If you’ve paid any attention to my taste in horror you should have seen this coming. For those new here – “Hi, I’m Harry, and I like Italian horror, and Lucio Fulci in particular.” There’s no way I could’ve done thirteen days of horror without sneaking in some Italian horror, probably a few examples of it, and certainly at least two Lucio Fulci movies. See last year I watched The Beyond, which is widely considered Fulci’s best movie. It’s actually the middle film in an unofficial trilogy of like movies Lucio Fulci directed. The first of these films is none other than City of the Living Dead.
City of the Living Dead goes so far as to share a costar with The Beyond. Both films deal with a violent death opening a portal to terrible things (sacrificial magic has probably got to be the cornerstone of the Fulci universe). In The Beyond of course, it’s a portal to Hell, which, through the magic of meddling producers, started raising the dead. In City of the Living Dead, zombies are the key result of violent death. So it’s another Lucio Fulci film with zombies, which is never going to be a bad thing, Zombi 2 being the glorious standard-setting zombie movie it is. Fulci’s not one to repeat itself it seems, because City of the Living Dead’s rotting foot soldiers are entirely different from both Zombi 2 and The Beyond. They are, if anything, even more supernatural than Zombi 2 or The Beyond. In some ways they’re not quite zombies; they’re more like mystical apparitions of the deceased. Is there another zombie movie where the undead can teleport and kill people without physical contact?
City of the Living Dead starts with a dramatic séance scene. A group of woman, the youngest of whom is named Mary, sit in a circle and cast their minds to the astral winds. What they see is a recognizable grave marking the area as Dunwich. The grave, of course, sits in a graveyard. A tortured looking priest stalks through the graveyard. The witches doing the séance begin to grow concerned. The priest hangs himself in the cemetery, and beneath him the surfaces of the graves begin to crack and the dead begin to force their way out. The witches try to hold on to the terrifying vision, but Mary begins to quaver, and shake, and eventually collapses, dying of fright.
A local journalist is trying to find out information on her death, when things start to get weird. Mary, in a half buried coffin (union hours) wakes up. She’s not as dead as she seemed. She screams and claws at her coffin lid, eventually attracting the attention of the nearby journalist. She enlists his help shortly thereafter. The death of the priest has begun a transformation in Dunwich that ends with the small town becoming “the city of the living dead.” Even before the final stage in this process, the town will be plagued by one or two reanimated corpses.
This film, more than any other I’ve seen by Fulci, cements his reputation as “The Godfather of Gore.” This movie is bloody and macabre in a way that really holds up. The biggest set piece comes early on, allowing Fulci to hold the threat of it recurring over the viewer’s head. The hanged priest, teleporting from a nice hanging point to standing on the ground, stares down a girl in a car. First her eyes begin to bleed. Then her mouth begins to foam. Thick chunky blood begins to ooze out of her mouth. Then chunks of flesh come out. Then intestines. Then the rest of her internal organs. It’s the kind of scene that’s made a hundred times more effective by practical effects. The start is clearly the actress and some rubber tube or some-such thing (or actual sheep intestines according to one source), but eventually it’s a close-up on a bunch of real organs being pulled through a fake mouth. It’s so fleshy and grim. It’s so tangible, and no amount of CGI could’ve recreated it as effectively. This is just the highlight in a movie filled with drill injuries, zombies that peel chunks of brain out of their victim’s head, and even some stellar pyrotechnics.
The film starts with a séance gone wrong and ends with a rotting skeletal hanged priest being stabbed through the gut with a giant wooden cross and set on fire. Which is absolutely going to be my debut metal album cover, because how could it not be. Actually the true ending of the movie is a wee bit confusing. After effectively saving the day and reuniting with her surrogate son, Mary simply screams and the film crumbles away. It’s sudden and utterly devoid of context. Lucio Fulci’s other movies all have such excellent endings that I was surprised by how sloppy this was. Zombi 2 ends with the reveal that the whole world’s been overrun. The Beyond ends with the protagonists descending hand-in-hand into a Lovecraftian vision of hell. This is just a scream. The sudden reversal would seem to fit his MO, but this one is random and jarring. One random source on the internet has claimed it was a last minute shoot made when the studio refused to reshoot the intended finale. I can’t find anything to substantiate this, but it would certainly seem to fit. The ending has since been interpreted as an open-ended, suggestive affair, but there’s no doubt to me it’s in some way a compromised version of what was intended. No one writes something that ridiculous.
Other than the ending, the movie has basically everything you’d want from a Lucio Fulci movie. Kaleidoscopic and beautiful images mashed up with blunt brutal images. Virtuosic gore and guts. The scenes of the cobwebby corpses rising through the crypts are almost as wonderful as the conquistadors in Zombi 2, and the teleporting, hanged priest is a wonderful image. It may not be Lucio’s best movie as a whole, but it has some of his best gore yet, which is not something to discount.