Thursday, September 25, 2014

City of the Living Dead / The Gates of Hell (1980)

City of the Living Dead is part of a high point in Lucio Fulci’s career that would make him synonymous with gore, zombies, and splatter and also cause him to be more generally regarded as a horror director, despite having worked in numerous other film genres. Being the first film in what has become known as The Gates of Hell trilogy, which also includes The Beyond (1981) and House by the Cemetery (1981), City feels a little rough around the edges, a step down from the previous Zombi 2 (1979) but at the same time a stepping stone or prototype to The Beyond, a film that masterfully embodies a dreadful but surreal atmospheric ascetic that I like to call nightmarish horror, which abandons logic to create a sense that anything can happen, usually something bad involving the eyes.

While there is an interesting Lovecraftian story (co-written by Fulci and Dardano Sacchetti) and plenty of dialogue and characters to fill it, City feels a bit like a compendium of gore scenes and set pieces, most of which exemplify Fulci in top form. It has its flaws and issues, yet it’s one of those films where you can talk just as much about what’s wrong with it as you can about what’s right with it, and what’s right is pleasing enough to supersede what’s wrong.

Despite having a dodgy narrative, a few silly moments, and somewhat shallow characters, who have grown on me with time, such as Bob (Giovanni Lombardo Radice), the film is quite a macabre experience that has become known for its top-notch ambiance and gore FX (by Gino De Rossi), as well as succeeding as a horror film overall. It’s like a product of low quality that nonetheless continually hits the sweet spot throughout its runtime so that you just can’t help loving it. It’s almost the masterpiece The Beyond is.

Mary the psychic played by Fulci lead favorite Catriona MacColl,  who has to be one of the best screamers

"Lady, you're either on grass, or you're pulling my leg." -- Sergeant Clay / Martin Sorrentino

City is considered a zombie film, but, like The Beyond, the zombies don’t come until much later. Yet it's more than a just a zombie movie, which might be because we’re getting the kitchen sink treatment, as there is so much going on, with it being more of a supernatural gore film with zombies thrown in for good measure, and the film makers weren’t afraid to take a few liberties and break some zombie “genre rules.”

I love the Manhattan skyline visible from the graveyard, cleverly juxtaposing the city, the living, and the dead, in a foreboding reminder of the film's title and what's to come.

The story is based around an epoch where a priest, Father Thomas (Fabrizio Jovine) commits suicide in a graveyard at a place called Dunwich, a town built on the ruins of Salem (I suppose in a reality where Salem no longer exists?). The act is so blasphemous that the gates of Hell have no choice but to burst open in Dunwich. A psychic in New York, Mary (Catriona MacColl), has a vision of the hanged priest and learns that it happened in Dunwich by reading a doomful inscription on a tombstone that more or less paraphrases a well-known quote by HP Lovecraft. Mary inexplicably dies during a seance, and later in the cemetery undergoes a miraculous rebirth while trapped in her coffin. Fortunately a reporter, Peter (Christopher George), investigating her mysterious death, was there to save Mary by tearing the coffin open with a pick axe, nearly tearing her face off in the process. It was all foretold in a book called Enoch, and now Mary and Peter must go to Dunwich before All Saint’s Day to close the gates of Hell and prevent zombies, ghouls, and an undead priest from destroying humanity. It’s as fun as it sounds.

I hadn't seen Hitchcock's The Birds since I was a kid, but after re-watching it recently, I see where the inspiration for this maggot swarm scene came from.

Feeling a little uneven, the first half of the film transitions back and forth between characters from New York and Dunwich. A plethora of characters are introduced from both locations, and it might feel a little messy, but I like the way the main characters come together by the third act, with Mary’s psychic vision being the catalyst for the union between the film’s heroes and their fiery, all-too-easy but still climactic and sensationalistic catacomb showdown on a very impressive set.

