Aka – “City of the Living Dead”, “Invasion by the Atomic Zombies”
Let me start off by saying that I am very well versed in the “art” of Italian zombie films. As a young gorehound I gravitated to the work of Lucio Fulci, eventually moving on to Bruno Mattei, Umberto Lenzi, Lamberto Bava, etc. Not too many out and out “classics” between them, but many entertainingly awful gems nonetheless.
I mention this because at this point in my trash-loving career it’s quite rare to find an 80s Italian zombie flick that I haven’t seen, or at least TRIED to sit through. The problem is further impacted by the fact that most of these films have at least 3-10 alternate titles, many of them hilarious and completely misleading (Hell of the Dawn of the Night of the Day of the Zombies type-shit).
This brings us to our featured film – 1980 Italian/Spanish co-production “Nightmare City” (aka “City of the Walking Dead”, aka “Invasion by the Atomic Zombies”). Apart from the fact that the alternate title sounds an awful lot like Fulci’s “City of the Living Dead”, the poster art also makes it look like a dozen other seemingly similar horror films. That said, and having seen enough of them to know, “Nightmare City” is one of a kind.
The basic premise is about a TV reporter who is sent to an airfield to interview a scientist about an apparent chemical leak. A large unresponsive plane appears in the distance and lands as the military surrounds it. Suddenly, dozens of zombies burst out of the plane with guns, knives and hatchets ! They make quick work of the entire unit as the reporter and his cameraman film the fracas before escaping. As the reporter takes to the airwaves to warn the populace of this bizarre incident, the military forces them to stop so they can stifle the impending panic. The rest of the movie is essentially the reporter trying to find his wife and escape while the military struggles to figure out what is going on and why.
Now, I was really stoked to see this once I realized it had fast zombies (20 years before 28 Days Later) who could not only use weapons, but also disconnect phone lines deliberately, etc. how awesome is that premise ?! The opening massacre alone was wicked, especially the part where a zombie shot a guys arm off. It looked as good as it sounds. I was also a fan of the hatchet wielding zombies, not entirely sure why.
I’m not gonna lie to you, this movie was a blast ! The effects switch between cheesy and super gross (plenty of impalings, exploding heads, gougings, hatchetings, etc). The make up of the zombies themselves was mostly a cross between The Wolfman and The Toxic Avenger. It’s possible they just dipped their faces in hamburger helper, I’m not clear on that.
Additionally, these zombies seemed to favour drinking blood to eating brains. I suppose that would make this more of a Zompire movie, but Zompires don’t use hatchets or have shit all over their faces, so who even knows. Much of the film is unintentionally hilarious, but the thing that really sets this apart and won me over (apart from the premise itself) was the amazing soundtrack.
Now, not all horror films have great music (obviously), but many Italian horror films seem to. Both Goblin (Dawn of the Dead) and Fabio Frizzi (The Beyond) have made many excellent horror scores. I’m a real sucker for the eerie, synth laden scores that permeate many of these films. “Nightmare City” was scored by Stelvio Cipriani (Twitch of the Death Nerve), a composer I wasn’t too familiar with before this.
The music switches between downbeat post-apocalyptic instrumental to funky bassline drive themes, upbeat quasi jazz and even a borderline disco vocal track ! I can safely say that this is probably the best score I have ever heard in a movie like this, and that’s certainly saying something.
Now, clearly this kind of movie isn’t for everyone. It’s goofy and gory and stupid and doesn’t make much sense, but that’s kind of its charm. If you’re like me and can find the unbridled joy in an inept but well intentioned horror flick, you’ll love “Nightmare City”. At the very least you’ll be bobbing your head to the hypnotic soundtrack as you chuckle at the seemingly indestructible squadron of shit-faced zombies.
It may not be high art, but it’s a hell of a good time
Bonus – Speaking of cool horror music, the director of “Nightmare City” (Umberto Lenzi) also directed the cannibal classic “Cannibal Ferox” which has a pretty sweet soundtrack of its own. I was able to track down a vinyl 45 of the theme, and I post it now for your enjoyment –