As we continue to promote and support this October’s Chiller and Mike Baronas’ Italian Invasion V, Phil reviews his favorite Fulci film. If you’re not like Phil and have a Blu-Ray player, order it now and get it signed by Giovanni Lombardo Radice at the Chiller show!
Reviewing Lucio Fulci’s films always presents a struggle. With most films, it’s easy: if a film is bad, most times it’s uniformly bad; if it’s really good, it’s usually really good as a whole. But Fulci is always tricky, as I end up judging his work by two standards, and come away with contrasting opinions. Visually, his films are beautiful. His cinematography challenges the eye, and is gorgeous to view. I’ve always felt this is why his legions of fans call him “the maestro.” But as much as film is a visual medium, it’s supposed to use its images to sell a story. On this note, Fulci completely fails. One need look no further than HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY’s incomprehensible excuse for a plot or story-free drivel of MANHATTAN BABY for proof that Fulci had no idea what “story” even meant. CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD is a little different, though. True, it champions atmosphere, but it’s about the most coherent plot Fulci ever put together, an interesting story that echoes Lovecraft and does some great things with zombies.
The movie starts with a scream, and never lets up. In a fog laden graveyard in fictional Dunwich, Massachusetts, a priest hangs himself. During a séance in Manhattan, psychic Mary Woodhouse sees his suicide in a vision, and falls dead herself. When newspaper reporter Peter Bell discovers that Mary may not be dead after all, he finds that the priest’s death has opened a gateway to Hell. If the door remains open by the coming of All Saints’ Day in 48 hours, Hell will come to Earth.
Thankfully, the plot flows from point to point with few distractions, all leading to Woodhouse, Bell and a therapist taking on the undead in an old cemetery. Even with a widespread cast of characters, the plot threads mostly tie in. Even when one doesn’t, I can justify it, as another example of odd goings-on in Dunwich (the pervert vs. his underage girlfriend’s father and a power tool has it’s own arc, but fits the plot’s overall logic). Dardano Sacchetti, who co-wrote one of Fulci’s more coherent affairs with ZOMBIE, was able to reel in the director’s stream-of-conscious style and deliver with a script that actually provides a story.
I have to compliment the structure, which builds itself around a number of high points, set pieces that on their own would be quite impressive, but also enhance the story. The best of these comes early, in a visually stunning scene where Bell visits Woodhouse’s tomb and has to break her out with a pickaxe. There’s a scene with raining maggots; a date gone very, very wrong; and of course that dreaded scene with the drill press. Many of the high points include the extreme gore for which the Italians are so beloved. But oddly, the gore seems out of place. In a film that relies so much on atmosphere and what it doesn’t show, going the over the top seems ill fitting. Fulci probably felt responsible to deliver creative deaths. The brain rip shows up more than a few times here; a few characters vomit their every internal organ; and some good impalement later on.
The connective tissue between these scenes allows us to get to know Woodhouse and Bell. It also gives the audience some insight into Dunwich; constant mention of how Dunwich is built on the old town of Salem connects the film to the witch trials of old, and posit the old “sins of the fathers revisited on the sons” concept. It also ties the film to Lovecraft and the whole concept of the end of mankind beginning in a small town in Massachusetts.
Fulci’s direction throughout is more restrained than usual, but it works. He uses some old school horror conventions, relying on rolling fog, off-camera screams and growls. His camera work is stunning as ever, and carries the mood well. His odd penchant on extreme close ups on characters’ eyes as they talk is offsetting, long before eyes start bleeding.
Fulci had a penchant for attacks on the eyes, and here he’s creative with it. Much has been made of the demise of Olga Karlatos in ZOMBIE, but I actually prefer the subtlety of it here. It’s as if the characters’ very view of the old world order is bleeding out, making way for a bloodstained world of zombies and demons.
I also enjoy the performances. Catriona MacColl was captivating in all three of her Fulci films, and here she shines brightest. Christopher George, of GRIZZLY and GRADUATION DAY fame, is incredibly entertaining in his Christopher George way. If you wanted a man’s man who knew how to bring angry in that era, he was your man.
Giovanni Lombardo Radice steals the show as Bob the pervert. He adds another bizarre character to his résumé the second he shows up with his blow up lover. The man was born to die in Italian exploitation horror, and here he goes out spectacularly. One thing to note: the film dubs child actor Luca Ventanini with an adult female’s voice. This was standard practice at the time for Italians, and there’s not a single example of it that doesn’t annoy me to no end.
My only real disappointment is with the film’s non-ending. Even in this film where narrative is a strong point, Fulci can’t resist trumping logic with imagery. As the boy runs toward the camera, to our surviving protagonists, a scream literally shatters the screen, and the movie falls to pieces. There are several explanations out there for the final shot, including Fulci’s, about something going wrong with the film processing. I can only conclude that, in true nihilist form, Fulci uses the shot to represent a world that has fallen to chaos, something he foreshadowed earlier with a shattering mirror. Unless I’m totally off base on that, it’s a nice touch. It’s certainly open to interpretation, yet also shatters the narrative he’d established so nicely until the final seconds.
The film also established itself under several names, including THE GATES OF HELL and FEAR IN THE CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD, which sounds even cooler in its native Italian. As with so many other Italian zombie flicks, it’s a proud member of the Horror Movie Relocation program.
Even those who overrate Fulci as a great director would be hard pressed to say he was a master of plot. But with CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD, he marries his beautiful visuals to a compelling story driven by interesting actors. It’s my favorite Fulci film, one I find myself satisfied to recommend on those two areas in his work that usually divide me.