Saturday, 26 January 2008

Nightmare City (1980)

Just so we're clear... NOT zombies

In interviews Umberto Lenzi insists that Nightmare City is not a zombie film at all. It's about people driven insane by nuclear radiation. You see, they use weapons! They run! They suck blood! Sorry Umberto, you can't fool me... I know a zombie film when I see one. Apparently the producers were hoping for a straight Fulci or Romero ripoff, and the film ended up straying from Umberto Lenzi's original vision. Although looking at Lenzi's back catalogue, I doubt we'd have ended up with Citizen Kane in any case.

After a stock-footage heavy intro, the film picks up with the news of an accident at a nuclear power plant. Hairy ace reporter Dean Miller (Hugo Stiglitz) is assigned the task of of interviewing the plant's chief scientist Dr. Hagenbeck as he arrives at the airport.

Dean dons his reporter trenchcoat and heads down there, but upon his arrival an unmarked military transport plane flies in and lands. Soon it is surrounded by armed guards, and any notion of this film being set in the US is destroyed by the very Italian-looking police cars. Unfortunately the plane is chock full of zombies (including Dr. Hagenbeck) and they immediately start tearing their way through the guards. The question of how the zombies acquired this plane is left an exercise for the viewer.

As previously mentioned, these zombies are fast, and they aren't shy about using a machete or a machine gun. Some of them even use their knives to wipe red paint on the soldiers' throats, the fiends! The massacre goes on for quite some time before Dean and his camera man decide it might be time to hoof it back to the TV station.

Back at the station they are busy filming what appears to be the worst show on television, It's All Music, where a small group of ugly people dance around in sky blue leotards. Thankfully, Dean interrupts the broadcast with the news about the zombies. He is promptly chewed out by the station manager and General Murchison (Mel Ferrer), who insists that the story about the zombies is to be contained in order to avoid widespread panic. How he expects to keep hundreds of rampaging zombies a secret is anyone's guess. The hot-headed Dean immediately quits and goes about trying to contact his wife Anna (Laura Trotter). She is a doctor and busy at work in the Dramatic Irony wing of the hospital, where patients are musing idly about fates that no doubt will be meted out in short order. Soon, in what must be a great relief to the viewing public, the zombies bust into the studio and start performing clumsy mastectomies on the dance troupe.

Meanwhile Major Holmes (Francisco Rabal) is gettin' busy with his younger, better looking sculptor girlfriend Shiela (Maria Rosaria Omaggio), when he is interrupted by an order to get his ass back to base. He attends a meeting of top brass military honchos where, after much research, the boffins have concluded that the rampaging monsters are not, in fact, aliens. Your tax dollars at work! Ridiculous technobabble ensues, the conclusion: "Aim for the brain." Gee, and I was going to aim for the foot.

Major Holmes calls his hot girlfriend and tells her to stay put. She is reluctant, but soon discovers a bloody knife embedded in one of her sculptures. Everyone's a critic! Her friend Cindy shows up and together they decide to look around the darkened basement, where Cindy gets her eye gouged out by a wildly overacting zombie.

General Murchison sends an armed escort to bring his daughter Jessica (Stefania D'Amanio) and son-in-law Bob (Pierangelo Civera) back to the military base. Apparently the zombies aren't much of a concern to them, so they decide to sneak away for a holiday. Later, Jessica and Bob are sitting around in their camper van when their friends arrive, infected of course, and kill them. Glad we got introduced to those characters!

Meanwhile the zombies stage an ambush on the power station, cutting power to the city. Next they're off to the hospital, helping themselves to blood bags and treating surgical incisions like drinking fountains. In a conservative estimate, about fifty thousand people are stabbed to death, but Dean and his wife manage to escape in a cheap-looking ambulance.

Mrs Miller starts to go on about unchecked scientific progress and man's inhumanity to man, blah, blah, blah. Dean pulls into a petrol station, citing a lack of petrol but I'm sure he's just sick of her blather. She starts up again over coffee but thankfully some zombies crash the party and start helping themselves to the contents of the ambulance. Dean hurls a molotov cocktail at the ambulance, taking out both a handful of zombies and their only getaway vehicle. My hero!

Because it wouldn't be a zombie film without an aerial shot, Major Holmes is doing the zombie traffic report from a helicopter. He claims they're moving in a south-southeast direction, but it looks to me like they're running around in circles like a bunch of headless chooks. On the way back to base he stops in at his girlfriend's place, but she is infected. It hasn't curbed her artistic abilities, though now she has started incorporating real eyeballs into her sculptures. He blasts the back of her head clean off.

After yet more verbiage from Anna, Mr and Mrs Miller head into a church and seek help from a priest. The priest is in profile and although from our vantage point he appears normal, from where they are standing they can clearly see he is a zombie. Strangely, they don't seem to notice until he turns around and gives us a good look at his scabby infection. In what is sure to be worth a few Hail Marys, Dean bashes Padre's head in with a candelabra.

Dean and Anna head to the amusement park, salvage weapons from some dead soldiers, and prepare for a bloody showdown with the zombies. They climb to the top of a rollercoaster, for some reason, and start blasting zombie heads. Just as they are being overwhelmed, they are rescued by Major Holmes in his helicopter, but Anna transforms into an unconvincing dummy and falls to her death.

Suddenly Dean wakes up in his bed with a start! It was all a dream... or was it? Dean tells his wife he has to go and interview Dr. Hagenbeck at the airport and for two or three minutes the events at the beginning of the film replay identically. As the hatch of the plane opens, the film freezes and a title card saying "The nightmare becomes reality..." is splashed across the screen. This is even more retarded than it sounds, and makes you long for the standard Italian gut-muncher ending of just killing everyone off when the ideas and/or money run out.

The makeup effects are a little inconsistent, but there's a few nice gory set pieces and there's lot of the red stuff flying about. In fact, from the moment when the zombies start pouring out of the aircraft, barely a minute goes by when someone isn't being stabbed. Also, the fact that the zombies can actually run means the films moves at a brisk pace. There's none of those annoying scenes where people just stand there, mouth agape, watching the zombies slo-o-o-owly approach them.

From the interviews it seems that Lenzi thinks this film has something profound to say. It doesn't. This is a very stupid film, but it's so fast and action packed it doesn't outstay it's welcome. It's a lot of fun.

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