Warning! This post contains adult content!
When digging into to the cinematic treasures offered by Italian horror films like Zombie, Suspiria, Hell of the Living Dead, or The Beyond, finding the odd explosion of mind-numbing gore and intriguing production design is a pleasant regularity. Unfortunately, with a glut of films like Nightmare City, also known as City of the Walking Dead or Invasion of the Atomic Zombies among a host of other titles, a mindless plot with clichéd execution is not uncommon either.
Following a recent nuclear accident, an American television reporter is set to interview a scientist who will help elucidate the tragedy. He arrives at the airport to receive his subject, but when the plane lands on the runway and the doors open, out pour a confluence of mutated zombies who are capable of wielding weapons. Stunned, he returns to the station to report on the incident, encountering a fair amount of bureaucracy before the zombies assault the studio. Needless to say, things get worse before they get better.
Then again, they really don’t get better. Compared to a movie like Dawn of the Dead, which was shot on a budget of $650,000, Nightmare City was shot on a shoestring that undoubtedly rivals Night of the Living Dead. Giving the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt and extending one’s self on their behalf is the only fair way to watch a film like this, but for something as predicated on Joe Bob Briggs’ three Bs (Breasts, Beasts, Blood), viewers are more likely to end up frustrated by a slew of wasted opportunities.
Granted, Nightmare City certainly has enough breasts and beasts, and one scene offers a Briggs Grand Slam by having all three in the same frame at once, namely a woman getting an impromptu mastectomy from an enterprising zombie, but most of the gore is too little and too far between to feed the hunger of the average genre fanatic. You can only see so many throats slit with plastic knives leaving a dab of red paint behind before the façade gets old.
Those looking for camp value might be in luck, however; serious guffaws are to be had at the expense of actors who clearly got no discernable direction when they were supposed to be looking scared, and any character witnessing an act of extreme violence is liable to stand there soaking it in for a few dispassionate moments before slowly moving toward an exit. Instead of running like crazy, of course, but where’s the fun in that?
Like several films from this era, the zombie trope is used to explore the Cold War fear of nuclear annihilation, or, in this case, transformation, but it’s hardly used well. While there may be a pretense that the spreading fear of a nuclear winter is examined through Nightmare City’s characters and antagonists, very little is done to advance this beyond a puerile state of thematic development. Some military generals argue about what happened only conclude that those mutated can be killed with a shot in the head, and while the panic spreads, little if anything is mentioned about contamination or the nuclear accident itself.
Worse yet, director Umberto Lenzi seems to feel Nightmare City is not a zombie film, but a ‘radiation sickness movie’ with ‘hints’ of anti-nuclear and anti-military sentiments. Well, when the people exposed to radiation go around killing and eating other people who then resurrect without exhibiting a single real side effect of radiation sickness, it’s a zombie movie. And those hints are about as subtle as having a boob hacked off with a butcher’s knife.
Oh, and I’m going to spoil the ending: at the most climactic moment (which really isn’t that climactic) of the protagonist’s escape, he wakes up. It was all a dream, but he has to rush off to an airport runway to interview a scientist about a recent nuclear accident! Is this a subtle allegory of the film’s allusions to paranoid fears, that our radioactive fever dreams have the potential to be realized at any moment? Nope. It’s just a shitty twist.
Nightmare City may not be as appallingly bad as something like The Lucifer Complex owing to its schlocky watchability, but there are far better ways to spend one’s time and much better zombie movies on which to spend it. However, if you’re truly dying to see this cinematic lump of coal, there is a silver lining: the DVD is paired with the much more successfully charming Hell of the Living Dead and retails for under ten dollars.