Character development might be a little shallow, but everyone manages to be memorable in their own way. Despite not having a whole lot to do with anyone, other than being a red herring and the town scapegoat for the bad things happening in Dunwich, Radice’s character, Bob, stands out the most as the dodgy looking but ultimately innocent pervert. During those brilliant moments where the film cuts to Bob looking around with a seedy gaze, in the midst of some heavy fog and wind machines, he looks like a serial killer up to no good. However, despite seeming a little depraved, he’s usually just looking for a place to have-a-wank, squat, or sleep. Turning our expectations around, he’s always revealed to be rather harmless, being the central victim of a few of the film’s many gruesome moments, the most poignant being the infamous drill to the head bit, where Mr. Ross (Venantino Venantini), who’s already convinced Bob is the reason for Dunwich’s murders, finds Bob with his daughter and after a struggle runs poor Bob’s head through an industrial drill, in spectacular gory Fulci fashion. Considering Bob’s innocence, the take home message I get here is that it is folly to assume that all perverts are bad people. While Bob expires as the drill through his skull is still rotating, Fulci seems to impose the question: who’s-the-monster-now? as Bob has just undergone an unfounded summary execution based on unproven assumptions. In a way, Mr. Ross is equated to the same ghouls and zombies that are still out there murdering people.

There's a little bit of creepy melodrama going on during this part between Gerry (Carlo De Mejo) and Sandra (Janet Agren) that's a little like a Dark Shadows episode.

It has to be said that the film is surprisingly creepy, mainly thanks to a consistently eerie mood set by film’s ambiance that is wonderfully augmented by Fabio Frizzi’s soundtrack. In addition, Sergio Salvati’s masterful cinematography shines during moments such as when the camera roves down the dark, empty residential streets of Dunwich, also contributing to the proper mood by evoking a sense of dread and isolation.

In fact it has been said that the success to the most highly regarded Fulci films like Zombi 2 and The Beyond does not lie on Fulci alone but might rather be attributed to the collaborative mix between Fulci, Sacchetti, Salvati, and Frizzi.

Fabio Frizzi's synth theme makes this part oddly epic and exciting.

Due credit should also go to Gino De Rossi for staging some of the most brutal and most talked about gore FX. The intestine puking scene with Daniela Doria, an actress Fulci seemed to like to repeatedly kill in gruesome ways, should be considered a gore milestone in the history of film. I’m impressed with how shocking and gross it is, but I really like how beautiful it is at the same time; the way the blood tears stream from both of Doria’s eyes has a gothic horror semblance to it that beautifies things before they get real disgusting. Being hypnotized by the undead priest, I also like the way Doria maintains a still, trancelike, melancholic expression, as opposed to a hysterical fit, as Fulci has her regurgitating real sheep intestines for the scene. She’s a little like one of those weeping statues that cry blood.

Michele Soavi as a wormy Fulci zombie -- Soavi would later direct a piece of zombie history himself with The Cemetery Man.

Some ideas like the teleporting zombies seem a little off-putting, and this movie’s faulty closing scene probably had movie audiences thinking that one big joke had been played on them and probably wanted their ticket money back. I’ll admit to being a little disappointed at having teleporting zombies and a broken ending waiting for me as payoffs, but, like I said before, there’s so much wrong but so much right about this film. Over the years, I’ve come to accept the film's flaws, which feel more like quirks to me now.

Has anyone ever noticed the zombie reflection on the far right?

Today, I really like the ending, but not for the same reasons I love The Beyond’s ending. It just wouldn’t be City of the Living Dead without its much talked about and confusing closing scene. There have been rumors that the editor spilled coffee on the film reel, but according to Fulci it was some kind of last minute idea that was edited into the movie, even after filming had completed, to change the tone of the ending. Here’s what Lucio said:
Originally, the child ran towards the camera and we cut to the two adults smiling to themselves. That was it, a happy ending. One day I was in the editing room, and we watched the footage of the adults who were arguing in the shot- they didn't get along. So we cut to the little boy running and cut back to the footage of them arguing. But in that shot, there was an aberration on the film where it looked like the image started to break up. So we used that. Now it's not a happy ending.”-Lucio Fulci 

You would think Fulci's statement would clear it up, but I don’t think I agree that it was all post editing, because if you watch the ending, MacColl and De Mejo aren’t shown arguing as Fulci claimed, but they can be clearly seen looking out towards the little kid, John-John (Luca Venantini), smiling just before MacColl’s expression subtly changes to fear.

