Gorehounds rejoice as another unhallowed treasure is unearthed from the crypt of 80's excess! Lucio Fulci's City Of The Living Dead (aka Twilight Of The Dead) makes its way onto Blu-ray in two versions - a US release from Blue Underground and a UK edition from Arrow. This review is for the American release, and is region-coded accordingly.
Made during a halcyon period for horror fans, City Of The Living Dead was the start of Fulci's slew of supernatural/zombie crossovers, his “Dead” series. Whereas his seminal Zombie Flesheaters (or Zombi 2 as it was called in Italy) was a swift, and enormously successful cash-in on Gory George Romero's Dawn Of The Dead, City found the rascally little director attempting to evoke a dark and demented vein of surrealist diabolism that mingled Lovecraft and M. R. James with his own grungy, lung-rasping walking dead. His sledgehammer brutal and supremely horrific tale made only a gossamer-thin thread of sense, but revelled in enough rich, redolent atmosphere to make up for it.
Written mainly by Fulci (with frequent co-scribe Dardano Sacchetti lending a hand as well) and starring Catriona MacColl and Christopher George, City is the story of a fallen priest, Father William Thomas, whose act of suicide leads towards the prophesied opening of The Seven Gates Of Hell here on Earth. With three days in which to thwart the powers of darkness before All Saints Day, thereby stopping the dead from returning from the grave to devour us all, the psychic who glimpsed these terrible things (MacColl's Mary Woodhouse) and, erm, an opportunist reporter (George's Peter Bell), race to slam the those gates shut again. Cue pizza-faced zombies, the demonic manifestation of the priest, lots of spooky-weird goings-on, the requisite uber-violence and maggots ... lots of maggots.
It's Fulci's fulsome follow-on from the voodoo-hoodu zombies of Flesheaters' island of Matoul and the deadsters are here to stay, folks! So, basically abandon hope all ye who enter here!
Forget plot, performances, script or dialogue because none of those usual staples apply in the land of grungy Italian horror. City is more of a succession of bizarre and warped passages wrapped around the deliciously apocalyptic doom ordained by the ominous Book of Enoch and its sway over the denizens of the blighted town of Dunwich, Massachusetts, than a chiller that actually gathers clues and picks up momentum. Shades of John Carpenter's The Fog can be found in the prospect of the town's inhabitants - all descended, we are told, from the original Salem witch-hunters - being persecuted for the sins of their forefathers, as well as the strange occurrences that commence in the wake of the priest's hanging ... things like mirrors breaking, walls cracking open, bizarre flame-outs, unearthly groaning sounds etc. Oh, and the dead returning from the grave to torment the living.
Atmosphere smothers the film even if the story doesn't actually make much sense. The mist that gathers around the eerily deserted and seemingly time-lost Dunwich and the visual predominance of shadows, gloom and darkness entrench it in the gothic sensibility of a vintage Bava, or even, at a push, Val Lewton. Fulci, himself, would cite Jacques Tourneur as a template. The Beyond and House would take this element a little further, of course, but City's ravishingly wretched palette and hypnotic photography from regular DOP Sergio Salvati ensure that its mood of haunting decay literally drips from the screen. Fulci is a terrific orchestrator of mis-en-scene, his employment of camerawork, direction, FX and music may reach lunatic proportions, but there is no denying the sheer visceral power of his intentions. Far from the hack he is often accused of being, Fulci delivers so much passion, no more acutely evident than in this miasmic zombie/diabolic curse flick, that his particular vein of film-making is like a snapshot of the medieval Grand Guignol. Nobody has ever been as liberated or as literal in their depiction of carnage as the acerbic little gnome. His ideas were twisted and torn between the art-house flamboyance of Dario Argento (to whom he has been all-too often, and erroneously, likened to as being nothing more than a poor man's rip-off) and Mario Bava, and with the savage child-like glee with which George Romero bandied-about the blood 'n' gore, yet his own penchant for gialli was regularly scorned. But his oddball and kaleidoscopic incisions into the supernatural remain the ingredients that set him apart from the Umberto Lenzis and the Ruggero Deodatas of the genre. City Of The Living Dead tackles more taboo subject matter than Zombi 2, which is largely comic-book and episodic in tone, and reveals a love for the total freedom of ambiguity that such mayhem allows. Sacrilege, the occult, bigotry and mysticism all form the tapestry from which he weaves such vile threat.
