Color, 1980, 88m.
Directed by Umberto Lenzi
Starring Hugo Stiglitz, Laura Trotter, Mel Ferrer, Francisco Rabal, Maria Rosaria Omaggio
Arrow (Blu-ray & DVD) (UK R0 HD/NTSC), Raro (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC), Blue Underground/Anchor Bay (DVD) (US R0 NTSC), Laser Paradise (Germany R0 NTSC), EC (Holland R0 NTSC), Creative Axa (Japan R2 NTSC), Italian Shock (Holland R0 PAL) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)
One of the first Italian zombie films to follow in the wake of Lucio Fulci’s Zombie, this gorefest was the only contribution to the flesh-eating undead subgenre by Umberto Lenzi, who was transitioning from respected crime and gialli titles to more outrageous fare like Cannibal Ferox and Eaten Alive. His penchant for action sequences suits him well here as he veers away from the graphic Fulci approach, offering a different kind of Dawn of the Dead imitation emphasizing the urban mayhem and broad cast of characters affected by the menace while dispensing with zombies in the formal sense in favor of infected maniacs more closely inspired by David Cronenberg's Rabid. Of course, it's also dosed with so much oddball humor like spandex-clad dancers getting attacked during a live afternoon TV show, which is something you'd never see in a George A. Romero film.
Most Americans first encountered this one through drive-ins and many, many video editions as City of the Walking Dead, though for once the "dead" do more than just walk. In this one they can run, stab, fire machine guns, and apparently even operate a plane, which makes this a predecessor of sorts to the fast-running infected (and also distinctly non-zombie) populace of 28 Days Later and its imitators. Resourceful reporter Dean Miller (Tintorera’s Stiglitz) arrives at an airport in an unnamed city (which looks suspiciously like Madrid) to meet a noted atomic scientist. Along with a group of military men and police, he watches in anticipation as the plane lands on the runway... and disfigured lunatics begin to pour out, slashing and hacking through the waiting crowd. Pretty soon the whole city is under siege, with Lenzi cutting back and forth between amateur dance routines and military leader Mel Ferrer explaining that radiation has created these bloodthirsty savages. Dean’s doctor wife, Ann (Trotter), is forced to contend with the growing legions of contaminated fiends at work, so the couple tries to leave town and contain the madness. Meanwhile the blood continues to flow as the citizens succumb one by one to the atomic terror.
A “bad” movie by any conventional standards, Nightmare City (or as it’s known in Italian, Incubo sulla città contaminata) is loads of fun if you're in the right frame of mind. The unforgettable creatures sport exceptionally odd, charred make-up jobs and have distinctive, amusing personalities in their brief screen time, while each scene drips with staples of early ‘80s exploitation. The underrated Stelvio Cipriani pitches in with one of his catchiest scores, a feisty, pop-driven musical pastiche that even tosses in a Grace Jones tune for good measure ("I'll Find My Way to You," which was also in Colt 38 Special Squad and reworked for her album Muse).
Never one of the more visually flamboyant Italian directors, Lenzi instead points his camera at the action and lets it roll, so don’t expect much in the way of cinematic fireworks. The first scope release on DVD came from Germany's Laser Paradise, a 2000 release that instantly became one of their more high profile items when it was discontinued due to an unauthorized English language track. The disc itself was apparently mastered from the long unavailable Japanese laserdisc, which is at least completely uncut, properly letterboxed, and has all of the scenes in their original order (as opposed to the jumbled mess shown in the US). The subsequent German and Dutch editions look somewhat better and are similarly letterboxed, while the priciest option from Japan contains a digital port of the old widescreen version. The Italian Shock version contains a rollicking Lenzi commentary, but Anchor Bay trumped this with their upgraded 16:9 transfer, available in both the UK and US containing the theatrical trailer (later reissued from Blue Underground).
In 2013, the American rights were acquired by Raro Video who issued the film separately on Blu-ray and DVD with distribution through Kino Lorber. Anticipation ran high but was quickly squelched when people saw the transfer, a soft and underwhelming presentation that offered only a marginal upgrade over the DVD. At least it contains the English and Italian audio tracks with optional subtitles, plus the trailers from both territories and an entertaining 50-minute Lenzi interview (not to mention a gushing liner notes essay by Fangoria's Chris Alexander). The mystery of the film's lackluster transfer was later resolved when Arrow Films announced its own UK release, a dual-format Blu-ray and DVD set that continues the film's tradition of being released region free almost everywhere. The soft celluloid source seen on the Raro release is presented here as an alternate version explained as an HD transfer from the 35mm reversal dupe negative, while the first playback option is a fresh HD scan from the original camera negative. This upgrade caused a release date delay and some extensive caveats from Arrow since the negative has been significantly damaged over the years, suffering in particular from chemical stains with a significant deterioration to the first ten minutes and a handful of other scenes, most of which oddly involve Stiglitz standing around yapping. That said, if you don't mind some yellowish staining running in and out through portions of the film, it's otherwise a massive bump up in terms of clarity, grain rendition, and color fidelity, with a texture that looks much more like actual film. Try 'em both and see which one you prefer. Frame grabs seen the body of this review are from the main transfer from the negative, but you can see a few samples of the other, softer version by clicking here, here, and here. Again the English and Italian audio options are carried over (uncompressed PCM for the Blu-ray) with a new English subtitle translation, which offers some hilarious snafus that seem oddly in keeping with the tone of the film. (There's also a second subtitle track for the English track.)
The tricky nature of the film's condition is addressed in a useful featurette, "The Limits of Restoration," which offers a useful overview of the challenges of salvaging a film battered by decades of less than optimal storage conditions. The featurette is also suggested for viewing before both options of the film, with very good reason. Also included is the alternate English opening titles under an unexpectedly odd name (compared to the Italian version seen on the main feature) and the original English-language trailer. Alexander also pops up again here for a new audio commentary, essentially expanded on his thoughts from the previous essay as he espouses his admiration for Lenzi and his love of Italian films from the era. Lenzi himself turns up for a new 28-minute video interview, "Radiation Sickness," in which he proves to be his usual chatty self (in Italian with optional English subs) as he rattles on about the cast (whom he doesn't regard as master thespians), his reasons for taking the project, and his own lack of familiarity with zombie cinema. A brief (7-minute) interview with actress Maria Rosario Omaggio entitled "Sheila of the Dead" covers her memories of the production including her love scene and her own lack of interest in the genre, while the enthusiastic Eli Roth turns up for the 10-minute "Zombies Gone Wild!," which is... well, an Eli Roth interview, so you should have some idea of what to expect. The discs come packaged with the usual eye-catching reversible sleeve and an illustrated booklet with an essay by Seduction of the Gullible scribe John Martin, who does a solid job of breaking down the film's peculiar charms. You might not respect yourself the morning after, but the entire disc offers one heck of a good time.