City of the Living Dead (1980)
"And the dead shall rise and walk the Earth!"
In the town of Dunwich, a priest commits suicide which opens the gates of Hell and sets about a terrifying chain reaction of events which, if unstopped, will lead to the dead rising up from the grave. A psychic in New York has the terrible vision of these gates opening and, with the help of a reporter, heads to Dunwich to investigate.
The first entry in infamous Italian horror director Lucio Fulci's unofficial Gates of Hell Trilogy, City of the Living Dead is like the marmite of horror films. You're either going to love it for its outlandish approach and the gory set pieces or you're going to hate it because it makes not a blind bit of sense and can be hard to follow at times. There's little in the way of middle ground here but I'm going to try and take it, although I don't quite get the love for City of the Living Dead as I do for some of Fulci's other films. Heavily censored for many years in the UK because of its content in the wake of the 'Video Nasties' scandal, it wasn't released uncut until 2001 but now everyone is able to enjoy this in its original form.
Let's get the awesome stuff out of the way with first though. I'd question anyone who says that this doesn't ooze some otherworldly atmosphere. City of the Living Dead reeks of doom from the opening scene with the village of Dunwich alternating between gusty winds and being drenched in fog. The atmosphere is constantly brooding, with Fabio Frizz's superbly ominous soundtrack highlighting the impending terror that will be unleashed upon the Earth. It's a living nightmare, with each frame of the film ready to burst out from the screen and grab a hold of the audience. There's always unease and always the feeling that something nasty is literally just around the corner. And this is usually the case, with a variety of zombies which seem to appear and disappear at random (one of many plot holes) as well as the priest, who has now turned into some kind of demonic preacher who can make eyes bleed through his gaze. They didn't call Fulci 'The Godfather of Gore' for no reason and City of the Living Dead contains some of his most memorable moments as the nightmare comes to horrifying reality for some of the characters. We've got a couple of unlucky victims who have their brains ripped out by having their heads crushed and there's the aforementioned eye-bleeding moments.
It is the film's two major gore set pieces that are some of the most visually disgusting but outstandingly-produced set pieces you're ever likely to see. The first involves a girl puking up her entire digestive system and intestines out through her mouth - it needs to be seen to be believed if you can 'stomach' it. The second involves a pervert having a drill slowly inserted into the side of his head by an overly protective father who thought he was trying it on with his daughter. The scene looks frighteningly realistic and total credit must go to the special effects team who give the illusion that everything witnessed is a continual shot. Possibly the most effective shock scene in the film is the one which doesn't need gore to work and that's when Catriona MacColl's psychic character is presumed dead at the beginning of the film and buried alive. Anyone with a remote fear of this should be advised to stay well as its claustrophobic and unsettling in its depiction.
But this is where the problem lies and it's a common theme across Fulci's output. The film makes little sense. I can understand the film working as a simple collage of nightmarish visions designed to replicate the randomness of dreams, but he could at least make an effort to get everything to gel better than it does. Literally all the story you need to know is from the opening ten minutes or so when the priest hangs himself and then the physic tells everyone that the gates of Hell have been opened. City of the Living Dead seems to just go on that bone alone and it's not enough to really keep it from struggling along at times, especially when there's nothing supernatural happening on screen. The flimsy story simply serves as a loose connection to a series of gruesome set pieces. We never find out why one man's decision to take his own life spells death for the rest of humanity. We never know why these zombies are able to transport in and out of locations at will. The ending also makes no sense whatsoever - understandable given that they ran out of time to do re-shoots - but I can only review what's in front of me! And as an end product, the final 'twist' in the film is ridiculous. No more so than the characters have just survived a confrontation with the undead priest.
Speaking of which, the characters suffer from the same fate as the story in that they're thinly-written and poorly constructed. Both Catriona MacColl and Christopher George do alright in their roles but they play second fiddle to the horrors around them and the robotic dialogue does them little favours. They've also clearly had to re-dub their voices over the soundtrack which adds a bit of jarring to the sound, especially when some of the dubbing is a little over-the-top. They're the only standouts from the cast which features many unnecessary minor characters who serve little purpose other than clog up the screen and provide extra ammunition for the zombies to rip apart (for instance the whole sub-plot with the pervert could have been easily removed).
I'll go out on a limb and advise people to check out Fulci's far superior Zombie Flesh Eaters (to give it the UK title) before they decide whether they want to venture into his other works. City the Living Dead works purely as a nightmarish journey with some excellent imagery, an amazing mood and some of horror's finest gore moments. But aside from the gruesome gloss, there's little substance and I'm sure you could tear the film apart if you tried to piece it all together coherently. One thing is certain: you won't forget it in a hurry and I guess that's the whole point of Fulci's work.
City of the Living Dead
Also Known As: The Gates of Hell
Director(s): Lucio Fulci
Writer(s): Lucio Fulci (story & screenplay), Dardano Sacchetti (story & screenplay)
Actor(s): Christopher George, Catriona MacColl, Carlo De Mejo, Giovanni Lombardo Radice, Janet Ågren, Antonella Interlenghi, Daniela Doria, Fabrizio Jovine
Duration: 93 mins