Sunday, May 23, 2010

Summer of Slash: City of the Living Dead (aka The Gates of Hell, aka Fear in the City of the Living Dead)

[This is a re-post of something I wrote back in October for the Italian Horror Blog-a-thon I hosted.  Today I am re-posting it because the invaluable and unmatchable horror blog Final Girl has selected this for her May entry for her Final Girl Film Club. And I figured I would use that as an excuse to post it again for my summer horror series.  Enjoy.]

City of the Living Dead is typical 80's Fulci as the plot is one nonsensical moment after another; however, in typical Italian horror fashion (and Fulci was one of the best) these nonsensical moments seem purposeful, they lead to ethereal, displacing scenes that are heavy on atmosphere and style and empty of all logic. That’s okay, though…we know that’s we get with post giallo Fulci – films that exist for the moment.

City of the Living Dead is the first of three in an unofficial trilogy Fulci dubbed “the gates of hell” trilogy (The Beyond follows and the series us wrapped up in The House by the Cemetery) – a trilogy that is more supernatural than it is about zombies walking around and munching on guts (which made Fulci famous with his notorious and gigantic grind house hit Zombi 2); more about atmosphere and making you feel uneasy than it is about things jumping out at you and scaring you. This era is what Fulci is best known for…and he was working at an incredibly high level at the time (1979-1982), churning out one spooky, atmospheric hit after another.

The plot is paper thin and therefore hard to summarize, but let’s give it a go: Father Thomas has hung himself and because of this the dead are descending upon a small New England town. If our heroes don’t get to Father Thomas’ tomb in time (before All Saints Day) then the dead will walk the earth. There’s your plot. When the ending does come you’ll be left scratching your head as it is one of the most bizarre and ambiguous I’ve ever seen…and that’s not a good thing. The ending just seems to come out of nowhere. The acting is as wooden as usual for these types of movies (one of the reasons for this was that English actors rarely got an English treatment of the script, so they either had to decipher it themselves or have someone translate for them), but it's not so bad that it distracts you from the memorable moments of the film.

Of course this film is infamous for more reasons than just its nonsensical plot and being the film that lead-in into what many consider Fulci’s masterpiece (The Beyond). There is of course the issue of the gore. Fulci had reinvented himself with the gut-munching classic Zombi 2 and probably felt that no plot and heaps of gore was what garnered him praise and notoriety, so why stray to far from that? It’s sad considering the film previous to Zombi 2, Murder to the Tune of 7 Black Notes, is his masterpiece; a film that is brilliant to look at and in its execution (and ability to make sense) of its intricate giallo storyline (which always has twists and turns that don’t always make sense). Fulci himself avowed that it was his favorite and most personal film, the one film that he spent the most time on, so of course it was met with no interest at all…go figure.

Back to the gore: there are eyes bleeding, brains being pulled out, the infamous drill scene, and the even more infamous “sheep guts” scene; these scenes of course caught the attention of the BBFC – which any horror fan knows as the group responsible for the well-known “video nasties” list – who thought the film too violent and forced the filmmakers to make sever cuts. The neutered American version entitled The Gates of Hell made its way to video stores across the country, but without a lot of the scenes that made the film so notorious among die hard horror fans. The brain removal scene had been cut altogether, the drill scene had to lose a few angles, and without question the BBFC made Fulci lose almost all of the meat (no pun intended) of the organ regurgitation scene. What was there left to see, then? Well any cut film is a bad film, so even though the film doesn’t really lose any of its style without those scenes, it definitely wasn’t the film Fulci intended to be seen (in fact in the American version – as he did in the butchered versions of The Beyond and The House by the Cemetery – he went by the very banal pseudonym Jerry Madison, a practice that was common for these Italian horror filmmakers).

The other famous moment in the film is when a weird little pervert named Bob who goes around town with a blow up doll is accused of the murders caused by the ghosts/zombies. The town doesn’t like him because of an incident involving a young girl years back; the father in fact still has it out for him. When the father finds Bob hiding out in his garage…well, let’s just say he puts Chuck Bronson to shame with how far he takes vigilante justice. The next scene – just like the spider death, acid to the face, and spike to the eye from The Beyond – takes about five minutes to happen as Fulci cranks up the “tension” (Fulci’s films do require a lot of patience has he doesn’t just jump into the gory scenes…he makes you wait for those big bad gory moments) of cutting back and forth between the kid and the crazed father putting the kids head on a saw horse and sloooooooowly pushing his head towards an industrial drill that he turned on. The death (when the drill finally goes through his head) is one of Fulci’s most memorable and impressive as far as effects go. I have supplied the moment for you in stills...enjoy:

