Retro Review: Lucio Fulci’s Hilarious ‘City of the Living Dead’
Ah, Lucio Fulci. He’s the gift that keeps on giving (even though he’s dead). I know there are tons of Fulci aficionados who consider his “gates of hell” trilogy — City of the Living Dead, The Beyond and House by the Cemetery — to be masterpieces in this peculiar genre of film where mood overrides plot, but I enjoy them for the simple reason that they’re really funny.
I was first treated to City of the Living Dead in its U.S. incarnation as Gates of Hell in the early 1980s, back when such films would actually get a theatrical release in the States. In fact, I saw it at the (“Like, totally, Ohmegod!!!”) Sherman Oaks Galleria not long after the teen classic Fast Times at Ridgemont High was filmed there. Not exactly a grindhouse.
There was a time in the early- to mid-eighties when trashy movies could find a home in upscale theaters. Drive-ins were starting to die out, the home video revolution had yet to begin, and they just needed some damn product to show! I truly believe that Wes Craven’s classic Nightmare on Elm Street owes its epoch-making popularity to screenings in upscale houses.
But I digress. I caught City again at one of Quentin Tarantino’s Grindhouse shows at the New Beverly Cinema in 2007. That time, I was with a mob of like-minded, twisted gore fans who roared appreciatively throughout.
Just last week I revisited it on DVD and experienced all over again the magic, the majesty and the mystery that is…City of the Living Dead. If you have trouble following this synopsis, remember — you’re not alone.
It starts in a mellow Lovecraftian mood as a priest in the small New England town of Dunwich hangs himself in a fog-shrouded cemetery. His suicide is actually a human sacrifice that unlocks one of the seven gates of Hell which will allow the dead to rise up and roam the earth. Meanwhile, at a seance in Manhattan, medium Mary Woodhouse (Katriona MacColl) has a vision of the priest’s act and it seems to scare her literally to death.
The cops arrive on the scene and accuse the seance-goers of being on drugs. “What is it?” demands the hilariously gruff lieutenant. “Pot? Smack? Did you flush it down the taw-let?” His utterances are hilarious because the actor is an African-American man being dubbed by some white voiceover guy doing an impersonation of what he thinks an African-American man sounds like.
Theresa, the…eh…host of the seance, accuses him of being a ridiculous cartoon of a police officer or something similar. She’s played by Adelaide Aste, a strange-looking actress who delivers her lines with an an intensity that even bad dubbing can’t dull. And Fulci zooms in tight on her bizarre little eyes as she stares straight into the camera. It’s too much.
Anyhow, the investigation is interrupted by a ball of fire emerging mysteriously from the floor, going up through the ceiling and, thanks to film reversal, going back down again, accompanied by what sounds like a lion’s roar. The detective’s uniformed officers are terrified, but he snarls, “Who lives in the apartment downstairs?”, to which Theresa responds, “It’s been vacant for over 20 years.”
Wait a minute. An apartment in Manhattan…vacant? For 20 years? That requires too much of a suspension of belief.
Enter Peter Bell (Christopher George), a reporter who’s gotten wind of Mary’s mysterious death and has zoomed in for the scoop. Speaking of getting wind, if this film was in Smell-O-Vision, every time George appeared onscreen you’d get the unmistakable aroma of cigarettes, Vitalis and Jim Beam. Seriously, though, George seems to be having a good time with this role and makes a likeable presence.
He goes to the cemetery where Mary has already been planted in the ground but is still uncovered because the lazy gravediggers have already punched out for the afternoon. Leaning against a gravestone, Bell makes some notes (about what? the weather?) and starts to walk away, but he thinks he hears sounds coming from Mary’s plot.
Indeed he is. Thankfully, she wasn’t embalmed prior to burial, so she snaps back to life, screaming and trying to claw her way out of the coffin. Peter grabs a pickaxe and starts smashing it through the lid, barely missing her eyes and head.
An aside — Fulci had an eye festish. If he wasn’t ramming wooden spikes into them, he was smash-zooming into the actors’ terrified peepers.
Bell manages to rescue Mary (as opposed to decapitating her) and takes her back to the still-manic Theresa, who’d been studying up on Mary’s vision in her handy copy of the ancient book of Enoch and can now say with certainty that the hanging of the priest is the beginning of a prophecy and — unless the gate is closed by All Saints Day — “no dead body will be able to rest in peace again.” All this information is delivered in a hysterical voice.
Peter and Mary jump in the car and head for Dunwich, which is supposed to be in New England but at various times looks like the South, Brooklyn and even the island of Matul, where Fulci’s blockbuster splatterfest Zombie took place. Since most of it was shot in Georgia, that would explain the wandering locales. But nothing can explain the loud jungle noises that are heard on the soundtrack whenever anybody is walking around the dark, wind-blown streets at night.
