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Nightmare City (1980)

Raro Video
Blu-ray Disc Released: 12/31/2013

All Ratings out of
Movie: 1/2
Video: 1/2

Review by Mike Long, Posted on 12/14/2013

The problem with most people who think that they know a lot about movies is that they often don't know a lot about movies. My pet peeve is when people fall over themselves praising something for being new and original when it really isn't. This seems to happen a great deal in the world of zombies. (We're using "zombies" as a blanket term here to cover the undead and the infected.) Things like The Walking Dead (Yes, I realize that isn't a movie) and 28 Days Later have been lauded by the mainstream press as being ground-breaking, when they really aren't. The problem here is that up until recently, the zombie genre had been very obscure and underground and many weren't aware of its rich history. All that they had to do was look to Italian films like 1980's Nightmare City to see that everything new has probably been done before.

As Nightmare City opens, reporter Dean Miller (Hugo Stiglitz) is sent to the airport to cover the arrival of a nuclear scientist, who has information on a recent accident involving a radiation leak. While Miller is waiting, an unidentified plane approaches the airport, ignoring all communications. The plane lands and is immediately surrounded by armed guards and police. The plane's door opens and suddenly a group of heavily armed men, all of whom have severely burned faces, leap from the plane and begin attacking everyone in sight. Miller escapes and returns to the city in hopes of finding his wife, Dr. Anna Miller (Laura Trotter). Soon, the crazed attackers are invading the city and General Murchison (Mel Ferrer) and Major Holmes (Francisco Rabal) are formulating a plan to stop them. The assailants are super-strong and fast, and can only be stopped by destroying their brains. As Miller travels through the city, he realizes that nowhere is safe.

OK, a brief history. George Romero's 1978 film Dawn of the Dead became a huge hit in Italy and immediately spawned a number of imitators, including the infamous Zombi 2, whose title was meant to confuse Italian filmgoers. Most of these films featured the slow, shuffling zombies seen in Romero's movies and the bulk dealt with the undead rising from the grave or being created by a zombie attack.

And while Umberto Lenzi's Nightmare City is clearly part of this Dawn of the Dead fallout, it took a very different approach to the material. First of all, these zombies are fast. They are highly animated and attack with cunning and purpose. Second of all, they use weapons, such as knives and guns. (Off of the top of my head, I can't think of another movie where zombies or the infected use guns.) Thirdly, while most zombies are after human flesh, the ghouls presented here are actually more like vampires, as they need blood to survive. You don't have to look far to see how parts of Nightmare City found their ways into other movies. The fast moving zombies of 28 Days Later suddenly don't see so original. (There's a scene where the characters seek refuge in a church, which is also reminiscent of Danny Boyle's film.) The finale of the movie takes place in an amusement park. Where have we seen that before? -- I'm looking at you, Zombieland.

As for Nightmare City itself, this is a pretty wacky movie. Unlike so many of its counterparts, the film is actually able to create some tension during the scene where everyone is waiting to see what is going on with the mysterious plane. The movie contains a great deal of gore and violence. Some of it is very cheap and cheesy looking. There are very dated and low-rent tactics used, such as someone swinging a weapon which is followed by a whip-pan to the victim who just happens to have said weapon sticking out of them, with no penetration witnessed. There is a lot of implied slashing and stabbing as well. However, there is also a moment during the TV station assault scene which distances itself from the rest of the film, as it is quite graphic and mean-spirited. (I'm not a Nightmare City historian, but I think this moment is cut from many versions of the movie.) The makeup on the infected runs from sort of detailed to guys who look like brown shoe polish was smeared on them.

Italian horror films are notorious for running hot and cold -- action scenes are typically followed by long, slow periods. Nightmare City bucks this trend by working in an attack every few minutes. However, the tone does suffer at times. The aforementioned attack on the TV station occurs doing an absurd dance show where a small group of similarly dressed dancers perform an uninspired routine. This Solid Gold-lite moment comes off as incredibly silly and dated today, and I refuse to believe that this seemed cool or plausible when the film was released. There is an unintentionally comic scene where, during the chaos, two characters stop to have tea. As with many European films, Nightmare City has a cavalier attitude concerning topless women.

For Italian horror movie completists, Nightmare City is a no-brainer. Sure some of it comes off as silly and the "twist" (and those are sarcastic quotes) ending forces us to realize that most of the movie made no sense. But the action, the somewhat unique plot and the fact that the movie actually contains some energy makes it a influential zombie film that even a newcomer to the genre can enjoy.

Nightmare City clearly does know that B comes before H on Blu-ray Disc courtesy of Raro Video. The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the Disc contains a VC-1 1080p HD transfer which runs at 27 Mbps. The image is sharp and clear, showing very little grain and no overt defects from the source material. Raro has lovingly created an HD transfer from the original negative and the work shows. No, this doesn't look like a brand new movie, but this is probably the best that Nightmare City has looked since it was originally shown. The picture has a nice crispness to it and it's free from any obvious defects. The colors look good and the image is never overly dark or bright. The level of detail is good (which is bad news for some of the effects), although some shots are a bit soft, and the depth is notable. The Disc carries a LPCM 2.0 audio track (for both the Italian and English tracks) which runs at 48 kHz/16 bit and a constant 1.9 Mbps. (While the box states that this is a 2.0 track, my receiver was reading 7.0. I have no explanation for this.) The track provides clear dialogue and sound effects. There are a few noticeable stereo effects during the action scenes, and the score comes from both sides of the front channel, but for the most part, we don't get many detailed effects here. The music and sound effects (which are the standard fake sounding effects) don't drown out the dialogue.

The Nightmare City Blu-ray Disc contains only a few extras. We begin with an "Interview with Umberto Lenzi" (49 minutes), which was conducted in May, 2000. This is conducted in English and the interviewer asks many questions about the film. Lenzi discusses Nightmare City and then goes on to talk about other parts of his career. Lenzi was 69 at the time and he has several anecdotes about his projects. The only other bonus materials are an Italian trailer and an English trailer -- they are the same trailer, only in different languages. The funny thing is, this is clearly the European trailer, as evidence by the explicit material and the way in which the credits are presented.

Review Copyright 2013 by Mike Long