Nightmare City Special Edition (1980) (Blu-ray/DVD film review).

‘Nightmare City’ is a horror film from 1980 which has become a cult classic. Directed by the prolific Italian filmmaker Umberto Lenzi, the film was one of many made to capitalise on the popularity of zombie movies in the aftermath of George A. Romero’s second film, ‘Dawn Of The Dead’ (1978). It is cited as an important influence by several modern directors, including Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez and Eli Roth.


This Special Edition re-issue of ‘Nightmare City’ has been distributed by Arrow Films, who have remastered the film and provided several DVD extras on top. But more on that later.

The plot of the film, to the extent that there is one, revolves around the aftermath of an accident at the local nuclear plant. When investigative journalist Dean Miller (Hugo Stiglitz) goes to the nearby airport to cover the arrival of Professor Hagenbach, a nuclear expert who will explain what’s going on, he gets a scoop he wasn’t expecting. The Professor stabs the military officer who has been sent to collect him from the plane and then unleashes a gang of murderous ghouls, many of whose faces are horribly disfigured by radiation burns. Between them they slaughter the small military unit surrounding the plane, before proceeding to drink their blood!

One of the more original story elements of this film, given that it is generally perceived as a zombie movie, is that there are no zombies in it. The creatures who go around maiming and killing people may resemble the walking dead, except that they can run and use knives and guns but, as Lenzi is at pains to point out in the interview with him featured on the DVD, there’s nothing supernatural about them. In his conception, these are ordinary human beings who have been irradiated in the nearby nuclear disaster. The radiation gives them great strength and makes them almost invulnerable to ordinary weapons but also destroys their red blood cells. As a result, they start off looking pretty normal but over time their skin degrades, making them resemble hospital patients with third-degree burns all over. Their condition gives them an overwhelming desire to drink blood. It is the need to satisfy this thirst that leads to their mindless killing frenzies, followed by vampire-like slurping of the blood of their victims. Even if nothing else from this film were to survive, the idea of fast-moving, ultra-violent ‘zombies’ has been influential, reappearing in such films as Danny Boyle’s ’28 Days Later’ (2002).

Miller gets away from the airport unscathed but, when he tries to broadcast a special news bulletin to tell the public what’s just happened, the TV station is taken off air by the military, commanded by General Murchison (Mel Ferrer), who is keen to cover up the nuclear accident even at the cost of more victims. Miller escapes arrest but when he rushes over to the nearby hospital where his wife Anna (Laura Trotter) works, he finds himself surrounded by monsters once more and they barely escape with their lives.

Meanwhile, Murchison’s right-hand man, Major Holmes (Francisco Rabal) is called up for duty, forcing him to leave his lover Sheila (Maria Rosaria Omaggio) home alone. He tells her to bolt all the doors and windows and not to answer the door to anyone, but being an independently-minded woman she ignores his advice.

From this point on, the plot gets more and more tenuous, largely replaced by a succession of ever more violent confrontations between our various heroes and their relentless blood-seeking attackers. Will anyone survive or is this really the end of life as we know it?

A strong strand of anti-capitalist environmentalism pervades this film. The storyline was apparently inspired by the Seveso disaster of 1976, an industrial accident in which large quantities of toxic chemicals were released over the Italian town of Seveso. Another potential source of inspiration for Lenzi may be the Three Mile Island nuclear accident which took place in the USA in early 1979. The film attempts to rise above its schlock-horror origins and transform itself into a vehicle for eco-awareness on several occasions, but the clumsiness of the relevant dialogue, most of which comes out of the mouth of actress Laura Trotter’s Anna character, is an embarrassment, as she ever more shrilly blames the emerging zombie apocalypse on the hubris of mankind and the pollution created by runaway consumer capitalism. Whatever sympathy you may have for the message, it’s completely lost because of the amateurish way in which Lenzi forces it down your throat.

This Arrow Films special edition comes in a 2 disc Blu-ray and DVD set and the main feature is accompanied by an impressive host of extras. First of all, you can choose from two different prints of the film, one of which is higher resolution but shows some signs of physical damage and chemical deterioration, leading to colour stains and flicker. The other print is undamaged but of lower resolution and sharpness. The DVD includes a fascinating short featurette which explains and demonstrates clearly the differences between the two prints. In addition, there’s a full-length audio commentary from Chris Alexander, the editor of ‘Fangoria’ magazine, a really excellent new half-hour interview with Umberto Lenzi and shorter interviews with Maria Rosaria Omaggio, who plays ‘Sheila’, and with ‘Zombies Gone Wild!’ actor/director Eli Roth, who turns out to be a huge Lenzi fan. There’s also a twenty page collector’s booklet which contains archive stills and poster artwork, as well as an amusing and insightful essay on the film by John Martin, author of ‘Seduction Of The Gullible: The Truth Behind The Video Nasty Scandal’.

If you’re in the mood, there’s plenty to be disappointed about here. The story is deeply silly but, at the same time, it’s ultra-violent, particularly towards women. There is almost no plot to talk of, some of the actors, particularly Hugo Stiglitz, seem to find it difficult to vary their facial expressions or in any other way to pretend that they are interested in what they’re doing and the special effects leave much to be desired, even for 1980.

On the other hand, ‘Nightmare City’ rises above many of the zombie films made around the same time because of the much higher energy and pace that Lenzi brings to the screen’ The use of genuinely original story elements, such as the fact that the monsters aren’t actually zombies and the fact that, in the final judgement, the film is enormously fun to watch.

‘Nightmare City’ is very much a film of its time and genre and needs to be judged on that basis. If you’re expecting it to compete with the production values of modern horror films then you’ll be massively disappointed. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for a slice of low-budget Italian horror with pace and energy, then this may be the film is for you. If it is, then this Arrow Films special edition is a great way to watch it as the film has been lovingly restored and the package is rounded out with an excellent set of DVD extras.

Patrick Mahon

August 2015

(blu-ray/DVD region B/2: pub: Arrow Films. 2 discs Blu-ray & DVD. 93 minute film with extras. Price: £17.99 (UK). Cat: FCD 1112)

cast: Hugo Stiglitz, Laura Trotter, Maria Rosaria Omaggio, Francisco Rabal and Mel Ferrer.

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