City of the Living Dead

Directed by Lucio Fulci

Running time 93 minutes

Released 1980

Italy

            City of the Living Dead, or the Italian title which actually reads “Fear in the City of the Living Dead”, is an Italian horror film, the first in the Gates of Hell trilogy directed by gore legend Lucio Fulci and this one is actually a rather peculiar but decent film that certainly doesn’t fail to deliver on gore, visuals, and sound. Set in the fictional and H. P. Lovecraft inspired town of “Dunwich” Massachusetts, ‘City of the Living Dead’ is a bizarrely told, maggot filled zombie story that still resonates among die-hard horror fans today. But it is not the acting or the lame and confusing plot that continues to bring fans coming back for more. There is a reason Fulci has often been referred to as the “Godfather of Gore” and one can see why after viewing any number of his horror films, notably City of the Living Dead which sports such acts as a woman puking her intestines, another being smothered by maggots, and a man, who in a seemingly endless scene is painstakingly pushed towards a drill which is finally sent spinning through his head. If its gore you want, Fulci is there for you. The same cannot be said however, for his third film in the trilogy House by the Cemetery, but we will save that for another time.

            City of the Living Dead follows a weirdly gifted woman named Mary Woodward who is seemingly killed during a seance after she has a vision of a priest hanging himself in a cemetery. Before Mary can be buried alive a reporter named Peter hears her screams coming from inside her casket and breaks her free with a handy pickax conveniently left there by the gravediggers. It is also helpful that Mary’s family obviously chose not to have her embalmed and the gravediggers failed to finish burying her and left Mary lying in a shallow grave. Together, Peter and a somehow miraculously un-traumatized Mary travel to the town of Dunwich to close the gates of hell and stop a suicidal priest who’s running around scaring the shit out of everyone and turning people into zombies. Before they leave, an old monotone woman who follows the prophetic “Book of Enoch”, warns Mary that the gates must be closed before All Saint’s Day or things will get real on an apocalyptic level so …no pressure or anything, Mary.

            In creating the Gate of Hell trilogy, Fulci was inspired by the works of the unique and spooky H. P. Lovecraft particularly “The Dunwich Horror” first published in 1929 in an edition of Weird Tales magazine. Fulci decided to set City of the Living Dead in the same fictional town as Lovecraft as a sort of tribute to the writer of horror of which Fulci was obviously a fan. H. P. Lovecraft’s work has indeed manifested itself in the work of many writers, artists, and filmmakers and Fulci was no different. Like Lovecraft’s Dunwich, Fulci created his Dunwich as also having been settled by former residents of Salem, Massachusetts, a very real town famous for a series of witch trials that took place there in 1692.  However, the residents of Dunwich do not appear to know much about their town founders or where they came from when Emily mentions her disbelief that Dunwich was founded by “Salem witch burners”. I suppose one could argue that Emily was right considering no one was actually burned in Salem. Fulci however, was the master of gore not the master of historically accurate horror films -but did aspire to create a town, much like the one Lovecraft had with the the same feel that a haunted and disturbed people resided there. Since Fulci was all about imagery and atmosphere he performed rather well in that department. Fulci’s Dunwich comes with a foggy cemetery, the most distasteful mortuary/funeral home you’ve ever seen, and he used bright colors against otherwise abysmal tones which reminded me of old Hammer films. 

            Another interesting feature about Fulci’s City of the Living Dead are his zombies. Fulci’s zombies are not your typical undead in that they behave more like ghosts, disappearing, reappearing, and terrorizing their victims with maggots, broken windows, and walls that bleed rather than coming at them with an insatiable hunger for human flesh. These zombies stalk their victims, dropping maggots everywhere and driving them mad before finally murdering them in true zombie movie fashion. I assume that because we’re dealing with the dead here, and this is a movie directed by a man renowned for the incredibly gross explains the overuse of maggots.

            There was one death in City of the Living Dead that was especially awkward and that was the brutal murder of “Bob”, a troubled youth in the town of Dunwich that keeps seeing the apparition of Father Thomas. After Bob is caught hiding in the garage of a female friend, the girl’s father, Mr. Ross viciously murders Bob in what is arguably the most brutal death in the entire film. Sure, there’s the lady that bleeds through her eyeballs while simultaneously throwing up her entrails right before she partially rips her boyfriend’s head off. But the problem there is that while that’s definitely pretty bad, Bob wasn’t killed because Father Thomas came along and used his Christopher Lee stare (as he did with the bleeding eyeballs lady) but because he is wrongfully accused of the other murders in town. Instead of turning him over to the police, Mr. Ross decides to hold Bob down and slowly drill through his skull with a drilling lathe. Mr. Ross doesn’t give Bob a chance to explain nor does Bob make much of an attempt to defend himself in the one minute and seven seconds that it took Mr. Ross to shove him into a moving drill. Yeah, I went back and timed that and trust me, it feels like it takes much longer. I’m fairly certain bleeding eyeballs lady was dead by the time the baby veal started coming out of her mouth. With that being said, her death was arguably more merciful than poor Bob who was forced to stare down his doom -death by drilling lathe and by some random guy in town. Mr. Ross isn’t a zombie and he isn’t the main villain in the story. He’s just a murderous dick who apparently has no problem violently killing his daughter’s friends in his garage. 

            City of the Living Dead actually managed to muster some real intrigue here and there and some truly freaky visuals. Unfortunately, the film also possesses a poor and seemingly underdeveloped story line and character buildup that helped cast the film aside as another hokey horror movie made only for shock value. While the acting may not be Oscar worthy it isn’t altogether the worst I have ever seen but wasn’t exactly convincing either. Fulci’s films can be a bit much and may not be your particular idea of an entertaining movie ..and I certainly don’t recommend you eat anything while watching them. But should you find yourself curious about weird, old, and grotesque films (and if you’re still reading this I assume you are), Fulci and the world of Italian horror is an excellent place to begin.

Krista Funk

Managing editor: The Moratorium