City of the Living Dead (1980) – Opening the Gates of Hell

City of the Living Dead - Movie Poster

Overall: 3 out of 5 stars

It always happens. A ravenous fan-base will find a way to unify things into trilogies. For Neil Young fans, it was the “Ditch Trilogy”. For Argento Fans it was the “Animal Trilogy”. For Lucio Fulci, it was a little series called the “The Gates of Hell Trilogy”. Kicking off the trilogy with City of the Living Dead, these films all involve the opening of a rift that allows spirits from the otherworld enter into the realm of men. I often wonder if any of these “Trilogies” were constructed intentionally, or if they are simply the constructions of rabid fans that need to find meaning where there is none.

City of the Living Dead, along with The Beyond and The House by the Cemetery constitute the “The Gates of Hell Trilogy”. Amazingly, Lucio Fulci would complete the trilogy in just 2 years after a powerful campaign in 1981 to release three movies in a single year. Many fans of Lucio Fulci point to this trilogy as the high-point of his storied career. To be honest, they are probably aren’t wrong.

City of the Living Dead - The Death of Father Thomas
Father Thomas’ suicide trigger a rift between The City of the Living Dead and the world of the living

Lucio Fulci, deeper into the supernatural

Lucio Famously directed his classic walking dead film, Zombie in 1979. He took a break from horror films in 1980 with the filming of a poliziotteschi film named Contraband. City of the Living Dead marks a return to the realm of horror and to the land of the undead. This time, Fulci dives deeper into the mystery of the occult and supernatural. City of the Living Dead almost feels experimental in nature. It feels as if Fulci got an opportunity to make the move that he had been clamoring for, but he the opportunity came just before he was prepared to make it. As a whole, City of the Living Dead serves as a prototype for later Fulci’s films. Some of the are his best work.

The Souls that pines for eternity shall outspan death.

You dweller of the twilight void, come Dunwich

City of the Living Dead - Giovanni Lombardo Radice plays a vagrant named Bob
Giovanni Lombardo Radice plays a vagrant named Bob

Any Uneven, Confused Plot

Fulci begins his film with the slow stroll of Father William Thomas (Frabrizio Jovine) contemplates his self-prescribed end in a Dunwich cemetery. The action switches to a séance in New York City. During the ceremony, Mary Woodhouse (Catriona MacColl), has a vision of Father Thomas hanging himself to death in a cemetery. Upon his final the death, the dead begin to rise from the cemetery. Mary, frothing at the mouth, breaks the mediums circle and crashes to the floor presumably dead. From here, the plot-line begins to fracture.

  • Bob, played by Italian horror veteran Giovani Lombardo Radice, wanders the streets in a blistering wind. He seeks shelter in an abandoned home to find the rotting worm-ridden corpse of a young child.
  • Newspaper reporter, Peter Bell (Christopher George), heads to Theresa’s apartment looking for a story.
  • A handful of men enjoy drinks at a local watering hole in Dunwich called Junie’s Lounge when suddenly a mirror shatters and a giant crack opens in the wall.
  • Across town, a psychiatrist named Gerry (Carlo De Mejo) consults with his patient Emily when she suddenly becomes stricken with fear. Likewise, Gerry’s cat lashes out and claws her badly.

Just after Fulci presents his portfolio of characters, Peter Bell gets things back on-track. In the nick of time, Peter Bell hears Mary Woodhouse from being buried alive when he hears her screams from the coffin. He and Mary go to Theresa to discuss the happenings. There Theresa implores Peter to go to Dunwich and close the gates of hell.

For the duration of the film, Lucio Fulci spends an inordinate amount of time trying to weave these disconnected non-sequiturs into a single narrative. Fulci struggles to paint a consistent narrative and unfortunately this detracts from the overall quality of City of the Living Dead.

