To declare my love for Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead sets me up for an attack from two disparate camps. The first are die-hard fans of Italian Horror, who will no doubt spot my late arrival to their party right away; I know little of the genre, or of Fulci, so I fully expect some readers to sniff at my reasoning and find this review incredibly cute. The second group are fans of “serious cinema” who likely see “Living Dead” and “1980” in a review description and keep on scrolling. If they do stick around, it’s possible they’ll dismiss what I’m about to say as impossible: a decades-old low-budget zombie movie can’t be any good unless it was directed by George Romero, right?
Wrong. And I sincerely hope you’ll take the time to watch City of the Living Dead. It’s unlike any horror movie I’ve seen, and is full of cool narrative and filmmaking elements that modern movies could take cues from—horror or otherwise. Sure, there’s plenty to giggle at here. As with most movies of this kind, you have to set aside the poor dubbing the same way you must get used to reading subtitles on a foreign-language picture. This may take a bit longer than usual, because the Italian and British actors perform alongside Americans, meaning that sometimes the dialogue syncs up with the mouths and sometimes it doesn’t. The dialogue itself is also painfully corny in some places, as is the Telemundo-style hysterics that the female performers are prone to engaging in.
But faulting the tropes of this era of horror films is like blaming a black-and-white movie for not being in color. So let’s move on to the particulars. City of the Living Dead begins with a priest (Fabrizio Jovine) hanging himself in a Dunwich, Massachusetts graveyard. A New York psychic named Mary Woodhouse (Catriona Maccoll) has a vision of the act during a séance, in which the suicide opens up the Gates of Hell. Images of the dead rising to wreak havoc are so traumatizing that she instantly dies of fright. A couple days later, reporter Peter Bell (Christopher George) visits the cemetery where Mary is about to be interred. He has no luck getting information out of the gravediggers—who leave before filling in the hole—and as he walks away, Peter hears screaming coming from inside the coffin. He breaks Mary out and she implores him to travel to Dunwich with her to destroy the priest, who’s returned from the grave imbued with the powers of Satan.
Meanwhile, things aren’t going so well in Dunwich. Dust bowls swell up out of nowhere; guttural moans shake the earth and shatter mirrors; and, oh, yeah, the dead priest resurfaces and kills people. Predictably, City of the Living Dead develops along these parallel lines, eventually leading to a climactic showdown between the priest and his modest army of the undead, and Mary and Peter—who pick up a Dunwich psychiatrist named Gerry (Carlo De Mejo) along the way. But the movie has a great journey of discovery for people who think Fulci has just churned out a standard zombie flick.
When I turned the movie on, I knew nothing about it, save for the generic-looking poster featuring a green ghoul hovering over a city—and the fact that Fulci had directed Zombi the year before. Given that many believe Zombi to be a rip-off of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, I expected this to be more of the same. I was surprised to find a closer resemblance to Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot.
Working with co-writer Dardano Sacchetti, Fulci injects his story with a supernatural angle that defies convention. Most zombie movies—whether they acknowledge it or not—have an underlying theme of the dead returning to life as a precursor to judgment day (as with the famous Romero tagline, “When there’s no more room in Hell, the dead shall walk the Earth”). These inevitably turn into simple survival movies—numbers games where a small band of heroes locks themselves in a house/mall/underground cave and fends off slow-moving, stupid monsters. In City of the Living Dead, the zombies are still dumb, but they’re the puppet-agents of the evil priest, whose dark powers allow the creatures to teleport and play mind-games with their victims. In this way, the undead antagonists of Fulci’s movie are less like ambulatory corpses and more like the vampires of King’s iconic novel.
The King influence—speculating here—also shows up in the brief portraits we get of the Dunwich townsfolk. From the fat, paranoid good ol’ boys at the local bar to the misunderstood loner kid who gets framed for something and brutally punished by his friend’s overzealous dad, the story provides plenty of opportunity for the forces of Hell to influence peoples’ behavior; by the time the zombies show up, half of their work has already been done. I also liked the maggot-storm flourish, wherein our heroes are warned not to go any further by one of the nastiest and unintentionally hilarious uses of worms you’re likely to see.
The one thing City of the Living Dead has in common with other zombie movies is its creative use of gore. The famous head-drilling scene and the moment where a girl—under the hypnotic influence of the priest—bleeds from the eyes and then vomits out her internal organs in sequence are as spectacular as you’ve heard; if you’re not in the know, I suggest eating either way before or way after watching this movie. Fulci runs out of creative steam, though, as by the end we’ve been treated to about four zombie attacks involving brains being ripped out the back of peoples’ heads; he’s clearly not re-using the same shots, so I wonder why he chose repetition over invention.
He makes up for this, though, with his bleeding-eyes obsession; particularly in a scene involving Mary. Watching this on a high-definition monitor, I couldn’t figure out how the director achieved the effect of making Maccoll cry blood. Yes, there’s a cutaway that allows hints of red to appear near the rims of her eyes, but he holds on her long enough for us to see that droplets begin to form and then streak down her face, as if the actress had been fitted with microscopic squibs (or had become afflicted with ocular stigmata).
Regardless of how he achieved the gag, Fulci’s fixation on eyes is undeniable. There are so many close-ups of eyeballs and pairs of peepers that one wonders if the director’s intent was to parody soap operas and Spaghetti Westerns or to make sure the audience didn’t leave the theatre without knowing what a motif was. Whatever the case, the staring fetish works about half the time; when no one’s face is bleeding, we simply get a lot of confused quick-zooms to the eyes that sometimes, horrifically, lead to characters breaking the fourth wall.
Not all credit can be laid at Fulci’s feet. I’d say forty percent of the film’s effectiveness comes from Fabio Frizzi’s unsettling score and the bone-rattling percussions of the sound department. I’m neither a musician nor a musical expert, so I won’t embarrass myself by trying to explain why City of the Living Dead is such a compelling aural experience. I challenge you to watch it and not be creeped out; I also challenge you not to laugh at the music during the climax and finale—which is goofy from an audio and visual standpoint; the movie’s last ten minutes are bizarre beyond words, and I don’t mean that as a compliment.
This is my third foray into Italian Horror (following Dario Argento’s Suspiria and Fulci’s Zombi), and so far most of my fears and preconceptions have been proven false. I wasn’t above thinking that these older films would be dripping with cheese and have nothing to offer my understanding of movies. But similar to Sergio Leone’s re-vitalizing of the Western with his Man with No Name trilogy, the Italian horror auteurs doused the American formula in blood and grit, creating a new paradigm that begged to be embellished and improved upon. We’re thirty years out from City of the Living Dead, and I’m still waiting.
[Originally published @ Kicking the Seat on 02/13/11.]