‘City of the Living Dead’ is easily one of Lucio Fulci’s most entertaining films. It is a far progression from the overrated mediocrity of ‘Zombie’ (1979) which showed off just flashes of his promise in what he could offer the genre. This follow-up is much more satisfying and was Fulci’s first solid effort in his reinvention of himself as a horror maverick. Also known under the title of ‘The Gates of Hell’ it was actually the first part in the director’s unofficial Gates of Hell trilogy followed by his greatest horror movie ‘The Beyond’ (1981) and the somewhat enjoyable passable entertainment of The House by the Cemetery (1981).
This is a display of style in the exploration of imaginative gore filled set-pieces strung together with a nonsensical plot used to serve just these purposes encapsulated in a spine tingling inducing atmosphere thanks in no small part to Fabio Frizzi’s powerhouse musical score. As a horror filmmaker, Lucio Fulci was never concerned with actually trying to frighten his audience. While the concepts of his films were indeed scary, he never employed suspense and shock tactics to have people on the edge of their seats and jumping out of them. Fulci’s movies never made to invoke the feelings of fear in the traditional sense of horror cinema strived to make us chuck up our meals and cause us to fidget uncomfortably with a tremendous amount of nausea. The shocks came from the director’s unique ability in executing visceral prolonged death sequences.
This is something the director would never shy away from with each victim’s demise showed in all of its gory glory depicted in loving detail as if celebrating the act of bodily dismemberment. It is always a long drawn out explicit affair with these scenes. Utilized is careful attention to detail with the often awe inspiring SFX work supplemented by out-worldly like diegetic sounds as we witness the bloodletting and the destruction of the human body. Lucio Fulci’s focus was on creating atmospheric disturbingly nightmarish images while cohesive narrative would take a back seat. This film is a prime example of all these elements that make up Fulci’s auteur styling with his contributions to the horror genre. Although the director would follow ‘Zombie’ with again the use of zombies this time he would add a supernatural theme with the undead able to levitate and teleport and having super strength. The metaphysical concept here of our world of the living merging with that of the world of the dead would continue in ‘The Beyond’.
The suicide of a Catholic priest Father Thomas (Fabrizio Jovine) hanging himself from a large tree in his church graveyard in the small town of Dunwich apparently built upon the old witches’ town of Salem opens a gateway to hell. It is never explained how exactly Thomas’ suicide causes this which is a common trait in Italian horror to simply just have things happen. I am assuming that because suicide is a sin in Catholicism and that this priest’s suicide takes place on one of the gates of hell is the reason why this occurs. At the same time in New York, a séance is taking place in which psychic Mary Woodhouse (Catriona MacColl) has a vision of the priest hanging himself and the dead beginning to rise. She apparently dies of fright due to this. Investigative reporter Peter Bell (Christopher George) comes snooping around and goes to the local cemetery to see Mary’s gravesite only to discover her revived and buried alive in her own coffin in an open grave as the diggers finish work for the day. Apparently, according to some gobbledygook from the book of Enoch fate led Peter to Mary to rescue her as part of a prophecy. They have to travel to Dunwich to help its people reclose the gates of hell before midnight on All Saints Day otherwise the dead will never be able to rest in peace again as they rise and bring forth the apocalypse.
Does this sound like a load of old bollocks to you? Well it damn well is! However, it does not matter at all, as the movie is made as an experience in atmosphere incorporating an exercise in nauseating inducing ghastly imagery that draws from us that heaving feeling in our stomachs. Lucio Fulci’s goal is evident here and he achieves in what he set out to do. This includes the infamous scene in which the resurrected evil of Father Thomas who looks like he knew what he was doing when he hanged himself looks into the eyes of a young woman and purges her of her entire intestines done by the way of making her vomit up her entails. There is also the equally nasty head-drilling scene.
I can give props to ‘Zombie’ for its nice cinematography, startling imagery and Frizzi’s excellent soundtrack and those three elements are equally of note here as well. It is just that ‘City of the Living Dead’ is the superior film because of its improved writing and direction. The story might be a load of old tripe but it is written in such way to bring together these scenes of special make-up effects creativity. Therefore, you can easily ignore WTF moments like when Mary and Peter decide to stop off for some lunch even though the end of the world is nigh and they have only to midnight to save it. The ending is also just wow. The acting with the exception of George and the dialogue is not much of an improvement but it does benefit from a step up in the characterization department with very likable players here. The pace is also much better as it does not meander along like its predecessor and gets right into the action from the outset. Overall, while not quite the grand experience of the visually stunning ‘The Beyond’ it is a good time for hardcore horror aficionados.
*** out of ****
Dave J. Wilson
©2012 Cinematic Shocks, Dave J. Wilson - All work is the property of the credited author and may not be reprinted or reproduced elsewhere without permission.