Fright Fest: City of the Living Dead (1980)
Don’t you hate it when a zombie pulls your brain out the back of your head and squishes it between his fingers like Gak? Are you curious what that would look like? Give the first installment of Lucio Fulci’s Gates of Hell trilogy, City of the Living Dead, about sixty minutes of your time, and you can see for yourself.
The film opens with a séance, during which a psychic, Mary, envisions the suicide of a priest and the subsequent rise of the dead. She gets fairly riled, foams at the mouth, and dies. Only she’s not dead and is almost buried alive but for the intervention of a dashing reporter, Peter, who nearly brains her with a pickaxe in the process of removing her from the casket. It turns out that by committing suicide, the priest of her vision has opened a gateway to Hell in a town called Dunwich. Mary and Peter team up to find the town and close the gate before All Saints Day, when the dead will rise.
As our amateur Manhattan sleuths get ever closer to finding Dunwich, we get a menagerie of death scenes, most carried out by the spectral priest, who smothers his victims with wormy viscera or forces them to vomit up their own intestines with his cold stare. Gerry, a psychiatrist, and Sandra, his patient, are in Dunwich as these killings begin to pop up all over town. Gerry’s girlfriend is one of the victims, and the sheriff is convinced the culprit is local deviant, Bob. What they don’t know is that Bob is busy getting his head stuck into a drill press in what is probably the most gruesome (and seemingly pointless) death scene of the film.
Peter and Mary eventually find Dunwich and team up with Gerry and Sandra to destroy the undead priest (by stabbing him in the groin with a giant crucifix) and close the gate to Hell.
I tried to watch this once months ago, but quickly realized it was going to take more concentration than I was willing to put forth at the time. This film requires effort to keep the events in order, especially at the beginning when we are first meeting all the characters. The takeaway impression I got from COTLD was not so much that it was a tantalizing or thrilling ride, but an interesting and occasionally nightmarish experience. Its disjointed structure makes it difficult to point to a scene and say, “that works,” and “that doesn’t.” The film’s effect is cumulative. It’s about the sum of the parts, which work together to create a sort of dream. It’s not the type of movie you can follow while playing Words With Friends on your phone. You have to sit still and pay attention—and even then, a lot of it simply doesn’t make sense.
And then there’s the ending.
I rewound the ending twice before I went to Google for answers. And I found an answer, or at least a rumor. But first, the scene:
Our two surviving heroes, Gerry and Mary, have just emerged from the dead priest’s grave, and John-John, a young boy whose sister was killed during the film, is running toward them, happy they’re alive. The camera focuses on the boy as he gets closer. Then, inexplicably, Gerry and Mary begin to scream off camera and the picture crumbles to black.
Supposedly, this was not the original ending. No one seems to know what the lost ending entailed, but they say someone spilled coffee on the original negative. Fulci wanted a reshoot of the ending, which was destroyed in the accident, but it was going to cost an astronomical amount of money. So, he went with the ending I just described and…honestly, it fits the film’s already muddled narrative.
Don’t look for traditional zombies-on-parade with this one. It’s more of an occult, Lovecraftian piece, in which the potential zombie parade is the looming threat that drives the characters to solve the mystery and ultimately defeat the evil. City of the Living Dead was pretty good, overall, and I’m looking forward to watching the other films in the trilogy.
Dominic Stabile’s bizarre fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, and he is a regular contributor to Manor House Productions’ horror podcast, which produces haunting audio dramas. His bizarro-noir series, The Stone Series, is published through Sinister Grin Press. The first two books in the series, Stone Work and Stone Wall, are currently available. Book three, Stone Dead, is set to be released in late 2017 or early 2018. His Weird Western, “Full Moon in the West,” was released by Grinning Skull Press in 2016, and boasts a healthy serving of “black magic and hot lead.” Dominic runs the MoonLaser Reviews schlock film blog at dominicstabile.com, where they discuss “genre-busting films that are so bad they’re good.” You can head there for more information on Dominic’s books, or simply to say hi.
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