I’ve often found it a little frustrating that the old school maestros of Italian horror such as Argento, Bava and Soavi are hailed for their various, visually stunning masterpieces while poor old Lucio Fulci is merely seen as the “zombie” guy. If truth be told, while his movies can admittedly be described as being light on logic, he’s always been consistently more fun than his more serious peers. Coming to horror relatively late in his career, of all of his films, City Of The Living Dead is probably the best all-rounder – it’s not lauded as much as The Beyond, it’s not as infamous as Zombie Flesh Eaters, it’s not as flat out weird as House By The Cemetery and it’s certainly not as repellent as New York Ripper; but in encompassing all the things that make Fulci movies so entertaining to experience, COTLD contains enough stunning set pieces, extreme gore and baffling story choices to make it arguably the best gateway into Lucio’s fucked up world.
After their local priest committed suicide by hanging, the townsfolk have started to notice that the sleepy village of Dunwich isn’t what it used to be with weird occurrences and suspicious disappearances mounting up only to be dismissed by the local crusty winos. But when the evil that has permeated Dunwich reaches as far as New York City and causes psychic Mary Woodhouse to enter a state of temporary death, she and cynical reporter Peter Bell realise they have to get their collective butts to the afflicted town before something terrible happens.
What has happened is that the death of the priest has caused the Gates Of Hell to open with armageddon due to commence on All Saint’s Day and as more and more residents fall under the thrall of the ghostly Father by either having worms crammed in their mouth, having their brains ripped out of their skulls or even (you ready for this?) throwing up their own intestines, its obvious that time is running out.
Upon reaching Dunwich, Mary and Peter form an alliance with local psychiatrist Gerry, his sexually confused patient Sandra and little John-John, recent orphan of a zombie attack and try and get to the bottom of all this supernatural skull-fuckery – but they’ll have to do it alone as the rest of the town have laid all the weird goings on at the feet of local pervert Bob.
As Dunwich becomes a fog enshrouded death trap filled with brain-ripping ghouls and frequent lapses in plot logic, the survivors will have to enter the maze of crypts that lay under the town in order to confront the evil head on and shut those damn gates of Hell once and for all…
There are two ways to watch City Of The Living Dead (aka. Gates Of Hell) and both have their merits. The first and more simpler of the two is to sit back and be astounded in how relentlessly ridiculous the whole enterprise is and watching it is like watching an episode of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace as the incredible amounts of random shit repeatedly ploughs into you like waves in a storm.
So much of this movie makes you pause and say “hang on a minute” as it relentlessly barrels on, admirably not giving a single shit about your visible confusion and the list of head scratching moments are legion.
Why is everyone ok with the obviously middle aged Gerry openly dating a nineteen year old? Why does Fulci insist on crash-zooming directly into an actor’s noticably oily T-zone every time something weird happens? Why is Sharon’s obsession with incest lead to her painting rhinos for therapy? If our leads only have a short time until the world ends, why are they so obsessed with taking a detour to getvsomethimg to eat? Why are characters delivering grave portents of doom directly at the camera? Why has the sound department chosen to use the sound of screeching jungle animals the backdrop for Dunwich slowing descending into hell? With all this and more to furiously unpack and process I haven’t even gotten into the genuinely baffling side-plot of why all the attractive girls in town are inexplicably drawn to the mentally addled Bob who is quite obviously a collossal pervert.
So it’s quite obvious from that sizable list that we’re deep in so-bad-its-good territory here, right? Well… not so fast. You see, Fulci at this point was a veteran filmmaker and obviously was doing most this stuff deliberately – possibly to fuck with us – so if you can keep the heckling to a minimum (good luck with that) and treat the entire movie as if it’s being fed through some sort of surreal dream logic (which it is), City Of The Living Dead is actually a very stylish attempt to adapt H.P. Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror which instantly explains a lot. How else can you logically explain the cast being buffeted by a sudden and unexplained cloud of maggots blowing in through the window only for Gerry to calmly wipe the wriggling larvae off his ringing phone and casually answer as if nothing had happening.
Another thing that stands out about the movie is the showstopping setpieces that Fulci became famous for which not only includes the aforementioned throwing up of intestines and a maggot cloud, but also contains an impressive death by industrial drill and possibly one of the greatest buried alive scenes I’ve ever witnessed as the rescuer’s pick axe repeatedly tears into the coffin inches from the suffocating victim’s face.
The actors simply hang on for dear life and wait to see what the impish director has planned for them next but some familiar faces are present and correct with Grizzly’s Christopher George providing a cigar puffing lead and Catriona MacColl being a perfect foil for Fulci’s orchestrated insanity – she would re-team withbthe director on The Beyond for yet more shabby treatment by moaning ghouls.
City Of The Living Dead is one of those movies that I totally get if you were to wrinkle your nose at it due to its apparent overdose of flaws, but watching Fulci is like cracking a secret code and once you’re on his particular wavelength, you can see past the immense levels of camp and focus on the lush cinematography, the ability to lay out a rousing set piece, the genuine building of atmosphere and the deliberate disregard for conventional story telling techniques that were there in front of you all along.
It’s certainly not rocket science (fuck, it’s not even a rocket lolly) but one accusation you can’t level at this movie is that its dull, even when it hurtles toward final moments that predictably fail to make one bit of fucking sense.
There’s genius here in this City Of The Living Dead – but you might need a map to find it.