Zombies didn’t always run, and yet, it’s hardly a new development. Forget the 2004 Dawn of the Dead. Never mind 28 Days Later. In 1980, Umberto Lenzi’s Nightmare City (Incubo sulla Città Contaminata) started it all. While also released under the title, City of the Walking Dead, these are not your average walking dead, I assure you. They run, they jump, they carry hatchets, and they can even wield assault weapons when available. In the event of a zombie apocalypse, these blood suckers are the absolute worst case scenario. Of course, if you were to discuss this matter with Lenzi himself, he would likely respond as he did to Quentin Tarantino, when Tarantino expressed admiration for Lenzi’s zombies: they’re not zombies!
Instead, you might call them vampires. After all, they must drink copious amounts of blood to survive and those bitten by the creatures inevitably transform into one of them. Then again, they’re not so much undead as they are infected, or more to the point, irradiated. These are living men and women, driven mad by the radiation that’s killing their red blood cells. And so they may more accurately be described as people who have simply been contaminated. Quibble though we might over this point, there’s really no denying that when the average viewer looks at Nightmare City, he/she thinks “zombie.” Whatever you call them, Lenzi’s monsters set the stage for a genuinely unsettling and atmospheric gore fest, grounded in overt messages lambasting nuclear energy, industrialization and urban sprawl.
When a plane full of these irradiated beings lands at a metropolitan airport, order rapidly gives way to chaos as these sprinting monstrosities overwhelm the city and spill out into the countryside. What makes this formula unique when compared to the zombie movies that had come before it is that there is seemingly no effective strategy for survival. These zombies are too strong, too smart, too numerous. There is no eye of the storm here, as in Dawn of the Dead (1978), when the survivors have secured the shopping mall. There is no moment’s reprieve from the danger for our hero, played by Mexican star Hugo Stiglitz. Couple that with the gratuitous gore (characterized by wonderful, if transparent, practical effects), and you’ve the makings of an all-around disquieting viewing experience.
One thing I’ve heard people rail about when discussing the film, both online and amongst friends, is that film’s memorable conclusion, which has been described as “too easy” or “a cheat.” And I take issue with this. If you haven’t seen the film, don’t spoil it for yourself—best to go in blind, I maintain, and so I won’t spoil it here either. But if you’re of this mindset and open to reassessing the film, I argue that this ending not only keeps perfectly with the tone of the film, which is aimed at overwhelming viewers no matter the cost, and moreover that it’s the most poignant aspect of the film’s prevailing fatalism. In that respect, I, for one, find nothing wrong with it.
If I were to voice any complaint, however, it would be against the disturbing amount of violence directed specifically toward breasts by the zombies in Nightmare City. Sure, objectification of (not to mention violence toward) the female form is par for the course when it comes to horror films, problematic though it may be. But when viewing a film from 30+ years ago, it’s easy to chock such objectification up as a sign of the times in which the film was produced. Yet the severing of a woman’s breast in front of television cameras is certainly too much for me, no matter the era.
Still, Nightmare City is a powerful film, regardless of how you respond to the gore and Hugo Stiglitz’s guarded performance, and the film’s at last going to receive the home video treatment it deserves when it comes to Blu-ray on December 31st, 2013 from RaroVideo USA. The HD restoration on Raro’s Blu-ray is near spotless. Only a few super minor specks and (likely in-camera) hairs are to be found. What’s more, the film’s color palette may be inherently drab, characterized largely by browns and tans, but the red of the blood pops right off the screen, revealing the vividness of the transfer. The only problem I had with the presentation, in fact, is that some of the subtitles are a bit wonky and one prominent line is entirely unsubtitled. Beyond that, it’s everything I’ve come to expect from Raro.
To that end, the release may not boast a wide array of special features, but those that are present are well worth your time. Included are the original Italian and English trailers as well as a 49-minute interview with Lenzi himself. Although the main focus of the interview is Nightmare City, the director also discusses his career as a whole, the Italian film industry, Lucio Fulci, and the prevalence of computer-generated effects. The release also features a fully illustrated, 12-page booklet containing an essay on the genesis and production of the film by Chris Alexander of Fangoria Magazine and a biography of Lenzi.
Finally, I want to praise Raro for their wise use of a slipsleeve with this release. Typically, Blu-ray slipsleeves are largely irrelevant reiterations of the cover art underneath, lest they feature glossy, embossed imagery or some such gimmick. Here, Raro used the slipsleeve to feature alternate vintage artwork to that displayed on the cover art beneath.
In short, if you’re horror hound as I am, putting aside a chunk of your Christmas money for a Nightmare City pre-order is one of the best ways you can spend that money this December.