In the wake of George Romero’s Of the Dead series, Italy’s exploitation community went more than a little nuts with zombie films, leading to the Zombi/Zombie/Zombie Flesh Eaters series, depending on the region. Most of the films that appear in these disparate series are not actually related in any way, but titles were changed or added to make them seem like continuations or sequels of earlier, popular films or knock-offs. One of these movies is Nightmare City, which saw release at least once as Zombi 3 despite there being an actual Zombi 3 directed at least in part by Lucio Fulci along with Bruno Mattei.
Now here’s where it gets weird: Nightmare City isn’t really a zombie film. It has many of the elements of a zombie film but comes from a weird little micro-genre of such films where the monsters are infected with a disease or virus that makes them zombie-like without actually killing them. Think 28 Days Later. Instead of the living dead, Nightmare City‘s monsters are actually irradiated nuclear mutants that must feed on blood to survive because they are no longer capable of producing new blood cells within their own bodies. But just because they’re hungry doesn’t make them dumb: they wield weapons and firearms, drive cars, operate and destroy machinery, attack in ambush, target and hunt specific people out of a mob, and understand the importance of stealth. They also run; in fact, Nightmare City is noted as being the first “zombie” film where the monsters are capable of running. Before this, they all did the slow shuffle.
But the nuclear mutants here do not speak, and their ability to think still seems a bit muddled. They also have a thing for attractive women and getting them topless before or right after killing them, which leads to the film becoming blatantly exploitative. Which makes sense, considering Umberto Lenzi is the director. Lenzi started out directing Italian medieval fantasy films but then moved into B-spy thrillers, comic book movies, and eventually the Giallo genre around the same time that folks like Mario Bava and Dario Argento were in it. There are many genre films to his credit (including at least one La Casa film, the slasher Nightmare Beach, Cannibal Ferox, many Poliziotteschi films, and the actual Demoni 3), but one of the most important is Man From Deep River, which kicked off the Italian jungle cannibal craze 8 years before the likes of Cannibal Holocaust. Lenzi was no stranger to exploitative cinema by the time he got to Nightmare City, and it shows.
Unfortunately the film hasn’t aged particularly well; the makeup effects are pretty pitiful, the story doesn’t make much sense, and it’s obvious everyone is stabbing and hacking for the squibs. There is even some knock-off eye-gouging in the style of a Fulci flick. But its influence is obvious when watching more recent films like the Dawn of the Dead remake or Planet Terror, and its strong anti-nuclear weapons message remains completely clear.
If you couldn’t tell, this made the Video Nasty list in the UK. It finally saw an uncensored release there in 2003.