It feels like zombie Emily (Antonella Interlenghi) might be having a poignant moment of recognition after encountering her brother and friend/psychiatrist from when she was alive. She disappears after this part to never be heard from again.

"At this point, a good stiff drink is the only medicine." -- Gerry / Carlo De Mejo

I like the fact that no definite consensus can be made about the ending, giving it an ominous ambiguity at this point. The ending in the Danish version makes it even more ominous with the way it transitions to some kind of dreadfully dark place, after the freeze frame is dissipated by the cracking effect, which makes me think an apocalypse just happened.

© At the Mansion of Madness
The alternate ending from the Danish version

This article is part of Blood Sucking Geek's Month of the Living Dead: 

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Female Vampire / La comtesse noire (1973)

If you haven’t noticed, Female vampires in movies have been a long-running theme I’ve enjoyed exploring with this blog. It’s an appealing aspect of fiction to me, and I just can’t get away from the archetypical idea of the vampiress: her gothic image, seductive power, hidden feral side, and deadly sexuality. Some time ago, around the time I reviewed The Blood Spattered Bride, I finally gave Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla a read and wasn’t too surprised at realizing how much Carmilla’s influence is felt in a large number of cult female vampire films. Although, there seems to have been a bit of a debate as to whether or not the perceived erotic subtext in Le Fanu’s novella has been misinterpreted by non-Victorian readers, yet many filmmakers have nonetheless taken the subtext at face value, taking whatever supposed eroticism is there in the writing of the book out of the implicit and into the explicit; and, for its time, Jess Franco’s Female Vampire (a.k.a. La comtesse noire, Bare Breasted Countess, Erotikill, and many more) has to be the most erotic lady vampire piece, even more so for the XXX version Lüsterne Vampire Im Spermarausch. (On the opposite end of the spectrum is perhaps, and also recommended, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death — a Carmilla influenced movie that hardly features any eroticism).

Friday, August 15, 2014

Spirits of Death / A White Dress for Marialé (1972)

With Spirits of Death, I’m reminded of how pleasing it is to keep discovering new worthwhile Eurocult movies of the vintage variety. Years ago I thought that I might have been coming close to exhausting my selection of every notable Eurohorror / giallo / surreal-art-house-drama film. However, that notion seems to become more and more untrue with time, which is counterintuitive, as it would seem that the more movies of this type you see the closer you would be to seeing them all, but it nonetheless keeps opening up a world that always seems bigger the further you go in.

Spirits of Death is one of those arty, Eurohorror, giallo movies of a particular brand that I can’t believe I went so long without knowing (let’s see if we can coin the term “Sleeping Eurocult” – in winking reference to Agatha Christie’s Sleeping Murder). Spirits of Death is directed and cinematographed by Romano Scavolini, who many may know as the director of an infamous Video Nasty from the early ‘80s, Nightmares in a Damaged Brain. He is also the brother of Sauro Scavolini, director of another marvelous “Sleeping Eurocult” Love and Death in the Garden of the Gods.

The film is essentially a gathering of colorful guests, who have been invited by one of the proprietors, Marialé (Ida Galli aka Evelyn Stewart), with mysterious motives, to a spooky old castle. It might sound familiar, and it is, but the gathering turns into a fascinating, candlelit journey into the underground caverns of the castle as well as a delirious entertaining descent into a batshit crazy Fellini-esque masquerade dinner party before things turn over to a more traditional murder mystery, as party guests start getting knocked off by an unseen assailant in the latter half.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Asylum Erotica / Slaughter Hotel (1971)

I was charmed the other day by a 1915 vintage, almost Victorian looking, Kellogg’s Corn Flakes advertisement poster I spotted amongst the old-fashioned-decor adorned on the walls at a local Cracker Barrel diner. While staring at the ad, for some reason, I became curious as to the origin of Corn Flakes. Where were they invented, and how did they come about? I previously had a stereotypical notion that they may have originated in farming communities, due to the rooster, Cornelius, usually observed on the boxes. After ordering pancakes (not the multigrain or wheat ones but the regular pancakes), I googled “Kellogg’s Corn Flakes history” on my phone, and the results were a little startling.

