What makes Italian horror films of the ’70s and ’80s exciting is that anything can happen. What makes them infuriating is that “anything” does not include “making sense.” Or “having a story.” Or “basic filmic consistence.”
City of the Living Dead, a film by Italian filmmaker Lucio Fulci, has many of the virtues of early ’80s Italian film. It is atmospheric, and beautifully shot. Fulci doesn’t do boring set-ups or compositions. He’d rather have the most pedestrian conversation involve close-ups on eyes, or with tilting cameras and roving pans, than ever do a dull over-the-shoulder shot. That is because no dialogue in the film actually matters or makes is of no consequence.
City of the Living Dead starts with a priest in a graveyard, very atmospheric. This scene turns out to be a vision of a psychic, Mary, at a séance. She sees the priest hang himself, and in the psychic torment dies herself. Her story is of interest to a cigar-chomping journalist, Peter, who is a little creepily attached to watching her get buried.
The gravediggers start, but quit right at 5 P.M., leaving the coffin half covered. They leave the cemetery, and Peter slowly follows… but we see in the coffin the woman is not dead but awakening from a trance. And she begins to scream and claw at her coffin. Horrifying. Peter thinks he hears something… but isn’t sure and walks away. He does this three times. When he is sure he has heard this woman’s screams, he runs to the coffin and begins to pound it open… with a pick. The sensible action would be to use a shovel, get the dirt off the top, and get the coffin open by the hinges. But no, Peter’s in a hurry, so in three sharp moves he nearly drives the pick into Mary’s face. He gets her out, eventually, but I imagine she might resent the near-skewerings.
But that would require actual human reactions and those are rarely present in a Lucio Fulci film. He has scenes in mind, and how those scenes should feel. The need for them to come together in something that makes sense is an afterthought.
But back to the dead priest. When Mary was in her near-death status, she saw the name of a town, Dunwich. It’s not on any map, but she knows they must go there and find the dead priest and dig him up before All Saints Day, or the gates of Hell will open. A psychic is a very convenient plot tool.
Dunwich problems. We see scenes with a local pervert who randomly finds and fondles a blow-up doll, a pub where they complain about how weird things are since the priest killed himself, and a psychiatrist with a patient and secretary who will be convenient characters eventually. They all know the rumored secret, that Dunwich was built on the original site of Salem, where the witch trials occurred.
I mentally connect this film with the early ’60s film, City of the Dead. That was a British film, whose plot parallels this one in certain details. It features a hard-to-find town, which has connections to the witch trials in Colonial America. City of the Living Dead seems to ape some of that movie’s beats without quite understanding the particulars, just adding to the movie’s incoherence.
But it’s an Italian horror movie, and gross stuff happens frequently. The hanged priest is the chief baddy, and he can do a lot. In one scene, he turns a girl into a zombie by shoving a bunch of gross stuff, including live worms, into her mouth. In another, he locks eyes with a girl, and she vomits out all her internal organs. It’s probably the most memorably gross scene in the film.
Which is a bonus in an exploitation film like this. The violence is gross, but mostly fantastical, involving zombies ripping out brains. There is a scene where a local pervert, wrongly assumed to be the cause of the local trouble, has a drill pressed through his skull. It’s about as graphic as ’80s Italian special effects can make it. There is no nudity in the film, though it would seem there’s a local ordinance in Dunwich that forced young women not to wear bras.
The zombies in this movie follow no particular rules. They show up at random. Sometimes they seem more like ghosts, looking in windows. Then they devour people (but not everyone, because the movie requires a witness to be alive.) In one scene, girl zombie nearly kills a boy, (her little brother) but is rescued by a man… just closing his eyes. Like he dismisses her. Does it make sense? Nope.
Does it suck? Not really. Even though City of the Living Dead feels like several movies put in a blender, it’s not a bad time at the movies. Especially if you like filmmaking more than storytelling. The story makes no sense. The filmmaking is often engaging. If that’s not good enough, it might not be for you.
Many of Fulci’s weird films make up for themselves in a bravura ending. I thought House by the Cemetery was nonsense but had an absolutely wild climax that completely justified the film before. City of the Living Dead is less successful. Though it has some excellent visuals in the climax, they looked more like something that should have happened much earlier in the movie (especially since this “City of the Living Dead” seems to have less than a dozen people in it.
And though I like to avoid spoilers (so skip this paragraph if you haven’t seen the film) the very end is as unsatisfying as possible. Our heroes emerge from the grave, the boy runs to them. Mary screams, freeze frame on the boy… and then black squiggly lines are drawn on the screen. The end. There are rumors that something big had been shot and the footage was damaged. I think it’s more likely the budget (or maybe the director’s imagination) couldn’t manage the requirements of something really apocalyptic. So, they did… almost nothing.
But despite the film’s many narrative limitations, it looks beautiful. Shot on film, I believe mainly in Georgia, the visual style of the film is its major draw. This new 4K release is a beautiful, filmic presentation of the original material.
Considered the first of a loose trilogy with House by the Cemetery and The Beyond, City of the Living Dead is probably the one I like least. While there’s plenty of gore it’s generally more unpleasant than interesting. The living dead don’t have any rules they follow, or any discernible goal. It’s a collection of scenes in search of a narrative. Routinely interesting, but never engaging and not really what I’d call good. This new 4K release looks gorgeous and if you’re already a Fulci enthusiast, it’s an upgrade from the Blu-ray, but this probably isn’t the place to start if you’re just Fulci-curious.
City of the Living Dead has been released on 4K UHD and Blu-ray by Cauldon Films. This is a three-disc release, with the film on both Blu-ray and 4K, and a disc full of extras. On the films there are four commentary tracks: One new one with film historian Samm Deighan, and three archival commentaries, one with film historians Troy Howarth and Nathaniel Thompson, one with actress Catriona MacColl moderated by Jay Slater, and one with actor Giovanni Lombardo Radice moderated by Calum Waddell.
Video extras on the second Blu-ray include “Zombie Kings” (46 min), an interview with Massimo Antonello Geleng; “Requiem for Bob” (28 min), an interview with Giovanni Lombardo Radice; “The Meat Munching Movies of Gino De Rossi” (27 min); “Carlo of the Living Dead” (18 min), an archival interview with actor Carlo De Mejo; “On Stage: Q&A with Venantino Venantini & Ruggero Deodato”, (46 min); “Catriona MacColl Q&A from The Glasgow Theater” (20 min); “Music for a Flesh Feast Fabio Frizzi Q&A” (30 min); “Catriona MacColl archival video intro” (5 min); “A Trip Through Bonaventure Cemetery 2022 featurette” (5 min); Archival interviews with cast and crew from “Paura, Lucio Fulci Remembered Vol. 1” (43 min). There are trailers and an image gallery.