Dean Miller, a reporter at the local news station, is sent to the airport to interview an expert on radiation following a leak at a nuclear power plant. While he waits for the expert’s plane to arrive, an unidentified plane makes an unauthorized landing at the airport. As emergency vehicles rush to the mysterious military transport, Dean and his cameraman follow. Soldiers surround the plane and order all passengers to disembark. When they do, they attack the soldiers with various weapons and begin to drink the blood of their victims. Dean and the cameraman escape while the infected passengers kill everyone on the airfield and in the control tower.
Returning to the news station, Dean has the programming interrupted so he can broadcast a televised report of what occurred at the airport, but the station chief cuts his feed. Army General Murchison, who ordered the report stopped, tells Dean and the manager that no information will be given to the public until their investigation is complete and counter-measures initiated. His primary concern is preventing widespread panic. When the station manager agrees to withhold the information, Dean quits in disgust. Later in the day, the infected zombies attack the TV station, and they begin to kill and drink the blood of the technicians and dancers during a live broadcast. Dean, still at the station and watching the broadcast, fights his way out of the building and escapes in his car.
General Murchison briefs his staff that the zombies are heading towards the city from the airport. His scientists studying the zombies tells Murchison and his officers that the zombies were exposed to high levels of radiation and are undergoing tissue regeneration. Their strength is above normal, and they have the ability to infect their victims. The need for new blood to replace the cells damaged by radiation is spurring their attacks, and their only vulnerability is destroying the head.
After the briefing, Major Holmes calls his wife, Sheila, to have her lock all the doors and windows in the house. Murchison, worried about his daughter Jessica, sends a soldier to bring her and her husband to the headquarters. As Jessica and her husband leave the house for a camping trip with friends, they do not notice the zombies kill the soldier her father sent, and they leave before the zombies discover them.
At the power plant, a zombie dressed in a military uniform drives a truckload of zombies past the checkpoint. Once inside, the zombies attack, killing everyone and knocking out power to the city. With the power cut, chaos erupts across the city.
At the hospital, Dean’s wife Anna struggles to deal with the increasing number of patients. As she goes to retrieve more plasma, she finds that zombies have already raided the supply and killed all the patients on that floor. Dean arrives and saves Anna from the zombies, and they hide in an empty room as the zombies assault the hospital. When all the screams stop, Anna and Dean come out of hiding and make it to the stairwell. As they escape the hospital, they see a group of zombies lowering the elevator with trapped people inside to kill them. Outside, the couple steals an ambulance and flees the city.
Out in the country, Jessica and her husband arrive at the campsite and their friends, now zombies, attack and kill them. At the Holmes residence, Sheila realizes she never shut the door to the coal chute. She and her neighbor go into the cellar to close the chute, and when Sheila hears a noise upstairs, she leaves her friend to investigate. After she leaves, two zombies stab her friend to death, removing her eye, and drinking her blood.
As Dean and Anna try to flee the area, they stop at a deserted gas station to refuel the ambulance and get supplies. They soon come under attack by the zombies and, as they cluster around the ambulance, Dean tosses a Molotov cocktail, exploding the gas pumps and ambulance. The couple escapes on foot and finds shelter in a church. Entering the church, the find a soldier hanging from the bell rope and a zombie priest that Dean beats to death with a candlestick.
With the communications to his superiors cut, Murchison declares martial law and quickly loses control of the situation. His scientists develop a gas, delivered by jet-fired rockets, that will kill the zombies. Unfortunately, Major Holmes arrives at the airport to discover that the zombies infiltrated and destroyed it, denying Murchison the use of air power. Ordered back to base, Holmes stops to retrieve Sheila, but she is already a zombie, and he is forced to shoot her.
After leaving the church, Dean and Anna make it to an amusement park littered with the bodies of the dead. They find a jeep for transportation, but the zombie horde attacks before they can leave. Using the rifles and grenades looted from dead soldiers, Dean and Anna battle the zombies. Retreating up the tracks of a rollercoaster, the spot Holmes in his helicopter and he attempts to rescue them with a rope. While climbing the rope to safety, Anna falls to her death, and Dean suddenly wakes up from his nightmare. Realizing he is running late for his interview at the airport, he leaves as the events repeat.
Nightmare City is not a typical zombie film in that the zombies are in reality, infected people mutated by a radiation leak. Like the zombies in previous films, they have no regard for humans, except as a source of food, and are only dispatched by destroying the brain. Unlike their zombie movie brethren, the creatures in this film retain their intelligence and can drive cars, pilot planes, and use all manner of weapons. They even retain their cunning, as when they manually lower a full elevator to get to the occupants in the hospital and trick the guards at the power plant. That makes the zombies in this film far more dangerous and hard to stop.
Like many other horror films of the era, this is part of the ecological-horror sub-genre, blaming nuclear power for causing the crisis. The direct cause of the zombie’s creation is the leak at the plant and the resulting high doses of radiation. Coming a few years after the leak at Three Mile Island, the filmmakers sought to capitalize on the public’s fears of radiation contaminating and destroying the environment.
The effects for the creatures in the film are abysmal, consisting of some encrustations for some of the infected people, but not for all. The effects used for the zombie attacks are much better and are suitably gruesome and bloody. The acting and dubbing are adequate overall and do not lessen the enjoyment of the film for the viewer. The film does have some preachy moments, but thankfully, they are short and not too intrusive. The biggest weakness in the movie was the ending, showing the events to have been a nightmare. While the film ends showing the dream coming true, it is still a cheat of an ending and annoys more than it inspires fear.
Also known as City of the Walking Dead and Incubo sulla città contaminata.
Hugo Stiglitz also appears in The Night of a Thousand Cats (1972), The Bermuda Triangle (1978), Guyana: Cult of the Damned (1979), and Zombie Apocalypse (1985). Mel Ferrer appeared in The Hands of Orlac (1960), The Antichrist (1974), Eaten Alive (1977), Screamers (1979), The Great Alligator (1979), and Eaten Alive! (1980). Director Umberto Lenzi also helmed Eaten Alive! (1980) and Cannibal Ferox (1981).
Running Time: 91 minutes
Hugo Stiglitz, Laura Trotter, Maria Rosaria Omaggio, Francisco Rabal, Sonia Viviani, Eduardo Fajardo, Stefania D’Amario, Ugo Bologna, Sara Franchetti, Manuel Zarzo, Tom Felleghy, Pierangelo Civera, Achille Belletti, Mel Ferrer
Producer – Diego Alchimede; Director – Umberto Lenzi; Written by – Tony Corti, Jose Luis Delgado, Piero Regnoli; Music – Stelvio Cipriani; Special Effects – Franco Di Girolamo, Guiseppe Ferranti