Friday, October 2, 2015

Gates Of Hell: City of the Living Dead (1980)

City of the Living Dead*
Director: Lucio Fulci
Starring: Catriona MacColl, Christopher George, Carlo de Mejo, Janet Agren, Antonella Interlenghi
Rating: Unrated

It's her... Mrs. Holden. This morning she was inside a coffin at the funeral home, and now she's here in my kitchen!

                   ~Mary Woodhouse

As we enter October, we're going to be doing a couple of "Trilogies in Theme" to celebrate horror's most celebrated month.  For those not familiar, these are a series of films that carry a common theme, but the characters and events aren't direct sequels to one another.  These are also films that were intended by their creator to be such a way.  I won't be including anything that spawns from fan theories or lumpings together.  Why?  Because those don't count at all in the grand scheme of things.  Nice thoughts, but no dice.  We'll first be focusing on The Gates Of Hell Trilogy from Italian horror auteur Lucio Fulci.  Each film deals with someone opening a gate to a hell dimension that begins seeping into our world.
Let's get this out here first, the 70s and 80s Italian horror films (And other genres) are very dividing among film fans, even horror fans.  You either get them or you don't.  One has to know "how" to watch them, and its just something that sort of has to come to you.  Its love or hate.  When I was younger I was not into them, but as I've gotten older I really enjoy them a lot.  I think if a particular sect of film has had the benefit of the Blu-ray format, its this one.  These films have turned out to be actually gorgeous productions with incredible visuals that you could never notice or appreciate on crummy beat up VHS and DVD transfers.  Its very hard to understand on the most important aspects of this entire vault of films if you're not able to view it correctly.  
Lucio Fulci had just broken through in the horror genre with his well received, bloody zombie opus, Zombi 2/Zombie/Zombie Flesh Eaters (One day we'll talk about this).  People wanted more from him and more zombies.  So, he made one of a different ilk, getting away from a voodoo inspired and more grounded/action take.  This time he crafted zombies around a more religious/witchcraft/supernatural horror.  These zombies were not only flesh mutilating undead, but they were also able to pop in and out of whereever they so pleased.  The make-up design on these zombies is also significantly different than his previous film.  They're much more goopy than before.  And you have to give him props for making zombies that are completely different entities.
The film is most notable for some of its legendary gore sequences.  Fulci himself was a man who place a focus on gore and visuals first, story and whatnot were secondary.  This film is gross, and its deliciously gross.  While it does have a repeated scalping, brain ripping effect happening three times, the other stuff is outstanding.  We get a man who has a drill gone right through his head.  Fulci isn't shy, he shows the whole thing, and shows it in close ups.  That door you fear and wonder that never opens with suspense, Lucio manages to open show you the grisly details.  Its not just blood and guts either, there is a gag worthy scene where our heroes are trapped in a room with maggots shooting at them furiously non-stop through a window.  For me, the centerpiece is when a women begins bleeding out her eyes and then vomits up her entire insides; intestines, stomach, liver...ALL OF IT.  Its absolutely disgusting, but man are those effects impressive and if you're grossing people out, this is terrific.
For a cheap production, the film has top notch visual.  The film is also one where Fulci plays with the camera and moves it around a little more than the others.  City boasts an incredibly spooky atmosphere and wonderfully framed shots to hit the noggin perfectly when trying to creep someone out.  The night time foggy streets of Dunwich sure make me want to stay in at night.  In the end, when our group heads down to the undergound tomb to close the gate, its an absolutely legendary looking frightfest down there of cobwebs, old stone structures, zombies and a deep cavern excavation-like feel.  Helping matter too, is the film's pretty complimentary score.  Its not as good as Zombie's was, but its more of that "wannabe Goblin" kind of music that tends to illuminate these vintage Italian horror films.
Screenwriting and crafting a sound, tight narrative was never Lucio Fulci's strong suit, and City of the Living Dead is no exception.  His stories are always relatively thin and sometimes things might not make much sense or go unexplained.  We'll go into "nightmare logic" in the next piece as I think it actually is fitting, used well and actually intentional there.  Here, some of this is a mix of poor translation, Fulci and a post production gaffe that had to have some last minute improvisation in the editing room.  Let's point at the biggest example; the ending doesn't work at all.  Yes, you could throw it up in the air to being ambiguous and letting the viewer figure it out in their own brains.  But, really the problem and struggle with that is there is very little in the film previous to nudge the viewer to come up with something to do so here.  One has to scrape the bottom to find something.  In truth though, the editor spill coffee on the film's negative and one of the things they weren't able to save from it was the ending of the movie.  Fulci and Co were rejected on a request for money to reshoot and they basically had to figure it out in post what to do with the ending.  
City of the Living Dead delivers on what you came to see in a Lucio Fulci film to begin with; Gore, Visuals and Chills.  The film does suffer from having a few to many ancillary characters, but as devil's advocate, those people do wind up getting some of the best death scenes.  Its one of the director's best when you look back at his horror output in the 1980s.  The film has a sense of eeriness, mystery, ghost and zombie fun all in one.  I must mention there's some good suspense in areas too as a woman buried alive in a coffin has her rescuer trying to break it open with a pick axe and almost hitting her in the head with it a couple times.  Some of Fulci's work may take a couple times or films to get on board with it, but I think this one excels at kind of being what it is on the first viewing and satisfactory to most.

NEXT TIME:  ...a film I'm very excited to write about!

*The films I'm covering in this trilogy have gone by many many different names, but I will be using the one that is generally accepted as THE name of the film in our current times.

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