Upon its release, Danny Boyle's 28 DAYS LATER was praised by critics for revolutionizing the zombie genre--not only did it never use the "Z" word, but its "zombies" were fast-moving humans that were the result of science gone awry--but stalwart horror fans knew this had all been done before in Umberto Lenzi's NIGHTMARE CITY, a movie which never uses the "Z" word and features fast-moving "zombies" that were the result of science gone awry. (Though I think we can all agree Boyle did it with far more finesse.)
Instead of a virus, the creatures in this 1980 Italian release are people mutated from exposure to atomic radiation, with superhuman strength and a need for fresh human blood (Lenzi also throws in some pseudo-scientific babble that says the only way to kill them is a shot to the head). They first make their appearance at a metropolitan airport, disgorging from an unmarked plane to initiate an all-out slaughter (this early scene, with the zombies slashing throats and burying axes into skulls, is the first of many gory setpieces the film has to offer). Soon the infection spreads--though it's never made clear who the infection spreads to, since the zombies mutilate pretty much everyone who crosses their paths--threatening to contaminate the entire populace. The plot switches between parallel story lines, one involving a reporter (Hugo Stiglitz, about as lackluster a hero as you can find) and his wife who attempt to flee the outbreak, the other involving an ineffectual military trying to contain it (and worrying ceaselessly about a state of emergency being declared).
Lenzi has prided himself on the fact that NIGHTMARE CITY is a message film, warning the public of the dangers of nuclear power and its catastrophic consequences. Lenzi also adds a subplot criticizing the media for withholding facts and manipulating the truth, but neither of the arguments ring true, lacking any real conviction behind them. The movie is much more interested in delivering cheap thrills as extras in gloppy makeup rush from one scene to another, carving prosthetic breasts and slurping Karo syrup with gleeful abandon. But the film's greatest misstep is its circular non-ending, which reveals Stiglitz has dreamed the whole thing. He of course proceeds to the airport as an unmarked plane makes its landing and (as the closing crawl intones) THE NIGHTMARE BECOMES REALITY . . . (Has anyone ever thought this type of ending works? Even if you don't know how to close your story, even the stupidest, most contrived twist is favorable to this.)
For all its considerable flaws, NIGHTMARE CITY still makes for an entertaining 92 minutes. Lenzi keeps the action moving at a rapid clip (though not fast enough to forget just how moronic it all is), and never skimps of the red stuff. A sprinkle of nudity should please prurient viewers, though most of the breasts on display don't stay attached very long. In short, it provides what fans of Italian zombie/gore flicks watch them for.