City of the Living Dead

In the town of Dunwich, a priest hangs himself in the local cemetery. As he does, the earth over a nearby grave begins to loosen, and a rotting head pushes its way to the surface...

At the same time, in New York City, a psychic named Mary Woodhouse1
No relation to Rosemary Woodhouse, I suppose, the heroine of Rosemary's Baby. If anything, I guess this is an homage to Roman Polanski's film. In case you were wondering, an "homage" is a plagiarism that serves no purpose.
(Catriona MacColl) falls into a trance at a seance and has a vision of the priest's suicide. She sees what his sacrifice really means: he's opened the Gates of Hell, to bring the hungry dead back into the world of the living. Mary gets a glimpse of what's waiting to come through, and the last intelligible thing she sees before the shock kills her is an inscription on a tombstone:


Mary's sudden death attracts the attention of the police. Sergeant Clay of the NYPD knows the other participants of the seance from prior drug busts, and is convinced they're lying to cover up some kind of drug party gone awry. But Theresa, Mary's mentor and the leader of the seance, insists that everything that's happened is unfolding according to prophecies revealed in the ancient Book of Enoch. "In the Book of Enoch," she proclaims, "the killer is..."

... and at that moment, a pillar of fire erupts in the corner of Theresa's apartment.

That's enough to distract Sergeant Clay from his investigation. He never does follow up with Theresa about the identity of the "killer". Preseumably he goes from the apartment to the public library, where he'll waste about 45 minutes discovering that the actual Book of Enoch contains nothing at all about Mary Woodhouse's death. In any case, Clay drops out of the movie at this point and is never mentioned again. Theresa, on the other hand, seems ridiculously pleased with this visitation from beyond, considering her friend Mary has just dropped dead.

But it's not only the police who are interested in Mary's sudden death. A reporter named Peter Bell (Christopher George) has heard about the mysterious circumstances and shows up at Theresa's building to get the details. He never gets past the front door: his attempts to ingratiate himself with the policeman guarding the front door show us that Bell is terrible at his job.

Meanwhile, back in Dunwich, very bad things are starting to happen. Several children have disappeared from the neighborhood since the local priest was found dangling from a tree, and popular opinion fixes the blame squarely on the town delinquent, Bob. It seems Bob, a young man with serious psychological problems, once took little Annie Ross off into the woods, presumably intending to do some awful things to her. Though Bob was severely punished at the time, he's been the town scapegoat ever since. And it's clear that the town has good reason to be worried about Bob: though he's really little more than a child in an adult's body, that "inner child" of his is one creepy little bastard. The fact he's played by Giovanni Lombardo Radice (aka "John Morghen", aka "The Nastiest Man in the World") should tell you all you need to know... (though it would have told contemporary audiences very little: City of the Living Dead was only Lombardo Radice's third released film, and it came out a mere week after his second, Apocalypse Domani / Cannibal Apocalypse).

Bob is having problems of his own. When he sneaks off to an abandoned building on the outskirts of town, to have some quality time with his inflatable girlfriend, he stumbles on the corpse of a child. Funny thing, though: the children missing from Dunwich have only been missing for a day or two at the most. This body is so thoroughly putrefied and worm-ridden that it's barely recognizable as human. What could have happened to speed up the decomposition? Oh — and also, bleaghhhh.

At the same time, some of the Dunwich men have gathered at Junie's Lounge, the local bar. They grumble about Bob, and how the town's gone to pieces since Father Thomas hanged himself (also, incidentally, to listen to music from the soundtrack of Fulci's western I Quattro dell'Apocalisse). All at once, a mirror at the far side of the bar shatters for no apparent reason. As the barkeep tries to calm his friends, the building gives a sudden heave, as though it had been hit by an earthquake. The wall of the building splits, and an unearthly mist seeps through the crack.

Clearly all is not well in Dunwich, and it seems as though nothing's been particularly well in a long, long time. We never find out what prompted Father Thomas to open the Gates of Hell, but nobody in Dunwich seems remotely curious. You'd figure if your local priest was a raving cultist trying to bring the world to an end, it might have attracted a bit of interest... but not in Dunwich. This town seems to be rotten to the core.

Sure, there are some inhabitants wise enough to try to get professional help — the local artist Sandra (Janet Agren), for example, who paints odd landscapes interrupted by giant phallic rhinos, and who has an obsession with incest. But Sandra has the misfortune of going to Gerry (Carlo de Mejo), the town psychiatrist; and Gerry's been living in Dunwich too damned long. He's about as lousy a shrink as de Mejo's Father Valerio was a detective in Bruno Mattei's The Other Hell. He barely seems interested in what Sandra has to tell him, and he allows his friend Emily (Antonella Interlenghi) to come barging into their session for a chat.