There, the frequently killed Giovanni Lombardo Radice (aka John Morghen), who plays Bob, the town idiot, wanders aimlessly around the aforementioned Zombie sets until he goes into a house and finds a blow-up sex doll which automatically inflates. He smirks as he ponders what he’s going to do with it, but suddenly cries out in terror when he sees a decayed corpse lying next to it, covered in worms that are crunching really loudly. Of course, Fulci’s camera pans ever-so-lovingly over the slime and wriggling creatures for our maximum enjoyment. Keep in mind, none of this has anything to do with the plot thus far.
Later, a young couple is making out in their jeep when the dead priest appears, eerily illuminated in the headlights and staring at the girl until her eyes begin to bleed. Her boyfriend is played by Michele Soavi, who went on to become a director in his own right with films like Stage Fright and the magnificent Dellamorte Dellamore. Here, he can only stare in horror and make gagging noises as she vomits out her entire intestinal tract in the film’s most riotous scene.
At first, just the small intestines come slithering out as she makes “blehh, blehh” noises, but the sequence climaxes with gigantic organs speedily being ejected from the obvious dummy head. Then, a hand grabs the back of Soavi’s skull, ripping it open and squeezing out his brain. Now that’s one powerful grip.
The priest claims another soul by giving her a worm facial, and her grief-stricken father accuses Bob of the murder, exacting his revenge by forcing the poor sap down onto a drill press and ventilating his head. This killing is actually quite good, with effects work by Fulci fave Gianetto De Rossi, who’d done the eye-piercing in Zombie.
Yet another young girl, Emily (Antonella Interlenghi) is dispatched, and her family, consisting of two really old parents and a really young little brother named John-John (Luca Venantini), come to mourn her at the funeral home. In a nearby coffin is the body of an elderly neighbor who’d also recently handed in her dinner pail, and she’s wearing a hilarious wig that looks like it was skinned off a poodle’s ass. Remember her…she’ll be back.
Emily’s boyfriend is the town psychiatrist, Gerry, played by Carlo De Mejo, who was the real-life son of Suspiria‘s Alida Valli. How’s that for family horror connections? Still recovering from the shock of her tragic death, he gets a call from his extremely jittery patient, Sandra (Janet Agren), who begs him to hurry over to her house.
When he arrives, she shows him to the kitchen where — yep — Mrs. Poodle-Ass herself is lying on the floor. She doesn’t stay there for long, though. The body disappears and soon there are sounds coming from upstairs. Emily has a complete meltdown and pleads to Gerry, “I don’t want to see her again! Tell her to go!”, but he insists that they carefully search the house room by room as opposed to just getting the hell out of there.
Soon Gerry and Sandra team up with Mary and Peter, and they’re in somebody’s house trying to decide what to do, the window suddenly blows open and a never-ending stream of maggots come pouring in. Surprisingly, everyone just stands there, mouths closed and squinting to keep the little buggers from getting into their orifices. Didn’t it occur to anyone to leave the room — or at the very least turn around? Maybe one of the actors suggested it and Fulci said:
“NO! The maggoti must-a stick-a to you FACE!” (That’d make a great t-shirt.)
Next, they go to rescue John-John, whose annoying, worm-faced sister has killed their parents and plans to do the same to him. Unfortunately, Sandra falls victim to the brain-squeeze technique we’d seen demonstrated earlier, and even though it’s supposed to be Emily doing the squeezing, it’s clearly a man’s hand that’s shown.
Leaving John-John with a cop (who seems clearly annoyed when he says, “All right…I’ll take care of him”), the remaining three go to the cemetery and down into the crypt that the trouble-making priest had been buried in. You see, only by killing the priest will they be able to close the gates of Hell and…well…you know the drill.
At least Bob did — see what I did there?
Oh, did I mention that all the victims so far besides Emily have also risen from the dead and come to menace some old drunks at a roadhouse? Fulci builds the suspense in this scene to an unbearable degree by slow-w-w-ly panning the horror in the tipplers’ rheumy eyes before the zombies start consuming their well-marinated carcasses.
But the three protagonists finally make it to the crypt where Sandra awaits to put the squeeze on Peter’s brain. Gerry retaliates by stabbing her in the abdomen with a handy spear, causing more worms, maggots and guts to pour out. Sensing a theme here?
Finally, they locate the priest and dispatch him by stabbing him in the crotch with a large wooden cross, which causes all of the zombie helpers that have been shuffling around the crypt to burst into flames and rotate slowly as if they’re being cooked on a spit.
Gerry and Mary emerge, filthy but relieved, and the elated John-John comes racing toward them. At first they smile and get ready to embrace him, but suddenly Mary screams, and the final image of the kid running toward them in slow-motion shatters like a pane of glass. Classic “How the hell do we end this mess?” ending.
If you haven’t treated yourself to a screening of City of the Living Dead yet, you must immediately buy, rent or download it. Otherwise, no dead body will be able to rest in peace again.