UPDATE! Back when Cinema Suicide was new, like literally a couple of months old, I wrote about this movie on a slow day at work and somehow, while I was still finding my critical movie writer legs, I managed to turn out what I consider to be one of the best of my early reviews. Now I’m bringing it back especially for Stacie Ponder’s wicked sweet Final Girl film club.
Listen. I was born in Salem, Massachussetts. It’s still there. As a matter of fact, I was down there not too long ago. Mr. Fulci seems to be a little confused, though. In this movie it is said that the town of Dunwich was built on the ruins of old Salem. If you want to get technical, Lovecraft intended Arkham to be his fictional Salem replacement and Dunwich a nearby town. How was Fulci to know? I have spent most of my life here in New England, Fulci was in Italy. Maybe I’m looking too deep into it.
I’ve always had a really weird relationship with Fulci movies. I was completely obsessed when I first discovered them but something always nagged at me while watching them. Where are the stories? Excessive, disgusting gore scenes are great but I always felt like he made these movies up as he went along. Fulci wasn’t a bad filmmaker, either. It would take some time for me to address his non-horror movies, but I always legitimately enjoyed his westerns and I think Contraband is the best movie he ever made. It just so happens that he’s best known for his stream of consciousness gore movies. Like this one.
In Dunwich, a priest, Father Thomas, hangs himself for some reason. Then, for some reason, the dead start to rise. Back in the city, a group of occultists are holding a seance when medium, Mary Woodhouse, witnesses the suicide which, for some reason, causes her to die. For some reason, during the police investigation of Mary’s death, flames and roars erupt from the floor. The head occultist refers to “the book of enoch”, some kind of occult tome written four thousand years ago. Back in Dunwich, everything is going haywire. Mirrors break and foundations crack. Bob, the local pervert/village idiot attempts to have his way with a blow-up doll when he looks on the floor and sees a horribly decomposed body covered with worms. Meanwhile, a local girl, Emily, tries to hang with Bob but after he flees in terror, she is assulted by the now undead Father Thomas who kills her by jamming a handful of mud and worms in her face. Back in New York, journalist Peter Bell is investing Mary’s strange death by visiting the cemetery. She wakes up in her coffin, partially buried and Peter, who overhears her screaming, breaks her out with a pick axe. She explains that the suicide of the priest opened the gates of hell and if they don’t close them by Halloween, it’s the end of humanity. So they have a few days to find Dunwich, a fully populated town that isn’t marked on any map and somehow close the gate before it’s too late. In the meantime, Father Thomas and his assembling gang of zombies raise hell in Dunwich and all manner of nastiness takes place. The only problem is that none of this makes any god damn sense.
I’m sure many of you visiting this site are already familiar with Lucio Fulci. The man is a horror movie legend. You know what to expect going into one of his movies. It’s going to be a parade of nonsense punctuated by scenes of extreme graphic violence. City of the Living Dead delivers in both aspects and contains some of his most notorious kill scenes. Chief among them is Daniela Doria’s sudden regurgitation of her intestinal track. This scene is iconic. The helpless look of her bleeding eyes and the beginning of her intestines poking out her mouth has graced all promotional material for this movie, t-shirts, death metal album covers, you name it. Second to that would be the fate of John Morghen as he lays there dead, head imapled on the giant bit of an industrial grade power drill. These are as recognizable as the zombie eye splinter from Zombie and the little girl face blast from The Beyond. These imaginative means of demise are the reason fans flocked to Fulci. Italian horror was always so heavily stylized, but few directors ever stood above the pack in terms of how they presented the violence. Guys like Umberto Lenzi and Ruggero Deodato were as nasty as Fulci and Argento, but they never took these artistic approaches to splatter.
Reviewing the plot and acting of a Fulci movie is almost futile. You’ll lose your mind trying to assess the qualities that make most movies watchable. Fulci had a stable of actors and acresses that he called upon frequently but rarely because of their acting talent. It always seemed to me that he cast certain people again and again because of how good they looked as he killed them on screen. That said, the acting in City of the Living Dead is atrocious. Then again, it’s hard to act natural with the script you’ve been handed. Thankfully, for Fulci, his fans never came out for the stories and for us, it’s great that he could come up with such incredibly awful ways to die. Aside from the two flagship kill scenes in this movie there is an assortment of nastiness. Sometimes silly, such as a handful of worms and mud but mostly grotesque, such as two scenes that result in the victims’ brains being torn out through the top of their skulls by hand.
The thing about Fulci that allows fans to get past the shoddy storytelling is the ability to realize morbid imagery. The script serves as a cheap method of getting from shock to the next. While City of the Living Dead is downright silly in parts, it occasionally stops to serve you something that will either gross you out or freak you out. The latter refers here to the scene where Mary Woodhouse wakes up to find herself buried alive. The full potential of the scene is slightly ruined by the apathetic grounds keepers of the cemetery as they throw a few shovels of dirt on her coffin and then call it a day, but Mary doesn’t realize this and her fear is real. I don’t know about you, but the very thought of this situation, no matter how astronomically unlikely, is still fucked up. Chrisopher George’s heroic actions to free her with a pick add even more to the tension of the scene. It’s times like this in a Fulci movie where you forget howyou got there and allow yourself to be carried awayby the horror. Unfortunately, glimpses of Fulci’s ability in the horror genre are all you’ll ever get. The man was never given a half way decent script to work with.
Finally, Fulci had one more card up his sleeve. His secret weapon. This golden Fulci period of 1978 to 1982 is complimented by some of the most underrated horror scoring you can think of. Fulci’s collaborations with composer Fabio Frizzi turned out soundtracks that are easily on par with or better than some of Claudio Simonetti’s Goblin soundtracks. While Argento is always equated with Goblin, Fulci is always equated with Frizzi. Frizzi delivers synth driven scores without the posturing of the prog rock scene. It never dips into jazzy territory and with Frizzi’s actual film background, rather than Goblin’s prog rock background, he composes themes that remain consistent throughout the score. In City, the soundtrack is a pulsing mix of keyboard vocal settings and chirpy synths that are mixed very hot. While the film attempts to create an uncomfortable, supernatural setting, the score helps it get that much closer to the goal. Being a fan of cult movie soundtracks, this one ranks among some of my favorites.
Chances are, if you’re going into Fulci territory, you know what you’re getting into but if you’re just discovering Fulci for the first time, there are worse things you can do than start with City of the Living Dead. As a matter of fact, I should give it more credit to fledgling gore fans. If someone were to ask me which Fulci they should start with, I’d probably direct them to this movie before I pointed out The Beyond. It’s completely disgusting, has a few zombies for people who need that in their horror movie diet and features a killer soundtrack. Unfortunately, it marked the beginning of Fulci’s slide into mediocrity. Following City of the Living Dead, Fulci would direct New York Ripper and Manhattan Baby, both definitely worth watching, but neither of which live up to name he made for himself with Zombie, The Beyond and City of the Living Dead. It’s all downhill from here.