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 (filmed at Calvary Cemetery, Queens, New York), 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 that is set by the film’s ambiance, which 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: 


  1. Another great review! :-)

    I must confess I was quite disappointed when I first saw CITY but that had mostly to do with expectations. I thought I'd be getting another ZOMBIE and instead I got this strange and dreamily illogical film, which (as you point out) isn't first and foremost about zombies. I didn't expect teleporting zombies and I hated the ending (and still don't like it very much) but it quickly grew on me on repeat viewings. There really is so much to love! Terrific atmosphere, solid leading players, excellent gore effects, great musical score and a series of outstanding set-pieces. With time it's become one of my favorite Fulci films and I actually think it's vastly superior to THE BEYOND, which in my opinion strives too much for effect and weirdness, although it does have a much better and very poetic ending.

    1. Hi Johan! I appreciate your thoughtful comment! :-)
      I was disappointed with CITY, too, at first. I had recently been moved to the core after viewing THE BEYOND for the first time at a midnight screening, and it was probably a matter of expectation for me as well. I think I was expecting another THE BEYOND, which despite numerous comparative similarities it isn’t. CITY didn’t move me the same way, and the film was something I felt I had to make due with for the time being until my DVDs for THE BEYOND and HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY finally came in the mail. But, as should be made apparent from the review, I grew to love it as well. One Fulci horror film that took even longer to grow on me was MANHATTAN BABY. It did nothing for me at first, and I wasn’t too happy with hearing the theme for THE BEYOND in the film; it just didn’t seem to belong. While I don’t think it’s as good as the selection of Fulci films we are talking about, I still started to like MANHATTAN BABY for what it is. I guess sometimes we have a tendency to evaluate movies from high profile directors with the ones we’ve seen before, and it usually ends up being an unfair standard, something I thought might have hurt Argento’s INFERNO, which is commonly evaluated against SUSPIRIA.

    2. That's a very good point. I've always considered CITY and THE BEYOND to be quite similar but you're right about them also being very different in many ways. I think one reason why CITY feels a bit like the odd one out among Fulci's zombie films is because it's the only one that wasn't produced by Fabrizio De Angelis, and the zombie special effects by Gino De Rossi are very different from the ones by Giannetto De Rossi in the other zombie films.

      Comparing films to other ones made by the same director is inevitable, I think, even though it might not be fair. MANHATTAN BABY simply isn't as good as those other films. It has a lot of potential but is never quite able to fulfill it. I still like it, though, and as you say it is about taking it for what it is, and not for what it isn't.

  2. Hey Giovanni, thanks for writing an article for Month of the Living Dead! I linked it on the intro article, and on my home page.

    I love City of the Living Dead, especially for Doria's spitting up intestines scene. It always stands out in my mind as a landmark gore scene, at least among Italian horror. Great review!!

    1. Thanks, JD! I appreciate it. It's so neat seeing my article-link on the BSG homepage like that, and it's an honor as well.

      Yes, how about that gut puking scene, hehe! I never thought I'd be making an intellectual analysis more than a decade later on such a gross but brilliant scene, on a movie blog, when I first saw it.

  3. jervaise brooke hamsterOctober 8, 2014 at 9:39 PM

    I want to bugger Catriona MacColl (as the bird was in 1972 when the bird was 18, not as the bird is now obviously).

  4. jervaise brooke hamsterOctober 8, 2014 at 9:43 PM

    I want to bugger Janet Agren (as the bird was in 1967 when the bird was 18, not as the bird is now obviously).

  5. jervaise brooke hamsterOctober 8, 2014 at 9:47 PM

    I want to bugger Antonella Interlenghi (as the bird was in 1978 when the bird was 18, not as the bird is now obviously).

  6. jervaise brooke hamsterOctober 8, 2014 at 9:51 PM

    I want to bugger Daniela Doria (as the bird was in 1974 when the bird was 18, not as the bird is now obviously).

  7. jervaise brooke hamsterOctober 8, 2014 at 9:56 PM

    I want to bugger Ania Pieroni (as the bird was in 1975 when the bird was 18, not as the bird is now obviously).

  8. jervaise brooke hamsterOctober 8, 2014 at 10:13 PM

    Those 5 birds were so stunning, they`re all i really notice when i watch "City of the Living Dead". By the way, i always fancied that bird who did the seance at the beginning of the film as well (shes standing next to the lamp in the second picture that you posted to accompany the reveiw), i couldn`t find out the birds name or age over on IMDB but she was really tasty for a bird in her 40`s, i would`ve loved to have buggered her senseless when she was 18 as well ! ! !.