Top 10 Nightmare Visions of New York


No other city in the world has the cinematic history of New York. Long a favorite of filmmakers interested in exploring city life, it can become a reflection of whatever they perceive it or the world at large to be. At times, New York is portrayed as a magical place of bustle, commerce, and unlimited potential. Movies like Big or The Secret of My Success take place in a New York that asks for nothing but hard work and ingenuity from its citizens. A place where the best features of capitalism and modern life begin, grow, and prosper.

But for other, less optimistic, filmmakers, New York is a giant concrete and glass symbol of everything wrong with the world and society. A festering sore of evil and suffering that can only be endured for so long before it swallows you whole. These are the Top Ten Nightmare Visions of New York.

10.  The Warriors


The quintessential urban hellscape, The New York of the 1979 cult classic The Warriors is a city so riddled with street gangs that they can hold a general meeting in one of the biggest parks in the city with little fear of reprisal. They even seem to have their own radio station. The gangs are so emboldened that their leader suggests they actually take over the city entirely as they outnumber the police 3 to 1. When he is killed, the Warriors of the title are forced to flee back to their home turf in Coney Island. The city they cross is dirty and filled with garbage, human and otherwise. As they dodge blood-thirsty gang after blood-thirsty gang, their numbers are slowly diminished. The New York of The Warriors is so brutal that even a hardened bunch of street fighters can barely survive one of its nights. But it isn’t all horrible. Even though the streets are crawling with murderous thugs, at least they go to the trouble of coming up with interesting themes and wearing colorful costumes. It makes getting the living snot beat out of you just a little more pleasant.

9.  Gotham City (Batman)


Although DC comics calls it Gotham City, there’s no mistaking which city it is that Batman’s patrolling. Longtime Batman writer Dennis O’Neal said Gotham City is “…Manhattan below Fourteenth Street at eleven minutes past midnight on the coldest night in November.” As a New York stand in, Gotham City embodies all of its doppleganger’s worse qualities. It’s dark, filthy, overcrowded, and full to bursting with every kind of scumbag and criminal imaginable. The police are corrupt, organized crime runs the streets, and the one mental institution in town is about as difficult to escape from as an awkward conversation. Things are so bad in the city that even the idle rich feel they have to put on a mask and chip in. The worst thing about Gothan City is that even though they have one of the greatest superheroes ever created on 24hr call, nothing ever gets better. No matter how many punks, thugs, or freaks Batman puts away, there are always about a hundred more on the next block. If that isn’t the definition of a nightmare, what is?

8.  Barney Miller

barney miller

Barney Miller? How could a fun-loving, charming sitcom from the Seventies make the list? You’re right. For the most part, Barney Miller presented a calm peaceful world where everyone cared about each other and always had something funny to say. They weren’t supercops, but they did their jobs well and tried to make a difference. Everything was right in the world. As long as you stayed in the station. The outside world (New York) was presented as an almost mythically awful place. Often spoken about but never rarely seen, the characters of Barney Miller accepted it as fact that once you left the safety of the 12th precinct, all bets were off. Even the character’s homes were fortresses of barred windows and heavily locked doors. The reason New York is so scary in Barney Miller is that its corruption and decay are so pervasive that the main characters don’t even question it. Things have gotten so bad in the city that even the cops have given up. They were all painfully aware that they lived in an urban hellhole and there wasn’t a thing they could do about it. Is it any wonder they spent most of their time sitting around the station drinking coffee and cracking jokes?

7.  Death Wish


The New York in Death Wish shares a lot of features with the one in The Warriors. Basically, it’s a stinking pile of human misery. Punks wander the streets robbing and killing whenever they like and good, wholesome folks cower in their apartments behind doors filled with locks. The only difference between this decayed New York and any of the others on the list is here, somebody has had enough. Unfortunately for all the thugs and lowlifes, that somebody is Charles ‘Effing Bronson. Once his wife and daughter are brutally assaulted and left for dead, Bronson takes to the streets with a really big gun and starts plugging any criminal unlucky enough to run into him. The New York depicted is so bad, so beyond hope, that the only solution to its crime problems is a tough guy on a mass murder spree. What’s most shocking is how much audiences identified with the movie. It played right into the fears of urban decay and rising crime that city dwellers felt were swallowing them whole. Death Wish was so successful because it took a real fear and turned it up to paranoid delusion. Just like a nightmare.

6.  Bringing Out The Dead

bringing out the dead

Most of the terrifying visions of New York are external. Crime out of control, streets unsafe for any but the most savage. They play on the idea that everyone in New York is a predator just waiting for a moment to leap at you and tear out your throat. Martin Scorsese’s underrated 1999 flick Bringing Out The Dead takes a different, yet just as nightmarish look at the Big Apple. Instead of a city of heartless crooks and killers, the New York of Bring Out The Dead is filled with the sick and dying. Everyone in the film is suffering from one thing or another. From the crazy people paramedic Nicholas Cage treats every night to the scores of drug addicts in the streets, hospitals and apartments. Set in the last gasps of the pre-Gulianni New York of legend, the movie presents a city so sick, so close to death, that the only thing its poor residents can do is medicate themselves into oblivion. Even Cage’s paramedic, who’s meant to fix all these broken souls, can’t make it ten minutes without a drink or a pill. Bringing Out The Dead is the cinematic equivalent of watching somebody slowly succumb to a killer disease. Maybe that’s why nobody likes it.