Gore-meister extraordinaire Giannetto De Rossi (Manchester Morgue/Zombie 2) wasn't available to provide the grue for City and this definitely shows. Instead, and this often leads to some confusion over the matter, Fulci turned to another makeup-guru going by the name of Gino De Rossi, who would subsequently work on Burial Ground and Cannibal Ferox, and even Casino Royale) to do the honours. Whilst the nastiness still looks very impressive enough, the faces of the undead do not come up to the standards of the more revered De Rossi's caved-in, maggot-ridden dead-heads, looking as though this De Rossi, assisted by Franco Rufini, has just slapped some strawberry jam on their noggins. Long abused by the genre, John Morgan (aka Giovanni Lombardo Radice) gets the point of a rather extreme socio-fascistic statement from Fulci rammed rather horrifically right the way through his head via a very large power-drill. But even his almost endless cycle of grotesque on-screen deaths pales into insignificance when compared to what but poor old Daniela Doria has to go through. So often forced to endure degradations and mutilations for her art at the hands of sadistic Italian directors, the long-suffering actress actually did eat and then spew out fresh lamb-innards for the camera as the victim of the red-eyed manifestation of the demon-priest whose powers compel her internal organs to come squirming up out of her mouth ... literally ad nauseum. Fortunately for the actress who once had her face gnawed-off by rats in Fulci's The Black Cat, a knife rammed through her head in his House By The Cemetery and was then very badly carved up in The New York Ripper, also for cuddly old Lucio, the infamous bowel-vomiting was achieved with a dummy head for the close-ups of the most extreme sloppage. Quite where Fulci got the idea for this demise from is anybody's guess, though he always had a conscious desire to out-gross not only what was coming out of America at the time, but to top even his own previous acts of atrocity. As unpleasant as it is, this sequence also shows some level of imagination. Not a knife nor a throat-ripping, not a shotgun to the head - death by organ-exodus. That's a new one - even Luigi Cozzi has the guts more conventionally exploding from his cast, Scanners-style, in Contamination
Presented totally uncut, it is actually quite surprising to recall that when the movie opened theatrically in the UK it only received one trim - for the drill-bit (the drill-bit, get it?) - and, remember, this was after Zombie Flesheaters had kicked-up such a stink with the censors and helped the notorious Video Nasty debate (for debate read witchhunt) to begin.
After a series of lacklustre thrillers and slashers, Fulci hit a horror-home-run with the slam-bang fury of Zombi 2, though his appeal still seemed to reside purely with those of a jaded taste in films. But, against the odds, City was to prove something of a turning point in that attitude, with his impudent little Hitchcockian nods proving that was, indeed, a cinematic force to be reckoned with. As evidence of this, critics often praise the sequence when Christopher George swings a pickaxe at the coffin that encases a suffocating MacColl, who has been buried alive, each shocking impact threatening to plunge the vicious spike through her head. Now whilst I agree that the scene is tremendously bravura and packed with suspense - a marvellous little touch is the sight of the rose she clutches slowly withering and crumbling - but, even in a Fulci film, this is the most ludicrous of acts to perform. For God's sake, he's trying to rescue her and get her out of the box alive ... no matter how desperate the situation is, he wouldn't be whacking that axe so violently through the casket at the point where her noggin would be! Such illogicality for the sake of a terrific set-piece is, of course, forgivable, but this has to be the daftest of the many manipulative devices he employed in the sacred quintet of Zombie through to Ripper. But the sly thing is he seems to realise this, as well as its true potential for white-knuckled dread - I mean just look at how he modifies the same set-up in House when the young boy's head is forced against the door by the zombified Dr. Freudstein as his own father swings another axe against it from the other side in a rescue bid.
