Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Fright Said Dead

City of the Living Dead
(aka The Gates of Hell)
Italy 1980
Directed by Lucio Fulci
Arrow Films
Region 0

Right... regular readers of my blog, or at least recent ones, will know of my problematic relationship with one of the best loved maestro’s of Spaghetti Horror, Lucio Fulci. Sometimes he does the odd great film but mostly I find his work passable at best and dull at worst. Just lately, though, I treated myself to a double bill of Fulci movies - one horror movie (this one) and one giallo (The New York Ripper) and was suprised by just how much I enjoyed these two films. Here’s my review of the first one...

I remember when I was in my early teens, that the cinema I had to walk past to get to school always had some really great and lurid posters to check out and incite my young, schoolboy mind with visions of sex and death... stuff like The Playbirds and The Opening of Misty Beethoven and whatever bizarre, destined-to-be-classified-video-nasty gorefest the owners of the cinema thought would get in the most business (and I don’t think there’s any chance these cinemas would get away with displaying the majority of these posters today... there would be strong, parental outrage these days... the times, they are a changed). One of those posters that caught my attention on my way to thoughtlessly ruining my education was the heads popping up from the ground in a graveyard poster for Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead and, to be honest, I never in a million years would have guessed that this grubby looking zombie flick would ever, someday, be something I’d be watching myself.

But here I am so where to start...

Well, this movie is strong on atmosphere as created by camera movement and one of those incessant pulse drumbeat scores by Fabio Frizzi which horror movie makers use to hopefully get yourself to synch up subconsciously to your heartbeat so they can control your emotions (jumpiness) by speeding and slowing the rhythm down and the main theme in this is very much like Frizzi’s main them for another Fulci classic, Zombie Flesh Eaters (aka Zombi 2).

Like most Italian movies of this kind... it’s good that the movie is strong on atmosphere because frankly, as you will instantly see from the seance scene which opens the movie, the acting is pretty work-a-day but ultimately inappropriate and that curious mixture of dead-pan and “stagey” which makes for an unconvincing and mostly jarring experience for the viewer.

No matter... like I said, this movie has bags of atmosphere to go around and it’s probably just as well because the story is simplistic to say the least. The survivor of a seance and a newspaper reporter from New York go to the sleepy village of Dunwich (yeah, okay, so Fulci’s obviously an H. P. Lovecraft fan) to stop the priest who committed suicide by hanging himself at the start of the film (as seen in the seance) from opening the portal to Hell on All Saint’s Day. When they arrive at said village, however, the killing has already started and the people killed in humorous but often gruesome ways then become “living-dead” killer zombies with corpsified faces... even though they’re freshly dead and are suddenly looking a whole lot worse than they did when they were killed.

Ok... this is one of those turn-your-brain-off-and-drink-some-alcohol-and-just-let-the-movie-coast-by kind of affairs... but it’s a really good one if that’s the kind of passive spectator-sport kind of movie watching you might be up for one night, depending on what mood you’re in. It’s also got some laughable, probably unintentionally so, moments... and did I mention it also has some truly gruesome moments.

Ok... let me address those two qualities for you...

Remember when I reviewed Fulci’s The Black Cat and I said everything was going great guns atmosphere-wise until the cat in question suddenly winked out of existence from the shot and teleported somewhere else in the blink of an eye? Well this film certainly follows up on that little bizarre moment because in this film we have... hilariously teleporting zombies! Yep...if you’re a character in this movie-world then don’t worry about running away from these guys because if you do that and then suddenly look around the chances are they’ll just pop into existence behind you and squeeze the back of your head off and crush your brains in their fist (in one of the more unconvincing and quite overused gore effects in this movie). Apparently... said brain crushing effect at the back of your head will then... on your zombie resurrection.... cause you to have a scabbed up “zombie-face” so you can strike fear and terror into the hearts of the few remaining survivors of Dunwich while you’re practicing your magical teleporting powers.

Also... if you run a pub in Dunwich and the room starts to rumble and giant cracks suddenly appear in the wall and mirrors smash themselves... just straighten out the pictures and pour some more pints. After all... what’s the worst that can happen, right? Well the worst that can happen, apparently, is that you can have your brains squeezed out through the back of your head. So... nothing new there then.

And what about those gore effects... okay the brain squidging scenes are pretty laughable but that’s always been one of my arguments against censorship in this country. For example, almost every release of Zombie Flesh Eaters in this country have had the actual penetration moment of the notorious “eye gouged out with wooden splinter” sequence removed. Since the effect of this shot in the movie is blindingly unconvincing and, frankly, quite amateur... my argument has always been that what you imagine in your minds eye when you watch a censored version is far worse than what you actually see on an uncensored cut. But in City of the Living Dead there are two quite gruesome death/gore scenes and, although I’m not exactly a fan of gore for gore’s sake in movies, I have to admit that these two little sequences are pretty impressive.

