That sounds like science fiction.
There’s a scene between Dean Miller (Hugo Stiglitz) and his wife Anna (Laura Trotter) about two-thirds of the way through Umberto Lenzi‘s Incubo sulla città contaminate [Nightmare City] where they speak about the perils of technology. After an hour of murder, death, and exposed breasts, suddenly the screenwriters decide to provide some semblance of meaning to the whole. Anna laments that the world would be a better place without creature comforts like instant coffee and more expansive means of infrastructure such as nuclear power. She and Dean wonder if it’s too late for humanity to realize the error of its way and go back to the basics for peace. And we almost applaud the commentary until attackers arrive, Anna starts screaming, and Dean smacks her in the face.
Can anything really be forward thinking—because the sentiments do give pause three decades later with half the world’s population in a state of constant terror and the other oblivious to why—with such a moment that so blatantly reveals the filmmakers views on women as “hysterical” dead weight? No. It can only prove that it had no true ambitions beyond schlock. That this briefest of interludes with two characters stopping to enjoy an impossible moment of reprieve while running for their lives was shoehorned in as a half-baked attempt to pretend there was a purpose to their art besides exploitatively graphic content. Why bother? Anyone enjoying the wall-to-wall gore becomes bored and those hoping for meaning frustrated that this poor excuse is all they’ll ever receive.
It’s too bad considering Lenzi and company use interesting ideas. The film is wrongly billed as a zombie flick—probably due to its 1983 American release under the title City of the Walking Dead—because the aggressive force infiltrating this urban local onscreen isn’t undead. They are instead irradiated humans bestowed with supernatural strength and healing abilities. They aren’t eating brains, but drinking blood as fuel. Pair that with these creatures’ seemingly indestructible physiques and they become more vampire than anything else. Yes they are mute and, yes, they can only be stopped by headshots, but they aren’t drones. These monsters retain their intelligence and problem solving skills. With defter writing you could posit that these selfishly apathetic killers are a product of technology’s danger.
But nothing about Nightmare City is deft. Nothing about it is subtler than the axes and knives swung into the chests of women by this evil horde—after quickly ripping their blouses open first as though that just happens naturally when stabbing people. It starts with an attack at an airport and continues to a hospital, a gas station, and private homes. Characters are introduced because of their relationship to the main trio of unflappable men (Dean Miller, Francisco Rabal as Major Warren Holmes, and Mel Ferrer as General Murchison), but not to advance the plot with contrivance as much as create future victims the film can pretend we care about. We don’t, of course. In the end they’re all just glorified extras waiting to die horrible deaths.
I guess there is something to this truth, though. You can sit down in the theater and turn off your brain to giddily watch burnt-faced men bend plastic weapons onto the skin of screaming women. You ignore the abhorrent gender dynamics and poorly conceived notion of emotionless utility on behalf of what seems like a robotic military because it’s more fun to laugh the stupidity of two women going into a basement that one just admitted she left open to the outside. Not only do we roll our eyes that the latter would go down to barricade that opening rather than the door at the top of the stairs, we audibly snort when her friend yells, “I don’t want to be alone. I’m coming too.” They deserve death.
When a film with as little budget as Night of the Living Dead excels in storytelling, horror, and social commentary, however, watching a poor rip-off that amplifies aesthetic at the detriment of content makes me angry. If I can appreciate Lenzi’s work for anything it’s the way it has inspired others. Robert Rodriguez supposedly based much of his Planet Terror on this film and one can’t watch the finale at an amusement park without thinking about Zombieland. But that’s what’s so great about movies. One person’s distasteful abomination is another’s light bulb flicker of revelation. So I can objectively accept another’s subjective love for Nightmare City. I simply cannot objectively say it merits it. And that lazily conceived “twist?” I’ve never a more boring use of the trope.
Watched in conjunction with Season Four of Buffalo, NY-based horror series Thursday Night Terrors, curated by Peter Vullo. Logo/illustration by Josh Flanigan.