Septicisle's good bad film club #1: Nightmare City.
(This is the first in what will hopefully be an irregular series on odd, extreme, cult or simply so bad it's good cinema. I'll be trying to avoid the obvious, but we'll see where it leads us.)
What is it exactly that makes an objectively bad film become subjectively loved? No one knows. There are almost no rules when it comes to the so bad it's good phenomenon. If there was one single law I personally would put down, it's that films consciously made with the intention of appealing to those who love schlock, like your Sharknados, your Piranha 3DDs, the dozens of ultra-low budget zombie movies that now come out on a yearly basis, are always simply bad rather than manage to punch through to the other side. That's not to say they can't be fun, or have their own charm, but more than that? Haven't seen one yet.
Likewise, it's also remarkably difficult for big budget movies to go beyond merely being terrible, precisely because there is far less excuse for a film lavished with money, starring name actors and directed by past high achievers to come out awful in the first place. There are one or two exceptions, although these are subjective themselves, and are mainly down to the level of camp involved: Showgirls (Mark Kermode called Burlesque Showgirls for 12-year-olds), and Batman and Robin can be said to have now surpassed being merely terrible, misguided projects and reached the pantheon of cult favourites.
Most so bad they're good films share the same characteristics. They are almost always made with little to no budget; the acting, script, effects, direction, editing, you name it, is either cheesy, incompetent or laughable; they are usually ambitious far beyond the resources and talent of those involved in the production; and they often tend to be rip-offs of or sequels to already successful franchises. The monster movie and sci-fi crazes of the 50s inspired Ed Wood and many others, while the American horror cinema of the late 70s and early 80s, itself more than influenced by the Italian giallo genre mastered by Dario Argento and Mario Bava, brought us all those slasher knock-offs and the Italians then trying to one up their American colleagues.
Indeed, don't be surprised if this series focuses on Italian cinema, as for a short period they were so damn great at making movies that left all taste and decency behind while still being fun. After the golden era of Italian cinema when Bertolucci, Antonioni, Fellini, Leone and Pasolini were at their peak came a retrenchment when their successors, battling both low budgets and dwindling foreign interest retreated into genre work. Anything that became a huge hit was quickly responded to with a sometimes merely inferior but more often completely abysmal "tribute": the Exorcist was followed up with Beyond the Door, while Last House on the Left gave birth to Last House on the Beach and Night Train Murders to name but two.
Not all of the directors behind these films were hacks, and many had previously worked alongside the aforementioned greats. Lucio Fulci for one, now known mainly for his gory 80s horrors, was also behind highly regarded giallos like Don't Torture a Duckling and Seven Notes in Black. Fulci's semi-official sequel to George Romero's 1978 zombie opus Dawn of the Dead, Zombie Flesh Eaters, which came about due to how Dario Argento had part funded DotD and had his own shortened cut of the film released in Italy to great success, is a ramshackle but well-crafted horror made notorious by its video nasty status.
Despite its origins, Zombie Flesh Eaters couldn't be more different to its sort of inspiration. For the true Italian take on Dawn on the Dead you have to look to 1980's Nightmare City, directed by the prolific Umberto Lenzi, shortly to become even more infamous for the following year's Cannibal Ferox, his attempt to one-up Ruggero Deodato's already brutal Cannibal Holocaust.
Technically, Nightmare City isn't a zombie film. Unlike DotD, the film's antagonists aren't dead. They've been turned into homocidal, disfigured, close to super-beings by radiation. Nor do they amble around stupidly, instead running towards their victims at full pelt, wielding axes, knives, guns and anything else that comes to hand. They do though need to drink untainted blood to keep their strength up, and somehow those they attack but don't kill in this way are similarly stricken. As a result the outbreak quickly overwhelms the police, army and pretty much everyone other than our journalist hero Dean Miller and his wife, Anna.
The main reason Nightmare City is a bad film, while remaining one of the most enjoyable of its type has its root in the zombies' make-up. Tom Savini did little to the mass of zombie extras in DotD other than slather them in grey; Lenzi instead thought the best way to show his ghouls were radioactive was to err, make them look like ninja turtles, or the Toxic Avenger. Except the budget didn't stretch to applying the mixture to all of them, some of whom look entirely normal, just glassy-eyed. Then there's the laughable dialogue, with every character managing to go through the entire film without saying a single memorable line. Emotions seem to be alien to the entirety of the cast, with the possible exception of lead Hugo Stiglitz, whose bushy, Corbyn-style beard is still more expressive than he is. As a result you don't care about a single one of these people, not even the kid in the hospital who tells Anna how he can't wait to play football again and instead has his throat ripped out. The military are completely useless, standing around without any idea of what to do, despite how we only ever see the original group of about 10 zombies rampaging through the city and countryside, who also pose for the camera at regular intervals and make a habit of wiping the blood from their mouths with their sleeves for no discernible reason.
Yet the reason you stay with it, apart from laughing at the silliness of so much of the violence and the occasional over-the-top gore sequence is that the near constant action has a kinetic quality, never out of the control of the director, the chaos clearly choreographed. Somewhere within Nightmare City is the basis for a film that could have rivalled DotD; Lenzi might have copied almost wholesale the helicopter and elevator scenes from that film, but he carries them off with a panache that manages to differentiate the two. A couple of locations are similarly inspired, first the hospital and then the closing moments at an ominously empty fairground, with our lone survivors desperately climbing the rollercoaster pursued by a small band of ghouls, pre-dating and perhaps influencing the climax of Zombieland. There's also the classically so stupid it's brilliant set-piece at the TV studio, scantily clad dancers running in circles rather than towards the exit so the monsters can chomp them one by one, while the producers upstairs are far too shocked to pull the plug on the broadcast.
Just given a pretty much definitive Blu-Ray release by Arrow, there are far worse ways to spend 90 minutes. Troll 2 or Silent Night, Deadly Night 2 it ain't, but you've already seen them, right?