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A birds’-eye-view of a city, supplemented by a nicely atmospheric, Goblin-esque slowburner of a song, leads to the revelation that there’s been a spill at the local nuclear power plant. Nothing to worry about, since the spill has supposedly been contained, but TV reporter Dean Miller (Hugo Stiglitz) has been sent to cover the story. As he waits at the airport for his contact, Prof. Hagenbach, to get in, an unidentified military transport plan suddenly lands with no warning or radio contact. As the military, police and airport officials, along with Dean and his cameraman, surround the plane, everyone waits for several long, silent, agonizing minutes. Just as the military is preparing to storm the plane, the hatch door opens and we wait, anxiously, to see who (or what) will stumble out. For its first eight or so minutes, Umberto Lenzi’s Nightmare City (1980) is one tense, restrained live-wire of a film. While the 80 minutes that follow end up being completely laughable and silly, the film manages to succeed as one of those “so-bad-it’s-good” treats, perfect fodder for a drunken party or a lazy weekend of bad films.

Once the plane hatch opens, Dean and company are greeted by some of the shabbiest zombies in memory (I’ve seen more zombie films than are probably healthy for one individual and I can’t recall worse makeup in anything prior to Nightmare City), a shambling horde of fairly normal looking folks with lumpy, gray oatmeal slathered on their faces. Besides being part of a balanced breakfast, the “zombies” are also very fast…and very armed. Yes, folks: this is that notorious zombie film where the flesh-eating creatures spend more time firing machine guns and strangling people than biting them. In fact, as we later learn, the zombies aren’t really “zombies,” at all, but some kind of radiation-mutated, blood-sucking freaks: they’re atomic zompires! As the zompires run riot around the city, Dean tries to find his wife, Anna (Laura Trotter), who’s making a desperate stand at a besieged hospital. Meanwhile, Major Warren Holmes (Francisco Rabal) and Gen. Murchison (Mel Ferrer), two of the most ineffectual military men in the history of cinema, try to contain the zompire threat but only succeed in making everything worse. There are bomber planes on stand-by, however…just in case.

As Dean and Anna try to stave off the zompires, the General’s daughter, Jessica (Stefania D’Amario) and her husband, Bob (Pierangelo Civera) are also running around, trying to stay alive. Eventually, all of these characters will come together in one giant mess of exploding-projectile-television sets, gouged eyeballs, murderous zompire priests and total chaos, culminating in a final showdown in an abandoned amusement park that can best be described as “present and accounted for.” Stay tuned for the “twist” ending, however…or don’t: it really doesn’t change much, in the long run.

Despite how utterly shabby much of Nightmare City ends up being – and we’re talking occasionally Ed Woodian levels of ineptitude here – the film is still consistently enjoyable and quick-paced. I’m still not sold on “fast” zombies (and probably never will be) and feel that arming zombies makes about as much sense as giving The Wolf Man a shotgun but these actually end up being fairly minor quibbles. No one will ever mistake Lenzi’s “opus” has anything more than a Z-grade Italian zombie flick but it’s got energy to burn and is pretty good about not wearing out its welcome. The effects and makeup are consistently awful, although the requisite eye-gouging scene is well-staged and very uncomfortable. The acting is nothing to write home about but Hugo Stiglitz does a decent job as our protagonist and Mel Ferrer gets to act a little agitated as poor, put-upon Gen. Murchison.

Although Umberto Lenzi made a wide-range of films in his career, including various gangster, fantasy and action films, he’ll probably always be best known for his horror films, especially the genuinely disturbing cannibal films The Man From Green River (1972), Eaten Alive (1980) and Cannibal Ferox (1981). Cannibal Ferox, in particular, is a notoriously nasty member of the cannibal subgenre, although it’s slightly eclipsed by Ruggero Deodato’s legendary Cannibal Holocaust (1980). While Lenzi had a fairly wide and deep body of work, he was never the most distinctive director, to be honest, and it’s a bit difficult to differentiate much between his “style” and similar filmmakers like Deodato or Joe D’Amato. He’s practically the definition of “workmanlike,” although his work in Nightmare City definitely ranks in the lower-midrange of his filmography.

If there’s any one aspect of the film that really stands out, it would definitely have to be Stelvio Cipriani’s electronic score. Although it seems to explicitly reference Goblin, at times, the score is always appropriately moody and, frequently, rather thrilling. Cipriani also did the scores for several Mario Bava films, including his classic Bay of Blood (1971), so his roots in Italian exploitation cinema go fairly deep. While nothing here approaches the dizzying heights of Goblin’s work with Dario Argento, it’s all well-done and definitely enhances the overall experience.

Ultimately, your tolerance/enjoyment of Nightmare City will depend almost entirely on your experience with these kind of films. If you go in expecting an actually well-made, well-executed film (or even a well-made B-movie), you’re going to be sorely disappointed. If, however, you go in expecting a silly, gonzo, violent, shabby-as-hell Z-grade exploitation flick, you might be able to navigate these waters with some ease. Nothing can save that awful ending, of course, but what comes before it is just fun enough to make the journey worthwhile…kind of…sort of…