Gerry's relationship with Emily is never made clear: it seems she's in training as a social worker — Bob is her special concern, and she's going off to talk to him this very evening — so it's reasonable that Gerry might be mentoring her. But they also seem to be romantically involved, which is disturbing for a number of reasons. First, if he really is her career counselor, their relationship is hardly ethical; second, her interrupting Gerry's session with Sandra (who fears and distrusts men) is made all the worse by her easy intimacy with the psychiatrist; and third, he's 35 and she's barely 20.

After a brief conversation about witchcraft, and how Dunwich is rumored to be built on the "ruins of Salem" (sic), Emily goes off to see Bob, and Gerry tries to continue his session with Sandra. Just then, the supernatural shock-wave that passed through Junie's Bar reaches Gerry's office. The lights go out for a moment, and Gerry's Therapy Kitten®, which has been sitting comfortably in Sandra's lap, turns on her and gives her a deep scratch across her hand. A moment later, everything's back to normal — or what passes for normal in Dunwich.

Back in New York, Peter Bell is still following up on the death of Mary Woodhouse. He shows up at the cemetery — after Mary's funeral, but before her casket has been lowered into the earth. The two slightly less-than-Shakespearean gravediggers who are supposed to be burying her are busy exhuming an old, uncared-for grave. By the time they start tending to Mary, quitting time has arrived, and they begin to walk off the job with her grave left open. Peter is appalled, but union rules are union rules. He pauses a moment to reflect on the whole sad story, perhaps considering a poignant final paragraph...

Here's the thing, though: all this time, we've been given frequent glimpses of Mary inside her coffin. We've seen her lying utterly still as the box descended to its final resting place; we've seen the flowers tucked in her cold hands; and we've seen the useless mirror attached to the inside lid, answering some ancient fear of the departing soul not realizing its body is dead. We've heard the first shovelsful of earth come clattering down on her. We've spent way too much time in that coffin. At first, we may have suspected Fulci wanted us discomfit us by confronting us with our own mortality. But he draws out the scene so long that we begin to suspect something else is about to happen.

And sure enough, the petals of Mary's roses begin to stir. A light mist appears on the coffin mirror. And the dead girl opens her eyes.

As she realizes her position and begins to scream, we're ushered into one of the most harrowing sequences in film, and one of the three near-perfect set pieces that make City of the Living Dead so memorable in spite of its failings. At first, we are terrified that Peter will not hear her frantic shrieks. Just as he thinks he hears something, an airplane passes overhead, drowning her out; and when Peter strains to listen again, Mary has gone quiet with shock. Just at the last minute, when it seems as though Peter's about to walk away, Mary revives and starts screaming again. This time, Peter is certain he's heard her...

But that's just the beginning of the horror. We've already seen that Peter isn't a terribly effective investigator. But it turns out he's not terribly good at thinking anything through. He runs to the gravediggers' tools and takes out a pick. Standing astride the casket facing the head-end, he brings the pick down through the metal coffin-lid — mere millimeters from Mary's face. Over and over again he smashes through the lid, each time nearly decapitating the woman inside. The sequence is very well done, and by the time Peter has torn open the lid the audience is likely to be as pale and shock-ridden as poor Mary.

Mary's rude awakening

A QUICK ASIDE: I guess this is as good a time as any to bring up the obvious problem with this scene. Fulci trained as a medical man, and it's impossible he would not have known what would have been done to Mary before she was buried. As someone who'd died under suspicious circumstances, she'd have been autopsied. Afterwards, her remaining organs would have been cut, scraped or hooked out of her body; her blood would have been drained, and her veins probably filled with embalming fluid. You don't wake up from treatment like that. However, since Mary seems to be under the influence of some supernatural prophecy, we just have to assume that standard procedure was overlooked somehow.

The lack of an autopsy is a little hard to explain, but if you really need a rational solution to this fairly major script problem, I might have found one. Take a look at the names on the headstones around Mary's grave — Marx; Lederer; Lasher... — and you'll see that she's apparently being buried in a Jewish cemetery. In Jewish tradition, the dead are usually not embalmed before being buried. So perhaps Mary Woodhouse was actually born Miryam Waldhausz, and changed her name to assimilate when she became interested in the occult. Of course, she's not buried in the white tachrichim, she's got flowers, and her casket is metal instead of plain wood, but... uhh... Hey, that's the best I can do! I shouldn't have to go to such lengths to do the writers' job for them!

