Essential European cult cinema. I own the landmark 2002 Anchor Bay Entertainment DVD release of Incubo sulla città contaminata (Nightmare City) (1980) and per my usual viewing habits have left the disc in my player and watched it over and over during successive nights. The Anchor Bay Entertainment DVD release not only made Nightmare City more accessible to viewers but marked it as an important film of its era. While the film’s director, Umberto Lenzi, grants the film much more import during his video interview included as a supplement on the Anchor Bay Entertainment DVD, I found this print statement from the director, dated prior to the DVD release, very revealing. Perhaps it is just me, but I find the following statement kind of sad:
In response to the question, “In between MANGIATI VIVI! and CANNIBAL FEROX, you also made the Romero-esque INCUBO SULLA CITTA CONTAMINATA. How do you look back on it?”, Lenzi responds:
“When I shot it, it didn’t really seem to be mine, but now, seeing it again ten years later I think differently about it. Certainly I don’t much like the special effects and the blood flowing in torrents, but, in the film, the whole thing was achieved with a certain style; even Tullio Kezich spoke well of it in issue No. 799 of Panorama, published on 10/8/1981, and Leonard Maltin did, too, in his Movie Guide 1988, while the American Video Movie 1990 publication gives it two and a half stars, in other words, fairly good.” (Spaghetti Nightmares, edited by Luca Palmerini and Gaetano Mistretta, Fantasma Books, Key West, FL, 1996, p, 69.)
Nightmare City is the chronicle of a crisis, the end of humanity via radioactive zombies (d’oh!), told through the eyes of three couples. I have no proof of this but I believe the characterization is the contribution of co-screenwriter, Piero Regnoli, who is certainly the most sensitive and underrated screenwriter in Italian genre cinema. Regnoli masterfully writes dysfunctional characters and often imbues a rich complexity to a narrative. On its surface, Nightmare City is an episodic narrative, like a war film, and each episode is a battle in a different location: in an airport, in a television studio, in a hospital, at a gas station, and at an amusement park with a minor skirmish in a church. Finally, make no mistake, Nightmare City is definitely a horror film.
Dean Miller (Hugo Stiglitz) is a journalist assigned to interview Professor Hallenback (whose work is tied into nuclear energy). There is a malfunction at the state’s nuclear power plant and an alert has been issued regarding radioactive contamination. Miller arrives at the airport with his cameraman (Antonio Mayans, aka Robert Foster) to interview Professor Hallenback. A large, unmarked military plane (large enough to carry a squad of troops, hint, hint) makes an emergency landing on the runway. The police and military arrive to investigate. Professor Hallenback emerges from the plane...
What ensues is one of the greatest sequences in European cult cinema. With amazing energy, contaminated men jump out of the airplane and with knives and guns, they dispatch the military!
Stiglitz’s Miller knows this is bad news. He makes an attempt to warn the public but is thwarted by General Murchison (Mel Ferrer, an excellent actor giving an excellent performance). Miller abandons his duty as a journalist and seeks out his wife, Anna (Laura Trotter), a doctor at the local hospital. Meanwhile, Murchison summons his daughter, Jessica (Stefania D'Amario) and (presumably also) her husband, Bob (Pierangelo Civera) into the safety of the military bunker, where Murchison is formulating a counterstrike to combat the strategic movements of the radioactive raiders. Major Warren Holmes (Francisco Rabal) is summoned by Murchison to help on his day off. Holmes, unwittingly and unfortunately, leaves his beautiful artist wife, Sheila (Maria Rosaria Omaggio) all alone at home.
Nightmare City has quite a bit of bloody violence. In an almost Fulci-esque touch, Lenzi serves up the really sadistic violence towards the women. Almost every naked female breast exposed is one which will be traumatized brutally. This offensive aspect is not uncommon to the genre and is expected. However, horror cinema is not exclusively its violence. A brilliant sequence occurs later in the film when Rabal’s Major Holmes becomes aware of the severity of the crisis. He makes a feeble attempt to call Sheila and warn her of the danger. He commands her to lock her doors but has no idea whether Sheila will be safe. Sheila walks outside to encounter the ridiculous sight of a lawnmower, propelling itself slowly across the lawn. The image of the lawnmower makes no logical sense but that is why the image is so creepy: is everything just out of order?
The episodic structure of the narrative works well towards the pacing. While Dean and Anna engage in quite a bit of ridiculous dialogue regarding a deep-seeded fear towards science and technological progress, most of it can be forgotten. The quiet moments, such as Dean and Anna in a small gas station, are the perfect set-ups for Lenzi’s explosive battle sequences. Stelvio Cipriani’s score for Nightmare City ranks with the best of Fabio Frizzi and Goblin.
What I love about Nightmare City is that it is so ridiculous, so excessive, and so incredibly focused and well-made. Beyond the meticulous and exciting battle sequences, I love the quirky standout sequences. For example, Jessica and Bob ignore General Murchison’s order to come to the bunker. They take a trip in their camper to the countryside. In a single and effective sequence, Bob and Jessica realize the impending crisis and have a fateful encounter with another couple. In another, Sheila, the artist wife of Major Holmes, is making a sculpture. It haunts Warren the first time that he sees it. The second time that he sees it, the sculpture becomes a profound irony, a sequence rendered masterfully by Lenzi in the final act.
Umberto Lenzi is a fantastic film maker. In my opinion, he will always be overshadowed by his cannibal flicks. He made some excellent gialli, especially those with Carroll Baker. In terms of pure entertainment, however, European cult cinema does not get any better than Nightmare City.