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Do you have a recurring nightmare? Mine is the oh-so passé “being chased”. It’s always the same; hunted relentlessly by an unknown assailant, helplessly fleeing from a certain doom. Of course, I wake up in a puddle of sweat, crying out for mommy, as one will do. The fear of cutthroat pursuit is at the center of Nightmare City (1980), Umberto Lenzi’s take on the then resurgent zombie sub-genre. And while you won’t wake up screaming after seeing it, you might end up covered in a sticky sweet glaze of WTF. The Italians don’t make their horror in half measures; I’m pretty sure Nightmare City throws in the whole cup.

I should say, Italian/Spanish/Mexican. This co-co-production was released in Italy in December, toured around Europe for a couple of years, and then landed on North American soil late ’83 under the title City of the Walking Dead, a misnomer if ever I’ve heard one. There’s no walking, and they’re certainly not dead. These folk have radiation sickness, baby, and they can barely contain themselves to let everyone know – by knife, spear, and axe. What’s it all mean, I hear you saying. How the hell should I know? Let’s try to figure it out together!

TV reporter Dean Miller (Hugo Stiglitz – Guyana: Cult of the Damned) is assigned to meet an eminent nuclear scientist at the airport for an interview. As he and his cameraman hit the tarmac (security is quite lax, I assume) a cargo plane makes an emergency landing. Military police surround the airplane, and as the door opens, our scientist slowly descends. Before he even touches ground, however, a multitude of manic men with varying degrees of eczema and guacamole covered faces flood off the plane and start dispatching the military post haste with an arsenal of sharp implements. Miller races back to the TV station to broadcast the horrifying footage (horrifying to us, anyway; he and the cameraman look bored, like they’re covering C-Span), interrupting the live dance aerobics program that I guess is the station’s bread and butter. The broadcast is short lived however; the military top brass see the footage and head to the studio, led by General Murchison (Mel Ferrer – The Visitor) who tells Miller the outbreak is to be kept under wraps until they can figure out how to contain it.

Miller, being a man of curiosity and action, tries to figure out what is going on, as well as finding his wife, Dr. Anna Miller (Laura Trotter – Miami Golem) and whisking her to safety. Meanwhile the infected numbers are increasing, due to contamination of the bloodstream, because the infected crave blood, due to low counts of red blood cells, due to the necessity of the screenwriters to mansplain everything to us, due to the fact that we’ve never watched a horror movie before. (The Italian adage isn’t “show, don’t tell” it’s “show and tell”.) Scurrying from one catastrophic event to the next (the TV station, the hospital), Dean and Anna end up in a final confrontation at an amusement park, where climbing a rollercoaster is surely the safest way to be rescued. The film ends on a head slapping note that would give Bobby Ewing pause.

Subtle, it ain’t. But this is what you get when you purchase a Lenzi; while certainly not as gut wrenching as his Cannibal entries, Eaten Alive! (also 1980), and his final word on the subject, Cannibal Ferox (1981), it doesn’t shy away from the red stuff and features more bodily penetration than a Ron Jeremy double feature. Throats are slashed, stomachs gored, eyes plucked out, all to convey Lenzi’s message: the government can’t be trusted, and a leaky nuclear plant should probably have stricter safety measures.

Personally, I find it very endearing; Lenzi truly believes he’s sending out an important warning, and feels that horror is the best way to do it. That may be, in more capable hands, but as I’ve noted subtlety is not his forte; the deck is stacked against him from the script on down – stiff and/or histrionic performances and dialogue that veers from the soapbox to the sandbox. But what Lenzi lacks in finesse, he makes up for in not only enthusiasm but a sense of motion. Unlike his more celebrated peers (Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci), Lenzi doesn’t focus on picturesque set pieces or establishing mood; this film plays like an action extravaganza with a really bad skin problem. The first hour is a nonstop barrage; no rhyme or reason given, a location invasion followed by another and another and another. This sucker moves is what I’m saying.

As do his antagonists. The deranged on display were justifiably lumped in with the undead – at least from a commercial standpoint. With the massive international success of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Fulci’s Zombie (1979), the easiest route to putting asses in seats was to make a flesh eating feast, and the marketing material for Nightmare City sure leans that way. (This is where the fallacy of it being the first “fast zombie” film reared its puss filled head.) But horror fans are used to seeing marketing manipulation, and as long as the film delivers, we don’t care.

Umberto Lenzi never reached the heights of Mario Bava, Argento, or Fulci. Great Italian horror is predicated on mood and imagery. Lenzi deals in a more mundane visceral confrontation, rather than finding the beauty in the horrific. Frankly, some of his films are just ugly downers. But Nightmare City latches onto a scenario that is anything but mundane – a “what if?” told with a ton of conviction and a whole lot of heart strapped to the side of a locomotive. If radiation sickness is the way Lenzi gets me on his side, then I don’t ever want to be cured.

Nightmare City is available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber and Arrow Video.

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