The effect of George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead on Italian horror is well-known, and can't be overstated. A huge hit in Italy, Dead spawned a cottage industry of cheap knockoffs, the most famous being Lucio Fulci's Zombie (known in Italy as Zombie 2, an unofficial sequel to Romero's film, retitled Zombie). Umberto Lenzi's Nightmare City is one of those cheap knockoffs, and it's only known because of Lenzi's participation in that other Italian cottage industry, the cannibal movie. I haven't seen Cannibal Ferox -- actual animal-killing doesn't interest me -- but based on the evidence here, it's probably monotonously paced, with only the meathooks of gore scenes (and the promise of more gore scenes) to keep eyelids from sagging.
The city in question is, based on the copious helicopter shots during the credits, somewhere in Europe, likely Italy. The story follows Dean Miller, or as Scott W. Black has dubbed him, Serious Television Reporter (tm) Dean Miller, as he covers the impending zombie holocaust, first as a member of the media, then as a increasingly-desperate survivor. There are other subplots -- the military's hilariously inept attempt to stop the zombies, the army general's wife's adventures in her own countryside villa, and a married couple who try to escape the chaos by, uh going camping. Again, the film's major fault is that nearly everything, from the attacks to the war room discussions to the "character development" scenes march to the same leaden beat. It's easy to miss the kind of bizarre touches you expect in a exploitation flick like this, such as the hero's tendency to throw things that explode for no good reason.
The film has only one good scene, and unfortunately, it's at the very beginning. Serious Television Reporter (tm) Dean Miller and his cameraman go to the airport to interview a Very Important Scientist arriving that day. When they get there, they witness the unscheduled landing of an unidentified plane. Sensibly, once the plane lands, the military surround it and await the passengers to disembark. Maybe it's just post-9/11 jitters, but there's definite tension in this sequence, and Lenzi does an good job building the suspense -- the confusion in the tower, the steady but nervous soldiers, the long, dead silence from the plane when no one answers when the army captain calls for them to open the door.
And then the door finally opens, and to Serious Television Reporter (tm) Dean Miller's surprise, it's the Very Important Scientist. He steps out, a little dazed, an odd look in his eyes... then pulls a knife from nowhere and stabs the army captain. And what immediately follows is the most dumbfounding sequence in all of zombie cinema, as a series of men in turtlenecks and leisure jackets, their heads lumps of black and red, file out of the plane clown car-style and attack the soldiers.
And when I say attack the soldiers, I mean with axes, knives, machetes, scythes, big sticks, and as if to say "hell, why not?", submachine guns. Fitting with the title, it's completely nightmarish, an incomprehensible burst of violence. The scene is downright Clowesian in its juxtaposition of ridiculous and brutal. (Unfortunately, the effect is undermined by the slightly puzzled look on Serious Television Reporter (tm) Dean Miller's face, as if he was witnessing a "funny" American Idol audition and not a terrifying massacre happening literally twenty feet away from him.) In the first ten minutes, Lenzi raises the stakes for his movie -- can he keep this level of intensity? Can he keep surprising us? Is this a forgotten and unheralded film that redefined the living dead movie underneath the noses of the Zomboscenti?
The answer to all of these, as always, is no, of course not, why would you even think that? The rest of the movie is a string of variations on that beginning, with diminishing returns. The zombies attack a hospital, everyone dies. They attack a TV studio that's broadcasting, live, some kind of Solid Gold-style show without a Dionne Warwick or pop music, and everybody dies. (Scott W. Black calls the TV show a "disco aerobics program", which is incredibly accurate and demonstrates how baffling it is.) Despite the zombies' ability to use weapons and tactics (such as turning off an elevator to trap their prey), there's absolutely no suspense in their onslaughts, just repetitions. Grab, slice, bite, eat, over and over again. If you see the zombies attack someone other than Serious Television Reporter (tm) Dean Miller, they're probably food.
By this time, the average reader is no doubt thinking, "Tactics? Guns? These aren't zombies". And the average reader would have a point. These aren't the usual zombie signifiers. On the other hand, Lenzi's undead drink blood, are indestructible save for head shots, and spawn more of themselves through the humans they kill. Regular zombies are mindless, and it's that mindlessness, along with their insurmountable numbers, that give them their metaphorical weight. Zombies that run, I would argue, are working on a different metaphorical level than their shambling predecessors, but zombies that move across the city, armed to the teeth, are no longer zombies. They're an army.
Is that what Lenzi and screenwriters Antonio Cesare Corti, Luis Maria Delgado and Piero Regnoli are getting at? The seventies and eighties were marked by Mafia violence -- is this their attempt to deal with Italy's inner turmoil via horror movie conventions? It feels possible. The violence comes from within the nation, albeit without warning, and the it corrupts, spreading from citizen. No institution is safe, not the media, not the government, not even the church. The last scene takes place in an empty amusement park, and even a place designed to make you forget your troubles is a deathtrap. For the filmmakers, Italy is killing itself, and for reasons that it can't even begin to understand.
There's a twist ending, hinted at not only in the title but also in some of the dialogue, but the real twist happened earlier, and was much more disorienting. Serious Television Reporter (tm) Dean Miller and his Doctor Wife hide out in a deserted lunch stand. The lunch stand is curiously decorated -- it's covered with what appear to be pictures cut out of magazines, shots of Elvis and Robert Redford (as the Sundance Kid) and the like. It appears to be some kind of American-themed eatery, which I suppose is something you might find in the Italian countryside, but it seemed odd nonetheless. After the requisite zombie attack, they leave the building, and I catch sight of a sign that reads "Hamburghers" (sic).
And it hits me. I'm in that Vertigo/Jaws tracking-backwards/zooming-in shot.
This isn't taking place in Italy. Oh my God. I'm back. I'm home. All the time, it was... America. The U.S. of A., all along. The disco aerobics program. The pictures of Elvis and Redford. The incompetent military. The scalpel-throwing doctor. The oh-so-symbolic amusement park. Dean Miller, for crying out loud. All American.
How did I miss it?
What does that say about me?
And the nightmare becomes reality....