City of the Walking Dead / Nightmare City / Nightmare in the Contaminated City / Incubo sulla Citta Contaminata / La Invasion de los Zombies Atomicos (1980/1983) -**½
Nothing is as new as you think it is. Seriously. If something’s actually on the cultural radar, it’s a safe bet there’s a long history of forgotten antecedents behind it, decades’ worth, perhaps, of things nobody paid much attention to at the time, that in retrospect form the prehistory of whatever it is that finally caught people’s notice. Take the running zombie, for example. When 28 Days Later… and Dawn of the Dead came out, you couldn’t put three zombie movie geeks in a room together without the conversation eventually turning into a debate on the relative merits of the old-fashioned shambling undead versus those of the new-fangled sprinting variety. But in point of fact, those fast-moving zombies really weren’t all that innovative. The zombies in The Return of the Living Dead had been pretty damned speedy, after all, and that movie came out all the way back in 1985. Even it wasn’t the first to credit the living dead with a bit of athleticism, though. Five years earlier, Umberto Lenzi had the zombies in City of the Walking Dead running, leaping, climbing, hurdling, and fighting hand-to-hand with axes and machetes, to say nothing of wielding submachine guns and piloting military cargo planes. These were the strongest, fastest, smartest, and most all-around formidable zombies yet seen anywhere; unfortunately for them (and perhaps helping to explain why it took twenty-some years for the concept to gain any traction), the movie in which they appeared happened to be a ludicrous piece of shit.
Word is, there’s been a radiation leak at the State Nuclear Plant. Dr. Hagenbeck, the plant’s designer, is on the scene looking into the situation, and as soon as he’s finished there, he’s supposed to be flying out to the scrupulously unnamed city in which the bulk of the movie takes place to give an interview to Channel 5 News. Dean Miller (Hugo Stiglitz, of Tintorera and Zombie Apocalypse— Lenzi wanted Franco Nero, but the producers preferred a star who could appeal to [get this] the Mexican market) is to conduct the interview, and he is visibly displeased when his boss, Mr. Desmond (Ugo Bologna, from The Wild Beasts and Erotic Exploits of a Sexy Seducer), all but openly instructs him to make sure nothing potentially controversial or upsetting comes to light as a result of his session with the scientist. Miller makes no promises.
And it’s a good thing he doesn’t, too, because there’s just no way to put a comforting spin on what actually happens, which is far more upsetting than anything Hagenbeck might possibly have said. The doctor’s plane is running late, and while Miller and his cameraman stand, stewing, beside the appropriate runway, a curious crisis develops. A C-130 Hercules military cargo plane, bearing no national markings, but painted in a camouflage scheme that suggests to my eye a Spanish or North African origin, comes barreling in from the northeast, and sets itself down on Runway 16. Airport security swiftly surrounds the mysterious aircraft, ordering all within it to disembark with their hands in the air. Shockingly, Dr. Hagenbeck is the first passenger to emerge; more shockingly still, he’s now a blood-drinking zombie, and he’s only one of about a hundred such creatures crammed into the Hercules in clown-car fashion! The zombies pour forth from the plane, slaughtering their way through the security detachment, and the two journalists are extremely lucky to escape with their lives— especially since they waste so much precious fleeing time gawking at the carnage in front of them instead.
Miller heads immediately for the TV station, where he interrupts the broadcast of some abysmally god-awful music-and-dance program to break the story of what happened at the airport. Desmond then turns around and interrupts Miller. This is because he’s just heard from General Murchison of the National Defense Forces (Mel Ferrer, from Blood and Roses and The World, the Flesh, and the Devil), who is determined to forestall a panic. Yeah, good luck with that. As Murchison is soon to learn from his science officer, Colonel Donahue (Manuel Zarzo, of Panic Beats and Encounter in the Deep), that radiation leak at the power plant has rendered everyone exposed to it inhumanly strong, fast, and tough, while simultaneously severely degrading the ability of their red blood cells to carry oxygen. In order to remain functioning (it’s difficult to consider these guys truly alive at this point), they must steadily replace their defective blood by feeding on that of their victims. Furthermore, the contamination of the zombies’ bodies passes on their condition to anyone whom they injure even slightly (which kind of leads one to wonder why we’ll be seeing so many inanimate dead bodies littering the streets later on), and the only way to stop them is by inflicting massive trauma to the brain. Even that won’t actually kill the irradiated freaks, but it will prevent them from doing anything except to lie there metabolizing. With an army of things like that fanning out all over the city, it isn’t going to take very long before somebody notices, media blackout or no.
