Today’s post features special guest commentary from Cinapse’s Liam O’Donnell. He and both do this “watch a shit-ton of horror in October and write about it” thing, and so we’ve decided to team up on a few films this month. His column his entitled “Journal of Fear,” and you should totally read it. He also does a podcast called Cinepunx with Joshua Alvarez, and it’s super-fun. Go listen. On to the film …
It takes a few moments for Nightmare City to get going. Ironically enough, the first five minutes or so are spent setting up the plot of a nuclear exposure, and a introducing the reporter covering the the story. Considering that the remainder of Nightmare City‘s running time gets spent making not one lick of sense at all, it seems like director Umberto Lenzi’s looking to justify everything that will follow.
There’s been a bit of discussion regarding whether or not Lenzi meant this to be a commentary on the dangers of nuclear power and war. Given that the creatures are irradiated, I can somewhat see that point, but the war metaphor stands up far better to scrutiny: mindless creatures, killing effectively, and to really stop them, you have to destroy their brain. Something’s definitely being said about the illogical nature of war. It’s a point muddled by a disjointed film, but it’s certainly there, if you’re willing to look.
Regarding the disjointed film: you’re never quite certain as to what exactly these creatures are. Traditionally, zombies are either supernatural creatures or the result of some science gone sideways — reanimated corpses or plague victims maddened by sickness, and rarely do the twain meet.
In this case, Lenzi’s given us radioactive victims who are out for blood, but also creatures who can spread their infection. It’s like they’re nuclear zombie vampires, and even more confusingly, while zombies are usually mindless, these creatures use guns, knives, chains, axes, spearguns, and all manner of weaponry with great skill, while also shambling silently. Again: no real logic.
The plot’s a mess, the makeup’s pretty rough, the special effects are banal, and the dubbing’s emotionally flat: these are all things I knew, having seen the film before. Then why the hell did I buy it? There’s a strange sort of charm to Nightmare City. It throws all manner of apocalyptic tropes into a blender and flings them onto the screen with wild abandon, and that’s really the appeal. Having no idea what to expect keeps you watching, and the complete lack of coherent narrative allows for all manner of interpretation with each successive viewing.
I can see what you mean as to the “mess” of Nightmare City. Sure, at the very least the internal logic of irradiated people who thus become bloodthirsty murderers is an odd set up to say the least. I loved this movie though. This was actually a first time watch for me, and once I accepted that there was no back story and just constant violence, I was sold on the film. Constant attacks, constant action, and a complete lack of sentimentality. I mean let me start at the beginning: I am possibly in love with Hugo Stiglitz. I fell in love thanks to Exhumed Films and their showing of the amazing Night of a Thousand Cats. Stiglitz is his usual amazing self in this, and by amazing I mean the embodiment of 70s manhood. Stiglitz is perhaps a little stiff in Nightmare City. His character is a little more respectable here and less over the top. No matter: he is exactly who I would want shepherding me through this irradiated wasteland of gooey faced murderers.
Ok, now that I think about it, the things in this movie make no sense: they can fight like rational, decision-making creatures. They drive cars, use guns, but then at key moments, they act exactly like mindless zombies. If I were concerned with some sort of world building or mythology, this film would bum me out.
Why do I love it so much? My assumption is simply how ridiculously over the top it is. Every character can bite it at any time, and the story is really just a series of violent attacks. If I were to think about it too deeply, I could hate this movie. There is no reason to connect with or care about any of these characters. There is no sex appeal, lots of nudity post-murder, and no one is interesting at all. I didn’t find myself bothered by any of that. I just went along for the ride, and all I could think was how much I would like to see this exact film but with better special effects and a slightly more kinetic director.
Strange question, but is there some sort of European rule that says there has to be some sort of dance sequence? It seems like Bava, Lenzi, and Argento all have to work in something involving dance. Maybe it’s just an effective bit of shorthand for “beauty destroyed by ugliness.” Either that, or spandex just makes a more effective reason for showing T&A. That said, there’s something vaguely creepy about how many women get killed, then have their shirts torn open.
Yeah, I mean I get it. The plot moves at a pace that doesn’t really allow room for things like sex scenes, or even a shower. This being a Euro horror flick, there needs to be nudity of some kind. So, murder nudity. Ok. Whatever. It freaked me out as well. At this point, watching Italian horror and worrying about gender issues is not something I can even imagine. Stiglitz has spent many of his films smacking various hysterical women, and that is something I have come to terms with. Nightmare City is no different. I agree about the dancing, but I wonder if this is a time and place thing. The 70’s — what is this, ’79? The ’70s in Europe were certainly well within the thrall of disco and all that entails. I am sure these dance sequences are entirely necessary for these directors to feel like they are making hip, relevant films.