You might think that Mary would be a complete wreck after being buried alive, needing therapy for the rest of her life to deal with this terrible trauma. You might also think she'd be the subject of several investigations: by the police, by her doctors... You'd be wrong. In fact, she seems to recover herself completely over tea with Peter and Theresa. She tells them about the vision that nearly killed her: of the priest that's opening the Gates of Hell, in some distant town called Dunwich. If the Gates are not shut by All Saint's Day — in 48 hours — then the dead will rise all over the earth and drag the living down into the Lower Depths. Peter and Mary set out on the seemingly hopeless task of finding the City of the Living Dead before it's too late. Theresa and the Book of Enoch both drop out of the movie at this point and are never mentioned again.

Remember Emily? She was on her way to try to find poor, troubled Bob, the village idiot. Well, she does manage to find him — curled up on his bare mattress in a fetal position, sobbing uncontrollably. When she tries to get him to tell her what's wrong, terrible groaning, growling noises begin outside. Bob panics, and pushes Emily out of the way as he makes a run for it. Emily tries to follow, but is grabbed from behind by a grey-green clawed hand. It's the many-days-dead Father Thomas, and he smothers her with a handful of worm-infested filth.

Gerry takes the news of Emily's death with peculiar indifference (then again, he seems to take everything with peculiar indifference — Carlo de Mejo plays the role with the intensity of a block of balsa wood). The county Medical Examiner (played by Fulci himself) determines that the technical cause of Emily's death was sheer fright, but everybody blames Bob. There's no reasonable explanation for the horrifying smears on the body and the floor... but who needs reasonable explanations where Bob is concerned? "That kid's gonna fry!" says the Sheriff.

Director cameo!

Emily's not the only one to meet Father Thomas in the night. Out at the abandoned house where Bob found the rotting child, young Tommy Fischer (Michele Soavi, future director of La Chiesa / The Church) has taken his girlfriend Rosie (frequent Fulci victim Daniela Doria) for a makeout session in his car. Rosie can't shake an unconfortable feeling that someone is watching them from the creepy old house. The hollow moaning noises that seem to surround the car don't help her mood any.

Exasperated ("You don't really believe all that stupid Salem witch stuff, do you?"), Tommy turns on the car's headlights to prove there's nobody there. And for a moment, there isn't... until the body of Father Thomas, still dangling from a noose, appears out of nowhere. Tommy tries to get the car started — naturally, it refuses to turn over — as the swinging cadaver suddenly disappears. Then the priest reappears, standing right next to the car... and, in the second astonishing set piece of the movie, we learn that the Dunwich undead have a peculiar power: when Rosie makes eye contact with Father Thomas, her insides begin to boil. Blood starts pouring from her eyes, and she regurgitates her entire digestive tract. Then Father Thomas reveals his other favorite killing technique: he rips off the back of Tommy's head with his bare hands, pulling out a nice handful of brain (I don't think that's even possible, but it's certainly memorable).

(The first time I saw this sequence, on home video back around 1992, I had to stop the tape. The scene is so nauseating that even now it makes me squirm. Key to the moment's spectacular, ummm, success is its use of sound: those gurgling, retching noises we hear as poor Rosie vomits up her guts. They're unbearable. Modern viewers, more accustomed to extreme gore and watching from the comfort of their own living rooms, tend to dismiss the impact of the scene: though Doria does spit up a mouthful of real sheep's intestines at the beginning of the sequence, the end shots make use of a very obvious prosthetic head. However, I guarantee you that when this film first came out, not one person in the audience was watching the screen that carefully. They were too busy recoiling, or running for the door. Nobody had ever done anything like this in a movie before, and not even people who'd made it through the notorious eye/splinter scene in Zombi 2 could have been prepared for it.)

Funny, the audience often feels like doing the same.

All this death provides an unexpected windfall for Moriarity (sic), the town's creepy mortician. We get to see him start work on Emily's corpse: draining the body fluids, taking the cotton wads out of her nostrils, applying some makeup to disguise her pallid, dead flesh... (It's at this point that more rationally-inclined viewers will start hurling things at the screen — the scene demonstrates that Fulci and Sacchetti knew very well how bodies are treated after death... so how could they have allowed Mary to wake up in her coffin without any explanation?)

Gerry accompanies Emily's family — her parents and her little brother John-John — to the funeral home, and there he sees something that almost shakes him out of his wooden indifference. Moriarity is having a viewing for old Mrs. Holden, Gerry's neighbor, whom Gerry had seen alive and healthy only a few days ago.