The film is also infamous for some of the antics on the set. Fulci is a known misogynist, a man who had little to no regard for his female actors as he consistently asked them to horrible things for the sake of the film. None more horrible than what he had actress Daniela Doria do in City of the Living Dead. I’ve already made mention of the scene in question where Doria and her boyfriend (played by future Italian filmmaker Michele Soavi) are making out in a van at the town graveyard (what a bad idea!) when the ghost of Father Thomas pops up in front of the van and Doria’s character begins bleeding from the eyes and subsequently vomits up her insides. The story goes (from Fulci himself in an interview) that he had Doria actually swallow sheep entrails and then vomit them up – you can clearly see where it is Doria’s mouth spewing out the nastiness…this is followed by a prosthetic mouth where the rest of the guts are being shot out like a canon.

Yuck. My brother and I have a motto while watching these movies…we usually say something to the extent of “oh, Fulci.” He definitely was a disturbed, crazy old man who had no regard for the psyche of his young actresses.

It had been a while since I had seen this movie, and I have to say that to my surprise it holds up reasonably well. The atmosphere is wonderful as the small town is constantly drenched in fog, and you can tell Fulci is having fun with his set designs and all the spooky goodness his camera is able to capture. Fulci also employed longtime collaborator Fabio Frizzi to write the music, the result is a score that matches the film’s eerie mood (which was common with these Italian horror directors…the music is just as important as something like production design) with every synth beat and bass riff.

Yes, I’ve short changed the plot summary here and focused more on some of the infamous details of the film, but that’s because there’s really nothing to summarize. The film is more of a ghost story with teleporting, zombie like creatures than it is a straight zombie film (which some people try to pass it off as), and Fulci really strains to tie in a 4000 year old book into the story that has something to do with the strange goings on around the town (this is the same book, The Book of Eibon, that shows up in The Beyond); however, most of that is forgotten throughout the film because Fulci’s fantastic gore effects, or his ability to so consistently pull off spooky and unsettling scenes (for instance a scene where a woman, thought to be dead, is buried alive and struggles to get out of the coffin. Tarantino, in what isn’t his first or last homage to Fulci, would reference this in Kill Bill vol. 1) that makes us forget just what the hell it is we’re watching as we witness this small town slowly decaying.

In any other genre, even in normal horror films, all of this talk about nonsensical plots and unnecessarily ambiguous moments would be a knock against any film and its filmmaker, but the odd thing – and one of the reasons for my unabashed love of this subgenre – is that with Italian horror it just doesn’t matter; surrealism trumps all. It’s universally known to fans of the subgenre that you leave logic at the door and simply strap yourself in and drink up the rich atmosphere and amazing cinematography of an early 80’s Fulci film, and even though I remember not liking City of the Living Dead too much when I first saw it, I have to admit that I think it stands as one of the best examples of Fulci’s mastering of surrealist horror and shows the director at the height of his deranged creativity.

Extra Stills:


  1. Thanks for the plot synopsis, because I've watched the movie three times now and I don't think I ever paid attention to what the actual reason was for the narrative thrust of the movie was.

    Oh, those stills of the drill scene are making me laugh right now. I'm sure that's not the vibe Fulci was going for, but it's just so over the top that I can't help but chuckle.

    As you posit, the film is full of atmosphere (and well-shot, for that matter), albeit the atmosphere more leads to gore setpieces than than it does to any real feeling of terror or suspense. I felt that The Beyond tends to take a similar eerie atmosphere and, while keeping in the gore, adds a certain disjointed "what the hell is he going to do next" feeling that was more able to draw me into the film, thus making it superior.

  2. Yeah, I still don't think I get the plot. The ending, with the kid running towards the screen and then Fulci freezing on the image, is just a weird ending. I don't think there was any meaning behind it, I just think Fulci thought it would be cool to end his movie that way.

    It is probably the most hopeful of Fulci's supernatural movies, though. It does look great, too.

  3. Kevin, this has been great stuff so far! And as things are coming up to the big day, I will truly to have my piece ready for linkage tomorrow! Those crazy Italians!

  4. Dennis:

    Thanks! Crazy Italians, indeed! I look forward to your piece. I am short a piece so I may just have yours take center stage here tomorrow (or Staurday). I will of course link it back to your site. I'm glad you've been enjoying this. There are certainly more Italian horror films that I would love to talk about, but I just don't have the time...which means that I'm looking forward to doing this whole thing again next year as I didn't even get to cover some of my favorite Argento, or one of my personal favorites The House with Laughing Windows.

    Thanks again for wanting to contribute to this thing. It's been a fun two weeks.

  5. Great review. I have also seen this movie so many times and I enjoyed it as I love watching horror movie. But one thing that I want to share with you is that some portion of the movies confuses me.