*. This is a bit of fun. The movie that’s “so bad it’s good” is a far rarer phenomenon than you’d think given how often you hear movies described that way. But Nightmare City fits the bill.
*. One of the surest ways for any movie to go wrong is by trying too hard or attempting to do too much. Their reach exceeds their grasp. But you have to have a grudging respect for a movie like Nightmare City that had no budget and no talent to work with but which nevertheless decided it didn’t want to do anything by halves.
*. Just before I get started I should say something about Nightmare City‘s status as a zombie movie. Some people (including the director, Umberto Lenzi) insist the infected aren’t zombies but are only suffering from some kind of radiation sickness. I don’t think it makes much difference what we call them, but for what it’s worth the alternative U.S. title is City of the Walking Dead while in France it was released as L’invasion des zombies. In addition they sort of eat their victims (or at least drink their blood), apparently infect others (although this isn’t made clear, their numbers certainly seem to be growing), and can only be stopped by head shots (hence the command given to “aim for the brain,” which is a memo that nobody in uniform seems to have received).
*. On the other hand, at least some of them move quickly and they seem to have unimpaired mental functioning. They can even use automatic weapons and drive vehicles. When we see a zombie cutting the phone line to the general’s house with a pair of garden shears, or a team of commando zombies taking out the city’s power station, we know we’re dealing with some pretty clever undead.
*. I’m calling them zombies. Because even if they aren’t technically zombies the story fits the traditional pattern of zombie apocalypse films. It’s the same as the virus outbreaks in 28 Days Later and World War Z. If you want, you could think of Nightmare City as ahead of its time.
*. A zombie movie with no budget is difficult but not impossible. But trying to do a full-fledged zombie apocalypse in a major city (unnamed in the film but I believe the exteriors were all shot around Madrid) with limited means is courting disaster. Disaster ensues.
*. We know we’re in trouble right from the opening firefight. A drawn-out massacre where cops and zombies go at it with submachine guns at close range. But there don’t see to have been any squibs available so all we see, over and over again, is people throwing their hands up in the air and then falling to the ground. Later we’ll see their corpses with a bit of blood splashed on their clothes.
*. As for the zombies, they’re just a bunch of normal looking guys but for the fact they have varying degrees of mud on their faces (and no other part of their bodies). None of them seem to be wounded in any way or suffering any other adverse effects from radiation but manic bloodlust.
*. So we have terrible-looking zombies and no good gore effects. That’s bad for a zombie movie. But it gets worse. Or better.
*. The proceedings are bizarre. For example, we get a slaughter scene set in a television studio that is broadcasting some kind of dance or aerobic show live. I really don’t know what the point of this show is. The girls seem to be working out but they’re wearing heels. Cue the monsters!
*. Other moments seem totally inexplicable, at least to me. What is the bloody knife doing sticking in the eye of the clay head near the beginning? Did some explanation for that get cut?
*. The action is all pretty dumb, but I did like the way a man throws a television set and it explodes, setting not one but two zombies on fire. That usually only happens with cars.
*. The dialogue is entertaining in an over-the-top yet obscure way. Here’s a sample exchange. Dean: “It’s frightening, how could a thing like this happen?” Anna: “It’s part of the vital cycle of the human race. Create and obliterate until we destroy ourselves.” Dean: “Words. We’re up against a race of monsters.” Anna: “Created by other monsters. Who only have one thing on their mind. The discovery of greater power. At least this time there won’t be any historical justifications, if any of us survive.” Dean: “Do you think it’s possible to stop them?” Anna: “The infection is like an oil stain, and who knows how far the contagion has spread?”
*. Apparently nobody in the city has flashlights so when investigating the basement you have to light a lamp. A lamp. Even in 1980 these were antiques. They are also very hard to operate unless you really know what you’re doing. I know because I’ve tried. They’re not at all as simple as lighting a candle.
*. I love how Anna’s idea of stocking up on provisions is to fill a crate with bottles of milk and hard liquor. You gotta stick with the basics when zombies attack. Hell, even the zombies like their booze. The shot of the lot of them hanging around the ambulance drinking it up was another moment of (unintentional?) hilarity.
*. The ending suggests the circular nightmare that might have first been done in Dead of Night. But shouldn’t the journo Dean evince some awareness that his nightmare is becoming reality, that he’s experience all of this before?
*. That same crazy disconnect between what’s going on and people’s reaction to it is part of the fabric of the film. Look at how the two newsmen just stand watching the massacre at the airport, not even bothering to run for cover from all the bullets flying around. And even better is the blank expression on the face of the guy at the television studio when he discovers the body of the girl whose throat has been slashed. Is he surprised? Frightened? Curious even? Nothing registers.
*. The main narrative climaxes at an amusement park, as Dean and Anna try to escape the zombies by climbing a roller coaster track. Why? Because in a movie like this where else could they wrap things up? This is all as silly as it gets, but for those who enjoy Eurotrash horror it is a lot of fun.