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Review: ‘Nightmare City’ (1980) – Criminally Underrated Mutant Action

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Review: 'Nightmare City' (1980) - Criminally Underrated Mutant Action

What elevates a movie and makes it a part of the culture? There are tons of great movies, but only some of them get held up in a zeitgeist-y kind of way. Sometimes there are fantastic movies that are forgotten while movies define the whole era. Criticism is so subjective, but a movie’s place in culture is inarguable. Certain movies just get embraced in a way that others don’t. You can debate which movies are good, but there is no question which movies are better known, more recognizable and more culturally impactful than others.

Two movies can exist with the exact same ingredients, but one is just heralded in a way that leaves the other behind. Take Antz and A Bug’s Life, a well-worn example of parallel thinking resulting in two very similar movies. Both are family films featuring CGI animation at the dawn of the technology’s viability. Both movies are comedies about an ant who must prove himself in some adventure. And with Kevin Spacey in A Bug’s Life, and Woody Allen in Antz, both movies feature casts that mostly prohibit a sequel.

Now, these movies are so similar, that the narrative surrounding their release was dictated largely by their proximity. Countless articles, blurbs and tweets have been offered about the similarities in their plots and how they were marketed. Why then, is A Bug’s Life embraced as an entry into an established animation canon, while Antz is mostly still defined by A Bug’s Life? There are so many examples of movies like Antz that just miss a wave and aren’t acclaimed and cherished the way their peers are.

Because, here’s the thing. Antz wasn’t bad. It was actually pretty funny. Maybe it isn’t groundbreaking in the context of the animation that followed it, but it’s still a fine movie. But it’s a relic now. Nobody’s crying for a theatrical Antz re-release.

Another perfect example of a deserving movie being left behind is Nightmare City, a 1980 sci-fi horror flick directed by Umberto Lenzi. Nightmare City, also known as City of the Walking Dead, or Incubo sulla città contaminata, and even Invasion By the Atomic Zombies. It’s Italian, with all the connotations that come with Italian horror.

Nightmare City Zombie

Here’s something that you can take with you into any classic Italian horror movie: The dubbing? It’s not just crappy. There’s a reason behind all that off-sync audio. Because, you’ve noticed it. If you’ve ever watched a classic Italian horror movie, you’ve definitely noticed this. There’s egregiously unsynchronized dialogue. You’ll hear a line, and then a few seconds later, the actor’s lips speak the corresponding words. It’s awful. But it’s part of history! Turns out this practice dates back to Musollini! No audio was ever recorded onset back in the day. None of the studios in Italy were soundproofed. Especially with films that were marketed internationally, audio dubbing was very closely monitored to police anti-fascist rhetoric. Anthropology! It’s all very complicated, but it explains why these actors in Italian movies look all marble-mouthed.

One of these actors is Hugo Stiglitz, who plays the hero Dean Miller in this one. Stiglitz is a Mexican actor, and cinema fans will remember the name from Inglorious Basterds. Such a fan was Quentin Tarantino that he named a character in his WWII action fantasy after the star of Nightmare City. Sure, Tarantino could’ve been a fan of Stiglitz’s other pictures, but Nightmare City is the one with the most extensive Wikipedia page, so it’s safe to assume Tarantino is familiar with this one.

Stiglitz as Dean Miller is a horror hero bar none. Let’s remember here, folks, just how rare a male hero is in a horror movie. We’ve got plenty of female heroes, of course. This genre is chock-full of Final Girls. But we don’t see too many guys as the main character. Is it less compelling? Do we see women in peril and want them to overcome their oppressors? Because it’s a frequent trope in a lot of movies. What starts out as a hapless damsel in distress eventually harnesses the power, emasculates her assailant and survives the whole ordeal. It’s the genre’s bread and butter. But here we have Dean Miller, and he’s just badass the whole time. There’s not much of an arc for him, he starts the movie as the hero and carries us through the story kicking ass the whole time. He’s a reporter, this Miller, but he does way more ass kicking than he does reporting.

He’s going to an airport to report on an ambassador’s visit. That’s where we start the story. He and this photographer are waiting to report on an innocuous diplomatic visit, but then a plane makes an unannounced stop on the runway. Miller and his photo buddy want a scoop, so they go in closer to the airplane. Sirens are blaring and trucks are racing over to this plane. There’s cops demanding the occupants get off the plane, and when they finally do, all hell breaks loose. These aren’t just regular people flying this plane. They’re mutants. Melty, slimy, violent mutants are invading this airport and biting and butchering anyone in their way. They’re like zombies, in that they’re in constant pursuit of flesh. But they use weapons. And when the why and how of it is all finally revealed, the creatures’ origin story is absolutely fascinating.

That’s the best part of this movie, really. The details in this thing are what makes it. The story is very carefully and deliberately told. Because there are a bunch of really deep, provocative ideas being explored here. There are one or two moments where the action slows down and two characters are discussing the most existential matters imaginable. There are genuine displays of pathos amidst all the chaos onscreen. This deepens the reality of the universe built in the movie too. We’re left thinking “Wow, that’s probably what I’d do too,” instead of the usual “Don’t go in that room!”

The onscreen violence is another huge cornerstone of this flick. It’s graphic in a “beautifully-orchestrated chaos”-type of way. The mutants in Nightmare City brandish all sorts of weaponry, and they are not afraid to use them. It’s an action-packed movie, with several eye-popping moments. Because it’s not just these infected mutants killing everyone. It’s the way they’re killing the good guys that’s so entertaining. There are some brutally diabolical kills in this movie. Several times you’ll find yourself grimacing as all the wrong body parts are severed and sliced. It never crosses a line into genuinely disturbing, but oh boy is it bloody.

But what happened with Hugo Stiglitz? Why wasn’t he embraced the way Bruce Campbell was? Dean, the hero of Nightmare City kicks more ass, statistically speaking, than Ash does in any of the Evil Dead movies. There’s a stoicism to the performance, and he feels like a real stone-faced Old Hollywood kind of hero. Dean’s a real every man. He doesn’t have exceptional combat skills or fancy gadgets or anything that would set him apart from us. He’s just a guy who was trying to do his job and get back home to his wife. But instead, here he is trying to save the day. It’s awesome.

Nightmare City or City of the Walking Dead is available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime and Apple TV+. It’s a great time.

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