Radioactive zombies. People talk a lot about that kind of thing. Well, people I know talk a lot about that kind of thing. They think it would be really cool. It’s not. Do you know what you get with radioactive zombies? You get Nightmare City and being locked into a cycle of terror, carnage, death, and unresolved endings brought about by bad writing and a horrible gimmick twist that should have gotten everyone involved smacked until the stupid came out of them.
What’s that? You don’t know what Nightmare City is? Then let me tell you about it. There will be some huge spoilers coming, but, trust me, you won’t care if this movie gets spoiled for you or not.
Nightmare City is an Italian cinematic disaster piece dreamed up by writers Antonio Cesare Corti, Luis María Delgado, Piero Regnoli, and director Umberto Lenzi that- while not actually being a zombie movie in any truly recognizable way -has been lumped in with other zombie films that came out of the 1980’s Euroschlock horror film boom. Depending on how you view it, it is either one of the worst movies of its kind from that era with one of the most blatant and lazy writing cheats of an ending or one of the great guilty pleasure schlock horror films from that era. Probably for the first ten to fifteen years after first seeing it, I was in the former camp and not the latter camp. While I may not have yet reached the point of being well into the latter camp if for no other reason than I don’t believe in guilty pleasures, I can see the appeal of the film as such for many. I will admit to finding it enjoyable on a complete bat guano crazy level.
Director Umberto Lenzi was already an infamous name in many American horror circles by the time Nightmare City hit VHS. It was given the name City of the Walking Dead for a number of releases, and, if I remember correctly, that was actually the name I first saw it under. But, anyhow…
Umberto Lenzi was somewhat infamous (in that good way you can be in horror circles) for having directed such films as Eaten Alive! and Cannibal Ferox. Cannibal Ferox was actually released a year after Nightmare City was released in Europe, but depending on where you lived and what mom & pop video store you had access to, Cannibal Ferox was hitting your local shelves first based on its riding in on the coattails of the notorious buzz of Ruggero Deodato and Gianfranco Clerici’s Cannibal Holocaust and, to a lesser degree, Lenzi’s own Eaten Alive!.
But, hey, this wasn’t a cannibal movie, it was a “zombie” movie. Plus, from the look of the VHS cover, it didn’t involve anything as controversial as what happened with some of the cannibal movies getting so much ink printed about them in the horror media and chatter in fan circles. So, it still offered the promise of extreme scares and thrills without some of the things people were finding moral objections to (such as torturing and killing real animals on film) in the cannibal films.
As it stood, what we got was… well… yeah…
Our film starts with (American?) ace news reporter Dean Miller (Hugo Stiglitz) being sent to a small airport to cover a story for the local station he’s working at in a nameless European city. It seems there’s been some sort of serious accident involving a facility that works with radioactive materials, and the powers that be have lost all contact with the facility. A team of technicians and soldiers are sent to find out what happened and contact is lost with them. However, a plane (The plane they were in?) is now flying towards the airport. But no one can raise the pilot by radio.
This is actually a weird plot point in the film. Miller is sent to the airport to interview a scientist about the issue, and the scientist is supposed to be flying in at about the time the mystery plane arrives. Plus, the scientist is in fact on the mystery plane. Yet the plane is described as an unmarked, unknown plane that just happens to be coming in when and where the scientist’s plane is coming in and also happens to have him on it while not actually being the expected flight with the scientist. It may be just a bad English dub issue, but the only edition I’ve ever seen with subtitles was years ago and the scene was just as confusingly done with subtitles.
So, as the large military plane makes an emergency landing, everyone grows more curious. There’s still no communications from anyone in the plane, but the plane makes a perfectly controlled landing and saddles on up to right where it needed to be. Somewhat cautiously, but in reality showing more curiosity than caution, Miller and his one-man crew film what’s happening as the others approach the plane. The tension rises as the doors open. Slowly the scientist Miller is there to see walks down the small ladder from the plane before pulling a knife from behind his back and stabbing the closest person to him. Suddenly, a group of deranged men comes storming out of the plane attacking everyone in sight.
The runway quickly becomes a scene of frenzied carnage. The deranged madmen seem to have no purpose other than to attack and kill whoever is closest to them. They move surprisingly fast, they attack with lethal ferocity, and they use everything from knives to guns to seemingly superhuman strength to dispatch their victims. Additionally, nothing seems to hurt them; let alone stop them. Soldiers fill their attackers full of bullets, firing at them at close range with fully automatic military rifles. It barely slows them down.