Mrs. Holden's role in the movie is one of City...'s overlooked subtleties: Giannetto de Rossi and his team did a great job all through the movie of making the dead of Dunwich look truly dead, but with Mrs. Holden they succeeded not only in making her look like a real corpse... they also make us realize that Moriarity is a lousy technician. That impression is confirmed — and how! — when we see what he's done with Emily. Making up the bodies is supposed to provide some comfort to the living, so they don't have to face the true ugliness of death and decay; but when Emily's mother sees her and collapses in tears, we understand completely. The terrible makeup job — by which I mean the wonderful makeup job done by de Rossi and his team, to make Antonella Interlenghi look like a badly-prepared cadaver — makes poor Emily look like a slab of painted meat.

In fact, Moriarity is not only incompetent: he's a thief. After the viewings, he goes from coffin to coffin, relieving the bodies of their jewelry. When he gets to old Mrs. Holden, though, he seems to have a bit of trouble removing her ring. The camera tilts up just a bit, so we don't actually see Mrs. Holden's corpse as it begins to howl... and as it takes a bite out of Moriarity's hand. Presumably she and the other corpses finish him off afterwards, but this is done offscreen. We never actually see Mrs. Holden as anything other than a motionless dead body, which makes her activities all the more disturbing.

It's been a distressing day for Emily's family, especially for little John-John, who barely notices that the rocking chair in his room is moving on its own. That night, John-John is terrified to see Emily — or at any rate, a blood-spattered decaying thing that looks like Emily — staring through his window. His parents try to comfort him, certain that he's merely had a bad dream. But John-John insists that Emily is out there somewhere, and she wants to hurt him.


Tonight, all of Dunwich is having the same bad dream: for instance, Bob is chased away from all his hideouts by the sudden appearance (and equally sudden disappearance) of Father Thomas. Having nowhere else to go, he decides to hide himself in the last place anyone would ever think of looking for him: the garage of the family whose little girl he was accused of molesting all those years ago. As for Sandra, she calls Gerry in a panic and insists he come over right away. Gerry finds her in an even less stable state than usual: she answers the door holding a pistol. When Gerry comes in, she directs him to the kitchen, where he finds... the body of old Mrs. Holden, lying on the floor, looking exactly as it did in her coffin in Moriarity's viewing room.

Gerry takes Sandra aside so they can go call the police together. All at once, disturbing moaning sounds come from the kitchen. Gerry bursts back into the room... only to find that Mrs. Holden's corpse is gone. Crashing noises start coming from upstairs, and Sandra is convinced the old woman is still there, moving around the house... howling like a beast. She collapses in hysterics. Gerry tries to clam her down, and insists on moving room to room through the building, proving to Sandra that there are no walking dead people hiding there.

Of course, neither Gerry nor Sandra thinks to check the very room they've started in. Thus they fail to notice the stiff, livid feet just visible behind an ornamental screen...

Sandra is getting cold feet.

If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

-- Wallace Stevens, The Emperor of Ice-Cream

(Again, we don;t see much of Mrs. Holden. But the few glimpses we get are enough to disturb the hell out of us. Subtlety!!)

The next morning, young Annie Ross, the girl Bob is alleged to have molested, finds him asleep in her father's car. She's completely undisturbed by this, and even invites Bob to share a joint with her. In fact, we're forced to question whether Bob was really guilty of the crime in the first place (and I've read somewhere that in an earlier draft of the script a connection was to be made between whatever happened to Annie and Father Thomas himself). Unfortunately, Mr. Ross comes in and finds the two of them together, and loses his shit. As he is tossing Bob across the room, the boy accidentally switches on the gigantic power drill Ross keeps by the stairs. The combination of an angry father and the proximity of the Gates of Hell means that nothing good will come of this.

This won't hurt a bit.

Here we have the third brilliant show-stopping set piece, as Fulci attempts to outdo the agony of Olga Karlatos's eyeball scene in Zombi 2. We see Ross pushing Bob's head slowly, slowly toward the rotating screw... we see Bob's POV, as the spinning drill bit comes ever closer... Fulci stretches out the tension until you're absolutely convinced he wouldn't, he couldn't show us what he's suggesting he's about to show us. And then the drill bites into flesh, and Fulci's camera just keeps... on... rolling. If the scene doesn't quite have the impact of the eye/splinter in the previous film, it's most likely because we've already had two major shocks of equal technical skill in the story so far. But it's still very well done, and extremely disturbing.

What about Bob?

OK: the howling column of fire that's just appeared in the corner of my workroom is telling me that I've said enough already. Suffice it to say that Mary and Peter eventually make their way to Dunwich, where they meet Gerry and Sandra. There will be bleeing walls, a rain of (real) maggots, an amazing shot of blood dripping into a glass of milk, and some startling and unexpected deaths before the final confrontation under the cemetery of Dunwich.

