31 Days of Gore: City of the Living Dead (1980)

It’s October. Time to talk horror. This year I’m reviewing a different horror movie each day of the month. (I forgot to schedule this one for midnight, which is why it’s late.)

At one point I said I would only feature movies I haven’t seen yet for 31 Days of Gore. Well, technically I’ve never seen this film in HD, so let’s just say that counts.

I’m a big fan of Lucio Fulci, maybe more than I’m a fan of Dario Argento. While Fulci’s quality slipped towards the end of his career, it didn’t slip nearly as much as Argento’s did (I dare you to sit through Dracula 3D… I turned it off in a record-breaking five minutes). Still, Argento won favor with mainstream critics across the world. Fulci, on the other hand, was more or less considered a hack by a lot of the same critics. I prefer Fulci for the same reason I prefer rough-around-the-edges talent like Bruce Campbell and Barbara Crampton as opposed to, say, Will Smith or Catherine Zeta Jones.

Unlike pampered A-listers, B-movie makers work for a living. Their jobs can suck as much as ours do. I mention this because you can tell this film was a labor of love.

City of the Living Dead, a.k.a. The Gates of Hell, (not to be confused with Umberto Lenzi’s City of the Walking Dead, a.k.a Nightmare City, which will be featured here this month) opens on a priest who’s taking a stroll through an idyllic cemetery. Seconds after the opening credits, he tosses a noose over a tree branch and hangs himself.

Cut to a woman screaming in a candlelit room: she saw the entire thing remotely during a seance. The image is so disturbing she has a heart attack and dies. There’s a lot of heart attacks in this movie, by the way.

I love Fulci shots like this… the whole movie looks great in HD

A news reporter, apparently played by Henry Fonda’s long lost brother, is investigating this woman’s death. Slow news day, I suppose. He visits her grave, which has been poorly filled due to the laziest gravediggers on the planet, and hears her screaming to get out. It turns out she’s not dead after all. What’s even more disturbing is the movie makes no attempt to explain how she survived the embalming process. That’s okay, though, because expecting everything to make sense in an Italian horror film—probably my favorite kind of horror film—is the wrong way to enjoy an Italian horror film.

So the reporter does what absolutely no one in the world would do in such a situation: he grabs a pickax and begins hacking at the coffin lid, the flimsy surface of which is mere inches from the woman’s face. These characters are completely fucking incompetent, but again, that’s okay. It’s about the mood, the atmosphere, about the style, man. It’s about bending the plot to squeeze in common fears (here it’s being buried alive) so that the audience gets the best bang for the buck.

The reporter then learns from the woman that the priest’s suicide has opened the gates of hell (just go with it) and if his body isn’t laid to rest, his ghost’s zombie-creating superpowers (I said just go with it, damn it!) will destroy the entire world. Did I forget to mention City of the Living Dead is a zombie movie in addition to a killer ghost story? Well, it is. In fact, it’s Fulci’s first horror film since Zombie (a.k.a Zombi 2). That film famously portrayed a zombie fighting a shark, a scene I still have no idea how they pulled off. While there’s probably nothing anywhere as insanely cool as that scene in this film, I somehow prefer this one.

Fulci manages to craft a spooky atmosphere, while those lingering, dreamlike shots of terrified faces are rarely done better by anyone else. The film’s probably not coherent enough for the casual moviegoer, yet it’s certainly not nonsensical enough to laugh at in a MST3K way. It’s a haunting picture with expert cinematography and a beautiful color palette.

At one point, Fulci tries to top the eye-gouging scene in Zombie. In this film, a spinning drill bit is shoved directly through a man’s skull. It’s essentially the ol’ arrow-through-the-head gag done so much by a younger Steve Martin, but the special effects team manages to make the tip of the bit on the other side of the victim’s head spin, too. It’s a really neat take on an old effect. I love stuff like that.

Come back at midnight Central Time for the next movie.

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