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Thursday, April 29, 2010

Retro Review: City of the Living Dead (1980)

Allow me to make something perfectly clear: I have a soft spot in my heart a mile wide for the work of Lucio Fulci. Especially Zombi 2 and his unofficial "Gates of Hell trilogy". So when Stacie Ponder of Final Girl announced that the next edition of her ever-popular Final Girl Film Club would be setting its sights on Fulci's City of the Living Dead, there was no way I wasn't going to be a part of it. Hell, I'll take any excuse to immerse myself in the bizarre, bleak, gauche and gore-drenched ouvre of Fulci.

This particular one, I have a long history with. Well, this one and Zombi 2, actually. See folks, I'm a child of the video store era, and I came to love horror movies thanks to browsing the racks at the local mom-and-pop rental store. For years, Fulci was the forbidden fruit for me. There were certain horror movies I was allowed to rent, and his most certainly were not among them.

But there were those massive VHS boxes, beckoning to me. The Zombi 2 box with the infamous tagline "We Are Going to Eat You!" and that worm-filled, buck-toothed face of the conquistador zombie. And then, of course there was City of the Living Dead--or as I knew it back then, The Gates of Hell. I will never forget the ghastly image of that green, one-eyed zombie face hovering above that city skyline. Add to that the ostentatious warning on the front about the film's extreme content, and the sordid plot synopsis on the back about suicidal priests and roving undead, and it was pretty much a total package that a 12-year-old video store browser is not likely to forget.

It would be years before I finally had the opportunity to actually get my hands on the thing and watch it. City of the Living Dead would be the last of the pseudo-trilogy that I would get to see, having already seen The Beyond and House by the Cemetery, both of which actually came out after CLD. And even though House by the Cemetery is my favorite, CLD is one hell of a horrific experience as well, and was worth those years of waiting to come of age.

The Lovecraftian plot is a bit pedestrian, maybe even hackneyed: A priest commits suicide, opening the doorway to Hell in the process and unleashing an undead uprising in the New England town of Dunwich (yes, Dunwich). A newspaper reporter (Christopher George) and a woman somehow psychically linked to the events (Catriona MacColl) must find a way to close the opening to Hell before the living dead take over the earth. As flimsy as the plot may be, I give credit to Fulci and his collaborator Dardano Sacchetti for diving into Lovecraft with such relish. Who knew Italian filmmakers would take such passionate interest in the works of everyone's favorite morbid Rhode Islander?

It's always tough to judge the acting in Fulci's films due to the Italian practice of dubbing everyone's lines in later--some actors are speaking English, others Italian, and some are even dubbed with other voices. MacColl is terrific as always, bringing an air of classic horror class to the seedy proceedings. The rest of the gang is spotty at best--although I have to give props to the one and only Giovanni Radice as the town scapegoat. The dude has presence, although unlike in House by the Edge of the Park, in which he shows off his dancing skills, here he mainly shows off his ability to take a drill to the brain, in what still may be the most disturbingly explicit and realistic murder ever staged for film.

As for the rest of the cast, we can't really blame them with the lines they're given to recite. I've only seen it dubbed in English, but I can't imagine the original Italian is much better. I particularly can't help but chuckle at the adorable attempt to reproduce "tough New Yorker dialect"--when's the last time you heard an NYC cop ask, "What the dickens is this??"

Nevertheless, Fulci's films work for me for other reasons, and City of the Living Dead is a shining example of what I'm talking about. I'm far from the first to say it, but Fulci at his best draws us into a surreal world that's best described as a fever dream--linear plot and character development are far less important than atmosphere and tension. If you don't ask too many logical questions--and really, why the hell would you?--then you'll better be able to appreciate the film for the visceral nightmare that it is.

Sergio Salvati's gritty cinematography is the veritable distillation of all that I love about 1970s grindhouse horror, with its murky lighting, prodigious use of fog and gratuitous zoom shots. The master of funky Italian horror synth scores, Fabio Frizzi does the honors here with a typically off-beat and unsettling score that complements Fulci's work even better than it does in The Beyond, though not quite as well as in Zombi 2. I'm always amazed by how Frizzi's material works despite the fact that on the surface, the style of music would seem to incongruous with the subject matter. Yet somehow, the score melds inextricably with the rest of the film, to the point that the Fulci style and the Frizzi sound are virtually inseparable in the minds of so many horror fans.

