Skip to content

Plot: catastrophic homicidal pandemic causes citywide pandemonium

Umberto Lenzi, just as many of his contemporaries in the exploitation field, was a workhorse director who could anticipate what an audience wanted. In a career spanning four decades he contributed to every low-budget genre under the sun. Lenzi, if nothing else, was able to conjure up fast-paced, regressive, and often (unintentionally) humorous genre pieces on a small budget with enough starpower for the international market. Lenzi was a versatile writer and tried his at hand every genre; be it peplum, Eurospy, spaghetti westerns, poliziotteschi, giallo, cannibals and/or zombies. In 1972 Lenzi pioneered the cannibal subgenre with Man From Deep River, a reworking of the plot from A Man Called Horse (1970). As the 1970s gave way to the exuberant eighties Lenzi didn’t stay behind as the horror genre became increasingly more gory and setpiece-based. In the beginning of the decade Lenzi directed two movies, the pulp cannibal exercise Eaten Alive! (1980) and Nightmare City (1980). Of the two Nightmare City combines Lenzi’s workmanlike direction with deliberate borrowing from other sources and some striking imagery.

Nightmare City has, perhaps unjustly, been classified as a zombie film, and most of its detractors tend to focus on its handling of that aspect. However Nightmare City is rather Lenzi’s take on earlier American pandemic epics I Drink Your Blood (1970) or The Crazies (1973) and their European counterparts The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue (1974), and Jean Rollin's The Grapes Of Death (1978) than an imitation of Lucio Fulci’s classic zombie tryptich. It goes without saying that Nightmare City is ludicrous and often borderline cartoony. Taken on its own merits, and if one is prepared to meet it halfway, Nightmare City is actually a surprisingly striking and effective little shocker when it wants to be. The rest of the time it is either obnoxiously stupid, plain dense or an unguided projectile. As always Lenzi was able to rope in reliable players from the continental European scene.

A leak at the State Nuclear Plant in some undisclosed, apparently unnamed city has the authorities, both scientific and military, desperately trying to contain and keep a lid on the unfortunate incident. Investigating the strange going-ons surrounding the nuclear plant are journalist Dean Miller (Hugo Stiglitz) and his cameraman (an uncredited Antonio Mayans). When an unmarked Hercules military cargo plane disgorges not the member of the scientific community he was scheduled to interview, but a murderous horde of pustulent mutants instead it sends Miller not only on a citywide mission to rescue his wife Dr. Anna Miller (Laura Trotter), but also from stopping the city from tearing itself apart from the inside out. Contrary to earlier exercises in pandemic chaos Nightmare City doesn’t concern itself much with the workings of the military or the government during such catastrophic event, but focuses on the resilience of the family unit instead.

It is under these less than ideal circumstances that Major Warren Holmes (Francisco Rabal), spends a day off at home in company of his artist/sculptor wife Sheila (Maria Rosaria Omaggio) before the military brass summons him back to headquarters. The scene largely exist as a pretext for then 26-year old Omaggio to take her bra off with Rabal, then 54, engaging in a pertinent case of cradle robbing. Not taking her clothes off is Sheila’s friend Cindy (Sonia Viviani) whose demise is a classic piece of exploitation filmmaking both in setup and delivery. In an other part of town Jessica (Stefania D'Amario) - the daughter of General Murchison (Mel Ferrer), himself occupied with trying to contain the rapidly escalating situation – and her boyfriend are on a roadtrip just to spite her old man. Meanwhile an elite team of scientists, led by Dr. Kramer (Eduardo Fajardo) is desperately seeking a cure. As the ravening mutant hordes expand in numbers with alarming speed, and society starts collapsing in on itself, will anybody be able to survive to save the Nightmare City?