In the first of these sequences a minor female character (like a lot of these films she is only in it for 5 minutes to become zombie fodder) is confronted through the window of her car by the hanged priest who uses his mental powers to make the girls eyes bleed profusely while she proceeds, in fairly lengthy detail, to retch up her own bloody internal organs. This is fine until you remember that this movie was made before CGI effects and the reason the internal organs look so real is because the poor actresses mouth was filled with animal intestines to retch out on command. Just another days work on a Fulci movie I guess.

And of course, all this eye bleeding and intestine vomiting causes her to reach around to her boyfriend’s head (as played by future director Michele Soavi who was working in the film crew at the time) and unconvincingly squeeze his brains out through the back of his head... oh, not that old chestnut again.

The other quite successful sequence of goriness is when the generic “I’m not like Lenny from Of Mice And Men but I’m, you know, slow and outcast because of my learning difficulties” guy gets drilled through the head by the father of the girl he’s hiding out with. No zombies involved here folks... no real threat either... the father just obviously thinks it’s the right thing to do... “Hey... talk to my daughter, get your head drilled!” Yeah... I guess those are easy rules to learn. Thing is though, apart from the actual act of fast spinning but slow and protracted, drill going clean through someone’s head effect itself... this sequence is actually quite masterfully directed and edited with all the emphasis and tension placed on the spinning drill coming towards camera. It really is almost Hitchcockian how Fulci can build the suspense and ratchet it up yet another notch merely by shifting the focus so that the fast spinning drill head suddenly comes into sharp contrast with the rest of the machinery. Really great stuff.

And then there’s the ending... and this is kind of a spoiler in that I shall hereby describe what happens in the ending... even though I don’t actually comprehend it. Evil is vanquished, the dead priest is further made even deader by being impaled Dracula-like by a strangely bearded protagonist... and the evil, or possibly just confused and misunderstood magic zombies, have all teleported away. Our two surviving heroes come out from a tomb and their friend, a little boy starts running towards them (and towards camera) to greet them. However, as our heroes cries of welcome are heard on the soundtrack to the running boy, they soon turn to shouts of “No. Keep away!” type sound bites and then the running boy gets hit by 80s movie freeze-frame hell as the credits roll... WHAT? What the heck? What’s all that about? What’s up with the little boy? He’s not a zombie and neither are the protagonists. If any of my readers know what the f*ck was going through Fulci’s mind in this scene, please share your knowledge with me so I can learn how the heck this film ended... because I have no idea what’s going on at this point.

Oh... and by the way... although I’m having a good time here making fun of some of this film's more entertaining qualities... I want you to know that I actually really enjoyed it and that, if you’re a fan of Fulci’s work then this is definitely one of his more watchable and entertaining efforts. And it does have an uneasy atmosphere all its own... even if it does have teleporting zombies in it.

The 30th Anniversary Arrow UK Region 0 DVD is both uncut and very impressive. Featuring a slip case, 4 variant covers, a big fold-out poster, a booklet, some postcard reproductions of the various posters used around the world and two discs with the second disc loaded with some really great extras, some of which have some amazing, animated cartoon title sequences based on various bits of the film (including the aforementioned gut-vomiting scene). This is definitely the edition to get and can be found in your local HMV and possibly other good retail outlets (if you can find any retail outlets other than HMV in Britain these days still standing during the recession). You might have to shop around online for the best price but it’s a real treat for both Fulci fans and fans of Spaghetti Horror in general.

You might want to shield the back of your head from any possible brain squeezing while you’re watching though.


  1. Man I watched about 1/3 of this movie during a 12-hour horror marathon last year. I was so sleepy and the "atmospheric" thing- while generally appropriate- led to me drifting in and out through most of the quiet running time. I don't think it's really my kind of movie, anyway, so I'm not broken up about it (and I made it through all the other 5 films!).

    I do remember the throwing-up-intestines scene, and the fact that it's animal intestines is completely disgusting. I hope that actress was well-compensated, jeez. I also remember a lot of maggots, just all the time with the maggots and bugs. And brains. Yeesh. Can't give you any insight into the ending though, sorry!

  2. Ha! yeah... I doubt very much said actress was in any way compensated for her ordeal. She's not exactly the star of the show. And I believe Fulci had a bit of a reputation of giving his actresses a... um... challenging time on set.

    Yeah, it's strange. i never would have bothered with something like this even ten years ago but I seem to be developing a taste (or appreciation in some form) for trash movies as I get older. plus these films have never really been accessible in a proper version on our little sleepy island before.

  3. Love it!