It appears the invention that brought about Corn Flakes was discovered by accident in 1894, at the Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan by health reformist Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and his brother Will Keith Kellogg as part of a bland diet to keep the patients from having increased passions, i.e. to keep them from masturbating.

One day, the Kellogg brothers left a batch of cooked wheat out to sit, when they were diverted by urgent matters at the sanitarium. Upon their return, they’d found that the wheat had gone stale, but because they were under a strict budget, they decided to salvage the wheat. After pressing the wheat through rollers, it formed, to their surprise, wheat flakes that were subsequently toasted and served to the patients; it ended up being a hit. Later Will Keith Kellogg experimented with flaking corn, which he eventually made into a successful business.

Dr. John Harvey Kellogg was a pioneer surgeon, who succeeded in having exceptionally low mortality rates with his surgery practice. He was the superintendent of the Battle Creek Sanitarium and pioneered numerous health reform treatments, some of which still hold up today. However, the good doctor sometimes missed the mark.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Daughters of Darkness (1971)

“Genre rules” seem to be most common in zombie and vampire films, and it’s with these particular genres that breaking the “rules” ends up being the most controversial. Yet, these so called rules are non-existent, and filmmakers can do whatever they want. Of course, the big risk with breaking too many rules is that so many people will already hate the movie before/without even bothering to see it. On the other hand, sticking with the rules and relying too heavily on clichés is too easy and contributes to oversaturation of a genre. I personally enjoy the best of both worlds, classic and innovative, the best of the old with the best of the new. Give me what I came for, but surprise me too. Clichés are important but more for the sake of maintaining a basis of familiarity.

Harry Kümel’s emblematic, chic, and sensual vampire seduction Daughters of Darkness falls somewhere in the middle ground between familiar and different. It probably isn’t even worth mentioning the many parallels between this movie and The Blood Spattered Bride or The Shiver of the Vampires, other than to note they were made around the same time and manage to be so different from one another, even though they tell similar stories. They all contain a common sapphic vampire story that owes a lot to Sheridan Le Fanu’s novel Carmilla, which was adapted a year earlier with The Vampire Lovers in 1970 and ten years before that with Blood and Roses.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Zombie / Zombi 2 (1979)

I used to not be able to stomach gory zombie films very well. Despite being excited and thoroughly fascinated after watching zombie films in my youth, I suffered from a loss of appetite for a while. Anytime I was trying to eat, my brain would be like “you know what’s a good movie? Dawn of the Dead (1978),” and images from the scene with zombies eating in the cellar would pop into my mind, and I would be turned off to eating meat or anything savory for that matter. Sweets or French fries were fine, but my mind just would not cease to relate the taste and consistency of anything else, especially if it was slimy, to what it was the zombies were chomping on. I was disgusted by zombie carnage but still thought it was so cool.

The zombie film that grossed me out the most, which is really saying something, was Lucio Fulci’s Zombie. As a kid, I used to hate looking at the VHS cover with the iconic, rotting, worm eyed, conquistador zombie (Ottaviano Dell'Acqua). I wasn’t scared; I was repulsed. Being a growing boy on the verge of puberty, I didn’t think it wise to be turned off to protein, either. And so, the tape just sat on my movie shelf, after only being watched once, collecting dust, never to be touched again for quite some time.

Needless to say, I eventually overcame this sort of appetite-loss problem and no longer felt sick after watching zombie films. I don’t know if it is enhanced mental discipline or desensitization, but I can now eat pizza while watching movies like Zombie and Burial Ground without getting nauseous.

Anyone who may have read my article for The Beyond during last year’s gore-a-thon may recall that I wasn’t a fan of Zombie for a while. It took seeing The Beyond for me to re-evaluate what was my negative stand on Zombie. I was guilty of hoping for another Dawn of the Dead, ignorantly overlooking every one of the film’s strengths.

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