Like any good exploitation director Lenzi was able to assemble a strong cast of fresh new faces, old veterans of the genre, and a reliable leading man. Lenzi wanted Franco Nero or Fabio Testi, but the producers insisted on Hugo Stiglitz in order to appeal to the Mexican market. Mexican character actor Hugo Stiglitz, whose career spans nearly 5 decades and over 200 credits, commenced his acting career in movies from René Cardona Jr., and Rubén Galindo, but also appeared in John Huston’s Under the Vulcano (1984), and a seemingly endless array of spaghetti westerns and violent crime movies. In Nightmare City Stiglitz often looks more haggard and vagrant than the mutants he ends up fighting, and for a journalist he’s a damn good marksman. Antonio Mayans, here in an uncredit role, once acted in legitimate productions as King Of Kings (1961) and El Cid (1961), but by the late 1970s became a stock actor in Jess Franco movies. Laura Trotter, an Italian dime-store equivalent to Veronica Lake, debuted as a murder victim in the Umberto Lenzi giallo Eyeball (1975), and starred alongside Ray Lovelock, Sherry Buchanan, and Florinda Bolkan in Franco Prosperi directed Last House On the Beach (1978). Further Trotter appeared in The Exorcist (1973) knockoff Obscene Desire (1978) with Marisa Mell, and had a supporting role in Tinto Brass’ Monella (1998). Trotter is dubbed in the English version by prolific voice actress Pat Starke.

Sonia Viviani, a former glamour model that appeared on the covers of Skorpio (April 1983), Blitz (1984) and Interviu (1984), had starred and would star in far better and worse genre offerings than Lenzi’s enjoyable Nightmare City. Viviani starred in The Sinner (1974) with Zeudi Araya Cristaldi, the Alfonso Brescia commedia sexy all'italiana movies Amori, letti e Tradimenti (1975), Frittata all'italiana (1976), and L’Adolescente (1976) but also as bereft of both dialog and clothing in Pier Carpi’s controversial and budget-deprived The Exorcist (1973) knockoff Ring Of Darkness (1979). One of Viviani’s most memorable parts was that of seductive Amazon warrior Glaucia in the Luigi Cozzi scifi peplum The Adventures of Hercules (1985) with Lou Ferrigno, and Milly Carlucci. Also making an appearance is Viviani’s The Adventures Of Hercules co-star Maria Rosaria Omaggio.

In a career spanning two decades, from the mid-1970s to the mid 1990s Sonia Viviani worked with a host of infamous directors including Bruno Mattei, Umberto Lenzi, Sergio Martino, and René Cardona Jr.. Eduardo Fajardo would go on to star in the little-seen superior Spanish version of the Jesús Franco Afrika Korps gutmuncher Oasis Of the Zombies (1983). Stefania D'Amario, famous for her role as profusely sweating nurse Clara in Lucio Fulci’s Zombie (1979), had starred in the Walerian Borowczyk nunsploitation classic Behind Convent Walls (1978). In her post-acting career D'Amario reinvented herself as a wardrobe – and art department assistant working on Caligula’s Slaves (1984), Miranda (1985) from Italian master of eroticism Tinto Brass, and on the romantic drama The English Patient (1996).

Alternatively obnoxious, atmospheric, or nearly toxic in its lunkheaded creativity a lot things can be levied at Nightmare City, but never of it being glacially paced. Stelvio Cipriani’s main theme to Nightmare City makes the upbeat disco theme to Cannibal Ferox sound like an example of good taste and restraint in comparison. However before the carnage gets well underway Lenzi treats the viewer to one of those typical eighties aerobic dance shows complete with spandex costumes and irritating music. Some of the aerial shots are a bit keen in their earnest imitation of George A. Romero’s earlier Dawn Of the Dead (1978). As always the military brass and government procrastinate far too long instead of immediately deploying armed forces on the ground to contain the pandemic. The mutants retain most of their faculty and wield guns, knives, machetes, and other deadly utensils. In exploitation tradition girls frequently are stabbed in the chest, and when it is revealed that the mutants can be killed by a shot to the head, the military forces, of course, continue to shoot in them in the torso and body. Lenzi and cinematographer Hans Burmann manage to conjure up a few memorable scenes, interesting use of lighting (that sometimes is reminiscent of giallo), and the scene composition is far more creative than one would expect in the genre. The double-whammy ending is either the best, or worst, part about Nightmare City, depending on who you ask. If anything, it fits with exactly the sort of deranged atmosphere that Nightmare City goes for.

Plot: the sins of the father shall be visited upon the daughter

Lady Frankenstein is another of the many Italian gothic horror potboilers with the always enchanting Rosalba Neri in the titular role. Based upon a story by Dick Randall, and written by, among others, Edward Di Lorenzo and directed by Mel Welles (and an uncredited Aureliano Luppi), Lady Frankenstein boasts an international cast including faded Hollywood star Joseph Cotten, exploitation regulars Paul Müller, Herbert Fux, and Mickey Hargitay. Lady Frankenstein stays true to the basic tenets of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein novel and oozes with enough rustic gothic horror charm, and a surprising amount of Neri nudity, to compensate for the somewhat lackluster script and a distinct lack of striking visuals.

