzi’s movie has irradiated psychopathic zombies whose heads look like hives composed of human waste. Later, when addressing how Nightmare City could happen, he uses the anthrax scare that followed 9/11 as an example. Comparing a cheaply made zombie flick to an organized attack on America is not only delusional, but beyond tasteless. Then again, Nightmare City is beyond tasteless itself, so I definitely should have expected no better from Lenzi. On the more humorous side, Lenzi comes down rather unkindly on others involved with the project. He blames a female producer, a poor script and the dreafully stiff performance of lead actor Hugo Stiglitz for the movie’s faults. I don’t disagree with him on any of these points, but as the director, he’s ultimately responsible for the final product, and the result is absolute dreck.
Nightmare City leaves its audience with the notion that this could happen. I assert that bad movies do happen, and this is one unfortunately happened to me. Lenzi contaminated my brain with some of the worst looking zombies in all of horror. And for this I will never forgive him. Avoid this film, or this could happen to you.
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