Nov 3, 2013

City of the Living Dead

In my opinion (as well as many other people’s), the first film in Guido ‘Godfather of Gore’ Lucio Fulci’s unofficial pseudo-American Gothic ‘Gates of Hell’ trilogy, City of the Living Dead (1980) aka Paura nella città dei morti viventi aka The Gates of Hell aka Twilight of the Dead aka Fear in the City of the Living Dead, is also the worst and most intrinsically incoherent chapter in the maestro of the macabre's flesheater triptych, as if the director took a bunch of bad LSD and jumbled together a bunch of horrifically half-baked yet sometimes hypnotic horror clichés, ranging from Lovecraft to Romero, and threw in some admittedly grotesque and even gorgeous gore, thinking it would be enough ingredients to make for a filmable feature-length film. Indeed, City of the Living Dead is in many ways, Fulci at his most compulsively cliché and culturally mongrelized as the perfect work for the director’s detractors to criticize as a film that, not unlike Zombie (1979) aka Zombi 2, was shamelessly marketed to capitalize off of Dawn of the Dead (1979) Guido-style, so much so that United Film Distribution Company filed a cease and desist order against Motion Picture Marketing due to the film’s title (which was originally ‘Twilight of the Dead’ until legal problems changed that) and posters with a striking resemblance to the Romero flick, hence why the work was later re-titled The Gates of Hell for its release. Somewhat following in the thematic tradition of the director’s subversive Giallo Don't Torture a Duckling (1972) aka Non si sevizia un paperino, City of the Living Dead is a Catholic-themed work where pseudo-metaphysical movie madness is ushered in after a mentally perturbed priest commits suicide in a Gothic New England graveyard, thus unwittingly opening the gates of hell in the process, which includes an invasion from Übermensch zombies of supernatural strength that seem more powerful than Jesus Christ himself. Featuring people vomit out their innards in a manner that seems to be a mockery of the bleeding orifices associated with stigmata of traditional Roman Catholic iconography, City of the Living Dead is clearly the work of a hostilely heretical man who is the closest thing to a genuine anti-pope of the horror genre, as a man reared in Catholicism who utilized the religion's most stereotypical traditions against itself, assumedly reserving a spot in hell for himself in the process, or at least one would hope. Featuring endless bucket loads of creepy crawling maggots and gushing guts, more fog and frights than John Carpenter’s The Fog (1980), all-powerful and positively pernicious zombies that make Romero’s zombies seem like retarded road kill, and enough misogyny to act as the nemesis of Romero’s 'female power' pseudo-feminist flesheater flick Day of the Dead (1985), City of the Living Dead, even in all its nonsensical glory is still, when everything is said and done, a must-see flick for zombiephiles as one of Fulci’s more interesting and flagrantly fucked celluloid abortions. 

