City of the Living Dead (1980)

5 Nov

Oh sure, he may look menacing now, but just wait til you see him in action.

City of the Living Dead” was an unplanned selection for 31 Nights of Horror. I had expected to get a new movie in the mail, but it didn’t arrive in a timely fashion, so I was left scrounging for something to take its place. Netflix recommended this one, which didn’t seem familiar based on its summary. By the time I realized what I was watching — and which famously gruesome death scene I was about to see — it was too late. Lucio Fulci had won again.

Psychic Mary Woodhouse (Catriona MacColl) is leading a seance when she sees the death of Father William Thomas (Fabrizio Jovine). The priest has hung himself, and through that act has opened the gates of Hell in the small town of Dunwich. The vision is so disturbing that Mary falls to the floor, as if dead with fright. Reporter Peter Bell (Christopher George), getting a tip on the unusual death, turns up at the scene but is rebuffed by the police officers on duty. He doggedly follows the story all the way to the graveyard, stalking out the woman’s coffin in hopes of catching a break for his article. The reporter is startled to hear screams coming from Mary’s gravesite, and he breaks the coffin open to find the psychic revived. She explains the whole sequence of events was foretold, and that now he must join her in an attempt to close the gates of Hell.

The duo travels to Dunwich and arrive at about the same time a series of bizarre deaths occur. The townspeople are all too willing to cast local oddball Bob (Giovanni Lombardo Radice) as the scapegoat, but the stranger the circumstances get, the more difficult it is to believe the cause of it all is human. As Mary and Peter work to discover how to stop the unspeakable horror that is coming, the rest of the town must come to grips with the terrifying truth about their home.

Just so we’re on the same page here, the plot is murky at best. I honestly can’t remember much about how the gates of Hell thing is resolved, and the ending is decidedly vague and weird. But, having some familiarity with Fulci’s work, I know that plot is not exactly what I’m looking for. The Italian “spaghetti horror” master excels at two things: Creating a world which is just slightly off-base from reality, unsettling the audience even before any of the ghoulishness begins, and coming up with highly creative and disgusting ways to off his characters. This film is no exception.

And so begins one of the most disturbing scenes in horror movie history.

As soon as the action starts, the movie is edited in a dizzying way. A wide shot of the seance cuts without warning to a close-up of Mary’s eye. Quick cuts dominate this early section, serving to disorient the audience and clue us in immediately that something is wrong in this world. Some of the scenes are quite beautifully shot, with particular attention given to the interplay or dominance of color in a given frame. The infamous gut-vomiting death sequence (more on this later) is striking not only for the horror of it, but also because the red so fully dominates the entire scene.

And since I brought it up, the gut-vomiting sequence is easily one of the gnarliest horror movie deaths ever filmed. Fulci wisely kicks off this gorefest by having Rosie Kelvin (Daniela Doria) become fixated by the apparition of the deceased Father Thomas. She can’t bring herself to look away, and she begins to bleed from her eyes. This alone is deeply disturbing, but soon Rosie begins to make retching noises. Incredibly, Fulci cuts away from the actress at this point to register a look of pure terror on the face of her boyfriend as he scrabbles at the door handle in an attempt to get away. What happens next is widely known, but can it really be adequately described? I don’t think so. Rosie begins to vomit up her own intestines, slowly at first, then in a torrential outpouring of guts and gore that’s tremendously and terrifyingly disgusting. Her boyfriend soon meets his end — as many others in the film do — by having his head crushed by the phantom priest, but that so pales in comparison to Rosie’s demise that it hardly registers.

Therein is the problem with “City of the Living Dead.” This lone scene is so shocking and so unforgettable that the rest of the film falls away without making much of an impression. Blah, blah, blah, zombies and then the aforementioned weird ending which hints at the idea that the action may not actually be occurring, which cheapens the entire experience in my opinion.

For fans of Fulci, or of horror in general, the film is a must-see for the entrail sequence if nothing else. Anyone who doesn’t appreciate the artistry of good gore may not have the stomach for it. Two-and-a-half stars out of four.

City of the Living Dead“: Also released as “Gates of Hell.” NR in the United States. Starring Christopher George, Catriona MacColl (as Katriona MacColl), Carlo De Mejo, Antonella Interlenghi, Giovanni Lombardo Radice, Daniela Doria and Fabrizio Jovine. Directed by Lucio Fulci. Written by Lucio Fulci and Dardano Sarchetti. Cinematography by Sergio Salvati. Special effects by Gino De Rossi and Franco Rufini. Original music by Fabio Frizzi.

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