An airplane exposed to radiation lands, and blood drinking zombies emerge armed with knives, guns and teeth! They go on a rampage slicing, dicing, and biting their way across the Italian countryside.
As far as nightmares go, Umberto Lenzi's vision of a zombie epidemic would hardly rouse a toddler from its slumber. If by chance it were enough to disturb the baby from a full-night's rest, the screeching yells and painful cries would be from utter boredom and frustrating disappointment. Really, I'm sure any child is perfectly capable of imagining a far-more terrifying scenario in which a populated city is quickly overrun by the walking dead. Unless one is absolutely content with various bits of nudity, mostly when a random zombie conveniently and hilariously rips a woman's blouse, there is very little to muster interest in this largely, almost fittingly forgotten exploitation feature from an otherwise respectable Italian filmmaker.
On the other hand, part of the charm of 'Nightmare City,' and likely the reason for its lasting cult status, is its badness and amusingly corny special effects, particularly for the so-called zombies. The outbreak starts fairly early on when an unmarked military plane makes an emergency landing at a busy airport. Greeted by police and other uniformed personnel, a horde of the walking dead come running out . . . armed with pipes, knives, and machine guns(?) The monsters of this nightmare look more like the unfortunate sufferers of leprosy, as if makeup artists Giuseppe Ferranti and Franco Di Girolamo simply splattered crusty, dried-up, dyed-black oatmeal on actors and called it a day.
Technically, and according to Lenzi himself, the movie is not actually a zombie feature in the traditional sense, as in the dead coming back to life ushering in the end of days. Rather, the plot actually falls under the category of the disaster subgenre, or to be more precise, this is an apocalyptic virus outbreak story that also happens to be related to a nuclear crisis. If that's a mouthful to say, then try making actual sense of the movie itself, which juggles two subplots involving the military combating the spread of the radiation sickness and the two men in charge (Francisco Rabal and Mel Ferrer) putting extra effort to save their respective family members. The main plot follows a righteous journalist and his wife (Hugo Stiglitz and Laura Trotter) fighting to escape the city, but we're barely made to care.
All the while, certain plot details and useful bits of information are made a mystery. Mainly, and arguably one of the more pertinent questions, how does radiation sickness turn victims into carriers of an infectious disease? Or better yet, why do the original contaminated victims suddenly go on a rampage hungering for the blood of the uninfected? Of course, the answers and specifics are ultimately moot in a horror flick that places more emphasis on the gore and violence. But sadly, the movie suffers from an editing hack job that often keeps explicit violent acts to a minimum — though boobs are aplenty — and the cheap on-screen effects are only good for a laugh. Zombies that have to resort to weapons in order to feed their appetite for flesh are not the sort of rotting corpses worth fearing.
This is all rather surprising because it comes from Umberto Lenzi, a favorably well-noted filmmaker in exploitation cinema. He is probably best known for his giallo murder mysteries and Italian crime thrillers, part of a subgenre called Poliziotteschi films, along with several decently-entertaining Macaroni combat pictures. Of course, for cult horror enthusiasts, the filmmaker is best remembered as partly responsible for initiating an interest in cannibal exploitation movies, writing and directing a pair of features still considered highly-controversial: 'Eaten Alive!' and 'Cannibal Ferox.' But 'Nightmare City,' although admittedly quirky and odd, is a total dud with a story that weirdly has too much going on while heavy-handedly delivering an anti-nuclear energy message.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
RaroVideo brings 'Nightmare City' to Blu-ray on a Region Free, BD25 disc inside a blue, eco-lite keepcase. Along with a cardboard slipcover, the package includes a 12-page booklet with a short essay by Chris Alexander, a biography on Umberto Lenzi and color photos. At startup, the disc goes straight to a main menu with full-motion clips and music.
Lenzi's zombie outbreak spreads its radioactive walking dead to Blu-ray with a decently satisfying picture. Struck from a new HD master, though the source used is unclear, the 1080p/VC-1 encode comes with a vibrant, bold color palette and stable, well-balanced contrast. With whites appearing clean and brilliant from beginning to end, the video, at times, looks fresh and almost new with great clarity and resolution. Black levels are strong and accurately rendered with good visibility of the finer objects in the background.
Sadly, whatever restoration effort made of the source, the presentation also appears to be the result of mild digital noise reduction. The movie was originally shot on the inexpensive 35mm 2-perf Techniscope stock, which should wash the 2.35:1 image with noticeable grain. But there's little to be seen, except during poorly-lit interiors where it's very light. However, fine object and textural details are acceptable and well-defined for a 34-year-old movie, making this a passable HD transfer of a bad horror flick.
The audio is entombed in the same dire situation as the video, showing some good along with the bad. Fans have the option of listening to the uncompressed PCM mono soundtrack in either English or Italian, though the latter unfortunately comes with subtitles which are not CIH (Constant Image Height) friendly. Nevertheless, imaging arrives with a surprisingly excellent sense of presence and weight, thanks partly to a healthy but appropriate low end. The soundstage is decent wide with good acoustical detailing and satisfying fidelity. However, the mid-range generally feels limited as the upper frequencies expose a bit of distortion and brightness. Vocals, for the most part, are intelligible and well-prioritized, but several conversations are also accompanied with noticeable hissing and just a tad of noise, making the lossless mix passable but mostly average.
From Italian filmmaker Umberto Lenzi, 'Nightmare City' is hardly what nightmares are made of, a vision of a world run rampant with zombies caused by a nuclear crisis. Although the movie has its oddball charm and quirkiness, it remains one of the director's lesser efforts, remembered today mostly for its badness. The Blu-ray arrives with slightly problematic but still strong picture and audio presentation. The overall package only offers one worthy supplement, but devoted cult horror enthusiasts will probably be happy to add this to their collection.