Thursday 26 November 2015

Nightmare City

Halt! Hugo’s There!

Nightmare City (aka Incubo Sulla Città Contaminata)
Italy/Mexico/Spain 1980
Directed by Umberto Lenzi 
Arrow Films All Region Blu Ray/DVD dual release

I’ve been wanting to see Nightmare City for a year or so, since catching up to Stelvio Cipriani’s score on a CD reissue put out by Digitmovies. It’s technically a zombie movie and therefore, I would argue, does indeed belong in the horror category of movie, although I’m sure many people would mistake it for a gory thriller. This is understandable, since the plotline does deal with supercharged, atomic infected humans who have all gone loopy and start killing everyone in various ways... but I’d have to argue the case that the film’s reputation as being a movie in the zombie genre is pretty spot on since, after seeing the zombies riddles with bullets and otherwise killed, they are technically reanimating from the dead to carry on their addiction to blood-letting. This brings a supernatural element into the film which elevates it, depending on your point of view as to which direction the movement goes, and places it firmly into the realm of the horror movie.

This one has a very simple story, for what it is, but the main start off point of a plane full of passengers landing at an airport without permission and, when the doors are opened at the request of the police, delivering a huge outpouring of crazy, zombie people who attack an entire city, was an interesting enough premise to make sure I sought this one out. That being said, I’d caught wind of this Arrow restoration being underway a couple of years back, so I waited until this was released a month or so ago before I made my purchasing decision. In the wild world of film, especially with genre horror and its unwanted attraction from the scissor crazy hands of the censors, the modern film buyer has to be careful and do the research.

The film mainly follows the plight of a TV reporter called Dean, played by Hugo Stiglitz (fans of Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds might recognise an homage to this actor in one of the character names of that movie), who witnesses and manages to escape the slaughter at the airport. When he returns to the TV station and finds himself silenced by the military, he then sees the studio who are putting on a live 'contemporary dance show', which obviously involves lots of women in tight fitting leotards, similarly pulled apart by the zombies. He escapes and tries to find his wife Anna, played by Laura Trotter, who is a nurse working at the local hospital... the most obvious place for the contaminated zombies to strike next, as they are rushed in as victims before becoming rampant antagonists themselves. Dean and Anna again manage to escape and they travel about trying to avoid zombies while we cut between them and a couple of equally “are my lovers and relations safe” subplots involving a couple of the military personnel, as we watch the government and the army being thwarted at every turn by the creatures.

Now the zombies in this are, it has to be said, quite intelligent although, it should also be pointed out, they seem to have no consistency in their attitudes or actions when it comes to their murderous attacks. They are quite intelligent and are good at cutting phone wires and disabling electrical power to buildings and areas with a quite deliberate snip of their varied cutting implements... but they seem to approach their killing of innocent victims in a manner which can either be simply ripping them apart and drinking their blood or, with more sophisticated methods like machine gunning them down or slitting their throats, for example. Which doesn’t give them a lot of credibility, especially when some of them stop to aggressively disrobe the female victims before “goring them up good” as you might expect from both a movie which was one of those listed in the notorious Video Nasties scare of the 1980s and, well... an Italian movie of that period where female nudity was pretty much an essential ingredient in films intended for an adult audience. And when I say adult, as is always the case with these brutal but enjoyable romps, I use the term strictly in terms of age restrictions rather than to unwittingly accredit these films with a level of moral responsibility or maturity.

That being said, there is usually an interesting element of hidden sophistication in some of the most excessive exploitation films and it would be hypocritical of me to say I didn’t enjoy these kinds of affairs. However, I much prefer the movies which have a measure of visual elegance about them and, while fan favourite director Umberto Lenzi does have an eye for putting together a fast paced, understandable movie, this one left me a little cold in terms of creative cinematography it has to be said. Although this one does try to rise above the simple nature of the format by bringing up the zombie threat in conversation as the fulfilling of the blight of human nature at some point... it’s mostly paying lip service and is very brief on this point.

As usual though, there are some nice moments in here which are worth watching, including a scene which made me smile when the zombies crash through some doors into an operating theatre and the chief surgeon responds by elegantly throwing his scalpel across the room and into one of the zombies. I don’t know why but the timing on this moment just made me chuckle midst all the crazy carnage. Another scene with an unmanned lawnmower moving across the grass, however, just demonstrates the stupidity of one of the central protagonists and it almost seems like an ironic form of justice in terms of the value of characters like this in the film when they come to a bitter end.

There’s also a strange moment where the realm of the non-diegetic soundtrack of Cipriani’s excellent score... well apart from those horrible 1980s source music sections... blends with the action on the film in a way that it almost imposes on the action. By this I refer to a scene where Dean and Anna suddenly turn, presumably as we discover, to the sound of a group of zombie footsteps. However, when Hugo Stiglitz expression changes, the sound of the footsteps isn’t audible yet on the foley, but Cipriani’s slow and ambient baseline has just kicked in, like it does in a lot of sequences to conjure up the atmosphere of a zombie attack. The result being that, at this moment, it looks like Dean is getting his cue from the score as opposed to anything visible or audible on the screen... kind of a bizarre juxtaposition, I thought.

Now, this really isn’t, as far as I’m concerned, a genre classic like George A. Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead or Lucio Fulci’s Zombi (aka Zombi 2 aka Zombie Flesh Eaters - reviewed here) but I am glad to have seen it because I love the premise and, although the film is pretty repetitive and not in any way scary, as a lot of zombie pictures are, I never really got bored with it and am happy to have this one on the shelf. Arrow have done as bang up a job as they can on the restoration which, in this case, has given them a few problems. They have put two different source print transfers on the discs and you can choose which option you would rather watch and, if you’re into the reasons why this is so, then you can watch one of the many extras, Nightmare City And The Limits Of Restoration, to find out just what the issues are. I found this pretty interesting and informative which, frankly, is the sign of both a good package and, in this case, a conscientious production team on this particular incarnation of the home video version.

The ending section of this film has come in for a lot of criticism over the years and, unfortunately, I was already primed for it because it’s famously not what people wanted from it. Indeed, it is a terrible cliche of an ending and, alas, I can’t really tell you the last intertitle which comes up on the film before the credits run without giving you a huge spoiler... but I have to say that I didn’t mind this ending too much myself. That being said, though, if I wasn’t already prepared for it I’m sure I would have let out a huge moan and had a bit of a rant about it. I can see why the ending has the reputation it has and.... well... I think it’s possib;y deserved. All in all, though, Nightmare City, while not exactly a classic in my book, is the kind of enjoyable rubbish it’s easy to pass a bit of the afternoon with. Being as it’s completely unscary, it would certainly fall into my personal “comfort horror” category and I’m sure fans of the genre in this period will be well up for it. Not the best I’ve seen but certainly not the worst and if you’re into this kind of stuff, the new Arrow version is an essential purchase. Give it a go sometime if late 1970s to mid 1980s zombie movies are your thing.

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