5.  Grand Theft Auto


Though later editions were to visit other corners of the game’s twisted vision of America, Grand Theft Auto has never been better than when it takes place in its fictional New York, Liberty City. And what a New York it is. More of a Wild West frontier town than major metropolitan center, Liberty City is a mess of rival gangs, flagrant disregard for law enforcement, and violence so commonplace that most citizens don’t even notice it. If he were so inclined, a resident of Liberty City could wake up, thrown on some clothes, and spend his day savagely beating prostitutes with baseball bats, destroying several cars in the middle of a busy thoroughfare, and randomly shooting passers by, all before he has his morning coffee. Nobody cares. Worst of all, the Liberty City police have the attention span of a distracted 4 year old. No matter how bad the crime, no matter how bloody the carnage, no matter how high the body count, if they can’t catch the guy who did it in the first three minutes, they give up. The residents of Liberty City are like a dysfunctional family scared of their drunk Dad. Everybody plays dumb and looks the other way while one guy indulges every sick, violent fantasy he can dream up. Not a city you want to put on your next vacation short list.

4.  Escape From New York


The 1981 sci-fi classic Escape from New York presents the ultimate expression of the fear that New York was one mugging away from total anarchy. Set in the impossibly far-flung future of 1997, Escape from New York shows a city where the gangs of The Warriors have completed their mission of taking over the city. Oh, they had some help. Fed up with rampant crime and under the sway of old school tough guys like Lee Van Cleef, America has washed its hands of both the crime problem and New York in general by turning Manhattan into a giant open air prison. The bridges and tunnels are blocked or destroyed and once you go in, you never come out. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any food delivery, power, or any other basic services. That, coupled with the psychotic cannibals who wander the streets at night and the vicious warlord who runs the place, makes it not a very nice place to live. It’s the ultimate nightmare scenario. The entire city has been swallowed by evil and all the Charles Bronsons in the world can’t bring it back.

3.  Gangs of New York


Far removed from the concrete jungles of the Twentieth Century, Scorsese’s Gangs of New York presents a young New York, free from the decay and rot that characterizes the portrayals of its later years. This is a new city in a new nation, poised to become one of the greatest places in the history of mankind. Unfortunately, nobody told the street gangs. They may have elaborate themes and costumes, but they’re just as tough. The movie opens and closes with basically a medieval battle scene, albeit one in the middle of a city street. Forget the odd mugging or OD, in this New York, your morning commute is more likely to be interrupted by a thousand men beating each other to death with clubs and knives. Besides the monumental battles, everyone is filthy, and the whole city is run by murderous thugs. We get a small glimpse into the wealthy, beautiful side of things, but then only as a place to steal from. The New York of Gangs of New York is nasty, brutish and short. And most nightmarishly of all, it actually existed.

2.  The Lost Weekend


With its clean streets, pretty young girls, and gentlemen in suits, the New York of The Lost Weekend is practically a paradise compared to some of the other urban disasters on this list. The city looks bright, welcoming, and there’s nary a knife wielding thug in sight. The only real problem for the main character Don is his hopeless addiction to whiskey. Broke and without a friend in the world, Don descends into a swirling vortex of booze and despair. Then the real, nasty New York shows its ugly face. Streets that were once filled with smiling young professionals and welcoming diners are transformed into dark, lurid alleys filled with fellow barflies and drinking pits. The Lost Weekend actually pioneered the famous shot of a guy walking down a street with neon bar signs tempting him. It presents New York as a two-faced city. Energetic and industrious by day, but drunk and pathetic by night. Just like the alcoholic in the story.

1.  Planet of the Apes


Although it isn’t revealed until the famous last shot, the monkey controlled, human hating Planet of The Apes is none other than New York herself. Sure, it’s several years after a nuclear war has devastated human civilization and allowed a surly bunch of chimps, orangutans, and gorillas to take over and enslave the remaining humans, and sure, it looks a lot like a studio backlot in Southern California, but it’s still New York. Instead of roving gangs of thugs in leather jackets, we get roving gangs of Gorilla soldiers in leather jackets. Instead of a frightened and terrorized population of sophisticated urbanites, we get a frightened and terrorized population of scantily clad primitives. And just like all the best New York movies, we get one dude (Charleton Heston in all his scenery eating glory) who’s had it up to here with the garbage and god damn it, he’s going to do something about it. The only difference (well, besides the fact that he’s wearing animal skins) is he kills a lot of apes instead of a lot of criminals. And really, is that any real difference at all?

List by Geoff!

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  1. Another 2 nightmarish New York City movies are The Naked City and The Incident. The Incident is particularly nasty. New York City in black and white always have a bad feel to it.

  2. Technically, New York in the Planet of the Apes was the Forbidden Zone, not the Ape’s City. The Statue of Liberty is discovered after a ride from the cave in the Forbidden Zone down the coast on a horse – a ride of unknown length. The Ape City itself is likely in a place that already features plenty of apes: New Jersey.

  3. Great list- Barney Miller was surprising but fits perfectly. I felt like the Lost Weekend should be ranked lower, though, or perhaps replaced by Seinfeld.

  4. Neat list. ‘Apes was a surprise, albeit a pleasant one. I also thought Barney Miller was a neat twist and you made a decent argument.