What I am utterly confused by is the following: is this in some sense a zombie film? You started off that way and I just accepted that as a marker by which to understand this movie. I think many would, including this movie within the realm of films like Zombi, and I mean, why is that? These things are certainly NOT zombies, right? It never claims they are. However, I have always thought of Nightmare City as a kind of zombie movie, and many have discussed it as such. Why do you think that is? I also think this movie in many ways is the movie World War Z wants to be, is that fair?
I think it’s considered a zombie film, for lack of any other sort of descriptor. When you have mindless hordes in some form of decomposition, it’s an easy term onto which you can latch. They’re described by the military during that wonderfully expository sequence as radiation victims, so that’s essentially what they are, but given that they display so many signs of autonomy and intelligence, one should probably call them something like mutants. Honestly, the next nearest analogue, when you really think about it, would be something like a C.H.U.D.
What I’m seeing here is that both you and I agree that the movie’s appealing because of its lack of explanation or exposition, and I’m curious as to whether you think that’s part of the appeal of European horror movies of this era: is the emphasis on look, mood, and universally-understandable things like sex and violence what make them so appealing, even after so many years?
I mean look, sometimes a lack of exposition is an artistic decision to ignore things that would simply hold back an engaging atmospheric film. I recently made the claim that the most appealing part of It Follows was the refusal of the info dump, that is you know what is happening but the why, in the sense of back story, is considered superfluous. That is not what we mean here though, is it? Some of these European films have no back story and I think it is because they just didn’t write one. Nightmare City has all the exposition it feels it needs: these are radiation victims who, for some insane reason, need blood. Now, what is crazy about this set up is that it is certainly enough info to decide the movie is dumb, but not enough to feel like you understand why anything is happening. You are right, this sort of film from this era has this happen often. Characters? Lets just settle for caricatures or stock folks. Plot? Look, there is danger, and now people are dying. I do think that is part of the appeal now, though. While we could attack these films for their lack of depth, they still are often made with more visual flare and directing talent than even some of the biggest films from the US.
Do you think it is the artistic flare, the sort of visual intelligence of these films, that makes their fans so close to artistic film fans? I mean think about folks who love obscure art films and people who love obscure Euro horror films. They are not often the same exact fans, but there is often some cross over. Even when these movies are totally ridiculous, I don’t often find myself laughing at them cause they still effect me. Is the visual strength of these movies why they sit with us and appeal to so many different people?
I think the visual intelligence of European horror films is what makes them so appealing to fans who don’t even like horror. Actually, I’ve found that people who are super-into American horror really despise Italian horror films, simply because they can’t get a handle on what’s going on. Personally, I’ve grown to love weird Slovenian art film, simply because you just watch and enjoy. You lose yourself in the visuals presented, and let them take you where they go, without worrying what it’s all about.
Given that the visuals of the film are so strong, you don’t need a plot. Who cares why, when there’s so much to look at? Honestly, what’s absolutely great about these is the fact that you could turn off the sound, watch them almost silently, and still find something about which to enthuse.
I don’t want to overstate my case here, these directors are not Felini or whatever. By the same token, Nightmare City is not The Beyond. Fulci had his own visual genius, and I think you can defend some of his most insane films regardless of how the plots may not always seem coherent. I will say though that American films do too often rely solely on story and dialogue in a medium that is very much a visual one. How many sick American films, horror or not, still look shoddy? How few capitalize not only on the strength of their story telling but also captivate their audience with gorgeous visuals?
Like any art, Film has a visual vocabulary, and film makers should have a way to communicate with use beyond the words their characters say or the events they participate in. This is, of course, arguing way too much for a film like Nightmare City, which is in mnay ways a surprisingly compelling cash grab. Clearly, this movie exists because of the popularity of horror films LIKE this, and whatever it has to show us is simply that self serving capitalism and effective film making can coexist. However, it is still very Italian, and for me the Italians are more commonly visual directors, who realize that images can be as moving as ideas or story. Nightmare City is the least obvious example of this sort of film making, as I suspect it was an attempt at a more visceral action film, but even in its shallow depths manages some far more powerful images than comparable American films.