Umberto Lenzi, the infamous director of innumerable the eurotrash classics and lesser-classics of highly variable quality such as (to name but a few) Orgasmo / Paranoia (1969 / trailer), Seven Blood-Stained Orchids (1972 / trailer), Spasmo (1974 / trailer), Ghosthouse (1988 / trailer), Black Demons / Demoni 3 (1991 / trailer), Eyeball / Gatti rossi in un labirinto di vetro (1975 / trailer), The Man from Deep River (1972 / trailer), Eaten Alive (1980 / trailer) and Cannibal Ferox (1981 / trailer), tries desperately to make some social and ecological commentary in this film, Nightmare City, one of the first "fast-zombie" films ever made, if not the first. The commentary is there, occasionally subtle in the plotting or pictures but mostly spouted stridently by one of the main characters; luckily the exploitive and trashy aspects of the film are strong enough to overcome the badly dubbed didacticism of the often inane dialogue.
In Nightmare City, instead of some virus (as in 28 Days Later [2002 / trailer] and 28 Weeks Later [2007 / trailer], among others), radiation is the catalyst for changing normal consumers-of-goods into consumers-of-people. The radiation kills the body but leaves the cells alive and regenerating at an enormous rate, effectively turning the irradiated into unstoppable, super killing machines; at the same time, the since the dead are dead the blood cells rot and die unless replaced, the afflicted have to kill and drink fresh blood in order to survive – and to not get a nasty case of facial scabies.
Although intelligent enough to lay traps and tricks to get to their victims, none of the thirsty ever actually drain those they kill – instead, the sip and run to kill yet another person. This senseless greed and wasteful excess is perhaps a one of the more subtle (?) reflections upon the gluttony of mankind that Lenzi attempts to comment upon in the film: dead or alive, our innate nature is to destroy and waste. And indeed, it mankind's senseless and never-ending need for more and more energy that leads to the radiation disaster that makes the living dead... But then, in the opening credit sequence superimposed over shots of nightmarishly ugly and impersonal housing blocks, both man's loss of humanity and the concept of what a "nightmare city" might be are already raised as well, if only visually at this point.
But as already mentioned above, for all its "commentary", Nightmare City is exploitation trash and is thus best enjoyed as exploitation trash. And what a doozy it is in that respect!
The film starts with reporter Dean Miller (the Mexican non-actor Hugo Stiglitz of Survive [1976 / trailer], Night of a Thousand Cats [1972 / trailer], Guyana: Crime of the Century [1979 / trailer] and ¡Tintorera! [1972 / trailer], amongst dozens of other films of note, who walks through the film as if he's been constipated for a year) going to the airport to interview an arriving scientist about the radiation leak. But an unscheduled plane lands and out pops the scientist – travelling on an unexpected plane though expected to arrive? – and a bunch of scabby-faced people who proceed to decimate the entire airport. (Somewhere along the line in the film it is brought up that you can kill them by destroying their brain, but no one pays any heed to the advice.)
Though the zombies kill everyone else at the airport, Dean makes it back to the station where he tries to interrupt the disco dance broadcast of the television station that he works at to spread the breaking news of the event, but he is stopped by General Murchison (a once-again-slumming Mel Ferrer of Rancho Notorious [1952 / trailer], The World, the Flesh, and the Devil [1959 / trailer], The Hands of Orlac [1960 / trailer] and Tobe Hooper's Eaten Alive [1977 / trailer]). Constipated and pissed, Dean quits his job and then tries to phone and warn his wife, Dr. Anna Miller (Laura Trotter of The Last House on the Beach [1978 / trailer]), but she is busy at work at the polyclinic. The zombies attack and kill everyone in the TV station – in what is probably the most famous scene of the film, both due to the inanity of zombies verse disco dancers and the slicing off and eating of one dancer's breast. Dean manages to escape in a VW Bug with a Ferrari engine, zooming off to the hospital to save his wife just as the shit hits the fan there. The two manage to escape in an ambulance just as martial law is declared.
Of course, a film with just with just two characters – especially such wet rags as Dean and Anna – lacks viable victims to sympathize with, so others get introduced: Major Warren Holmes (Francisco Rabal of Dagon [2001 / trailer], Sorcerer [1977 / trailer], Belle de Jour [1967 / trailer], and Viridiana [1961 / trailer]) and his hot artist wife Sheila (Maria Rosaria Omaggio, a former Playmen model seen to the left and in movies such as Bloody Sin [2010 / trailer], The Museum of Wonders [2010 / trailer], Hercules II [1985 / trailer] and The Cop in Blue Jeans [1976 / trailer]), and General Murchison's daughter Jessica (Stefania D'Amario, whose exploitation career includes some true classics, including Le deportate della sezione speciale SS / Deported Women of the SS Special Section [1976 / gratuitous scene], La sorella di Ursula / The Sister of Ursula [1978 / trailer], Cyclone [1978 / trailer] and Woodoo / Zombi 2 [1979 / trailer]) and her husband Bob (Pierangelo Civera). Another purty young lass briefly takes respite with Sheila, but she barely is let in the house before she gets her eye gorged out. As for Jessica and Bob, they have the bad luck of having two undead friends that remember to show up for their date...
The gore, like the makeup of the undead, is extremely uneven. The diced breast and eye-gorging scene are both extremely graphic, but the throats that get slit – of which there are a lot – don't bleed all that much – nor do most bullet holes. The film suffers tremendously by having Dean and Anna as the main focus, as neither is likeable: she's a strident, whining bitch and he's a self-righteous hothead. They aren't exactly smart either: on the run and out of gas, instead of tanking up quickly at a deserted station, they dawdle and gab until it's too late – and then they blow up their only means of motorized escape! Not too long thereafter, Anna actually even gets pissed at Dean for killing a zombie Priest who tries to eat him – about this time, the viewer begins to get pissed off that a zombie hasn't eaten her yet, but the film isn't over yet, even if she never does actually get eaten by a zombie...
Nightmare City is quick enough and has more than enough laughs, both intentional and unintentional, and even a few moments of suspense and surprise, but rest assured it is pure Italo-trash, and as such you have to like bad movies (and bad dubbing) to truly enjoy it. A fast if illogical and inane ride, Nightmare City holds one's interest until the very end, but the out-of-the-blue, möbius-strip mind-fuck ending is a true jaw-dropper. Lenzi really had balls to dare doing it, and it will probably either make or break the film for you.