Along with Argento and Fulci, Umberto Lenzi stands as one of the big three Italian horror directors. He accidentally created the Italian Cannibal subgenre with “The Man from Deep River” (itself a knock-off of the Western “A Man Called Horse”) and when Ruggero Deodato raised the stakes with “Cannibal Holocaust”, Lenzi tried to reclaim the throne with the notorious “Cannibal Ferox”. The Italian Zombie craze replaced the fervor for Cannibal movies and Lenzi, never one to let a good trend go unplundered, responded with his own take on the subgenre, “Midnight City”, or “City of the Walking Dead” as it was known in its heavily censored US release.
First of all, let’s just get this out of the way: this was the original fast-moving zombie movie. All those nerdfights people had about fast zombies in the early 2000s were bullshit. This was also the first movie with zombies who weren’t really zombies. They were technically living people infected by radiation which horribly scarred them and gave them a thirst for blood. Not brains, blood. There’s some scientific mumbo-jumbo explanation about how they can’t produce blood on their own and need to constantly replenish their own levels by drinking lots of freshly squeezed blood. Most shockingly, these zombies come packing. They attack with knives or golf clubs or harpoons or submachine guns. Much like an inside-out version of the video game “Dead Rising”, anything they can get their hands on becomes a weapon.
The members of the cast who most resemble traditional, stiff, Romero zombies are the two leads, Hugo Stiglitz and Laura Trotter. Stiglitz plays a reporter due to interview a scientist who works at a nuclear plant. As he awaits the scientist’s arrival at the airport, an unmarked plane makes an unscheduled landing. The door opens and the scientist slowly walks out… and stabs a nearby soldier. Suddenly, in a set piece so over-the-top and unexpected that it alone justifies the existence the movie, masses of pus-faced nuclear-powered zombies are leaping out of the plane and hacking the military to pieces. Stiglitz and his cameraman, both good reporters, record the whole thing and are somehow miraculously ignored by the zombies.
What follows is fairly standard for the wide-scale zombie movie. Stiglitz tries to warn the public, the military brass spout exposition in rooms filled with impressive-looking machines with lots of blinky lights, and the zombies attack a series of locations including some sort of cheesy live disco dancing television show. One thing that really keeps the film moving is its dedication to have big set pieces in a such a wide variety of locations. Beside the airport and the television studio, there are also major zombie mayhem scenes set in a hospital, a dark deserted house, and an amusement park. The constantly changing settings do a good job of getting across the impression that this is something that is spreading throughout the (nameless, vaguely European, English-speaking) city and not just an isolated incident.
“Nightmare City” also accomplishes what it set out to do with respect to nudity and gore. The zombies have a amusingly shameless compulsion to rip open the shirts of women before they kill them as well as a weird breast-stabbing (and on one occasion, breast-lopping off) fetish. The gore hits all the decapitation and eye trauma notes you might expect from Italian Zombie films but is still fairly restrained compared to its cousins in the subgenre. It probably goes without saying that the blood looks like cherry red fingerpaint and the advanced decomposition zombie makeup looks like the actors dunked their heads into buckets of week old Maple and Brown Sugar instant oatmeal.
Graded on a standard scale, “Nightmare City” is a pretty bad movie. There isn’t much of a story, the actors are wooden and prone to speechifying about the folly of man, the special effects look like they were designed by a junior day camp arts and crafts class and the less said about the twist ending, the better. Where “Nightmare City” succeeds is in being a phenomenally fun movie. For a certain kind of film fan, it’s hard not to hoot when a television thrown across a room explodes like a cathode ray grenade. It’s hard not to thrill to zombies dismembering the non-union Italian equivalent of the Solid Gold dancers. It’s hard not to snicker at an obvious dummy falling from the top of a rollercoaster and smacking every beam in the way down. If any of the above sounds like a good time to you, then run, don’t shamble, to check out “Nightmare City”.