City of the Living Dead (1980)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2011-10-05 08:33

Written by: Christopher B. Landon, Oren Peli (characters)Lucio Fulci (story), Dardano Sacchetti (story)
Directed by: Lucio Fulci
Starring: Christopher George, Catriona MacColl and Carlo De Mejo

Reviewed by: Brett G.

"At midnight on Monday, we go into All Saint's Day. The night of the dead begins. If the portholes of hell aren't shut before, no dead body will ever rest in peace. The dead will rise up all over the world and take over the Earth!"

Nobody could unleash hell like Lucio Fulci. The Maestro turned that trick several times, but did so most famously during his ďGates of HellĒ trilogy, an unofficial triptych of the undead. Though he explored this territory in Zombie, the first entry in this sequence is 1980ís City of the Living Dead, which is perhaps the most unsung installment. While it doesnít reach the transcendent, unnerving heights of The Beyond or the loony delirium of House by the Cemetery, it stands as one of Fulciís best straight-laced zombie efforts overall.

The film opens with a scream before we witness a priest committing suicide. Something sinister and mysterious is afoot, and we soon learn that all of this is a prelude to one of the seven portals of hell being opened in the rural town of Dunwich. Armed with this knowledge, an investigative reporter (Christopher George) and a psychic (Catriona MacColl) head off to New England in the hopes of closing the gate before the undead roam and claim the earth on All Saintís Day.

That plot actually takes quite a while to reveal itself, as the first twenty minutes or so are almost aimlessly drenched in mystery. As a viewer, youíre only really sure that priests are committing suicide, the earth is quaking, the dead are rising, and God is very, very dead. However, thanks to Fulciís forceful vision, it completely works as a horrific conception of the apocalypse. Ominous dread broods over every set, whether it be the dusty, barren backroads of Dunwich or its fog-drenched main streets. An underappreciated visual master, Fulci reveals his gift for composition with some stunning establishing and tracking shots; meanwhile, frequent collaborator Fabio Frizzi contributes another moody score to punctuate the epic vision (if Hell has a soundtrack, I am convinced itís scored by Frizzi). As is often the case with Fulci, the filmís mood overtakes the standard and admittedly loose plot, as we once again feel as if weíre privy to some sort of night terror unfolding on the screen.

Once the plot finally settles in, the listlessness becomes a bit obvious. The main thrust with George and MacColl is fine, as both inhabit their roles as plot ciphers well enough. They get a bit lost in the narrative when the screenplay winds through quite a few ancillary characters and tangents along the way so Fulci can cram some scares in. This is forgivable since they are quite good, though, as we witness a harrowing moment where a child discovers a zombie in his closet, and another supreme gross-out gag that sees a girl spewing up her own intestines due to Bela Lugosi-style hypnotic gaze from an undead priest. Another sub-plot involves a town pervert that only seems to exist so that it can pay off in the filmís infamous head-drilling scene.

Everyting eventually culminates in a vomitous climax thatís akin to an epileptic nightmare. Its assault is incredibly suffocating, as his undead teleport all over the frame. While usual undead stylish Giannetto De Rossi isnít along for the ride, these walking corpses are appropriately ghoulish and maggot infested. Their collective, grand rising occurs in one of Fulciís best set-pieces: a dank, dark, cobwebbed crypt that exudes death. Whereas the barren wasteland of The Beyond is eerie in its vast emptiness, this is terrifying in its claustrophobia. Our characters here stumble into an eternal sea of visceral, violent death rather than a spiritual, soul-sucking demise.

Per usual, Fulci doesnít sell his death sequences short. Call it gratuitous, but thereís a admirable grandeur to his gory artfulness. His imaginative eviscerations are masterful and capture the pure physicality of death itself. After all, this is the apocalypse, and heís an angry god dishing out punishment to a throng of sinners. Iím not sure anyone ever matched a genuine, foreboding atmosphere with outlandish schlock quite as well as Fulci, and that fine mixture is on display throughout City of the Living Dead. Even something like that head-drilling scene seems to go hand-in-hand with the overall madness pervading the picture; this is a film where people lose their heads in supremely violent fashion (literally and figuratively). Itís also worth noting that the Maestro pulls off a truly suspenseful scene early on the film that preys on our fears of being buried alive in a brilliantly strung-out sequence thatís devoid of any gore.

Overall, the Gates of Hell trilogy is one of horrorís finer achievements; conceived in the span of two years, the cycle spit out three fine horror flicks. Itís sort of fun to imagine each as a glimpse into one of the seven doors of death (and each just happen to feature a chick that resembles Catriona MacColl). You might as well throw Zombie in as well to round out the apocalyptic panorama. Fulciís ability to capture the weirdness of his surroundings is noteworthy; just as The Beyond turned the Bayou into a spooky, bizarre crossroads of death, City of the Living Dead embraces the gothic witchery of New England, and Dunwich carries some Lovecraftian implications.

Unlike Lovecraftís Dunwich horror, Fulciís isnít concerned with otherworldly creatures; instead, City of the Living Dead is a purely hellish vision of Armageddon. The dead literally coming back to life to reclaim the world is a twisted inversion of All Saints Day, as there will be no purification or beatification of lost souls; instead, they have rejected God to embrace hell on Earth. For all of his outlandish gore displays and atmospheric weridness, Fulciís most disturbing aspect is his searing, bleak atheism; not only is God dead, but the devil and his minions live on unfettered. Never is that aspect more clear than it is in City of the Living Dead, which has been released to DVD a few times. Anchor Bay did the honors first, then Blue Underground released an identical disc some years later. Each release is fine presentation wise, as the colors are vibrant and the print worn to just the right levels, and both the 2.0 and 5.1 surround options bring the soundtrack to life. Special features are sparse on those early releases, as youíll only find a trailer, a still gallery, radio spots, and a Fulci bio. However, Blue Underground released a special edition DVD and Blu-ray edition last year that added quite a few features; thatís the release youíll definitely want to pick up. This might not be Fulciís finest hour, but it lands in the top quarter of his oeuvre. Buy it!

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