City of the Living Dead: “Gratuitously cruel and inappropriately violent… nonsense and fun”
October is upon us once again and with Halloween lurching inexorably towards us, there is no better way to get into the spooky spirit than with a good old-fashioned schlocky horror B-movie. With that in mind, let us turn to face the ghastly visage of 1980’s City of the Living Dead, the first film in Lucio Fulci’s Gates of Hell trilogy.
“The soul that pines for eternity shall outspan death. You dweller of the twilight void come Dunwich” decries the town’s ominous fog-shrouded gravestone/town welcoming sign as the film begins, a sentiment underlined by the figure of Father Thomas (Fabrizio Jovine) hanging from a nearby tree. Turns out that the Lovecraftian town name isn’t just for show as Dunwich is built on top of the gates of Hell… gates that have been opened by the late priest’s suicide and which, if not closed before All Saints Day, will bring forth a legion of the living dead to our world.
Meanwhile, in New York, psychic Mary Woodhouse (Catriona MacColl) has a vision of these terrifying events and collapses, seemingly dead. However, she is rescued from being buried alive in her very obviously polystyrene coffin by reporter Peter Bell (Christopher George). Together they set off for Dunwich and after teaming up with psychiatrist Gerry (Carlo De Mejo), his patient Sandra (Janet Agren) and obligatory tagalong child John-John (Luca Venantini), attempt to close the gates and put an end to the invasion of the dead.
City of the Living Dead suffers from a lot of the quirks and flaws that are indicative of a b-movie. The little plot that’s there doesn’t make all that much sense (for example Dunwich is supposedly built on the ruins of Salem… a city that still very much exists), much of the action takes place on sets that could be toppled by a light breeze and the acting oscillates between hysterical screaming and bored deadpan. Anyone expecting an unsettling and complex thriller based on the film’s Lovecraftian references will be sorely disappointed.
Right, ok, that should be enough for the arty farty crowd. They’ve probably all left now to go check out an article on whether Walerian Borowczyk could take Alejandro Jodorowsky in a bare-knuckle fight or something like that. That means it’s just us weirdos left, so let’s get down to business.
If you’re a B-movie fan you know that most of the criticisms I just threw out are completely irrelevant to how enjoyable the film is. Heck, the shonky sets and ridiculous overacting and underacting are half the fun. No, there’s only one question on your lips about this film and that is “are there a number of gratuitously cruel and wholly inappropriately violent deaths?”.
The answer to that is a resounding yes. In fine splatter film tradition, City of the Living Dead is rife with violence (especially thanks to the vagueness of what the living dead can actually do). Internal organs are vomited out, drills are put through heads and brains are smushed so hard that your disgust will be slightly undercut by a craving for a big bowl of mashed potatoes. Each act of violence is a macabre thrill, graphically realised in gruesome glory thanks to some top-notch practical effects.
However, these scenes are still just blood-soaked and pus-encrusted jewels in a complete mess of a movie. While the low production values and bad acting can be charming, City of the Living Dead’s disjointed plot and lack of internal logic can be grating. These problems hit a crescendo during the film’s final act as events begin to flat-out contradict plot points from earlier on in the movie and happen without any real rhyme or reason. In addition to that, the action becomes incredibly repetitive, leading to an altogether lacklustre finale.
Ultimately City of the Living Dead is what it is, a trashy B-movie horror. It makes for entertaining viewing, but it certainly isn’t good by any stretch of the imagination and there isn’t really anything there to distinguish it from the rest of an already overstuffed genre. And now, much like the film itself, I don’t really have an idea for an ending for this review so I’ll just start screaming and cut to black.