Of course, it wouldn't be a Fulci flick without copious amounts of nasty, grim, depression-inducing grue, now would it? In addition to the aforementioned Radice braining, we get maggot-ridden corpses, skulls crushed by hand, and in what may be the most notorious Fulci moment of them all, poor Daniela Doria literally vomiting her guts out. This was the scene that everybody always talked about, and was a main selling point in getting people interested to see it (we horror fans are an unusual lot, aren't we?) And the way it's played out is classic Fulci, and a prime example of the nightmarish quality of this film. Everything about it feels very much like some kind of awful, terrifying dream.

So ignore the minutiae of the story, and for God's sake, don't try to make too much sense of it. Don't ask why, in the late 20th century, a woman would be buried without being embalmed. Don't ask why there would appear to be bodies buried for decades under about three inches of dead leaves in the Dunwich cemetery. And most of all, don't ever dare ask what the hell the ending means--I'm not even sure Fulci would've been able to say. This film is all about setting a mood, and what a bleak one it is!

There's a purity to Fulci's brand of horror that I find irresistible. It's all about delivering a harrowing emotional experience, weaving a tapestry of relentless dread and foreboding, and overwhelming the senses with truly shocking imagery. It would be hard to call City of the Living Dead a great film in the conventional sense. But a great horror movie? Hell yes.

I'm glad I discovered City of the Living Dead on the video shelf all those years ago, and that it stuck with me long enough for me to seek it out when I got old enough to see it. And I'm glad it was selected for the Final Girl Film Club--always a pleasure to share the love of a movie with others. Keep an eye on the blogosphere in the weeks to come for other participating blog posts on Lucio Fulci's gory gem...

12 comments:

ZedWord said...

This is one of only a few movies to ever make me gag.

Too bad the story is kind of incomprehensible, but you can't deny its atmosphere.

Christopher Zenga said...

This is great B, I just re-watched this film myself.

Later days,

Christopher

Autumnforest said...

I'm not sure I need to see it a second time, but I'm really glad I saw it once. It had some inventive ways to die and a creepiness about it. I like to see it done in a way I haven't seen before and it did have some refreshing aspects.

Erin said...

This is my favorite one of the trilogy solely based on comparing MacColl's three characters. I can buy MacColl as a psychic trying to close the gates of hell a lot more easily than I can deal with either of the characters she plays in House and Beyond. I mean, nobody is that damn stupid as to ignore the maid cleaning up a huge puddle of blood/stay in a hotel where someone hanging around the basement just clawed the plumber's eyes out. Unembalmed corpse? I think she's an honest to God zombie after being dug up in City, and maybe that makes all the difference.

B-Sol said...

There's certainly no denying this movie's raw power. And I love me some Catriona MacColl, I was thrilled to meet her at a convention a couple years back. Erin, I had never considered that she might actually be undead for most of that movie. Interesting possibility....

Bryan White said...

City... is definitely my favorite of the Fulci horrors. I feel like everything Fulci was trying to do up to this point gelled. It's still a scattershot movie and not much of it makes any sense but the violence is nastier than most Fulci movies. No spiders. No dog attacks. No acid burns. Just ripping, tearing and puking and that's all that really matters when it comes to Fuli.

William Weird ("The Bearded Weirdo Reviews Guy") said...

Fantastic review! As a fellow Fulci fanatic, I'm always happy to see him gettin' his props, and Gates Of Hell is my favorite Fulci flick of all time. A lot of people say The Beyond is his best movie, but I really think Gates Of Hell is his masterpiece.

Kelly M. Hudson said...

I gotta agree with William. I love The Beyond and Zombie and, to a lesser extent, House, but I always reach for City when I want some Fulci. It always creeps me out and I can't explain why. Love it! And nice review!

Robert Ring said...

Hah! Your review from the fifth paragraph on is basically an iteration of my exact sentiments of The Beyond, which I consider a masterpiece. I haven't seen this one yet, but if it is as much like The Beyond as it sounds like it is, I definitely have to check it out.

B-Sol said...

Guys, even though House by the Cemetery is my favorite (I love the idea of Fulci applying his aesthetic to a more traditional horror setting), I would totally agree that CLD is most likely his most intense and gory film. Robert, it's a must-see, especially if you love The Beyond.

Joe Monster said...

Really fantastic review, B-Sol! I always love it when writers instill creative descriptions and their own styles into their reviews. It gives the reader a real sense of what the film is about and a desire to seek it out and watch it.

I've already seen CLD so I can say assuredly that you really have the film down to a science. Looking forward to more Retro Reviews!

B-Sol said...

Thanks man, that's great praise. Much appreciated. I haven't done Retro Review in a little bit, but I've done quite a few in the past, you should check them out. I've even done Zombi 2 and House by the Cemetery.

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