Director Mel Welles had worked for exploitation mogul Roger Corman for over a decade by the time Lady Frankenstein was put into production. According to an interview with Welles in the 2007 Louis Paul tome Tales from the Cult Film Trenches one of the producers – Harry Cushing, a well-to-do American living in Italy - had a thing for Neri and built Lady Frankenstein, originally from a script called Lady Dracula, as a project specifically with her in mind. Neri did not reciprocate Cushing’s advances. When some of the financing fell through at the last minute Roger Corman stepped in. Despite not having a solid script when principal photography began, and the involvement of no less than six writers (Umberto Borsato, Edward Di Lorenzo, Egidio Gelso, Aureliano Luppi, Dick Randall, and Mel Welles), Lady Frankenstein never devolves into incoherence despite a minimum of plot.

In Lady Frankenstein Baron Frankenstein (Joseph Cotten) and his assistant Dr. Charles Marshall (Paul Müller) have at long last mastered the ability to revive an exanimate subject. In a revolutionary transplant, lifted wholesale from The Giant Of Metropolis (1961) and later repurposed in Marino Girolami’s cynical cross-genre exercise Zombi Holocaust (1981) a decade after this pompous gothic horror romp, the two scientists will place the brain of the soon-to-be-hung Jack Morgan (Petar Martinov) in a recombined body they prepared earlier. Lecherous vulture, part-time grave robber and full-time creep, Tom Lynch (Herbert Fux) is overjoyed at the idea of his old enemy finally becoming of use to him. Lynch assists both scientists in bringing their experiments to fruition as long as there is a monetary compensation. Throwing caution to the wind, and against Marshall’s protests, Frankenstein senior is adamant in commencing the experiment regardless of the circumstances.

At that point the Baron’s college graduate daughter Tania (Rosalba Neri, as Sara Bay), now bearing a degree in medicine from the same faculty that ousted her father many years prior, arrives at the old homestead. Despite a quarter century age gap the middle-aged Marshall has been pining for Tania for several years. Tania immediately puts her comely charms to use, winding Marshall around her finger, while getting wind of her father’s dabbling in illicit necro-biologic experiments. As the Creature (Peter Whiteman) becomes animate Marshall leaves to summon Tania to witness the resurrection. This leaves the geriatric Frankenstein to the mercy of the Creature’s super-human strength. As Tania and Marshall return to the laboratory they find the lifeless body of Frankenstein the elder, and the Creature having fled into the nearby woods. Soon the Creature’s rampage prompts an investigation by Captain Harris (Mickey Hargitay). In a three-way power struggle for survival Tania, Lynch, and Harris attempt to outwit each other.

As it turns out Tania does admire Marshall, but not on the way he probably imagined, or desires. Tania has taken a liking to feebleminded but able-bodied stableboy Thomas (Marino Masé) and by her reasoning Thomas’ frame with Marshall’s brain as a guide would form the ultimate countermeasure against the elder Frankenstein’s homicidal Creature. Tania’s seduction (and corruption) of Thomas foreshadows Neri’s work in The Devil’s Wedding Night two years later. In a plot scribbled from James Whale’s The Bride Of Frankenstein (1935) Tania builds a second creature not for her late father’s Creature, but for herself. “Who is this irresistible creature who has an insatiable love for the dead?asked the poster and Tania, in the form of seductress Rosalba Neri, fits that descriptor like no other. To nobody’s surprise Frankenstein the younger is forced to betray her creation, and Lady Frankenstein ends in a sizzling climax, both literal and figurative, that leaves Harris, thwarted at every turn, picking up the pieces.

Joseph Cotten, an American actor in his twilight years, had appeared in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), and The Third Man (1949), Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow Of A Doubt (1943), the Richard Fleischer science fiction classic Soylent Green (1973) with Charlton Heston, Airport ’77 (1977) alongside George Kennedy and Gone With the Wind (1939) star Olivia de Havilland, and Michael Cimino’s big-budget western fiasco Heaven’s Gate (1980). From 1971 onward Cotten frequently appeared in low-budget Italian exploitation shlock. In 1969 Rosalba Neri had figured into a trio of Jesús Franco productions with the likes of Luciana Paluzzi, Maria Rohm, and Christopher Lee but also starred in the offshore giallo Top Sensation with Edwige Fenech. Neri appeared in the Fernando di Leo giallo The Beast Kills in Cold Blood (1971). A year after Lady Frankenstein Neri starred another gothic horror piece with L'Amante del Demonio (1972), and The French Sex Murders (1972) with Anita Ekberg and Evelyne Kraft, later of The Mighty Peking Man (1977) and Lady Dracula (1977). In 1973 Neri graced the screen, alongside Mark Damon, in the gothic horror throwback The Devil’s Wedding Night.