Soldier after soldier is killed, as well as almost everyone else who showed up to greet the plane. Miller manages to escape; but only just. As he makes his way to a vehicle, he sees something that he doesn’t yet fully understand; which makes him at this point much like the viewer. The crazed attackers seem to be drinking the overly gushing blood of the dead. Miller makes his way to his vehicle with the plan of getting back to the television station and warning the world about what’s going on. It’d be a neat trick to pull off since, at this point, no one has the first clue what’s going on. Besides, who would believe what he’d seen?
He never has the chance to find out who will and will not think he’s crazy for telling the story he has to tell. His attempt to warn the population is blocked by General Murchison (Mel Ferrer) from Civil Defense. There’s no need to warn the people of the death that’s sure to come, because, in traditional horror movie fashion, the military has everything completely under control.
For about three seconds…
The television station chooses to run its regularly scheduled bizarre bit of aerobic dance programming live from the studio even as they ignore all signs that something- or, more accurately, everything -is going a little ka-ka. Miller is frantically trying to get a hold of his wife and warn her that the city is being overrun just in time for the TV station to be overrun by the deranged, not zombie horde. What follows is televised slaughter as the not-zombies rip into flesh and drink blood, but only after being sure to rip and tear aerobic dance outfits to give the film its first bit of ample, gratuitous breast-baring, breast biting, and breast slicing.
Miller heads for the hospital where his wife Anna (Laura Trotter) works as the city starts to go to hell around him. It seems that the blood drinking not-zombies share at least one major trait in common with zombies (and vampires) in that their victims rise up to join their ranks in fairly short order. Well, they also share a desire to kill anyone and everyone around them for no discernable reason other than making the story move along with a bloody body count. The trait they don’t share in common with zombies (but still share with vampires) is retaining advanced intellect. These not-zombies plot, plan, and conspire, and they use that ability to make a commando raid on the city’s power plant. They knock out the power plant and plunge the city into darkness just in time for Miller to get to the hospital and rescue Anna as the not-zombie hordes invade the hospital.
The city is ravaged by the not-zombies over the next several hours, and the amount of destruction reported (if not actually seen) is extensive. Dean and Anna Miller do their best to flee the area, but there best seems to involve doing everything they can to not really get too far away from the city. In the meantime, General Murchison gets the scientific explanation of what’s going on. It seems that the radioactive accident something something radically damaged skin cells something something blood damaged something something inability to reproduce their own red blood cells something something extreme insanity and an uncontrollable drive to drink the blood of the uninfected to make up for their inability to produce red blood cells something something contagious. Oh, and apparently the something something radiation means you can only kill one of these insane not-zombies by shooting them in the head and destroying the brain.
I guess that’s the bit that made them zombies in the eyes of the 1980s distributors and fly by night VHS companies. Anyhow…
So the not zombies but almost sort of zombies have all but taken the city by the next morning and they’re beginning to extend their takeover to isolated areas outside of the city. We meet a lot of characters who are supposed to be important to the film’s story or main characters in some way or another, but they tend to keep getting sliced, diced, ripped apart, and sucked dry by the not-zombies before they have any real impact on the story or the viewer.
The Millers have managed to make it all the way to a local gas station by this point, but the station attendants have become radioactive not-zombies and try to kill them. Dean makes an improvised explosive and blows up a group of not-zombies before he and Anna begin to travel on foot while trying to avoid the roaming band of blood drinking not-zombies. They eventually find a church to take shelter in, but the pastor has become one of the infected and Dean is forced to kill him.
Dean and Anna make their way from the shelter of the church to a better hideout- an abandoned amusement park. No, it doesn’t make much sense, but, at this point in the film, you will have probably stopped expecting it to do so. The Millers arm themselves with machine guns and grenades taken from dead soldiers and begin to explore the amazingly open space filled, poorly secured park. To the surprise of no one, it’s filled with not-zombies.
The Millers begin a desperate fight for their lives in the amusement park. Dean manages to shoot down and/or blow up more not-zombies on his own than entire platoons of soldiers have been able to so far in the film, but the numbers are starting to work against him. He and Anna seek safety by running to the park’s roller coaster and climbing the tracks to get to the top of it with plenty of not-zombies in hot pursuit.
The situation begins to get desperate. Dean has already fired so many rounds without the benefit of reloading that even jaded movie fans know he has to be close to running out of ammo, and the not-zombies seem to be coming out of the woodwork of the park to climb the roller coaster and attack them. Suddenly, their salvation comes to them in the form of a helicopter carrying Major Warren Holmes (Francisco Rabal), Murchison’s official aide. He orders his pilot to get close enough to the Millers to drop them a rope so that the Millers can try to get on the chopper.
