City of the Living Dead August 3, 2017
Carlo De Mejo
1 Hr., 32 Mins.
Devoted horror fans — particularly ones with a fondness for low-budgeters more in sync with schlock than real terror — paint Lucio Fulci as Italy’s own Herschell Gordon Lewis. The filmmaker, at his creative peak during the 1970s and early ‘80s, lives as something of a legend: He’s an incomparable gorehound with a knack for conjuring up ghoulish atmospherics to supplement all the exhibited blood and guts. Unlike Lewis, who generally assured his viewers that grimy special effects would be the main event, not anything by way of actual artistry, Fulci seemed interested in transporting
his viewers to his own version of a nightmare. Mutilations of the human body were pronounced, but so was freakish unintelligibility that turned many of his works into mazes of malevolence hard to escape.
My first foray into the cult of Fulci had me questioning the director’s reputation as one of horror’s more innovative filmmakers, though. Choosing his alleged
masterpiece, The Beyond (1981), as my introductory sampling sometime in late 2015, I was disappointed to find the much-lauded, frightening nonsensicality to be purely nonsensical, all praises of Fulci being a gifted artist of the horror genre generous. Though the detours into inventive kill-offs were charming — especially a scene that gleefully watched a tarantula eat a man’s face off — nothing could excuse the general insipidness of Fulci’s direction. All hope of somehow finding an underrated classic in The Beyond ended the moment I noticed a sign that read “Do Not Entry” rather than “Do Not Enter.”
But the film acting as the precursor to The Beyond, 1980’s City of the Living Dead, generally underrated in comparison to its successor, is the movie that exemplifies why so many horror fans hold Fulci in such high regard. Plenty of what made The Beyond deplorable are still intact (hazy storylines, atrocious dubbing, leaden acting, etc). But different is its aura of surprisingly genuine fear. In terms of immersive spine-tingles, it's arguable comparable to what Dario Argento did with
Suspiria (1977), the harsh pigmentation and arcane set design of the latter film replaced by graveyards and incessant faux fog in this one. And this time around, the Grand Guignol effects actually align with the plot and the overarching design, making bloody set pieces enhance the film’s output rather than stick out like sore thumbs.
City of the Living Dead is still not that a good movie — much of what makes the film enthralling seems accidental on Fulci’s part — but it's nonetheless an entertaining, sometimes commanding one, chocked full of unforgettable sights and sounds that make enough of an impression to excuse what City of the Living Dead does wrong. It circles around, if one can even call it a storyline, the exploration of the seemingly cursed town of Dunwich by an unlikely pair, would-be medium Mary Woodhouse (Catriona MacColl), buried alive at the beginning of the movie, and journalist Peter Bell (Christopher George), who saves her thanks to good timing. In a vision, Woodhouse watched in horror as a Catholic priest hanged himself on a branch in a Dunwich cemetery. This, of course, led her to slip into such a state of shock all around her thought she died.
But before she can really be buried is she rescued by Bell, to whom she recounts her story. Both shaken, they go to Woodhouse’s psychic friend Theresa (Adelaide Aste), who warns them that the vision was, in fact, a premonition. The priest’s death may have opened the gates of Hell. (Good for him.) Because horror-movie characters consistently take it upon themselves to do things that will probably get them killed, Woodhouse and Bell travel to Dunwich to find those said gates, despite having no game plan or really any idea involving how to shut them. Concerning ourselves with the thought processes of these characters is a misguided endeavor: They’re not characters, really, but rather placeholders that support what’s actually interesting in City of the Living Dead — the carnage, the sinister atmosphere — to seem more meaningful.
Since the premise is intriguing enough and since the gore effects are so spectacular, Fulci can get away with it. How many other films of the era are going to showcase an actress quite literally puking her guts out, an actor getting impaled in the head on a drilling lathe, a group of characters living through a maggot attack (think the climax of 1963’s The Birds and you’re basically there), and other ghastly sequences and all go through those motions pretty convincingly? City of the Living Dead isn’t much more than an excuse to highlight Fulci’s dexterity with scenery and for special effects artists to outdo themselves. But when the self-satisfaction is this infectious, does a feature’s lack of ambition matter? Watch Daniela Doria hurl for a minute straight and you might be surprised at how far such an image gets here. B