The rain of maggots

I think this is a quote from another film, but I can't remember which...

Want to see something really gross? Then fast-forward this tape and stop almost anywhere.

-- Mason & Potter, Video Movie Guide 1992

I did not like City of the Living Dead when I first saw it, on video under the name Gates of Hell. I thought it was a disaster: a catalog of revolting special effects tied together without any sense of logic or continuity. It was not the first Fulci film I had ever seen; the first, believe it or not, had been The Black Cat, which I found unremarkable and sloppy, but not completely terrible. I had also seen Zombie (the American release of Zombi 2), and hadn't yet come to appreciate it. But Gates of Hell stuck in my mind for some reason, and after a while I found myself writing a short essay — my very first movie review. It was called "Too Much is Not Enough: Reflections on the Way Back to the Video Store", and in it I tried to express exactly what I found so dissatisfying about Fulci's films.

But in spite of my initial dislike of the movie, I found myself coming back to it time and time again. Each time, I thought I might finally get it; each time, I figured I might see something I'd missed before that tied up some of the ridiculous loose ends and made the whole thing seem sensible. Each time I was disappointed, though I eventually had to admit the movie was much more technically competent than I'd thought.

Then, at some point, I realized what it was that kept drawing me back to the movie. I stopped looking at it as a typical, shoddily-constructed horror flick. In fact, it was a movie entirely concerned with atmosphere — more than that: it was a cinematic assault... a brutal nightmare captured on film, dragging images of mortality and corruption out of the audience's subconscious and splattering them all over the screen. It really shouldn't work (and in the opinions of a large number of viewers it doesn't). But it lingers in the imagination; and these days, when I stare at my library of DVDs and wonder what to waste my few leisure hours with, it's often City of the Living Dead that I take out and watch again. It's still not my favorite Fulci film (I think that might be Sette Note in Nero), nor the one I admire the most (which at the moment is House by the Cemetery), but it's the one I keep going back to.

The first word in the original Italian title is paura — fear. This is a movie about fear, specifically the fear of death. The very first image in the film isn't an image at all: it's a woman's shriek in pitch darkness (which is a pretty good metaphor if you ask me). Death is everywhere in the movie, and nobody is safe, even during broad daylight in their own homes. We're treated to a succession of murders and suicides. We witness a burial — from within the grave. We're present at an embalming. Bodies fall apart of their own accord; bodies are torn apart and eaten; bodies get up and walk long after they've gone cold and stiff. The lovely young actress Antonella Interlenghi spends over half her screen time as an unrecognizable mess. We go for a midnight walk in a cave beneath a graveyard, where the presence of the Gate of Hell has drawn the skeletons out of their coffins and into a twisted vortex overhead. The movie exploits our fear of dying; our fear of the dead; fear of bodily decay; fear of being conscious after death, or waking up in our coffins; fear that the pessimistic Babylonians had it right about the afterlife; fear... in the city of the living dead.

Emily, before...
Antonella Interlenghi: Before...

Emily, after.
... and after.

I consider [Paura...] one of our least successful films in as much as it was thought out and shot in an atmosphere of sheer desperation.

-- Dardano Sacchetti, quoted in Palmerini & Mistretta,
Spaghetti Nightmares (Key West: Fantasma Books, 1996)

It's amazing to realize that Lucio Fulci hadn't made any horror films until Zombi 2 (1979). There had been horrific moments in many of his films of the 1970's — prior to that, he'd established himself as a writer and director of comedies — but unless you count his three gialli (and Fulci himself did not), Zombi 2 was his first actual horror movie. He'd got the job directing Zombi 2 when Enzo Castellari turned it down, and the movie's prodicer, Fabrizio de Angelis, hired Fulci on the strength of his reputation as a director who could get credible results in any genre.

Zombi 2 turned out to be exactly the right movie for its time. It cashed in on the spectacular European success of George Romero's Dawn of the Dead (known as Zombi in Europe), while maintaining its own identity and style. It was made on a modest budget, with a somewhat wooden cast and an uneven script by Dardano Sacchetti... but made up for its shortcomings with some amazing work by cinematographer Sergio Salvati and effects director Gianetto de Rossi, both of whom (like Sacchetti) had worked with Fulci in the past. The movie did well at the box office, and even now, decades later, Zombi 2 is still considered a minor classic by horror fans.

