Sunday, May 27, 2012

Nightmare City (1980)

Directed by Umberto Lenzi. Starring Hugo Stiglitz, Mel Ferrer and Francisco Rabal.
92 Minutes. Color.

An often overlooked film that may have influenced the recent wave of zombie films is Nightmare City (aka City of the Walking Dead, 1980), directed by Umberto Lenzi. This offbeat tale of contamination, re-animation and survival contains elements that would not be seen for another 20 years, defying major cinematic "rules" as to the behavior and origins of zombies set forth by the likes of George A. Romero (Night of the Living Dead) and Lucio Fulci (Zombi 2, House by the Cemetery). With the 2002 release of this film by Anchor Bay Entertainment (and subsequent release by Blue Underground), Nightmare City has been re-mastered from superior elements and has infected a new audience of horror fans.

Dean Miller (Hugo Stiglitz) is an aggressive television news reporter who always seeks the underlying truth in every story. He has been sent out on assignment to the airport on the outskirts of a modern metropolitan city (insinuated to be New York) to get the scoop from a famous scientist on a major radioactive leak from a nuclear power plant. When he arrives at the airport, an aircraft that is unresponsive to radio contact from the flight control tower lands. All security forces are called to positions around the mysterious plane. The famed professor emerges from the plane, only to be accompanied by an army of what appear to be horribly-mutated zombies. The zombies kill everyone in sight, as Miller and his cameraman flee the airport.
Miller arrives back at the television station in an attempt to warn the public, but is silenced by his superiors and representatives of the military. Before Miller can contact his spouse at the hospital where she works, the zombies invade the television station.
Miller makes his way to the hospital to get his wife to safety as the infection spreads, and contaminated members of the public begin to flood the hospital emergency room. The zombies invade the hospital both from the inside (the victims have begun to re-animate) and the outside (the arrival of the airport zombies and other infected victims). Miller and his wife escape in an ambulance and leave behind them the lost hospital.
In an attempt to re-fuel the ambulance, they are forced to sacrifice their transportation in the interests of dispatching a group of zombies. The military loses control of the entire situation, as hospitals, power stations and military bases fall at the hands of the contaminated beings.
After a series of close encounters with the hordes of zombies, Miller and his wife find their way to a marina (presumed to be the site of a local amusement park), where a boat is docked. Just as they are making their way to their last hope, the zombies come out of the woodwork for one final siege.....
Made during the time period following Romero's Dawn of the Dead where European film makers were trying to find their place in the zombie/cannibal sub-genre, Nightmare City is a unique film that, in itself, is the very predecessor to the modern-day zombie film. Unlike the shuffling, slow-moving dead found in countless films before, Lenzi's zombies can run, use weapons (such as knives, machetes, machine guns, etc.), operate vehicles, and intentionally cause damage to power and communications lines. Themes dealing with zombies "hunting" humans with machine guns would turn up later in early script versions of Day of the Dead (1985); fast-moving zombies stormed the screen (and became very popular) in Zack Znyder's Dawn of the Dead (2004) and Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later (2002). Additionally, the "hospital massacre" scene bears more than a slight resemblance to a similar scene in Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror (the first half of Grindhouse, 2007). Although many would dismiss this film as a low-budget rip-off of Romero's Dawn of the Dead and others before it (with bad acting and special effects), Nightmare City's may considered very innovative for its time.
The usage of music in Nightmare City is very unusual. While many of the European film makers of the 70s and 80s used synth music to score their horror films, Stelvio Cipriani (The Great Alligator, 1979) provided an odd mix of foreboding sounds to accompany such a dismal story. A mix of piano, bass, and basic cymbal use highlighted by xylophone in minor key transform the opening credits from a montage of footage shot of a random city (from the air) into a sullen warning of what the following 90 minutes would bring. Other music appropriately cues what unfolds on the screen, with the main theme (a piano melody in a minor key supported by bass and a variety of percussion) underscoring the "action" scenes.
Anchor Bay presents Nightmare City remastered in its original aspect ratio at 2.35:1, enhanced for 16x9 screens. There is no doubt that this is the best Nightmare City has looked since its original release. One can only appreciate the artful screen compositions of Italian horror masters after decades of repeated fullscreen viewings; the scope photography not only reveals a landscape filled with visual information, but keeps the conversing actors in frame (several shots during dialogue scenes were cropped so badly that only half of the actors' faces were on the screen). The 2.0 Dolby Digital mono track is perfectly adequate, without the "5.1 re-mix" meddling that plagues so many films that were meant to be heard as straightforward sound.
An International trailer is included along with a text biography on Umberto Lenzi. A short documentary, Tales of the Contaminated City, consists mainly of interview footage with Lenzi himself. He spends a little time talking about his career at the time this film was made, how the "primitive" special effects used in the film work in favor of its credibility, and how the plot was derived from actual events (sans the plot point involving zombies overrunning the Earth).
Unfortunately, the extras found on the region 2 release of Nightmare City did not make it to this disc; notably, the audio commentary with Lenzi and the original motion picture soundtrack. The commentary may have been a mixed bag, but the inclusion of the soundtrack would have given the viewer a wonderful opportunity to hear the musical intricacies shrouded by the final sound mix - thus buried by the action.
Upon first look, Lenzi's Nightmare City may lead the casual viewer to dismiss it as a cheap and disposable cash-in of the late 70s zombie film trend. However, if one would simply watch the film and suspend disbelief (as one should do with just about any horror film), it may be discovered that there is a great deal more to be appreciated.

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