Nightmare City: The Most Lovable Mongrel of Them All


Horror is a genre made up of a myriad of sub-genres. When I first got into horror, the one sub-genre that really tickled my fancy was the zombie film. Things were a bit different then than today. Zombies are now ubiquitous, appearing in everything from a super-popular, weekly AMC series (which I’m not much a fan of, but to each their own) to car insurance commercials.

Furthermore, it seems as if every second and third independent horror film is some variation of the undead. There’s no doubt about it: We’re inundated with the undead.

But back then, films that featured reanimated corpses rising from the grave to go munchety-munch on an unsuspecting populace were not quite as commonplace. Of course, there was the George A. Romero lensed holy trinity: Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead. All stone-cold masterpieces to be sure. Then there were some highly entertaining American offshoots such as Return of the Living Dead and The Video Dead. But for a particular type of zombie film, the real gut-munchers if you will, one had to look to the Mediterranean and that bountiful antipasto table of exploitation filmmaking – Italy.

Italian filmmakers were nothing if not eager to cash in on any popular American movie trend and then either exploit the shit out of it or sometimes even outright rip the films off wholesale. Dawn of the Dead was released successfully in Italy under the title Zombi. Thus, one year later, in 1979, Lucio Fulci’s magnificent and uber-gory Zombie was released in Italy as Zombi 2, marketed as a sort of pseudo-sequel to Romero’s opus, despite the fact that its plot had absolutely zilch in common with Dawn.  It, too, was a huge success and paved the way for a slew of spaghetti-splatter mongrel flicks featuring the undead.


Why do I call them “mongrel flicks,” you ask? Mongrels, by definition, are the complete opposite of purebred. The term is used to describe dogs or any other animal resulting from the mixing of different breeds or types. Mutts, if you will. Mongrel zombie films begin as the progeny of Romero and Fulci but emerge as their own weird, wacky, yet no less lovable breeds. These are your Burial Grounds, your Zombie Holocausts, and my favorite of them all, Umberto Lenzi’s Nightmare City.

Also known as City of the Walking Dead, this 1980 offering is one weird and wild stew. The film stars Mexican actor Hugo Stiglitz as television journalist Dean Miller. Stiglitz was cast for the lead on the insistence of producers, who wanted a Mexican actor to increase international appeal. Lenzi (Cannibal Ferox) wasn’t much of a fan of the actor foisted on him and felt that he was stuck with the somewhat charisma-free thespian. Quentin Tarantino, however, had to have felt differently when he saw Nightmare City, as one of the characters in Inglourious Basterds is named Sgt. Hugo Stiglitz.

Miller is assigned to go to an airport in an unnamed city to interview radiation expert Professor Hagenback regarding a recent spill. The plane, already exposed to radiation, makes an emergency landing; and the madness begins. Military personnel surround the conveyance, the door lowers, and Hagenback stumbles out. Following directly behind are dozens of fast-moving, weapon-wielding zombies. And off to work they go, massacring all in sight! The logistics of this are enough to confound even the most learned of scholars, as there is no way in hell all of those zombies could have fit onto that plane. It literally looks like an entire town was in there! Did the plane have periodic layovers where they invited any undead to grab a weapon and come aboard? And why were they all following Hagenback in the first place? Was he somehow the Pied Piper of zombies? Anyhow, it’s a bloodbath and Miller makes haste back to the studio to inform the populace of the ensuing calamity.

This requires interrupting live regularly scheduled programming already in progress, which consists of some men and and a bunch of women gyrating and thrusting in extremely skimpy leotards doing some sort of disco-choreographed aerobics instructional. Amazingly and incongruously, everyone involved in the production of this boob-tube (boob featuring very prominently; we’ll get to that later) masterpiece is wearing a white lab coat.

So Miller interrupts production and attempts to deliver his missive to the masses, but he obviously didn’t vet it with his higher-ups as word comes down from the military and Miller is promptly taken off the air. This leads to one of my favorite movie clichés: the old “You’re fired!” “No, you can’t fire me because I quit!” gambit. Okay, Miller wasn’t fired… he was suspended, but he then quit! Too late to quit, Mr. Stiglitz! There’s no saving face in this one. Go on; get out of there!

We then cut to this Dr. Strangelove-esque war room where the top military brass are strategizing as to the best way to deal with the outbreak. It is surmised that the only way to kill these monsters is to aim for the head, since the only zombie at the airport massacre that actually stayed dead was shot in the cranium. Here’s a zombie flick which actually goes out if its way to give a plausible, pseudo-scientific reason for why zombies need to be shot in the head; and for the rest of the film, only one zombie is actually shot in the head! (Admittedly, it was one amazing shot. When Miller shoots the creature in the dome, half his head blows off in glorious fashion.)


And speaking of zombies, Lenzi maintains that his creatures are not zombies. But what else can they be – mutated, radioactive monsters? Fine, they’re fleet of foot and wield weapons, but for all intents and purposes, they’re zombies. Wonderful, wacky shit-encrusted zombies. (The most deteriorated of the bunch have faces that literally look like bowel movements. When I say the monster makeup looks like poop, I mean it. And that’s a compliment!)

Back to our regularly scheduled programming… Now that that pesky Miller has been taken off the air, it’s a veritable spandex slaughter when the zombies burst into the studio. Carnage galore, as a head is nearly cleaved in two by one zombie while another slices one of the dancer’s breasts right off, this of course being a thing in Italian horror cinema at the time as Burial Ground also features an incredibly unbelievable scene of mammary mauling.

There is so much more nuttiness to Nightmare City that watching it for some might require the need for an EpiPen. This includes, but is not limited to, the top general’s daughter, Jessica Murchison, and her hubby refusing to be taken to a safe place to wait out the zombie apocalypse because they don’t want to “give up their weekend” and would rather go camping in the most desolate looking campground ever. There’s also some extremely heavy-handed and portentous criticism of technology and urbanism in the times we’re living, the so-called “Age of the Robot.”

But by far the goofiest thing about Nightmare City is the some would say brilliant, others maddening climax. Without spoiling too much, the ending is one big palindrome, and the events of Nightmare City are still happening… again… and again… and again… ad infinitum.

Last year, Tom Savini ran a successful Indiegogo campaign to raise funds for a Nightmare City remake, scheduled for release in 2016. Savini will direct, act, and of course, oversee the makeup and effects, and Lenzi is on board as well. While I look forward to eventually seeing the remake, I can’t help but think it won’t live up to the daffy charm of the original. Like that adorable, shaggy little mutt you can’t help but take home and adopt from the shelter, Nightmare City is the most lovable mongrel in the pound.



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