But Fulci didn't share in the success of the movie — at least not in its financial success (and it could be argued that its role in earning him the reputation as the "Godfather of Gore" actually hurt his career in the long run). He'd been paid about six million lire for directing (out of a total budget of about 400 million lire), but received no residuals. He went on with his life and career, directing Luca il Contrabanddiere, a routine poliziottesco, about six months afterwards. As for Sacchetti, he didn't work again for almost a year. It was at the point when both men were getting anxious about their next jobs that Paura nella Città dei Morti Viventi — aka City of the Living Dead, aka Gates of Hell — was conceived.

Sacchetti tells several different stories about how and why City of the Living Dead came to be, but he's always insisted that the basic idea for the film was Fulci's. Sacchetti thought the whole cursed-village schtick was too old-fashioned, too redolent of Mario Bava and the old guard of Italian horror, and that Fulci's by-then trademark violence was out-of-place in such a conventional story. The tension between the two men, which sometimes resulted in flashes of mad genius, this time resulted in chaos. Inspired chaos, perhaps; but chaos nevertheless.

The obvious jumping-off point for Fulci's and Sacchetti's story is a 1933 short story by H.P. Lovecraft called "The Evil Clergyman". In Lovecraft's story, a man visits the lodgings of a disreputable priest, who'd died many years ago under strange circumstances. The priest had left certain things behind him... things which sane, sensible men dare not touch. The visitor, as though compelled, goes directly to those forbidden objects, and with their help he conjures up the image of the priest — "apparently about thirty years old, with a sallow, olive complexion and fairly good features, but an abnormally high forehead."

The Evil Clergyman

In the vision, the Evil Clergyman is about to hang himself. When the visitor steps forward instinctively to save him, the clergyman looks up through time and sees him. He advances hungrily on the visitor... who manages to break the vision, and send the Evil Clergyman reeling back into his own time and place. But unfortunately for the visitor, he did not break the contact fast enough: though his mind and spirit seem to be intact, he is now trapped in the Evil Clergyman's body forever.

The story, though brief, manages to encompass a number of Lovecraft's most familiar themes: that of the past coming back to destroy the present, for example; or of the consequences of forbidden knowledge... of evil beings that move easily through time and space, across dimensions... of uncanny duplicates, and the sense of losing one's identity to the spirits of the dead. All of these things are hinted at in City of the Living Dead's actual script, but it's really only the suicidal priest that makes it into the movie more-or-less intact.

The other obvious Lovecraft reference is to the town of Dunwich.

Outsiders visit Dunwich as seldom as possible, and since a certain season of horror all the signboards pointing towards it have been taken down... the natives are now repellently decadent... The average of their intelligence is woefully low, whilst their annals reek of overt viciousness and of half-hidden murders, incests, and deeds of almost unnameable violence and perversity.

-- HPL, The Dunwich Horror

Fulci and his team captured the atmosphere of Lovecraft's Dunwich perfectly. It's a repellent place, full of repellent people, and its proximity to the Gates of Hell seems to have given everything a feeling of corruption. Weird winds howl through the streets, sending up clouds of dust. Many of the houses look worn-out and decayed. It's the sort of place where you'd expect the creepy mortician to be stealing from the dead, or where the village idiot would end up with a power drill pressed through his skull, or where the local priest is busy offering himself to Yog-Sothoth.

The atmosphere is about all they got right.

To begin with, the screenplay tells us that Dunwich is built on the ruins of witch-haunted Salem... an odd mistake, but a stunningly Italian one. After all, much of modern Italy is built on the glorious and bloody fragments of its ancient history, going back thousands of years. American history and legend are bafflingly recent by comparison. It's only natural that the Rome-born Fulci and Sacchetti would think of Salem as part of a long-buried past... when in fact the town is still standing; in fact, its troubled history has made it a popular tourist destination. But the inhabitants of Salem are not, as the movie states, the descendants of witch-burners. The witches convicted in Salem were hanged, not burnt.

Next, though both the historical Salem and Lovecraft's Dunwich are in Massachusetts, City of the Living Dead was filmed in Savannah, Georgia2
Junie's Lounge was an actual bar in Port Wentworth, GA, just outside Savannah. It was a notoriously dodgy place which closed in 1988. In 1990, the locals attempted to revoke the bar's zoning status, to prevent it being re-opened under new management. The place lingered like a bad case of gout, and it wasn't until the summer of 2009 that the dilapdated building was finally turned over to the state for cleanup. I was in Savannah in 2010, and planned to visit the site if I'd had a chance; it was still visible on Google Maps back then. It seems to be gone now, and most information about the place has disappeared.
. Georgia was one of the original American Colonies, it's true; and Savannah is a beautiful city. But there's no way in hell (or fresh out of it) that anyone would mistake it for New England. The trees are all wrong... the architecture is all wrong... the Spanish Moss is sheer gibbering lunacy. Savannah isn't known for Lovecraftian eldritch horror — though it is the home of a certain other zombie, the one whose airbrushed face and rigor-stiffened grin you used to see on magazine covers at checkout lines across America:

Deen of the Dead

So apparently the Dunwich mortician got into the magazine business...