Holmes tosses one end of a rope down to the Millers and Anna starts to climb as Dean continues to not run out of ammo while firing off his 5,000th round into a not-zombie. After Anna pulls herself far enough up the rope to give Dean room, Dean grabs the rope and starts to pull himself up. Holmes gives the order for the pilot to start moving away from the roller coaster and the helicopter begins to pull up and away from the crazed attackers. Anna begins to panic as she can’t climb the rope any higher and she’s starting to lose her grip. She screams as she falls and Dean watches as she bounces and tumbles in a very prop dummy fashion through some of the roller coaster’s framework. Dean lets loose with a horrified, anguished scream and…
…wakes up safe in his bed.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the entire movie has been Dean’s early morning nightmare. After a moment of intense hyperventilating, he calms down and looks over at his sleeping wife. He goes about his morning routine, shaking off the last of the nightmare visions still in his mind. The world is safe, his wife is safe, and such nonsense as radioactive not-zombies has nothing to do with the real world he lives in.
Dean sets about his now normal morning realizing that he’s running late getting to a small airport to cover a story for the local station he’s working at. It seems there’s been some sort of serious accident involving a facility that works with radioactive materials, and the powers that be have lost all contact with the facility and then with the team of technicians and soldiers sent to find out what happened. However, the plane they were in is now flying towards the airport, but no one can raise the pilot by radio.
As the large military plane makes an emergency landing, everyone grows more curious. There’s still no communications from anyone in the plane, but the plane makes a perfectly controlled landing and saddles on up to right where…
Wait a minute… This is the beginning of the movie…
We get a condensed edit of the opening moments from the airport scene from the start of the movie. The doors of the unmarked C-130 Hercules once again open and everyone looks on in caution. The scene freezes and the following words appear on the screen before the credits roll.
Yup. The end of the movie is the beginning of the movie, and the beginning of the movie is the end of the movie. It’s basically one big, never-ending loop. Why, it’s almost like the writers started writing a story, realized they’d simultaneously written too much script and written themselves into a corner, and just said, “Screw this. It’s stupid, we’ve lost control of the story, and we’re about to start making the movie run too long. It’s all going to be a dream, but then we’ll make it not a dream so as to not make the audience feel not totally cheated when we cheat them with the ending.”
To some degree, the cheat ending might have been the better call. While annoying to some degree, the idea that the entire thing is a dream tends to make the many, many scenes containing logic gaps a little more palatable. Hey, it’s a dream, and things just don’t have to make sense in a dream. It also makes several early scenes with different characters talking about the nightmares they had the night before and those nightmares in some way being played out in the movie work better. Again, it’s a dream, so such things don’t have to be explained or make any sense. Plus, that’s how dreams sometimes work. But, no, now it’s not a dream. Now it’s a previewed reality that is about to play out again after the credits roll.
Or it’s not.
In reality, it’s just something of a mess on that score and that tends to make the other bits of the movie something of a mess as well. A first time viewing of Nightmare City taken cold and with no warning about the movie’s plot can leave you… well… a little like this.
Actually, even being forewarned about the nature of this film may not prevent you from feeling that way after a first time viewing experience. Odds are you will find yourself in the camp of viewing it as one of the worst movies of its kind with one of the most blatant and lazy writing cheats of an ending rather than part of the camp that sees it as one of the great guilty pleasure schlock horror films from that era. But, much to your annoyance, you may find yourself wanting to revisit it at a later date and slowly finding yourself moving towards the latter camp to a greater or lesser degree. Or, hell, you may just want to show friends what a glorious train wreck of a movie the Italian horror maestros could crank out once upon a time for a drunken DIY MST3K night.
Amazingly, perhaps unbelievably, there’s been serious talk of a sequel or remake for some years now. Late in 2017, it was even announced that a remake was in development with Tom Savini in the director’s chair. The rumored casting has Ray Wise, Noah Hathaway, and Judith O’Dea in leading roles as well as Savini himself and porn star Diana Prince supposedly confirmed for roles. The setting and concept is reportedly changing a bit as the description for the movie are now “a mysterious virus spreads from Haiti to Miami turning people into terrifying, bloodthirsty creatures, a small group of survivors tries to escape from the City Of The Walking Dead.”
Somehow, I’m not thinking this thing is going to make my top ten list of films for the year it comes out. But, hey, maybe after my 20th viewing of it…
Jerry Chandler is a lifelong geek who, while enjoying most everything fandom has to offer, finds himself most at home in the horror, dark fantasy, and science fiction genres. He has in the past contributed to websites like Needless Things, Nerdy Minds Magazine, Gruesome Magazine, and others while occasionally remembering to put up the odd musings on his own blog. He’s been a guest on several podcasts from the ESO Network, on Decades of Horror, and on the Nerdy Laser. He is also a regular co-host on The Assignment: Horror Podcast as well as the primary writer for its affiliated blog.