City of the Living Dead

Lucio Fulci is overrated. I’m sure to draw ire from many horror fans with that statement, but I stand by it. Zombie is a decent film, but its fans must acknowledge that it wouldn’t exist without Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. House by the Cemetery is nonsensical, plot free drivel. And if one listens to the debate about Zombi 3 and believes that he directed any part of it, that trashy effort should nullify any good grace he garners from fans of Zombie. Because I don’t appreciate Fulci, I was leery about watching another zombie effort of his, City of the Living Dead. Viewing it on its own merit, I’m glad I went in with an open mind, as it turned out to be a very well-made, atmospheric horror movie.

The movie starts with a scream, and never lets up. In a fog laden graveyard in Dunwich, Massachusetts, a priest hangs himself. In New York City, during a séance, psychic Mary Woodhouse sees his suicide in a vision, and falls dead herself. When a newspaper reporter 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.

Fulci’s direction is much more restrained here than in his other works. By using some old school horror conventions such as copious amounts of rolling fog, off-camera screams and growls, and sly camera work, he create a sense of dread that pervades the entire film. The dread develops a tension that does not let up throughout. His odd penchant on extreme close ups on characters’ eyes as they talk is offsetting, as is his constant shifting among several sets of characters. The concept of an end of days is chilling enough, but Fulci enhances it by drawing a tight focus on the townsfolk of the fictional Dunwich, a name he stole from H.P. Lovecraft. Constant mention of how Dunwich is built on the old town of Salem (which it’s not; that’s actually Danvers, Mass.) connect the film to the witch trials of old, and posit the old "sins of the fathers revisited on the sons" concept.

As a fan of gore, I was surprised that the death scenes didn’t work for me. In a film that relies so much on atmosphere in what it doesn’t show, the over the top gore seems ill fitting, as if it belongs in another movie. As for the deaths themselves, they’re creatively done. Though not nearly as innovative as his Italian counterpart Dario Argento, Fulci always finds fresh ways to kill people. The brain rip shows up more than a few times here; a few characters vomit their every internal organ; and there’s a nasty scene with a bench drill that I’m still trying to figure out how they did. Creepiest of all, though, are the bleeding eyes. Much has been made of Fulci’s penchant for eye trauma because of the demise of Olga Karlatos in Zombie, but the effect here is much more chilling. 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.

There was very little I didn’t like in City of the Living Dead. The performances are serviceable, and Catriona MacColl is particularly convincing as Mary, the psychic who must stop the end of the world. Christopher George, of Grizzly fame, is the only fault in the cast. He made a whole slew of movies in a career that lasted decades, and I’ll never understand how. What I take for flat, sometimes cheesy acting, others must see as solid performance. Then there’s the ending. Narrative was never one of Fulci’s strong points; many of his films focus more on imagery than any logical sequence of events. Despite dropping a few storylines before they reach their full arc, City of the Living Dead actually has a coherent narrative. Until the final scene. As a boy runs toward the camera, to our surviving protagonists, a scream literally shatters the screen, and the movie falls to pieces. 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.

Though I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, I did not enjoy having such a scant set of extras. Blue Underground usually treats each move it distributes like gold, but City of the Living Dead only gets a theatrical trailer, which runs too long at a full three minutes; radio spots played over a stills gallery; and a brief bio of Fulci. The radio spots reveal that this is another member of the Horror Movie Relocation program, as are so many other zombie movies; in the U.S. it bore the name The Gates of Hell. Fulci has a huge fan base, that deserves a much deeper package of extras.

Lucio Fulci is a radically over praised director. But even give my attitude, City of the Living Dead defied my expectations and numbers itself among the better zombie films in my massive catalogue. To Fulci fans and the uninitiated both, it’s worth a watch for its chilling atmosphere.

–Phil Fasso


  1. City of the Living Dead is an Italian horror film from director Lucio Fulci. It has numerous alternate titles, such as Gates of Hell. It is the first installment of the unofficial Gates of Hell trilogy which also includes The Beyond and The House by the Cemetery. Fulci makes an uncredited cameo as Dr. Joe Thompson in the film. After Father William Thomas hangs himself in a cemetery, the gates of hell are opened. Zombies with abilities of super strength, teleportation and levitation appear and start killing off people in town. Investigating reporter Peter Bell along with psychic Mary Woodhouse travel to Dunwich, New England, and from the Book of Enoch learn that they must close the portal to hell before All Saints Day, or the spirits of the dead will overtake the earth.
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