And then, too, nobody seems to know how to pronounce "Dunwich". Even the locals are split between the orthodox "Dunnich" and the slightly-more-appropriate "Salem witch-burner" version, Done Witch.

But in the end, it really doesn't matter very much, because this isn't really intended to be H.P. Lovecraft's Dunwich. Fulci admitted in interviews that he had very little interest in Lovecraft. Rather, City of the Living Dead is much more closely related to a different body of work... Fulci's own films, past and future.

For example:

  • Non Si Sevizio un Paperino (Don't Torture a Duckling, 1972): A town is plagued by a series of murders. The actual killer is the local priest, who kills because he knows the town is already a moral cesspool. A girl and a reporter try to stop him... but in the meantime, the townspeople blame the local outcast, who is murdered in a particularly gruesome (and explicitly-shot) manner.

  • Sette Note in Nero (The Psychic, 1977): The movie begins as a girl has a psychic vision of a suicide taking place hundreds of miles away. The main plot involves the heroine's dangerous search for the truth behind the fragmented visions she has experienced.

  • Zombi 2 (Zombie, 1979): A young woman and a journalist search for a mysterious place that may not even exist, where they find the dead are leaving their graves and murdering people. On their journey they team up with a second couple, but only two of the four survive to the end of the film.

  • L'Aldilà (The Beyond, 1981): The ritualistic sacrifice of a visionary opens up the Gates of Hell, and muderous zombies walk the streets of a small town. Catriona MacColl tries to figure out what's going on, accompanied by a man who doesn't know if he should trust her or not.

That City... should resemble these last three is not surprising: all of them were co-written by Sacchetti. City... sometimes feels like a rough draft for The Beyond, which is a much more polished production (even though its screenplay makes only a tiny bit more sense).

Now, Sacchetti (like other famous figures in exploitation movie history, including Sam Sherman and Claudio Fragasso) has a reputation for taking credit for the things that work in the movies he's credited with, while putting the blame for the things that don't work quite as well on the other people involved. Still, there's one thing Sacchetti insists on taking credit for, which I am perfectly happy to ascribe to him without argument: he says that it was he that forced Fulci to liberate his imagination by eliminating logic from his scripts. Fulci loved the kinds of stories he referred to as "mechanical" — stories that might have pushed their internal logic to the breaking point, yet didn't go too far; stories like those of his gialli, which for all their fantastic elements still depended on some kind of reasonable explanation. Sacchetti persuaded him to abandon his dependence on logic, and aim for pure nightmare.

Sacchetti may have been a little too persuasive.

Putting aside little details like the inconsistencies in embalming, one of the major problems with the movie is its timeline: it makes absolutely no sense. Many of Fulci's earlier films deliberately distorted the flow of the narrative — for instance Una sull'Altra / One on Top of the Other gave us the long, tense build-up to an execution, then showed us the aftermath of the execution, and only then went back to reveal the surprising things that had happened in the meantime. In another example, Sette Note in Nero cuts away from the climax of the film to show us an interview that could only have taken place long after the events of the movie had finished. But with City of the Living Dead, time seems to be running at different speeds for different characters in different scenes. Scenes of night in Dunwich are followed by scenes of Mary and Peter driving in daylight, as though they were in another time zone... and then we're back to night in Dunwich. Unlike Fulci's earlier films — where the breaking of the narrative had a purpose, and helped to build the suspense — in this case it's disruptive. Mary and Peter keep stressing how little time they have, but since the story is either moving too fast or too slow for us to figure out where we are in it, we don't feel the sense of urgency the way we should.

Then again, the characters themselves dont seem to feel the urgency either. Mary and Peter arrive in Dunwich with mere hours to spare, find the cemetery, and run into Gerry, who knows where Father Thomas is buried. Great. So what do they do? They go off and get sidetracked. Admittedly, this lengthens the film nicely and leads to some effectively disgusting gore scenes... but it makes no fucking sense. I had thought they were trying to avert the End of the World. The End of the World. You'd figure they'd be a little more anxious to get on with it. In fact, they all spend so much time chasing sinister shadows through Dunwich that they — that is, the ones who survive that long — don't even arrive back at the cemetery until after midnight on All Saints' Day... by which time I thought it was too late.