 A Catholic priest named Father William Thomas (Fabrizio Jovine), whose named should probably be Padre Guido as he looks like a super Sicilian wop, makes the horribly heretical mistake of committing suicide by hanging himself in a foreboding and fog-covered graveyard in the Lovecraft-inspired area of Dunwich, New England, as the holy man's act of unholy self-slaughter somehow causes the gates of hell to open up thus causing all hell to break loose, including the rising of undead, perpetually rotting corpses. Meanwhile, a pretty New York psychic named Mary Woodhouse (Catriona MacColl) ostensibly dies of fright during a multicultural séance (one of the psychics is a black drug dealer) after having a vision of Father Thomas’ untimely suicide, or so everyone assumes. Luckily, a less than handsome and hardly youthful investigative reporter named Peter Bell (Christopher George) gets nosy and happens to go by Mary’s grave as she screams right before she is buried six feet under (the undertakers are too lazy to completely bury her that day!) and he saves her from suffocating to death in just the knick of time, ironically almost killing her in the process while breaking the coffin open. Naturally, Peter and Mary unite and eventually realize that everything that has happened was prophesied in the Book of Enoch. No longer holy nor human but super sinisterly Svengali-like in his decidedly demonic and deadly wickedness, Father Thomas is now a sort of all-powerful zombie Führer who can make hot girls barf out their guts and compel cruddy corpses to turn into supernatural flesheaters with quasi-cosmic powers that transcend both time and space. Meanwhile, a young and seemingly normal chick named Emily Robbins (Antonella Interlenghi ) goes to hang out with a young degenerate named Bob (Giovanni Lombardo Radice)—a fiercely fucked fellow who has a peculiar propensity for fondling and fucking anatomically correct blowup dolls—but she is soon attacked and killed by zombie overlord Father Thomas, who also kills a young couple on a date shortly after, causing a little lady to barf out her intestines and rip her boyfriend brains out in a manner that makes the back of his head seem like it had a date with a shotgun instead of his girlfriend. Not long after, in what is arguably the most infamous scene of City of the Living Dead, burnout blowup-doll-fucker Bob has his brain drilled in from temple-to-temple by a girl’s father he was screwing around with who has decided to take matters in his own hands and has quite wrongly assumed the pathetic pervert is responsible for all the recent deaths in Dunwich. Eventually, Mary and Peter hook up with another couple, psychiatrist Jerry (Carlo De Mejo) and his patient Sandra (Janet Agren), as the would-be-fierce but ultimately feeble foursome hopes to close the portal to Hell before All Saints Day, or else the world will plunge into total darkness and Satanic supernatural flesheaters will consume the earth. In the end, only Gerry and Mary survive and City of the Living Dead concludes in a ridiculous manner after a young boy named John-John Robbins (Luca Venantini)—the prepubescent little brother of Father Thomas' victim Emily Robbins—runs to the survivors, only for the image of the boy to pause and shatter. Apparently, John-John turns into a zombie, or at least that is what director Fulci said, stating of the ambiguous ending, which was originally supposed to be happy (with the little boy merely reuniting with the two adult heroes), that it was the film editor’s idea. Anyway, whoever’s idea it was, it was a half ass one that screams 'hatchet job.'

 Indeed, compared to the ominously otherworldly conclusions of the other two films in Fulci’s Gates of Hell trilogy—The Beyond (1981) and The House by the Cemetery (1981)—City of the Living Dead seems like it ends in a manner where funding for the film ran out and the director was just forced to tack something on the end in a decidedly desperate attempt to get it released. Indubitably, the weakest and most lackluster chapter of the Gates of Hell trilogy, City of the Living Dead is only saved from being a total filmic failure due to its superlatively sadistic gore and unhinged ultra-violence, oftentimes foreboding atmosphere, and nonchalant misogyny. Indeed, aside from depicting most women as empty ciphers, City of the Living Dead also features great pseudo-Freudian dialogue like, “You’re only nurturing a pet neurosis…Like 70% of the female population of this country!,” which, it should be noted, is stated by one woman to another as if that is actually how members of the fairer sex speak to one another! Ultimately, City of the Living Dead is a compulsively confused and innately incoherent work where certain individual parts—mainly the grotesque gore scenes—are greater than the whole, thus making it comparable to two nice tits and an ass without a head. Alluding to two of America’s greatest and darkest minds of horror literature, Edgar Allan Poe and especially H.P. Lovecraft, City of the Living Dead, not unlike the other two chapters of the Gates of Hell trilogy, is a curiously conspicuous celluloid cultural mongrel that almost seems to go out of it way to reveal its grand goombah origins as a work intrinsically ill-equipped with superlatively swarthy actors, brazenly bad dubbing, reckless wop Catholic themes and imagery, and American cultural clichés, including random references to the Salem witch trials. Still, like any Fulci flick from the 1970s and early 1980s, City of the Living Dead still belongs to the celluloid aristocracy of both Guido exploitation cinema and zombie cinema in general. Intrinsically irrational to its corpse-ridden core due to its erratic editing, nonsensical storyline, totally superficial and shallow characters, and castrated conclusion, City of the Living Dead only stands out today as a somewhat singular work mainly due to its aesthetic pleasing hatred for the human body via its venomously extravagant depictions of violent deaths as a cinematic work that makes aberrant art out of a woman literally regurgitating her intestines out. Apparently, inspiring a young kraut to hang himself after it was released in Deutschland under the title of ‘A Zombie Hanged on a Bell Rope’ (the film has since been banned in Germany for over 20 years), City of the Living Dead is macabre movie misanthropy at its most visceral and philistinic, which is something I can respect more than than feminist flesheater-killers à la Romero's Day of the Dead.

-Ty E

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