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May 23, 2010

City of the Living Dead - Stop the Teleporting Zombie Madness, I Want to Get Off!

1980, Dir. by Lucio Fulci.

If you've ever wanted to see someone regurgitate their innards - or at least some regurgitating of sheep innards that are meant to represent their innards - look no further than the work of Lucio Fulci. Case in point: City of the Living Dead (aka: The Gates of Hell, aka: Paura nella citta dei morti viventi, aka: Ein Zombie hing am Glockenseil), the multi-titled, multi-dimensional, zombie-ish film chosen as this month's Final Girl Film Club selection over at the entirely fabulous Final Girl horror film blog of justice.*

(* - Actual blog title may vary.)

City of the Living Dead is a film that has long perplexed me. I'd seen parts of it, but never got in a full viewing until last night. I always expected something similar to Fulci's Zombi 2 (aka Zombie, aka Island of the Living Dead, aka Nueva York bajo el terror de los zombi), but it turned out the films are about as far apart as two zombie films can be.

With a plot that follows a priest's suicide, a seance that opens the (partially) titular Gates of Hell, and a large dose of undead that appear outside windows or atop fences, City of the Living Dead is not your traditional zombie film. In fact, if the horror nerd world of today existed in the early '80s, I'd imagine the same sticklers that complain about 28 Days Later and [Rec] being listed as zombie films would have ripped at this one. I mean, if zombies have to be dead and can't run to be zombies (a train of thought which only considers one of the dictionary definitions of the zed word), where does the ability materialize out of thin air fit on the spectrum of zombie disqualification? That's a whole other cart of apples, so let's move on.

City of the Living Dead's biggest successes come when it seems to blur the line between the differing subgenres we've come to expect from horror, and particularly the Italian horror scene of this era. City of the Living Dead has zombie imagery that reminds of Zombie, but also spends a lot of time on dark streets where smoky fog is free to billow as needed. As mentioned above, this isn't a film in which the undead shamble around in search of brains; we instead are dealing with supernatural spirits who appear and disappear wherever they please. They're seemingly fronted by the priest who hung himself in the opening scenes, played with a Christopher Lee-esque intensity by Fabrizio Jovine. Jovine's sporadic appearances are among the highlights of the film, particularly his role in the famous regurgitation scene.

The film offers a very surreal quality, which is mostly due to the foggy streets, the blank-eyed villains, and a strong musical score from Fabio Frizzi. This helps make up for both the silly teleportation special effects and the simplicity of the story. It's most certainly a case of style-over-substance, but there are some unfortunate problems with that style that keep me from really loving the film.

Though the film only runs 93 minutes, there are times when it seems to stall entirely. It's bad when the plot stalls, but worse when the film seems to be taking a timeout. For example, there are a few scenes in which the camera shifts to a location to establish setting...and then lingers. And lingers. And lingers. And after about 25 seconds of just showing us this house's exterior, it finally moves into the room the characters are...and lingers more. At this point, I wonder how much he really has to let it linger, and get a little frustrated by the fact that I expected the film to remind me of a different song by The Cranberries.

While I prefer the approach Fulci took with Zombie - a more simple and even film - The City of the Living Dead is an ambitious and original horror that takes on a few more layers than I expected. I can appreciate that, even if I didn't find myself fully enthralled by the final product. (And I didn't even mention the Christopher George factor, which makes this fine material for a triple feature with Graduation Day and Pieces!)

So, if you're interested in City of the Living Dead, or in awesome blogs, I recommend heading over to Final Girl around May 24th of 2010, and checking out a myriad of posts on the film from some of the best blogs in the world (you can also get a more loving analysis of the film over at The Vault of Horror). I'll definitely be revisiting it in the future to spend more time trying to figure out Fulci's ridiculous zombie world, where the inventive gore and visual panache keep the dreamlike film afloat.

7 comments:

Geof said...

I would categorize myself as indifferent on the film. I love the gore and the weird hazy state of some scenes, but it is a bit slow and the dialogue is not really engaging. Thus making it seem light years longer than 93 minutes. The organ regurgitation is easily my fav highlight. Nit the best and not the worst but worth a view if you have never seen it.

AE said...

I definitely agree with you about the deathly slow pacing -- my favorite was toward the end, when Mary and Peter get to Dunwich and keep saying "We've got to get to the cemetery! It's almost All Saints' Day!" and then it cuts to apparently a couple hours later, and they're still not in the cemetery. The pacing and the lame dialogue gave it a nicely camp feel for me, and I liked how that jarred with the extreme gore and the genuinely creepy sequences.

I also like thinking I have a better Fulci experience waiting for me out there, somewhere....

Lee said...

Good call on Fabrizio Jovine. He does have a Christopher Lee vibe going on. It didn't occur to me at the time as I watched the film, but his performance really adds to the overall creepiness of the film. I'm not so much a fan of the rest of the film not making sense, but I liked that the priest's motives were never really clear.

The Mike said...

Thanks to all y'all for reading! The film's definitely frustrating the more I think about it, particularly regarding the pace and ending. But at least we all agree it's pretty.

Fear on Friday said...

Christopher George made this film for me, or at least he helped suck me in. His cigar chomping man of the world bit was fantastically over the top but really brought some life to his many scenes were nothing really happened. And it's great to watch characters who know they are in a horror movie and act like it.

Carl (ILHM) said...

I am constantly debating over whether I prefer this or THE BEYOND. They are both so surreal and strange, but no one can dispute the awesomeness of the gore in GATES OF HELL!!

The Mike said...

Fear on Friday - Good call on George. I didn't really mention him because I wanted to focus on the weirdness of the film's plot and style, but he does add a great deal of charm to the silly proceedings.

Carl - I have yet to see The Beyond, and it still hurts me that I haven't. Soon. Really the only Fulci I've loved so far is Zombi 2.