His narrative structure and dialogue may have been wretched, but few could hold a candle to him when it came to blood-curdling suspense and the sheer willingness to go beyond the point of no return.
By this stage in the game, Fulci was totally embracing the supernatural, although for him, the very arbitrariness of black magic and sorcery often played second, or even third fiddle to the rampaging ghoulishness of his beloved cannibal zombie offal-flingers. Both The Beyond and House were deliberate attempts to evoke the literary nightmares of Poe and Blackwood and Lovecraft, and, as clumsy as his efforts come across, there is definite evidence that his skills with such material were growing. City, whose narrative is possibly the flimsiest, starts the ball rolling with grisly gusto, but it is the macabre maestro's vigour with his set-pieces and the remarkably sustained tone of all-out creepiness that he achieves that make City one of the most consistently enjoyable of his outrageous canon.
I've discussed B-movie stalwart Christopher George in my review for Grizzly (still one of my faves, that!) and, whilst I maintain that he is a deadringer for DJ and Scouse icon Billy Butler, it is always great to see him lending such gruff charisma and hangdog everyman weariness to his roles. His park ranger in the aforementioned Grizzly, his renegade militia general in Kampuchea Express, his actually rather useless detective in The Exterminator and appearances in a slew of TV movies notwithstanding, it seems quite bizarre to see him cropping up in this, though. But, then again, no more bizarre than Grampian soap Take The High Road's Ian McCulloch or the The Haunting's Richard Johnson in Zombie Flesheaters. Catriona MacColl unleashes a mighty set of lungs during her pivotal disinterment sequence - not to mention a very unflattering view down her stretched throat - and her performance, which is not as good as her follow-on in The Beyond, opposite The Last Hunter's David Warbeck, is largely that of a mundane onlooker after such a promising first act. She would return for Fulci again in House By The Cemetery, obviously a glutton for punishment.
Janet Agren is gorgeous as Sandra, an artist with emotional problems, despite the fact that we see her tossing her cookies during the compressed-air maggot-storm. Carlo De Mejo's psychiatrist, Jerry, is just a lump of wood with a beard, who can answer a phone in a nano-second, shut his eyes and will a zombie away, and still be resourceful enough to discard a very handy spike once he's used it, knowing only too well that, should he require it again, there's bound to be another one just lying around the corner. He wouldn't be any better in House By The Cemetery, either. Genre-fave John Morgen claims that his character of the local idiot, Bob, was supposed to be a hunchback but that he actually affected a sort of stoop and weird gait to avoid wearing a false hump, however I can't see any trace of such method acting in his depiction. A veteran of the genre after making his name in this and Umberto Lenzi's Cannibal Ferox (Make Them Die Slowly), Morgen is actually quite a good actor. Unfortunately, Fulci's somewhat wayward script fails to make us understand quite why girls are attracted to such a disassociated and shunned youth when everyone else in town believes him to be a paedophile and a possible murderer. Fulci is on record as stating that he was trying to make an accusatory stance about a certain form of fascism, but he claimed that the producers had him hold back on much of this background, thus making Bob's celebrated demise ridiculously heavy-handed and hard-line.
And keep an eye out for a young Michele Soavi, who would go on to hand out tickets to a Satanic screening at a possessed cinema infested with Demons, and then to helm the excellent Stagefright (Blu-ray release please!) and the naff double-act of The Church and The Sect before finding his feet again with the wonderfully unorthodox Dellamorte Dellamore.
