by Steve Habrat
Way back in 2003, most casual horror fans believed that Danny Boyle had created the running zombie with his 2003 horror gem 28 Days Later. His sprinting ghouls then inspired Zack Snyder, who sped up his undead in the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead. While these two films made the running zombie popular, it could be argued that zombie godfather George A. Romero did it first in 1968 with Night of the Living Dead. Yes, you read that correctly. If you think back to the opening sequence of the film, the cemetery zombie that terrorizes poor Johnny and Barbara isn’t afraid to hustle for his meal. While the rest of the ghouls shuffled their way to the farmhouse, that iconic zombie moved at a very fast walk. About thirteen years later, the fast moving zombie appeared once again in the Italian made Nightmare City, another one of the European knock-offs of Romero’s 1978 masterpiece Dawn of the Dead. Much like Boyle’s 28 Days Later, Nightmare City doesn’t actually contain cannibalistic undead. No, these maniacal terrors are suffering from radiation poisoning and they are not simply craving a hearty meal of entrails. They crave blood and they are not afraid of using guns, knives, and clubs to get it. Hell, they even drive a car and fly a plane!
Set in an unnamed European city, a television reporter named Dean Miller (Played by Hugo Stiglitz) arrives at an airport to await the arrival of a scientist he is supposed to interview. While he waits, a mysterious military plane makes an emergency landing and unleashes a slew of radioactive zombies that proceed to shoot and stab the police and military officers waiting outside. Dean manages to escape the slaughter and he makes his way to the local television station to warn anyone who will listen to him. Just as Dean is about to make an announcement, the military steps in and prevents him from spilling too many details about the incident. It doesn’t take long for the ghouls to make their way into the city and begin killing anyone in their path. As the city is overrun, Dean attempts to rescue his wife, Dr. Anna Miller (Played by Laura Trotter), who works at the local hospital. Meanwhile, military officials General Murchison (Played by Mel Ferrer) and Major Warren Holmes (Played by Francisco Rabal) scramble to contain the situation and understand what type of threat they are up against.
While there isn’t much of a plot to Nightmare City, director Umberto Lenzi, the man who gave the world the Cannibal Holocaust knock-off Cannibal Ferox, keeps the action and bloodletting rolling at a furious rate. There is maybe five minutes of downtime before that dreaded military plane makes its emergency landing and unleashes those crusty-faced infected. The make-up on these ghouls is less than impressive, as their faces just look horribly scabbed over. There is nothing particularly memorable about any of them and they never wear the grotesque detail that many of the other ghouls of Italian zombie movies wore. Hilariously, all of the ghouls in Nightmare City are male and when they attack their female victims, they feel the need to rip off the women’s shirts for a quick boob flash before they start hacking and slashing. As far as the gore is concerned, the film never matches the jaw-dropping intensity of one of Lucio Fulci’s zombie films. Just because the film never matches the gore of a Fulci film doesn’t mean that Nightmare City is a softie. No, brace yourself for eyeballs being gouged out, blood slurped out of necks, heads getting blown to bits, an arm being yanked off, and even a women’s breast getting sawed clean off.
Probably the poorest part of Nightmare City is the stiff performances from nearly everyone involved. Mexican actor Hugo Stiglitz tries has hardest to make something of a role that simply asks him to run from one location to the next. His Dean is asked to be a tough guy, but sometimes he looks a bit bored firing a machine gun at a handful of charging ghouls. Despite his faint disinterest, he still manages to give the best performance in Nightmare City. Trotter barely registers as Dean’s terrified wife, basically just throwing herself on the ground and acting helpless. Ferrer does passable job as the no-nonsense General Murchison, but even he just stands around in an underground military bunker and forces himself to look important. Rabal’s Major Holmes is another bore who tries to inject a bit of emotion into his role. The only scene he really seems invested in is a steamy make-out session between him and his artist wife, Shelia (Played by Maria Rosaria Omaggio). Much like Trotter’s helpless Anna, Omaggio’s Shelia is asked to flash her chest and cautiously wander around her massive home.
Despite everything working against Nightmare City, it still manages to be a surprisingly fun European zombie movie. In addition to the poor effects, lousy acting, frail plot, and silly exposition, the film also features the biggest rip-off of an ending you will ever see. Yet you will be willing to forgive all the flaws because Lenzi really goes out of his way to deliver the thrills and he even manages to craft a few moments that are fairly suspenseful. The most stunning is an aerial shot of swarming infected charging through the city. To break up the mild suspense, you’ll get a few solid laughs, especially when Stiglitz lobs a television at charging infected and it blows up like a grenade. In the years since its release, Lenzi has tried to argue that the film actually is making an anti-nuclear message and that it is extremely critical of the military, but it is glaringly obvious that the film is just a low budget exploitation cheapie. Overall, Nightmare City is certainly no Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Zombie, City of the Living Dead, or The Beyond, but as far as action packed escapism goes, you can do much, much worse. No one will blame you if you seek this sucker out for a midnight viewing.
Nightmare City is available on DVD.