Swiss actor Paul Müller made uncredited appearances in respectable productions as El Cid (1961), and Barabbas (1961) before becoming a pillar in continental European exploitation cinema, primarily in Italy and Spain, through turns in Mario Bava’s I Vampiri (1956), Mario Caiano’s Nightmare Castle (1965) with Helga Liné, Amando de Ossorio’s Fangs Of the Living Dead (1969) with Rosanna Yanni, and in the Jesús Franco productions Eugénie (1970), Vampyros Lesbos (1971), The Devil Came From Akasava (1971) and Nightmares Come at Night (1972) with Soledad Miranda, and Diana Lorys. Hungarian actor Mickey Hargitay, father of Emmy and Golden Globe winner Mariska from long-running police procedural Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (1999), ended up in the Italian exploitation industry and had appeared in Revenge Of the Gladiators (1964), Bloody Pit Of Horror (1965), and The Reincarnation Of Isabel (1973). Marino Masé debuted in the peplum comedy The Rape Of the Sabines (1961) with Roger Moore, and appeared in Nightmare Castle (1965), Emanuelle Around the World (1977), Luigi Cozzi’s Contamination (1980), and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather: Part III (1990).

Herbert Fux was a veteran of German TV and cinema, having appeared in popular series as Tatort (1972), Der Alte (1980), der Bergdoktor (1992), and mainstream cinema hits such as The Three Musketeers (1993) and Astérix & Obélix contre César (1999). In exploitation circles he appeared in some of the Kommissar X action/adventure movies through out the 1960s, and a few Tiroler sex comedies from Franz Josef Gottlieb and Alois Brummer in the 1970s, and uncredited in the budget-deprived Lady Dracula (1977) opposite of Evelyne Kraft. Fux portrayed the Devil that copulated with nubile starlet Susan Hemingway in the Jesús Franco production Love Letters Of A Portuguese Nun (1977). Fux was dubbed in the English language version by director Mel Welles, himself an experienced actor.

One of the more interesting aspects of Lady Frankenstein is its pronounced feminist angle, which isn’t strange considering its release that coincided with the Women’s Liberation movement that was gaining momentum in 1971. Tania Frankenstein is, for good or ill, an emancipated, highly intelligent, determined, coldly calculating woman that will stop at absolutely nothing - including murder - to finish her late father’s experiments on reanimating the dead, or acquire the man she craves. From the moment she is introduced, and especially after her father’s passing near the half hour mark, all men, in one way or the other, become subservient to her whims. Tania’s ambition and desire to vindicate her father’s theories eventually pushes her into the same god-like madness that can only lead to death and destruction. As the only character worthy of an arc it is Tania that becomes the crux in the travails in each of her male co-players. The men that circle around Tania are either bottomfeeders (Lynch), boytoys (Thomas), useless idiots (Harris) or willing accomplices (Marshall). In a Freudian slip that results in her killing Tania exclaims “Thomas!” in a particular passionate lovemaking session with the Marshall-Thomas creature, unleashing jealous rage in the latent Marshall part.

While not among the worst of Frankenstein adaptations Lady Frankenstein is emblematic of gothic horror of the day. It's portentous and heavy on that rustic Hammer Horror atmosphere but on a fraction of the budget. The distinguished presence of Joseph Cotten and the always alluring Rosalba Neri can only carry the rudimentary script so far. Like Spanish production Necrophagus (1971) it is thick in atmosphere, but seldom yields any heart-stopping visuals or arresting imagery. It's functional and competently directed, but rarely inspired as such. There's enough Neri nudity but Lady Frankenstein never aspires to the pompous erotic heights of The Devil’s Wedding Night (1973). Rosalba Neri had appeared in better movies, both before and after, Lady Frankenstein. The score by Alessandro Alessandroni is majestic and gloomy in equal measure. Neri's presence might make it of interest to Italian gothic horror fans, or completists - but Lady Frankenstein probably wouldn't be remembered today if it weren't for her portraying the titular character.