I could also complain about the movie's inconsistency: for example, there seems to be little logic behind which characters the walking dead kill and which they just menace (and the choices are not as obvious as you'd expect). At one point, Gerry comes face to face with Zombie Emily: unable to believe what he's seeing, he closes his eyes and waits a moment. When he opens his eyes, Zombie Emily is gone. But this reverse-Tinkerbell defense certainly doesn't work for anybody else. And while we're discussing the zombies, or ghosts, or ghost-zombies, or whatever they are... who knew that a simple spike to the gut — or, in one particular case, a wooden stake in the crotch — was enough to send them back to Hell? It all seems too easy somehow.

(And then, of course, there's the wildlife. Fulci took a personal interest in the sound design of the film, and used a lot of animal noises to represent the undead. For the most part, it's very effective and chilling, having distinctly inhuman sounds accompany the supernatural. But when the howler monkeys and kookaburras get into the act, it's a little embarrassing.)

And yet I don't want to complain too much. Anybody with a reasonable amount of common sense can come up with their own list — a very, very long one — of things they found irritating about City of the Living Dead. Anybody with a reasonable amount of common sense can also come up with answers. For instance, anyone familiar with Michael McDowell's novel "The Elementals" might understand why the dead of Dunwich would behave so irrationally, sparing some but not others, and changing their behavior so that you can never tell what they will do next. They're evil spirits. It's what they do. And as for those methods of zombie-killing: the spike in the gut is an iron one, after all; and the wooden stake through the crotch is in the shape of a cross.

(And howler monkeys go to Hell, too. Don't they?)

But think of it this way: the confusion and inconsistency may be among the movie's strongest points. Up until this film, glimpses of Hell in horror films had been pretty conventional stuff. The Devil was likely to be Christopher Lee in a smoking jacket, or Burgess Meredith as a carnival barker, or Ernest Borgnine with horns. Satanic orgies had a tendency to look like production numbers from the Lawrence Welk show. Not even the most Catholic of visions of the Inferno — not even Michael Winner's The Sentinel, heavy with sin and guilt and ruthless punishment, which cast people with real handicaps and deformities as the denizens of Hell — reached the Bosch-like insanity of City of the Living Dead. Why shouldn't a movie about the dead clawing their way back from non-existence be irrational, and filled with all kinds of bizarre and violent imagery? Why shouldn't the walking dead do senseless and violent things? Why shouldn't the town built on top of the Gates of Hell be the sort of place where time and space, cause and effect are all rendered pretty much meaningless?

The is one part of City of the Living Dead that even its staunchest defenders (me, for instance) find difficult to say anything good about... and that's the ending.

There are a ton of explanations for how the end took the shape it did, and neither Fulci nor Sacchetti was ever of any help straightening it out. Some say the editor spilled coffee on the footage of the original ending, forcing the crew to improvise. Some say Fulci changed his mind about the end after the shooting was complete, and this was the best they could do. In any case, what we're left with is the setup for an entirely unexpected Happy Ending (well, as happy as one could get considering the heavy mortality rate among the main characters)... when all of a sudden, our survivors get a worried look on their face — and the innocuous Happy Ending footage slows, then splits apart in pieces. The unearthly howling begins again, and the screen goes black.

Even by the loose standards of the movie's script, this makes no sense. I've grappled with it for years now, and I'm afraid I have no explanation that would make it any more acceptable. The best I can come up with is the theory that Mary's success in the crypt wasn't what it seemed — like McDowell's "Elementals", the evil spirits want to convince us they are subject to earthly rules. They lie to us, and make us think they can be stopped with a wooden stake or an iron spike. They will even sacrifice their corporeal bodies in an explosion of fire, just to make us think the nightmare is over. But when we emerge into what we think is a new dawn, we're in for a terrible shock.

The alternative explanation? Mary Woodhouse never really woke up in her coffin after all, and everything we've seen represents her descent into her very own personal Hell. Call it an Occurrence at Miskatonic Creek Bridge.

Or we could just call it the one truly inexcusable lapse in an already-uneven screenplay. It's a minor point, anyway: if you've made it that far into the flick, the ending probably isn't going to change your opinion of what you've just endured. With all due respect to Dardano Sacchetti, we don't really watch Italian horror films for their stories. We watch them for their sense of style, and their ability to make horrific images seem... well, not beautiful, exactly, but aesthetically interesting, at any rate. In spite of its weaknesses, City of the Living Dead creates a unique and disturbing world all its own. It's a ghastly, revolting, horrifically violent world, and one I've come to rather enjoy.

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