March 23, 2011

Nightmare City (Review)


Nightmare City (1980)

aka. Incubo sulla città contaminata

Director: Umberto Lenzi


3/5 zedheads

While the world wrings its hands and closely monitors the potential for nuclear disaster in Japan, I escape into the world of Spanish-Italian horror only to find I can't escape our collective fears of radiation.

Toxic Avenger Casting Reject
In Nightmare City, an airplane leaving a nuclear disaster is exposed to high doses of radiation. In the logic of politically heavy-handed Spanish-Italian cinema, the radiation causes its passengers to mutate into scabby-faced humanoids driven by the compulsion to kill and drink the blood of their victims. These irradiated vampire/zombies possess enhanced strength and resistance to all fatal wounds except for that which destroys the head or brain (i.e. head shots). They must also feed on human blood to replenish the blood cells being destroyed by their own radioactivity.

Honey, mind your manners. Don't stare at your food.
When the plane touches down in an unnamed European city, reporter Dean Miller (Hugo Stiglitz) watches as the plan unloads a raving group of gun-toting, knife-wielding, and aggressively intelligent form of zombie that immediately begins to kill everyone in the vicinity. Soon the infection spreads into the city; bites and contact from the irradiated passes on this bizarre sickness. Dean rounds up his girlfriend, Dr. Anna Miller (Laura Trotter), and they attempt to escape the city as it tears itself apart from within. The actions of the local defense force organized by Major Warren Holmes (Francisco Rabal) and General Murchison (Mel Ferrer) prove completely useless.

And you thought George A Romero's authority figures were ineffectual.
Nightmare City rests mostly on its novel concept. Before zombies were running around looking for brains in Return of the Living Dead and then later sprinting madly through post-apocalyptic London in 28 Days Later, Nightmare City turned the zombie trope on its head with its unique brand of agile crazies. No, they're not undead, but their loss of mental control to the overwhelming urge to kill and feed on humans certainly puts them into the zombie category. Like violent revolutionaries they turn all urban objects into weapons -- bits of wood, tire irons, lamps etc. -- and rampage through the city and countryside. The film even concludes with an exciting climax at an amusement park, long before Zombieland was even the twinkle in its writers' eyes.

We told him not to pick at it or it'd get worse. But did he listen? Noooo.
Then again, Nightmare City is not a very technically well-acted or well-choreographed film. Stiglitz and Trotter are terribly wooden leads who, when not running from the irradiated, bring the pace of the film to a screeching halt to exchange some excruciatingly ham-fisted dialogue via the film's anti-nuclear message. At the same time that the Spanish-Italian co-production was able to pull off some notable makeup effects with their budget, only a few choice gore shots are well done. Most of the violence and action is clumsily handled and unconvincingly choreographed. For example, an actor will stand with his or her back to the camera, and bloody makeup and wounds will already be applied to his or her face. When the camera rolls and the actor is slashed across the face by one of the irradiated, the actor then turns to the camera to show off the blood. This happens several times and clearly does not look realistic. Sometimes you can even see that the actor already has blood to the face before being attacked.

"Eye"-talian horror directors love this stuff.
Nightmare City is also predictably exploitative and sleazy. The camera lingers on the violence most often when women are the victims and there are shameless opportunities to have their breasts exposed during attacks or graphically mutilated on screen. Both Spanish horror and Italian horror are known for their misogynistic imagery, so it's no surprise that this Spanish-Italian production resonates with a questionable machimsmo. Women are constantly being told to do what they're told, and when they get hysteric it's time for characters like Dean Miller to step in and slap them. Then, they kiss. Riiight.

What do you think? Does the jacket compliment my radiation burns?
While its misogynistic themes are displeasing, the zombies populating Nightmare City are not without their charms. Most of the zombies you'll see are decked out in sweaters, vests, sports coats, suit jackets, turtle necks, and not at all the shappy and torn corpse couture of traditional zombies. If fashion magazines recognized zombie movies, the irradiated of Nightmare City would certainly take home some "Best Dressed" awards. In their behaviour and fashion sense, the irradated of Nightmare City are quite unlike any other of the mindless killers and crazies that stalk the zombie genre.

Anybody else having Left 4 Dead 2 flashbacks? Who has Gnome Chompski?
Nightmare City also manages to pull of an intriguing ending despite its heavy-handed rhetoric. During the amusement park climax, I was genuinely shocked by one character's bleak fate only to encounter a twist that, at first, made me feel that the movie had cheated me. I changed my tune, however, as the film concludes where it began in a circle of dream logic that is strangely effective for a film that has otherwise been so blunt and stiff in its subtext.

Overall, Nightmare City is a flawed film, but not an unwatchable one. Nightmare City will appeal to fans of zombie films more interested in historical variations in the zombie archetype and how they express social fears. Those looking for a compelling story, convincing acting, and technical artistry will have to look elsewhere. Nightmare City, like many horror films of its era, has a novel idea but not the money or the time to fully explore it.