Following the release of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, many filmmakers were quick to cash on its success. The zombie subgenre particularly took off in Italy, churning out a slew of imitators almost immediately. Although the most celebrated Italian contribution is Lucio Fulci’s Zombie, there are plenty of other notable titles that came out during the period. One such effort is 1980’s Nightmare City (originally released in the U.S. under the title City of the Walking Dead).
Nightmare City is not a zombie film in the traditional sense. The antagonists are fast-moving, intelligent, weapon-wielding, abnormally-strong beings, almost like a gang of slashers on the loose. Even director Umberto Lenzi (Cannibal Ferox) argues that they are not zombies. But the ghouls were certainly inspired by Romero’s living dead; they are disfigured, flesh-eating monsters who must be shot in the head to be stopped. Furthermore, Stelvio Cipriani’s (A Bay of Blood) prog rock score was undeniably inspired by Goblin’s Dawn of the Dead soundtrack.
The script is written by Antonio Cesare Corti, Luis Maria Delgado and Piero Regnoli (Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror). Upon watching an unmarked airplane land at the airport, TV reporter Dean Miller (Mexican exploitation favorite Hugo Stiglitz) is expecting to interview a scientist about a nuclear accident. Instead, a horde of savage monsters emerges, dismembering the local authorities while Miller looks on. He manages to escape and attempts to perform his duty as a reporter by alerting the public, but the military will not allow him to make a broadcast. Instead, Miller does his best to protect his wife, Dr. Anna Miller (Laura Trotter), as the havoc continues to escalate.
The infected creatures are the result of atomic radiation, with make-up that lands somewhere between The Toxic Avenger and average low-budget zombie fare. Since audiences had never seen fast zombies before – Nightmare City predates Night of the Comet and The Return of the Living Dead, and it came long before 28 Days Later and the Dawn of the Dead remake – the chaotic attack scenes are particularly exciting and gory, despite their redundancy. They take place in a variety of locales, including a TV studio (perhaps the best setpiece), a hospital, a church, out in the streets and, during the film’s head-scratching conclusion, an old amusement park.
I didn’t think I’d see Nightmare City on Blu-ray any time soon, but I’m happy to have been proven wrong by Raro Video. They gave the film a new high-definition transfer from an original negative, which looks about as good as you could hope for a drab, low budget movie of its age. It’s presented in its original Italian language with improved English subtitles, as well as a laughable English dub. The set includes a candid, 49-minute interview with Lenzi (in English) from 2000, trailers and a booklet written by Fangoria’s Chis Alexander. His information could have been better utilized as a commentary track, but it’s a nice inclusion nonetheless.
Nightmare City is not a classic, nor is it a particularly good movie, but it has developed a cult following over the years. With a healthy helping of cheese (a TV that explodes into flames on impact!) and sleaze (nipple maiming!) mixed in with balls-to-the-wall zombie mayhem, it’s hard not to enjoy the flick on some level. The film was a nice score for Raro Video, better known for releasing more classic and artistic pictures. Hopefully they keep it up with more genre favorites, as their release of Nightmare City is impressive.