The experience of watching City of the Living Dead is not one I will soon forget. It has taught me a very important lesson: Chinese food for dinner, followed by late 70's/early 80's Italian horror, followed immediately by bed is a potentially deadly combination. At the very least this volatile concoction can cause some damage to a person's psyche. This evening I enjoyed a delightful dinner of Chinese food followed shortly thereafter by a dimming of lights and a press of play. The next 90-minutes provided a steady stream-of-consciousness flow of atmospheric horror, dread, and gore, then no sooner did the credits role, I shut everything down and went to bed. Rather, I tried to go to bed.
I lay there in the darkness trying to fall asleep, I need it or I am completely unable to function the next day. I was legitimately tired, I lay there tossing and turning under the sheets, then it happened. You know how your mind wanders when your senses are deprived? Mine kept wandering to the gore-iffic visions created by Fulci. Visions of melting faces, maggot storms, ripped out brains, and intestine vomit danced through my mind. In the quiet of night these images took on an entirely new level of realism. Watching them in the film was a disturbing experience as it is, but much of it, as convincing as it was, still had a certain "fakeness" to it.
My mind's eye breathed new life into the gore and the images really got under my skin disrupting my sleep process. So, while I do heartily recommend the movie, ensure you have sufficient unwind time following the viewing before attempting to sleep. Don't say I didn't warn you!
Beside making my night a waking nightmare, the movie is pretty darn good, too. Lucio Fulci made this as his horror follow-up to the hit Zombi 2 (aka Zombie), the film that reinvigorated his career and launched him along a career path that would make him a legend to horror fans around the world.
City of the Living Dead (aka The Gates of Hell) sees the budding auteur taking his stories into even more surreal and gore-filled realms. The film is also the first entry in his unofficial Death trilogy (followed by The Beyond and House by the Cemetery), a series of films linked by the common element of gates being opened to Hell, allowing the dead to return to the physical world.
As this film opens we get a sequence that takes us between Dunwich, where a priest is walking through a cemetery, and New York where a small group are conducting a seance after reading from the Book of Eibon. The psychic of the group, Mary (Fulci regular Catriona MacColl), sees the priest, watching as he proceeds to hang himself in the cemetery. This hanging results in the opening of the gates of Hell, which is never a good thing. The dead begin returning in Dunwich, proceeding to kill the townsfolk. Mary, having witnessed this during the seance, consults the Book of Eibon and discovers that they must fine this dead priest in order to stop the coming of the dead by All Saints Day, a mere three days away.
Mary, joined by reporter Peter Bell (Christopher George of Pieces), heads off for Dunwich in an attempt to stop the oncoming apocalypse. Once there, they team with a couple of survivors there, proceeding to dodge the dead and head into the catacombs beneath the local cemetery.
The story is not all that deep. The implications make it interesting, thinking about what the priest could have been into that led to the suicide opening of the gates, what other secrets may be held in that book that Mary reads from, it all makes the story more epic than it may actually be. On the other hand, who is watching this for deep and insightful storytelling? That is the appetizer, what horror fans want is the steak dinner that is the gore.
City of the Living Dead piles it on with women crying bloody tears as the rip the skull caps off the nearest victim, exposing the gray matter beneath. Not to mention the expulsion of guts from a woman's mouth, which people still discuss the reality of. Did Lucio actually make her swallow animal entrails only to regurgitate them? I think not, but a couple shots are rather convincing. Then there is the table drill to the face and the maggot storm.
Like most of the Fulci films I have seen the pacing is slow, but he punctuations of gore more than make up for that. Actually, the pacing may make the gore shots all the more effective. Fulci is great at building tension and atmosphere where the dread builds up inside you in anticipation of when the next shoe will drop.
The stories are surreal and nonsensical, the dialogue (usually dubbed due to the international casts all speaking their native languages) is nothing all that great, and the performances? Forget it, they are effective but usually far from anything that could be called "good."
City of the Living Dead builds a world without hope, where nothing is waiting for you but a gruesome death that you cannot escape. Faith in religion? Forget it, a priest started this mess, remember? Hope in an ancient book? Nope, you get a short time frame to stop it, but it is never enough time. This is all about the dead coming back, one way or another. The future is written and you are not going to like it.
Audio/Video. The video is about the best you can hope for on a film of this vintage. It is soft, fuzzy, and does not have a lot in the way of fine detail. That said, it is certainly watchable and definitely enjoyable. It is the sort of transfer that makes you question whether or not it will make it to Blu-ray, as I cannot believe it would be worth it.
As for the audio? The English dub is not all that great, it is muddy and suffers low volume. That said, I could always hear what was being said and I could also here the music and squishy sound effects. That is about as far as I can go with it. It does the job.
Extras. This Blue Underground release has a few extras on it, nothing terribly special.
- Trailer. The original trailer, in about as good a shape as the film proper.
- Still Gallery/Radio Spots. This runs less then one and a half minutes and has two radio spots, in nice clear audio, accompanied by some stills from the film.
- About Lucio Fulci. This is a text biography of the horror maestro.
Bottomline. This film succeeds on great effects work, a loose style of direction from Fulci, and an effective score by Fabio Frizzi. Oh yes, Catriona MacColl is also a welcome presence. Just try not to watch right before bed. It is a must have.