Prevented from getting the word out, Miller switches his focus to contacting his wife, Dr. Anna Miller (Laura Trotter, from Miami Golem and Obscene Desire), at the hospital where she works. Anna is assisting with a delicate operation when her husband calls, so Dean decides to risk working his way across the increasingly chaos-ridden city to collect her. Meanwhile, Murchison is doing some collecting of his own. First, he summons Major Warren Holmes (Francisco Rabal, from Lola and House of Insane Women), cutting short what was supposed to have been his day off in order to get his help in confronting the crisis. Holmes is too well trained in the secretive ways of the military to let his wife, Sheila (Maria Rosaria Omaggio, from The Adventures of Hercules), know what’s going on, but he does impress upon her the importance of staying indoors with all points of entry to the house securely locked. Naturally, Sheila never quite gets around to that last part, although it won’t be until her friend, Cindy (Sonia Vivani, of The Possessor and SS Extermination Camp), arrives— about a third of the movie from now— that her unaccountable dithering comes back to bite her richly deserving ass. Murchison also tries to reach his daughter (Stefania D’Amario, of Behind Convent Walls and SS Special Section Women) and son-in-law (Pierangelo Civera), but that doesn’t go nearly as well. Jessica and Bob were about to leave for a country getaway, and they ingeniously decide to sneak off and go ahead with their plans rather than accompanying the rather insistent (not to mention heavily armed) soldier who comes to pick them up. The absconding numbskulls are both doomed, of course.
Things continue to worsen from there. The burgeoning horde of zombies knocks out both electricity and telephone service, and takes the city so completely in its grip that Murchison declares martial law and somewhat reluctantly orders a round of poison-gas air-strikes on the downtown. Unfortunately, the walking (and sprinting and vaulting) dead have already made it to all the nearby air force bases by that time, so Murchison has no planes at his disposal to carry out those orders. Miller rescues Anna from the zombies laying siege to her hospital, but the horrors they face on the way out of the city are such that they are quickly reduced to hysterically spouting hackneyed philosophical drivel at each other, rather than doing anything halfway practical about their situation. Eventually, even the faintest semblance of order lies in ruins, but just as matters seem poised to take a turn for the truly apocalyptic… No. You wouldn’t believe me even if I told you…
The astonishingly stupid ending is only the beginning of what’s wrong with City of the Walking Dead, although it is probably the misjudgment for which the film is best remembered. This is one of those movies in which, if a ridiculous, illogical way to handle a given character, theme, or plot-point can be imagined, it’s a safe bet that that’s actually the way it will be handled. Take the arrival of the zombies at the airport, for example. Remember, the idea is that these are Dr. Hagenbeck, his colleagues, and the staff of the State Nuclear Plant, rendered monstrous by the radiation leak they were supposed to be studying and containing. So what’s with the unmarked Hercules? Are we supposed to believe that these ravenous creatures, who think of little or nothing beyond slurping down other people’s oxygen-rich blood to make up for their own hemoglobin shortfall, have taken the time to paint out all of their stolen plane’s identifying insignia? What the hell purpose would that serve, anyway? Or did the zombies, rather than simply stealing the aircraft on which the military flew Hagenbeck to the power planet, all chip in to rent a C-130 of their own from Dr. Mabuse or Cobra Commander or somebody? Then there’s Sheila Holmes and her misadventures in home fortification. Things go south for Sheila right after Cindy inadvertently reminds her that she forgot to block off the coal chute to the cellar, which would have been a perfectly fair way to get the zombies inside the house. The filmmakers weren’t content with that, however. So in addition to the business with the coal chute, we get an asinine sequence much earlier on that has Sheila sort of dilly-dallying around the house, conspicuously not locking up, culminating in the revelation that somebody— presumably one of the zombies— has snuck in and jammed a blood-smeared carving knife into the face of the sculpture Sheila had been working on. You see what’s wrong with this, right? If there’s a zombie in the house already, why the fuck would it announce its presence like that and then hang out in the cellar all afternoon? Everything else we see of the undead throughout the film would seem to indicate that they’re all about the instant gratification! And furthermore, how profoundly retarded does somebody have to be before their instinctive response to such an obviously threatening act of vandalism is to shrug their shoulders, wash the blood off the knife, and fix the damage to their statue?!?! And the less that is said about Dean and Anna Miller’s third-act bull-session on the follies of modernity, the better. The Anchor Bay-Blue Underground DVD edition of City of the Walking Dead (released under the Nightmare City title) includes a wonderful little interview with director Umberto Lenzi, revealing that he (if perhaps nobody else) still takes this movie completely seriously, and intended it as an earnest warning about the state of the world. Watching that interview after the movie, you have to wonder how such thoroughgoing self-delusion is even possible. But then you get to the part where Lenzi flatly asserts that events equivalent to those in City of the Walking Dead have actually come to pass in the subsequent two and a half decades, and it all suddenly makes sense— Umberto isn’t living on the same planet as the rest of us.
Once again, the B-Masters Cabal (or some of us, anyway) are joining Cold Fusion Video in celebrating October as the Month of the Living Dead. Click the banner below to get in on the rest of the party.