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My Nightmare City: A Journey in Finding Appreciation for Umberto Lenzi’s Classic

The first time I saw Nightmare City aka The City of the Walking Dead, I just wasn’t ready for it. I was 14 (maybe 15) and was obsessed Romero’s trilogy but had really only seen a handful of Italian genre films. Of these, I was very familiar with Lucio Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters. So that was kind of my reference point, this is a great Italian zombie movie, surely this other one will be just like it, right? Wrong. The film was nothing like I was expecting. These weren’t even really zombies. They ran, stabbed people, shot guns, they were arguably not even dead; yet, they kind of followed the zombie mythology at the same time. They still fed (or rather drank) on humans, they kind of looked like zombies, and they were disposed of in similar ways. It was confusing and it turned me off. Because of this, I maintained for years that Nightmare City was a wretched film. I later softened to it, it wasn’t wretched but it just wasn’t my cup of tea. I attempted to rewatch it on a few occasions but never made it all the way through. It seemed that Nightmare City and I were doomed to have a complicated relationship.

Not to get too high and mighty, but my experience with the film has kind of been a journey but that journey has finally found closure. Despite my prior distaste, there was always something that intrigued me about the work. I really wanted to love it. If I am being honest, even when my opinion of the film was at its lowest, there was something I couldn’t shake from it. Part of it was the cover art, which has always been a favorite, but I think the other part was and still is Lenzi’s direction. There is something uncontrolled about the film, a feeling that at any (and every) moment it could all fall apart. Yet it never does. It’s a detached, messy, and, at times, incoherent film, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t also engaging and commanding. To quote a term Adam Nayman coined in his monograph reappraisal of Showgirls, It Doesn’t Suck, Lenzi’s film is both a masterpiece and shit, it’s a “masterpiece of shit.”

Umberto Lenzi's Nightmare City (1980) [click to enlarge]

Umberto Lenzi’s Nightmare City (1980) [click to enlarge]

Chances are if you are reading this review you are already familiar with Lenzi’s film, so I’ll save the formalities of running through an exhaustive summation of the plot. In short, the film tracks the aftereffects of the release of a radioactive outbreak, as a TV reporter does his best to combat an imminent apocalypse. Lenzi claims that he never saw any of Romero’s films and that Nightmare City is not a zombie film (of course, in between talking about how basically everyone has ripped him off). While the latter claim is technically true, Lenzi shouldn’t kid himself. Even if he hadn’t seen any of Romero’s films, it is clear that he is responding to them and reworking their mythology. You can’t call Nightmare City another Italian knock-off. It’s not trying to be a second rate Dawn of the Dead, but its undeniably indebted to that world of cinema.

A lot of people (present company included) have made the mistake of comparing Lenzi to Bruno Mattei, which is a gross reduction of the former’s talents. Mattei, while not without his own charms, wasn’t nearly as proficient a visionary as Lenzi. Upon a rewatch, this was only made clearer. The first reveal of the infected is, without hyperbole, one of the most effective bits of horror action in cinema. A crowd has gathered to greet a returning scientist who will bare the news of a recent radioactive fallout. The plane unexpectedly arrives and remains dormant for a stretch of time. Nerves rise as the crowd anticipates the opening of the vessel. When the doors finally open, Lenzi impregnates the scene with a lengthy pause. Further, the opening of the doors is made more dramatic by repeating the action slightly with each cut, lengthening the action beyond its natural speed and increasing suspense. It’s clear something isn’t right, that something is about to happen, but for a few minutes everything is eerily calm. Finally, Lenzi breaks the unnerving tranquility and a rash of chaos ensues. Stevio Cipriani’s driving synth score intensifies the manic montage of seemingly unstoppable creatures rushing and attacking the innocent bystanders. Given that this is one of the first incidents of “running zombies” in cinema history (or at least, the first major one following a string of Romero-inspired works), one can only imagine how frightening and chaotic this must have felt for audiences in 1980. Its not a scene without technical mishaps. The violence is cartoonish and the gore is fairly weak but, even with these alienating aspects intact, the scene feels alive with energy and style. It is the perfect summation of Lenzi’s approach to the entire film and a fantastic sequence.

Umberto Lenzi's Nightmare City (1980) [click to enlarge]

Umberto Lenzi’s Nightmare City (1980) [click to enlarge]

While Nightmare City is a cult classic and fan favorite amongst many in our community, there has generally been a consensus that the ending is a bit of a cheat. Normally, with this kind of ending, I’d be prone to agree but there is something about it that does work. In his commentary track, Fango EIC Chris Alexander likens it to Groundhog’s Day, which is astute and captures what it is about the ending that is actually so haunting. Yes, it’s a shame to have the entire plot of the film underwritten by the “dream structure,” but the film’s final reveal (or anti-reveal) is that the events very well might transpire again. It’s a unsettling notion on a visceral level, only heightened by Lenzi’s decision to cut the scene where he does. It should be stated that the only thing darker than the choice to kill of the lead character’s love interest in the climax, is to suggest that it will only happen again (and again). In this light, Lenzi’s “cheat” is more of an innovation, one that expands its morbid nature.
Umberto Lenzi's Nightmare City (1980) [click to enlarge]

Umberto Lenzi’s Nightmare City (1980) [click to enlarge]

The prior Blu-ray release of Nightmare City via Raro Video was subjected to a great deal of criticism, so when Arrow Films and Video announced their plans to take a crack at it, fans were weary. Arrow was not able to track down a pristine print but was able to present a much clearer image than the former release. However, the clearer print is severely damaged, with notable chemical discoloration throughout. Because of this, Arrow has gone the extra mile in offering the choice between two prints: one softer transfer in great condition (struck from a 35mm reversal dupe negative) and one crisp but damaged transfer from the original camera negative. While the discoloration is distracting its nice to have the crisper image and was (for this particular reviewer) the best viewing experience. For anyone unsure of the technical reasons behind their actions, Arrow have included a fantastic featurette which tracks not only the differences inherent in the prints but also the painstaking process they went through in order to present the film in the best shape possible. The disc is rounded out with a slew of great features, including a short piece with Eli Roth on his love of the film (something that will undoubtedly annoy Roth-haters, but the video is charming and full of passion), a new, lengthy interview with Lenzi that is both entertaining and informative, the aforementioned commentary track by Alexander, a new interview with actor Maria Rosaria Omaggio, and an alternative titles sequence and the original trailer. All-in-all, praise for Arrow for offering the best package for Nightmare City on the market.

Nightmare City is now available on Blu-ray via Arrow Films and Video

 

 

 

The first time I saw Nightmare City aka The City of the Walking Dead, I just wasn’t ready for it. I was 14 (maybe 15) and was obsessed Romero’s trilogy but had really only seen a handful of Italian genre films. Of these, I was very familiar with Lucio Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters. So that was kind of my reference point, this is a great Italian zombie movie, surely this other one will be just like it, right? Wrong. The film was nothing like I was expecting. These weren’t even really zombies. They ran, stabbed people, shot guns, they were arguably…

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About Joe Yanick

Joe Yanick is a writer, videographer, and film/music critic based in Brooklyn, NY. He is the former Managing Editor for Diabolique Magazine, as well as a contributing writer for Noisey.vice.com, and Stagebuddy.com. In addition, he has worked with the Cleveland International Film Festival as a Feature reviewer. He is currently a Cinema Studies MA Candidate at New York University.

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