City Of The Living Dead directed by Lucio Fulci
The second installment of Lucio Fulci’s so-called Zombie Quartet — coming after 1979’s Zombie and preceding 1981’s The Beyond and The House By the Cemetery — City of the Living Dead (1980) finds the Italian director near the very top of his form, confounding his audience with borderline senseless plots and repulsing viewers with an array of awesome gross-out effects.
In this one, a priest named Father Thomas (Fabrizio Jovine) hangs himself, for reasons never explained, in the cemetery of small-town Dunwich, Massachusetts (an homage here to the fictional town created by the great H.P. Lovecraft; the picture would more accurately be entitled Village of the Living Dead). This event, besides somehow opening the gates of Hell and allowing the dead to rise, is seen from NYC by the psychic Mary Woodhouse (an homage, perhaps, to Rosemary’s Baby‘s Rosemary Woodhouse?), played by the beautiful English actress Catriona MacColl, who would go on to star in parts 2 & 3 of Fulci’s quartet. Mary collapses, is presumed dead, and is subsequently buried alive (in a sequence that perhaps influenced Quentin Tarantino when making Kill Bill), only to be mercifully rescued by a journalist named Peter Bell (Christopher George, whose work I had recently enjoyed in 1976’s Grizzly). The two travel to Dunwich to somehow shut those darn gates, and are assisted there by the town’s therapist (Carlo De Mejo) and his neurotic patient (Janet Agren). But can they shut those gates before All Saints Day, only two days hence, when the undead spam will really hit the proverbial fan?
Anyway, if this unlikely plot sounds far-fetched on paper, trust me that it comes across as even loopier on screen. City of the Living Dead is anything but coherent, but this lack of coherence is more than made up for by the picture’s wonderfully creepy atmosphere, effective shocks and stunning gross-outs. To flabbergast and entertain his audience, Fulci throws in numerous shots of bleeding eyeballs, scalpings, rats (and rats eating freshly spilled brains), grotesque zombies, a blizzard of maggots, plus the film’s two most notorious/scandalous scenes: a young girl (played by Daniela Doria) vomiting up her intestines in delectable close-up (nice) and the town’s young sex pervert (Giovanni Lombardo Radice) getting an electric power drill in one cheek and out the other (sweet; a most impressive bit of FX work here). Fulci’s cohorts Gino De Rossi (special FX), Sergio Salvati (cinematography) and Fabio Frizzi (music) all turn in most impressive work, and would fortunately go on to collaborate with Fulci on those later films. I might also add that a repeat viewing resulted in a slightly more coherent experience for this viewer, although those final five minutes (and especially those final 10 seconds!) were still pretty mystifying.
As for City of the Living Dead‘s current incarnation on Blue Underground’s DVD, the viewer could not ask for anything better; the film looks gorgeous here, and if the number of extras doesn’t quite match those on Grindhouse Releasing’s DVD of The Beyond, well, they are still sufficient. In all, a mind-boggling, quease-inducing night at the movies. Only, I can’t help but wonder: If a priest’s suicide can open the gates of Hell itself, what the devil happens when a priest is guilty of sexual abuse? Possible fodder there, perhaps, for another Italian gross-out fest?