Great Bad Movies: "Nightmare City" aka "City of the Walking Dead" (1980)
Nightmare City (1980)
aka: City of the Walking Dead, Incubo Sulla Citta Contaminata
Directed by: Umberto Lenzi
The late 1970s and '80s were truly the Golden Age of the Zombie Film. Inspired by the smashing success of George Romero 's long-awaited epic Dawn of the Dead, low budget filmmakers the world over smelled blood (and cash), and soon tons of flicks featuring flesh chowing undead ghouls streamed into drive-ins and grindhouse theatres around the world. Some of the more famous homages to/ripoffs of Romero's "Dead" series include Lucio Fulci's Zombie, Bruno Mattei's Hell of the Living Dead, Sam Raimi's Evil Dead series and Dan O'Bannon's Return of the Living Dead.
Of course, for every zombie flick that scored at the box office, there were many others that went virtually unnoticed except by the most hardcore gore movie aficionados. One such film is Incubo Sulla Citta Contaminata (translation: Nightmare in the Contaminated City), an ultra-low-budget Spanish/Italian co-production directed by Umberto Lenzi (notorious director of the legendary gross-out opus Cannibal Ferox). Depending on where you are in the world, the film is also known as Nightmare City and Zombie 3. By the time it limped onto the American drive-in circuit in 1983 - three years after its European release - the film had been edited to remove some gorier bits, dubbed (badly) into English and re-titled yet again, to City of the Walking Dead. I doubt the movie broke any American box office records (and I never heard a peep about it at the Oscars that year!), which is a shame, because City of the Walking Dead turned out to be one of the most insane horror films I'd encountered in some time. The story appears to have been made up as the filmmakers went along, the dialogue and dubbing are howlingly bad, the make up is cheap, the special effects are negligible, and yet you can't help but get sucked in by its craziness. City Of The Walking Dead starts with a ridiculous bang and then thunders along like a locomotive with no brakes for the rest of its run time, leaving the viewer with two choices: get on board, or get out of the way!
Warning! Trailer contains gore and boobies. Not Safe For Work.
After an aerial opening-credits tour of an unnamed metropolitan area (accompanied by some pretty bitchin', foreboding synthesizer music ala John Carpenter) we learn that there's been a radiation leak at the local nuclear plant. A TV reporter (utterly wooden Mexican actor Hugo Stiglitz ) is sent to the airport to meet with a scientist who's going to deliver an update on the situation. When the scientist's plane lands, however, it suddenly discharges a horde of horribly scarred, machete-toting sub-humans who throw themselves into the assemblage of police and military men and commence slashing throats, busting heads, and sucking the blood from their victims. Wow! That radiation leak must've really messed these poor devils up. Not only are they homicidal, but their faces look like they're covered in burnt oatmeal! "Wait a minute!" I hear you saying. "Since when are zombies smart enough to fly an airplane, or use weapons?" Don't worry about it. The movie continues on at such a frenzied pace from here that you won't have time to think about it for very long anyway. Stiglitz rushes back to the TV station prepared to send out a Special News Bulletin but is stopped by his boss, who reports that the military has clamped a veil of secrecy over the whole incident in order to avoid panic. Yeah, that's a good idea. Shortly thereafter, the Atomic Zombies have caused a power blackout (I TOLD you these were some smart zombies!) and are running amuck in the streets, invading the TV station (rudely interrupting a live "Solid Gold" style disco-dance show!), and murdering everyone they can get their hands on in lovingly cheap, gory detail. Stiglitz manages several daring escapes (Did you know a TV set will explode like a grenade if you throw it at a zombie? I didn't either!) and races to the hospital where his wife (Laura Trotter) works, hoping to get them both out of the city before it is completely overrun by the hordes of bloodsuckers.
If this sounds ridiculous, it is...but wait, it gets even better! While the hungry ghouls run amok through the countryside killing and devouring, the military (led by American character actor Mel Ferrer, who really looks like he'd rather be somewhere else) hide out in their secret base, standing around a miniature model of the city and delivering lots of hokey sci-fi nonsense dialogue about their plans to contain the "contamination." Numerous secondary characters do stupid things like lock themselves in basements so there's no way to escape when a zombie suddenly pops up to gouge out their eyeballs. There are many, MANY gratuitous female breast shots. (It seems that atomic bloodsuckers prefer to rip girls' shirts off before chomping on them.) When we rejoin Stiglitz and Trotter, they've made their way to an abandoned amusement park (?) to make a last stand... and then comes the most ridiculous ending in the history of horror cinema. I won't spoil it for you, but take my word for it, it reeks of the filmmakers saying "Oooo-kay, we really have no idea how to end this movie, so we're just going to turn the lights off and go home." It is at this point that the viewer will either throw his remote at the TV in disbelief, or cackle hysterically and shout "THAT...WAS...AWESOME," depending on their tolerance for bad cinema. You can count me in the "Awesome" camp.
Interested in owning a copy of this bad boy for yourself? You should be! I first discovered City of the Walking Dead several years ago at the dollar store, where I found it on a double feature DVD paired with Creepers (the shortened, heavily censored U.S. cut of Dario Argento's 1984 classic Phenomena). This particular disc was released by the fine folks at EastWestDVD, one of numerous budget labels that unearthed forgotten films from the public domain and released them on bare-bones discs for the bargain-bin market. Naturally the picture quality of such DVDs usually leaves a lot to be desired, owing to the lack of decent quality prints of the films, but in City of the Walking Dead's case, the washed out colors and film scratches only enhanced the movie's sleazy, "grindhouse" vibe.
For those who are pickier about their film quality, the original, uncut version of the movie is also available (under its original Nightmare City title) from the cult movie specialists at Blue Underground/Anchor Bay. I recently tracked down a copy of this version and was pleased to see that it included a nice, clean transfer of the film and an entertaining bonus interview with director Umberto Lenzi (in Italian, with English sub titles) about his experiences while making it. Lenzi seems to think that his movie is a metaphor for the AIDS epidemic of the '80s and he actually compares it to the Tom Hanks drama Philadelphia, which means he's either extremely sarcastic... or completely batsh*t crazy. I haven't figured out which yet.
In case I haven't made it obvious by now, Nightmare City aka City of the Walking Dead is a stone cold hoot that every zombie-film enthusiast needs to see at least once. You'll either thank me, or you'll curse the day I was born for recommending it, but either way, you will never forget this movie!
© 2011 Keith Abt