The first installment in Lucio Fulci’s much-beloved Seven Doors of Death trilogy; City of the Living Dead may not be the best part of the franchise but it gets my vote for the weirdest.
Though it is often referred to as a “zombie movie”, I can’t really say that it qualifies for that subgenre. The living dead certainly do populate the movie, there’s no doubt about that, but they function more akin to ghosts than zombies. While they do shamble about and eat human flesh, they display very un-zombie-like supernatural powers, such as teleportation and the ability to make people puke their organs up on command. Although the lack of actual “zombies” may disappoint some, this is definitely a freaky and twisted horror flick that ranks among Fulci’s finest accomplishments.
City of the Living Dead
Witnessing the suicide of a priest (Fabrizio Jovine) at the Dunwich cemetery via séance, psychic Mary Woodhouse (Katriona MacColl) discovers that the event has flung open the gates of Hell. Along with journalist Peter Bell (Christopher George), the pair rush from New York to Dunwich with the intention of closing the gates before the arrival of All Saints Day renders them open for good. Meanwhile, the town of Dunwich gradually falls deeper and deeper into the pits of insanity, as flesh-gobbling specters of the recently deceased stalk the streets, using their powers to inflict horrible deaths upon random mortals.
Originally released in the United States as The Gates of Hell, City of the Living Dead disappointed me the first time I saw it and didn’t gain my full appreciation until my second viewing. Back in the day, I’d select video tapes from the horror section of Blockbusters with the oh-so discriminating process of “which cover box looks coolest”. This led to disaster more often than success, but at least I was expanding my horizons. The box for The Gates of Hell featured a decaying zombie head floating ominously over what is clearly New York City, thus implying all-out zombie carnage in the Big Apple. Imagine my surprise when I actually watched the thing.
My second impression was far more pleasant. I had pretty much forgotten everything I remembered about the flick other than the fact that the “zombies” are actually ghosts and all the action takes place in a small New England town which looks suspiciously European. With a better understanding of what I was getting myself into, Round Two was definitely a winning match for me.
As seems to be the “thing” with Italian horror in the 80s, City of the Living Dead is unapologetically surreal. The first thirty minutes make next to no sense, with several seemingly unrelated plotlines going on at once and none of them giving any clue as to why so much crazy s--t is happening. It isn’t until about the half hour mark that the direction is made clear and an actual coherent story structure begins to unfold. As Peter and Mary casually “speed” toward Dunwich (not all that concerned that they’re the only ones standing between harmony and apocalypse), we’re treated to sequences featuring several of the locals getting killed in all sorts of gruesome ways. A few of these plotlines and characters are downright superfluous, but they typically lead to gore of the highest caliber, so I’m willing to cut them some slack.
As far as the horror goes, Fulci comes out swinging with this first chapter of the trilogy. The scene in which the teenage girl pukes up her own entrails is so incredibly convincing you almost think you’re watching a Faces of Death flick (well, you know, the 50% of those movies which were real and not faked). Another sequence involving a power drill to the noggin is fairly par for the course by today’s standards, but it still delivers; and although it isn’t really “gory”, there’s a magnificent moment in which our heroes are hosed-down from head to toe with a never-ending stream of live maggots. Squirm-worthy, indeed.
City of the Living Dead is undoubtedly surreal, but there’s a difference between surrealism and absolute nonsense. Being random for the sake of being random really isn’t cool or clever, and I have to confess, Fulci employs this tactic a few too many times in this installment (or, well, his career in general). I can’t stand the ending, and by that I mean the final few seconds. It still seems completely awkward and tacked-on and always leaves a bad taste in my mouth whenever I watch the movie.
City of the Living Dead is likely my third favorite Fulci offering, trailing behind its sequel, The Beyond, and Zombie. While it occasionally teeters on the brink of being pointlessly weird, the positives by far outweigh the negatives.