Homages come thick and fast. The little coven of Manhattan-based Enoch-followers seems to bear reference to Rosemary's Baby. The ghost town mood is lifted from the aforementioned The Fog, as well as the mismatched gaggle of protagonists who know the truth and must band together to overcome the evil. Fabrizio Jovine's Father Thomas is doing a mighty fine impersonation of Christopher Lee's hypnotic, red-eyed Count Dracula, mute and malevolent. The theme of a persecuted innocent is also a direct harking back to Fulci's own Non si sevizia un paperino (aka Don't Torture A Duckling/Long Night Of Exorcism) - and, typically, Fulci even makes his customary cameo ... as a county coroner. But his sense of humour is as adept as ever - how else could you explain why the local cops are so incredibly accommodating, with the Sheriff even offering some of his men to aid in the mission to desecrate a priest's grave and then defile his corpse - all on the say-so of these babbling out-of-towners! And just look at the Lugosi-like administrator of the funeral parlour - he looks just like he's risen from out of one his own caskets!
This wicked sense of humour extends all the way to Fulci even doing the unthinkable in killing off one of the main, and supposedly “safe” characters - a surprisingly off-the-wall and sucker-punching trick that tells us, in no uncertain terms, that in one of his movies, all bets are off and that everyone is on the menu. Perhaps William Friedkin took note of this rug-pulling approach when he blew off his lead character's face with a shotgun in To Live And Die In LA. But then, Fulci doesn't put much stock in his heroes, does he? David Warbeck merrily blasts ghouls in The Beyond and Ian McCulloch tries to do the same thing in Zombi 2, but you get the feeling that both are flying by the seat of their pants and certainly as unreliable as you or I would be when confronted by hordes of the undead. His heroes are not as indefatigable as Ken Foree's Peter in Dawn Of The Dead or as charismatic and resourceful as The Evil Dead's Ash, they are merely there ... in the midst of chaos. And this makes them as expendable as the next man - which is a marvellously devious and underhanded trick to play on the audience.
Gore-wise, City always feels a tad restrained to me. Huh? Restrained, you say? You must be mad, Chris. I mean what more could you want, you sicko? What about the cranial lobotomy by bore-drill? What about the trio of brains being scooped out of their crushed skulls and left to plop on the floor? Or those entrails set ablaze? And, come on now ... what about - and this should be mentioned in hushed, reverential tones - Daniela Doria's Rosie vomiting-up the entire contents of her stomach and bowels? Aye, City delivers the gruesome goodies, all right, but when you come off the back of the flesh-ripping riot of Zombie 2 and you wade through the puke-fest of The Beyond, City can't help but feel slightly more controlled, a little more deliberate and, as a consequence, less deliriously wild and shocking. There is nothing here that can compare with the long-drawn-out skewering of Olga Karlotos' eyeball in Zombi, or the savage treatment meted-out to the warlock in the prologue to The Beyond or, especially, the notorious moment in the same film when an admittedly deserving little girl has her head turned into a canoe by a point-blank gunshot. The killings may be memorable - the retch-worthy intestinal belch sequence has some imagery that will stay with you for a long, long time - but there is some straining for effect from Fulci and the outcome often feels overly elaborate.
But, alongside that, he does try to concoct something new in the tired old zombie-stakes. After having one of them take on a shark in Flesheaters, this one has the famous “jumping zombie” in it as well ... and some of them even have the ability to beam from place to place! Ahhh, Lucio ... what were you smoking?
Always fond of using real locations in his films, Fulci actually comes up trumps with his production design here. The expansive and complex set for the catacombs beneath the graveyard is simply terrific. Amid acres of shadows, cobwebs, scalp-nibbling rats and cracked masonry, there are the skeletons of bodies hanging down from the undersides of their rotted coffins like grotesque candelabras. The lovely blue cast of this subterranean hell-hole is a beautiful scheme of the deepest midnight. Check out the stained-glass ceiling during the final confrontation, too, for a touch of the opulence down in the necropolis. And the mist-choked back street that poor orphaned John-John (Luka Venantini) attempts to flee down is a wonderful combination of those steps in The Exorcist and any number of images from the Thames embankment of Old London Town. Actually, it is also interesting to note that Fulci is surprisingly unforgiving and full-on with the jeopardy in which he puts the younger stars - Venantini, whose real life father appears in the movie as his character's own father - is put through the wringer in a couple of sequences, as would be the hideously annoying, blonde-mopped Giovanni Frezza in House By The Cemetery a couple of years later.
