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City of the Living Dead

City of the Living Dead

1980, Dir. Lucio Fulci

Catriona MacColl, Christopher George, Carlo de Mejo, Janet Agren, and Giovanni Lombardo Radice

City of the Living Dead (aka Gates of Hell and several other titles) has just about everything that Fulci’s fans love about his films: gut-churning gore, complete disregard for conventional narrative structure, and a pervasive sense of decay and doom. It also has those things that his detractors point out, such as little or no character depth, totally incomprehensible actions on the parts of said characters, and shock scenes that may or may not have been cribbed from other sources. I fall into the previous category and tend to shrug off those cons much like the idiosyncrasies of a good friend whose behavior is otherwise tolerable. In a good Fulci film the strengths make up for the weaknesses and the end result is usually a satisfying hour and a half for the horror aficionado. And then there’s the conclusion of City of the Living Dead, but first things first.

Fulci’s setting for this movie is the town of Dunwich, a name taken from H.P. Lovecraft’s story “The Dunwich Horror”. There are no specific plot points taken from Lovecraft, but the film adheres to Lovecraftian concepts such as the “dream New England” and his governing principle of “atmosphere as the all-important thing”. These ideas are echoed by some of Fulci’s comments about his work. The maestro spoke of this film as “a visual rendering of the metaphysical side of bad dreams” and often referred to his plots as being “of this world but outside time”. The setting also employs a bit of revisionist history, claiming that Dunwich was built upon the ashes of Salem, Massachusetts which is of course, still standing. This is good for a snicker, but doesn’t detract from the film if you don't let it.

The action is put into motion when a Dunwich priest, Father Thomas, hangs himself in a local cemetery. This opens the gates of Hell and will bring about the end of the world on All Saint’s Day, which happens to be three days away. It’s up to a typical random bunch of people to get to the bottom of things and stop the end of the world. Until that time, the dead rise, strange events plague the town, and general havoc ensues. This havoc includes two of the most sickening scenes to ever make your lunch come back, but the rest of the film is restrained by Fulci standards. His sound effects, as always, are over-amplified and in this film are more than slightly ridiculous. His squeaky maggots are comical, but the chattering monkey sounds that accompany the zombie mischief is hysterical and comes close to derailing the effectiveness of the scenes. To be fair, the sounds of the zombies forcing air back into dried out lungs is effectively creepy.

The maggots bring up another issue that in turn brings up another issue. Many people accuse Fulci of cribbing the maggot scene of City of the Living Dead from the maggot scene in Dario Argento’s Suspiria. I don’t buy it. Both scenes feature people in distress because of large numbers of maggots, but the set-ups, executions, and desired effects differ greatly. Argento brings his maggots in slowly and builds up to pandemonium, then explaining them away logically. Like the dog fight in his classic giallo Deep Red, the scene has little to do with the narrative but creates a feeling of uneasiness in the viewer. Fulci’s maggots come bursting in through the windows, propelled by an unearthly wind. They buffet the four characters for at least a full minute before abating. No explanation is given. This scene is another in a series that demonstrates that reality is changing in Dunwich and dark forces are taking control. Instead of Argento’s subtle (relative subtlety, of course) method, Fulci opts for shock.

The ending of City of the Living Dead is much maligned and for good reason: it quite simply sucks. The how and why is debated in the “Letters” section of The Bad Movie Report so I won’t catalog them here. What I think is forgotten in the wake of this debate is the derivative nature of the scenes immediately preceding the ending. I propose that this scene was lifted almost entirely from the Hammer production Plague of the Zombies. Think about it: escape from subterranean passages as zombies combust due to something iconic (in Hammer’s case, the voodoo symbols, in this case their leader Father Thomas) being set on fire. The maddening thing about it is that despite it’s derivative nature, this is possibly the most effectively creepy setpiece in the entire film.

There really isn’t much to say about the acting in this movie. There aren’t exactly any tour-de-force performances, and much of the cast just seems to be picking up a paycheck. The only performance that stuck out for me was Giovanni Radice (Cannibal Apocalypse, Make Them Die Slowly) as Dunwich’s resident pervert / village idiot. The combination of his pale, hollow-eyed make up and his furtive skulking about give the character a sense of menace. Catriona MacColl doesn’t seem to have fully grasped the concept of existential terror as she does later in The Beyond. The rest of the heroes; Christopher George, Carlos de Mejo, and Janet Agren are fairly bland.

The clarion call of the Fulci legions is “It’s not supposed to make sense”. While this is an adequate explanation (some would say cop-out) for much of the unexplainable in the man’s films, City makes you work really hard in its defense. For example, imagine a scene in which a man has to rescue a woman who has been buried alive and the only implement nearby is a pickax. Making do with what he has he attempts to crack the casket open with the pickax, barely missing the woman’s head with each stroke. Now while this does build up a strong sense of anxiety, it’s pretty much nixed when you realize that she should have been embalmed before burial. Then, in case you didn’t realize, a later scene shows a corpse being embalmed. Perhaps the most damning characteristic of the movie is the attitudes of the four main characters. They know they have a limited amount of time in which to save the world, and they seem like they could care less. They take their sweet time going about this saving the world business which benefits the creeping atmosphere of the film but doesn’t make a whit of sense.

After watching, one gets the feeling that Lucio and his cohorts made this film, went back to the drawing board, and came up with The Beyond. The two movies have much in common; the “gates of Hell” conceit, Catriona MacColl, and the general feeling of reality becoming unhinged. Fulci certainly applied the same philosophy to both films, only with The Beyond he hit closer to the mark. City of the Living Dead is flawed, like much of his oeuvre, but is ultimately worthwhile.

Still not convinced? Check out The Bad Movie Report and Teleport City.