City of the Living Dead - The cinematography of Sergio Salvati
A simple but effect shot framing technique by Sergio Salvati

Production Quality

Despite the choppy narrative and pacing problems, City of the Living Dead offers quit a bit in several key technical areas. Frequent collaborator Sergio Salvati serves as the the head of photography. He uses the camera to create tension and make the viewers uncomfortable. Salvati excels in making the most of the many indoor shots with intelligent framing and dynamic pans and zooms. Shots from inside of Mary Woodhouse’s coffin are both claustrophobic and harrowing.

Music composer Fabrio Frizzi also frequently collaborates with Lucio Fulci. Frizzi also created the awesome soundtrack for Zombie. Frizzi takes a similar approach with City of the Living Dead  in that foundation of the films soundtrack is a repetitive and driving dirge that invokes thoughts of despair and impending doom. Drums thump like a heartbeat beneath dissonant stabs of piano chords and rolling synthesizer pads. Fabrio Frizzi’s work here isn’t rocket science. Nor does it show the flamboyance of composers like Claudio Simonetti. However, Frizzi discharges his duties with expected competence.

They call him the Godfather of Gore

At this point in Lucio Fulci’s storied career, he had just begun to showcase extreme gore and violence in his films. Anyone that has seen Zombie squirms at the thought of traumatic eye injuries. Fulci ups the game in City of the Living Dead with several disgusting scenes. Most famously, this film features the “gut purge”. Upon seeing the apparition of father Thomas, a woman begins to bleed profusely from the eyes. She proceeds to slowly regurgitate her own intestines. The visuals are bad enough, but the scene thoroughly disgusts when the audience realizes that what she is puking are real calve entrails.

Bob, distraught and destitute succumbs to one of the most excessive examples of helicopter parenting gone bad. While hiding in a garage, he encounters a young woman that wants to smoke a joint with him. Her father bursts into the room and accuses Bob of trying to seduce his daughter. Instead of giving Bob a stern talking to, her father chooses instead to terminally lobotomize Bob with an industrial table drill. The scene is laughably graphic, and completely over the top. Gentlemen, never underestimate the wrath of an over-protective father.

If the gore doesn’t make you squirm, let it be known that Fulci supplies enough maggots and worms to gag a billy goat.

City of the Living Dead - The execution of Bob
The drilling special effects look fantastic as one can clearly see Giovani Lombardo Radice’s living head making contact with the drill

City of the Living Dead – Final Words

City of the Living Dead offers a bit of a mixed bag. It certainly suffers from a lot of scripting and narrative problems. To be honest, it’s attempt at a cliff-hanger ending falls a bit flat. However, when it comes to pure technical execution, City of the Living Dead excels on many levels.

In many cases, city of the Living Dead divulges a confusing mess of lightly inter-tangled plots lines. While not well conceived, Lucio Fulci executes his uneven vision extremely well. Certainly, some will criticize this film for its many weaknesses; however, I suspect that the average horror fan will find something to like in this one. Sergio Silvati provides technically brilliant camera-work and Fabrio Frizzi does what Fabrio Frizzi does best. As disjointed as Lucio Fulci’s vision is, it’s still a wild descent into gore-laden madness.

City of the Living Dead - Fulci uses living maggots for this scene
Is it just me, or is Lucio Fulci the only guy on earth that would funnel living maggots through an industrial fan?

The special effects in this film border on the fantastic. Leave it to Italian cinema to spare no expense shoving 100 lbs of writhing maggots through an industrial fan to make a shot. Never underestimate a director so maniacal that he would have onE of his female actresses fill her mouth full of calves innards to make the scene work. Finally, Bob’s demise at the hands of a over-zealous father appears extremely authentic as a drill bit spins freely through both sides of Bob’s face.

Lucio Fulci’s first entry into the “Gate of Hell Trilogy” isn’t perfect, but when did that ever stop horror fans from enjoying something? Filmgoers looking for an Academy Award winning experience will be sorely disappointed, but most horror fans will get some kind of kick out of City of the Loving Dead. The good news is that “The Gates of Hell Trilogy” only gets better from here.

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