Filming in the Southern Gothic city of Savannah, Georgia was an inspired choice. Fulci's “Dead” films all have a festering, musty sort of ambience. The colours are a touch too sickly, the sheen of the films and the general décor that fills them dank and decaying. To this end, City has a unique visual mood that the sleepy, humid locale offers, although Fulci opts to have his story take place in the suburbs and not the more typical streets and bars and bayous. Daytime has a cloying blanket of dust sweeping across the frame. Night-time hides much behind a veil of mist. Both provide a terrifically limbo-lost look to the film, something that he would explore quite literally in The Beyond, and the tone of the supernatural and the seedy combined give it a texture of sweaty taboo that is poles apart from what, at this time, Dario Argento was busy toiling away at. Both he and Fulci will always be mentioned in something of the same breath, but besides a knack for set-piece slaughter, and a desire to pummel audiences with impulsive sounds and images, the two really follow completely different paths. Neither is adept at conventional plotting, that is true, but both certainly excel at decadent murder.
Sadly, after all this burning menace and random slaughter, the finale is actually something of a let-down. Throughout this quartet of “Dead” movies - from Zombi to House - Fulci has gone for the comically epic (the radio announcer getting torn to shreds on-air in Zombi whilst hordes of the undead descend on Manhattan), the audacious and massively literal climax of The Beyond, and the surprisingly tender metaphysics of House. But City fluffs the cycle by being both horribly old fashioned (it actually mimics Hammer's The Plague Of The Zombies) and lobbing in a profoundly snigger-inducing last-second twist that fails because it doesn't let you know what the twist actually is. Perhaps it alludes to what will come in The Beyond but, really, who knows?
And it doesn't matter since City earns its medallions for services to the genre in ways other than merely mutilation.
With his regular composer Fabio Frizzi supplying another catchy synth, piano and guitar score - none of his soundtracks for Fulci would ever come close to matching up to what he wrote for Zombi 2 - the look, sound and style of the film is unmistakably that of the maestro of low budget macabre. On the subject of the music, Frizzi clearly takes his inspiration from Flesheaters groovy zombie-stomp, but just listen to the incredibly sinewy Eastern motif that he plays during the main theme and, particularly, over the oozing of a bloody stomach wound down in the catacomb later on, really mimicking the sleazy welter of lingered-on viscera. Sound effects are severe and jolting, as always. Fulci had this tendency to maximise on sensory overload during his famed moments of blood-letting with massively nerve-shredding clanging percussion and twisting, rising motifs that are purely designed to unhinge. He would usually get heavily involved with the sound-mixing and for City he also brings in a bizarre jungle-parrot squawking that you would normally associate with Tarzan pictures for some of the nocturnal Dunwich scene-setters. Quite frankly, it sounds ridiculous ... but then it also adds to the cavalier, “anything can happen” attitude that the film is renowned for. He wanted to create a baroque aural nightmare ... and he certainly accomplished that.
When you look upon the most infamous of Fulci's oeuvre - Zombi 2 being the sickest and slickest, The New York Ripper the most depraved, House By The Cemetery perhaps the most atmospheric and The Beyond certainly the most audacious and imaginative - City Of The Living Dead seems to sit a little bit on the sidelines. Whilst it fits in perfectly with grungy main quartet of gut-spillers, it is never quite as exciting or shocking, or as giddily repugnant as its brethren. Yet it is not without its moments and no self-respecting fan of Italy's blood-drenched genre tangent can possibly afford to pass it up.
Our Review Ethos